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Perils of the Virgin Isles: winter as a yacht bum


My sailor friend Jenny asked me to join her on a 2 months private sailboat cruise around the British Virgin Islands. Jenny whom I met at the sailing club in Dubai a year ago had registered on www.cruiseline.com for $60 annual fee and found two Canadian brothers for us to join for the 2 months sail. Graham was an Airline Pilot and Andrew a Lawyer. Jenny and I did some research on them be sure were in safe responsible hands, before making our final decision to join them.

We had to contribute to food and drinks, whilst we worked as deck hands/cooks for the duration of the cruise.

I pondered at first because I have always spent Christmas day with my now ex husband and our two adult daughters.

The thought of spending another Christmas in the freezing cold snows of England was daunting. I sold it to my daughters who agreed that it was an “opportunity of a lifetime” and suggested I go and have some fun.

I jumped at the opportunity and booked my 28 hour 4 stops flight from Dubai airport to Beef Island airport/Tortola BVI.

The journey was laborious but cost effective and the excitement of sailing around the BVI made it all worthwhile.

Upon arrival at the tiny, surprisingly organized airport at 3am 1st December 2010. We walked through customs. Jumped into Geroge’s taxi and ask to take us to Village Cay where the 43 ft boat awaited us.

Graham and Andrew greeted us at the entrance of the port and showed us our cabin.

The following morning I was woken to the beats of the next boat blasting out “Money in my pocket but I just can’t get no love.”

I made coffee for the four of us and sat on the deck to take in the fresh air and the eye candy on the adjoining boats. The weather at 30 degrees was delightful. Blazing sun shone down and a slight breeze adorned the air.

We were about to set sail to Norman Island when the captain discovered that we had engine trouble. Jenny and I took advantage of the bathroom facilities at the marina and ate a hearty full English breakfast at the Village Cay Café.

Later that day we were all informed that the boat needed serious repairs and would take a few days to prepare it for the sail ahead.

Our first night in Tortola spent at the infamous Bat Cave club, situated on the Marina, next to the water and the boats. The DJ (who must remain nameless) smoked marijuana throughout the night. Giving a smoke filled club of dancers a great high.

Day 2 spent at Cane Garden Bay the most popular beach on the Island. The cruise ships dingy the passengers into the bay to experience the sky blue crystal clear water, coral and sea life. The many hotels, restaurants and cafes line the beach with souvenir shops in between them.

I met Maggie from South Africa. She is a skipper and delivers super yachts to their owners around the world. She filled me in with the Islands attractions and other Virgin Islands. She forgot to mention that the seashore drops about 10 ft as you walk into the sea about 8 yards in. Swimming here is not recommended whilst under, the influence of alcohol.

The day wore on and the sun began to set as we sipped Caribbean rum based cocktails known as (Painkillers). We met two stockbrokers from NYC who were on a weekend trip, minus their wives, behaving badly.

They told us that they had to go back to their room and check the stock market updates on their laptops and asked us to join them. Very original, we all agreed but declined their invitation.

Day 3 was spent at NANNY CAY Marina located on the south side of Tortola midway between West End and the capital. We relaxed at the pool taking in some rays and mingled with crew and tourists. Teatime, we ate free ribs cooked during happy hour every Friday at Mulligans.

Later that evening we partied at Bomba shack infamous for its design and décor as well as Full Moon parties. Made entirely of driftwood it really is a shack built literally at the sea edge. The shack is where the waters converge, creating waves where surfers experience the delights of bigger waves.

It is not an ideal venue for the average, cruise ship passenger. It is where real travelers go to experience something new and different. Our taxi driver George who had now adopted us cost $5 pp. from Village Cay. This venue involves drinking to excess. We ordered the “Bomba Shroom” cocktail of magic mushrooms blended in a drink. The shack has celebrity pictures on the walls along with bikini bottoms left by previous party animals. Car registration plates adorn the shack walls along with immense amounts of graffiti offering some odd profanities to ogle at in between dancing the night away.

In full energy mode, the “shack” is a very organized operation. We purchased tickets $5 each from the main counter to pay for drinks at various bars. The music was loud and funky.

There is an open air space where live entertainment and contests take place. I saw women baring all and men throwing soggy dollars at them. We danced until sunrise. This venue is not for the easily offended. Every person present seemed to be some kind of illegal substance.

Day 4. After a late morning Brunch to ease the hangover from Bomba shack. Maggi and I, hired a car between us $30 to cover the rest of the Islands main spots. We were due to set sail the next day to Norman Island when the engine returned.

We drove around the small Island in around four hours, stopping at Soper’s Hole Marina, to enjoy a Bloody Mary cocktail at Jolly Rogers, in an attempt to feel normal and combat our hangover from hell.

We visited Brewers Bay, Long Bay and Smugglers Cove. These three beaches are tranquil with white sands also great for snorkeling, and turtle watching. I sat in the sun on the beach of Smugglers Cove, enjoying the sea air and the sound of the waves. I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me later that day.

Whilst taking photo’s Maggi suggested we drop in at her house. (She lives up the top of the Elevator Mountain Road) to catch the sunset and take more panoramic photo’s of Tortola. This is the tallest peak of the Island and I had heard other travelers raving about the pictures they clicked up there.

“Car’s have trouble driving up this very steep hill.” Maggi told me upon approach.

“You live here so you can drive it up.” I said with my bottle gone.
“No way, I don’t think this little Renault will make it!” She said.
“OK let’s walk up then.” I suggested. Yeah it was my grand idea.

Walking bent down the whole way to hold my balance. As I approached the top of this 100 ft elevator, I turned to remove my backpack where my camera was and slipped on a pebble.

I rolled down the mountain at speed the whole 100 feet. I reached the bottom and lay in a pool of my own blood with aches and pains everywhere.

Maggi eventually got down to where I was and began to pull me by my left arm up off the ground. During this process, I swear that she helped my shoulder to dislocate itself from the socket. She agrees and we laugh at it now.

“What the F**k are you doing?” I shouted in pain.
“Try to stand and see if anything is broken?” She said.
“I can’t move my arm. I think it’s broke.” I said.

Maggi’s face said it all. She looked white and in shock at the sight of me covered in blood and panicked into doing what she thought was right for me. Standing me up was not a good idea after such a great fall.

“Call an ambulance Mag. I reckon I have broken more than my arm.” I told her.

Within minutes but what seemed like hours. I was carried on a stretcher into the ambulance. The two paramedics, both wearing dreadlocks. Asked me various health questions before informing me that I had dislocated my left arm from its shoulder.

“It is essential that I put your arm back into its shoulder in place immediately. If we leave it until your arrival at the hospital it will be more difficult to get it in.” One of them told me.

“Oh shit really?” I moaned.

“Yeah darlin. It will hurt but not for long.” He said.

“Don’t tell me that, I don’t want to hear it. Just fix it please.” I groaned in disbelief.

The inextricable pain shot through my shoulder as the paramedic yanked my arm back into its place. Causing me to faint with shock and stop breathing.

I came round within minutes and noticed my upper clothing, had been removed exposing my white breasts with tan lines to these two complete strangers.

Maggie was holding my hand looking more exhausted and shocked than I felt.

“Are you ok Karen?” She asked whilst attempting a smile.

“Yeah, but don’t ever invite me to your house again.” I said.

Soon after, we arrived at the Tortola, third world hospital with the friendliest nursing staff. The Doctor suggested I stay overnight for observation, due to the fact that I had stopped breathing and my heart stopped pumping for 75 seconds in the ambulance.

Two of the specialist Doctors visited my bedside to inform me of how lucky I am to be alive, with only a dislocated shoulder and 12 breaks in my arm. They declined to mention the scabs and open wounds all over my face and body. Lucky I was.

Before Maggie left the hospital, I noticed she was still shaking from the whole incident.

“Hey it was me that almost died Mag not you. Why are you still looking so worried?” I asked her with a smile.

“Ahh piss orrf you.” She replied in her thick South African accent as she squeezed my hand.

A very restless night in the emergency room left me listening to one baby after another screaming in pain as they arrived.

“More drugs please?” I was able to ask for. Those poor little babies could only scream out.

As I lay in the uncomfortable hospital bed, it dawned on me for the first time that I’d had a near death experience and was lucky to be alive.
More important, how would I crew a boat with one arm?

The next day I was lead to bath in an open public bathroom without a door or soap or towel. I had to wash off my own blood stained body with paper towels. I washed my body using only my good arm. A queue of other patients sat and watched me. Suffice to say I did not remove my underwear until later when I washed again at the marina.

I signed myself out but not until I paid the $1200 bill for my bed in the emergency room and the medical attention I had received. The hospital refused my travel insurance details. It’s a good thing I had not purchased any Christmas presents.

I stumbled in severe pain into a taxi back to the boat to tell my tale to Jenny and the brothers expecting them to ditch me from the boat. Not much, need for a one armed sailor.

They sat, listened and concluded that they could manage with a one armed sailor as long I helped in the kitchen. I felt instant relief.

The next day after Jenny helped me into a life jacket on deck for safety. The four of us sailed to Norman Island.

The short trip of 3 hours was pleasurable. The calm seas allowed me to feel less pain from my wounds. I was taking very strong pain relief medication but it seemed only to touch the edge of the pain. I was determined to sailor on and not let this mishap ruin my adventure.

We anchored at Willy T’s the famous shipwreck on sea turned into a very scruffy snack bar/disco.The boat had two sets of snorkeling gear so Jenny and Andrew went to investigate and enjoy it. Captain Graham and I stayed aboard.

Day 6. To my astonishment the captain walked onto the deck stark naked holding his erection in his hand. I was alone on the boat but surrounded by about 50 other boats in full view of ours.

Captain suggested I offer certain sexual acts to remain on the boat. He told me that I am a burden and could only stay if I moved into his cabin.

Rarely speechless I became. I was very frightened but not embarrassed. I was in shock again. I felt helpless with one arm in a sling and alone on the boat with a pervert. My blood began to boil and I was angry.

“Who f**k do you think you are and who do you think I am for you to expect such a situation to happen?” I shouted.

He gave no answer. Returned to his cabin and sulked for more than an hour or did something else in there.

Jenny and Andrew appeared from the sea onto the boat full of smiles and stories of their lovely snorkel, which is one of the best places in the Virgin Islands.

After Andrew went to dress in his cabin I told Jenny what had happened. She was of course appalled and we both agreed then to get off the boat at the nearest opportunity.

That evening I struggled into the dingy just to get away from Captain Graham and went onto Willy T’s snack bar. A stiff drink was the order for me.

Jen and I discussed our game plan and asked Andrew if he could take us back to Tortola the next day for some urgent medicine. Poor Andrew had no idea what had happened and Graham was not about to confess.

I spent that night making my decision to cut my trip short, and go back to UK and spend Christmas with my family. It was highly unlikely that I would get the opportunity to sail on another boat with one arm in a sling. Jenny planned to get on another boat with an elderly British couple in need of a cook. She had met them the day I went into hospital.

The next day the brilliant sunshine and cool sea breezes made me slightly down as well as facing the captain. He summoned me, to make coffee as if nothing had happened the day before. I made the coffee for him and I reckon it tasted extra nice with some of my phlegm in it.

We set sail and reached Tortola around lunchtime. The brothers went off to find breakfast and Jenny and I quickly packed and threw our bags onto the decks ready to do an invisible act and avoid any confrontation.

The brothers arrived back sooner than we had anticipated and asked us why we were leaving.

“Ask your brother?” I suggested to Andrew.

“He is a dirty pervert.” Jenny shouted as we struggled down the dock to the café.

I rang Maggi who came immediately to our aid.

Tortola’s holiday season is December through to April with its best weather for sailors and tourists alike. The accommodation on average is $100 per room per night if available. Jenny or I had no means to pay these rates even if we could find available accommodation in this busy season resort.

“There is no way I am going anywhere near your house, I have suffered enough humiliation in the last 3 days to last me for a while.” I told her Maggi.

“I have friends here that can give you accommodation for a few days. They are a British couple. The husband is X British Navy officer.” She informed us.

This marvelous couple Mrs & Mrs Dobbs immediately offered us their annex free of charge, situated underneath their main home until we decided what to do. I felt very privileged to have met them. They were exceptionally kind people.

We settled into the annex around five minutes from Village Cay Marina. We continued to tell our tale to anyone who wanted to listen. A few days later, we noticed that the Brothers boat had disappeared from the marina. Some of the boat owners, captains and sailors had heard of our incident and decided to make an example out of Graham. Apparently, he left limping onto his boat covered in cuts and bruises. “What a shame.” Everyone agreed.

A week had passed and Jen and I along with Maggi had a very relaxing week. We found cheap eateries with great food and interesting people. We met many British expats who had literally came to Tortola on holiday and decided to come back and live there. It’s the sort of place that is easy to make new friends and become part of the ever, growing community. It has everything one can want or need. It is as expensive as England in many ways but it does of course have a fantastic all year round climate. With a great laid back vibe.

Since 1984 Tortola has also been an international financial centre with half a million companies registered on the island. Interestingly that is nearly 20 companies for every man, woman and child living on the Island. Suffice to say, most companies use the island simply as a registered business address for Taxable measures.

After two weeks, my pain relief ran out and the hospital refused to give me more saying that it was not good for me to continue this medication. I was still in a lot of pain and as much as I tried to stay relaxed, it was difficult when I was on a lifetime adventure. I needed something medicinal at least to help me sleep. Alcohol was making me gain weight and I had limited my wardrobe to only a few items for this trip. I could not afford new.

We made a visit to Le Grande Café formerly Cabanon on the main road of Road Town just behind Village Cay. This is an excellent restaurant and bar until midnight; a good club afterwards. The menu varied at reasonable cost around $15. The music is loud hip-hop music until 4AM. Beware of the toilets. They are an experience unto themselves. Friendly smiling bar staff will serve you any cocktail of your choice for $5. The house DJ Grady with amazingly long dreadlocks will drop any tune at your request. He has many contacts in the town and directs you to purchase anything necessary for the evening.

A friendly local man approached me and asked.

“How you do your accident darling?”

I gave a brief explanation

“Ahh you need a little happiness” He suggested.

I understood immediately what he was referring to and agreed.
He pulled out a bag of grass and asked me for $20.

“What can I do with that? I don’t know how to roll a joint..” I told him.

He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with five ready rolled in hand and a smile. I gave him the $20 in the hope that it would help me sleep.

At the end of another fun packed, evening we returned to the annex, where I slipped outside and smoked a “Doobie” for first time in years. To my surprise, it was pure ganja, not mixed with tobacco. I slept like a contented baby, pain free. I went to Nirvana.

The following night I sat with Jenny and Maggi at the famously known “Chicken Bus” just behind Village Cay. Greasy fried chicken with marinated Caribbean style chicken skin. You order it with fries and beer for $10 wait on the plastic chairs for ten minutes and your chicken is ready for you to enjoy into the early hours of the morning. You will find many locals as well as hungry sailors and late night party animals. Beware of the high calorie content.

As we waited for our order, we noticed two hungry sailors sat at the table next to us.

Smooth pickup: Jenny, Karen and Trigger

“Hey handsome, where have you been all my life?” I asked one of them.
“Looking for you honey!” He replied in a Californian accent.
“Well your search is over darling.” I replied with a giggle.

Captain Sea boat owner, offering charters and Trigger the surfer. Joined our table and we exchanged stories of travels and woes. We told them of our plight to find a nice captain to take a one armed sailor around the Virgin Islands for Christmas and new year.

“Hey you guys can join our boat.” They both echoed.
“I can cook and Jenny deck hand.” I told them.

“There is no need to crew for us. We can manage our 42 ft Benetaux without any more crew.” They said.

Maggi the skipper interrogated the Captain to confirm that we were in safe hands.

After two hours Jenny and I had packed our stuff, climbed into a dingy from Sopher’s hole marina and settled into our new cabin.

We woke early at sunrise and set sail to Virgin Gorda Island. We swam with Mr Larry Google in the famous sea baths of Virgin Gorda.
He was sailing on his fantastic boat the Maltese Falcon for the holidays.

Captain Sea and Maggi

That night we partied away with Richard Branson and his Virgin airline flight crew at their Christmas party in Virgin Gorda.

The next day we set sail for St Maarten the French/Dutch Virgin Island. Trigger and Captain Sea became our new shipmates for the rest of the adventure. They were cool dudes and we still keep in touch with them.

We arrived into St Maarten Island and explored its beauty and traditions. We met new sailors crewing and sailing super yachts.

We ate Christmas lunch on a super yacht “The Ghost” cooked by five chefs whilst their owner (A famous Director) was still in USA with his family for Christmas.

Christmas Day sunset we sipped cocktails on Pelican Key beach, dancing to Caribbean tunes.
We met an Irish Man called appropriately (Irish John). He was completely intoxicated with the local Caribbean cocktail (painkiller)

He asked if we would look after his stuff whilst he found the bar for another drink. He returned with drinks for everyone in the group. Amazing how he could remember what we all ordered in his state that day.
Later he wandered off and did not return leaving his belongings and valuables with me at the beach.

I tracked him via Facebook the next day using his credit card identity. He met up with me the next day to collect his wallet and belongings and of course thanked me immensely.

He told us that he was arrested for walking around in swim shorts after sunset in the streets. The local police had noticed he was out if it. They took him to the police station for his own safety, as he could not remember where he was staying on holiday or how to contact anyone in his state of drunkenness.

Karen - not under arrest

He told me how kind and considerate the police were. They shared their Christmas dinner cooked by their wives whilst on duty and brought down to the station. After he had sobered up a little they played cards with him and enjoyed stories of other drunken Brits arrested for their own safety on the Island of St Maaten. Some of the stories Irish John told me are unbelievable.

On Boxing Day we sailed to Anguilla Island to spend the day at the jazz festival and the famous Jonny’s restaurant and bar. Faces of musicians who had performed there adorned the walls. Ela Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

The day was as delightful as the weather, the food, the music and the company of Expats from other continents.

New Years Eve we arrived at sunset to St Barths the French Virgin Island. We anchored offshore as the mooring rates are very expensive and unavailable to mere proletarians’. St Barth is famous for its luxurious resorts, and homes owned by the rich and famous.

We ate a hearty meal to fill our belly on the boat, as the prices in St Barth’s are the most expensive in the whole of the Virgin Islands. $20 a drink. We dressed in glamorous beachwear, ready for a beach extravaganza at Nikki Beach. I left my sling on the boat, as I was feeling much better and fed up with complete strangers asking me how I broke my arm.

We arrived on the marina and started at St Barth’s yacht club where we celebrated 2011 arrival with hundreds of boat owners honking their horns in sequence and an array of magnificent fireworks in the sky. We danced to Black Eyed Peas live band music and worked our way up to Nikki Beach club to end our night’s party there.

Upon arriving at the entrance of Nikki beach club. A security guard asked us to produce ID. We did not realize that one of the most infamous Russian Billionaires had booked the venue for the evening and invited only his guests.

“I am writing an article for Time Out NYC and these are my friends.” I told the security.

They checked my Time Out card ID and to my surprise welcomed us into the club. I had not been commissioned to write any such article.

Magnum bottles of Dom Perignon vintage 2000 champagne lay on each table for guests to drink. We sat and enjoyed the champagne and later danced the night away with minor celebrities and Russian mafia on the beach until sunrise.

After the year I’d had a NYE party in the swanky Nikki Beach at St Barth’s Virgin Island was the perfect way to see in 2011.

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