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Boaters Biding Their Time on STJ

Laura Masterson smiles as she enters Caribbean waters under a rainbow on March 2. (Photo by Bruce Masterson.)
Laura Masterson smiles as she enters Caribbean waters under a rainbow on March 2. (Photo by Bruce Masterson)

Friday the 13th was a lucky day for Bruce and Laura Masterson. After nine years circumnavigating the globe, they sailed back home into Cruz Bay and cleared Customs on St. John.

The Mastersons had just spent 26 days at sea, sailing across the Southern Atlantic aboard Neptune’s Highway, their 44-foot monohull.

“We were going to come straight to St. John, but we had no wind crossing the equator, so we had to motor,” said Laura. “That meant we had to stop for fuel, so we went to St. Lucia. When we arrived, we just filled out a form. No one took our temperature. A week later, we wouldn’t have been able to stop there.”

The Mastersons faced the situation literally hundreds of boaters are confronting right now. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the world, ports throughout the Caribbean have shut their borders to incoming vessels.

Boats fill moorings at Francis Bay. (Photo by Jay Walters)
Boats fill moorings at Francis Bay. (Photo by Jay Walters)

Less than one week after the Mastersons arrived, the British Virgin Islands closed down their ports to all but Belongers (essentially those born in the BVI) and BVI residents. On the same day, March 22, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. welcomed boaters to the U.S. Virgin Islands, stating, “We are pleased to be able to extend to you safe haven under U.S. flag protection at this grave time.”

Mast lights shine above boats as the sun rises over the normally empty Rendezvous Bay on St. John’s south side. (Photo by Amy Roberts)
Mast lights shine above boats as the sun rises over the normally empty Rendezvous Bay on St. John’s south side. (Photo by Amy Roberts)

Residents have expressed concerns that boaters arriving from other destinations may be carrying the coronavirus with them, but Masterson said that boaters like herself, who have just completed long passages, have essentially self-quarantined on their journeys. Dr. Joseph DeJames, who works at the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center on St. John, said he’s seen no evidence of boaters spreading the virus.

Boaters arriving in the USVI are required to apply to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for a long-term anchoring permit, pay a fee of $3 per foot and fill out a health screening questionnaire. According to Howard Forbes Sr., director of DPNR’s Division of Enforcement, eight anchoring permits have been issued for St. Croix and 142 for St. Thomas/St. John as of April 14.

Meanwhile, the Virgin Islands National Park is also welcoming boaters to their waters.

Andrea Joseph and Laurel Brannick take registration from boaters at the NPS on St. John.
Andrea Joseph and Laurel Brannick take registration from boaters at NPS on St. John. (Photo submitted by Beverly Lockett)

Laurel Brannick, supervisor of interpretation for the VINP, was one park employee who registered boaters taking advantage of a special offer to extend the park’s two-week mooring limit to a month, provided boaters pay in advance.

The offer was meant as more than a gesture of compassion. Boaters who had secured moorings were hesitant to leave for fear someone would grab their mooring as soon as they left. Stories began circulating about boaters jousting with boathooks as they competed for a scarce mooring ball.

Perhaps more problematic was the question of how boaters would be able to empty their holding tanks – a boat’s equivalent of a septic tank – if they were afraid to leave their mooring. There are currently no “honey barges” – vessels with pump out equipment for sewage, operating on St. Thomas or St. John. Boaters are therefore required to sail three miles into open water to get rid of their waste.

As the pandemic lockdown began, and island residents watched their bays fill with boats, hostile messages started appearing on social media, accusing boaters of polluting the water.

The park’s solution solved that problem. “We’re giving boaters who prepay for a month a little ‘peanut buoy’ to put on their mooring buoy to show that it’s reserved,” said Brannick. That way they can leave and go to town, get food, dump their trash and empty their holding tank.”

The park is charging $26 a night or $13 for senior citizens with a National Park Service Senior Pass. Initially when the pandemic began, the park suspended the mooring fees. When the VINP reactivated the fees, some boats chose to leave park waters, according to Brannick.

As of April 15, 111 of the 173 moorings had been prepaid, so “there is still space on St. John,” Brannick said.

Boaters can send an email requesting a mooring to angela_sligh@nps.gov. Boats 60 feet or less in length are welcome to use the park’s moorings. Boats greater in length (up to 125 feet) are permitted to anchor off Francis Bay, and boats as long as 210 feet can anchor off Lind Point. A crewmember from these larger boats has to go the VINP website and get the exact coordinates for anchoring, as well as pay the fees at the NPS site here.

Brannick said she met a variety of people whose stories touched her, among them sailors from Denmark who arrived in the Caribbean to find the ports closed and the world drastically changed by the coronavirus; and a family with several small children who wanted to sail back to the states but didn’t have enough adults on board to make the passage safely.

The Mastersons' boat, Neptune's Highway, '“one year and 13,000 miles ago,' according to Laura Masterson. (Photo submitted by Laura Masterson)
The Mastersons’ boat, Neptune’s Highway, “one year and 13,000 miles ago,” according to Laura Masterson. (Photo submitted by Laura Masterson)

As a longtime resident of the Virgin Islands and an international sailor, Laura Masterson sees all sides of the issue of allowing boats to come in to the USVI.

“I understand people freaking out about seeing all these boats in their bays, but we’re being as responsible as we can. Everyone here is very grateful and doing what they can to be good guests, and not three-day old fish,” she said. “One of the things I don’t think people are thinking is that a lot of boats are here all the time. They were all just moving around all the time. Now you’re seeing them all in one place.

“Then there are the transient boats that cruise through here. Their insurance requires that they be south of Latitude 12 if they stay in the Caribbean during hurricane season. Most of them are trying to get to Trinidad or Grenada or haul out at Nanny Cay on Tortola or Puerto Rico. We’re all waiting for the restriction of movement order to be removed,” Masterson said.

The BVI has imposed much more severe lockdown restrictions than the USVI. Boaters are hoping restrictions will be lessened in May when boats have to make a decision about where to go to seek haven from storms.

Last week, mariners received some bad news from the British Virgin Islands, where many USVI boaters go to store their boats during hurricane season.

On April 15, BVI Premier Andrew Fahie announced that restrictions on cargo imports would be loosened, but tourists and boaters would be prevented from entering BVI airports or seaports at least until June 2, and possibly longer.

May is traditionally when boaters head to safer waters to wait out hurricane season, so the timing for boaters is critical. “No one wants to remain in hurricane alley, but everyone’s stuck here,” said Masterson.

She considers herself lucky that she and her husband set out when they did to cross the Atlantic. They were eager to meet family members who were gathering on St. John.

“We were a month ahead of the fleet coming from South Africa. The rest of the pack is still stuck in St. Helena; some made it to Brazil. Brazil is letting them in,” she said.

The situation is even more dire for mariners in other parts of the world where bribes and price gouging are rampant.

“We have friends stuck in the Red Sea,” Masterson said. “They can’t go through the Suez Canal until they have a place to go. All the ports in Europe are closed. Boats are running out of fuel, food, cooking gas. We heard about someone who spent $1,000 for a delivery of 20 gallons of fuel, a bag of groceries and a SIM card for their phone.”

The Masterson family aboard their charter boat in the 1991. (Photo provided by the family)
The Masterson family aboard their charter boat in the 1991. (Photo provided by Masterson family)

Tom Nunn and Kathy Wagner have lived in the USVI and cruised the Caribbean since they arrived on their sailboat in 1982. Nunn worked as a marine biologist with Islands Resources and then Coral World and Wagner worked in the St. Thomas charter industry before they became private charter captains in the BVI. As they sailed out of the BVI in mid-March, they found it eerie to see “not one boat” in the normally busy passage between the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.

They’re now in a bittersweet situation, moored in Francis Bay in V.I. National Park waters aboard their 45-foot catamaran, which, after many years, they decided to sell.

The sweet part, said Wagner, was being allowed back into U.S. waters after the BVI started imposing restrictions mid-March.

The bitter part was missing out on an opportunity to sell their boat by only one day.

“The buyer, who was in South Africa, had plans to fly out to meet us on March 29,” said Wagner. “First, he had to dodge the airports that had closed down in Western Europe. He changed his ticket to fly through Dubai, then the United Arab Emirates closed down their airports.”

They’re waiting to see whether travel restrictions will allow them to complete the sale. In the meantime, they did consider alternative plans.

“Nanny Cay in the BVI gave us good news and bad news,” Wagner said. “They said they had room for us if we want to haul out. The bad news is they don’t know when we’ll be allowed to come there, and they want a substantial deposit.” With the BVI government’s announcement on April 16, even that option won’t be available for another six weeks at least.

There’s the possibility of bringing their boat to Grenada, which has four marinas and boatyards, or to Trinidad which has two big facilities. They’re just not sure what to do.

Weather conditions in the past week haven’t made those decisions any easier for boaters trying to get back to the states or Europe.

“Under the coronavirus shutdown, we’re not even permitted ‘innocent passage’ through the Bahamas as of April 15,” said Wagner, so boaters have to make a “straight shot” to the U.S. “A lot of Caribbean sailors are used to island hopping, not long offshore sails. Normally, we go to the Bahamas and wait until the weather is right. You don’t want to be in the Gulf stream with strong northerlies.”

To assist sailors, the nonprofit Salty Dawg Sailing Association is organizing “Homeward Bound Flotillas.”

Included is weather routing from Chris Parker/Marine Weather Center, offshore tracking with position reports to a Predict Wind shared page, shoreside coordinator support all through the passage and SDSA assistance in coming into United States waters.

“To make sure we make this accessible to all, we are not assigning a fee for participation. You will be supported by a large group of very experienced, volunteer sailors. However, we will have some expenses and would appreciate donations. We normally would charge a fee of $150 per boat to cover these expenses. We encourage participants to contribute what you can to help us defray expenses,” the website states.

Wagner said the flotillas give people the feeling of security by being part of a group, though in fact, boats travel at different speeds and quickly disperse after starting out.

Still, “If you’re in trouble, someone is around to help,” she said.

Boaters in USVI waters have been living under the same restrictions as other V.I. residents since April 6, when Bryan closed down beaches to prevent people from gathering in large groups and spreading the coronavirus.

Boaters said enforcement officers from the V.I. Police Department, National Park Service and National Guard all patrolled the beaches, telling swimmers, windsurfers and surfers to get out of the water. One police officer told a boater, “If my father can’t swim here, you can’t either.”

These beach restrictions were lightened, Monday, as the governor lifted the beach closure order but urged beachgoers to continue to maintain social distancing. Small family groups are allowed to use the beaches as long as they don’t bring alcoholic beverages and practice safe social distancing guidelines.

For boaters like the Mastersons, “The ‘New Normal’ is our ‘Old Normal,’” Laura said. “We’re used to being self-contained.”

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