I wanted my first step on land to be a wobbly lurch, as though I needed to prove to myself that I was ‘really a sailor’. Instead, I skipped nimbly off my dinghy, and made a disappointingly graceful entrance back into life on solid land. This didn’t last long. Since I hadn’t looked up information on clearing in and out of Puerto Rico from the mainland US, I walked to the customs office to let them know I’d arrived. Customs in Culebra is located in a little office in the tiny airport, about a fifteen minute walk out of town. A blast of cold air met my face as I walked in, and I found myself sitting across from a middle-aged woman with a cheery smile.
“Where did you come from?” I told her I’d sailed directly down from North Carolina. “So why are you here?” I thought this was an odd question, but started talking about how beautiful I’d heard Culebra was. Was it suspicious that I’d come to this tiny island? But no, the question was directed at my presence in the customs office. Since I was coming from the mainland, I didn’t actually have to clear in. Ah. Well, live and learn, I suppose. Instead of being mad that I’d wasted her time, the woman behind the counter began to tell me all the things I should see and do while I was in the area. She wrote me a list of grocery stores, and told me that since it was Easter weekend, there would be parties for the next few days, and lots of live music.
“Yes, that’s why there are so many people here. Our population increases five times this weekend. Normally this is a peaceful oasis.”
I wasn’t sure if I was glad or disappointed that I’d ended up in Culebra during a non-oasis weekend. This was a holiday weekend second only to New Years. I decided to be glad, since I didn’t really have a choice anyway.
The first night, I told myself the party wasn’t going anywhere, and went to bed at eight. I got a glorious ten hours of sleep, and woke up feeling more functionally human than I had in days. I had met a lovely South African charter boat captain the day I got in, and that morning he took me and another boat in to do laundry. My whole vberth was completely salt-water soaked, and all my winter blankets had been festering in their own stew for over a week. I’ve never been so excited to do laundry in my life.
That night, I ventured out for my first brush with civilization in two weeks. I started at the Dinghy Dock Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. There was a live Bomba band playing, and people were dancing to the music: three musicians and five drums, their hands flying and their eyes gleaming. I bought a drink and decided to join the dancers. Having never danced to music like that before, I watched the dancers for a while, to mimic their movement. Then I joined the pack, trying to blend in, until one of the girls bumped into me. She apologized in Spanish and I responded in English.
“You’re a gringa!?”, she said. “You dance like you’re from Puerto Rico!” She and her friends adopted my for the night, and told me that Bomba, even though originating in Africa, is the traditional dance and music style of Puerto Rico. They instructed me on different dance steps, and insisted on paying for my drinks. After they moved on to the next bar, I lingered behind and chatted with the band after they wrapped up their set. Two of the men in the band were born and raised on Culebra, and to me they seemed to be the very spirit of the island. They spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no Spanish, but we sang songs back and forth to each other, and danced around in parodied intensity. The third band member had spend a fair amount of time in the States, and he acted as translator. We went out on the town, and it seemed that everyone knew those three. It was the best introduction I could have asked for to the island. I didn’t get back to my boat until almost five the next morning, and I sank into bed exhausted but radiant.
Back in the States, I remember hearing about how hard Puerto Rico was hit by the last hurricane, but it wasn’t until I started talking to locals that I realized the lasting extent of the damage. Although the hurricane hit in September of 2017, Culebra had just gotten power back from the mainland two months before I arrived. That meant that the whole island had been running on generators for well over a year! Almost all the coral in the surrounding waters is dead, because their sewage treatment plant wasn’t fully functional under reduced power. The ensuing pollution killed almost all the coral around the island. People are working to get a grant to try to bring the local coral population back to life, but in the meantime it’s a sad reminder of a situation that could have been avoided with more help from the mainland.
Despite the lack of funds for cleaning up and restoring their island, the locals and visitors who call Culebra home have done an amazing job of using what resources they have to keep their island beautiful. Their hearts all lie with their island, and I could tell that everyone gave more than just their time to bring their land back to life.
After five days in Culebra, I sailed over to a gorgeous bay in St. John’s. Ditliff Bay is part of the larger Rendezvous Bay, and besides a few houses it’s very private. It’s also the last anchorage before the national park, where you have to pay to stay on a mooring. I noticed that one or two boats would come to anchor for the day, but I was the only one who stayed past late afternoon. This meant I had sunset and sunrise to myself. The water was amazingly clear, and the snorkeling was a five-minute swim from my boat. After the busy Culebra harbor, it was amazing to have a tranquil little bay all to myself.
In Coral Bay on St. John’s, I met an amazing community of local boaties; everyone here is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I went sailing with some new friends, and we anchored by a little floating taco restaurant where you call in your order and they deliver your food to you by Zodiac. Having friends to talk with while sailing is such a nice change for me. I laughed at myself as we sailed out of the bay. I’d been so worried while I was coming in about hitting reefs around the edges of the channel, but we sailed right up to either side without a problem. Local knowledge is better than any chart. As we sailed back into the bay, I realized that I’d finally found my community of sailors. And I’m only just getting started!
PS- check out my YouTube channel for more of my daily life! Videos are slightly behind the blog, but that just makes it more exciting!