Red Hook, St Thomas
We couldn’t race there fast enough. Sad to report, but my long-longed-for Duffy’s Love Shack mahi-mahi sandwich was a complete dissa—too flat, too thin, too well done, came apart, slid out of the roll. Earsplitting the unending Jimmy Buffet concert, blaring through 3 or 4 coffin-sized speakers, all in a tiny shack that sits in a parking lot. The basic beer offerings now supplemented by a raft of “native” blendered drinks— bushwackers, margaritas, coladas— most composed of 6 or 7 liqueurs, rums, cordials, fruits and served in cutesy containers the size of pig troughs the lucky tourist can take home, free. For only $12 to $15 a pop.
I’m honor bound to report that Gary’s beloved burger—thick, juicy, charcoaled and prepared exactly as ordered—did survive intact.
We moved on to Skinny Legs, in Coral Bay, St John, no dissa at all. A terrific bar, underplaying itself on tee shirts as “a pretty okay place.” We somehow missed it six years ago.
Can you imagine Gary missing the Caribbean's ACTUAL best hamburger?
Anyway, Skinny Legs. Unpromising at first glance. Tired, threadbare rubber dinghies and older, even more battered hard-sided ones crowd the nearby dock, which itself is nothing more than blocks of cracked concrete and ancient splintery planks joined in some mysterious, wobbly fashion.
On a cluttered, postage stamp beach, a scrawny wraith of a young man, deep into a drunk, simultaneously shouting and weeping. Rising, he totters past us. I ask him what happened.
“Worst news anybody could hear…lost my best buddy…heard this morning…shot yesterday…21 years old…in Kabul.”
I can commiserate—sort of. “I lost mine too, just a few weeks ago. Almost 45 years my best friend.” (At least I had her 45 years.)
“Nothin’ to do but get another drink. He’d want me to.”
We follow him through more clutter up a dirt path surrounded by a graveyard of rusted-out cars; ancient outboard motors; deflated dinghies, weather-beaten work shacks, a faded green Bekins container and the huge, corroded carapace of an old marine travel lift.
Skinny Legs, exuberant in its tackiness. Picture an open-air wood shack with a corrugated tin roof fringed half-heartedly by patches of scruffy straw thatching. The main entry requires walking straight through a pebbly, sandy court, interrupting some foursome’s game of horseshoes.
The décor: a mélange of plank tables, plastic chairs, painted surfboard menus, Kentucky Derby pennants, poster homages to the Patriots and the Red Sox, finished by a saucy flourish of art: a collage of sandals and flip-flops called “The Lost Soles.”
The bare-bones menu: essentially chili, hamburgers, mahi-mahi burgers, and veggie burgers served on a bed of potato chips—“We don’t do French fries,” says the waitress without a shred of guilt. But at Skinny’s they do promise “Same Day Service.”
A far, far cry from the ritzy, glitzy side of St John, where palatial 8- and 10-million-dollar private “beach mansions” increasingly clutter the hills.
But it’s the fun side. Despite our heart-rending greeting, happiness seems to be the local profession: poor but happy with dirty fingernails.
Skinny Legs is more than 30 years old, taking its name from its two owners, who do indeed sport sets of incredibly thin pins. One bulks his up by wearing knee socks full time. Regardless of the heat.
Day and night, the joint is peopled by a cast of eccentric St John locals, plus aging beach bums and faded hippies who look like they squeak by doing odd jobs. Many live on simple boats in the harbor. Besides tee shirts, hair is the chief fashion statement here—in the form of bushy beards, shaggy mustaches, thin dribbles of ponytails and mangy, stogie-thick dreadlocks—most frequently in shades of dirty blond—that splay stiffly out in midair.
On weekends Skinny’s features live music. Starring one Friday night are Gann & Ike—Gann a barefoot, fettucine-thin, baby-faced lad with a dusting of black beard and a voice that’s pure Texas twang. His specialty: long Country, Country-Western, and sometimes even vaguely Rock ballads of varied ancestry: from Gordon Lightfoot to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan to Gus Van Zant.
This is my kind of music.
Ike, his accompanist, middle-aged and pinkly sunburned, is a masterful mandolin player, his explosive piston-digit right hand in strident contrast with a hunched-over, dreamy-eyed microphone stance and his collision-of-fashion-statements attire—blue bandanna skullcap, pastel aloha shirt, wintry jeans and lace-up sneakers.
Just when I’m thinking it can’t get any better, over sidles a grubby local wearing the sunniest of gap-toothed smiles and a baseball cap so frayed cardboard peeks from its bill. Planting himself on a nearby bench back, plopping a grimy, bare foot on the table and pulling out a set of rubber-banded spoons, he jumps in to supplement an already rollicking performance with a shower of sharp, distinct, staccato clinks, clacks, trills and jingles—an impossible number a second.
Around us a crowd clapping and cheering and beering like mad. We can only try to keep up with the pros.
Surely no one colorful can be added to this cast of characters. But then Peter whizzes in, brought by a strong breeze from St Thomas back home, in the dark, to his mooring.
As if our friendship dates back decades, this utter stranger launches an energetic monologue, reducing the singers’ performance to mere background buzz. He’s belting out the story of his “win” in a recent local regatta, one we have neither knowledge of, nor, presumably, interest in. Grand sweeping arm flourishes are an apparent specialty, with frequent brandishes of his beer bottle, so that in upswings its contents tremble at the brink and threaten to cascade over us. He wears a shocking pink flowered shirt, buttoned singly at the very top, exposing an esoteric neck ornament on a cord and a mass of bare, almost molasses skin. Underscore the “bare.”
“Did it again! Came in at 10PM, DFL for the 5th year in a row! The committee boat’s already closed down, so the judges can’t see me cranking the winch like a banshee, my bare ass flapping in the breeze! I always race naked—keep it light, I say. But the newspaper’s there—they got the shot…came out today. Check it out.”
“DFL? What’s DFL?” I ask when he stops—apparently not to breathe but to swig.
“Dead fucking last!” Again!”
He’s clearly high as a noon sun. Beer or weed, we can’t tell. Though it couldn’t be speed, could it?
Now that he’s limbered up there’s even more to come. He discovers we’re long-time cruisers.
”Been to Cariacou?” he asks. Foregoing the answer he gallops into the tale of a bar he created there—from scratch, from thatch and from local bamboo.
“Immediately the officials close me down. I’m a foreigner. No bar for me.
“Oh, yeah? That’s what they think. Know what I did? I changed the name. Called it an Information Center and Snack Bar. See, I can give information out for free. ‘Come around any time with your questions’ I’d say to customers, “’but don’t ask me for alcohol. Against the law to sell alcohol with no license…but, say, how’d you like to buy a Coke or a bag of Doritos? And, now that we’re friends, I got no problem giving you something free from my private stock. Beer? Painkiller? Margarita?’
“They never did buy any Doritos—seems like I was always fresh out…”
No doubt he’s got more stories, but this boating Brer Rabbit—on a sloop named FOR PETE’S SAKE wanders off in search of a new audience. Or a refill.
We make the 38-mile crossing to St Croix, to visit Melinda and Bill, former cruising friends who bought a condo there. It’s a hard crossing, with winds of 25 to 35. Normally no big deal for this boat, except the seas are fairly huge, on the nose AND, worst of all, we forget to turn around the dorades—deck vents that bring air to the interior. Unfortunately, under these conditions, they turn into conduits for salt water, drenching the front cabins.
On our first night we only find space in the exterior harbor, where we rock fore and aft, starboard and port all night. Walking through the boat becomes an obstacle course.
Next day we move into the inner harbor, which is quite small with very little room for a 61-footer. Takes four tries to drop the hook successfully because we land too near other boats. We come within less than an inch of hitting a small, very rusty sailboat. At least one of the tries is in the midst of a squall with 39-knot winds and lashing rain that feels like I’m being attacked by a squadron of porcupines. When we’re at last parked in a spot where we won't swing into the four boats around us, it's as calm as a baby's bath.
St Croix is a funky island with oodles of tradition, dating back to the Spaniards who founded it (as usual Columbus got here first), plus additional quirks and curlicues from the six other cultures that subsequently horned in: the Danes, the Brits, the Dutch, the French, the Knights of Malta and finally the Americans.
It’s off the beaten track, which has kept it from being spoiled by the sleek rich and famous as well as the pale, paunchy cruise-ship horde. The main town, Christiansted, is dotted with lovely old, balustraded buildings and arcades of Danish provenance. Many sidewalks and building walls are made of weathered ballast brick, forming a charming patchwork of gentle colors.
The island is home to a mixed bag of black locals, white snowbirders, ex-patriots, descendants of founding families, artists, photographers, jewelry makers and crafts people. They’re just about friendliest people imaginable. Unless you forget to greet someone. Whether in the street, the market, the restaurants or the shops, most anyone wants to stop and chat you up. One photographer couldn’t wait to lock his gallery and pop across the street to share sea stories and a brew.
We walk the streets and quaint squares, poking through the unique boutiques, galleries and jewelry shops. One of the island specialties is Cruzan bracelets, each with a "story." The original Cruzan Hook symbolizes eternal love; worn one way it means you're taken, the other you're available. Others commemorate specific hurricanes and boat paraphernalia.
Generally people buy one with each visit, but I—never to return—assemble a basic collection. Justification: it’s almost my birthday. I must have Lenny, because we went through that hurricane in 1999, plus the Hook, the shackle, the bowline knot and an infinity design symbolizing everlasting friendship, love and memories.
We spend four days laughing, touring and eating in a series of excellent restaurants before heading towards Puerto Rico.
Four friendly boats from the rally just happen to be in Culebra at the same time. Now, Culebra is way out of the way in the Spanish Virgins, off the Puerto Rican coast, and just not part of the tried and true Cruiser Route.
But here we are.
One couple is celebrating their 25th anniversary. Somehow we all decide to go to an even more obscure tiny island around the corner, Culebrita, to have a mock wedding on the beach so they can renew their vows.
Picture this... a spectacular cove, empty of sailboats, blessing us with a pristine ring of soft beigy beach, all backed by sea grape, mountain greenery and a clump or two of swaying palms. No living souls but us: a blazing sunset bested only by the full moon that follows. A white gauze and flower headdress for the bride, a white gauze "carpet" fringed with tiny candles, ending in a canopy of palm fronds. The happy couple walks to this altar. One in a black bikini, the other in shorts and Hawaiian print shirt.
Thirty-year-old Michele presides and she's about as radiant as the bride. The joyous couple renews their vows, and there's not a dry eye in the house. Except maybe Michele's two adorable kiddies, ages 1 and 2 1/2, who frolic in the sand, entirely occupied with getting into the cheese and crackers and being curious about the candles.
Somehow several bottles of chilled champagne begin popping.
Tomorrow or the next day we all go our separate ways, perhaps to meet again in some other place far away.
Why do we like this cruising life? Is it the champagne? Actually, we don't really like champagne. It must be something else.