The best way to see St. John, U.S.V.I.

An ill-conceived voyage around St. John.

It’s early October and we’re on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Early October is still hurricane season in the V.I., but an offer to join my sister on her honeymoon served up an opportunity to get out of town. Typing this I realize one thing: in retrospect, none of it seems like a good idea.

There are four of us: me, my wife, my sister and her new husband. Except for the fact we’ve been sequestered indoors all week because of the rain, and we’re all getting on each others nerves, its been a great honeymoon. The rain started the second day. It’s not the pleasant drizzle that cools a hot summer day and keeps the foliage green. It’s a torrential down pour. Streets are flooded, power is out, groceries are spoiling, and we are running out of booze. Thank goodness tomorrow, the last day of the trip, looks to be sunny.

Sunshine on our last day, what will we do? It’s time to make some happy memories for the newlyweds. We are going to rent one of those inflatable motorized rafts! “I’m a captain,” I think to myself. “Captain Jason!” Well, not officially. But a captain is just someone in charge of a boat, and I’m going to be in charge of a boat. Besides, what could possibly go wrong?

A couple days ago, during sub-hurricane Hose-My-Vacation, we found a bar in Cruz Bay next door to a dinghy rental shop. Within a few minutes we have the vessel reserved for tomorrow’s sunny, memory-making day. My sister, the newly wed, has only one request. She would like to go to Honeymoon Beach. “Done,” I shout! “Its going to be great!” Did I mention that I’m a captain?

We arrive the next morning and everything is ready. Cooler with booze? Check! Water? We won’t need it, we’re not going very far. Chairs? Check! Cigars? Towels? Check and check! Sunscreen? Why? We’re on a beautiful, tropical island. People only get sunburn in places like Florida and California.

All aboard!

The crew, consisting of my blond, fair skinned wife, my sister, and her Irish, red-head, sun-never-touches-my-skin husband, climb aboard the S.S. Intrepid, ready to embark on a fun-filled day of snorkeling, sun and memories. I’m the senior person — senior in age — so it comes as no surprise the crew silently nominates me Expedition Leader. They are jovial, eagerly looking forward to our first true island-like day after a week of rain.

It’s early, the sun just starting its ascent. I’m presented the boat and a plastic map of St. John. I note the west side of the island, the side we are currently on, is highlighted with what our boat rental guy feels are the best beaches for tourists, the first being Honeymoon Beach. On the other hand, the south side of the island seems devoid of beaches, activities and points of interest. This strikes me as odd.

Because I consider myself an educated man, I presume they’ve highlighted beaches closer in proximity to our starting point. However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t decent beaches elsewhere. St. John is beyond awesome! It stands to reason there are probably some extremely cool, less-populated beaches in these other areas. Although I applaud their attempt to steer us toward locales accessible given our current fuel capacity, once on board, I am the captain — the decision maker.

I climb aboard the boat with my crew and canvas for a helmsman, to which there are no volunteers. I take the throttle thingy in hand and set our course, due west out of Cruz Bay, then a sharp right turn toward the highlighted sites and Honeymoon Beach. Its just about now that I see a small problem. We are on the west side of St. John. As other captains might have noticed, the sun rises in the east, casting shadows on all of these prime spots. What’s a good captain to do?

St. John is an Island.

I glance at the map and an idea starts to form. St. John is an island. No seriously, its basically round — well, actually it’s kind of elliptical — the point is, since it’s an island, there is a side of it that is sunny right now. If we just keep following it around in our current direction, we are guaranteed sunny beaches. Then, as the sun moves west, we return from whence we came to the highlighted beaches. I’m not just a captain, I’m a brilliant captain!

After briefing my crew and assuring them we will return to Honeymoon Beach to bask in the suns golden rays, we head off for the current sunny side of St. John. By 9:00 A.M. it seems we are making excellent time and everything is going according to plan. The crew is in good spirits, the sun is out, and we are heading for east side beaches. Then another idea starts to develop.

St. John doesn’t look very big on my plastic map. We already established that St. John is an island, surrounded by water, namely the ocean, which means we can go around it and have sun on every beach we visit all day. This is totally doable. By the time we get back these highlighted beaches will be sunny, and we’ll have visited other great sunny beaches along the way. I’m feeling a little like Jack Rackham — not just a captain but a pirate captain!

This time when I brief the crew, they are less enthusiastic. One might say that nobody is really interested in going around the island except me, that is, if one were a killjoy. I strengthen my argument, accentuating the coolness factor and a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive a dinghy around St. John. Think about what it will mean to say, “I went around St. John in a dinghy!” I continue my negotiations until all three heads are bobbing in tacit, if not excited, approval.

Lest I be thought a tyrant, certain concessions were accepted at the outset. To keep up crew morale, we occasionally stop for a short time so they can snorkel and commune with local sea life. I diligently watch the clock and we stay for as long as I feel our schedule permits. But each time I utter, “get the flock in, we gotta go!” Although they begrudgingly obey, I sense their ire deepening. I make a note in the log about their waning morale — by which, I mean I acknowledge they are starting to become more savage than human with each passing minute at sea.

That ‘Aha’ Moment.

As we round the east end of the island, creatively called East End, and set a heading southwest, I realize, pretty quickly, my map may not be to scale. I can tell based on our fuel consumption and the amount of time it’s taken to get here that getting back might be an unrealistic dream. We are half-way around, according to the plastic map. But it’s taken much longer to get here than I thought is should. Head back or press forward — both have the same issue. As it is my decision, we continue.

At some point, as captain, one must decide what and when to share with the crew. I accept the responsibility for making these tough decisions, bearing their weight heavily on my conscience. But the crew is a delicate animal, and my animal was already starting to develop doubts. The last thing we want is a mutiny on our hands, and given I am a government employee — when I’m not a pirate captain of the high seas — I know how mutinies start. Does it make sense to inform the crew of our current predicament? No it does not.

We are now several hours in and I am seriously stressed out of my <bleeping> mind. I can see the fuel dwindling, which is a major concern. In addition, the St. John book I’ve been using to compare and determine our position no longer matches with the plastic map. The crew has no idea about the book or that I have no clue where exactly we are. Oh, and the sun is up and it is <bleeping> hot. This is not beautiful, tropical island sun anymore.

I’m not entirely sure where I lost their respect? Maybe around Booby Rock.

Now, I’m a white man, but as a pirate captain, I’m reasonably tan and can deal with the heat. Unfortunately, my Irish brother-in-law, who’s skin burns under an incandescent bulb, is not doing well. He is beginning to look like a lobster. Joining him is my wife, also of the fairer skin. She is breaking out with heat hives.

So it is as we round the southeast end of St. John and set our heading west, the crew’s morale begins to bottom and they start to verbally question my judgement. Although years of government training kick in and I assure them we’re fine — even though I know we are certainly not fine — it does little to assuage their growing thirst for both blood and water.

We continue west with the sun. What seemed like a good idea, sun all day, is revealing itself ill conceived. As we pass Booby Rock, the crew, in an attempt to shield themselves from the sun’s punishing rays, don as many towels as they can find. My sister, the newly wed, is crying, and the look on my wife’s face makes me afraid for my life. My brother-in-law, once a proud Irishman, is huddling with the women under towels, reduced to a scared, sun burned, child. Mutiny may be a forgone conclusion.

A new plan.

I’ve yet to inform the crew of our now imminent fuel disaster. Instead, noticing our reserves almost depleted and fearing being swept out to sea, I hug the coastline. I’m sure we are not going to make it back to Cruz Bay. By staying close to shore, we may be able to beach the boat at the last minute and at least be off the water. I repeat the mantra in my head, “hug the coastline, hug the coastline, hug the…” Until I hear a loud, grinding sound from the propeller.

One of the many things they don’t teach in pirate captain school — especially when one doesn’t attend pirate captain school — is that while your hugging the coastline to keep from being swept out to sea when your fuel runs out, the propellor might hit a coral reef. To say the crew was startled would be like describing the passengers of the Titanic as a bit worried. The sound put them into panic mode.

Immediately my government training kicks in again and I assure them everything is okay. I can’t tell them that the reason we are so close to shore is because we are probably going to run out of gas, and I’d really rather not spend the next week with them on this boat as they try to decide which part of me to eat first. But I’m so close to the island that I’m hitting all kinds of stuff. Any doubt about my abilities gives way to total distrust, which is, quite frankly, insulting because I’m the captain — the pirate captain! — and I’m looking out for these ungrateful sons-a-bridges!

Well, there’s no keeping it from them now.

We finally pass what I now believe is Rendezvous Bay, but at the time I had no idea. I look down and realize, “You know what? The gas tank is almost empty.” I can’t squeeze that bulb anymore, at least not with a straight face. Its time to inform the crew.

I stand up and call them to attention — which is to say, I meekly call them from under their towels. Several versions of the announcement race through my head like the scenes of a dying mans life, but the sentence that I finally spoke was, “Crew,” — I’d taken to calling them ‘crew’ — “Crew, here’s the reality. We’re out of gas. I don’t know any other way to tell ya. We’re not going to make it.”

They take it surprisingly well. Considering they are covered in towels head-to-toe and it is insanely hot, I’d half expected to be thrown overboard. I surmise that extreme dehydration, the product of my initial decision to set off without water, resulted in a lack of energy, which saved my life. They were just too tired to kill me right now.

Ten minutes later, we are out of gas.

The engine sputters. I make a half-hearted attempt to keep it going, squeeze the ball a few times, pull the starter. But we all know the horrible truth. There is no gas. Everybody looks back at me and instead of being mad, the women just start crying. What do I do with that? They don’t even get mad at me, they’re just crying. There’s no crying on the dinghy! We’re on the ocean!!

I look around the boat and notice two oars. We’re just outside of Chocolate Hole — how I know this will become clear in a moment — dead center between two land masses. We should be able to row to shore. I grab one oar and the Irishman, burnt to a crisp and ready to cry himself, grabs the other, and we start rowing.

We are pulling at the oars as hard as we can, but it doesn’t appear we are making any headway. In fact, we quickly realize that rather than moving toward shore we’re drifting further away from the island. This is why I was hugging the coastline. See, I was right! We are going to drift out to sea!

To be a good pirate captain, one needs to know their limitations. We stop rowing and everyone turns toward me once again. I want to say I have another plan. That is what I want to say. But instead I say, “That’s it guys. I got nothin’ else.” Nobody wanted to go around the island except me. It was my idea. But its done and now we are slowly heading toward St. Croix, or Mexico, or maybe Texas.

My sister is sobbing and screaming about how I’ve ruined her honeymoon. “Sure,” I mutter under my breath, “it wasn’t the previous five days of torrential rain. I was just trying to give you a memory.” My wife is still crying, and quite frankly baking to death. The Irishman is sitting in agony. And then it hits me!

All that effort and someone else gets to save the day.

I see the plastic map on the floor where I laid when I started rowing. It’s totally inaccurate, of course. But there’s a phone number on it. We’re saved! I pull out my Verizon iPhone, which I might as well just toss overboard for all the good it does on St. John. But my sister is an AT&T customer, where she gets something akin to 4G plus on that island. We call the number…disconnected! We’re not saved. We are floating further out to sea.

Then we remember the bar next door to the dinghy rental. We call them and explain to the bartender that we are in a bit of trouble, slowly heading out to sea and all. The bartender brings Rental Guy from next door and I explain to him where we are floating — I noticed the GPS on my phone was working when I checked for service, something that would have been handy to know from the beginning.

Apparently, very few people actually attempt to go around St. John in a dinghy. When I explain our location to Rental Guy, he doesn’t believe me. I attempt to remain calm — after all, I’m only drifting out to sea with a crew that wants to kill me — explaining, as clearly as possible, that although we are lost, I know exactly where we are within a few meters. So, I’d very much appreciate it if he could kindly come to Chocolate Hole before we float into a shipping lane or my crew sacrifices me to Poseidon.

Ten minutes pass, then twenty, and soon its been an hour. We are growing worried. None of us wants the crew to portion me out for their survival. I call Rental Guy back. “Are you coming?” I ask?

“We didn’t find you,” he says.

“That’s because I told you we are near Chocolate <bleeping> Hole,” I yell into the phone!

“Well, nobody’s ever gone that far,” he says.

Trust me, I did!

Thank the lord baby Jesus, because it’s about this time that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service boat happens by. He throws us a line the size of a fire hose, we secure it to whatever we can, and he tows us in. And just before we arrive back at the dock in Cruz Bay, who do we see? Rental Guy, just leaving shore to check on us.

A happy ending.

Back at the dock, we refuel — we have at least another hour or two left on this rental. The crew, deciding that I am not the best choice to lead the expedition, strips me of my pirate captain-ness. The Irish lobster takes over and we head for Honeymoon Beach, the place my sister wanted to stop to begin with, and basically the first beach after making that right turn out of Cruz Bay.

When we arrive, I think, “What a nice beach. We should have stayed here the whole time.”


This story was relayed by a dear friend during a night of cocktail-assisted fun. It is transcribed here from a recording. Although every effort was made to provide a verbatim translation, due to speech degradation common during alcohol consumption, some creative license was necessary to infer difficult to understand details. In addition, some words were changed to maintain our G rating. The story is factual in all other respects. He really did try to take a dinghy around St. John.


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