Ship Ahoy! Exploring the US Virgin Islands on a Catamaran

December 4, 2022

Steering over the waves as we head back to St. Thomas.

I love to travel, and central to the experience of being in a new place is connecting the place with its history. I always ask questions such as, who settled this place? What was their situation? Were their conflicts? Who were the historical figures who affected this place? Were their ideals involved? This process of questioning deepens my connections to the world. 

Once I have been in a place, I notice the changes I experience when its name comes up in the news. It’s as if the name jumps out of the text or the speech and calls to me, “Remember me. Here I am.” The history of the place spreads out before my mind, and I add the new information I learned to what I already knew. In some instances, I haven’t physically traveled to the place, but I have read about it or seen an impressive film, and that also affects my sense of connectedness.

A good example of this is my visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands in March 2022.

We were sitting in an Italian restaurant celebrating my grandson Mike’s birthday when his father Jim asked, “What do you think about sailing on a catamaran in the Caribbean?” I had never thought of doing such a thing, and the more Jim described his dream trip, the more possible it sounded. I thought I would never have such an opportunity again, so, of course, I replied, “I’d love to.” Over the next months, the plans became more and more real. We would go when Mike was on Spring break. My daughter Sonya and her husband Paul were also invited. Including Jim’s wife, Irina, there would be six of us.

I had sailed with Jim in San Francisco Bay and trusted him to be our captain, but I knew very little about the Caribbean. It turns out that Jim had been there many decades ago, and he had been treasuring the idea of revisiting and sharing it with his family. Another special aspect of this trip is that it was our first family vacation since the Covid epidemic, and we had to be mindful of all the restrictions, tests, masks on flights, etc.

We started by flying from Sacramento to Washington DC, and then to St. Thomas, about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico in the northeastern Caribbean Sea. The Virgin Islands group contains the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. territory is composed of three large islands – St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas. I had researched the history before we made the trip, and I was not surprised to find that the street names were in Danish or that the oldest synagogue in the West was at the top of the hill. A quick synopsis of history is relevant here.

The indigenous people of the Virgin Islands, the Taino culture, were conquered by the warlike Carib who settled in the islands in the mid-15th century. Christopher Columbus reached St. Croix (one of the three large islands) in 1493. In 1555, a Spanish expedition defeated the Carib and claimed the islands for Spain, but over the next several hundred years, the French, Dutch, and Danes claimed it. The Danes divided the islands into plantations and began growing sugarcane as well as cotton, first using convicted criminals and then after 1673, African slaves for labor. This was a center of the triangular trade in slaves brought from Africa. Rum and molasses were sent to Europe and the British colonies of New England, and European goods were shipped back to the islands. When slavery was abolished in 1848 and in the US in the 1860s, the Danish plantation owners abandoned the land, leaving the slave population free but without any structure. The U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark in 1917. Today about ¾ of the population is black, tourism is the major industry, and English is the official language.

After a day of sightseeing in St. Thomas, we took a taxi to the marina to find our boat. It was a complicated procedure because the British Virgin Islands closed their marinas due to the Corona Virus. Therefore, all the yacht rentals were happening in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Thomas was overwhelmed with the demand for boats, and there was a shortage of staff to deal with it. The boat we had rented turned out to be faulty, and after much negotiation, we were given a new one that would serve us well. Our boat was a Fountaine-Pajot 47.

During the four nights we spent on the boat, we became used to the gentle rocking, searching for the right ball to park at, cooking delicious meals, swimming off the boat, and celebrating the gorgeous sunsets. One memorable time was when Sonya and Irina floated to shore and then realized they had drifted and could no longer see our boat. Luckily, a friendly boat rescued them and returned them to us safe and sound. The most exciting moments occurred when Jim, with Paul’s help, put up the sails and we felt the wind beating against them as Jim steered us toward a particular bay. I was thrilled to take my turn steering the boat.

We then spent five days in a B&B on St. John, the next island, exploring the inlets, the national parkland, the remains of the Danish plantations, and climbing up a volcano to find pirates’ cannons. We became used to meeting donkeys and cows on the winding roads and swam at the beautiful beaches in different parts of the island. Hurricane damage was present everywhere.

Being physically in the place stimulated my interest in learning more about its history. I was fascinated to learn of the role of these islands in the settling of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the New World, the conflicts between the different European countries, the role of the slave trade, the settling of New Amsterdam (later New York), and the role of Jews who came over with Columbus to escape the Inquisition and practice their religion freely.

The Jews became the first merchant class to establish International Trade in the Spanish Empire, set up the first sugar factories, pioneered grain, coffee, and tea cultivation, and traded sugar, tobacco, gold and silver with hidden Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. The story is well told in Edward Kritzler’s book, The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.

After Jamaica was caught between Spanish and Portuguese squabbles, the English conquered the island, welcomed Dutch Calvinists and the Jews in 1660, and the island became a major spot in the middle of the shipping lanes and an ideal base to strike at Spanish shipping as revenge against the Inquisition. To this day, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands has the second oldest synagogue and longest in continuous use under the American flag.

Our exciting time on the catamaran in the U.S. Virgin Islands expanded my experience of sailing and opened up new windows into world history. Thank you, Captain Jim!

  • IMG_0243
  • Jim & Paul
  • Sonya snorkling