Sometimes our boat brings us to a place we never heard of before and know nothing about. We then “discover” the place on our own and our perception of it forms entirely based on our experiences there. Whom we meet or what happens, even the weather, determine our relationship with the place.
After a few hours of sailing east from Puerto Rico to the US Virgin Islands and an epic battle with a reef shark who got caught on our line, we arrive in a small harbor near a tiny island south of St Thomas. We drop anchor.
Aboard our kayak Agent Orange we make our way between many cruising boats in the anchorage and we land on the most beautiful beach. Fine sand, crystal clean water, palm trees, a small shack in one corner selling beer.
Honeymoon Beach in Druif Bay was once a 50 feet long stretch of rocks extending only about 10 feet from the water line. The islanders removed the trees and the brush, hauled off 200 truckloads of rock and gravel and broke up the beach stone with a bulldozer. They sifted the sand to remove any remaining debris, dredged an area of the bay to remove the seaweed, deposited sand on the shore, and planted a row of palm trees thus creating a superb man-made beach.
“Hey you guys, how nice to see you again,” someone familiar greets us; what a nice surprise. It’s Rob and Kate, a cruising couple we met a few months ago in the Bahamas. They tell us about a fort up on the hills.
As we slowly climb the steep road a car with a coconut stuck on its cracked windshield pulls over. We meet Tom, one of the oldest residents of Water Island. He starts explaining how exactly to get to the fort and tells us some incredible stories on the side, and we end up spending the day with him.
Tom is a character. You don’t meet people like Tom every day, full of stories and jokes. For many years he was a captain on a private boat owned by a stubborn Chinese man named Wong. Their crazy adventures around the world deserve to be told in a book and Tom has already come up with the title: Sailing Around The World The Wong Way.
“Hop in my truck, I’ll take you to the fort. But first I have to fill this bucket with seaweed.”
In the next few hours we collect seaweed for a duck who was found injured by a friend of Tom’s; we visit Fort Segarra, a bunker with tunnels and underground rooms built by the US Army during WWII to protect the submarine base on St. Thomas; we learn about the island’s history, flora and fauna; and finally we collect hibiscus flowers for Tom’s tortoises, they love hibiscus flowers.
Today a residential area with less than 2,000 km2, Water Island was named after its vital freshwater ponds , Tom’s says, where pirates would stop to replenish their ships’ water supplies. It was like an oasis valued and respite by everyone, as most islands in the Lesser Antilles lack potable water, and even enemy ships would not fight here.
This was the first island in the region to erupt out of the sea and for many centuries remained alone, before the other islands around popped up which explains the many endemic plant species found nowhere in the world. Like the little white and pink orchids.
On Water Island there are also some interesting animal species but none are cuter than the red-footed tortoises slumbering in shady places all day long who come out to eat grass and flowers in the cool afternoon hours.
Tom has many in his garden. Angel with a cracked shell which Tom patched up with glue, and a bunch of babies which he releases back in the wild as soon as they are big enough.
But some don’t want to ever leave Tom’s garden, the tortoise version of the Garden of Eden. Bananas and citrus trees, papaya, exotic spices and fragrant tropical flowers provide plenty of shady hideouts.
We wish we could stay in Tom’s garden on Tom’s island forever too.