Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands

Ever do something you thought was “groundbreaking” and “new” only to find out that some member of your family had done it before and no one ever mentioned it? Yeah, that happened. We just crossed the Anegada Passage between the British Virgin Islands and St. Martin/St. Maarten. Wow! What a milestone! We’re pioneers in our families!! Yeah. No. “Hey Bob, did I ever tell you…” Ummm, no. You didn’t. I mean, it’s like if Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, heard “Hey there, Neil!” and found his mom sitting on a moon rock.

Turns out, my family has been here before. My own father, actually. Did I know about this? Nope, sure didn’t. It’s worth retelling for the current pop culture connection as well as just documenting it. (Because now it’s on the interwebs, where nothing ever dies.)

Back in the late 1950s, about 1957 I would guess, since my father was reported to be 18 when this went down, my family chartered a sailboat and sailed around the USVI, BVI, and crossed over to St. Martin. It was, evidently, a lovely cruise on a boat with a professional captain and crew (yes, my dad’s family had money-emphasis on “had”). But when they crossed the Anegada Passage, a storm came up (weather forecasting then wasn’t quite as good as today) and things got…interesting. In any case, I owe the following description to my dad’s two younger sisters, Margie and Betsy.

“It was a 10 day sail from St John to Antigua and the BVI.  Dad (my grandfather) did all the arranging.  We spent 3 days on St. John. including Santa Claus arriving on a donkey with a pair of antlers (I guess it was around Christmas?)  The boat picked us up at their dock. It had no motor, so we anchored at all of our stops.  We went to lunch on Virgin Gorda which then was a deserted island with huge boulders that you could crawl through. We never saw another boat or person (now a national park and good luck with the “deserted” part).  We also went to Nevis, St Kitts, St Martin, which is a French island, sailed by Saba, a Dutch island,  Antigua, and a bunch of others.  Saba was fascinating because it rises straight out of the sea.  At that time you could only get there by a small plane (it actually has the shortest commercial runway in the world-landing there is supposed to be quite an adventure).  Antigua was beautiful. There were two four-masted schooners there because they were expecting a visit from Queen Elizabeth the following week.

My dad…he did love to sail.

Jay (that would be my dad) was swimming near the boat when a manta ray swam past. Jay literally flew into the boat, with the captain laughing, saying it was pretty large but they don’t hurt you. Crossing the Anagada Passage was quite a trip.  It is always rough we were told and therefore we would leave about 8 pm. The passage usually takes about 12 hours.  To leave the harbor in the dark, the crewman who was a native to the islands climbed up the mast with a spotlight and gave the captain directions between the reefs.  It was quite something to watch.  Weather forecasting wasn’t much 65 years ago and we hit a storm.  Only Dad (my grandfather), the captain, the crewman, and Jay (my dad) were allowed on deck with life jackets and harnesses.  The passage wasn’t 12 hours.  It was over 24 hours, as was the storm.  Even though the galley had a stove with gimbals, it was too rough to cook anything.  Mother’s friend had given her a huge 5 gallon bucket of pretzels and popcorn and that was all we ate and we ate all of it!  When we got to the next island, I was so land sick I had to hold onto the buildings because everything was still rocking.  But leave it to dad (my grandfather).  He put me in a cab, told the driver to drive me around the island for an hour, and then I was just fine (I’m sure all of us parents would do the same thing today…).  He said he learned that trick crossing the Atlantic during World War II.  My hair was a mess so mother washed my hair in the ladies room sink.

Paul and Ann, my grandparents

But the scariest part was during the passage in the middle of the night.  Before leaving, the captain told us to close all portholes good and tight and he added a board to the open side of our bunks, just in case it got really rough.  In the middle of the night the main hatch blew off.  It had to have been 4 by 8 feet with glass panels.  It must have weighed a ton because it took the captain, crewman, and Jay about 20 minutes to get it back on.  Fortunately, it did not go overboard because of the railing.  When it let go, mom was on the lower side and she got about several gallons of water dumped in her bunk and on her.  She was not a happy sailor!!! Jay (my dad) was heard to say “This is the life!” To which Ann (my grandmother) was heard to reply “SHUT UP, JAY!!”  The captain had everything dry and shipshape in no time.  He was just thankful we didn’t lose the hatch overboard.  

After and before that it was all smooth sailing.  We all enjoyed every moment of the trip.  We saw a few sharks as they swam by.  We then returned to St John by air for about 3 or 4 days before returning home.  In Puerto Rico, they insisted that we had to have small pox shots because we didn’t realize we needed proof of it.  Turned out we didn’t get boosters but the full immunization.  So beware!

So, there it is. We are not the first of the Stephens family to cruise here. Not only that, but there was also the brush with fame. Turns out while my family was relaxing on St. John, they met up with the Oppenheimer family. Yes, THAT Oppenheimer family- J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb. My Aunt Betsy was about the same age as Robert Oppenheimer’s daughter, Katharine (known as Toni) and they spent a lot of time together. I haven’t seen the film “Oppenheimer” but going out on a limb, I’m guessing the Stephens connection is not mentioned.

Two final thoughts: first, I can absolutely picture my dad on a sailboat in a storm saying “this is the life!” while those around him huddle in terror. Second, I can absolutely hear my grandmother’s voice yelling “SHUT UP, JAY!”. Ah, those treasured family memories…