This is really a story about how we come to call a place home. It is also a story about a day when an ill conceived dinghy rodeo took place in Coral Bay. It was one of those days that everything went so upside down that it left me wondering where in the world I had landed.
I have considered St. John to be home for a long time. I started coming down to visit in 1974 and it was not long after that my folks bought a little house in Chocolate Hole and we moved here. But just because you move somewhere doesn’t mean it is really your home. In most places, the Caribbean especially, you really need to spend a full calendar year in one spot to even start to get settled in.
It took some time but eventually, I spent some real noninterrupted time on St. John and it dawned on me that we have distinct seasons. The harbingers are more subtle than the Christmas winds, Carnival or the calendar dates for Hurricane season. But in time, they are easy to spot. The first day in the spring after a heavy rain when the Whattapalma bloom like lilacs along Centerline the road is a perfect example. I always note the day the Water Mampoo sheds its velcro like seed pods because the baby chicks get stuck in them. It is hard not to notice that late summer day when the dust from the Sahara Desert covers your windshield and the flamboyant trees put on a fireworks show. There is that day in the fall when the wind evaporates and the sea goes flat and it looks like you could skate over to St. Croix. There is the day, usually after Easter, when the laughing gulls arrive. Some years the wind will blow out of the west for three days straight in November. These subtle signals that alert us to our little rock’s journey around the sun don’t arrive on specific days, like the Kentucky Derby party at Skinny Legs. They arrive when they are ready, and sometimes they skip a year. When I began to know the seasons, I felt like I had found a home.
Because the National Park Service runs on a more rigid calendar than me and probably you, it became necessary for them to adhere to certain concrete dates on the Roman calendar. As far as the National Park is concerned, hurricane season begins June 1. In St. John time, which is much more fluid and real for many of us, it probably began last week when the first serious hurricane investigation took place. June too soon, as they say. But suddenly it was time to start watching the weather. More importantly, if you have a boat, it was time to dig out your storm gear and set it down in Hurricane Hole.
It feels like a time honored tradition to me. Even in the years when I don’t have a boat I usually end up diving down on that big hurricane chain and tying off bowline knots while those tiny little shrimp munch on my ears. It is good to be prepared.
I cringe in my chair when I hear myself talk about how things used to be in the old days on St. John, but this is relevant. We used to just wait until there was a threat of a tropical storm and then sail over to Hurricane Hole. The first boat to arrive usually tied up to the mangroves in Borck Creek and broad cast their anchors in all directions. This was their spot until the threat of storms subsided and it was time for a Thanksgiving raft up. When Borck Creek was full, it seemed like there was always room in Princess Bay or Otter Creek. Water Creek, it was widely thought, was still a good place for the boaters who would come all the way over from St. Thomas at the last minute when a storm threatened.
But things change. There are more people now. More boats, fewer mangroves. Hurricane Hole would not belong to the St. John Navy forever. And few, if any, are complaining. The mangroves are delicate and when Bill Clinton signed the papers in 2001 to make the area part of a National Coral Reef Underwater Monument he may have saved the entire bay.
But now it needed to be managed. A state of the art hurricane chain was installed at great expense. The Park Service was pretty shrewd about the handing out permits at first. In fact, they put a St. Johnian in charge of making sure that mayhem didn’t erupt in the pristine and traditional hurricane mooring field. While the boaters felt empathy for Mr. Boulon’s position, they also wanted a good spot on the chain.
Obviously signing boaters up for anything became very complicated and the fifth year of the program found about 30 boaters camping out across from Mongoose Junction on a Thursday night so they could be the first to sign up when the doors were unlocked at the V.I. maintenance building on Saturday morning, June 9, 2007. By the end of that day, 116 boaters signed up for a spot on the chain, about 30 more than spaces available.
So it was decided, and I swear I am not making this up, that the next year there would be a dinghy race for mooring spots. It was supposed to cull boaters who didn’t really use their vessels from taking moorings away from people whose lives revolved around their vessels. It sounded good to me. Instead, it became one of the stupidest days in the history of Coral Bay.
Everybody got a hold of the fastest dinghy they could find and at high noon, as I recall, someone in a National Park patrol boat blew a whistle. The mooring balls were numbered in Hurricane Hole and the first one to grab it got it. Throttles went full and folks were lunging out of their inflatables after floating balls and tugging them away from their friends. This was a grey day in early June but Coral Bay was filled with revved up tenders with single minded captains. I try to block this out of my memory but I remember almost swamping my friend Pablo’s mother-in-law on the way to grab a floating prize in Otter Creek. It was a free for all, and everybody was out for themselves. Everyone who competed in that rodeo has a story to tell. It is now St. John legend.
But the whole thing left me feeling cold. This was my home and I did not like the National Park Service trying to manage me into an absurd race like this. Conversely, I realized that as the population increases the resources need to be managed.
I got back to my boat in Johnson Bay and gathered with my floating neighbors to go over the day’s events. My friend Steve got a spot in Otter next to me. EMT Geoff and Susan refused to compete. They just puttered over with their two horse egg beater and got a spot for their sailboat on the chain in Water Creek.
No one felt good about the process. I still remember Geoff’s comment. “Next year I heard we are just going to have fist fights in the ball field to see who gets the moorings,” he said.
A wind started blowing and it looked like rain. The day was looking as sour as our moods. Then a dolphin swam by and nudged Geoff’s boat. It was the happiest porpoise you have ever seen. We all jumped in and swam with it for a while. When our fish friend finally left we all felt much better. I realized that some things can be managed, even controlled. Maybe even boaters. But on St. John Mother Nature will always run things.
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About Bob Tis
A long time St. John resident and career journalist Bob currently writes for Relix Magazine, the St. Augustine Record and What To Do – VI. He is the author of the Hearts of Palm, Down Island and co-author of Code Word: Freedom. He lives in Cruz Bay.