Part One: Getting There
For those who know me, I suspect that most know that for most of my adult life I have been an avid sailor. Embry and I have owned five sailboats starting in 1974 with a beat up, 16-foot racing boat that sank in the Potomac River on the Fourth of July that year with Embry, me, and our friend, Naomi, aboard. In the fall of 2021, we sold our last boat, a 39-foot cruising sailboat, “Second Wind.” We have enjoyed racing (I more than Embry) and cruising—mainly in the Chesapeake—and have chartered sailboats in the British Virgin Islands many times and in other faraway waters like the Bahamas, the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the San Juan Islands, and Tahiti. I estimate that I have raced in over 600 races starting in the early 70s, and Embry and I have cruised on the Chesapeake, anchoring in over 80 different places. It has been, as they say, a great run.
Two years ago, when it was becoming evident that as I approached 80, I did not have a lot of sailing days left, I decided it would be a great idea to charter a boat for a week of sailing in my favorite cruising grounds, the British Virgin Islands. I billed this as our “Last Hurrah” cruise with both of our children, their spouses, and our four grandchildren, ages 11-15 at the time. When we booked the cruise in the summer of 2020 for Christmas week, we had no idea that the hideous covid virus would still be with us but forged ahead anyway. Sure enough, days before our scheduled departure, our son-in-law, Peter, came down with a bad covid case, which he then passed on to others in his family. We cancelled, dodged that bullet, and immediately rescheduled for the next year. However, in 2021 covid was still a grave concern. We cancelled again. I was distraught. Embry encouraged me to try one more time, which I did for Christmas week 2022, our third and final try. By this time, I had already celebrated my eightieth birthday, and our grandchildren were all teenagers. A fourth try was not in the cards.
You can imagine my excitement as the Christmas holidays got closer. I was feverishly checking on all the arrangements—taxis to pick us up at the airport on Beef Island in the BVIs and take us to the marina in Road Town, a food, beverages, and supplies order for 10 hungry sailors for eight days, and a kayak and a paddle board for exploring anchorages and to facilitate on shore adventures. Our son, Andrew, and his wife, Karen, would be flying from Newark with their two children, Sadie (14) and Parker(13), and our daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Peter, would be driving down from their home in Maine to New Jersey with their two children, Jasper(17), and Jo(15), and then flying with the Andrew’s family to San Juan followed by a connecting short flight to the BVIs. Our flight was from Dulles arriving in San Juan about the same time where we also had reservations on a connecting puddle jumper. We would take a taxi together, board the boat around five and go out for a celebratory dinner at the Sunsail base restaurant. We would get everything put away the next morning on the 51-foot sloop I had reserved and would set sail around lunch time for a fabulous week of family camaraderie, fresh breezes, sunny skies, and drop-dead natural beauty. I had done this trip well over a dozen times without a hitch. I could not believe that finally, finally this was going to happen.
We were set to depart from Dulles Airport at nine in the morning on Christmas Eve, which would put us in the BVIs around five in the afternoon on a short connecting flight from San Juan. Two days before Christmas all the news was about the huge snowstorm with record low temperatures pounding the Midwest and headed toward the East. Then came the news about thousands of flight cancellations, which I did not pay much attention to because the storm was going to miss us, and I surmised that our United flight was a kind of daily shuttle between San Juan and Washington. That is why I was stunned to see the “flight cancelled” warning pop up on the screen when we were getting our boarding passes. What? This had to be a mistake! Yes, the vast departure lobby was in a state of chaos, but surely these unfortunate fliers were headed north or west, not to the south. This could not be accurate. Seeing my distress, an attendant appeared, assured me that it actually was accurate and whisked us along with several dozen other distressed passengers to the United international desk where we were the fifth or sixth in a line that was growing by the minute. I felt my heart sink. Embry, always the stalwart, cheerfully assured me that we could get down there on another flight, and we had a 3-hour layover in San Juan, plenty of time to make the connecting flight to the BVIs.
The next hour we spent talking with the agent, a somewhat rattled woman with a strong foreign accent, who I assumed would rebook us on another flight. Every option she checked was either full or cancelled. She checked United flights to Puerto Rico from Denver, Chicago, and Houston. She looked at flights on other airlines—American, Delta and others. Nothing. She then said that the best that we could hope for was a late flight on the 28th allowing us to get to the BVIs on the 29th. Following my vigorous protests, she said something to the effect of “Mr. Howell, what is it that you do not understand about the fact that there is no way you can get to the BVIs until later in the week?” She then cancelled the reservations—including the return flights—and asked us to leave so she could help others, apologizing for the “inconvenience.”
We were doomed. The Last Hurrah would not happen. I retreated to a chair, sat down, and glumly called Andrew with the bad news. Embry suddenly disappeared.
Andrew reported that their flight was on schedule to take off soon and that he would look for other options for us. Both Andrew and Jessica had some sailing experience, and I thought probably could handle the cruise without Embry and me, but it could be a bit of a challenge and surely would not be the same.
And where was Embry during this dark night of the soul? She suddenly reappeared announcing that she had just booked a United flight to Boston, leaving in about 45 minutes, and the next morning a Jet Blue flight to San Juan and a new connecting flight to the BVIs, getting us there at six in the evening. She had also booked a room at the Logan Airport Hilton. No worries. We would only be a day late.
Eureka! The Last Hurrah was on again. Except we only had 45 minutes to get to the United flight to Boston. We raced to the security area and charged to the gate barely making it before the doors closed. Embry then mentioned that we got the two remaining seats on the plane and also the last two seats on the Jet Blue flight the next day and on the connecting flight to the BVIs.
It was a long trudge to the Hilton, but it turned out to be a pleasant evening. Except for distressed passengers the place was like a tomb, but there were plenty of distressed passengers waiting in line to get into the bar/restaurant. Most seemed to be trying to make the best of their ruined holiday. We opted to forget the restaurant and go straight to the bar where we could also order food, which turned out to be surprisingly good. That evening I was finally able to feel relaxed and optimistic about our prospects.
The next morning we boarded the Jet Blue flight, which was on time and would get us to San Juan with two hours to spare for making the connecting flight. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At last, I was certain we would make it. I had a window seat right behind the wing and noticed a large stack of luggage sitting at the base of the machine that loads the bags into the plane. When the plane did not move from the gate after 15 or 20 minutes, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that we would take off shortly once all the bags were loaded and wished everyone a happy holiday. I suddenly remembered it was Christmas Day.
I then glanced out the window to observe that the bags had not moved, and no human was to be seen. Oh well, I thought, nothing to worry about. We have two hours to make the connecting flight, plenty of time. Fifteen minutes later I glanced out the window again. No progress. I then began the exercise of looking out the window every five minutes or so. Some guy showed up, lit a cigarette and then left. I looked at my watch. An hour had passed. Still time to make the connection, but now I was starting to get nervous and could feel anxiety coming on. It was not until almost two hours had passed that the bags got loaded and the plane took off. Doomed again! Embry was sitting near the front of the plane and I near the back, so we could not confer.
When we landed and I finally stumbled out of the plane into the boarding area, Embry was not there. I figured she would show up eventually and sat down in a state of despair. In about twenty minutes, my cell phone rang. It was Embry, who reported that she was at the gate of the connecting flight demanding that they hold the flight for us, but they refused and had just closed the doors. Good for her, I thought, the lady never gives up, but what to do next?
What we did next was go to a hotel near the airport for the night and try to figure this out. Except for no sheets on the bed, the room was not so bad. When Embry complained to the lady at the front desk, she gave us another room, which was so much smaller and less desirable that Embry took the sheets off the beds in that room, and we put them on our beds.
The challenge now was how to get to the airport serving Tortola, the largest and most populated island in the BVIs and where the charter fleets were all located. Embry was at it again trying to book a connecting flight, only to find that all connecting flights for the rest of the week were full. I was ready to call it quits. Good idea, nice try, but getting to the BVIs was just not in the cards. No Last Hurrah for us.
I called Andrew to give him the bad news. The Howell family crew had landed on time, boarded the charter boat, and was heading out for dinner. He said not to give up and that he would figure something out. Fat chance, I thought.
Then my cellphone rang again. Andrew confirmed that there was no way for us to get to Tortola this week, but there was a way to get to the BVIs. We could fly to the airport on Virgin Gorda, the other large island, about 10 miles from the marina. They could sail and meet us there. Two remaining seats were available on a connecting flight leaving around eleven in the morning, which would get us there around noon, about the time that they should arrive. I told him to book it. He called back to report he had succeeded. Last Hurrah on again!
Then I thought, Virgin Gorda has an airport?
We boarded the small plane on time the next day, along with the pilot and six other passengers. We were all asked about our weight and seated so that the weight would be evenly distributed. Embry and I were seated on the front row, right behind the pilot, a late 40-something guy, who seemed to be all business. The flight would take about 45 minutes. Off we went. At last, this cruise of a lifetime would happen after all.
On the way over, clouds began to gather and showers were evident though showers in the BVIs are always short-lived, and you almost always can see blue sky. I could not help wondering how you could build an airport on a volcanic island where there were few flat spots. As we got closer the clouds thickened and the plane began to jump around. At points the visibility approached zero. I scanned the instruments on the panel and could not see anything resembling a GPS or radar. The pilot would be flying blind if the clouds continued. As we got closer, an opening in the clouds briefly appeared, and I looked down to see what I presumed was the runway—a narrow dirt road of maybe 200 yards situated between the ocean and a steep mountain. There were no shoulders and no room for error. Only a single, one-story structure was adjacent to the runway, and it did not look anything like a control tower. The pilot had to nail the landing, or it would be curtains. I was wondering how much experience this guy had as he looked left and then right trying to figure out where the airport was.
Then suddenly the clouds parted. The pilot spotted the airport, turned the plane and headed down. He had to clear one large hill, then swoop down, steady the plane and land. Two or three yards off center would mean crashing into a mountain or ending up in the Caribbean Sea. I held my breath and crossed my fingers.
The plane steadied and hit the runway perfectly. I let out my breath and was ready to clap when he gunned the motor and took off again. Good heavens, I thought, what is going on?
He turned to me and said, “Airport closed.”
This was the point I considered changing the name of the cruise from “Last Hurrah” to “Last Gasp.”
What? How can you close an airport when there really is no airport? Who said the airport was closed anyway? Just then a big gust hit, and visibility was zero again.
He turned his head toward the passengers and said he had about 45 minutes to land before running out of fuel and that he would keep trying until that became an issue. In all he made five more efforts to land the plane, taking at least a half hour and getting dangerously close to the fuel desperation point. Three of those were abandoned early in the descent due to cloud cover. On one approach, the clouds parted, and he cleared the hill and touched down perfectly as he had done the first time, then screamed “Oh my God, shit!” powered up and took off again. After we were clear of everything, he turned to me and said, “Three dogs on the runway, I will call and see if somebody can run them off.”
I had noticed that a large truck with “Emergency Rescue” painted on the side was at the end of the runway with staff waiting.
Nail biting time.
But he did land the plane on the final try. Everyone on the plane applauded, and I patted him on the back. Had we not been able to land, I am not sure what he would have done, probably try to land at the big airport serving Tortola.
We had finally arrived in the BVIs, three days late, emotional wrecks, exhausted, and ready for the Last Hurrah to begin.