Stuck in the U.S. Virgin Islands


“You couldn’t have picked a better time to be living on your sailboat” seems to be the sentiment of many of our friends as they see pictures of us snorkeling the clear waters off St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, a sailboat makes a great home for being isolated and self-sufficient.
Aboard Sargo, our 46-foot Garcia Passoa aluminum sloop, we make our own power from the sun, we have a watermaker and we have plenty of shelf-stable food stores. As of today, I don’t think our kids have touched land in over three weeks, and they don’t seem to mind one bit!
Despite the many benefits of life afloat, however, it has been a stressful time. As outsiders, we are often subject to rules that make little sense and find ourselves as scapegoats for the fears and worries of the local residents. Recently, we had an unfortunate run-in with some local St. John residents that had us scrambling to find shelter late in the day. At 3:30 p.m., we, along with 30 other boats, were kicked out of our safe anchorage by the Virgin Islands’ Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) authorities.
This untimely eviction was not completely unexpected. When the Virgin Islands implemented a shelter-in-place order, we were lucky to be hunkered down in Hansen Bay, a remote area of St. John. For four weeks we enjoyed beautiful snorkeling, clear water and the companionship of two other family boats — safe and very isolated. We communicated diligently with many welcoming locals, and heeded their requests for using our sewage holding tanks and emptying them three miles offshore, driving our dinghies at idle speed in the anchorage, and making sure our anchors were placed in sand so as to not harm seagrass and coral. We arranged for groceries to be delivered to the beach in order to minimize any potential for COVID-19 exposure. However, we were also harassed by a handful of locals. One woman living in a house overlooking the anchorage chased us down during a walk on the road and reprimanded us for crossing the beach. This, despite the fact that the governor of the Virgin Islands said that using the beach to access roads was allowed. An even more aggressive resident swam and paddleboarded from boat to boat every few days, telling people to “go back to where they came from.” He then blatantly disregarded the rules by sunbathing repeatedly on the closed beach.

Hansen Bay in St. John.

Jayme Okma Lee

Even though we knew DPNR could come and kick us out, it was still stressful when the patrol boat showed up and demanded we leave immediately. As the DPNR patrol boat went from boat to boat, we made rapid-fire plans with our two buddy boats, trying to figure out a safe place to go so late in the day. With adrenaline pumping through my veins, I prematurely raised the anchor out of the sand before even starting the engine!
The DPNR officials gave us little advice as to where to go — in fact, they didn’t even know the names of many of the common St. John anchorages. Our buddy boat asked them specifically if we could stay in Hurricane Hole around the corner, and after a call to their supervisor we were given the OK to head there. Technically speaking, Hurricane Hole is part of the Virgin Islands National Park and therefore not in DPNR jurisdiction. However, it was enough of an OK for us to feel safe to head a few miles to use one of the designated “day use only” moorings.
This was one of the frustrating things about trying to follow the “rules” here in the Virgin Islands. A week previously, Border Patrol came by and told us “you are in the perfect spot to remain quarantined” and advised us not to leave. However, DPNR had a different take when they kicked us out and then advised us it was fine to use the daytime park moorings overnight. There seems to be limited to no coordination among the different agencies, and even the DPNR officials didn’t care if we had the necessary long-term anchoring permit or that we went to anchor in one the designated locations. We figured we would likely be kicked off the park mooring the next day, but it would give us a safe place to head to late in the day and buy us a little time to figure out where to go next.
It didn’t take long for the National Park Service to come by. The next day was our 16th wedding anniversary; we celebrated this by collecting trash from our buddy boats to take to the nearby town of Coral Harbor for proper disposal. We were well on our way when we spotted the patrol boat headed toward Sargo and our buddy boats. We made a mad dash into town, carrying eight trash bags a half-mile to the dumpster, ran back to our dinghy and sped back. All the while, we assumed that once we got back to Sargo we would again be on the hunt for a new anchorage. However, luck was on our side! Another boat in the bay had moments before received an email from the park service giving them permission to use the Hurricane Hole moorings overnight. This was news to the park ranger, who was very pleased to not have to kick us out after all. It felt good to be safe and secure again.

Sargo, the family’s 46-foot Garcia Passoa aluminum sloop, on a mooring in St. John.

Jayme Okma Lee

This wasn’t even about COVID-19. These residents were not scared that the boaters posed a risk to their health. They simply didn’t want boats in “their bay,” even temporarily, even during this global crisis. To be fair, the laws were on their side. The Virgin Islands government is currently requiring all boats anchoring in their waters to apply for a long-term anchoring permit and anchor in a designated location, or pay $26 a day to use a park service mooring ball. Many of the designated anchorages are crowded with derelict boats on moorings, with little room to anchor safely and poor protection from the weather. Hansen Bay, where this event took place, was not a designated long-term anchorage. Neither are many of the other protected and populated anchorages. DPNR hasn’t removed boats from other anchorages. It’s hard to know for sure why they chose to remove all the boats from Hansen Bay.
Spending two months or more in the Virgin Islands was not our plan! We were supposed to be sailing south along the Caribbean chain toward Grenada for hurricane season. The British Virgin Islands recently announced that new visitors aren’t welcome until Sept. 1, 2020. We expect the same will happen in many other Caribbean countries. International travel, by boat or otherwise, isn’t going to be the same for an extended period of time. Despite the fact that home in Maine is nearly 2,000 miles of sailing away, we are currently feeling that it’s the best place for our family this summer. We will have to wait and see like everyone else what the fall brings!

For the next several weeks, we’ll be doing our best to safely enjoy the waters of St. John while preparing for a long passage back to the U.S. mainland. Our route will greatly depend on the timing of our departure, weather conditions and border closings. Normally, for a long passage like this one, we would consider taking along another adult crewmember. Introducing a new person onto our boat during the COVID-19 pandemic poses significant concerns. What if that person is one of the asymptomatic carriers? Our current plan is to join the Salty Dawg Flotilla home and leave here around May 20 for Chesapeake Bay. It will be by far our longest passage and will take about 10 days of nonstop sailing. Although offshore sailing is the epitome of self-reliance, it’s nice to have some extra support from the Salty Dawg organization. We also have the support of our two buddy boats, who are also looking to make the passage home.

Most days here aboard Sargo are still filled with happy playing kids, sunshine and snorkeling adventures, for which we are exceedingly grateful. Despite our idyllic setting, we — like everyone else in the world — are being greatly affected by this pandemic. The U.S. Virgin Islands have been in the most part gracious and welcoming hosts to us and the many displaced Caribbean cruisers. We are all trying to do our best to be equally gracious guests. Whenever possible, let’s all make a choice toward compassion, understanding and inclusiveness. That way, we can come out the other end of this experience as better people with newfound friends.

—Jayme Okma Lee lives aboard with her husband Bjorn, daughter Alice and son Toren. Their website is

By Ocean Navigator