Sailing the Passage Islands
The offshore Puerto Rican islands of Vieques, Culebra, and Culebra's
outlying cays have long been referred to as the Passage Islands or, to
locals, as the Spanish Virgins. By either name, they're an alluring
destination to cruising sailors.
Background and geography: Culebra (or "Snake") lies about 12 miles west
of St. Thomas and 17 miles east of Puerto Rico. Year-round population
is about 2,500. The island is approximately seven miles long and three
miles wide, though its total area, including the surrounding islets and
cays, totals some 7,000 acres, about a third of which have been
designated as wildlife reserves by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Columbus was the first European to discover Culebra and Vieques,
landing on them and claiming the islands for Spain in 1493. Lying about
nine miles south of Culebra, Vieques is roughly 21 miles long and four
miles wide and has about 10,000 year-round residents (the majority of
whom live in or around Isabel Segunda). Spanish is the main language
spoken on both islands, though many locals also speak English.
The U.S. Navy maintained installations in both locales for many decades
but pulled out of Culebra in the mid-1970s and Vieques in 2003.
Charts and guides: Because old friend Don Street has been such a strong
advocate of sailing the Passage Islands for so long, we relied on his
Imray-Iolaire chart A131 and his cruising guide, Street's Cruising
Guide to the Eastern Caribbean: Puerto Rico, the Spanish, U.S., and
British Virgin Islands, as the primary sources of information and
navigation on our cruise. Both are terrific, and they're available from
the Armchair Sailor bookstore in Newport, Rhode Island (800-292-4278,
Customs and immigration: A $25 user-fee decal from the U.S. Department
of the Treasury, good for one year, is required to sail these waters.
You can obtain one at the airport on Vieques (787-741-8366) or Culebra
(787-742-3531) or, better yet, order one online
(www.customs.gov/travel.htm) prior to your visit. If you already have
the decal, U.S. citizens can then clear customs by phone (800-474-9253
or either of the numbers listed above).
Chartering: The Frenchtown base of CYOA Yacht Charters, in St. Thomas,
is an excellent jumping-off spot for a cruise of the Spanish Virgins
(800-944-CYOA, www.cyoacharters.com). The company maintains a fleet of
Hunter and Jeanneau monohulls and Fountaine Pajot catamarans. Many
other U.S.V.I. and B.V.I. charter companies offer boats to qualified