Sailing the Passage Islands

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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, www.bluewaterweb.com).

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 sailors.