The magic is still here for me, I think, wading my fourteen-foot-long yellow fiberglass paddleboard out through the small waves that roll in, crisp and sweet-looking as white meringue, to Apple Bay on Tortola's north shore. After sixteen years of paddleboarding in BVI waters, the sight of tropical sunlight on pure clear ocean water still inspires and excites me. Looking out at the gleaming sea, I am happy.
Decked out in my paddling gear – long-sleeved surfing jersey, cycling tights, sun visor and Amelia Earhart-style goggles – I peer out at neighboring islands and plot the day's paddle. I choose an eight-mile round-trip from Tortola to Green Cay, a pearly islet to the north. I do this paddle a lot, but today I feel out of sorts. Last night a water pipe had broken under my sink and flooded my kitchen, it rained, and my sliding screen door won't open… again. The mosquito that mistook my head for the earth and itself for the moon orbited all night. My forehead itches with bites.
"Relax," I tell myself. I drift next to my board on my back in the warm chartreuse water. Watching the swollen marshmallow clouds cruise by overhead, I forget about everything. I tune in to the magic light that I often see in the ocean in the BVI. Call it the light at the end of my tunnel: it tells me that life is good. Today, the light is a delicate, translucent turquoise-green. It gleams at me from inside a breaking wave like a liquid jewel. It throbs and wobbles in living veins underwater along the white sand by my feet. I can almost feel it tickle my toes.
I lie facedown on the board and rest my chin on the glued-on foam doughnut that supports my head. Alternating between paddling prone and balanced on my knees, I stroke out to sea toward Green Cay. I use just my arms and hands to paddle. The ocean is rough, and I can barely tell the difference between whitecaps and the distant sails of boats. Leaving the lee of Tortola, I feel the wind hit me like a cannonball. It will be a fun downwind ride to Green Cay. I catch one wind swell after another and pick up speed. Sometimes I've passed boats this way. I am sixty-five years old and I imagine what sailors must think: some old woman passed us on a surfboard today. I skate swiftly across the sea. Fun, but it will be hard – maybe impossible – to paddle back upwind to Tortola. A reflection of the sun glides beside me in a silver envelope of light just under the dark surface of the water: my magic light again. Sailboats and motorboats pass me in both directions. I worry about colliding with one of the speedboats that swoop across the water at jet plane speed. The wind snaps the red flag mounted on the back of my board. I hope that boats can see me. A sailboat tacks around. It looked far away, but now it sails right beside me. Boats often try to rescue me. The skipper with his family on a bareboat charter stands in bathing trunks at the railing of his boat. He waves a red life vest and shouts, "Need help?" "No thanks!" I shout back. "I'm just out practicing my sport." The skipper shrugs and sails away, and I paddle off. From Tortola, Green Cay looked close but as I pass Sandy Cay, a closer island, I noticed that the wind is growing stronger; the swells are triangular and steep, the hardest conditions for a paddler. It will take me a while to reach Green Cay. Plenty of time to reminisce about my sixteen years of Caribbean paddling.
I moved to the BVI in 1994, after a three-year worldwide surf trip that took me through 20 countries. The BVI was my first stop on the trip, but even after two years of surfing in idyllic tropical seas, I still liked the ocean in the BVI the best.
The sport of prone paddleboarding (before stand-up – SUP – paddling was invented) caught my attention after my return from the surf trip to my former hometown, San Diego. I bought a paddleboard, trained for and competed in the Catalina Classic, a 32-mile ocean race that goes from Catalina Island to the California mainland. I enjoyed the race but I remembered warmer kinder seas, especially those in the BVI. It did not take much to convince me to move to the Caribbean.
At first, I lived in Carrot Bay on Tortola's north shore, and I enjoyed surfing in Apple Bay. I shipped in a paddleboard and started paddling between islands.
My plan was to visit all the BVI's islands by paddleboard. In the spring of 1996, I packed essentials (toothbrush, change of clothes, water, food and GPS) on my board and paddled west from Anegada to Virgin Gorda. From there, on a multi-day mission, I tagged by hand all above water points in the Territory, including surging rocks like the Carval off Cooper Island.
I was stunned by the beauty of my adopted home. I often swam beside my board and stared down through the facemask I brought with me at the colorful fish and coral. Shoreline cliffs held sea caves and grottos big enough for me to paddle inside. The caves were like cathedrals. Shafts of light created windows of stain-glass blue and green in the dark water. Small sunlit fish flickered like candles from the shadows.
The big tarpon fish that dine on the baitfish balls that are everywhere where the water is quiet, calm and not too deep mesmerized me. When the big lazy tarpon swim in pursuit of the baitfish, sunlight turns their big scales into round flashing silver coins, reflecting the BVI's magic light.
After touring the BVI, a two hundred fifty mile paddle, I felt invincible. I saw myself as a small cruising yacht. Anything boats could do in the Caribbean, I could do on my paddleboard.
I decided to continue to live and paddle in the BVI – which I believe is paddleboarder heaven; indeed heaven for all water sports enthusiasts. I began to export my paddling skills and enthusiasm for my sport to other Caribbean islands. I've done a big paddling trip outside the BVI each year for sixteen years.
In 1999, I paddled the Grenadines from St. Vincent to Grenada. The year after that I connected major islands in the Turks and Caicos from Grand Turk to Providenciales. I traced the Exuma island chain from Great Exuma to Nassau. I explored the remote Jumentos that have a human population of forty-eight and are the southern most islands in the Bahamas.
The paddling trips often covered hundreds of miles and connected island nations. En route, I crossed wide, rough open ocean channels; I realized that within limits I could paddle long distances and survive less than optimal sea conditions.
I pored over charts of the Caribbean, and found the curve of islands between Grenada and Saba in the Windward and Leeward islands to be irresistible. I had already done from St. Vincent to Grenada. Over successive years, I collected the Windward and Leeward Islands and channels – some of them thirty miles wide – between St. Vincent and Saba. My hardest crossing, in 2004, was the St. Vincent channel, between St. Lucia and St. Vincent. It is 26 miles wide, but due to adverse wind and current, I ended up paddling 40 miles. I often found myself pulled backward toward St. Lucia. I was at sea for eighteen and a half hours.
After this, I resolved to give up paddling, but there was more for me to do. In 2006, I paddled sixty miles from Tortola to Puerto Rico. The next year I crossed the thirty-mile channel between Guadeloupe and Montserrat.
In the autumn of 2009, I paddled from Montserrat to Saba. I had realized my dream of being the first person, to my knowledge, to traverse the Windward and Leeward islands, from Grenada to Saba, on a "proner" hand-driven board.
What next? I paddle the last yards through wind and whitecaps to Green Cay. I had thought to circumnavigate Puerto Rico's two hundred fifty mile coastline in May 2011. I am training for that now on this eight-mile roundtrip between Tortola and Green Cay. I eat the ham sandwich I brought with me, sip Gatorade. Sitting cross-legged in the warm sand of Sandy Spit, a tiny moon-pure islet adjacent to Green Cay, I realize that it doesn't matter what I do.
A thunderstorm trails gray fingers of rain over Cane Garden Bay on Tortola. The water under the dark cloud turns electric jade green. A shallow patch of water in front of me glows intensely, almost proudly, powder blue – as if it contained the central light of the universe. Maybe it does.
I will continue to enjoy the light show in the waters of the BVI. That is if I can manage to paddle four miles back to Tortola through 20-knot headwinds and an increasing swell.