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A Salty Commute -

February 7, 2002

Liveaboards in Coral Harbor, St. John, have to compete for space to park their dinghies when they go to work

Our landfall in the Virgin Islands was Coral Harbor at the east end of St. John Island. The entrance to the inner harbour is marked by a steep headland on top of which the stone ruins of an ancient fort stand guard. On first arriving a few weeks ago, we followed the buoyed channel around the promontory. The sheltered bay that opened before us could have been any of a number of idyllic anchorages we've encountered in the Caribbean. Cruising boats of all sizes and descriptions were gently bobbing in turquoise water before a backdrop of abrupt verdant hills. It was obvious from the twisted anchor rodes and bearded waterlines that many of the boats had been parked there for a while. The morning after our arrival in Coral Harbor, we were awakened by the drone of outboard engines. It was barely light outside. As we sipped our coffee in the cockpit we watched a steady stream of dinghies head towards the solitary floating dock at the Northeast corner of the bay. When we pulled up in our own inflatable an hour or so later, the dinghies were crammed three deep around the dock and we had to hop from one to the other to get ashore. We soon learned that our neighbours hadn't left at the crack of dawn to walk the dog. They were on their way to work.

To many, the concepts of "working" and "cruising" may seem mutually exclusive. A lot of aspiring cruisers toil away for years in blustery northern climes in order finally to make an escape to the land of endless summer. There are some cruisers, however, who don't want to wait until they're eligible for old age security before casting off the docklines. These full time liveaboards work for half the year and cruise the rest of the time.

We've found working liveaboards throughout the Caribbean, but work restrictions, the cost of living and poor pay often discourage transient boaters from setting up shop. The Virgin Islands are something of an exception, for a number of reasons. Jobs are generally available in the busy winter tourist season. For US citizens, work permits are not an issue. Although the pay tends to be a bit lower than in the mainland States, it's substantially higher than in most of the other islands. Services such as mail and phone work like at home, and the stores are well-stocked and familiar. Best of all, the weather is warm, the water is clear, and the islands are beautiful.

Our friends John and Betty on "Parrothead", a CT 47 sailboat, are fairly typical of this class of cruiser. We first met them in Trinidad last summer during hurricane season. They were the first to greet us when we arrived in Coral Harbor.

John and Betty left their home port, Sarasota, Florida, in 1996 in a Morgan 35 sloop. They lived aboard in the Florida Keys for a couple of years and then cruised the eastern Caribbean for two more years. Along the way, they bought "Parrothead", sold their old boat, and decided it was time to replenish the cruising kitty. For the past two years, they've worked winters in St. John and gone sailing down island for the summer. Due to a local development boom, John has had little difficulty finding well-paying jobs in construction and Betty has been working for a firm that prepares and cleans rental tourist homes.

John and Betty have no second thoughts about their decision to take off cruising before they were fully secure financially. John comments, "Going back to land, to live on dirt, means having to work all the time just to afford being there." Betty adds, "It makes the work thing easier to take when you know you only have to do it for a few months and then you can go cruising again."

Alternating between working and cruising won't suit everyone, but many liveaboards like John and Betty wouldn't have it any other way. For them, the freedom to move on from one palm studded island to another is worth the inconvenience of taking the dinghy to work for a few months each year.

David & Eileen