Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   February 2008


Exploring East Vieques

by John St. John
I had taken off from Culebra for Vieques to check out a neat bay on the eastern end, a former military practice range where our good US government bombed and strafed from the 1950s until just a few years ago. Bahia Icacos has a tricky entrance between a small island and a coral reef. I pulled in on a Wednesday to a beautiful bay with no one else there. I was walking forward to anchor when a truck pulled up on shore and the uniformed guy got out and kindly explained that they were defusing unexploded ordnance and I was not allowed to anchor there except on the weekends. I motored back out between the reefs and set sail west for Isabella Segunda, the small capital of Vieques. It was a smooth sail with a southeast wind coming over the island holding me just offshore of the extensive reef system.

So, on a weekend, I took off again to visit the bombed end of Vieques, sailing a light east wind the eight miles south across Vieques Sound. As I neared Bahia Icacos, I was disappointed to see not one, but seven large sportfishermen already in the anchorage behind the reef. As I closed with the island, three more big sportfishermen pulled in. Now, I am always one for a party and have raised a fair amount of hell in my time, but few hold a candle to the party power of the Puerto Rican. They can drink and yell and play loud music all night from their big boat stereos and then go to sleep in their ice castles with their generators running all night to keep them cool. Not what I was looking for in the least.

As I sailed into the harbor, I noticed the next bay to the east was empty. Although the chart showed a continuous reef enclosing the bay, with the sun overhead I could clearly see a narrow pass in through the reef. I doused the sails and went for it under power. Just then, a giant plume of cloud lifted up from some boiling cumulus hanging over Vieques, making eyeball navigation way less exact. I had a good picture in my mind from before the cloud, though, and went on in with memory and the depth sounder. Spinning the boat around in a tight circle to smooth the water for a look, I found good bottom in seven feet of water over grass and dropped the plow. There was almost no wind and I saw a big dark spot about 50 yards behind the boat and decided to investigate it later. To the east was a large sheer cliff of layered yellow rock going out into a precipice like a small Rock of Gibraltar.

After lunch of raw onion and cabbage sandwiches with hummus, I rowed ashore to find world-class sand burrs lining the beach. There were also big signs saying "KEEP OUT", with graphic depictions of exploding bombs. I figured that the roads were safe, as I had seen the guards driving on them, so I headed off for a completely illegal survey of the island, walking only on fresh tire tracks.
There were bomb craters everywhere and no trees of any large size. The landscape here is gently rolling and I noticed port-o-potties everywhere - more than in most public parks. I guess defusing dud bombs can have an adverse effect on the sphincter muscle.
There were plenty of roads running every direction and sharp-edged shrapnel everywhere, including on the roads. As I came around a curve, I discovered three low-sided steel boxes full of bombs and mortars. My determination to stay on the roads was certainly strengthened. I climbed to the top of the yellow cliff to survey the boat, now that the sun had returned, and learned I had anchored just ahead of a small isolated inner reef.

I headed back down into the valley and as I was crossing to the south side of the island, I passed what appeared to be a simulated truck convoy made up of old heavy-construction equipment - bulldozers, road graders, pay loaders, tractors and such. It stretched for a quarter of a mile and had had the literal living ____ (rhymes with skit) shot out of it. Large iron castings were shattered, hard steel-cogged drive wheels three feet in diameter and five inches thick were broken like cheap china, giant diesel engines were smashed and thrown clear of the vehicles and every piece of sheet metal remaining was ripped and perforated with bullet holes of all sizes (Swiss cheese has fewer holes).

On the south shore I climbed a hill where a large Sherman tank had sat for years on a promontory. This had always been a landmark when sailing down the south side of Vieques. The tank was now in the process of being dismantled with a cutting torch, the parts placed in a big pile of scrap. The large air-cooled engine and transmission had been removed, the turret had been cut off, and the gun barrel had been cut up like sausage links. They had started cutting up the body of the tank where the metal was easily one and a half inches thick. Somebody was going through a bunch of tanks of oxygen.

Then it was back across the island by a different route, skirting a large dried-up salt pond with craters of dark blue-green water pocked throughout. I figured they would make great hot-tub mineral baths, but for the exotic metals in the explosives probably lingering in the water.
I headed back towards the boat down the road running beside all of the sportfishermen, and over the hill to my boat's anchorage. Just as I was crossing the last hill, I heard a truck coming up behind me and figured I was screwed - caught trespassing red-handed. And I had been so close to getting away with it! I had always wondered about the big red-and-white lookout tower in the middle of the island on the highest hill, and was looking at the bright side of being arrested by figuring that I would be taken there and at least get to see it.

The guy pulls up beside me and rolls down his window. I say "Hi!" He is a nice-looking Hispanic in a guard uniform. He looks at me with a smile and says in Spanish-accented English, "Stay on the roads!"" Apparently the east Vieques mantra! I agreed to do so, saying that I figured if he could drive on them, I could walk on them. And that was that. He drives on and I walk on, still a free man and still always willing to take a chance.
Back to the boat for a swim on my private little reef, just off the stern, where I saw plenty of sea life including large yellowtail worthy of whacking. Then a beautiful sunset with the yellow cliff lit up by the red setting sun and a quiet night with all the sportfish noise and lights downwind behind the hill.
Fair winds, and remember - "Stay on the road!"


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