Fifty-two years ago, a small raft-up of cruisers unknowingly set the scene for the bay at Great St. James Island to be forever known as “Christmas Cove.”
There were only three charter boats back in the mid-50’s and one of them belonged to Rudy Thompson, a former long time Virgin Islands resident, avid sailor, and participant in that first holiday raft-up. Thompson’s vessel was the 40 ft. Windsong.
“Back then, there were only two guesthouses in Charlotte Amalie, Smith’s Fancy and Higgin’s Gate. That’s where most of our charter guests stayed. We’d pick them up on the waterfront and sail from the harbor up to St. Great James. That would always be our first stop. If they were seasick, a swim and short rest would make them feel better so we could sail over to Trunk Bay for the night,” Thompson explained.
Great St. James lies off St. Thomas’ east end, directly across from Cowpet Bay and Great Bay. The bay is punctuated by little Fish Cay and rimmed to the west by the Current Cut channel.
In December 1954, Thompson and a fellow charter captain decided to tie Christmas trees to their masts. The festivity drew the third charter boat that joined the raft-up at Great St. James for a Christmas Day party.
“We had three different boats, three different dinners and drinks on board each one. We just hopped from one boat to another. It was a great party,” Thompson said.
On board one of the boats was a journalist from Sports Illustrated. It was he, in a subsequent article, who coined the term “Christmas Cove” for the small sheltered bay on the islands westward side where the holiday partying took place.
Over the next four to five years, raft ups continued, growing up to ten yachts, both charter and private sailboats. The festive affairs were a bright spot of holiday cheer in literally a deserted setting.
“I remember there was one house, one person living on the hill over Red Hook. You could look out for hours without seeing another boat,” Thompson described.
Then, the raft-ups stopped. “The island really started to change in the early 60’s. Things started to boom. Shops opened up like crazy and suddenly people didn’t have time anymore over the holidays,” Thompson said.
A few years later, a Coast Guard cartographer asked Thompson for the name of the bay on Great St. James. “I told him it was Christmas Cove,” he said. “Wouldn’t you know, the next official map that came out had Christmas Cove marked on it.”
Fast-forward to the 1980’s and STYC club members revamped the practice of rafting up in Christmas Cove to spend the day. This year, if you’re in the neighborhood, cruise by, drop anchor and join in the festivities.