Let’s be honest, most of us aren’t thinking about bettering the world when we book a boat charter. It’s different for Emily and Wayne Keese, owners and operators of the 53-foot catamaran MANNA. “That’s what we do,” said Emily, when I spoke to her on the phone from her recently bought home in Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
The Keese’s have owned MANNA for four years, although their work as missionaries goes much further back. The Texan couple was drawn to continuing missionary work after a trip on the Amazon river in 2008. After that, they continued to do mission work, specifically in Kenya, before deciding to sell everything in Texas and become sea dwellers.
They bought MANNA to retire on, although they soon realized how expensive it can be to maintain and upkeep a large boat and continue mission work. So, they decided to offer week-long charters to guests wanting to explore the Virgin Islands.
“It gives us the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people,” said Emily.
At the end of each cruise, the Keese’s give guests the option of either leaving a tip or donating to their non-profit, “Manna for Missionaries,” which they started back in Texas in 2014.
During the summer months, MANNA often becomes a cargo boat, most recently bringing 250 solar lights to Haiti. “Anywhere we go, we try and find a non-profit to help,” said Emily.
MANNA was one of the first boats to enter the British Virgin Islands with supplies after hurricane Irma ripped through the region, causing some of the worst damage the area has seen in modern human history.
Manna primarily cruises the Spanish Virgin Islands, although she is now legally able to pick up charters from the USVIs and drop them off in Puerto Rico.
Emily says the cruise from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico is generally an easy, downwind sail.
“The thing about the Spanish Virgin Islands is there are not a lot of people there,” said Emily. And there is plenty of lobster for harvesting. “There is tons of diving,” she said. “The reef is very healthy,” she continued.
One of the stops along the way is the island of Culebra. Located about 17 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Culebra is a little under 12 square miles in area and shaped much like its namesake: a snake.
There are many pretty, protected bays to anchor in and Flamenco beach is easily one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (in my humble opinion). It is also one of the few places left in the Caribbean where you will be one of the very few human beings enjoying such an incredible slice of waterfront.
The abandoned Navy tanks that are slowly melting into the sand are a great attraction. In true Puerto Rican spirit, what should be an ugly eyesore (rusting tanks) has been turned into a work of art with colorful (and very artistically done) graffiti.
“It’s a cool island,” said Emily. They are not only excellent hosts on board, but they also like to accompany the guests ashore as well. “We like to rent a golf cart and tour the whole island,” she said, about visiting Culebra.
Vieques is also another pit stop on the journey downwind, and not to be missed. The island is larger than Culebra and more populated so there are “tons of hangouts,” as Emily said. It will not feel touristy by any means as this island is still overlooked as a vacation destination by many.
There are two bioluminescent bays, which are something everyone should experience while visiting the island. Boating and kayaking tours are offered. The water glows a bright blue when anything moves through it thanks to the microorganisms living in the water.
Culebrita is another “beautiful little island,” that MANNA often stops on her way to Fajardo, Puerto Rico. It is a small, uninhabited island that is ideal for snorkeling and swimming. Seeing Culebrita’s Spanish-era lighthouse is definitely worth the hike as well.
There are a few other, much smaller islands to visit right off the coast of Fajardo, including Palomino. Depending on weather and timing, the Keese’s like to show their guests as many places as possible.
Once on mainland Puerto Rico, Emily and Wayne offer transport to the airport in San Juan, the capital. If timing permits, they will also show their guests El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest, which hosts incredible waterfalls, flora, and views of the islands that you would have just visited.
MANNA can comfortably accommodate up to six people during cruises in the Spanish Virgin Islands
It can only take up to six people in the Spanish Virgin Islands, although she can take a maximum of eight.
Emily likes to cook at least three fish meals a week and encourages guests to fish for their food (with Wayne’s assistance of course). Her specialties include Mahi Mahi in mango sauce and Red Snapper with creamed spinach and tomatoes.
“Ninety percent of my stuff, I try and make gluten-free,” she said.
There are skis, a sub wing, fishing gear, a ten-man island onboard for watersport lovers. Wayne recently got his instructor rating so he is happy to teach newbies the ropes when it comes to diving. Although, he encourages students to get their bookwork done prior to getting on the boat.