by Captain Valerie Weingrad, ASA Certified Instructor
(For a list of ASA affiliated sailing schools and charter companies in the BVIs, click here.)
The British Virgin Islands (or BVIs) are located at the high point of the curving archipelago that swings from Florida to Trinidad. With their steady trade winds and numerous sheltered harbors they are a center for sea routes to every point of the compass, providing a great stopping off point in the trade lines between Europe and the riches of South America. They have been described as “the place on the way to everywhere.”
With their location providing a trade and military advantage, the Virgin Islands have been visited and occupied by various seafaring countries, privateers and indigenous populations throughout history. Spaniards sailed through regularly back in the day, hauling their Aztec loot to Spain. The US paid $25 million to Denmark to buy what is now known as the USVI in order to protect our southern doorstep. The island chain was once inhabited by the Ciboney Indians back in the stone ages, later in 100 B.C. the peaceful Arawaks arrived only to be wiped out or eaten by the aggressive and cannibalistic Carib Indians in the 1300’s. Columbus showed up in 1493, driven by an unfavorable wind to Virgin Gorda. Upon arriving and seeing the many islands he named them “the Virgins” in honor of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who sacrificed their lives rather than submit to a fate worse than death at the hands of the Huns in 4th century Germany. But I digress!
The BVI is a sailor’s paradise and a great place for trying out your hand at bareboat chartering. Within the protection of the Sir Francis Drake channel the sailing is relatively easy and the navigation is line of sight. The trade winds blow from the northeast at 15-20 knots, except for the Christmas winds in December and January which can blow 25-35 knots for several days. By February they start to move around to the east and by June they drop down to 10-15k and move southeast. There is a nominal tidal range of about 12 inches. Mooring balls are installed in most harbors so you don’t have to worry about anchoring, just make sure you’re in the harbor early enough in the afternoon to snag one.
A Google search will reveal a myriad of boats available from numerous charter companies and brokers. Do your homework, or work with a reputable broker to make sure you aren’t disappointed when you walk down the dock and see your “home” for the week! Many ASA schools also charter boats, so try checking with them!
Planning your Sail in Paradise:
You can reach the BVI directly by flight into Beef Island, Tortola or by ferry from St Thomas. All of the charter companies’ boats are located on Tortola. Taxis, provisioning, restaurants and bars abound on this island so you are sure to find everything you need for your trip. Most charter companies will take care of pre-provisioning the boat for you as well as making arrangements for all of the various paperwork, cruising taxes and permits you will need to start your sail. The dollar is the standard currency and most, but not all, places accept credit cards, so have some cash on hand for when “the machine is not working.” Prices in the BVI have crept up over the years so be prepared for that when you visit. Most mooring balls are still $25 to $30 per night, but on a recent sail to Anegada, the drowned island, I found the lobster dinner is up to $50+, although still worth it in my opinion!
Let’s Go Sailing!
When you plan your route keep in mind that when you are heading northeast up the Sir Francis Drake Channel you will be against the wind, so allow time for tacking up the channel. I typically like to start my sail on a downwind run; it gives the crew time to learn the boat and makes for a pleasant first day as everyone is adjusting to island time.
From the south side of Tortola you can head west around West End and cut across to Jost Van Dyke, named for another privateer. Once at Jost you have several options of where to moor or anchor for the night. Great Harbor has added mooring balls as of this year. This is the location of the famous Foxy’s bar and others, such as Corsair’s owned by my friends Vinny and Alibabas. You can also choose White Bay, home of the Soggy Dollar. It gets very shallow in there so watch your depths! Little Harbor is nice as well. Check out Sidney’s Peace and Love while you are there. From Jost you can do a short sail to Cane Garden Bay and tour the Callwood Distillery where they still make rum the old fashioned way, in copper kettles. Next it’s on to Guano Island and Monkey Point for snorkeling. From there you can continue to Marina Cay for the night. If you anchor close to the island you may have a late afternoon visit from “Barry Cuda.” He is huge old barracuda that lives under the dock. Never fear, he’s relatively tame. One of the (crazy) guys on my last sail had him eating smoked turkey right out of his hand! Better him than me!
An early morning start will take you to Virgin Gorda and the opportunity to anchor in front of the “Baths.” This is a must-see, a spectacular formation of huge granite boulders precariously teetering on each other since the ice age. The sea washes in between create pools; you’ll be climbing ladders and walking through water so wear your water shoes. The snorkeling at Devil’s cave on the other side is great, but be aware of the current that can be strong at times. After lunch, set sail and tack north to Gorda Sound. Choose the Bitter End Yacht club, Saba Rock or Leverick Bay for your overnight. You can also pick up additional provisions and water for the boat here. Michael Bean’s one-man band plays nightly at Leverick for happy arrrr. Brush up on your pirate trivia and conch shell blowing and join the fun!
Weather (and charter company) permitting you can leave early for Anegada, the island for lobster! This will be the day you need to pay attention to your navigation, set your DR and hold your compass course. Anegada, though only 13 miles away, is a flat coral atoll and not visible until you are a few miles out. It’s surrounded by reef and over 400 shipwrecks. When I was there last month we watched a yacht under full sail come to an abrupt stop. Once you make it through the channel that marks the entrance through the reef pick up a mooring ball or anchor in the shallow sandy bottom. Dinghy ashore and take a taxi to Loblolly Bay for amazing beaches and good snorkeling. The best place to watch the sunset is Cow Wreck beach which also offers great food, a bar and the occasional band. The Anegada Reef Hotel is also an old stand-by for dinner. Make sure to try the rum infused Anegada Smoothy! The next day, leave if you must or spend a second day. This is a great two-day island!
Set sail and make your way down the channel, time permitting make a stop at the Dogs for snorkeling and lunch. Choose Cooper Island for your over night anchorage, it’s a nice stop as long as there is not a north swell. They recently reopened the resort there and it’s getting rave reviews. Alternatively choose Peter Island or Norman as your last stop and visit the world famous Willy T, a re-commissioned lumber boat, now a restaurant and bar. You never know what you’ll see there; better leave the kids on board your boat! The next morning do some snorkeling at the Caves (of Treasure Island fame) and make your way back to Tortola where you will end your week in paradise.
The week has passed. You’re relaxed and just getting into the rhythm of life on board. It’s bittersweet, but don’t worry…you can always come back!
About the Author: Valerie Weingrad is an ASA instructor, charter broker and owner of Custom Sailing Worldwide, Inc. Contact her at Valerie@customsailing.net or www.customsailing.net for information on sailing vacations both bareboat and crewed in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.