Sailing the winter blues away in the BVIs
By Marc Dufour
Coming from an Ontario snowstorm to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands for a charter took no time at all to adjust to the change in weather, and Darling and I felt invigorated by the beautiful conditions: Blue sky and 27 degrees simply melted away the grey of Toronto in February.
We arrived a little early so that we would have time to do some provisioning. There were six of us in our crew, myself and Darling, Andrew and Christine, along with Lu and Dan. Andrew, Lu and I all skipper our own boats at home and everyone has sailed before. It also helps that we’re friends back home too.
Shopping at the local markets was fun with six of us running around town to the various local markets and vendors. We quickly filled the shopping carts with a weeks’ worth of provisions and drinking water.
While charter firms offer a provisioning service, beware! They don’t haggle and will not compare prices. That means you will usually be buying the more expensive brands. Drinking water by the gallon was one example. Many brands were priced around $2.89 – $3.49 per gallon. We did some shopping and found it for $2.19. When you buy 26 gallons, this can add up pretty fast.
Also, by provisioning ourselves we got to pick the freshest fruits and veggies at the markets. That said, if you are pressed for time due to late flights in, the provisioning service can be a real game changer since it would potentially save a crew hours of sailing time.
We also lucked out when we came across a fellow sipping a beer on his patio. While we were standing by the road, talking about lunch possibilities, he chimed in from his seat on his porch that the best roti in town was just around the corner. That bit of local advice was good because I love roti: Chicken, goat, hot or not. The nameless little restaurant had the most wonderfully flavoured, perfectly seasoned, spicy-but–not–too-hot blend of flavour I have ever tasted by far.
A quick taxi ride back to the docks and we starting loading up what would be our boat for the week with all of our supplies. We were sailing a Sunsail 41, (really a Beneteau 41 tri-cabin.) That’s when we realised that someone was already aboard. Lots of someone’s — our boat was full of los cucarachas!
The charter firm offered us a choice of either a 45 ft. Oceanus monohull or a 44 ft. catamaran at no additional cost. We decided in the monohull, which gave us all we needed and more in the way of space, and it sailed very well for our purpose. We repacked the new boat, and settled into a cold beer and relaxed on the dock for the night.
The next morning saw us all chomping at the bit to get moving. Once our boat briefing was over, we dipped a toe and sailed from Road Town to Great Harbour on Peter Island. This sail normally only takes about an hour or so, but because we wanted to sail, and our navigator was looking at his chart upside down again, we went in completely the opposite direction at first.
We arrived roughly two hours behind our original ETA and grabbed a mooring ball for the night. But it was ‘no problem mon’, we were on island time now anyway! As soon as the lines were secured and the swim platform lowered, we all jumped overboard for a swim and the beer started flowing.
As a chicken dinner was being prepared, I spotted Hugo, (one of my Youtube heroes), coming in to the anchorage for the night and couldn’t resist going out to greet him in the dingy. His sailing channel (The Sailing Frenchman) now in its second season, starring himself and his boat, is a wonderful way to spend a couple of hour’s binge-watching!
He proves how far you can go on a small boat with a small budget, and still get the million-dollar views that the super rich spend so much for. And you don’t get a much more humble beginning than a boat purchased with a bottle of beer of unknown age, found in the trunk of your car.
He was quite gracious and came by for a visit once he got himself settled for the night. Hugo enjoyed a couple of beverages with us while swapping stories and advice. Meeting him was a wonderful surprise that I am the richer for. He is an inspiring sailor and dreamer who will undoubtedly go far.
After breakfast the next morning we set out for The Baths on Virgin Gorda. We had a fun sail and tied up to another mooring ball just off Spanish town. Here we had planned to buy some fishing gear and do some shopping. That was until we found out that this Monday was a holiday and everything was closed.
So we shifted gears and met Sweet Ice Willy, our new buddy and driver, who took us on the longest 1.5 km. drive I have ever seen. We originally planned to save ourselves the $5 per person fare (round trip) by walking to the Baths, but none of us would complain after seeing the drive there. I have never seen more steep hills and twist and turns in such a short stretch of road.
And with Sweet Willy giving us a running monologue shouted from the cab of his taxi (a converted pickup with two rows of bench seats in the back covered by a high canvas roof) we were entertained for the entire 12-minute ride. (Yes, I timed it!) When you go to Virgin Gorda, there are two things you have to do: visit the Baths, and meet Sweet Ice Willy! Trust me, it’s worth doing.
Taking Willy’s card so we could call him for our ride home later, we took the long way and hiked to the Baths from the top of the hill. The Baths are something of an anomaly in the BVIs. They are at the southwest tip of the island and are composed of a pile of apartment-building sized stones and smaller rocks that tumble from the top down to the beach probably around 150 ft. below.
The beach is actually a series of very small grottoes and coves tucked in between the massive stones. There is a well-marked path that will lead through the pile allowing visitors to climb in, around and even under the pile sometimes in neck-deep water. Plan your trip here early though, as the park closes at 4:30 p.m. and no one is allowed in at night. Even during the day, and especially at high tide, the currents and tidal rips in the tunnels can be dangerous.
After another swim and a visit to a friend’s boat for a cocktail, I took a bath off the back of the boat and rinsed off using the engine-heated water in the tanks. Ouch! Lesson learned: Engine heated water is hotter than expected. But it was nice to wash the sweat and salt off before a wonderful dinner of pasta Alfredo. Along with a glass of wine and a great sunset, it was the perfect way to end the day.
Morning came early on Tuesday because of a six-hour upwind sail to Anegada Island. It came even earlier because none of us slept well in the swell that makes the anchorage at Spanish town so rolly. While the sights were great, the anchorage and mooring field were not, so be warned.
We were off to a very close reach to Anegada. With 15- to 23-knot winds, we had a rocking good time sailing upwind. Lu, normally on the helm of her boat, discovered the joy of raising sail as she was the dedicated mainsail trimmer of the day, and her right index finger got a real workout on the button for the electric winch. As she said later with a big grim, “It was the hardest work she had ever done while sailing!” We all laughed, as all of us coveted that piece of gear for our own boats.
However, the boat wasn’t having as much fun as we were, and didn’t really have enough sail area in the jib to balance well against the big mainsail. So, after rounding up the third time, we tucked two reefs into the main and raced off once more, having lost only a half-knot of boat speed. But we also lost a few degrees of heel, making the ride more comfortable and a lot more controllable. A fair trade I think.
From a purely sailing perspective, however, I think a 45 ft., 29,000 lb boat should be able to sail upwind in 22 knots without rounding up. Everyone on board but one is an experienced sailor, and of the six of us, three were skippers of their own boats. In my opinion, the boat was under-canvassed and off-balance with the little jib. It should have been equipped with a proper Genoa of maybe 135-140 per cent, not the puny 105 per cent lapper it had. It just wasn’t big enough to balance the boat properly.
The entrance to Anegada’s anchorage is well marked on the charts, but takes a more-practiced eye when searching through binoculars to find the channel markers in person. I gave up on the binoculars and just used my eyes and eventually spotted the red and green markers leading us through the reef and into the anchorage. The charts offer channel depths of 10- to 12-feet, and with a draft of 6 ft. for our boat there was no trouble for us, but watching the depth sounder tic up 9-8-7 ft., it gets you nervous.
There is a lot of grass in the anchorage and you need to watch where your hook touches bottom, but once you find a good spot to drop it, it should set solidly and hold well. Ours did and when I dove down to check it I found it buried to the tip of the shank in the edge of a small ridge of grass at the downwind end of a patch of sand. Perfect.
It had dug deep into the sand, and then when we backed down hard with the engine, it had snuggled up into the underwater bank of grass as well, leaving just the chain visible in the crystal clear water. We were home for the night, and time for a swim and the now traditional cocktail in the cockpit.
We went ashore for dinner that evening at the Reef Bar, where an assortment of seafood delights was served on the beach along with wine, beer, and other drinks. Darling had her first Caribbean lobster, and I had the Mahi-Mahi. I offered her a mouthful which she eagerly accepted, but she stiffed me on the return and didn’t share. Don’t worry Darling, payback is patient.
After dinner the music kicked up in volume and the dancing started. It was a great party. We decided to extend our stay on Anegada by a day in order to explore the island on Wednesday. We rented a car, loaded lunch, beer and snorkel gear into a hurricane-Maria-survivor Suzuki 4 x 4 and off we went to circle the island by road.
About half of the roads on the island are paved, and the rest are sand or dirt. In some areas the road is only a single lane, with an occasional pull-out off to the side to allowing for passing. While the island is flat, the drop off the edge of the road is precipitous and getting back up might not even be possible.
We finally made it to the north side of the island about an hour after we set out, and there we found one of the highlights of our trip. The North shore of Anegada is a long series of beaches protected by an equally long series of reefs and the snorkeling here is superb! With roughly 150 m. from the sand to the surf, access is easy, the water is very clear, and the bulk of the reef is only a few feet below the surface.
That doesn’t mean that the water here is shallow, however. I swam out to within 40 ft. of the breakers and found a beautiful grotto in the reef. It was shaped like a bowl and had a perfect, white-sand bottom about 30-35 ft. below the surface. I circled the bowl looking at the near-surface fish and coral when I spotted a deep overhang that shadowed one corner of the bowl. Signalling Andrew, (my swim partner) I dove down to the lip of the ledge. When I peeked under, I was nose to tail with the biggest fish of the day.
We had seen small snapper, various tangs and angelfish, even a large and tubby grouper, but this beast was really big. And it had lots of teeth. It was about 4.5-to 5 ft. long. When I surfaced I pointed him out to Andrew so he could take a turn. When he returned his suggestion to let this monster have the bowl to himself was pretty smart and we immediately moved off. It turned out to be a large Barracuda. Yikes!
The water here is very clear, and it was easy to see a long way down without losing detail. If you ever get the chance to swim here, bring your mask and fins. By the time we made it back in to shore, we were both tired and had rubber legs. Lucky for us, it was lunchtime and that happily coincided with beer o’clock! An hour or so later, we all packed up and continued our adventure around the island.
As we moved along the (now completely sand) road, we were surprised by the occasional homes being rebuilt in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, with nothing but brush for miles around. There were very few trees, a gift from both Irma and her sister Maria, and there was no fresh water at all. Folks here must collect rainwater for drinking and household use.
After another delicious dinner, we all went to bed happy and ready for our trip downwind to Jost Van Dyke the next morning. At 8 a.m., we were already pulling up the hook. The day itself was grey and fat with the promise of rain, but the wind failed to fill in as we passed the outer markers of the channel.
We hopefully set the jib only to watch it flop back and forth as we rolled in the swell coming in on our quarter and eventually resigned ourselves to the engine, furled the little jib and pulled up the reefed mainsail for its steadying effect.
We were motoring toward Jost when the rain started. That’s when Lu made the startling announcement that we were low on water. Within moments, someone came up with the idea of collecting rainwater off of the bimini, and a sort-of bucket brigade was formed. We were all laughing and dripping in the cockpit as we collected some 10 gallons in about a half hour before the rain slowed.
It was fun to work together to improvise a way to collect it and we all had a good time. I don’t doubt we spilled as much or more than we got into the tanks. The sun was starting to peek out from behind the clouds when we arrived at the crowded mooring field in front of Foxy’s ‘Yot Klub’ on Jost Van Dyke just prior to lunchtime and picked up a deep-water mooring.
Anchoring there is possible but with a busy mooring field and 30 ft. of depth, swing room is at a premium and most boats opt to go to White bay for the night if they can’t get a ball. Those that decide to try their luck anyway quickly earn themselves the ire of their neighbors by compromising the safety of the field due to the swing room required for anchoring, or they short-scope their rode so much that they risk dragging or worse.
After lunch, we went to shore to visit one of the big draws of Jost Van Dyke. Foxy’s bar/restaurant/nightclub was started in the mid-sixties by Foxy himself as a simple palm-frond hut and he can still be seen talking to guests, telling stories in his singsong, rhyming style, or playing his guitar and singing for the crowd or even just for a single person on occasion.
Fun and funny, his carefree attitude is laid back and addictive. So Foxy’s is the spot to kick back, relax, and have a few painkillers or the beverage of your choice, and is definitely the night-time party spot on Jost Van Dyke. Watch out though, they pour a mean mix that’ll surprise you with its potency.
After my first, I was rubber-legged for a while. A second drink like that would have probably laid me out on the floor. (A fate I’m sure has happened to some others!) A quick word on the Painkiller. This is the signature drink in the BVIs, and we had sampled it at every stop so far. Andrew had quickly established himself as the group’s expert judge and we all let him have it.
Painkiller is a delicious concoction that includes rum, coconut cream, lots of crushed ice and pineapple juice all blended together, then sprinkled liberally with freshly grated nutmeg. This stuff is deceptively mild to drink, but it catches up with you later.
After a walk around the small town surrounding Foxy’s bar, Andrew, Christine, Darling and I decided to take the dingy around the point to White Bay, where the other big name on Jost lives. That is The Soggy Dollar Bar. Beautifully situated on a perfect sandy beach, this is the home of the Painkiller. This is where it was created, and is still the best made, according to Andrew.
The name comes from the fact that there is no dingy dock here so you need to drag your dingy up on shore, or more often, just jump in and swim to shore getting everything in your pockets wet, thus perpetuating the reason for the bar’s name, Soggy Dollar. While the afternoon crowd at Foxy’s was light, the beach here was obviously the big afternoon draw.
Business here was brisk and nobody was feeling any pain! The painkiller here was available two ways, regular, or with Vanilla flavoured rum. Andrew pronounced the vanilla-flavoured variety the winner of the best painkiller contest and we all had a few. What a great spot to have fun.
With afternoon turning to evening, the four of us went back to the boat for dinner, taking a short tour of the mooring field as we went. Dinner was another success, and later a full-contact card/trivia game.
Friday was a short day, or seemed to be. With the spectre of Saturday and moving back to land looming, we decided on Soper’s Hole for our last stop. It was a quick motorsail over to Tortola and the little bay of Soper’s Hole, but unfortunately, the after-effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria were acute there and the rebuilding process has been painfully slow.
Once the home of the famous Pusser’s Landing, Soper’s Hole is now almost non-existent. The building still stands, but is nothing more than a broken shell, as are most of the buildings on the waterfront strip that was once a shopper’s playground and a great party stop in the evenings. With the boardwalk destroyed and only meagre pickings for dockage, the infusion of materials has been very slow.
Most materials seemed to have gone to build places for people to live and when they manage to complete that, then they can get to the business of repairing the various businesses. I got the chance to speak with a couple of locals about it and the repair of the boardwalk and seawall are the biggest delays. The community has close to 1.5 km of breakwall to remove, restructure and rebuild with very little in the way of tools and resources currently, but things are improving.
Trucks are starting to bring in cement and other building materials, but 18 months after the hurricanes, Soper’s Hole sadly still has a very long way to go before business will be back to what it was.
We regretfully pushed on to Norman’s Cay for the night and found another bunch of Canadians to party with. There was lively conversation, free-flowing drinks and new friends, which made the afternoon pass very quickly into evening. We fired up the BBQ for the last time.
The high point of laughter that evening had to be Andrew’s lip-sync/dance rendition of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ on the swim platform, though I’m sad to report that he didn’t have the big splash ending we were all hoping for. What a delightful, dancing fool! I haven’t laughed like that in ages.
Saturday morning came far too soon for my tastes. Our last sail into Road Harbour, Tortola was an exhilarating romp that got us in to port earlier than we wanted, but that just meant that we had a less hurried time heading to the airport, so not a bad thing.
I think that the week will have to go down as one of the best vacations I have ever had and is certainly one that I want to repeat as soon as possible. I’ll want to have more time to spend at each stop next time because with the exception of Anegada, I felt we were never in one place for more than a few hours, so it was very difficult to really sample the places we stopped.
The experience has left me wanting more. Just like a sip of good wine begs a follow-up mouthful, our week in the BVI’s has left me with a desire for much, much, more.