Chris Beeson has gone to The Dogs, reached the Bitter End, even needed Painkillers – and never been happier than on charter in the British Virgin Islands
A charter in the British Virgin Islands
‘Oh. My. Word. This is ridiculous.’ I ducked down from the elevated helm position of our Sunsail 444 catamaran and addressed the aft cockpit: ‘Guys, you might want to see this. Bring your cameras.’ The crew strolled out to the sidedecks and, an instant later, we were all wearing the same helpless grin. Shutters snapped.
The focus of our wonder, and lenses, was Sandy Cay. Turquoise waters, white sand and palm trees: that’s an accurate, yet entirely misleading, description of the scene, because Sandy Cay combines these Caribbean features transcendently. I’ve since recognised this speck of heaven in many promotional photo shoots where the message to convey is ‘This is paradise: VIPs only.’ And that’s how we felt.
Back to Tortola
I visited Tortola briefly in 1988, at the end of a Moorings 432 charter boat delivery from France. The BVIs had crystalised in my memory as a yachting wonderland: reliable sailing breeze, warm clear water and picture-postcard scenery. When Sunsail offered me the chance to go back, I grabbed it.
The crew of six comprised my wife Bun and I, and friends Pete and Zoe, and Crispin and Annabelle. We had chosen early May because we wanted to dive the wreck of the RMS Rhone and visibility is best in spring. It’s also fairly quiet, just after high season, with steady wind and settled weather.
From Tortola’s Beef Island airport, a half-hour charabanc ride across the mountainous interior dropped us at Wickham’s Cay II, Sunsail’s marina complex in Road Town, Tortola’s capital. Our floating home for the next week, the pristine Sunsail 444 Let It Go, sat bathed in cockpit light with the aircon running. After almost 22 hours’ travelling door to dock, we could not have been happier to see her.
After our morning briefing, covering forecasts, buoyage, rigging a bridle and more, the rest of the crew victualled at the supermarket. I sat sweating at the chart plotter, plugging in waypoints for our BVI tour.
Our first destination was a must-see: The Baths on Virgin Gorda. After a lovely fetch in the steady breeze, we switched on the engines, tucked away the sails, had a quick briefing about rigging a bridle and moments later we were lying to the red National Parks mooring.
We snorkelled among the volcanic granite boulders, exploring the sky-lit caves and gullies, as breathtaking as any cathedral, and in a flash, 90 minutes had gone. We could have stayed, there were empty moorings, but it was mid-afternoon and I didn’t want to negotiate the reef-strewn entrance to our overnight mooring with a low sun.
We passed the western entrance to Gorda Sound, which we had been advised not to use – and looking at the breakers in the channel, that was just fine with us. Within a mile of Necker Island, we turned to starboard into the northern entrance’s buoyed channel, between Colquhoun and Cactus reefs.
We moored off the Bitter End Yacht Club at 1800, fixed some drinks and decided that we’d scrub up and dine at the club. The harbourmaster motored up to collect $35, the fee for the night’s mooring, and Pete made a friend by asking for an update on the West Indies v England test in Bridgetown, Barbados (Windies won by five wickets).
As the sun melted into a cocktail of colours, I pushed a button to lower the davits and we puttered to the dinghy dock. Quiet. Very quiet, considering the number of boats in the anchorage. We dined on excellent conch fritters, roti, burger and pizza before stepping into our tender, afloat in gin-clear water that shimmered under the dock light, and scooting back for some much-needed sleep.
At 0800 we headed back out of the northern entrance and trundled downwind under genoa at 5-6 knots in 12-15 knots true, bound for George Dog. Nestled inside Kitchen Point, we picked up a red mooring and went snorkelling.
Zoe dreads deep water (too deep to stand) so Bun, who has a purseful of PADI cards, took her under her wing to introduce her to the delights of the underwater world, in this case a pretty coral garden and rays basking on the sandy bottom.
Off again at 1130 to sail southwest to dreamy Marina Cay – an eight-acre islet cradled in a lagoon protected by a reef to its southeast. We moored (we could have anchored) and took in another stunning scene. Pete grabbed his phone and, using the moorings’ free WiFi, maliciously Facebooked a photo to his colleagues at work: ‘Perfect. It’s Monday.’
After feasting on Annabelle’s special omelettes, we launched the tender and motored over to the sun-bleached wooden jetty, made even more picturesque by the pastel-painted clapboard buildings and, somehow perfectly, a K6 red telephone box.
We felt like film stars once again, with privileged access to another stunning location. Jose Cuervo, of tequila fame, owned Marina Cay in the early 2000s, branding it ‘Cuervo Nation’ and hosting promotions there. It’s now Pusser’s Rum’s key BVI outpost.
We went for a ‘Happy Arrr!’ sundowner or two at the Hilltop Bar in the Robb White House, named after the writer who bought the island for $60 in 1937 and developed it himself. Another excellent dinner was taken at the beachside restaurant and, between beer, Painkiller and Nelson’s Blood, we arrived onboard well relaxed.
The next morning we glided southwest down Low Bay, round Pull And Be Damn Point (seriously) on Little Camanoe before mooring behind Monkey Point at the southern end of Guana Island for the morning’s snorkel.
Next we took on our longest sail of the trip: a mere10 miles west, over the northern coast of Tortola, to Sandy Cay. We hauled out full sail and ran almost dead downwind making 8-9 knots in 18-20 knots true across the white-capped inky-blue. A cracking sail.
We spent 90 minutes on our red mooring at Sandy Cay. We could happily have stayed for 90 days but on we went to Jost van Dyke, entering via the western of the two buoyed channels through the reef that protects White Bay. Once anchored in 3-4 metres, we set our bridle.
Diving to check the set, I saw fish feeding in the small cloud of sediment dug up by our Delta anchor as it slowly ploughed the coral sand. Quickly back on board, I removed the bridle, let out as much chain as I dared in this busy, narrow anchorage, rigged the bridle and motored back until I was satisfied we were going nowhere.
After stuffing wallets and cameras into waterproof bags and swimming to the beach, we ambled along dazzling white sand to the famous Soggy Dollar Bar.
As I sipped its signature Painkiller cocktail, I wondered: was it too famous? Ferries run here from the USVIs, bringing a ‘Spring Break’ feel of loose-limbed licentiousness, at odds with the laid-back Caribbean style I had expected. Still, what a place!
Getting away with it
We stayed longer than planned and just missed out on a mooring in our overnight stop in Great Harbour, a 10-minute motor to the east. The pilot book showed an anchorage in the southeast corner so we dropped the hook in 10-12m. I motored back hard and, once satisfied we weren’t moving, dived in to check the set. Ah. The fluke’s tip was pinned against a rock but the rest of it was just sitting on the bottom.
In our favour was the fact that the wind had dropped a force as dusk drew in and remained steady in direction. Against us, space to reset was limited by the boats now anchored around us. Having watched them drop, there clearly wasn’t a surplus of competence onboard. What if they dragged into us? In truth, it irked me no end that their anchors were almost certainly better set than mine.
A stiff gin oils the turbulent waters of a troubled mind. After laying out 60m of chain, attaching the bridle and motoring back repeatedly to try and break us out, I felt more confident that we could go ashore for dinner and reasonably expect to find the boat still there on our return. After a splendid dinner of freshly-caught Wahoo at the ever-lively Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, we puttered back to find that Let It Go hadn’t. We were still there in the morning too. My sloppiness had gone unpunished.
Next morning we motored upwind to Soper’s Hole Marina on Tortola’s West End to revictual, dump trash, fill up the water tanks at 25¢ per gallon, and pick up ice.
Then we motored six miles into a short chop to Pelican Island for our morning snorkel: The Indians. These are four red rock pinnacles vaguely resembling the eponymous headdress.
The snorkelling was excellent: baby sharks, a baby turtle, shoals of brightly coloured fish and some decent corals too.
Next stop was The Bight, Norman Island, home to Willy T’s. The original William Thornton was a wooden Baltic trader named after the chap who designed the Capitol building in Washington. Born on Jost van Dyk, Thornton was educated in Scotland and returned to Tortola as a planter.
The trader namesake opened as a bar in 1989 and developed a reputation for piratical drunkenness and consequent nudity: an endless frat party. It’s a reputation still in evidence today on the steel 100-footer that now bears the name – and we went there for lunch.
In the afternoon we sailed round the top of Peter Island to drop anchor in the southeast corner of Deadman’s Bay. Four cables northeast is Dead Chest Island. The cay is so-called because from some compass points it resembles a ‘dead man’s chest’ or sailor’s coffin. Legend has it that this is where Blackbeard marooned 15 men with nothing but a bottle of rum and an idea for a song. Some tried to swim for it. Our bay was named after them.
The following morning we motorsailed across to Manchioneel Bay, picked up and paid for a mooring.
Eager to test the snorkling off Cistern Point, we all jumped into the dinghy and scooted carefully through the moorings, avoiding swimmers and paddle boarders, before reaching the dinghy dock and jumping in.
A very good snorkel came to an exciting end when, metres from the tender, a 1.5m (5ft) barracuda set about a 1m (3ft) barracuda that was trying to muscle in on its reef. A flash of a tail and two bites later, all that remained of the interloper was its head.
We motored back to the boat before changing for the evening and taking happy hour cocktails ashore at the splendid Cooper Island Beach Club. We dined expensively on excellent steak and rather splendid claret to celebrate our last night of freedom: tomorrow evening we would be alongside in Wickham’s Cay II.
The following morning, Bun, Crispin and I were booked to dive the wreck of the Rhone. We were picked up from the beach jetty by Sail Caribbean Divers and taken round to Salt Island’s Lee Bay. After mooring to the yellow dive boat buoy and being briefed, we dropped in to dive the stern and mid sections of the wreck, and we got to rub the brass porthole that brings good luck.
Back at the boat we slipped our mooring and sailed northwest towards Maya Cove before dropping anchor in the lee of Buck Island. We had one last snorkel and, after a late lunch to finish up the victuals, sailed back to our base at Wickham’s Cay II.
The next morning we emerged from the boat’s air-conditioned splendour to the marina’s sweltering shelter, where change-over teams were servicing hundreds of boats for their new crews. Soon we were heading for the airport.
The charter went better than I could ever have hoped. The boat worked perfectly, everyone had a fantastic time and learned a thing or two on what was the first charter for two-thirds of the crew. The skipper managed to relax and learned a bit about cats too, but the star of the show was undoubtedly the BVIs: a dazzling and crowd-pleasingly perfect cruising ground. No wonder it’s so popular.
What we missed
We had a challenging schedule and ticked every box, but still we merely scratched the surface. We missed Anegada, because it’s 12 miles north of Gorda Sound and therefore off the beaten track. Ringed by reef, it has just one anchorage too, at Setting Point, but that’s Anegada’s main attraction: the pace of life changes down a gear. ‘Plan on spending at least two nights on Anegada,’ recommends the pilot guide. ‘It is one of those special places.’ We had only six nights to see the BVIs.
We also missed out on Full Moon Parties at Bomba’s Shack in Cappoon’s Bay and the Fireball Party in Trellis Bay, we missed the sunset from Cane Garden Bay, all but one of the bays on Peter Island, Ivan’s Stress-Free Bar in White Bay and Diamond Cay on Jost van Dyke and Sandy Spit, south of Green Cay. All this without setting foot in the islands’ historic interior. There’s so much left undone. We must go back.
How much does it cost (in May 2015)?
Getting to the BVI
Flights from £750 from London To Tortola via Antigua
London-Antigua 8 hours with BA
Antigua-Tortola 3 hours with LIAT
Our charter with Sunsail
Sunsail 444 for one week £4,713
Yacht Damage Waiver £294
Fuel Charge £140
BVI National Parks Permit £9
(Entry level charter: two-cabin Sunsail 38 with four people for one week: £1,317)
For more information see www.sunsail.co.uk or call 020 3773 7836