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Sailing In The British Virgin Islands

It was that time of year to head to head south...so I ended up on a charter sailboat with a friend and set my course for the Caribbean. This is the story aboard  a sail vessel named "Andiamo" as I spent my Thanksgiving doing something a little out of the ordinary.

We began our journey through Puerto Rico and ended up in St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands) where we took a ferry to Road Town, Tortola (British Virgin Islands). Tortola is the principal island of the British Virgin Islands, and the centre of commerce and government. More than 75 percent of the Territory's 20,000 inhabitants live here.

We arrived in Road Town in the evening, on a mission to prepare for our trip. We would hike down to provision at the grocery store...with our luggage...as it saved time and money on taxi fares. The locals have seen everything apparently as no one even looked at us weird while shopping. One shopping cart was filled with our gear and the other cart was filled with goodies (i.e., food and rum). We then arrived at the Sunsail base, and then at our boat. We inspected the boat and its equipment, and passed out from our long day.

The next day we sailed south, out of Road Town heading towards Peter Island. The winds were out of the Northeast...right down the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Because a sailboat can't point directly into the wind, the boat has to zig-zag its course upwind. This is called tacking (sailing "close-hauled"). This method of sailing makes for a long day as your course is not a direct one, but this is the only option short of starting the engine and motoring right into the wind, which defeats the purpose of sailing. We had a long day sailing up the Channel along Peter Island, then Dead Chest, then Salt Island, then Cooper Island, then Ginger Island, then Fallen Jerusalem, and finally Virgin Gorda. We headed past the rocky cliffs on the West and North side of the island and passed through Colquhoun Reef and entered our safe harbour and dropped anchor just as the sun was going down. The photo to the right is sunset in Gorda Sound.  This is one of our favorite places in the BVI's.

Virgin Gorda is the second most populated island in the Territory. The island includes high-end resorts, as well as wonderful natural features. Virgin Gorda means "fat virgin" in Spanish, and was named by the first settlers on the island.

One of the true natural wonders of Virgin Gorda is the Baths. Huge granite boulders are strewn along a white-sand beach. There are grottos to explore and rocks to climb, and the boulders underwater are a snorkelers delight. Some are as tall as a three-story house, with caverns eroded into the sides. These boulders were formed millions of years ago when geologic forces pushed up the seafloor and folded the ground into mountains. Eons later, erosion and weathering produced the amazing shapes we see today.  However, the Baths attract a substantial number of tourist at certain times, especially when cruise ships visit the island.   A better option if you'd like to avoid the crowds is an island called Fallen Jerusalem just to the south of the Baths. Only two boats can moor here at a time.   Last year, we enjoyed a scuba dive at this spot.

North Sound of Virgin Gorda was once home to pirates and buccaneers, but North Sound now hosts legions of sailors eager to make their own mark in the history books. The well-known Bitter End Yacht Club has attracted sailing enthusiasts for more than 30 years. With its famous water sports centre, sailing school, racing clinics and numerous regattas, the Bitter End can accommodate the active sports buff as well as the individual who wants to sip a painkiller while relaxing in a hammock under a palm tree. The protected anchorage at Biras Creek is where we dropped anchor...and later enjoyed painkillers at the Fat Virgin Cafe.

Not far from the Bitter End, Saba Rock Resort occupies an entire tiny island. Accessible only by boat, this small resort caters to yachtsmen. Boats tie up a few feet from the bar and restaurant. Whenever the wind is blowing more than 20 knots, your best option around northern Virgin Gorda is Biras Creek for a comfortable mooring.

Just north of North Sound is Necker Island, Richard Branson's famous hideaway. Royalty and movie stars can find privacy on any of several beaches surrounding the island. World renowned as a getaway location, you can rent all of Necker — if you can afford it. We couldn't...so it was time to venture on to a different island.

Early the next morning we endured the heavy rains and low visibility caused by a temporary squall, and navigated past Colquhoun Reef. From here, we were now sailing the deep waters of the Atlantic ocean heading to a remote island called Anegada. Due to the wind shifting more to the North, we again had a long day of tacking (or zig-zagging our course upwind) while heading due North. Our boat had what's called a "deep fin keel" of 5.5 feet (meaning that the boat extends 5.5 feet below the water's surface). Deep keels are great for assisting the boat while heading upwind, but can create some tense moments when the water gets shallow; like in Anegada.

Thankfully, the weather cleared out for us; which is good considering the treacherous reef system that would be greeting us. Horseshoe Reef is 18 miles of jagged coral shoal extending all around the island of Anegada, and an additional 10 miles to the southeast. It has claimed over 300 vessels. To avoid becoming a statistic, daylight and good visibility were essential. The channel that brings you into the harbour at Anegada is known to to be unreliable; buoys are bleached from the sun not allowing an easy interpretation (they are suppose to be red or green) and they tend to drag due to the winds and strong current. Therefore, it is critical to arrive in the channel when the sun is high in the sky, to assist in navigation.

As we entered past the first buoy it was quite clear that progress was going to be made...very slowly. The buoys had indeed moved. Turning back was not an option. There was not enough light in the day to get back to Virgin Gorda, the closest island to the south, and this is the only "safe" place to anchor on this island. So now I had the binoculars permanently glued to my eyes trying to pick out where the coral heads were and where the channel was. My friend manned the bow looking straight down as I tried to line up a course through the reef. Progress was a slow 2 knots (roughly 2 mph) as the depth gauge read small numbers and then even smaller numbers. Having made it safely passed the coral heads, it was now time to find a good place to drop our anchor in the shallow sandy bottom near Setting Point.

Like trying to find a pencil on the floor of a dark room, you must move slowly and deliberately to safely navigate the channel.   At slow speeds, sand will not sink us like a coral head.   Moving too fast means that the keel just digs into the sand and you are stuck. By proceeding very slowly (1 mph), your keel kisses the sand and you stop...you curse ...back up and pick a new course into the shallow anchorage. There is a saying among sailors that there are "those who have and those who will hit bottom". Well we did and eventually we found a safe mooring. Now my friend and I were ready for a beer!

Anegada is the most distant island in the archipelago. It is a large flat island with few elevations just higher than a palm tree. Most of the 200 residents live in The Settlement. The remainder are scattered in small clusters along the coast. Getting around by taxi is easy, although most of the roads are unpaved and a few contain pockets of soft, deep sand suitable only for four-wheel drive vehicles. Much of the western part of Anegada contains extensive salt ponds which attract large numbers of water birds. Perhaps the most magnificent are the flamingos. Reintroduced to Anegada after a century of absence, the small flock is steadily increasing (now nearly 100 birds).

Without a doubt, Anegada's miles of pristine beaches are the most popular attraction. All offer seclusion, breathtaking views and the feeling of being far, far away. To me, Anegada reminded me of the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos...beautiful water, beautiful beaches, but as flat as flat can be. Even the plants were similar. After getting here...We both agreed that we would enjoy our day and evening here, then push on to other islands.

On shore near the Settlement, we went for a short hike and discovered some wild donkeys. Our favorite is the third photo of my friend walking along a dock at sunset, just to the right is our boat anchored out (below and to the right). The photo recreates the mood of tranquility, as we enjoyed the evening following our tiring passage. I wish I could have taken more of the boat but then I would have cut the palm tree out of the foreground which creates some depth of field. I should have brought my wide angle lens ashore! In the dark, we did some light painting photos for fun, then took our dinghy and went back to the boat to BBQ and enjoy the stars.

The next day, with the winds still out of the North and the rising sun just above the horizon, we pulled up anchor and quietly left Anegada behind us. We had planned on heading due South, some 35 miles across the Virgin Bank to a much smaller island called Jost Van Dyke. The wind would be on our stern (back of the boat), so we would be "running with the wind" as the expression goes. In addition, we would have following seas. Meaning the swells were coming from behind us too. Have you ever heard the expression, "fair winds and following seas"? I know it's an old nautical phrase of good luck, but I never really understood it. I mean, following seas (swells that come from behind the boat) do not make for a pleasant ride. Great for a surfer, but a boat is another story. So why would you wish that upon a sailor?! Anyhow, I digress again.

So we were running with the wind and had following seas...for 35 miles. But what made it more interesting were the rollers. Rollers occur in this area between October to May, and are long, heavy ocean waves driven by winds that come in from the Atlantic. On the Virgin Bank, these 8-10 foot rollers were meeting with the swells coming in from the Northeast (between Anegada and Virgin Gorda). This is termed a "confused sea", which means a disturbed water surface without a single, well-defined direction of wave travel. In other words, an unpleasant ride.

By the time we had almost reached our destination, we needed to stow our sails, which requires us to point the boat into the wind. To do that, you have to start the engine. We were also going to need the engine to drop the anchor (bad electrical design), and we started the engine...only to have it quit. Then it wouldn't start at all. Hmmmm...the propellor wasn't fouled, there was plenty of battery voltage, and we had a nearly full tank of diesel. The engine would crank, but would not run. The problem with the engine was that the confused seas had stirred up the algae and other contaminants that were present in the fuel tank and sucked them into the engine. There was no time to bleed out the fuel line and change the fuel filter.

We continued to sail between the islands of Tortola and Jost Van Dyke. It was here that we made a phone call to the charter company. After an hour or two of sailing back and forth in the channel, we headed into Little Harbour where a power boat came to assist us in the tricky task of mooring the boat without an engine. So safely on the hook, and the boat’s engine repaired by the Sunsail mechanics, we took the dinghy ashore. The photo below is our boat safely on the mooring at Little Harbour.

Jost Van Dyke is one of the sparsely inhabited islands of the BVIs, and seemed to have a larger goat population than a human population. We both really liked this island with its lush green hills, adorable goat families and cliffs with waves crashing some 20 feet high on the northern side of the island (remember those rollers that we talked about?).

The next day we sailed over to Green Cay and Sandy Spit, small islands just northeast of Jost Van Dyke, for a few hours for lunch. Later we anchored by Diamond Cay. Here we found a beautiful sandy beach with a beach bar called Foxy's Taboo. Owner "Foxy" Callwood opened this bar recently.  At his original bar at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke,  he has entertained thousands of visitors with his impromptu musical renditions. The names of celebrities who have visited is too long to list, but Foxy's fame extends well beyond the shores of Jost Van Dyke.

Nearby, we hiked about a half-mile to visit the Bubbly Pool, a natural sea-spa where the Atlantic Ocean waves break over the rocks into a protected bubble bath type pool. The area is surrounded by a small sandy beach and is a wonderful place to relax. This made our day...of course the margaritas helped! Back on board the boat, I dropped the fish light off the stern and fired up the BBQ. We sat watching the thousands of stars above and the hundreds of fish that showed up below. We saw sharks, barracuda...lots of barracuda...squid, crabs (I was surprised at how crabs are actually strong swimmers...I thought they sat on the seafloor crawling around), spotted rays, turtles, and hundreds of fish from the reef coming up to check out our light. We loved this harbour so much we decided to stay in this area for another day.

So the next day we sailed over to Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke to meet a dive boat and go Scuba Diving along the wall (with Jost Van Dyke Scuba). I spotted lion fish, big lobsters, crabs, sting rays and your usual Caribbean reef fish. I'm so jaded (grin). We also went to West End Point on the same island to dive under the waves as they crashed onto the rocks above us. Quite an impressive site...but from below. On this same dive we were led into an underwater cave. We would never had done this on our own, but the dive master on the boat encouraged us and took us there. To do this you had to spread out as the waves would roll 10-15 feet above you and it would take you on a mellow "roller coaster ride". As you got closer to the cave, the walls narrowed and the water surge would speed up...shooting you into the cave. We surface inside...giggling and tickled by the experience. To exit, you do the same thing. “Surfing underwater” is the best way to describe the “ride” in and out of the underwater cave. It turned out to be a local knowledge thing that we were happy to have experienced.

Now it was time to head back to Road Town on Tortola, back to the Sunsail charter marine. We headed due south for Thatch Island Cut and enjoyed watching the waves crashing 20-30 feet up the rocky cliffs at Great Thatch while sailing past. We were sailing briskly at 7.5 knots though this area, not counting the strong current. We passed Little Thatch Island, which looked like the perfect Caribbean getaway if you are ever looking for a small island to stay on with nothing to do but eat, drink, and be merry. It looked like a postcard. Next time we come, we will have to spend some time on this island. As we rounded Frenchman's Cay it was hard to miss St. John in the USVI's off our right. Again we had to tack back and forth...crossing the USVI and BVI border many times. Thankfully we never saw the pesky US Coast Guard (grin). Heading northeast again, we finally pulled down the sails and fired up the engine for that last couple hours of our trip along Tortola as the wind was again right on our bow (front of boat). After docking the boat back in Road Town, we checked in our boat and diving equipment and realized that we had completed a 5 day trip...circumnavigating the BVI's in 4 days worth of sailing, and ending the trip happy and relaxed, but ready to return to land for another round of “painkiller” rum drinks and a great island dinner. With that, I will wish you, “Fair winds & following seas”.

About David Aronson

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