Chartering: Swan Song in the BVI

Sail News

Joseph Conrad once wrote, “The sea never changes.” And while this may or not be true, something most definitely not open for debate is the fact we sailors, “wrapped in mystery,” as Conrad put it, are continually changing—whether we like it or not.

I found myself thinking these and other equally deep (or silly?) thoughts during a recent charter aboard the Moorings 400 catamaran Siempre Sol in the British Virgin Islands. Being a longtime sailing journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to do more than my share of bareboat chartering over the years with my wife, Shelly, and daughter, Bridget. Many, if not most of these charters have also involved catamarans, especially those that have taken place in warmer climes.

This time, though, was going to be different—very different. It was our first charter in the BVI since Hurricane Irma devastated the area in 2017 and our first post-Covid-shutdown bareboat charter. It was also going to be our last charter before Shelly and I dropped Bridget off for her freshman year of college in the fall—our charter swan song, as it were, given the nature of life and the ever-changing exigencies of the modern world. Since I’m the only truly avid sailor in the family, it likely will be years before we charter again, if ever, so I wanted to make it a good one.

Looking out the window on our final approach to St. Thomas, where we’d be taking the ferry from Charlotte Amalie to Road Town on Tortola, I was reminded of the very first bareboat charter the three of us took together. Bridget was in kindergarten, and I wanted the trip to be easy as possible. Imagine my concern, looking out at a sea flecked with serious whitecaps on our final approach. Imagine Bridget’s alarm when we emerged onto the open waters beyond the red buoy marking the entrance to St. Thomas harbor and immediately found ourselves motorsailing through a seemingly endless series of 5- to 6-foot swells on our way toward Pillsbury Sound. Not good.

Then, of course, there was the time a front came blasting through our first night out during a charter on Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, forcing Shelly and me to reset the anchor not once but twice in the middle of a pitch-black squall (Bridget actually slept through that one), and the mal de mer that afflicted the better part of the crew on the way out to Barbuda.

Fortunately, as every veteran charterer knows, the challenges that are part and parcel of bareboat chartering are more than worth the rewards—and as fate would have it, this latest visit to what is arguably the charter capital of the world was no exception.

Bridget and Shelly stretch their legs during a Coopers Island beach walk 

Bridget and Shelly stretch their legs during a Coopers Island beach walk 

Eating up the Easting

As always, the shore crew at The Moorings base in Road Town was outstanding as we set about the business of moving aboard our boat. Following our effortless trip via ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, we had already decided not to cast off lines until the next morning. If there’s one thing the three of us have learned over the years, it’s that haste makes waste when it comes to chartering. Much as you may want to get going (and much as time may seem to be of the essence upon arrival at your destination), trying to hurry the provisioning and checkout process, especially in those warmer parts of the world where people most charter, will only leave you stressed out and drenched with sweat.

Thus, we found ourselves underway bright and early the next morning, well rested and ready for anything—with Mom and Dad on watch and Bridget ensconced in her cabin, reading and listening to music, in stark contrast to those days when she wouldn’t let us out of her sight. The extended forecast called for a bout of rougher weather to pass through in about three days’ time.

So, coming out from behind Hogs Point, we promptly hardened up into the 15-knot southeasterly squeezing its way between Tortola and St. John in an effort to get in as much distance to weather as we could. Luckily, there was just enough south to the southeasterly that after coming round West Dog Island three or so miles east of Great Camanoe just off Tortola, we realized there was no reason not to continue toward our ultimate destination, the island of Anegada, some 15 miles to the north at the far end of the archipelago.

It was actually kind of funny. The original plan had been to spend the night on a mooring off the Bitter End Yacht Club and then get underway at the crack of dawn and make the crossing. Playing around with the chartplotter, though, I happened at one point to zoom out and what to my wondering eyes should appear directly ahead but the island in question. Not only that, but given the somewhat, shall we say, relaxed tacking angles of Siempre Sol, it didn’t take long to figure out we’d have to sail just as far, if not farther, to make the easting to Gorda Sound as it would to make the crossing then and there. So, what the heck, why not go for it?

Closing with the reef-strewn harbor just west of the ferry dock at Setting Point, we even found ourselves cracking off a bit as we aimed for the entrance to the narrow, twisting channel. Next thing we knew, we were tied up safe and secure at a mooring scarcely a hundred yards off the dock of the Lobster Trap restaurant. Happy days! We were a day ahead of schedule, and we’d made all the serious easting we would have to for the rest of the week. No more having to work our way to windward with a reef in the main—or so we thought.

Anegada is, of course, a somewhat renowned spot of land just far enough over the horizon to be accessible but still adequately distant to make for a nice escape from the madding crowd—especially on weekdays—and we had a wonderful time there. In fact, we pretty much had the place to ourselves as we motor-scootered about, swimming in the crystal-clear waters off Loblolly Beach, and kept an eye out for the island’s native flamingos. Oh, and the place was absolutely lousy with sea turtles. How cool is that? We ended up spending not one but two nights there. Bridget and I burned the heck out of the tops of our feet the day we spent scootering. Otherwise, the place was pretty much perfect, and the spiny lobster at the Lobster Trap was out of this world.

Motor-scootering was piles of fun during a visit to Anegada 

Motor-scootering was piles of fun during a visit to Anegada 

Sidling Into Sopers

From Anegada, we made our way back to Virgin Gorda where we finally spent that night on a mooring off the Bitter End. It truly is incredible the way the place has bounced back after being almost totally annihilated by Irma. Although the cabins and boardwalks dotting the hillside have yet to be replaced, the rest of the place looks, if anything, better than ever and makes for an outstanding spot to provision and have a dark-and-stormy.

Not so great is nearby Saba Rock. It, too, was completely devastated in the storm. But whereas the Bitter End 2.0 may be better than the original, the same cannot be said for its neighbor. The original was the kind of place a sailor could relax in, but what replaced it looks and feels like an oversized spaceship, teetering precariously on a sadly overcrowded speck of terra firma—a fine place for day-trippers, I suppose, but for us mariners, not so much. Just this sailor’s opinion.

Also problematic around this time was the weather. We were now three days into our charter, with the forecast calling for a combination of rain and higher winds due to show up any minute. The bartender at the Bitter End was most emphatic. No way you want to go out there tomorrow, he maintained as he built us a pair of painkillers; however, Shelly and I weren’t so sure. Our next stop was Jost Van Dyke, pretty much dead downwind the entire way. How bad could the occasional 30-knot gust and 6-foot seas be coming from directly astern?

A mountain of chips in Sopers Hole demands attention 

A mountain of chips in Sopers Hole demands attention 

As it turned out, not bad at all. And while the wind tunnel that is the coral-strewn channel just west of Eustatia Sound gave us pause for thought, bearing away around Colquhoun Reef and Mosquito Rock we were soon having the time of our lives, running along under full genoa. It really was a wonderful sail, thundering down the backside of Tortola, the kind of day custom-designed for a boat like Siempre Sol. Even Bridget, who was still spending a lot more time alone in her cabin than when she’d been a perky kindergartener, came up on deck to enjoy the conditions. When the weather gets your 17-year-old daughter on deck with her parents, you know it’s something special.

Not so special, though, was Jost Van Dyke. Although there appeared to be plenty of moorings at first blush, closer inspection they’d all been spoken for by other crews using the BoatyBall app. Drat! At one time, arriving in a BVI anchorage by early afternoon meant a pretty good chance finding room at the inn. But no more.

Not in the mood to have to find a place to set the hook somewhere along the harbor’s periphery—and having already visited the admittedly fun little community there on trips past—we immediately downloaded the BoatyBall app ourselves and hightailed it to our newly reserved mooring in nearby Sopers Hole. We were so irked we didn’t even set any sail, just put the pedal to it with our twin diesel. However, we discovered that our fellow sailors back at Jost Van Dyke had actually done us a favor.

For those of you who have never been there, Sopers Hole is actually a great little spot, a working harbor complete with a well-used boatyard, a satisfyingly grungy ferry dock, and a string of fun watering holes, including Pusser’s West End. Maybe we just got lucky, but the place was wonderfully quiet, almost deserted the entire time we were there, in stark contrast to much of the rest of Tortola—a taste of the “old Caribbean,” as it were, before people like yours truly started hanging out there. Having Pusser’s pretty much to ourselves was also fun. Crowded or empty, the view from this great little eatery alone is worth the price of admission.

From there it was smooth sailing, albeit a little more to windward than we’d originally anticipated as we beat back up the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Once again, Shelly and I saw little of Bridget between anchorages—kind of like back home where, compared to years past, the bulk of our “parenting” now takes place at mealtimes. But that was fine as well, as the three of us all had a great time chatting and hanging out in the cockpit together after the sails had been put away.

Beating into the 15- to 20-knot southeasterlies also proved much easier than the first time around. Siempre Sol may not have been the most close-winded of sailing vessels. But by now Shelly and I had learned the boat’s ways, and with a reef in the main and a couple of turns taken in on the genoa, zig-zagging our way back and forth in the light chop was a piece of cake.

Finding Fun in The Bight

One of my favorite places in the BVI is The Bight on Norman Island, and in contrast to Jost Van Dyke, the place was almost deserted. Weird. Be warned, though. If you want a good night’s sleep, steer clear of Willy T’s floating bar and restaurant. We stopped by for a couple of drinks and had a great time, but if the state of the other patrons when we left around 1600 is any indication, I wouldn’t want to sleeping on that side of the anchorage!

Another couple of spots you don’t want to miss are the nearby Indians Rocks and The Caves, two great little snorkeling areas. Rearing abruptly out of the water, The Indians, in particular, offer a beautiful marine habitat with a number of day moorings to tie up to as well, so you can hop right over the side and go swimming.

After that came a quick trip up to Cooper Island and another great day of snorkeling at Carvel Rock at the southern end of the main anchorage. We also enjoyed a terrific meal at Cooper Island Beach resort, another of my favorite spots in the entire BVI, with its magnificent veranda and gorgeous little beach.

From there it was all downwind to Road Town to drop off Siempre Sol at The Moorings base. Midway across, Bridget even came out again to enjoy the view. As she did, it occurred to me, as had been the case on our first charter what felt like too many years ago, that whether I knew it or not, the goal had been once again to ensure an easy trip. And once again, we had succeeded.

Wrapping up our latest adventure, we were not only all still friends, but we had yet another wonderful set of memories to look back on someday. A great time had been had by all. So great, in fact, I’m thinking we’ll really have to do something like this again someday! 

Photos courtesy of Adam Cort

October/November 2022

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