The British Virgin Islands are some of the least commercialized and most pristine in the Caribbean, facts made crystal clear when discovered from the deck of a yacht.
By Terence Loose
n the fifth morning of my sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands, I found myself studying my feet. They hadn’t touched terra firma for four days. They hadn’t been restricted by shoes for four days, which meant they were the same color as my legs, islander brown. In fact, my feet seemed uncharacteristically relaxed, like they could star in a Corona beer “change your latitude” commercials. But I was not on a beach, or anywhere near a chaise lounge or a tourist bar. I had gone a step further. Instead of sipping an import under a palm and looking at the ocean, I was staring at the beach, an empty one, across a body of crystalline water from the spacious cockpit of a Moorings 47-foot catamaran. It was better than any commercial I had ever seen, and I was the star.
We had chartered the boat in Tortola with another couple and spent the last four days sailing the close-knit British Virgin Islands. Also aboard were two crew members, a big boy-faced and affable British captain named Will and his petite but able fiancée Julia, a trained chef who went by the name of Jubee and could handle an anchor as well as she could a galley knife. They were doing the sailing, as well as the navigating, anchoring, paperwork, cooking, and cleaning. Basically, if it involved lifting or sweating, it was Will and Jubee’s department. If it involved consuming or lounging, it fell to us. So while Jubee fixed lunch, we snorkeled with turtles and rays and barracuda. While Will checked the weather, cleaned the dinner dishes and planned the next day’s route, we gazed at stars while listening to the trade winds brush through the rigging.
But only a month before, the idea of having a professional crew aboard for our sailing vacation struck hard at my salty bravado. My wife and I had logged a lot of time on the water – we had sailed our 32-foot cutter to the South Pacific only two years before – and I hated the thought of being relegated to paying customer rather than master and commander (as if I was ever in charge, anyway).
The final debate took place as my wife cooked dinner one night while I scrambled to keep our 14-month-old daughter from directing an attack on the oven with Elmo. Sure there were some bad times at sea: all night anchor watches, hours of chart work, and some cooking and cleaning. Okay, a lot of cooking and cleaning.
“But do we really want to give up that feeling of freedom and independence?” I asked, thumbing through the impressive Moorings Signature Vacations brochure. Indeed, a Moorings representative had claimed to me that with the crewed yacht charter, a “sailor” need never have even been aboard a boat before. “The crew handles everything,” he said through the phone, obviously not picking up my disappointment.
My wife took the brochure, flipped it open to the page that showed guests being served gourmet meals with cloth napkins and sparkling silverware. She dragged a hot pad across her sweaty brow. “Definitely.”
And she was right. In fact, it turns out that much more freedom comes from having a crew than not. It costs more, sure, but the dollars are well spent. We were doing more of the things that we took vacations to do: snorkel, dive, kneeboard, sail, and just plain relax. Yes, I – a father of a 14 month old – said relax. This is because we chose a catamaran for stabilization – my daughter has enough trouble walking on a sidewalk – and for room. Though this was another blow to my salty ego (no true sailor would opt for the cat over the sleek monohull fleet, which includes the new $2 million 55-footer), the minute we climbed aboard and closed the cat’s special baby door to the patio-sized cockpit, I knew we had made the right choice.
We also avoided wasting precious time in bad anchorages, or worse, dangerous ones, thanks to having seasoned veterans who knew every cove, every wind pattern. We enjoyed places we would have otherwise never discovered, thanks to the fact that a crewed yacht is allowed many places bare-boaters are not.
One of those was the place where I studied my feet. The anchorage, in which we were the sole boat, is at the very eastern end of Virgin Gorda, almost two miles into the red (bareboat-restricted) zone on the color-coded Virgin Islands chart Moorings hands to its customers. But it is protected by more than just a stern warning from the Moorings front office. To get to our spot, we passed Prickly Pear Island and Saba Rock, where we picked up water from the new dock and resort, and ventured into a minefield of “bombies,” or coral heads, rising in many places to just below the surface.
As Jubee stood at the bow, signaling when she saw upcoming bombies, Will kept a hand on the wheel and eye on the depth gauge. The depth had gone from 12 feet to seven and showed no inclination to move into double digits again.
“How do you remember the path through this?” I asked.
Will gave a school kid’s grin. “Actually, this is the first time I’ve been up this way,” he said. As we passed a large, but hard to detect reef to port, he added, “I once watched a boat get towed off that reef, though. So I knew not to go that way.”
I pulled my daughter a little closer. “Great,” I said.
Will said the spot we were driving for “looked promising” on the chart. Translation: wind protection, sandy bottom, marine-life-filled reef close by, hard to get to, desolate. It’s the modern-day equivalent of treasure, and what every sailor worth his salt is hunting for. In the increasingly commercialized Caribbean, it’s also becoming as rare as pieces of eight.
After 30 minutes of dodging coral heads and shallow spots, we entered a huge, pristine bay, surrounded on three sides by white beaches and green trees. No one was in sight. The feeling was magical, as if we had sailed back in time and discovered the inviting beauty and warmth of the Caribbean for the first time.
That’s about when we hit bottom. Any sailor can imagine the stomach-sinking feeling the thud of keel touching sand gives. And for you non-sailors out there, imagine driving your brand new SL 500 the wrong way over those tire spikes that promise “severe tire damage.”
I looked at Will; everyone looked at Will.
He actually seemed calm as he said, “I’m happy to report the depth gauge definitely works.” He then spun the boat off the sand and backed her to a deeper patch for anchoring. Jubee dropped the hook, Will set it, then donned a mask and snorkel and went over the side to check our “swinging area.” In case the wind switched unexpectedly in the night, Will wanted to ensure the depth gauge didn’t get another test.
Soon, we were all in with him, snorkeling in the clear warm water. I found a few sea turtles and swam shoulder to flipper with them until they decided they had had enough tourist sightings for the day, and swam quickly into the underwater horizon, proving very un-turtle-like. We also saw various corals and too many reef fish to count. We only got out because the oysters on half shell and smoked salmon lunch Jubee had created was waiting.
Over lunch, I commented that probably most people see Will and Jubee’s jobs as idyllic, sailing among some of the Caribbean’s most favored islands. That most probably don’t realize how much real work is involved in keeping a ship ship shape while pampering five-star vacationers. Will acknowledged it was hard, but the good days made up for the bad. And as for the guests, most were absolutely great, and all were interesting. There were drunkards, who did nothing but drink all day and ask to be dropped at the bars at night. But they generally wanted little more than a refill from Will and Jubee. There were groups who dreamed of sailing their own boat through the Caribbean someday and spent the week learning the ropes, “helping” Will steer, anchor and raise sails. Then, there were the total surprises, like the attractive New York couple who both had high-pressure jobs and packed very, very light for vacations. “As a release from their jobs,” explained Will, “they went nude on vacations. They called at least three times before the charter to make sure that was okay with us, though, and turned out to be two of the most normal and likeable people we’ve had aboard.”
The story reminded me of the dedication the Moorings staff has to service, from providing discount airfare to pre-planning every meal. I remembered the multi-page Guest Information packet we had filled out, two pages of which were dedicated to food and drink. We checked off foods and beverages we wanted on the menu and answered questions ranging from “Are there any foods you can’t live without?” to “Will there be any special occasions while aboard?”
As if to emphasize this point, Will, who now had become our personal chauffeur, got up and readied the dinghy – our personal water limousine – to take us ashore, and 15 minutes later, while Jubee cleaned the dishes, we were carted to the perfect and desolate beach.
The British Virgin Islands are unique among the islands of the Caribbean for offering the best of both worlds. If you desire, you could easily spend every night anchored off a different resort, with nightlife and shops. And the islands are close enough together – over 60 islands, cays and rocks stretch across only 30 miles of ocean – that by day you could explore pristine beaches and dive uncrowded waters. The mobility of your own small “resort,” a sailboat, makes it possible. So as my wife and I played with our daughter in the warm waters off the beach, I marveled that just that morning, we had passed two resorts and a hopping restaurant before we turned the corner into our own perfect world. It seemed the Virgin Islands really were virgin, thanks to the express policy of the tourism authorities to protect the island’s biggest draw: it’s natural environment.
here comes a point in every trip when the traveler realizes that he is closer to the end of his vacation than the beginning. It’s a horrible moment, when a pall descends like a rain cloud at a wedding and an uncontrollable angst takes over as the traveler wishes in vain for time to slow. I have a theory that the better the trip, the closer to the actual middle of the trip that point comes. This is the paradox of the perfect trip, and on my BVI escape, it came on the night of this fourth day, exactly halfway through the cruise.
We had finished dinner, our daughter was asleep in the cabin that she had commandeered with her toys and changing mat and extensive baby paraphernalia. Will, Jubee and our friends had turned in early and my wife and I had the boat to ourselves. We stretched out on the trampoline that serves as a catamaran’s foredeck, one big lounge chair floating on the sea. We sipped wine, listened to the wavelets caress the hull and watched the starlit sky above. It was intoxicating and movie-perfect, but, like all movies, promised a third act.
“You always do that. Why can’t you just relax and enjoy the moment,” asked my wife when I told her my thoughts.
“It’s not the moment, it’s the moment after I’m worried about,” I said, hoping for a smile.
She just leaned back and stared at the sky. I did the same, and silently struggled with the fact that we only had four days left. Once again I found myself wondering if a great vacation might be the worst possible thing for a stressful year. Give me lost baggage and bad weather and dishonest cabbies and bugs and rain, I thought. Maybe then I can survive the other 50 weeks of the year feeling lucky.
But there was none of that during our week in the BVIs. It was all disturbingly perfect. I could tell you about the fact that not one drop of rain fell during the entire eight-day cruise. About diving historic wrecks in 100-foot-plus visibility. About The Baths of Virgin Gorda, which can best be described as a series of naturally formed warm-water pools made private by big round boulders straight out of Walt Disney’s imagination. About how we visited over a dozen anchorages off eight islands but never felt rushed. About the windsurfing, knee-boarding and kayaking in what seemed like our own private watery playground, a space teeming with colorful reefs and fish thanks to the fact that most of the waters surrounding the BVIs are part of a National Park. About the relaxing downwind sailing we did while a dozen bare-boaters scratched upwind and fought unfamiliar rigs.
But I won’t, because that would just be boring. Worse than boring, it would be envy-inducing. This is the problem with travel writing: the worse the trip, the better the story. Who wants to read My Dream Sail when The Perfect Storm is available? So instead of describing the romance that quiet moonlit nights on the balmy Caribbean sea conjures up, I will instead focus on the one sour note of the week: the free shot of Pusser’s rum – the official rum of the Royal Navy – we had at Pusser’s Landing. Jubee aptly described it as “paint thinner grade” and it became pungently clear why they give the stuff away. (Although, for business purposes I would suggest they give away a shot only after a customer buys a bottle.) But that hardly seems adventurous.
In the end, our sailing vacation was too idyllic to be included in any travelogue anthology and seemed more suited to a splashy “Travel Café” episode. Instead of battling tempests and finding my way into strange anchorages using only my wits and a star, I was pampered and fed and held the wheel only when the temptation moved me. I was not the salty sailor I pictured myself to be. And my manhood was a small price to pay for the pleasure.
For detailed information, visit www.moorings.com or call (888) 952-8420.
The Yachting Experience
What you should know before you go…
he Moorings is the original and largest yacht chartering company in the British Virgin Islands, established in 1969, and also has chartering centers in virtually every desirable port world-wide. Their Moorings Signature Vacations, the crewed yacht charters, are available in the Bahamas, the BVIs, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, St. Martin, the Grenadines, Belize, Tahiti and the Seychelles, with varying fleets ranging from 45- 47- and 62-foot custom Catamarans to 50- and 55-foot monohulls. Guests are able to book the entire yacht, which have three or four air-conditioned double cabins with private bathroom and hot shower, or book a single cabin. Everything is included in the price, including an open bar, gourmet meals, kayaks, windsurfer, dinghy, snorkeling equipment and much more. The Moorings can also book discount airfares through their travel department.
Sailing experience is not required and children are welcome. The wide and stable catamarans are perfect for kids of any age; they even come equipped with a child safety gate which encloses the large cockpit. The luxurious and sleek monohulls offer a more traditional feel and higher performance sailing. Guests are allowed to sail the boat as much or as little as they like and have full say over the destinations (though one of the big advantages of having a crew is their local knowledge).
All things considered, we found the crewed yachting vacation was comparable in price to one ashore in a fine hotel, as well as much more private and hassle-free since everything was no more than a deck-length away.
For detailed information, visit www.moorings.com or call (888) 952-8420.