Cruising the BVI

Chartering in the British Virgin Islands

By Mike Ferring (written in 2001; see update at the end)

Sailing in the Caribbean has been my great fantasy.

You’ve seen the pictures that called out to me from sailing magazines — beckoning with shots of lovely people on lovely boats anchored on sparkling, green water by warm, deserted, sandy beaches. Fill in your favorite cliché.

Well, I’ve seen the reality and it’s nearly as great as the dream.

A lot of AYCers have already made the trip, but if you’re thinking about going for the first time, here are a few reality snapshots.

Chartering the Boat

I started boat shopping on the Internet at eBare.com (which has links to loads of information) and at the Web sites of some of the charter companies in those glorious ads. Then I started calling.

Surprise number one: Only one charter company followed up!

After some nice conversations, they all promised to send information, but only the Moorings actually did it. I tried again, but still no follow-up. Moorings got the business.

Surprise number two: Despite all we’ve heard about troubles in the travel business, nobody was ready to offer much of a deal. They’d take a couple hundred off here and there and offer discounts on travel, but most of it was right off the rate card. The Moorings deal was straight retail.

Price (and negotiating) also depends on the time of year. We went in January, which Moorings and some other charter companies recognize as a lower-priced dip in the winter high season. If you go in the summer, they’ll toss in lots of extra days or otherwise chop the rate.

The Boat Choices

I learned there are three boat levels in the Caribbean charter business: Brand-new. A few years old. Well-worn. We went for brand-new, since this was a honeymoon trip for Maryellen and me. New boats promised more amenities and fewer problems.

Next time I think I’ll save some money and opt for something with more miles on it. In fact, Moorings passes its oldest boats on to a co-owned company called Footloose. The prices are quite a bit better and the Footloose boats we saw along the way looked fine.

Getting There

Most of the Caribbean charters are based in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, which pretty much means flying into St. Thomas and taking a 45-minute ferry ride to Tortola. American and Delta are the major airlines that fly to St. Thomas. (We spent a Sunset on shoreday on St. Thomas giggling at all the cruise ship tourists in their tropical outfits and brand-new white hiking tennies.)

We spent the first night on the boat in the marina and it turned out to be a good move. We were able to get settled and get the official checkout before things got crazy the next morning. And they did get crazy.

We had Moorings partially provision the boat (planning to eat most dinners ashore), but you could probably save money by spending an hour in the grocery store. There’s even one on the dock with prices that aren’t outrageous. But the provisions were good with generous portions.

The Boat

The boat was a 33-foot Beneteau, big enough for two of us, yet small enough for us to handle easily (except for that balky roller furling). With its saggy sails the boat didn’t want to point, but we liked the way it handled rough seas and generally thought it sailed pretty well.

These charter boats live a tough life, so even though it was a fairly new boat, the autopilot didn’t work and there was a problem with the charging system — maybe just a bad ammeter. The dinghy motor was a horror story. The gas tank puked slimy stuff all over the dinghy. The motor cover wouldn’t fasten. And the pivot was so sticky that it was hard to pull the motor up and down. Fortunately the slime-puking problem peaked when we were near the Moorings remote base at Bitter End and they were great about cleaning it up.

The Sailing

What sailing! There’s always lots of wind in the Virgin Islands. We never had less than about 15-20 knots — usually more — so we really flew, especially downwind (my GPS said we peaked at 8.8 knots). Once or twice a day a squall flashed through, whipping up heavy wind and getting us wet, then disappearing into the distance.

The Living

Spending a week on a boat is a lot like camping and you’ll never mistake us for campers. We missed free-flowing fresh water the most. We sloshed it around a lot more than true cruisers would, but didn’t use nearly as much as we wanted. We were ready for a long shower when we got back!

The British Virgin Islands

It’s truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Every way you look, every time you look, it’s magnificent. Every harbor was gorgeous, but our favorite was Sugar Cane Cove on the north side of Tortola, surrounded by high hills decorated with a few small buildings.

And the weather was always comfortable, with daytime highs in the low 80s and nighttime lows in the high 70s. It’s true that you never need more than sandals, shorts, T-shirt, and an occasional sweatshirt.

Navigation is a cinch, since you can always see your destination and follow the coastlines of the islands from a simple map. Our Moorings briefer called it “point and squirt” navigating.

We sailed a few hours most days and got into a harbor by mid afternoon, but even at that leisurely pace we circled Tortola in six days, including a full non-sailing day on Virgin Gorda.

The Solitude

This was small disappointment number one: It’s a bit crowded. You know all those magazine ads showing a single boat anchored off an empty, sandy beach? Forget it. There were a few day anchorages that might have had only two or three boats visiting, but the overnight spots were busy.

With lots of boats around, anchoring was hazardous, so we always tried to pick up a mooring ($20 per night everywhere). We anchored only two nights because the moorings were full by the time we arrived.

It’s a big ocean though, so there’s room for everybody. We only had to change course once or twice all week to avoid another boat. Try that on Lake Pleasant.

Bottom Line

Caribbean cruising was my fantasy, but fortunately Maryellen enjoyed it as much as I did. The sailing, the scenery, the freedom, and the semi-solitude were everything we could have hoped. We’ll be back, I think. But we may try the Mediterranean first!

Update in 2013

Since I wrote this, Maryellen and I have chartered many times in many places, but this narrative still holds true. Our most recent trip to the BVI was in December 2012 and we chartered this time from Footloose. The boat was slightly worn, but fine, and significantly less expensive than Moorings boats. Mooring balls were more expensive than in 2001, but more plentiful.

Besides two charter boat trips to the BVI, we’ve traveled five times to the Bitter End Yacht Club Pro-Am (which we highly recommend) and are big fans of BEYC and the gorgeous sound at Virgin Gorda. If you’re chartering, I’d suggest using the BEYC mooring balls instead of the ones at the adjacent Saba Rock. Saba offers ice and water, but the mooring balls are more exposed to wind and waves. Dinner at either Saba or BEYC’s dining room is expensive. The BEYC pub is fun and less expensive (but also pub-quality food).

In December, we visited the new Yacht Club Costa Smerelda, a base for super yachts and super rich in the sound. They were surprisingly welcoming and the glass of wine at the pool bar was surprisingly inexpensive. You might try it.

We’ve also tended to fly into Tortola from San Juan, which is more convenient than the St. Thomas stop and ferry trip, but however you do it, getting to  this paradise is time-consuming and expensive from Phoenix. And entirely worth it.