by Mike Ferring
Bulletin: The British Virgin Islands are still some of the greatest sailing and vacation grounds in the world.
It was exactly 20 years ago that Maryellen and I honeymooned on a charter boat in the BVI; 20 years later we decided it was the perfect way to celebrate a big anniversary. Read about that honeymoon trip in this story I wrote for the AYC website and you’ll see that surprisingly little has changed.
In September 2017, the islands took an awful blow from Hurricane Irma, dropped to their knees, but have now stumbled back up. Ignore the mast of the sunken sailboat leaving The Moorings base at New Town, get past the restaurants and stores still and maybe forever closed and you’ll discover that the place is thriving again.
It has wonderful built-in advantages: warm climate and warm water; consistent trade winds in the 15kt range; a close cluster of islands with little bays within a short line-of-sight sail of each other; and a handful of famous, fun destinations. They speak English and take our dollars. As a result, the boat charter business has boomed. If there’s a problem for the BVI, it’s that the charter business has over-boomed. It gets crowded.
Maryellen and I like monohulls because they sail better than catamarans, but cats are the clear boat of choice for most visitors. It’s the huge space and the flat ride. In fact, a lot of people opt to chop off the sails and simply charter power cats: odd-looking giant party platforms. The cats are huge, as much as 60 feet long, 25+ feet wide, three stories tall with 8-10 people onboard and all the comforts of a resort: Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, water maker, air conditioning, and so on. This is not roughing it.
But the sailing-oriented 38’ Beneteau monohull we chartered from The Moorings had several small, critical improvements over boats we’ve chartered in the past, all of which made it easier for the two of us to handle it.
For instance: To get fire on the stove, instead of turning a valve on the propane bottle, flipping a switch on the main panel, striking a match, waiting for the flame to light, now we could click a switch under the sink, turn on the burner and press the electric striker. No fuss. There’s now an electric refrigerator rather than the ice box that needed ice replenishment and careful stacking of provisions. This boat had an actual shower room rather than a dual-purpose head and shower. The engine didn’t need a key to start. The dinghy is now a RIB rather than that soft-floor thing we had 20 years ago.
In this era of online grocery ordering, provisioning should be a snap, right? It didn’t work that way for us. First, ordering food online is harder than strolling grocery aisles and dropping food in your basket. Second, when do you order and where do they deliver? We actually spoke with the manager of the Rite Way grocery store that’s 5-6 blocks from The Moorings base who told us that if we ordered by 2pm, it would be delivered the next morning and Moorings would know what to do with it and it was free. Well, we did and they didn’t and there was a 10% surcharge. We had to pick up the order at the store and paid $15 for a cab to carry it to Moorings. We recommend just shopping at the store, though maybe having heavy items such as water delivered would work.
Since our last BVI charter in 2013, the moorings have been upgraded so that the pennant now floats beside the ball where it can (usually) be easily captured with a boat hook. Maryellen had nightmares about having to somehow get a line through an eye on the top of the ball by herself, as she had to do (with help) that last time.
And we marked this as a major upgrade: Emory and Deb Heisler sailed in the BVI last fall and tipped us off to Boatyball. It’s an app, of course, since everything is now. It allows you to reserve a mooring ball at 7 in the morning each day at most popular mooring fields. No need to race off to the next stop to grab a mooring; Boatyball has you covered. We spent every night on a mooring and never anchored.
Boat density varies a lot by season and during the most popular times the available moorings are snapped up in a hurry. During our trip, just after the first of the year, on some nights several mooring balls went unused. There’s a $10 surcharge for using a Boatyball mooring, bringing the charge to $40/night, but it was well worth it for the peace of mind.
Virgin Gorda and the Bitter End Yacht Club
Bitter End Yacht Club holds an almost sacred place among BVI fans. We absolutely loved the place and visited 8-10 times, mostly for the annual Pro-Am. It was devastated by hurricane Irma and four years later it’s still only starting to come back.
What’s BEYC like now? It’s difficult for us to say this, but for us the charm is mostly gone and the new construction isn’t very appealing. There are still no guest rooms. The pizza we had for dinner was like cardboard. But we rented a Hobie Wave at BEYC watersports and that was loads of fun.
Nearby Saba Rock was a different story. Saba Rock has been completely resurrected and they did a brilliant job with it. Lunch there was also excellent.
Mooring in the glorious North Sound is still best at BEYC rather than Saba Rock, because it’s better protected. Reserve a mooring at email@example.com. It was more expensive even than Boatyball at $47.20/night.
Pick your own stops as you circle Tortola because there are lots of choices. We first stopped at Cooper Island and liked it so much we came back for our last night. The Cooper Island Beach Club is well done, with a coffee shop, extensive rum bar, brewery, and excellent restaurant. Both dinners we had there were very good, especially the lobster on the final night. Be sure to make a reservation. On the other hand, a slight wind shift left the mooring field somewhat exposed and we “Hard Rocked” the entire last night.
Cane Garden Bay is still pretty, but the restaurant we chose (and there are few choices) was expensive and terrible. On Jost van Dyke, we scooped up souvenirs at Foxy’s, ate on the boat, and spent the night in the most crowded bay of the trip. Then, after sailing for a week, we finished with three nights at the Scrub Island Resort, which was pretty and where you’re invited to plunk down your cash for multi-million-dollar homes and condos.
International travel in the Age of Covid is an ever-changing puzzle. Flying from Phoenix to San Juan to Tortola presented a web of confusing rules, with the most challenging in Puerto Rico. Maryellen blew a mental circuit breaker trying to make the PR online system work. When we arrived at the San Juan airport, the baggage level was clogged with tangled lines of people backed up behind regiments of officials in white Tyvek bunny suits. We were supposed to show them a QR code to pass and make our connecting flight. It never worked. Both coming and going, the bunny-suited monitors finally got as exasperated as we did and just let us pass.
The requirements for travel included vaccine, booster, and a test within 24 hours of arrival, both in San Juan and Tortola. At Tortola, they marched us through a special arrival building where they checked our temperature and documents. The night before our BVI departure, the Scrub Island Resort brought in a tester who departed with $125 from each of us.
But in the End
Terrific. We skied over the moguls and celebrated the downhill glory of sun, wind, and sailing, finding it easier than expected and at least as much fun as we remembered. We’ve now had the opportunity to charter in about a dozen destinations and none is better than these sweet, sunny islands.
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