British Virgin Islands: Let the trade winds fill your sails

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The purpose of this report, compiled at the end of last season was twofold: to live a week of charter and share this experience, but also to take stock of the British Virgin Islands as a destination after Hurricane Irma struck in September 2017. Sailors familiar with the Caribbean know these heavenly islands. Earthlings, less so... Whether you're talking about the British Virgin Islands or the BVI, most of your friends will raise an eyebrow: "Where’s that?" In the Caribbean, between Puerto Rico in the west and Saint Maarten in the east. Your flight necessarily stops in one of these two islands, before taking a small prop-plane that barely rises above the little cumulus clouds. Already this is a whole adventure... The main airport of the BVI archipelago is located on Beef Island, on the edge of a quiet anchorage - transformed into a boat cemetery since the hurricane passed. Barely 200 meters (600’) to the dock: go on foot, a taxi driver asked us $20 for this ridiculous trip... A pontoon lost in the darkness of the tropical night, a warm trade wind rustling in the coconut trees – we’re already getting into the atmosphere of the islands! Every hour, a free shuttle takes you to Scrub Island, after a stop at Marina Cay. This islet, with its famous red-roofed gas station and its bar, the Robb White House, appears to have fared the best here. Even the Dream Yacht Charter base left from the main island of Tortola after the passage of Irma, to take up residence in a hotel/marina complex here.

One hull each: the ultimate in luxury!

We quickly spot our Bali 4.0, and are looking forward to getting some sleep aboard... There’s only two of us - my brother Paul and myself. One hull each! When we wake up, we discover imposing buildings but a pleasant and practical setting - shops, swimming pools, a small beach, there are worse things to see while waiting for the skipper's briefing. The handover of a charter catamaran is done in three stages: first of all, the various formalities are settled at the DYC office, the weather and navigation briefing is next, and finally the operation of all the catamaran's equipment is reviewed. Engines, winches, tender, windlass, electric circuits, tanks, watermaker: nothing’s left out of the imposing checklist, which allows you to get by afterwards. A good tip? Take a picture - or mini video - of key elements such as the location of the windlass fuse, it might be useful! We have chosen to have the boat fully provisioned in advance. Prices charged are high - about $400 for two people - but ultimately cheaper than those charged by the small convenience store in the resort. And shopping from a boat is not easy in the BVI - unless you take a taxi. Our Bali, at the far end of the harbor, promises a complicated maneuver to get out. Very kindly, a DYC technician offers to take the controls. He jumps into his dinghy as soon as we’re clear of the jetties. "Enjoy!” So, where are we going?

50 islands to discover

On the chart, there are about fifty islands, many of which are deserted. Not all of them have leeward anchorages, but the possibilities are endless. We start with Guana Island and its White Bay beach, very close and perfect for a first swim in warm, turquoise water. Immaculate white sand, translucent water and coconut palms, we are already in paradise, all less than 3 miles from the charter base! Not much more to do though: the island is private. This first dive is delicious but a little spoiled by what we discover under the surface: nothing to complain about on the seabed, but rather on our hulls and appendages, colonized by tropical crustaceans... Meals, dishes, and relaxation: life on board is organized. The open concept of the Bali is perfect for the tropics. You can stay in the shade and the cool during the hottest part of the day, or on the large, open area on the foredeck when the sun isn’t bearing down too hard.

We hoist the mainsail, put in a reef and unfurl the genoa, ready for nice leg to Virgin Gorda and its mythical lagoon - that's where Richard Branson owns a magnificent villa. The trade wind is established at 20 knots, peaking at 22, the sea a little rough - nothing bad. But our speed doesn't exceed 4 knots, not to mention anything about our heading. Our Bali 4.0 has nothing to do with it: I tested this catamaran when it was first launched, and the speeds recorded at the time were much more flattering! In short, we’ll be helping with the engine for most of our sailing – shown by $180 spent at the gas station at the end of our trip, which is why it is important to keep the hulls clean. The arrival in the lagoon, where I’d sailed two years earlier, is a shock: there is nothing left. All the marinas, with the exception of Leverick Bay, are destroyed or undergoing re-construction. The wonderful site that was Bitter End has been razed to the ground. A crane is busy on the islet of Saba Rock. The immense body of water that used to accommodate hundreds of boats every day is practically deserted. To the west, the wreck of a cargo ship is a reminder of Irma's violence. We spend an absolutely calm night here, anchored off the beach at Prickly Pear island. Virgin Gorda also offers two other spots. The number one, The Baths, is a must-see: an extraordinary tangle of rocks in lush vegetation, miniature beaches and clear water. It’s best to go there at the end of the day for an ideal light. A visit to the site is possible from ashore as well. Less than two miles away, Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda's largest town, offers good overnight moorings – mooring balls north of the port and the possibility of slipping between the coral reef and the beach. Ashore, some nice restaurants. Our favorite? The Bamboo! The south of the archipelago has a string of five islands, the Little Sisters. From east to west: Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter and Norman. All of them are very wild and offer excellent anchorage possibilities in the lee of the trade winds. Cooper and Peter both have mooring balls available and shore-based infrastructure while Salt Island has remained frozen in time since the hurricane. From Norman, a long downwind sail on the starboard tack leads us along the border with the USA - obviously it’s invisible on the water! We go around the western end of Tortola to reach Jost Van Dyke - called here simply Jost or JVD - and its magnificent beaches.

Anegada, its bush and coral...

Back to the chart: 25 nautical miles east-northeast, the island of Anegada is calling us... we follow the northern coast of Tortola to limit the chop, then push our Bali on further to the east, protected by Virgin Gorda. It’s a bit further, but we are then well-positioned for a 12 nm crossing, with the wind on the beam. The sea is a little rougher; however, the swell is quickly tamed by the shallow waters of Anegada, which extend far to the southeast. Our favorable point of sail and the strong wind finally allow us to sail without the support of the engines. The approach to the island is confusing: you can't see it! And then a few black dots begin to appear - these are the tallest trees. Anegeda is indeed, unlike all the other islands of the BVI'S, very flat since its highest point is only 8 meters (25’). Gradually, the lapping of the water disappears and then it becomes clearer and turns turquoise. You can even see the seabed perfectly: a sailing dream... The island is large - 19 km (12 miles) long by 5 km (3 miles) wide - and lined with sublime beaches. But the coral limits the access to Setting Point only. The anchorage is vast, but obviously popular. In the evening, the atmosphere is particularly festive at Potter's Bar, where crews mark their passage on the beams and walls of the establishment. Less than a mile to the west, another anchorage is possible. Practically deserted this one, but sometimes the surf complicates coming to shore by dinghy. Ashore, mangroves, bush, salt marshes where pink flamingos have been reintroduced and only 200 inhabitants... Are we going to stay one more night?

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