Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 8


Saturday, 18 April 2009

Return Sail to Road Harbour, Tortola

  • Up before the sun. Watch the sun rise on a half moon and a pair of bright planets.
  • We quickly pack up our gear and stow away after a buffet breakfast of mish-mash leftovers: cereal, tea biscuits and jam, cheeses, pepperoni and fruit.
  • By 7:30, we’re underway, destination where we began–the Sunsail marina in Road Harbour.
  • We enjoy a pleasant morning, soft, warm breezes and good sailing up to the mouth of the harbor. Sails down, we motor in and have our most hair-raising experience of the week maneuvering through all the traffic while trying to get confirmation from Sunsail about where exactly we’re supposed to dock the boat. Added to this is the challenge of backing (!!) into the slip.
  • With help from a Sunsail employee on the dock, we make it in with no problem.
  • Checking out is a snap. We return the ship-to-shore phone given to us by Sunsail (which came in handy when calling for the mechanic) and get back our dinghy deposit. We strip the bedding and dump it in the cockpit and take out the trash one last time.
  • Per charter boat custom, we offer up our leftover charcoal, dry goods, 1/4 bottle of rum and a couple of six-packs of coke we’d inherited from another boat in Spanish Harbour, to grateful boaters preparing to take off for their week’s sail.
  • After the onboard checkout (boat hook–check, four fenders–check, six cushions–check), we unload our gear and trundle over to the dockside restaurant for celebratory Bloody Marys. We made it!
  • Kudos all around and cheers for a great trip.
  • Lots of talk about “next time” as we begin planning for our next “sailcation.”
Our Room Had a View
  • Rick and Mary take off for the airport and the remaining four of us take a two-minute cab ride into town to our hotel, Maria by the Sea. Our room is on the second floor, overlooking the light blue water. It has a balcony with room for all of us to sit and enjoy the view, listening to the sea lap on the shore below.
  • Jen takes a swim in the pool and Anne does a load of laundry at a laundromat across the street.
  • We grab a late lunch at the only dining establishment that seems to be open, the hotel’s open-air dining room. While we eat our Neptune salads (very tasty indeed) we enjoy the view and watch a huge cruise ship that’s been at port here all day pull out to sea. I still feel like I’m rocking and rolling on the boat (a feeling that will stay with me for over 24 hours.)
A Much Bigger Boat
  • More relaxing and reading on the balcony, enjoying our last bottle of wine from the boat.
  • We have dinner at Spaghetti Junction, a restaurant overlooking the marina. In spite of its silly name, it turns out to be a great restaurant with a warm, casual ambiance. I had a delicious frutti du mar (scallops, shrimp and lobster) on angel hair pasta in a creamy lime tomato sauce. The clientele was a mixture of tourists and locals (always a good sign) and included a small, yet festive wedding party.

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 7

Friday, 17 April 2009

Sail from Jost Van Dyke to Norman Island, via Pelican Island and the Indians

    • Our final full day on the boat. It seems like forever that we were in Spanish Harbour and now it’s almost over!
    • Karen and I are up at 6 a.m. to watch the sunrise and read on deck. Good bird watching as we see lots of boobies and pelicans fishing in the cove.
    • An hour later, the rest of the crew is stirring and soon the captain is whipping up a batch of scrambled eggs and coffee. We have a delicious breakfast of eggs, tortillas, salsa, black beans, juice and coffee. A batch of tortellini is cooking on the stove for our pasta salad lunch. After lunch is made and everything stowed away, we drop the mooring and pull out for our best day of full sailing.
Great Thatch Island
    • We sail through Thatch Island cut, past Soper’s Hole on Tortola and through The Narrows, between Tortola and St. John islands, then along the south coast of Tortola and down toward Norman Island.
    • We stop at Pelican Island and The Indians for lunch, where we’re lucky to snag one of the day moorings at this popular spot. Outstanding scenery 360-degrees around, with a spectacular view of Tortola in the distance, Pelican Island (above) on our left, the reef and snorkelers between the outcropping of steep rocks knows as The Indians (right) to our right, and Norman Island behind.

The Indians

  • Our terrific three-hour sail (nice, steady winds, calm seas and no rain) comes to an end when we motor in to The Bight at Norman Island and pick up our last mooring. We choose a spot far from the popular night spots on the island, Pirates and the notoriously raucous Willy T’s.
  • Another of what we’ve come to call our “lost afternoons”–sunning, napping, and reading until it’s time for the cocktail hour. We watch the sun go down over Tortola.
  • We decide to brave Willy T’s for dinner, a floating bar/restaurant on a two-story ferry boat. In it’s heyday, the Willy T was known for drunken revelers stripping down and jumping into the water from the roof until liability ended the practice.
  • The food is surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We have grilled mahi mahi sandwiches, yellow fin tuna, striploin steak, prawns and the special of the day, a kind of jambalaya with sausage, shrimp and chicken.
  • As we leave, the party atmosphere in the bar is kicking off with some guy proclaiming, “We’ve got a jumper! My wife is going to jump!” Such pride. As our dinghy pulls away, we see two women buck-naked jumping hand-in-hand off the stern of the Willy T to general whoops and applause from the crowd.
  • Back on board, we do a bit more stargazing as we listen to the live music from Pirates float across the water. We turn in early, since we’ll be up and off early to sail back to Road Harbour in time for Rick and Mary to catch their plane back to Chicago.
Home Sweet Home

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 6

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Sail from Tortola to Garner Bay, Jost Van Dyke Island

    • A morning routine is in place: Karen, Rick and I are usually first up. I try to be up in time to see the sun rise at 6 am. Rick boils water for the coffee (Starbucks individual instant coffee has been a life-saver for this caffeinnated crew) and everyone grabs what they want for breakfast.
    • Sipping coffee on deck as everyone comes to life, serenaded by the laughing gulls on the water and the roosters on the island.

    • After breakfast, while Karen, Mary and I stow the kitchen and batten down for the day’s sail, Rick, Anne and Jenny plot our course, entering the waypoints from the charts into the GPS.
    • Before we get underway, some of us make a quick trip to shore to take out the trash and stop at the market for a few provisions.
    • Stopping at the beach to buy postcards, I’m reminded how glad I am not to be on a cruise ship, as a small bus load of older, pudgy tourists pours out of a minibus and creaks their way over to the bathroom to form an instant line.
    • Back on board, we head over to the gas dock to top-off the water tanks before heading out for the day.
    • Since our destination is directly across the channel, we sail around a bit with Jenny at the helm, passing Manchioneel Bay, Green Cay, and Sandy Spit, just off Little Jost Van Dyke island, making a note to drop anchor there next time around.
    • We enjoy some very nice sailing under a strong wind and then into Little Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, where we pick up a mooring ball on the west side of Garner Bay. We’ve got a nice view of last night’s overnight stop, Cane Garden Bay and our mooring is directly below the arc of lights we could see from across the channel the night before.
    • We pass another relaxing evening on deck. Anne takes me for a spin in the dinghy to shoot some video of the boat from the water.
    • More reading and prepping for the cocktail hour when Gunn, the Sunsail mechanic arrives to look at our battery problem. He assesses the problem right away and makes the repair in less than an hour. Like everyone we’ve encountered in the BVIs, he’s extremely personable.
Garner Bay
    • Gunn instructs us to run the boat’s engine for a couple of hours to charge the house batteries, so we stick around on deck drinking wine and enjoying the sunset.
    • A thirty-second dinghy ride over to Sidney’s Love and Peace for dinner. The restaurant is as sleepy as the cove. We’re one of six boats moored in Garner Bay and one of only two parties at the restaurant.
    • A woman named Strawberry greets us when we step off and the staff makes us feel welcome. In no time, we’ve ordered up a round of Sidney’s specialty lobster, conch stew and BBQ. Strawberry kindly tells us everything is made to order, so it will be a spell of Island time before our food is ready, and to be patient–it will be worth it.


  • Sidney’s has a bar that works on the honor system and has for over 39 years. Go on back and help yourself, just write down what you take on your meal ticket. That’s all the encouragement our party needs to play bartender. Rick uncorks a bottle of red wine and Jenny mixes herself a painkiller.
  • Our leisurely wait is time well-spent at a table right on the water and we’re rewarded with an excellent meal. The BBQ of beef, chicken and pork is slathered in a fantastic sauce, with tasty sides of potato salad, red beans & rice, and coleslaw. The lobster, locally caught, is delicious; Anne, a frequent diner of Maine lobster proclaims it the best she’s ever had. The “small” sized lobster is a generous portion, served with a butter sauce.
  • Back to the boat around ten p.m. and before too long we turn in. This peaceful harbor provides the best night’s sleep I’ve had so far. Calm water and plenty of tranquility.

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 5

Between the Camanoe Islands

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Sail from Marina Cay to Cane Garden Bay, Tortola

    • Breakfast and boat preparations early in the morning as a choir of rooster calls echoes back and forth across the island. We’re on our way before nine o’clock.
    • We motor along Beef Island and cut through the Camanoe Islands (Little Camanoe on the left and Great Camano on the right) then head west, past Monkey Point on Guana Island, traveling along the north side of Torotola to our next destination, Cane Garden Bay.
    • The trade winds are unusually strong for the area (25 knots) and even with the sail reefed, the boat heels quite a bit with the lower rail of the boat nearly in the water. Quite an exciting sail!
    • After a brisk back and forth, we take down the sails and head into Cane Garden Bay where there’s lots of beach activity and a few jet skis buzzing around.

Laughing Gull

  • This is a popular overnight spot and by the afternoon, most of the mooring balls have been filled.
  • After lunch, we lounge around on deck, reading, napping, card playing, napping, and more reading.
  • Laughing gulls provide a good bit of entertainment. They alight on the dinghy and laugh, laugh, laugh. Flocks of them float by in the water.
  • Colorful houses dot the hillside. Pelicans and frigate birds swirl like hawks over the island. I enjoy watching the cloud shadows play over the green hills and canyons of Tortola. As the boat swings gently back and forth, the view before me is constantly changing.
  • Cocktail hour on the boat as we watch the sunset. Then we dinghy over to shore to have dinner at Quitos. Burgers all around on the open-air balcony overlooking the bay and a view of our boat.
  • Back on the boat, we chill out with music and conversation, stargazing and watching the lights on shore until it’s time to turn in.
Cocktail Hour
Ships Pass

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 4

Navigating Out of the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Sailing from Virgin Gorda to Marina Cay

    • A new routine has been established–breakfast on deck, with cereal, bagels, fresh fruit and coffee.
    • We make a quick trip to the marina market to re-provision ice. It seems the fridge isn’t working so well and we buy a styrofoam cooler to keep food on ice.
    • Jenny and Rick plot our day’s course, a short sail past the Dog Islands (“the Dogs”), across Sir Francis Drake Channel and into Marina Cay.

Racing to Marina Cay

    • Winds are the heaviest we’ve seen yet (20 knots) and we reef the sail to keep from heeling too far. (Translation: we decrease the sail area by taking the sail down about half-way, preventing the windward side of the boat from hiking up too far.) Not everyone in our party is excited for an opportunity to sit on the “high side.”
    • The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, as we pass by one island after another.
    • It’s a bit of a tricky maneuver to get in around Marina Cay–a small island surrounded by a reef and encircled by other, larger islands, but wow, the view that opens up as we swing around the cay from the North-East is stunning. The island is trimmed with palm trees and bright red roofs of the market, gas dock, Pussers restaurant and hotel on the east side.

    • We score a choice mooring near Mother Turtle Reef, with an unobstructed view of Tortola across the water, the prettiest we’ve seen so far.
    • The varying blues of the reef are gorgeous, the ever-changing blues of the channel contrasting with the jewel green of the reef and Beef
      Island looming large and dramatic in the distance. This is exactly how I imagined the Virgin Islands to be.
    • Our welcoming party is a school of fish, repeatedly jumping out of the water.
    • Hot dogs on the grill for lunch followed by down time, napping, reading and relaxing.

Marina Cay

    • Around three in the afternoon, we take our first venture out in the dinghy, over to the cay to explore and do some snorkeling. Rick and Mary take a walk around the island while Jenny, Karen, Anne, and I snorkel in the reef just below the seaside restaurant.
    • Nothing too spectacular to see until I spot an eagle ray! It’s huge with a big nose, a very long tail, and a large wingspan, gently flapping up and down. To see it so close is thrilling, amazing and scary all at once, awesome to watch him glide along with an easy stroke. He’s in surprisingly shallow water and has a small, thin blue fish following close by, near his back. When I recover from the shock, I gesture wildly to my friends, coming up above the water to point out the big, scary flying fish!
    • I’m a wimp–he’s so near, in such shallow water, and came up on me so suddenly that it’s a little too up-close-and-personal with underwater nature for me and it’s not long before I’m out of the water.  😕
    • Also saw many dark purple and red anemones in the rocks near the shore. Watch your step!
    • On the walk back to the dock, I log a new bird for my Life List, the Bananaquit. I’ve also seen the semipalmated plovers, brown booby, and magnificent frigatebird.
    • Back on the boat for a bit more relaxing on deck, hanging laundry, reading and taking photographs during the magic hour as the sun sets.

  • Cocktail hour and then back in the dinghy again, this time with the added challenge of driving among the moored boats in the dark.
  • Dinner at Pussers restaurant, the famous home of the pain killer. The food is excellent, most of us opting for the ribs served Caribbean-style with spicy BBQ and ginger sauce. Conch fritters, another local delicacy, to start.
  • Our waitress is friendly and a bit overworked; the food is slow to arrive–the kitchen seems to be operating on “island time”. Nearly three hours later, we’re back in the boat and the tired crew turns in.
  • Unfortunately, we don’t log much quality sleep time since the boat rocks and rolls through the night with waves slapping against the hull all night.

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 3 (Part II)

The Baths

Monday, 13 April 2009

    • The Baths, a collection of huge rocks and boulders on the south end of Virgin Gorda, is a popular place for hiking, swimming and snorkeling. Popular with cruise ship tours, it can get crowded, so we’ve planned our visit for late in the day. Rather than take the dinghy and wade to shore, (not something I relished doing with my camera gear), we opt to arrive by land, taking a 10-minute taxi ride from Spanish Town.
    • The island night life is getting started early. Loud music is playing everywhere, as we happen to be in the BVIs on a holiday weekend (Easter Monday). Our taxi has to make a bit of a detour to avoid a slow-moving parade.
  • The cab drops us off and the driver agrees to return at six to pick us up.
  • A short walk down through boulders to the beach and The Baths. Unfortunately, we’ve arrived too late to walk through the Caves, which close after 4:30, so we content ourselves with the beautiful beach.
  • Rick, Karen, Anne and Jenny snorkel around the rocks while Mary walks down the beach and I take photos. It’s a perfect time to be here, very few people and great light at the end of the day.
  • We return to the yacht club to make good use of the shower facilities and then enjoy dinner on board, delicious grilled chicken.
  • Unfortunately, Spanish Town is party central this weekend and we’re serenaded by the dueling sound systems of two outdoor bars. Non-stop reggae blaring until midnight. A complete opposite from the tranquility of our quiet anchorage the night before. We all make a note to scratch Spanish Town off our list of repeat visits.
Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 3 (Part I)

Monday, 13 April 2009

Sail from Peter Island to Spanish Harbor, Virgin Gorda

    • The sun and the crew are up at 6:30 a.m. Coffee and breakfast topside.
    • From the boat, wildlife spotted on Peter Island include wild goats and brown pelicans.
    • Anne, Jenny and Rick familiarize themselves with the workings of the cockpit GPS, something we’re not used to sailing with at home. They plot our course to Virgin Gorda, with a stopover at Cooper Island for lunch.
    • By 8:30, we’ve got the boat stowed and we’re underway.

House on the Hill

    • A nice sail through the Sir Francis Drake Channel, past Dead Chest and Salt Island, over to Cooper Island where we pick up a mooring ball and have lunch. The view of a rocky outcropping between Cooper and Salt Island behind us is absolutely spectacular. Shimmering blue green water, bright blue sky and puffy white clouds. To the north, rainstorms look to be heading down the channel toward us, but no one minds. We chill out on deck, waiting out the weather.
    • After a couple of hours, we head off again, chasing continuing bands of rain clouds, but up ahead the sun is shining on our destination, the island of Virgin Gorda.
    • We pop up the sail and the jib, the crew beginning to fall into a rhythm on the new boat. With Rick at the helm, Jenny mans the sail up on the foredeck while Anne raises the mainsail. I tail and take over for her to get the sail all the way up. (This is a much larger sail than we’re used to and none of us has the greatest upper-body strength.) Then Anne and Jenny let out the jib. We’re flying now.
    • We sail in the best wind we’ve had so far. The sky clears, the temperature returns to a balmy warmth and we’re jetting past Ginger Island and Fallen Jerusalem.
Round Rock
  • All eyes out for “traffic” on the water (not much to speak of) including lobster traps bobbing on the surface. The GPS keeps us on course.
  • Coming in to Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor is a bit of a trick, with its narrow entry around a shallow reef right at the mouth of the harbor.
  • Though we’ve called ahead for a slip, it’s not clear which one is ours so we just take the first one we see. Our entry is less than picture-perfect and we employ all the bumpers one after the other to keep the boat from hitting the corner of the dock. Yikes.
  • After paying for our slip and picking up the key to the bathroom/showers, we top off our water tanks and arrange for a cab to take us the the island’s premier attraction, The Baths.

Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 2

Good Morning Peter Island

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Sail to Peter Island, Overnight in Great Harbour

Happy Easter!

  • A few brief periods of rain showers throughout the night. Nothing gets you up faster than rain falling on your face through the open hatch overhead. Usually the storm was finished by the time we’d gotten all the portholes and hatches closed and we’d go around opening them all up again.
  • Grabbed some coffee before our 7:30 boat briefing. A Sunsail staff member gave us the onboard rundown of (hopefully) everything we’ll need to know to take command of the boat (charging batteries, using the toilets, radio frequencies to monitor, how to call for help, etc.) We impressed him by having not one but two note-takers on board. I try to absorb as much information as I can.
  • Our captain, Rick, and first mate, Jenny, head off to the “Captain’s Briefing,” a mandatory meeting where Sunsail gives them a status update of weather and conditions in the area, as well as tips for where to go and what to avoid.
  • Promptly at 9 am, our delivery of provisions from Bobby’s Market arrives. Two cart loads of supplies include a case of wine and two cases of local beer, Red Stripe, which just happens to be this Chicago crew’s on-board summertime beverage of choice.
  • A flurry of of groceries ensues. Think of it as unloading four shopping carts full of stuff (dry goods, fruit, veggies, frozen meat, snacks, paper products, and lots of bottled water.) It’s a little like a big puzzle figuring out where to stash everything in every nook and cranny of the boat.
  • A final quick run to the nearby market to stock up on SPF800 sunscreen.
  • Repairs on the fridge/freezer are complete and the batteries fully charged; the mechanic gives us the thumbs up and we’re good to go.

Then the real fun begins, shoving off and figuring out where the heck we were headed.

Evening in Great Harbor

  • Our destination was Great Harbour, but a domino effect of confusion results when conflicting GPS readings, old maps and guide books (only two years old, mind you) with out-dated land marker info and no mooring balls where we were told they would be have us zig-zagging back and forth between coves of unknown name.
  • Finally, trusting one photo clue from the chart book and the hand-held GPS, we head into our destination point on Peter Island and drop anchor in the SE corner of the bay.
  • There are a handful of boats at anchor in this quiet, relaxing overnight spot. Napping and book reading commence.
  • The first swim! Everybody’s in the water. Though it’s a bit chilly to dip your toe into, once in, it’s wonderfully refreshing. The water is very salty. Swam a 360 around the boat then hosed off with the shower on deck.
  • Dinners will be split between restaurants and meals we cook on board in the galley with an emphasis on the BBQ grill hanging off the deck. Our first night “at sea,” Karen and I have KP duty. We grill steak, onions and peppers for fajitas while the rest of the gang enjoy cocktails on deck. After a full day out on the water, everyone has a good appetite and the meal is a success, with plenty of leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
  • The sun sets by 6:30 and we dine by the deck lights.
  • Stargazing before bed. Once again, our sleep is interrupted a few times during the night by brief rain showers.

Sunset Over Sir Francis Drake Channel #2


Sailing the British Virgin Islands, Day 1



This weekend, I have my first big planning meeting for our sailcation in the British Virgin Islands. In doing research to plan our route through the islands in April, I thought it would be a good time to revisit last year’s trip. Installments of my 2009 trip journal and photos to follow in the days to come.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

    • We fly from Chicago to Puerto Rico and then on to Tortola where we will claim our boat in Road Harbour. Passports required, since we’ll be in the British Virgin Islands. Biggest challenge (next to figuring out just how much food to provision a 48-foot sailboat with a crew of six for a week) was fitting all my gear into a duffel bag big enough to hold everything but small enough to stow (not check) on the plane. (No one wants to be held up at the marina, waiting for a luggage delivery.)
    • First hurdle cleared when all our luggage fits in the overhead bin. (The medium adventure duffel bag from L.L. Bean turned out to be a great buy. You can stuff a lot in it (especially when combined with packing cubes) and it stows away easily in the plane and on the boat, where storage is at a premium.)
    • After a short layover in San Juan, we board an island hopper for the 40-minute flight to Beef Island, Tortola.
    • Other than a helicopter ride in Hawaii, this is the smallest aircraft (eight passengers) I’ve ever flown in. The flight was smooth and gave us a nice overview of the Virgin Islands.
    • Clearing customs is a snap, especially if you don’t use green pen to fill out the form.

Taking Command of the Ship

    • Sunsail (the charter company) picks us up at the airport for the 10-minute ($9) shuttle ride to the marina.
    • We’ve arrived! Our boat (The Wandering Eye) is almost ready. They’re tinkering with some technical problems, having to do with the refrigerator.
    • The crew explores the boat and hangs out on deck, enjoying the warm breeze. (Though it’s April, for us midwesterners, spring is a good month off, so we’re just thrilled to be in the sunny warmth, free from bulky winter coats.)
    • The sun begins to set and we all note that it’s setting earlier than it does in Chicago. (It’s not until a few days into the vacation that it dawns on me why–we’re near the equator, where no matter what time of year it is, you have 12 hours of sunlight. Duh.)
    • Technical problems with the boat persist and they’ll have to continue looking at it in the morning. (Boats chartered by the week are turned around quickly, kind of like floating hotel rooms; guests return their boat in the morning, unload their stuff, and check out. Cleaning and maintenance crews tidy up, restock the boat with the basics, and attend to any repairs before the next crew boards the boat that evening.)

Captain Rick and First Mate Jenny Walk the Deck

  • We don’t unpack too much, since we may have to switch to another boat, depending on the outcome of the fridge problem. Luckily our provisions (purchased on-line from a local grocery) won’t be delivered until tomorrow.
  • There aren’t any dining options within walking distance and it’s getting late, so we opt to have dinner at the restaurant overlooking the marina. The food is decent, nothing spectacular and overpriced. We all enjoy our first (of what would be many) painkillers, the local specialty drink, a frothy mixture of rum, orange juice, pineapple juice and cream of coconut, dusted with nutmeg.