Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Trip of a Lifetime - Sailing the British Virgin Islands

Bit of a Background
Why a sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands?  With our running buddy’s (Roberta and her husband Mark Hammer) 25th wedding anniversary approaching, ideas began to be tossed out for ways to acknowledge this special occasion.  Mutual friends, Steve and Mary Turner (Mary also a running buddy), had suggested the idea of a sailing trip, and were kind enough to include us in the big adventure.  Of course we said “yes”! 
The planning for the trip began back in the fall, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the BVIs.

The Boat
With Steve’s training and sailing experience (west coast sailing), we all felt comfortable with the concept of a ‘bareboat’ charter (no hired crew).   The boat was a Lavezzi 40 cruising catamaran.   With two dining areas (inside and out) that accommodated eight, we were quite comfortable.  

There were three cabins and two heads.  We allocated the ‘owner’s cabin’ to Mark and Roberta, so the anniversary couple had the larger cabin and private head.  Terry and I shared the other head with Mary and Steve.
The name of this majestic cruiser?  The Bordello ……. Hmmm …

Life on the Boat
Being seasoned Rvers, all of us were very cognizant of the need to conserve water.  The boat’s tank held 80 gallons, and we easily lived with that.  Rather than indulging in long showers on the boat, we all opted for ‘communal baths’ in the warm, bath-like waters surrounding us.  No problem!
Almost instinctively we assumed our roles on the boat.  Leadership was quickly assumed.  Here's the Captain:
No, wait, here's the Captain:
Wait a minute, wrong again:
Seriously, Steve - with his background of West Coast sailing, served as our able bodied Captain.
Mark and Terry were appointed as crewmates, with Mark also taking on the critical role of "Dinghy Boat Captain" to our tender boat, the "Santa Maria" (so how was it that our tender boat had a more dignified name than our catamaran??).  
Terry's expertise with the mop earned him the title of “Kemo Swabbie”.
Mary, by virtue of her position as ‘Captain’s wench’, was readily promoted to step in as assistant captain when required.   

Roberta and I, on the other hand, were promptly demoted to the position of ‘Galley wenches’.   And there we remained.
The following is a day-by-day log of our sailing trip:
Saturday, April 3rd  - Travel Day
Phoenix, Arizona – Miami, Florida – San Juan, Puerto Rico – Tortolla, Beef Island, BVI
After a whirlwind visit with sister and brother-in-law Tammy & Tom, who nicely agreed to stay at our Arizona home and babysit ‘the kids’ for us, we flew out of Phoenix at 7:45 a.m. on route to Tortolla, BVI.
Our stops were Miami and then San Juan, Puerto Rico.   From there we were to meet up with the rest of our group and travel to Tortolla, Beef Island, BVI.   The flight itinerary was pretty tight between stops, so we were a little concerned about making all of our connections on time.  One delayed flight could be disasterous. 
We packed accordingly, making sure that we both had carry-on bags containing all of our clothing and essentials.  Our only checked bag contained ‘non-essentials’ (scuba/snorkelling gear, water shoes, etc.).  No problem if this bag didn’t make a connecting flight.
The flight gods must have been smiling on us, as things went smoothly and we were soon sitting in the airport at San Juan, Puerto Rico, waiting to meet up with the rest of our sailing mates who would be coming from their connecting flight at Houston, Texas.
We checked their flight status, only to see that the flight was delayed.  Their new arrival time was estimated for 8:05 p.m.  This posed a bit of a problem, as the flight to Tortolla was scheduled to depart at 8:25 p.m.  This was also the last flight out to Tortolla.  If they missed this, they wouldn’t have an opportunity to connect with another flight until the following day.
We pondered our options, realizing that we did not even know the name of the hotel we were supposed to be staying in on Tortolla that evening, nor who was supposed to be meeting us at the airport.  Not good planning on our part!
Thankfully, as we were standing in line to board the plane, Steve and Mary, Mark and Roberta raced down the airport and made their way into the line.  What a relief for all of us!  Everyone’s mood lifted dramatically.  The sailing crew was all present and accounted for.  Let the holiday begin!
After checking into the Village Cay Marina Hotel, we had a late supper and called it a night.
Sunday, April 4th
Tortolla to Norma Island
We awoke to the sound of roosters crowing, a sound we would soon get accustomed to.  It was a beautiful, warm, sunny, tropical day.  Just as one would imagine it should be.  After breakfast, we were picked up by cab and delivered to the nearby Road Town marina, where our catamaran was waiting for us to board.
Steve was required to go through a brief orientation before taking over the boat.  We also had to wait until the food provisions that Mary and Roberta had pre-ordered were delivered.  It turned out to be a surprising amount of food, with some unusual selections thrown in (who eats canned corned beef??) by the grocery store.  Enough food was ordered to cover every breakfast, lunch, and the majority of our suppers, allowing for a few suppers off the boat.
Our biggest issue was finding space to store all of this food.  Boat fridges are small, with freezer space being virtually miniscule.  We had steak, chicken, hamburger and two kinds of fish that needed to be kept cold.  The meat was relegated to the ice chest, with the rest of perishables stored in the fridge.   Ice management soon became a daily ritual for us.  Throw in the need to have readily available cold bottled water, pop and beer, and space and ice issues could have been difficult. 
Luckily, Terry put a little pre-thought into this, and brought along a collapsible, lined garbage can.  Perfect!   It soon became a permanent fixture at the back of the boat.
We left the harbour under ‘iron jib’ (motor), allowing Steve the opportunity to get the feel of the boat, and to provide some critical sailing instructions to key members of the crew, Terry and Mark.
We set sail for Norman Island, which is an easy sail from Road Town Harbour and a good choice for the first evening’s moorage because of this.
Norma Island is better known as Treasure Island, and is, according to the literature, “resplendent with stories of buried treasure from the 1700’s”.
We pulled into the main anchorage – the Bight – and found ourselves sharing the harbour with 50-100 boats of varying sizes.  There was everything from 40’ catamarans like ours, to 100+ foot floating palaces.
We parked close to the “William Thornton”, a floating restaurant/bar named for the architect of the U.S. capital building.  It is a replica of a topsail lumber schooner (93’) and serves lunch and dinner.  Nicknamed the “Willy T”, it is a famous party spot, and is said to be “often riotously fun”.
We moored at 4:00 and promptly poured ourselves our first happy hour drink – a “Painkiller” – which is a lovely, rum-based drink.  Yummmmm. 
The Galley wenches soon kicked in gear, whipping up our first on-board supper of barbequed swordfish, which we toasted with champagne.
Wanting to check out the ‘riotous fun’ for ourselves, we boarded the trusty Santa Maria (our tender boat – strange how our tender had a more dignified name than our 40’ catamaran ……) and motored over to the bar, where we joined the lively crowd of party-going yachters.
It was a beautiful evening – more stars in the sky than I had seen in a long, long time.  The night was warm, the waves were lapping gently, and the bartender was free-pouring the rum punch.  We moved upstairs to get away from the loud crowd below, and appreciated the number of boats in the harbour, lit only by the single mast light.
After a few drinks, we motored back to the boat, serenaded by the happy crowd singing from the bar.  What a great first day.
Then to bed … and what a HORRIBLE bed it was (at least for me).  Our bed consisted of a pie-shaped board covered by a thin mattress.  Our bedding was a set of sheets and one flat pillow each.  No extra pillows, no extra bedding.  I felt like I was sleeping on a kitchen table.  It was not a restful first night.
Our berth had a portal window that popped open to the portside (left) deck, and a side window at our feet that opened inside and faced the outside of the left pontoon.  I was awoken in the night to the feeling of rain on my face and water splashing on my feet.  I quickly elbowed Terry, and had him jump up and close the overhead portal window.  However, the heavy rain coming in the side window soaked the foot of the bed before we were able to close it.   Nice.
Monday, April 5th
Norman Island to Cooper Island
We were up and about by 7:30 a.m.  After brewing some coffee we quickly set sail for “The Indians”, a nearby outcropping of rocks with a reef that has excellent snorkelling.  This is a protected reef, with limited moorage.  Stopping there is on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis only.
We soon found that we were out of luck for stopping there, so made the decision to carry on to Manchaniel Bay at Cooper Island.  It was a good sail across, which tested the ability of our able crew.
I was surprised at the number of boats out on the water, which was spotted with white sails.
We reached Manchaniel Bay early afternoon.  The Galley wenches rustled up lunch, while Terry and Mark tendered off in search off ice.  They stopped at the nearby Cooper Island Beach Club and came back with four bags of ice, to the tune of $10/bag!  Ouch!!
Water sports took up the remainder of the afternoon.  It was extremely wonderful to jump off the boat and into that warm, gorgeous blue water and swim like a bunch of kids.  We donned our snorkel gear and made our way over to some nearby rocks, where we saw a turtle, a rather large barracuda and a number of beautiful fish and coral.
Happy Hour was spent offshore at the Cooper Island Beach Club, a lovely, laidback resort.  We partook of 2-for-1 Painkillers and accessed their free WIFI so everyone could check e-mail and make Skype calls to home.
The sunset was marvellous, and a perfect compliment to the lovely setting.
Back to the boat, we enjoyed another barbeque supper, followed by a lively game of cards.  Mark and Roberta introduced us to the game “Wizard”, and following their artfully doled out rules for the game, came in a surprising 1st and 2nd.   Hmmmmm … wait a minute … we’ll have to try that again.
Terry and Steve had planned to scuba dive, so they made arrangements for a dive boat to pick them up the next day.
Tuesday, April 6th
 Cooper Island to Marina Cay
 Up by 7:30 a.m. to inclement weather.  We experienced rain in the evening again, and the waves were high all night.  We left the swim ladder down, so it banged on the boat for some time, keeping some of the crew awake.  No damage done, however.
After an earlier breakfast, Terry and Steve were picked up by their dive boat, and set off for their wreck dive.  This area is known for having the best wreck diving in the Caribbean, and site of the world renowned wreck the RMS Rhone.  Terry and Steve were both extremely impressed with the dive.
Mark, Roberta, Mary and I whiled away the hours suntanning on the boat (we soon learned that evening or early morning rain was common and short lived), swimming, and tendering over to the Cooper Island Beach Resort to check out their gift shop and pick up more ice.
Following Terry and Steve’s return, we left Manchaniel Bay and sailed to Marina Cay, which lies between Camanoe (private) and Scrub Island
The island is surrounded by reef, and has a lovely resort and restaurants. 
There were no moorage spots available, so we had our first experience putting down anchor.  After setting up and having a swim, we cleaned up and tendered over to the Marina for Happy Hour. 
There was a definite “pirate” theme to the resort, which was obvious from the sign for the “Happy Arrrrrrr Bar”.  The bar was located at the peak of the Cay, and had a lovely view overlooking the bay.  

The resort catered to families, as there were children of all ages present at the bar.  Quite a different crowd from that of the “Willy T’s”!
We were treated to a performance by Michael Beans (a.k.a. “Harry Buffet”)l.  Dressed in full pirate regalia, he entertained us with a one-man show of (primarily) Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Buffet (thus the “Harry Buffet” handle) songs, including many sing-alongs to famous pirate songs.  All with an emphasis on audience participation of various shapes and forms. 
Included in that package were a number of games, pirate toasts, a conch blowing contest, and pirate trivia (name that pirate).  

Barrels of fun (really!).
We especially enjoyed the “Toast to the Dinghy Captains”.  Upon hearing the call, Mark happily jumped to the stage, waiting for his long overdue recognition (and obligatory shot of rum).  The only downside was the reality that the rest of the dinghy captains consisted of 10-year old kids!  He towered over his “peers”.
Mary raised her glass for a toast to Mark and Roberta in recognition of their 25th wedding anniversary.  More rum!
Both Mary and Terry participated in the conch blowing contest but, alas, were unable to challenge the particularly large “lungs” of a young woman and left with only a shot of rum.
After a few painkillers, rum punches and Pusser rum shots, we made our way back to the Santa Maria
Unfortunately, it was dark by then – and I mean really dark.   We quickly came to the stark realization that we couldn’t identify our boat.  They literally all look the same in the dark!  Without a distinguishing identifier, we were forced to tender back and forth in search of the boat.
The fact that our boat was named the “Bordelo” further hindered us.  We were somewhat reluctant to call out into the dark that “we are looking for a bordelo” in case it was interpreted incorrectly by our fellow sailers.
At long last we found it.  Lesson learned – try to confine our Happy Hours to within the dwindling daylight hours, or at least be very aware of how to locate the boat easily in the dark.
Finished the night by a later barbeque supper, and made plans to be up at the crack of dawn so we could be over to our next stop – Virgin Gorda and the Baths – early.
Wednesday, April 7th
Marina Cay to Virgin Gorda
Keen sailers that we were, we were all up and ready to sail by 6 a.m.  The morning was particularly lovely, with a soft light on the islands and the promise of a hot, hot day.
While underway, Captain Steve noticed that a large cruiseship was following the same course.  Realizing that we would be faced with sharing the Baths with hundreds of cruise ship daytrippers, he suggested we change plans and head instead for Gorda Sound.  We could visit the Baths the following day when the crowds would be down.
We pulled into Gorda Sound around 8:30 a.m., quickly found moorage and set up for the day.
It was a lovely spot, with long white-sand beaches and turquoise waters.  Again, as in other bays, there were a number of incredible boats of varying size and magnitude scattered across the harbour.  There was much affluence evident.
After a quick breakfast, the men set off in the Santa Maria to explore the area, while the Galley wenches swam ashore and walked the lovely beach. 
Later that afternoon we spotted a lone pink Flamingo (a real one), walking the beach.  It soon took flight, and flew across the bay.  

We were also paid a visit by a ‘travelling conch shell salesman’, who motored up in his boat.  Both Terry and I and Mark and Roberta made a purchase from him.
We tendered over to Saba Rock to tour the Resort. 
 From there, you can take a water taxi over to “Bitter End Resort”, where we walked the resort paths and snooped through their shops.  Back to Saba Rock for 2-for-1 Happy Hour.

Seeing a crowd of people, Terry went over to investigate.  He soon motioned us over for ‘the show’.  Each evening, the crowd is entertained by the feeding of the fish residing near the dock at Saba Rock.   A young man was in the water feeding pieces of fish to huge (3-5’) tarpins and a large stingray.  While I was tempted to try taking some underwater shots with my camera, I didn’t have the nerve to stick my hand in the water in case one of the hungry fish mistook it for a piece of fish!
Safely back on the boat before dark, we barbequed a great steak dinner, and ended the evening with another game of Wizards. 
Thursday, April 8th
Virgin Gorda to The Baths
 We were awoken by the sound of the bleating goats on nearby Prickly Pear Island.  Off we headed towards Spanish Town, with the goal of touring the Baths and mooring at Spanish Town for the evening.
We found moorage at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour at Spanish Town, and tendered over to do some general shopping and touring.  We quickly discovered that there wasn’t much in the way of shopping, nor much of a town per se. 
When we set off on a walk to explore the ‘town’, we were stopped by a gentleman in a taxi who claimed he was the Mayor of Spanish Town.  He seemed quite surprised to see us walking down the road, and immediately asked us where we were going.  When we explained that we were looking for the town, he pointed back to the small set of shops that we had just walked through.  Back we went, to spend a little more time in the shops and to stop for lunch.
Following that, we arranged for a cab ride to the Baths.  The Baths are a unique outcropping of rocks that are presumed to be the result of a volcanic eruption.  They are probably the most recognizable and most visited spot in the British Virgin Islands.
We arrived at the Baths to a large crowd of tourists.  Turns out that more than one cruise ship was in the area.
It was an extremely hot day.  Preferring to avoid the bulk of the crowd, we decided to take the 20-minute walk to Devil’s Bay.  People were reporting that jellyfish were in the water at the Baths, but that there were less present at the beach in Devil’s Bay.
The path takes you through the rocks, up ladders, over wooden walkways and through caves and crevasses.  Once at Devil’s Bay, we donned our snorkelling gear, took the underwater camera and explored the area close to the large rocks.
It certainly wasn’t amazing snorkelling, but we did see some fish and Terry took a number of good underwater shots.  

Unfortunately, he also managed to get stung by a jellyfish as he was emerging the stirred up water near shore.  He still bears a scar from this encounter.
We cabbed back, stopped to pick up a few groceries, and made our way back to the boat for our own Happy Hour.   Bed by 10:00 p.m.   Those early mornings and long days spent in the hot sun were taking their toll.
Friday, April 9th
Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda to Cane Garden Bay, Tortolla
Up again at 6:00 a.m., but an early morning heavy rain stalled our departure.  It was a brief squall that was over quickly, so Terry took advantage of the moisture and “swabbed the decks”.
Our course was set for Cane Garden Bay on Tortolla.  According to the literature, it is regarded by many as “one of the most beautiful anchorages in the BVI.  Picture postcard material, having a white palm fringed beach encompassing the entire length of the bay”.
It was going to be a 3-5 hour travel day, makng it one of the longest sails we had experienced.  The sailing was very picturesque, with many little stretches of white sandy beaches and secluded bays scattered along the way.  Parts were quite similar to what you would see along the west coast, particularly as we passed between two islands.
There are some fabulous villas on Tortolla, all perched high up along the hillsides.  There doesn’t appear to be any beachfront properties here.  The hillsides were very green.  Tortolla receives more rainfall than Virgin Gorda, which was home to many, many cactus.
We arrived at Cane Garden Bay at 10:30 a.m.  The reports of its beauty were not embellished – it was by far and away the loveliest spot we had encountered.  The long white stretch of beach was home to many colourful little beachside restaurants and bars.  Breathtaking homes and villas dot the surrounding green hillsides and look down on the bay below. 
It was a very calm moorage, and surprisingly, the least busy of all the spots we had visited to date.  After setting up, Terry and Steve headed out to pick up some essentials and pay for moorage, while Mark and the women folk swam in the warm, blue waters off the boat, then suntanned and read.
We decided to go to shore and do some sightseeing.  

This included a tour of the famous Callwood Rum Distillery.  This distillery is over 100 years old, and still manufactures rum in the traditional manner.  Owned by the Callwood family since 1899, they produce a rum known as “Arundel” rum.
After paying a $2/head entrance fee, we were led on a short tour of the grounds, where our 16-year old tour guide Matthew explained the process of old-style rum production.  

Following this, we stopped for a little rum sampling.  We tried a white rum (very reminiscent of moon shine), a dark aged rum (not bad), and finally a secret recipe referred to as “Panty Remover”.  Guess which one we bought?
It actually tastes pretty darn good.  I cannot attest to the panty removing claims.
Back to the beach, we wandered through a few gift shops, and stopped for Happy Hour at a beachside bar.  The sign advertised $6.00 drinks – 2-for-one.  Can’t argue that!
We all had one drink and debated having another.  Fortunately, we decided instead to have one back on the boat.  We were surprised to see that our bill came to double of what we expected.  When we questioned the price, we were informed by our waitress that the drinks we had were ‘doubles’.  Good thing we decided against that second drink!

Terry stumbled upon this interesting sign when he paid a trip to the men's room of one of the local establishments.  Would love to know the background to this ....

Back to the boat for our final on-board dinner of red snapper.  Our ice management practice turned out to be a little too effective, so the fish was still frozen when we started cooking it.  It took forever on the barbeque, and a little while longer in the oven before we could finally eat.
Turns out that a notable reggae musician (Quito) was playing at the beachside bar (Quito’s Gazebo) located across from where we were moored that evening.  We debated tendering across to take in the music, but opted instead to make it an early night.  After another early morning and full day in the sun, none of us were up to making an evening of it.
Turns out we didn’t need to tender over to take in the music.  Sound carries extremely well across the water, so we had front row seats to the show.  We were all lulled to sleep (well, at least some managed to sleep through it) by the magical reggae sounds of Quito, whose performance went well into the wee hours of the night. 
Saturday, April 10th
Cane Garden Bay to Soper’s Hole, to Road Town Harbour, Tortolla
With no need to rush anywhere on our final day, we were up by 7:00 a.m.  We had planned to visit Soper’s Hole, which was only five nautical miles from Cane Garden Bay.
Soper’s Hole was very different from Cane Garden Bay.  It is a lovely little marina with some quaint shops, a Pusser’s Restaurant, market and more.  Definitely more commercial.  It looks west towards the U.S. Virgin Islands, and is in view of the islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
After our final breakfast on the boat, we tendered over so we could do a little shopping for trinkets.  They had some great shops and some interesting jewellery.  Well worth the stop. 
Back to the boat by noon, we started our final sail towards Road Town Harbour, our last destination.  Once out of the harbour, we hit some pretty wild winds – gusts to 30 knotts.  Steve had intended to take advantage of the wind and sail in, but we experienced mechanical issues with the mainsail, so instead had to iron jib in.  It was a wild ride.  We crashed through 7’ waves. 
Being the last out of our berth in the morning, I was responsible for ensuring that all of our windows were closed before we hit the water.  Three times Terry asked whether I had made sure the windows were closed.  Each time I replied to the affirmative.  On his final posing of the question, I decided to have a quick peek to ensure that nothing had been shaken loose with all of the bouncing we were going through.
Imagine my surprise (and horror) to find water literally pouring through the side window.  Frantically, I called for Terry to help me close the window.  If looks could kill …..
So, we spent the next little while mopping up water and wringing out our bedding.  Crap.  I could have sworn the window was latched ….
What’s worse than a hard, hard bed?  A soaking wet hard, hard bed.  Double crap.
We motored into Road Town Harbour around 3:00 that afternoon.  After fuelling up and settling our account with the boat rental company, we treated ourselves to a decadent shower at the rental company’s facilities. 
Steve had arranged for us to spend our last night on the boat.  Fortunately for Terry and I, we were able to dry out our mattress and get some clean, dry bedding from their supplies. 
After cleaning up, we made arrangements for a taxi to take us into Road Town for supper.  Turns out it was a mere 20-minute walk, but we were charged $60 ($20/person) for the ride.  Bad.
Unfortunately, all the stores were closed, so we could only window shop, with the exception of the Pusser’s Rum Official Store.
Dinner was at a neat restaurant called “Dove”, where we all enjoyed a terrific meal.  While we were dining, there was an impressive downpour outside.  Fortunately, the rain cleared and we were able to take a leisurely stroll back to the dock and our boat.
We packed up and readied ourselves for tomorrow’s departure.  Our last night was extremely hot and humid, and bereft of the cooling breeze we had experienced every other evening.
Sunday, April 11th
Tortolla, Beef Island, BVI to San Juan Puerto Rico to Charlotte, North Carolina to Phoenix, Arizona
Off to the airport by 7:30 a.m.  Our flight was scheduled for 11:05 a.m., while the Turner’s and Hammer’s itinerary reported 10:30 a.m.  Turns out our schedule was correct. 
While we were waiting, we were entertained by the sight of both chickens AND goats at the airport.  If there was one constant about the BVIs, it was the ubiquitous presence of both.  We woke to the sounds of either roosters crowing or goats bleating or both, and virtually everywhere we went, they were there.
 Trellis Bay is located right next to the airport, so we took a stroll over to the market while we were waiting for our flight.  Many artisans shops, including Aragorn studio, which produces interesting copper and steel sculptures.

Unfortunately, our plane was late departing.  We arrived at San Juan at 12:10, and our connecting flight to Miami was supposed to be leaving at 12:30 p.m.   We had to pick up our checked bag, re-check it and go through customs.  There was no way we were going to make it.  Grrrrrrrr…..
Turner’s and Hammer’s were not leaving San Juan until the next day.  They had planned on staying for some sightseeing in Puerto Rico.  Terry and I were ushered off to make alternate travel arrangements back home.  We said our farewell to the gang. 
It was a terrific, terrific trip – one that I would recommend to anyone, and would do again in a heartbeat.  There is so much to see and do.  We barely scratched the surface. 
We did make it home that day, but were re-routed through another airline, and through Charlotte, North Carolina to Phoenix.  

Farewell warm azure waters, and hello cactus and desert hills!

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