Familiar Faces: British Virgin Islands

A return to the British Virgin Islands offers this seasoned charter a fresh perspective.

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The day revealed itself exactly like the previous six: slowly and softly. I slithered from the cozy stateroom into the salon, and absorbed the island sounds and smells. The waves cresting onto the white beach of Cooper Island a hundred yards off our stern encouraged me to double check the depth sounder. All was well and I settled back into my morning routine.

Then, as with the previous mornings of my British Virgin Island bareboat charter, I faced a difficult choice: Should I take a swim before or after breakfast?

"Wow, relaxing is tough work," my friend Jim Astrachan commiserated, peering over his reading glasses. Yes indeed, but we were willing to accept the challenge. I made a decision. I would swim before breakfast and then go to the beach afterwards.

This was my eighth bareboat charter to the BVIs, and my second with The Moorings, the worldwide company specializing in sail charters (but now offering power, too)- although this year the BVI trip almost didn't happen. For variety's sake, I suggested another venue, such as the Grenadines or Mexico, to stir things up a bit. I mean, how many times can you cruise in idyllic waters, surrounded by stunning islands? However, Jim and his wife Julie had not cruised in the area before, so for them it would be, well, virgin. And my stepfather, Gordon Bjorkman, and mother Jane, liked the idea of returning to familiar haunts.

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In the end, the return concept grew on me and I warmed to the idea of making it an annual vacation to the BVIs. The underlying benefit was that we were thrust into instant relaxation mode the second the wheels lifted off from JFK International Airport. There was no stressful learning of the particulars of a new destination, planning itineraries, or navigation. We've already been through those hassles on previous trips. I also knew a few special spots that Jim and Julie would enjoy. Better yet, I was familiar with places that should be avoided. And there were still enough unexplored destinations from previous charters to promise a little adventure. I've been accused of being a creature of habit, but in this case, I'd say it worked to my advantage. Thanks to the decision to return, this charter was one of the most relaxing vacations I've had in years. So, here are a few things that I've learned during these charters-maybe they'll help you find a shortcut to chill time

The Boat

There are several reputable charter companies based in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. I've chartered with a few and generally have had good experiences with each. One of the reasons I selected The Moorings again is that I like their fleet. For the past two years, we've chartered the 474 power cat built by Leopard in South Africa. This year we were on board No Worries, powered by twin 150-horsepower Cummins diesels. The four-stateroom, four-head layout easily accommodates large groups. Outside lounging space is abundant, with a table and settee in the sheltered cockpit, a good-sized flying bridge, and forward deck seating. The relative stability of the ride reduces the risk of mal de mer for your less seasoned crew. In fact, each new 474 is delivered to the fleet on its own bottom from South Africa. That's a heck of a shakedown cruise, as well as a testament to the smooth ride!

The boats are well equipped, from a coffee maker to snorkel gear. And most importantly, the company follows a rigorous maintenance program to help ensure you won't be doubled over a hot engine trying to change a starter during your vacation.

The only issue on this past trip was a jellyfish clog in the generator's raw-water intake. Jim fixed the problem by diving overboard and cleaning the intake from the water. There's nothing like a morning adventure to give your day purpose.

Provisioning

I have learned a valuable lesson: Pay to have the boat provisioned. The Moorings, like most bareboat companies, offers a provisioning service. I've discovered that the per-person cost almost averages out to the same amount as shopping for yourself. Yes, a little of the choice goes away, but not having to deal with this task when you arrive is well worth the trade-off. I've seen friendships compromised by arguments over butter versus margarine. By the time you shop, load, and then unload your provisions, you're down half a day. This year, we were cooling off in the pool when we would normally have been sweating through the cruising yachtsman aisles at the local market. Don't think twice about it-just hire the provisioning service.

When To Go

Much to the chagrin of my friends, I'm going to let you in on our little secret. I like chartering during the off season. Yes, I know it's Hurricane Season and, in fact, we had a close call last year. But we've been visiting during the last week of August for several years now and, in my opinion, the serenity of the islands off season is worth the risk. You don't have to worry about racing to the next anchorage to secure a spot. There are no lines at bars or restaurants, and it becomes possible to imagine that you've been transported back in time 40 years, before the area began to boom. Yes, it was bloody hot, but the breeze was always kicking and No Worries was also fully air-conditioned.

Itinerary

This is a crucial part of any Virgin Island charter. I have learned from past mistakes. On one of my first charters on board a Grand Banks 42, we created an overly ambitious schedule. Every day we were off to a new destination, stopping along the way for lunch and a swim. There was just too much going on. This is especially tiresome if you're the captain. I began to glare at my friends, lounging on the bow, cocktail in hand, while I drove us from destination to destination. I realized I had simply morphed into the designated driver. This had to change, fast.

Over the years, I've discovered the joy of hanging out in one spot for a few days. In a way, the charter begins to feel a little more like a beach holiday where guests can come and go as they please, and discover new experiences for themselves. And even better, I'm off watch.

To me, there is no better place to ease into island time than White Bay, Jost Van Dyke. It's an easy run from the Moorings base in Tortola. There are two marked entrances between the reef. The eastern channel is easier to spot and offers more maneuvering room once you're inside the anchorage. Pick up a mooring and enjoy the scenery. The nearby Soggy Dollar is where the Pain Killer originated and offers beachside food and drinks.

With a powerboat, you have a little more freedom to enjoy a flexible schedule. We usually head up to Virgin Gorda Sound and hang out between Saba Rock and The Bitter End Yacht Club. Both places close down after September first for a month or more, so plan accordingly. During the past few years, we've spent a few days here, twisting on a mooring-exploring, lounging, and taking a few day trips.

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From here, I've usually gone down island, trying to fit in a visit to The Baths, the rock formations and reefs at the southern end of Virgin Gorda. Personally, I'm now over The Baths. Even during the off season, it's crowded, and securing a mooring and landing on the beach with a group can be a hassle, especially if there is any swell. (I've seen my friends take unintentional headers down the surf like they're at a water park.) However, if you have guests that have never been to The Baths, I suppose you should make the effort. I've found a good alternative to mooring is to take a slip at Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour and take a taxi from there.

This strategy also puts you a short cab ride away from luxurious Little Dix Bay. The meal we had during our visit was over the top, and the view was one of the best in the islands. The resort offered a pleasant respite from barbecuing and T-shirts. It got me thinking that the ultimate vacation might be a combo charter with a few days stay at Little Dix to break things up.

This year we stopped over at The Indians for lunch and some spectacular snorkeling. You're in deep water, so you will be treated to larger fish and more variety. Afterwards, we made it into Cooper Island and moored outside of The Cooper Island Beach Club. This beachside resort could easily be the backdrop for "Don't Stop the Carnival," and has become one of my favorite stops. The open harbor looks west, down the Sir Francis Drake channel, providing front-row seats for spectacular sunsets. I'm a huge fan of St. John, U.S.V.I., especially the south coast, but this year we couldn't make the schedule work. (You need to clear customs.) If you have more time, it's worth a night or two.

It's a sign of a great vacation when after ten days you begin to welcome the idea of returning home. I felt relaxed and ready to go. Perhaps it's an even better sign of a great vacation when you start planning your return a few weeks after you get back to the real world.

The Moorings, (888) 952-8420; www.moorings.com