Tales from a Virgin Veteran

Kicking back and letting the wind take you is the best course for any charter.

October 26, 2010

Tales From a Virgin Veteran

OK, OK, if we leave at dawn we’ll be able to arrive in Anegada before sunset, assuming we’re stopping at Guana Island to snorkel. Suze might want to go surfing at Loblolly, and we should have a lobster at the Anegada Reef. But then we need to plan when we’re getting to the Baths, so we can’t spend too long there, and what about the Bitter End?”

Stop! Freeze everything. What are we trying to do? This is a bareboat charter, not a cruise ship activities desk. Why don’t we just see where the wind takes us and enjoy the moment, I suggest. And we did precisely that, and our loosely planned bareboat charter in the British Virgin Islands this past February is still firmly planted in my memory as one of the best.

I admit that some people become extremely frustrated with my fondness for a simple itinerary. Sure, I think it’s important to have a rough idea of where you’re going and to ensure your guests see special places, but the pace of such a cruise needs to be dialed back in order to reach relaxation mode. Fortunately, on this trip I was joined by my old friends Jack Bulger, his wife Suzy Kraft, their daughter Sienna and Kathy Gallaher — and they each embraced all of the special benefits of the nonplan plan.


After 15 years of chartering in the Virgin Islands I’ve realized that the key to a memorable trip is to spend more time doing less. There is no way you can stop at all the special places the Virgin Islands offer and actually have the time to enjoy the surroundings. There are, however, a few spots I include as must-sees, and then each year I try to sprinkle in around these another place or two. My must-sees include White Bay on Jost Van Dyke; Gorda Sound including Saba Rock; and Bitter End Yacht Club; a snorkel layover at the Indians; and Cooper Island. That’s it!

This charter with Voyage, located in Soper’s Hole in Tortola’s West End, was my first sailing charter — and I was hooked. Jack and I have had our share of sailing “adventures,” including one plagued delivery with Suzy to Antigua that dealt us gale-force winds, a leaky boat, a slightly crazy crew member and morning sickness. (It turned out Suzy was pregnant with Sienna!)

Freedom Chaser, the Voyager 500 catamaran we chartered this time, provided the exact opposite experience. She was in superb condition, a spritely performer and extremely comfortable. Ever since our Antigua death march, I felt it was my solemn duty to make Suzy realize that sailing can actually be enjoyable. Engines do work, refrigeration can keep food cool, and not all boats come equipped with a bipolar crew member who doesn’t know how to lift the toilet seat and who hits himself, screaming, “I’m bad, I’m bad!”


This was my chance for redemption! The normally northeast trades were working in a clockwise rotation, always flowing with our destination and keeping on our aft quarter. It was perfect. We sailed with little effort at 10 knots, in 20 knots of true wind for the entire week.

One of the quickest methods I’ve discovered to plunge guests into vacation mode is to head over to White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. It’s an easy hour or so from Soper’s Hole, and even after many years the scene is still breathtaking. The water is brilliant, and the crisp, white sand beach welcomes the weary traveler. Funky watering holes are tucked behind the line of palms dotting the beach. And oh, yeah, it’s also home to the Soggy Dollar Bar, where the dangerous Painkiller originated. Yum.

After Sienna frolicked in the waves, we fired up the transom grill and cooked a simple but tasty dinner. I don’t know what it is about cooking on board, but you could make fried Spam and it would be acceptable. (This is obviously not a slight to our cook!) Freedom Chaser’s cockpit was tough to beat with a large L-shaped settee surrounding a fiberglass table. It flowed seamlessly into the salon and well-equipped galley, and all benefited from the 27-foot beam.


A good night’s rest was assured thanks to the cozy four-stateroom layout. I’m adamant about being cool while sleeping and will come unglued if I’m hot or stuck in an airless void. This wasn’t the case on Freedom Chaser. On most nights, there was no need to run the air-conditioner, thanks to the large hatch and opening ports. I dozed off while looking at the stars. Pure bliss.

In short order, the five of us settled into a pleasant daily routine of a morning swim or snorkel, followed by breakfast, followed by another swim and then a sail to our next destination with lunch in between. This is the beauty of the nonplan plan. Instead of getting up, rushing to have breakfast and then getting under way — just like we do at home — we eased into each day, treating it as a clean slate.

One of the best sails I’ve had this season was a broad reach on Freedom Chaser from White Bay to Virgin Gorda. The mainsail’s large roach gave us plenty of power, and we discovered performance was improved when we trimmed with the traveler rather than the sheet. The electric halyard winch made easy work of raising the sail. Jack took the helm, and for almost an hour, nobody spoke; we just made an adjustment here and there, running alongside the north side of Tortola, through the deep blue sea, while the obligatory sounds of Third World pulsed through the speakers.


We decided to bypass Anegada in order to make our schedule a little easier to manage. Bitter End Yacht Club is the perfect spot to head if you have kids on board and they need some room to roam. The pool will keep any junior guppy entertained for hours, and water activities abound. I also share the love with nearby Saba Rock. You can grab a mooring or one of the few slips, the meals are tasty, and the views are unbeatable. Free water is offered if you take a mooring.

Sipping a glass of wine that night on Freedom Chaser’s aft deck, we threw out a few options for the next day or two. By now Kathy had also succumbed to the spell of the islands. “Hey, I’m fine with whatever. I’m happy to just stay on the boat.” Perfect! The concoction of sun and salt water, sprinkled with a little rum, had mellowed her as well. Suzy concurred with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a beaming smile. Everyone was on island time.

Jack, an avid diver, wanted to dive on the wreck of the RMS Rhone. We decided that he would leave from the Bitter End, and we would sail to Cooper Island, where we would organize a drop-off as the dive boat drove past. So Jack went off, and Kathy, Suzy, Sienna and I got the boat under way and had another glorious sail down the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Kathy started to prep some food for lunch and dinner, adding the aroma of sautéed onions and garlic to the air.

Cooper Island is on my must-stop list for good reason. The west-facing harbor offers an unforgettable spot to gaze at the sunset, while the deep harbor allows you to get in close to the beach. The recently renovated Cooper Island Beach Club includes a large deck with lounge chairs and wicker sofas. Our plan to stop by for a drink blossomed into an all-afternoon affair of simply chilling out and relaxing. The food there is also superb, and I highly recommend you plan a dinner. Treat this as more of an overnight stop, I beg you.

In seven days, we visited only three islands — that’s it. Yet during that time, we read, cooked, caught up with each other, had deep life discussions, swam, snorkeled, dived, exercised, turned the foredeck into a yoga lounge, napped, played, sailed and laughed. On the way to the airport we began to discuss the next trip. Maybe we would add another three or four days so we could add one more destination. A bareboat charter in the British Virgin Islands offers endless possibilities. The trick to a memorable trip, however, is realizing that a good boat and good friends are just as important as the journey.

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