We started as a crew of two: one novice sailor with a spark to learn and a fear of seasickness and one experienced sailboat racer. Neither of us had ever chartered a boat or lived aboard, but the British Virgin Islands seemed like a safe and beautiful place to learn, with lots to explore. VI Sailing set us up with a brand new 2017 Bavaria 34 foot monohull named Maverik, answered our million and one questions prior to setting sail, and reassured us that Horizon Yacht Charters was only a phone call away if we needed them on our journey.
We flew into St. Thomas and took the ferry to Tortola where we slept aboard our ship for the first time, familiarizing ourselves with the boat before setting sail the next day.
Day 1: Tortola to Norman Island
Norman Island, the inspiration for Treasure Island, seemed like a fitting start to our trip. We were armed with two fresh copies of Treasure Island in lieu of TV and Arthur, our Horizon Yacht Charter skipper for the first day, who told us stories about pirates backing merchant ships into reefs while helping us learn the boat we’d be living and sailing for the next week.
At Norman Island, I picked up my first mooring ball after watching millions of YouTube videos and endless stories about mooring ball drama. If I could scoop this mooring ball, we’d be fine. It also helped that there was almost no wind or waves and Arthur was there to help, but I did it.
We snorkeled the caves with their many layers of red and purple rocks and snorkeled the Indians, four free-standing pinnacles, at sunset.
Day 2: Norman Island to Cooper Island with a stop at Salt Island
It’s entirely possible not to see another person on Salt Island. We saw a dinghy tied to the dock. It was there when we got there and gone when we left. There’s an abandoned house just off the dock and a salt pond just beyond. We hiked beyond the salt ponds where the ocean crashes on one side of a pebble beach and salt water slowly evaporates on the other side, leaving a ring of crystallized salt that sparkles in the sun. We stepped in the salt pond by accident. Be careful. It was quicksand.
That night, we stayed at Cooper Island. The moorings at Cooper Island are shallow so everyone swims off their boats, creating a floating community of noodle users drifting to shore for the Rum Bar. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d previously thought of rum as Captain Morgan, a mix with Diet Coke. The Rum Bar proved me wrong. There’s a whole world of rum. We sampled a flight of rums from different Caribbean Islands. There were sweet rums, rums that tasted like Scotch, one that evaporated off our tongues as soon as we sipped it. I enjoyed it so much, I honestly can’t remember what we tried…
Day 3: Cooper Island to Virgin Gorda with a stop at the Baths
We got to the Baths early and swam to shore. We had our first look at poisonous Manchineel trees (even standing beneath them in a rainstorm is enough to blister skin) and crawled and snorkeled our way through the Baths. They are every bit as beautiful as their million reviews say. We saw two squids swimming together side by side here.
Virgin Gorda: The Bitter End Yacht Club
On our first night at Virgin Gorda, we stayed near The Bitter End Yacht Club. We did most of our cooking on the boat, and to save water, we rinsed our dishes off the transom before fresh water washing in the sink. It was here that we met our remora, a three-foot scrap eating suckerfish that looked a lot like a shark when it first darted out from under our boat. Our remora stayed for dinner and breakfast dishes and then we never saw her again.
On land, we hiked the trail behind The Bitter End Yacht Club. It’s short, well marked, and full of interesting cacti and lizards. We meant to try the trails behind the Biras Creek Yacht Club, but they’re temporarily closed.
Day 4: Virgin Gorda: Saba Rock
There was only one mooring ball we were interested in. It was off by itself to the left of Saba Rock, a lone mooring ball between the sound and the entrance to the watery world on the other side. There weren’t any other boats around us. It was a perfect place to see stars in perfect darkness, and it took us almost twenty minutes of fighting current and incredible wind to grab that mooring ball. But it was worth it later that night a short storm kicked up a flock of pink flamingos. They flew in circles over our boat until the rain stopped and a rainbow came out behind it. That night, the sky was full of stars where the flamingos had been.
Day 5: Virgin Gorda to Anegada
Just follow the channel. It was a sort of prayer we repeated as we set sail from Virgin Gorda to Anegada, well aware of the 300 plus shipwrecks and shallow reefs surrounding the “drowned island.” Just follow the channel. It seemed easy enough. We counted the other boats on the horizon, all reassuringly heading in the same direction. Hours later when the first palm trees came into view before the rest of the island, we reviewed our charts and sailing plan one last time before sailing into Anegada’s vortex. We were fine. The channel was well marked.
We rented a scooter and went to the beaches Anegada is known for, Cow Neck and Loblolly, and a few others we found off the beaten path. We stopped by the Flamingo Pond, but they were only pink dots on the horizon, so we circled back to town and made dinner reservations at the Whispering Pines, where there was one pine tree at the edge of the beach.
Being from New York, we’re used to dinner reservations, but in the BVI dinner reservations also means placing your order in advance. We ordered two Anegada lobsters and later watched as they took them from traps off the dock.
That night, the sun set in the sky and reflected back in the water, swallowing the whole world in pink. Anegada wins, hands down, for the best sunset spot.
Day 6: Anegada to Marina Cay
We stumbled into Marina Cay on the long sail back from Anegada. What started as a halfway place to rest between Anegada and Jost Van Dyke easily became my favorite stop on our entire adventure.
The story goes that Marina Cay was uninhabited until 1937 when newly weds Robb White and Rosalie Mason settled on the island after weeks of sailing for their ideal island home. Robb and Rosalie lived on the island for three years, weathering storms, insects, constructing a cistern and a house that still stands today. But when World War II hit, Robb left for war and never returned. He survived the war, but his marriage did not.
After returning from the Pacific, Robb wrote of Rosalie, “…she smelled like Marina Cay and sounded like Marina Cay and made me think- but only for a little while- about the Marina Cay that had been, and never could be again.”
Visiting their house at night when the island was quiet enough to fill with the sound of the ocean made us feel like we, too, were the only people at Marina Cay.
Day 7: Marina Cay to Jost Van Dyke with a stop at Monkey Point
From Marina Cay to Jost Van Dyke, we stopped at Monkey Point. Monkey Point looked like just another tiny island stop. It didn’t have a beach. It wasn’t particularly spectacular above the water, but the snorkeling was amazing. There were seemingly millions of fish swimming in schools all over the reef. At a few points, we were surrounded by so many fish that we couldn’t see each other or the sea floor below.
At Jost Van Dyke, we went to the Soggy Dollar Bar, of course, because trying a Painkiller from its creators was a must. We took our dinghy over to Great Harbour and explored the quiet waterfront behind the marina. There’s an ice cream shop where people were sharing stories from their time in South Africa, restaurants, and hammocks under trees. It looks like it should be a crowded, bustling market, but there were hardly any people in the early afternoon, just us and kids in school uniforms walking barefoot home from school.
That night we ate at Ivan’s Stress-free Bar. It was just us and the bartender. She had her iPad up full blast and was happily singing Disney songs over the roar of the blender while our dinner cooked in the kitchen behind the bar. It felt a lot like eating dinner at someone’s house.
Last Day: Jost Van Dyke back to Tortola
Every morning, it rained at some point between four and six a.m. We’d scramble below deck if we’d been sleeping above, stumbling from hatch to hatch to close out the rain, then listen to rain beating on the shell of the boat and feel the wind kick up around us, but on our last morning, when the boat was due back to Nanny Cay Marina by noon, a gray cylinder squall on the horizon raced our boat until it was on us. A great wave of wind came through and rain poured in every direction as we sailed through until there was only a trail of hazy gray mist behind it and island sun ahead of us.
I started our week in the BVI’s as a novice sailor, only textbook familiar with tacks and jibes, desperately memorizing sailing’s vocabulary of maneuvers and traditions, and though I’m far from an experienced sailor, our trip to the BVI reawakened my love of the ocean.
John F. Kennedy said once, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.”
I stumbled on that quote before we left, and though I’d never been to the British Virgin Islands before and only hope to return someday, it was true for me.