The British Virgin Islands have had a tough few years, but one of the world’s favourite sailing destinations is back, and as beautiful as ever, as Mike Pickering discovers
As the 30-seater inter-Caribbean turboprop aircraft banked to starboard, through my small window I caught a first glimpse of Tortola and the Sir Francis Drake Channel. I felt my pulse quicken. This idyllic stretch of water was where I had my first Caribbean sailing experience back in 2004.
As an 18-year-old, I’d recently moved up from racing dinghies to yachts and was instantly captivated by the quality of sailing, the warmth of the water, and the sweetness of the rum. Now, 15 years later, I’ve returned with my wife, Ruth, whose sailing experience consists of navigating the Solent in inclement weather, and her parents, who have never set foot on a yacht before.
As the chief organiser of this adventure, my main objective had been to find a winter sun location with predictable weather and easy, yet beautiful sailing. The British Virgin Islands fit the bill perfectly. The warm tradewinds provide a consistent north-easterly Force 4, the outer islands offer great protection from Atlantic swells and, with the islands being so close together, navigation is primarily by line of sight.
Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac at Terrance B Lettsome Airport, we were ushered past a roaming brood of roosting chickens into the small arrivals hall and after a quick passport check were on our way to Nanny Cay Marina.
A lot has changed in the BVIs since I first visited in 2004. Back then the islands were experiencing a tourism boom, but that all came to a halt in September 2017 when Hurricane Irma swept over with 190mph winds causing widespread devastation. As we travelled around the islands, evidence of the disaster was still visible five years on.
Driving to the marina our taxi driver, Wendle, pointed out various reminders of the impact of Irma in bays around Tortola. The sight was disheartening; boats lay stranded on reefs like beached whales, and shoreside buildings still nothing more than hollow shells.
Despite the international aid that poured into the islands after the hurricane, resources are still stretched thin. And if Irma wasn’t enough, the Covid pandemic and shutdown of tourism further delayed the islands’ ability to get back up and running again. Even now, five years post-Irma, Wendle told us he’s still struggling to find a carpenter to repair his kitchen.
In Nanny Cay Marina, however, it was clear that yacht charters are back to business as usual, the marina bustling and full of yachts ready to go sailing. Despite suffering a 75% loss of docking facilities in 2017, Nanny Cay has been able to operate at full capacity for some time.
Navigare’s charter team were on hand to show us to our vessel for the week: a brand new, somewhat palatial, three-cabin Lagoon 46, one of the newest additions to the fleet. I realised slightly too late that I’d set the bar rather high for future holidays with the in-laws.
As we toured the boat I couldn’t help but be impressed by the high quality fit-out – the interior just felt very solid. While the three double cabin layout is designed to comfortably accommodate up to six guests, the starboard cabin in particular is the real show-stopper, stretching nearly the entire length of the hull with an apartment-style layout.
As a professional skipper I regularly charter for work, and when chartering a catamaran I prefer one with a full flybridge like the Lagoon 46. This layout keeps all of the sailing equipment upstairs, leaving plenty of space on the lower deck for entertaining. On the flybridge, the helm has all the lines and winches led easily within reach. Even the traveller, located behind the helm, is easy to access.
Spending our first night in Nanny Cay, I reveal our grand plan for the week; with the weather looking as predictable as I’d hoped, I proposed an anticlockwise circumnavigation of the islands. With short passages and a variety of activities planned, the itinerary included some of my favourite spots in the BVI. The idea was to take in all the best the islands have to offer, from secluded bays to lively bars.
The sun rose at 0630 on our first morning and within an hour we set off to our first stop at the Indians, the famous group of rocky outcrops. As it was our first time out on the water and I had a novice crew, I decided to ease them in by sailing with just the jib. With the wind already blowing 15 knots on our port quarter, we bobbed along. In retrospect, this was my first mistake. At 46.5m² the self-tacking jib was a little underpowered for a single-sail Force 4 broad reach, and we struggled to get more than a couple of knots of boat speed. We made our way gently to our destination.
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Moored up to a free day buoy, it was onto the stand up paddleboards to explore the rocks. Paddling past some shallow reefs, we donned snorkel masks to dive into the water and explore the underwater coral. Before arriving, some friends had managed my expectations, warning that some of the BVI’s reefs had suffered just as much as the land in September 2017, including those off these very rocks. But, to our surprise, we were faced with some of the most colourful coral and stunning displays of fish I’d ever seen. The new coral has grown impressively rapidly.
In the following days, my crew honed their recently acquired sailing skills as we set a course northward toward the North Bight of Virgin Gorda. The first time hoisting the main off Peter Island went smoothly, and we set our sails for a beat to the north-east.
While cruising catamarans are not known for their upwind sailing capabilities, with careful traveller and jib trimming we were able to maintain an apparent wind angle in the mid-40°s and keep pace with the monohull charter yachts nearby. Looking back on our track on my SailTies app, given the angles drawn, it is not obvious we’re sailing a charter cat.
Throughout the week a northerly swell had built and by the time we arrived at The Baths the swell was too big to safely swim to shore. Another plan was needed to see these natural wonders. So, sailing past, we made our way further up the coast of Virgin Gorda to the northernmost end of the island.
The Bitter End
Hidden away in the North Sound for over half a century, Bitter End Yacht Club has lured sailors from all over the world with its laid-back atmosphere and spectacular setting. Boasting near-ideal sailing conditions, and sparkling clear waters surrounded by an array of vibrant reefs, the North Sound is a veritable paradise for sailors.
The Bitter End was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma, but after a lengthy rebuild it has risen from the devastation as a sustainable haven, all-new, but with the same rustic charm that it became famous for. The marina reopened just this season, with 26 berths and an additional 70 mooring buoys just a short tender ride away, while onshore there is a gourmet mini-market, some boutique shops, an informal restaurant and two bars that serve up delicious cocktails.
The resort’s own watersports club offers an array of dinghies, windsurfing gear, stand-up paddleboards, and foil boards for guests to enjoy. With a dive centre conveniently located next to the marina, if we’d had time, a scuba dive of the local reefs would have certainly been on the cards. It was a shame we’d arrived too late in the day to participate in the daily dinghy regatta. Note to self: next time schedule more time for the North Sound.
Downhill from here
Having reached the halfway point of our charter, we faced the prospect of sailing downwind – a relief, with the forecast now hinting at squalls. The second half of our itinerary also involved a new perspective on the islands. While the first few days had been spent exploring the upmarket resorts of the islands surrounding Virgin Gorda, the return passage was all about discovering empty beaches and secluded rum shacks.
Leaving the North Sound, we hoisted our main and unfurled the jib in the shadow of a large tall ship, its towering freeboard offering a momentary reprieve from the wind and swell as we struggled to untangle our poorly packed main from all three reefing lines. The passage to Cane Garden Bay on the west coast of Tortola presented us with the chance to navigate through some of the smaller islands in the archipelago. With the wind on our backs at 120° we sailed at a brisk 9 knots, easily carrying the speed through the gybes to ensure smooth sailing even when the swell was abeam.
Giving ourselves no set plan, only the goal of reaching Cane Garden Bay by mid-afternoon, and with 22 miles to cover and an average speed of 9 knots we had ample time for an unscheduled stopover. One of the most significant changes I’ve noticed since previous visits to the British Virgin Islands is the shift to online systems throughout the charter process, making everything run more smoothly.
Each morning at 7am, I’d use the local app Boaty Ball to book and pay for the evening’s mooring buoy. Thanks to good 5G reception in Cane Garden Bay, as we searched for a spot to anchor for lunch, I was able to use a combination of Savvy Navvy to check the water depth and the colour of the sand, and Navily to read reviews from other sailors’ experiences in specific bays. We decided to anchor at Guana Island and a quick swim ashore confirmed that our research had been spot on, the sand was as light as talcum powder.
However, our 1500hrs deadline was a crucial one, as the Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay was our final destination. The distillery has been producing over 50 gallons of rum every day for more than 400 years, and it hosts informal tours and tasting for a mere US$5 per person. But as it’s only open until 5pm my in-laws, who are rum enthusiasts, might have never forgiven me if we’d arrived late. A relaxed private tour of the distillation process took us on a walk through the sugarcane fields, then back into the ramshackle main building we were able to sample five of their rums.
The final leg of our tour of the BVIs let us explore the very laid-back island of Jost Van Dyke. Even by Caribbean standards, the level of relaxation here is high. On our sail over from Cane Garden, we stopped at Sandy Cay; an uninhabited small sandy island which, when you take a photo at the right angle, looks to be straight out of a Pirates of the Caribbean film set.
Previously owned by the Rockefeller family, Sandy Cay is now under the care of the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands. Arriving early, we secured one of the limited day mooring buoys and, after another quick swim to shore, found ourselves on a deserted island adventure.
Despite its small size, this island was not immune to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma, which uprooted many of its trees. Wendle, our trusted taxi driver and font of local knowledge, later told us the devastation wrought upon the foliage was so severe that even the coconut, a staple of the local economy, now had to be imported as the indigenous trees had yet to recover. Since the storm local authorities have worked hard to replant the destroyed trees across all of the islands in an attempt to restore the island’s natural habitats.
We couldn’t stop at Jost Van Dyke without a visit to two of the most iconic bars in the BVI: Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar. Both are reopened and serving their legendary cocktails, including the fearsome Painkiller, with the only visible reminders of Irma being the plaques thanking patrons who made donations to the local community. Anchored in little more than 3m of the pure turquoise sea of White Bay, it’s hard to imagine the journey the island residents have gone through to get to this point.
Picking up anchor, we head back to our home berth in Nanny Cay. Sailing around the westernmost tip of Tortola on our final short leg of our circumnavigation, the morning light shone brightly through Thatch Island Cut, and I’m reminded why the BVIs has always been the perfect destination for first-time sailors seeking easy and safe sailing, as well as long-time sailors searching for idyllic conditions and spectacular scenery. The BVIs are back, and I most certainly will be too.
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