Bareboating in the British Virgin Islands

Bareboating in the British Virgin Islands

By Greg Allen

From the moment I shut off the diesel on our chartered 39 Beneteau Oceanis and watched the sails fill with the fresh Caribbean trade wind, I was hooked. Taking the helm as captain of a bareboat charter in the British Virgin Islands was a dream come true.

My wife, Mary, and I had this trip on our to-do list for about 10 years when we finally teamed up with another couple (good friends of ours) to make the dream a reality. After months of careful planning, we sailed out of Road Town, Tortola, in the BVIs via Sunsail charters for a seven-day adventure in paradise.

Most charter boats traverse the BVIs in a clockwise fashion, with the big island of Tortola as the hub bordered by the smaller channel islands. Our plan, however, called for us to take a counter-clockwise route. Because many charters depart on the weekend, we reasoned that if we sailed in the opposite direction, perhaps we would experience less traffic and competition for overnight moorings (and dinner reservations). Our plan was a huge success.

After departing Tortola, we had a two-hour sail to a waiting slip in Virgin Gorda. After docking, we took a short taxi ride to The Baths, where we explored the famous area’s caves and rock formations.

The next day we sailed across Sir Francis Drake Channel to Beef Island at the eastern tip of Tortola where we picked up a mooring ball in Trellis Bay. After browsing the arts and crafts shops, we stumbled into a little beach bar and grill for refreshments. The proprietor, an Englishman, originally came to the BVIs as a sailmaker.

On the third day, we hugged Tortola’s northern shore as we sailed west to one of the most picturesque anchorages in the BVIs, Cane Garden Bay. We spent the afternoon snorkeling, swimming and generally wondering why we’d ever want to go back to the real world. We capped off the evening with a wonderful fresh seafood feast at a local restaurant. After stuffing ourselves, we sipped colorful rum drinks and enjoyed live reggae while the setting sun created breathtaking silhouettes of the sailing vessels moored in the bay.

The following day, we sailed north and stopped for lunch at Sandy Cay, which has clear turquoise waters and a white sand beach lined with palm trees. We spotted several sea turtles from our mooring. At our next stop, Diamond Cay at Jost Van Dyke, we anchored and took a short hike to the Bubbly Pool, a natural pool on the windward shore that delights swimmers by regularly dousing them with plumes of white water that shoots through an opening in the rocks surrounding the pool.

We sailed north and stopped for lunch at Sandy Cay, which has clear turquoise waters and a white sand beach lined with palm trees. We spotted several sea turtles from our mooring.

A short sail along Jost Van Dyke’s southern shore brought us to Little Harbor where we picked up a mooring for the night. We dined at Sydney’s Peace and Love, which uses the honor system at the bar where you make your own drinks and keep track of them via a note pad on the bar. The food was good, the drinks even better.

On the fifth day, we awoke to rain, having apparently slept through quite a storm the night before. Our bimini, which had been supported off the rear stays, had collapsed, making it impossible to sail. We secured it with nylon tie wraps and a mop handle so we could see to sail.

We set sail to winds gusting out of the northeast at 15 to 25 knots. We planned to depart Jost Van Dyke heading south to round the western tip of Tortola and proceed to Norman Island. As we approached Tortola, we found ourselves in 6-foot swells, so we doused the sails and motored into Soper’s Hole, one of Tortola’s largest marinas. When it became obvious that the rain wasn’t going to let up, we motored to Norman Island to get a mooring for the night. This would have been about a 90-minute trip if all had gone as planned.

Forty-five minutes into the trip, we were motoring at around 2800 rpm when I felt a couple of bumps. We were in 65 feet of water, so I knew we hadn’t grounded. Suddenly, the motor coughed and shook violently. I shut it off, and to our collective horror, we stared in disbelief as pungent white smoke poured out of the cabin area and engine compartment. I didn’t see flames, so I thought perhaps rubber or plastic was melting or oil residue was burning in the engine compartment. I held my breath, went below, grabbed the fire extinguisher and discharged it into the engine compartment through the emergency fire control access hole.

When I got back to the helm, my immediate concern was the wind and the boat’s position relative to the lee shore. Heeling significantly under bare poles, the boat would soon be in the rocks. Quickly unfurling the Genoa to the 50 percent reef position, we immediately began to make headway, and I had steerage.

Satisfied that we were in no immediate danger, I called the Sunsail base, and a rescue boat was on the scene within 20 minutes. A Sunsail employee determined that the output shaft had separated and that excessive heat had melted fiberglass, resulting in the smoke and pungent odor. After some temporary repairs, the boat limped back to Sunsail base in Road Town. Sunsail upgraded us to a 44 Jeanneau and gave us a voucher for one free day on a future charter.

We departed Road Town again on the sixth day and this time sailed to Cooper’s Island via Norman Island and the Indians (a popular rock formation great for snorkeling). After an uneventful evening and another fabulous Caribbean dinner ashore, we enjoyed cocktails in the cockpit, gazed at the stars in the pristine night sky and pondered the events of the last 24 hours. We patted ourselves on the back as we concluded that we did everything as well as it could have been done under the circumstances.

On our last day, we reluctantly returned to Road Town after an invigorating three-hour sail in the Sir Francis Drake Channel with almost perfect conditions.


Greg Allen, AP, of Birmingham Power Squadron/9, resides with his wife, Mary, in Brighton, Michigan. They dock their Hunter 36 sailboat on Lake St. Clair.

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