CLOSE to the Crowd

You’re not go­ing to be on your own in the BVI, but that’s OK

SAIL - - Under Sail - BY ADAM CORT

Bare­boat char­ter­ing is a funny thing: one minute you’re an or­di­nary tourist, tool­ing around one of the world’s pret­tier des­ti­na­tions; the next you’re at sea, with a boat be­long­ing to a to­tal stranger, with all the chal­lenges that en­tails.

If ever there was a place to deal with the “ter­rors of the deep,” though, the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands is it. Granted, if get­ting away from it all and hav­ing a pris­tine an­chor­age all to your­self is your goal in life, then pre­pare to be dis­ap­pointed—es­pe­cially dur­ing the Caribbean high sea­son.

But if aqua­ma­rine wa­ter, sparkling sail­ing con­di­tions and lit­er­ally dozens of har­bors all within easy strik­ing dis­tince of one another is your idea of a good time—not to men­tion more beach­side bars and restau­rants than you can shake a stick at—then the BVI is def­i­nitely the place for you.

PLENTY OF OP­TIONS

This mat­ter of an­chor­ages, in par­tic­u­lar, was driven home at the be­gin­ning of a re­cent char­ter I took with my wife, Shelly, and daugh­ter, Brid­get, abroad the Foot­loose 3900 Dream Weaver out of the Foot­loose basean out­fitin Road that Town, func­tions Tor­tola—as a sub­set of the ex­ten­sive Moor­ings fa­cil­ity there, one of the best sup­plied and op­er­ated in the world.

While the winds had been calm un­der a light over­cast the en­tire time we’d been check­ing out, as soon as we emerged from the steep hills en­cir­cling the in­ner har­bor at Wick­ams Cay, they piped up into the high teens. Not only that, but a line of dark clouds was now bar­rel­ing down Sir Fran­cis Drake Chan­nel, and Vir­gin Gor­don to the east had be­come gauzy un­der a thick veil of what could only be rain.

No prob­lem: I al­ways like start­ing out a char­ter a bit on the slow side, and roughly four miles di­rectly to the south of Road Town is Peter Is­land, an Lshaped bit of land with a good five or six an­chor­ages and/or moor­ing fields per­fectly sit­u­ated to shel­ter you from the re­gion’s pre­vail­ing east­er­lies.

Ven­tur­ing out beyond Hogs Val­ley Point at the mouth of Road Har­bour, Dream Weaver be­gan buck­ing with the sharp swells as a chill rain pelted us, pro­pelled by a breeze that was now climb­ing into the low 20s. But again, no prob­lem: if there’s one thing the Foot­loose peo­ple know how to do it’s main­tain a sail­boat’s aux­il­iary en­gines. So I put the pedal to the metal, and we blasted off to­ward Great Har­bour—the clos­est of the Peter Is­land an­chor­ages—where the rain ta­pered off just in time for

It’s funny how of­ten the is­lands of the Caribbean di­vide into neat groups of bite-sized cruis­ing ter­ri­to­ries. It’s as if they were doled out by di­vine in­ter­ven­tion like cookie bat­ter on a bak­ing sheet of azure wa­ters.

Some of these con­ve­nient clus­ters, like the BVIs and St. Vin­cent and the Gre­nadines, have a cer­tain ho­mo­gene­ity. Other groups like St. Martin and its neigh­bors, An­guilla and St. Barts, are burst­ing with re­fresh­ing con­trasts. Al­though within half a day’s sail of one another, these is­lands dif­fer in lan­guage, cus­toms, ap­proach to yacht­ing and even the daily pace—al­though their sig­na­ture fla­vors all re­main defini­tively Caribbean.

Hav­ing some idea what to ex­pect, I de­cided I would heed that nig­gling feel­ing in my gut, that in­tu­ition that tells you “here is some­thing spe­cial,” as I booked a char­ter to this con­tained cor­ner of the Lesser An­tilles.

ST. MARTIN

We may have boarded the plane headed to St. Martin, but we ac­tu­ally landed in Sint Maarten. The first spell­ing is French, the sec­ond Dutch, as be­fits an is­land with a split per­son­al­ity. Princess Ju­liana air­port is on the Dutch side with its glide path over the world fa­mous Maho Beach, where jets graze the heads of tourists snap­ping pho­tos and get­ting pum­meled by jet-blasted sand. The spot is so pop­u­lar, bars have grown up around it with crowds watch­ing the air traf­fic for hours.

Our trek from the air­port to the Sun­sail base took us over the col­or­fully lit swing bridge along­side Simp­son Bay La­goon and up to the north­ern French side, which makes up a bit over half of the is­land’s to­tal 38-square-mile land mass. Su­pery­achts dot the bay, hav­ing squeezed through the draw­bridge, which is barely wider than their beams, like camels pulled through the eye of a nee­dle.

The 40-minute drive to the base showed us two cul­tures liv­ing in har­mony with no vis­i­ble bor­ders to cross and English as the com­mon lan­guage. In fact, the “in­ter­na­tional” di­vide is so close that the Sun­sail of­fice in Cap­tain Oliver’s Ma­rina is tech­ni­cally on the

French side while the boats in the wa­ter are on the Dutch side.

The Sun­sail staff is also a mix of Dutch and French ex­pats and lo­cals. They’re friendly and ef­fi­cient, and we re­ceived quite pos­si­bly the most help­ful and thor­ough chart brief­ing of any I’ve ever at­tended. Tips on how and where to check in and out at the var­i­ous nearby ports were es­pe­cially help­ful. That’s when the re­al­iza­tion set in of how se­ri­ously pro­ce­dures are taken here. Over the next week we trudged through the check-in, check-out process half a dozen times, some­times eas­ily, some­times not; and al­though you can drive across St. Martin with no is­sues, you can’t sail from the French side to the Dutch with­out a visit to of­fi­cial­dom. Such is the price of par­adise.

THE SANDS OF AN­GUILLA

Check­ing the weather, we opted to sail over the top of St. Martin and head for the beaches of An­guilla with sunny skies in the fore­cast. Our Sun­sail 404 was a brand-new four-cabin Leop­ard cata­ma­ran. The boat lacked for noth­ing, and I rev­elled in its new­ness, never stop­ping to worry about whether the bat­ter­ies would hold their charge or if the genset would start. It was bliss to have to think about noth­ing but rais­ing the sails.

In just a cou­ple of hours, we ducked be­low the west­ern end of An­guilla and made our way up to Road Bay on the north­ern side. A large and quiet an­chor­age, this is the first port of en­try to the Bri­tish Over­seas Ter­ri­tory, and it has a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent vibe from St. Martin. The is­land is low-ly­ing and dot­ted with mostly mod­est homes. The tchotchke bou­tiques are few and far be­tween, and the cruis­ers are the real deal, with boats that look like they’ve gone the dis­tance. There’s very lit­tle glit­ter, but a lot of charm. Alas, our first check-in was a lengthy and ex­pen­sive one, but it was fol­lowed by rum drinks at the palapa bar next door as we plot­ted our path for the next day.

An­guilla is all about the nat­u­ral beauty of the idyl­lic trop­i­cal beach—the stuff of es­capist post­cards, with Sandy Is­land and Prickly Pear Cays top­ping the list of must-sees. Want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence Sandy Is­land be­fore the crowds showed up, we there­fore de­cided we’d ar­rive as early the next morn­ing as pos­si­ble. The cruis­ing guide map of the sur­round­ing reef was a bit con­fus­ing, so we cir­cum­nav­i­gated the is­land by dinghy, look­ing for an en­try among the coral heads. Some­how, we missed the pass en­tirely, thread­ing our way through in what would have made a com­i­cal YouTube video. Just as we pulled the dink ashore, a high-speed lo­cal boat roared through what we could now see was an ob­vi­ous pass. At least our em­bar­rass­ment had no wit­nesses. The staff of the is­land’s one bar waded ashore car­ry­ing the ne­ces­si­ties of op­er­at­ing on an un­in­hab­ited spit of sand. Wa­ter, ice and even gi­ant jars of maraschino cher­ries all came ashore as their day got un­der way.

It was too early for cock­tails and be­sides, we could prob­a­bly only af­ford one at Sandy Is­land’s pre­mium prices, so af­ter loung­ing a bit on the pow­dery white sand, we set sail for Prickly Pear Cays less than five miles to the north. From the south­ern an­chor­age, the cays didn’t seem to have much: that is un­til we dinghied around to the north­ern beaches and the crys­talline wa­ter that would put the best Hol­ly­wood set of par­adise to shame.

Our tim­ing was ex­cel­lent as the day boats were in the process of reel­ing in their dozens of ho­tel tourists and soon were gone, leav­ing us nearly alone at the Prickly Pear Bar. We never ac­tu­ally met Alan, the self-ap­pointed bar­man, mayor, post­mas­ter and bar­be­cue king of the cays, but just know­ing there was one in­di­vid­ual who filled all those roles made the place all the more charm­ing.

With sturdy reef shoes we am­bled along the moon­scape of dead coral that makes up the west­ern end of Prickly Pear East and came upon dozens of ground-nest­ing birds. Mother boo­bies stood sen­try over their white fluffy off­spring, so un­afraid that they barely reg­is­tered our pass­ing a few feet away.

That night, we re­mained at an­chor in the cays, com­pletely alone. Lit­tle light dis­rupted a night sky that ex­ploded with a mil­lion stars. I’m not

sure it was of­fi­cially OK to an­chor there overnight, but one thing we were notic­ing was that de­spite the nu­mer­ous bu­reau­cratic pro­ce­dures, no one ever came by to ask us for the doc­u­men­ta­tion we so dili­gently amassed.

ST. BARTHELEMY (AKA ST. BARTS OR ST. BARTHS)

Switch­ing from a cast­away par­adise to the glitz of in­ter­na­tional yacht­ing, we set course for St. Barts. This is a mecca for com­pet­i­tive sailors with high-pro­file races like the St. Barts Bucket and the race we just missed, Les Voiles de St. Barths, where su­pery­achts gather to race and/or spec­tate. We ar­rived in Gus­tavia, the main port, on Easter Sun­day just as the pre­sen­ta­tion stage for the race was be­ing torn down and var­i­ous 100ft-plus rac­ing yachts with mas­sive spars were head­ing north, sig­nal­ing the end of the sea­son. The town was un­usu­ally sub­dued as if it had ex­pended its en­ergy on the glam­orous re­gatta and was com­muning with a higher power on this holy weekend.

red tiled roofs and small streets packed with the glit­terati.

rich his­tory in which the French, Bri­tish and Swedish all made and lost for­tunes go­ing back to the 1600s. Chic restau­rants with the best of French haute cui­sine of­fer spec­tac­u­lar views of the yachts in the har­bor, while bou­tiques with de­signer wear, fine jew­elry and watches lure shop­pers with dis­crim­i­nat­ing tastes. Spa ser­vice providers and gourmet pro­vi­sion­ing stores cater to a su­pery­acht clien­tele, and ad­ver­tise­ments for just about ev­ery kind of lux­ury brand meet you on ev­ery cor­ner.

Cu­ri­ous about the rest of the is­land, we rented an elec­tric car for an up-close look at the spec­tac­u­lar ho­tels and res­i­dences that hover on the hill­sides over­look­ing pris­tine hid­den beaches. St. Barts has been called the Riviera of the Caribbean, and with good rea­son. It’s a mod­ern-day ground zero for all things beau­ti­ful, and we spent the day breath­ing this rar­i­fied air and dust­ing off our sketchy French.

If St. Martin has the cra­zi­est air­port for big jets, St. Barts wins the prize as the most de­mand­ing airstrip for com­muter planes. Stand­ing at the top of the sad­dle be­tween two hills, we damn near had to duck as each small air­craft dropped onto the run­way. This strange thrill also at­tracts crowds, as peo­ple pull their cars over to ex­pe­ri­ence the whoosh of air as the planes wig­gle, roar and gen­er­ally but­ter­fly their way to safe land­ings.

We fol­lowed this rush of adren­a­line by cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the is­land, stop­ping at the newly opened swanky ho­tel and spa, Le Barthelemy, a haven for one per­centers on hol­i­day. At the north­west­ern tip of the is­land, we also peeked down at Anse de Colom­bier, now a part of the St. Barts Ma­rine Re­serve where we spent the pre­vi­ous night at an­chor. The Rock­e­feller fam­ily built a house here decades ago, and the ru­ins of steps and a stone jetty are still vis­i­ble trail­ing down into the aqua­ma­rine wa­ter. ROUND­ING BACK UP TO ST. MARTIN

Con­grat­u­lat­ing our­selves on our willpower at hav­ing bought zero lux­ury goods, we threaded our way through the yachts an­chored out­side Gus­tavia and set sail north. The weather gods were with us on our re­turn to St. Martin, and we had a romp­ing sail at 10 knots on a broad reach. Six-foot fol­low­ing seas and 25 knots abaft the beam were just what our cat was made for, and we flew back north as if we were tak­ing part in one of the re­gion’s fa­mous re­gat­tas. Some well-timed cruiser in­tel had in­formed us that check­ing back into St. Martin via Marigot would be a bear, but go­ing via Anse Mar­cel, a short mo­tor up the coast, would be a breeze. Thank good­ness for the co­conut tele­graph, as it saved us a huge headache.

Once checked in, we slipped down to our last an­chor­age of the week, Marigot, and its pas­try shops and plein air mar­ket, where artists hawk ev­ery­thing from spices to in­tri­cate tagua palm nut carv­ings. In a serendip­i­tous set of cir­cum­stances we also learned about the sea­son’s last fes­ti­val, which was hap­pen­ing that evening in the bay of Grand Case just a short drive away. This, in turn, prompted one of those spon­ta­neous de­ci­sions that turn out to be a high­light of a trip: Grand Case is just about a on­estreet des­ti­na­tion, and that evening, the street came to life with artists of ev­ery kind set­ting up shop as car­ni­val dancers and street food stalls kept my cam­era busy. Ab­so­lute magic.

The next morn­ing we rounded back up over the is­land to Cap­tain Oliver’s, feel­ing as if we had barely grazed what the re­gion had to of­fer. Three is­lands, three lan­guages, a dozen bays and one boat—that was our St. Martin ad­ven­ture by the num­bers. But you can’t sum­ma­rize par­adise. It’s about the sun­sets, the color of the sand, the car­pet of stars and the smiles of car­ni­val dancers. It’s about ex­plor­ing a self-con­tained cor­ner of par­adise and giv­ing heed to your ad­ven­turer’s in­tu­ition—be­cause it’s there for a rea­son, isn’t it? s

Shelly (left) and Brid­get search for sea tur­tles in the Bight

OC­TO­BER 2017 An­guilla’s Sandy Is­land is a spit of sand with a bar for which ev­ery­thing is brought in by boat

Marigot Bay on St. Martin is the place to pick up lo­cal crafts and ex­otic spices Ev­ery spring some of the finest yachts in the world gather to race in Les Voiles de St. Barths

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