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