Teaching parents to sail in the BVI
David Peters and his girlfriend Frances spend a week teaching her parents to sail in the BVI.
‘We’ve sailed a dinghy around Millwall docks, but this is a bit different!’ After a week sleeping aboard, knot practice, dinghy training – which was a slightly terrifying experience for all involved – and lots of land-based fun on Tortola, my girlfriend Frances’s parents, Mick and Mandy, were ready to set sail for the week.
Frances and I were skipper and mate. Our crew, her parents, were slightly anxious about trusting the kids to sail them around for a week. Frances and I had been living aboard Venture of Tortola, a Beneteau 50, in the British Virgin Islands for five months, travelling to work at the local dive shop by dinghy. Fran had worked on a private charter boat while I was on the water most days picking people up on various islands and diving nearby. So we had plenty of favourite spots to show them.
Sailing for cocktails
The first leg was a beam reach to Great Harbour, Peter Island. It was a perfect start, taking just 45 minutes in 10 knots of wind. On arrival, we jumped in for a snorkel with a hawksbill turtle, then later toasted our maiden voyage with an outrageously expensive and rather fruity cocktail on the beach at Dead Man’s Bay. The bay overlooks Dead Chest Island, half a mile offshore, where the pirate Blackbeard is said to have marooned 12 mutineers with only a bottle of rum between them. The story goes that they could not swim and those who tried to make it to Peter Island drowned and washed up on Dead Man’s Bay with swollen chests, much like the sloping crest of Dead Chest Island.
The next morning a couple of tacks took us to Salt Island, a few miles north-east. This is the resting place of the wreck of RMS Rhone, which sank on the rocks trying to escape to open sea during a hurricane in 1867. We snorkelled over the wreck.
We continued upwind for an overnight stop in Marina Cay, near Beef Island (where the BVI airport is). Then the following day several tacks took us up past the uninhabited Dog Islands, around Mosquito Rock and into Virgin Gorda’s North Sound.
The sailing area between Tortola and the string of islands we had visited so far is known as the Sir Francis Drake Channel, and as we entered the North Sound we passed Drake’s anchorage. This was the setting-off point for Drake’s last expedition in which he led three vessels on a voyage to take Puerto Rico (or Rich Port) from the Spanish. However, six Spanish galleons were waiting for him and when he attempted to attack the island’s capital, San Juan, they sank all of his ships. Drake managed to survive the sinking and fled to Panama, where he later died of dysentery.
The comfortable, consistent 10-12 knot breeze really did make the BVI waters, in a local sailing instructor’s words, ‘the Disney Land for sailing’. Mick was getting more confident at the helm, with Mandy far more at home on the jib sheets. Mick’s flapping fedora, as he steered us up wind, made him look more and more like a real Sir Francis!
Another sunset beverage at Saba Rock was welcome after a four-hour beat into the ever-present easterly breeze. The following day we motored across the Sound, past some rather large megayachts towards Leverick Bay to set about a loop of Virgin Gorda in a rental car. There is an impressively restored copper mine on the southernmost outcrop of Virgin Gorda, an old sugar plantation, and the
geological wonder known as The Baths is a must-see.
We set off from the Sound early and made way, on a broad reach, for Cooper Island. The shapely rocks that we were aiming for on Cooper’s eastern shore were christened The Cleavage. They might as well be named the same on the chart: the British Virgin Islands is full of obscure names for different rocks. Perhaps the privateers who originally charted these waters had sipped a little too much rum!
Cooper Island is named after the craftsmen who manufactured the barrels that vessels needed for transporting their wares. Nowadays, there is a comfortable eco-resort, restaurant, coffee shop, rum bar and dive shop to welcome the bareboating crowds.
In the pirates' wake
The next morning the breeze was at our backs and we had a dead run, wing-and-wing to Privateer Bay on Norman Island. This is a great mooring area away from the crowds, within dinghy distance of the famous caves and Treasure Point. This was the hiding place of a mutineer’s treasure chest, which was uncovered in the early 20th Century by a local fisherman. The island is apparently pictured on the inside cover of the first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Mick’s fedora was looking rather more weather-beaten, his facial hair rather more unruly – in short, he was getting a little too much into character.
The most important aspect of this sail was the text updates from family about the last day of the Six Nations rugby tournament. Could England pip Ireland on points difference? The answer was no, but I did wonder what Sir Francis would have made of our ability to keep up to speed with events at home.
The next morning we completed our circuit of the islands, sailing the short distance back upwind to Great Harbour, Peter Island, where we had spent our first night. It was another pleasant night in this well-protected anchorage, after which we made our way back home to Hodges Creek Marina, on the East End of Tortola. The wind had steadily increased throughout the week, along with Mick and Mandy’s confidence.
We sipped some coffee and reflected on a great week. The wind blowing across our sails had transported us through the channel that Drake, Blackbeard and so many others had passed through before us. The kids had brought the parents back in one piece. The parents were already planning their next voyage. Keep an eye out when you next pass the Millwall docks: a slightly floppy fedora, atop London’s latest pirate, might be sailing by.
Mick helms a yacht for the first time
Mandy, Mick and Fran enjoy the view across Virgin Gorda
David takes Mick for his first scuba dive
Under sail through the Sir Francis Drake Channel
Venture of Tortola, a Beneteau 50, is David's home in the British Virgin Islands
Mick perfecting his bowline