Paul Fenn

Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands and Loving it!

A Jeanneau 469 chartered from Sail Caribe sails just of f Tamarindo Point near the western end of Culebra.
A Jeanneau 469 chartered from Sail Caribe sails just off Tamarindo Point near the western end of Culebra.

There’s no doubt that the British Virgin Islands offer some of the best cruising to be found anywhere on the planet. Plenty of breeze, easy-peasy navigation, good snorkeling, lots of good restaurants, and plenty of good harbors make the BVI a great choice for a winter’s sailing adventure. The only downside, if there is a downside, is that the place can get crowded, especially during peak season. And if you have sailed in the BVI already, it might be nice to try someplace different.

Spanish VirginsLocated slightly off the beaten track tucked snuggly between the US Virgin Islands and the eastern end of Puerto Rico, you’ll find another handful of islands commonly referred to as the Spanish Virgin Islands or Passage Islands. Ceded to the United States in 1898, the area is primarily made up of the islands of Culebra and Vieques but there are plenty of other surrounding islets and cays to explore. And while the British Virgin Islands are distinctively British, the Spanish Virgin Islands are distinctively Spanish. You don’t hear about these islands that much but for anyone looking to escape the crowds of the BVI and try something new, they are well worth checking out which my family and I discovered firsthand on a recent charter to these simple and unspoiled islands.

We began our sailing adventure from the town of Fajardo on the very eastern end of Puerto Rico where we picked up our boat, a Jeanneau 409 called Island Girl that we chartered from Sail Caribe based out of the very nice marina of Puerto del Rey. One big advantage of sailing out of Puerto Rico that is realized right off the bat is cost. In my case, as a family of 5, we flew on Southwest direct from Baltimore to San Juan for about $400/ person or $2,000 total. Had we gone on to fly to Beef Island on Tortola in the BVI, we would be looking at an additional $2,000. That’s a whopping 4K just in air fare, a hefty amount for the average family.

After a brief introduction to the boat and a good chart briefing, we hoisted the sails and headed for Culebra. If there is a downside or should I say inconvenience to sailing in the Spanish Virgins, it is that every destination is up-wind from Fajardo making for a sometimes long and tough beat to windward. Such was the case for our first sail to Culebra located just about 18 miles dead up wind. With the winds blowing a steady 15 to 20 and seas running 3 to 4 feet, we took the advice of those in the know and motor-sailed our way to Culebra’s south shore and into one of the many recognized anchorages that can be found along the entire southern coast. I’m going to stop right here and say that another great thing about cruising in these islands is that there are plenty of moorings to be had, all of which are, now hold on to your Tilly Hats, FREE. That’s right free, as in no charge! How about that sport’s fans? A pretty good deal right?

My daughter Mollie enjoying a swim off the bow pulpit.
We have the anchorage all to ourselves as my daughter Mollie enjoys a swim off the bow pulpit.

Perhaps one of the sweetest harbors to drop anchor in is on the small island of Culebrita located just a stone’s throw to the east of Culebra. Here you’ll find pristine white sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise blue water, and lots of healthy intact reefs teeming with fish, sea turtles, coral and conch. There are hills to climb, a great lighthouse to explore and the natural charm of what the BVI was like 40 years ago.

A killer sunset as seen from the island of Culebrita. It's hard to imagine anything much better than this.
A killer sunset as seen from the island of Culebrita. It’s hard to imagine anything much better than this.

We ended up spending 5 nights just cruising around from one quiet harbor to the next before ever going into Culebra’s main harbor and only town, Ensenada Honda. And you know what, we didn’t miss it.

A few years ago, we were fortunate enough to have had a similar experience cruising through the beautiful Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, where there were no beach bars, no on-shore boutiques, no restaurants, no nothing, except natural, unspoiled beauty. It was truly an awesome trip where we totally unplugged, enjoyed each other’s company and were happy just to be. This is what cruising is supposed to be all about and what you can find in the Spanish Virgins.

My soon to be 13 year old son Will enjoying Laura Hildebrand's best seller Seabiscut on the deck of the Jeanneau 409.
My soon to be 13-year-old son Will, enjoying Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller Seabiscut in Culebrita’s awesome and mostly deserted harbor.

At the end of the day, we never managed to get to Vieques. We could have but to be honest, we enjoyed sailing around Culebra and Culebrita so much, we figured we would just have to come back and check out Vieques the next time around.

DSC00264
Enjoying another great sunset from the deck of the Jeanneau 409 in Almodovar Bay on Culebra

On the way back to Puerto del Ray, we made a final overnight stop on the small island of Palomino where we once again found a lovely harbor, free moorings, great snorkeling and as a bonus, a beautiful full moon to shine its light on us. What more could we ask for?

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Will, Mollie and Graham Fenn pause for a photo-op on our way up to visit the lighthouse on Culebrita.

For information on chartering in the Spanish Virgin Islands, please contact Sail Caribe. They have a nice fleet of both late-model Jeanneau monohulls and Lagoon cats to choose from. And once you leave the dock… simply unplug, relax and enjoy all that the Spanish Virgins have to offer.

On we go…

10 thoughts on “Sailing the Spanish Virgin Islands and Loving it!”

  1. Fantastic! Thanks for the write-up, Paul. Great photos too.

    I’m bareboating this June in the SVI (sharing a catamaran from SailCaribe with another family). Your story sounds familiar, been to the BVI many times (love it) but always interested in new things.

    I’m torn about your your advice to motor-sail to windward. I’m sure it’s wise, but darn I hate to use that smelly iron genny. It’s probably even more important for us since we only have five nights total.

    Cheers and happy sailing,
    Steve

    1. Thanks for the comment Steve. In June, you may very well find that the winds are lighter so beating to windward won’t be a big deal. However, sailing cats hate going to windward as much as real cats hate water so my advice is to power up north and then spend the rest of your time reaching and running. Don’t miss Culebrita or a walk to the lighthouse, you’ll love it!

  2. Paul, Thanks for the post! We own Island Girl and really enjoyed seeing your write-up and great pictures. We are very glad that you enjoyed your time on her. Vieques is definitely worth going back for. We have spent time in almost every harbor along the Southern Coast. Our favorite is Bahia de la Chiva but make sure that you pay attention to the shallow reef on the Eastern opening.

    Steve, Sail on a port reach to Vieques. Then it is one tack between each of your stops along the Southern Coast, followed by a starboard reach to Culebrita / Culebra, and finally downwind back to Puerto Del Rey Marina.

    1. Larry – thanks for the feedback and thanks for your purchase of Island Girl and making it available to us to charter. We had a ball as you know and we will be back again!

    2. Thanks, Larry. Good point! I was so focused on Culebra, I had not thought about going that way around.

      I’ll give that more thought. Sounds like a nice way to do it. We only have five nights, so have to figure out what we can fit in.

  3. I was going to suggest the same thing, Larry. Sail to Vieques first, Steve. I have not done this in many years but when I did, it was a beautiful and worthwhile cruise.
    Nice story, Paul. Your kids sure are growing up. They do that, don’t they?

  4. Thanks for the advice on the SVI, everyone. We went in June and it was great!

    (here is my post about one afternoon’s excitement: http://wp.me/p54CW6-jG)

    We only had five days so we stayed around Culebra, saving Vieques for next time. You guys were right – the beat to windward was a chore so we motored the whole way.

    Culebrita, La Pela, Ensenada Honda, Dewey, Palominos – we loved it all.

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