If ever there was a year not to go to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), this year is it. Or is it? Yes, the BVI got trounced by Hurricane Irma back in September. Yes, there was a huge number of boats lost. And yes, many of the areas best known resorts such as The Bitter End Yacht Club and Peter Island Resort and Spa, have been forced to close their doors and sit out the season until repairs are made. Despite all this, the British Virgin Islands are still the world’s #1 charter destination, offering awesome sailing, plenty of great anchorages, beautiful white-sand beaches, plenty of good snorkeling, and of course, the world’s best Painkillers!
And there’s another reason to go to the BVI this year and that is, the Islands need us. More than anything, what the BVI could really use right now are visitors, especially sailors. While some of the larger resorts are closed, most of the smaller ones such as Foxy’s, the Soggy Dollar, Cooper Island Beach Club, and the Anagada Reef Hotel are open and ready for business. Nothing cures a quiet bar faster than a bunch of thirsty sailors! And, it’s the sailors, us, who can have the greatest impact on the BVI’s recovery right now.
And so, on March 10th, a group of us will be boarding a plane and heading to Tortola in the BVI to pick up our boats from our friends at Sunsail. The weather in the BVI is currently 81 degrees with blue skies and winds out of the Southeast at 10-15. Can’t ask for better conditions than this.
We know the BVI will be quieter this year than in the past. And we understand we will see some leftover damage from Hurricane Irma. But we also know the sailing will be great as always, the water as blue as ever, the air will be warm, and the people of the British Virgin Islands will be glad to see us. It’s going to be great!
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.
Located 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This past summer my wife Kim and I chartered a 40 foot sailboat on Lake Superior and cruised through the unspoiled and mostly deserted Apostle Islands with our three kids, Will, Mollie, and Graham. We had never sailed in this area before and although eager to experience all that the islands had to offer, we were also nervous that our kids, ages 10, 9 and 6 would get bored with no on-shore activities to entertain them. This is rather a pathetic statement I know, but let’s face it, kids today and even us adults have come to expect being entertained in one fashion or another every minute of every waking day. Because of this, and because we didn’t want our vacation ruined by cranky kids whining about their being nothing to do, we literally left the dock with three laptop computers, one Itouch, one Ipad, an Android smart phone, my old Blackberry, and plenty of movies to watch. The one thing that we forgot to bring however was a 12 volt/ 110 volt inverter. In short, we had no way to charge all that we had brought so once the batteries ran out, we’re talking game over.
We had a smoking good sail the first day before dropping the hook (that’s nautical lingo for anchor) just off the beach of Stockton Island. The day slipped away into a clear, beautiful, star-lit night and after dinner Kim and I sat in the cockpit sipping our wine and taking it all in. Our kids on the other hand sat down below fighting over which movie they would watch, where they would watch it, and who would hold the computer. We spent two nights in Stockton Island before sailing onto Raspberry Island about 12 miles to the west. One of the great things about sailing in the Apostle’s is that the islands are close together making for quick passages between harbors. We set our anchor in a well-protected cove just off the sandspit in about 15 feet of clean, clear-blue water. It was a sweet spot for sure and we made the most of it by swimming and diving off the back of the boat. But once the sun went down, there were all three of my kids once again glued to the screen of the Ipad, the last remaining device with any juice left. Then a funny and unexpected thing happened almost immediately after the Ipad gasped its final breath and the light faded from its screen. Will appeared in the cockpit with a deck of cards in his hand and said “anyone interested in playing a game of Michigan Rummy?”
From that point forward the trip took on a whole new feel, a real feel, one without beeps, clicks, electronic tones, or video games. From that point forward we spent our time combing the shore for cool looking stones and driftwood. At night we made fires on the beach, told stories and sang songs. We played cards, board games and read books. We did all those things that families used to do before the invasion of portable, hand-held electronics. No one was fighting that they couldn’t see or couldn’t hear. No one was arguing over which movie to watch or who would hold the computer. All that was gone.
We spent several more days on the boat cruising from one island to the next. They were all beautiful, unique and for the most part deserted. And while there was no commercial entertainment to be found, we never lacked for being entertained. It was all there just as it was for our parents and grandparents, simple entertainment but oh so much better than what we have today.
After we got home, we called our cable company and disconnected our TV. We still have the internet and the kids still play too many video games when we’re not looking but there’s also more chess and scrabble being played; there’s more music flowing through the house, more family conversations and a few more fires burning in the fireplace at night; all good things.
This Christmas, Santa brought us a new tent and we’ve started looking at the idea of buying an Airstream trailer and doing a little camping. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll go but one thing is for sure, when we do go, we’ll be sure to unplug, leave the electronics behind and experience all that life has to offer, for real.
On we go…
P.S. Interested in exploring the Apostle Islands for yourself? Contact Superior Charters at www.superiorcharters.com. They have a great fleet of Jeanneau sailboats to choose from and are a treat to deal with.