Yo Ho Ho and a Charter of Rum
An early season cruise through the British Virgin Islands had this band of merry friends in search of the best rum bar
On a chart, the rhumbline appears as the shortest distance between two points, but when plotting a course through the British Virgin Islands, our “rum line” took a twisting path from one legendary beach bar to another on a weeklong charter cruise.
There’s no better place for bar hopping than the BVI, with scores of islands and destinations orbiting Road Town, Tortola, where we picked up our Moorings 4800 catamaran. My boyfriend Barry and I would be joined by Sharon and Brad the following day. But eager to get underway fast, we rushed through the chart briefing (knowing our desired itinerary helped). Earlier in the year I’d chartered the same spacious and comfortable 48-foot Robertson and Caine cruising catamaran, which accelerated our boat and systems review. Checkout and briefing done, complimentary cellphone in hand, paddleboard and kayaks on board, we bolted.
Luggage was still stacked at the head of the stairs to our cabin, and bags of groceries were strewn on the large dining table. Cases of beer and Coke, and bottles of wine rattled gently inside boxes, as only a few perishables had been stuffed in the fridge.
It was a direct 6-nautical-mile shot out of the harbor to Cooper Island and Manchioneel Bay. The air was delicious as the turquoise sea and verdant islands lay off our bows like a postcard. As we rambled across the Sir Francis Drake Channel and peered through binoculars toward the anchorage, we realized the bight was packed. We carried on and managed to snag the last mooring ball. Mission accomplished, we eased into vacation mode, stowing our gear before heading to the rum bar at Cooper Island. Our dream vacation had begun.
Rum has been produced in the Caribbean since the 1700s, and, originally a byproduct of sugarcane, it soon became the main event. From the original mix of lemon juice, water and rum the British navy served its sailors, scores of delectable concoctions have sprung, and we were keen to try them all.
After a fantastic dinner at the Cooper Island Beach Club we meandered down the boardwalk to the Rum Bar. Here you can order sips and samplers of more than 100 rums, including rare vintages and unique infusions. I enjoyed a rosemary and jalapeno daiquiri while Barry sipped an aged Pyrat Rum. This would end up being one of my favorite stops of the trip. Our charming evening was tarnished only slightly by an over-rummed sailor who kept ringing the bell at the bar, but never sprung for drinks. Rule No. 1: If you ring the bell, you buy a round.
Leaving Cooper Island the next morning we sailed through a few blustery squalls along Virgin Gorda and into the North Sound. Here the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock offer a one-two punch of rum revelry. At the octagonal bar at the Bitter End, Gunny served up super-generous drinks, with a wide smile. Meals were equally spectacular: I had fresh prawns the size of a Dachshund. And at the Bitter End you never lack someone to talk to. We were quick to discover old friends, friends-of-friends and new friends each night. A short dinghy ride away (or shoreboat: hail them on CH16) found us at Saba Rock, a petite island caressed with cool ocean breeze. We enjoyed classic Painkillers on a deck perched over the water, while the blue-lit tarpon pools kept us entertained.
Bound for Marina Cay, we left the protection of North Sound and continued over the top of Mosquito Island on a counter-clockwise circumnavigation of Tortola. We passed a pack of islands called The Dogs, where several alluring day anchorages could be seen. But we were on our way to one of the iconic Pusser’s Rum Bars on Marina Cay: a tiny eight-acre islet surrounded turquoise waters. It would prove an excellent spot for the night, sandwiched between exclusive Grand Camanoe island and a reef, offering gentle water yet open to the easterly breeze.
We went to the gas dock to pay the mooring fee ($30, across the board) and asked where the best snorkeling was. Ken directed us across the narrow channel to Diamond Reef, where a string of dinghy buoys marked an underwater garden of corals, fans and fishes. We swam for nearly two hours, then headed back to get ready for our foray to Pusser’s.
“Pusser’s” is a bastardization of the term “Purser’s” and was the rum served by the British Navy for centuries. In 1980 the current Pusser’s Company was formed, producing “the single malt of rum” to the Admiralty’s bygone specifications. In this quaint and colorful setting, over conch fritters and Painkillers, we studied their traditional daily toasts that included Saturday’s “Sweethearts and wives, may they never meet” and Sunday’s “Absent friends and those at sea.”
That night, the bars at nearby Trellis Bay thumped noisily, and planes droned irregularly in and out of Beef Island. BVI Airways expects to begin offering direct flights from the continental U.S. to Beef Island soon, which will save travelers from having to fly into St. Thomas and ferry to Tortola.
After a calm morning, ideal for paddleboarding, we wended our way around Great Camanoe to Monkey Point, on the southwestern tip of Guana Island. Our timing was good; there were few other boats on the day moorings. Charter fees generally include a permit for the National Parks Trust, which oversees 21 such sites and moorings throughout the BVI. It proved a rewarding midmorning stop, with snorkeling along the caves among huge schools of fish.
The anchorage to the north, at White Bay, looked appealing, but we were on a mission to Jost Van Dyke. It was named after Joost van Dyk, a 17th century settler and privateer, who dawdled in piracy. Just over three square miles of rugged green terrain and with white sand beaches, it’s the home of some of the BVI’s most famous rum bars.
It was another 9 nautical miles on an easy westerly sail to Little Harbor, where we picked up a mooring. Immediately Cynthia from Harris’ Place puttered over to invite us to try “the best Bushwacker in the BVI,” and not soon after came an offer of lobster dinners at Sidney’s Peace & Love. But we had plans to dine on board, so we satisfied ourselves with drinks ashore, mixing cocktails at the self-serve bar at Sidney’s and meandering through a maze of colorful T-shirts, sarongs and dresses in the shop.
A low-pressure system settled in, so we battened down the hatches, cranked on the genny and the air conditioning for the night. Our next destination was just 20 minutes around the corner to Great Harbor, where we easily picked up another mooring. We found that moving in the middle of the day afforded us the most success in getting a can for the night in the busy BVI. During a break in the rain (or so we thought) we buzzed the dinghy around the headland into adjacent White Bay. Little did we realize just how soggy our excursion to the Soggy Dollar would be, as a small monsoon struck. We ducked into the new Hendo’s Hideout bar, where the Painkillers ended up being better than at the Soggy Dollar. But the old standby was where the action was with scores of rabble-rousers in cowboy hats and sopping wet clothes. They broke into song, at Sharon’s request for a photo, and in short order she was joining in.
We got back to the mothership in time to dry off and wait for the next deluge to subside, before taking the dinghy to Foxy’s for dinner. Outside it poured, while we enjoyed a classic island dinner and dancing with some of our newfound friends. With gray skies looming, we set out of Great Harbor and headed southeast. Our destination was Norman Island to put ourselves in position to return to the base the next morning, and to visit the last one of the iconic rum bars, Willy T’s, of course.
Winding ‘round the west end of Tortola, through the swirling currents of Thatch Cut, we passed Sopher’s Hole, home of another famous Pusser’s bar. But we’d paid our homage to the Admiralty and continued on, hoping for a lunch stop at The Indians. The Indians are jagged pinnacles that reach up from the floor of the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Several boats were already moored there on park cans, so we picked up the last free one. Sharon mustered the food and Brad started the grill, while Barry and I hoped for a quick snorkel in these waters abundant with marine life.
But another kind of watery experience was in store. The light southeasterly breeze suddenly shifted and the gray clouds barreled toward us. As Brad merrily grilled away, the rest of us cloistered up the boat. The squall enveloped us, blasting torrents of rain and wind. We stood by with our Yanmars purring (just in case the you-know-what hit the fan), while our cheeseburgers progressed from rare to medium to well done. Eventually the storm eased and we could make out the shapes of the islands to the west. We finally ate lunch, drenched but relieved.
The anchorage at The Bight was nearly empty and we picked up a mooring on the northeastern corner, close to Pirate’s Bight. We’d learned the previous night that it’s not pleasant to be in the farthest mooring when riding the dinghy back from dinner in the rain. Willy T’s was as I remembered it—an open-air double-decker bucket of rust. Named after the original William Thornton, an old wooden Baltic trading vessel that sank 20 years ago, it’s currently housed in a 100-foot steel-hulled schooner. Despite the relatively empty anchorage, it was busy, with some of our friends from Foxy’s playing dominos. Brad joined in, while Sharon paddleboarded around the perimeter of the calm bay, and Barry and I snorkeled the northern shore. The shallows tumbled steeply into a wall of coral, teeming with a confetti of fish. We hadn’t anticipated such beautiful snorkeling right off our stern.
That night we dined at Pirate’s Bight, a lovely but austere setting once the huge garage door-like walls were lowered to keep the rain out. But the food was elegant, and being our last night, we gorged on delicious seafood dinners: lobster bisque, shrimp and scallops, with Brad and Sharon sharing an enormous lobster.
It poured all night but we slept soundly, waking to blue skies and a last chance to swim in the warm turquoise waters, before the one-hour crossing to Road Town. The BVI are a treasure trove for people of all interests and walks of life, including those of us intent on discovering a new meaning to the term “rum line.”