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BVI Redux; with sea creatures

2010 October 1

SAILING's publisher, who first cruised the British Virgin Islands when bareboat chartering was in its infancy, returns with a pair of water-loving kids getting their first taste of island sailing. Now they all agree it's a wonderful place to sample Caribbean cruising in small portions.

The wave sped toward the shore like a curling turquoise wall, broke on the sand with a resounding crash and sent a fan of foaming water far up the beach, where it deposited a pair of sea creatures at my feet.

The creatures appeared to be laughing, as though they enjoyed being rolled, tossed, shaken and plastered with wet sand. The creatures were my grandsons, having fun in the Baths of the BVI as only kids who take to the water like fish can.The Baths may be a clichéd tourist attraction and a geological curiosity for those who wonder how a collection of house-sized rocks appeared on the shore of a Caribbean island, but on this day it was a showcase for Mother Nature's aquatic whimsy and grandeur. Out on the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the waves were big, lazy swells. When they forced their way into the grottoes of the Baths-in effect rock-sided funnels-they morphed into spectacular surf. Their power explained how the giant shards of granite thrown up by volcanic sea floor 25 million years ago became rounded like eggs.

We persuaded the boys to leave the surf so we could sail on to our next adventure just as the first wave of cruise ship passengers invaded the Baths, overwhelming the beaches and clogging passageways between the rocks. Cruise ships in the BVI? It was one of many revelations for me on my first visit to the British Virgin Islands in more than 30 years.

When my wife Jean and I first sailed here, cruise ships ignored these little islands, Mount Gay rum cost less than $2 a bottle and the bareboat charter business was in its infancy. We loved that experience, but the Windward and Leeward Islands, Spanish Virgins, Bahamas, Mediterranean and other waters of the world beckoned, laying claim to years of cruising time. It was the boys who got us back to the BVI. When it was time to introduce them to island sailing, I could think of no better place than this cluster of islands that serves as a microcosm of all that sailors love about the Caribbean. I knew they would learn a lot. I didn't realize that I would get an education too.

The boys, 12-year-old Will and 7-year-old Jack, are experienced sailors for their ages, but they had never experienced a sailboat like the Bavaria 50 we boarded at the Horizon Yacht Charters headquarter at Nanny Cay on Tortola, a handsome cruiser with the muscular look of a boat meant to be sailed offshore and a voluminous interior. The boys could have moved into one of the spacious aft staterooms, but they opted for a smaller "crew cabin" forward. They liked the sailorly look of the cozy, stacked berths. Besides, the aft cabin would have been too close, just a bulkhead away, to the quarters claimed by the parents (yes, we let them come along on the cruise too).

Impeccably prepared by the Horizon crew, the boat needed only a wagon-train of shopping carts full of provisions from the grocery store on the grounds of the Nanny Cay Resort & Marina (growing boys on board, you know) to be ready to take us on a voyage to, as our BVI cruising permit ($5 per person per day) graciously put it, "peacefully to cruise and enjoy the waters, beaches and reefs of these blessed islands." The Nanny Cay development, which includes a hotel (popular accommodations for charterers on the nights before and after their cruises) and the marina in which the Horizon fleet is berthed, is located several miles away from the big commercial harbor at Road Town, and is a convenient getaway point for cruisers.

Of course, just about everything is conveniently located in this compact arrangement of islands. It took just an hour for us to get into the cruising life with a stop at the Indians for snorkeling. The Indians, a group of exposed rocks near Norman Island, are part of the BVI National Parks Trust. Anchoring is prohibited to protect the coral. With our marine conservation permit ($35 for a week) we were able to use one of the trust's moorings.

The snorkeling was excellent. Will, who is as content in a submerged state as a seal, was soon off on his own, diving often to get a closer look at fish lurking in the coral. Jack got the hang of it a after a few mouthfuls of seawater. Later his eyes seemed as big as sand dollars when he described a purple fish he had seen that seemed to be glowing.

Our destination for our first night was only a mile away, the Bight of Norman Island, a place I remembered well from our first BVI cruise. What I remembered was a big bay in which we were utterly alone and were introduced to the potent December winds of the BVI. The shrieking gusts swooped down over Norman's steep hills from one direction and then another, giving me a sleepless night as the boat swung wildly on its anchor chain. I probably shouldn't have worried-I had enough scope out to hold a cruise ship. A long anchor rode would have been impossible in 2010, what with the scores of boats crowding the anchorage. Crowded, yes, but not too crowded, thanks to the rows of mooring balls that dot the Bight.

It was more of my BVI re-education-moorings, now nearly universal in BVI harbors and anchorages, take the stress out of not only anchoring, but of sharing these waters with vast fleets of charter boats. With moorings-the privately maintained ones are generally available for $25 a night-there is no problem putting up with lots of company in anchorages. And there are no worries about bumps in the night from boats dragging poorly set anchors.

We had made a detailed itinerary before the cruise, a fairly logical progression around the perimeter of the Drake Channel, but promptly discarded it after our Norman Island stop. The distances are so short that we decided it would be more fun to hop and skip our way through the islands on whims. One such whim took us to Marina Cay, which turned out to be our favorite civilized (meaning having shore amenities) destination.

The Marina Cay anchorage is protected by a reef ringed by pellucid turquoise water giving way to the deeper blue of the anchorage, and it was gorgeous to behold as we picked out a mooring near the little island with red roofed buildings at the center of the reef. I was reminded of one of our favorite places in the Windwards, Clifton Harbour at Union Island, where seas are blocked by a reef like this one, but the breeze blows into the anchorage fresh and unimpeded. Between dives off the stern with the crew's two water rats, I couldn't help thinking Marina Cay was a particularly fortunate place to be in April while our home latitudes were enduring the death throes of winter.

Marina Cay has marina services, a hilltop bar, a restaurant, a dive charter operation and, for those willing to squander island time on shopping, a Pusser's Company store. It also has wi-fi all over the island and in the anchorage. I added that to my list of changes since my last BVI visit in that quaint era before the Internet had been invented.

Amenities are fine, but it was the BVI's natural offerings, places to explore under and above the water, that the boys liked most, places like the Dogs and, most memorably, Sandy Cay. At the curiously named George Dog, one of a half dozen uninhabited islands in the Dog group in the BVI archipelago's western reaches, we found a national parks mooring, dinghied to a cove and snorkeled over a coral reef whose sea life seemed animated by the vigorous current and swell.

Aggressive surf at Sandy Cay precluded snorkeling, but made for what the boys thought was a highly entertaining dinghy landing. There was plenty of entertainment on the islet too. For the adults it was beholding a perfect tropical island, a living version of classic images in paintings and photographs, with a crescent of white sand beach and palm trees bending in the breeze. For the boys it was exploring the cay's overgrown interior and discovering a colony of hermit crabs that meandered on the island floor toting their domiciles, fingernail size shells for the children and adolescents, a variety of snail shells ranging up to mansion size for the adults.

On the beach, a sea-going crab that arrived on a particularly far-reaching wave provided the photo op of the day as it clamped onto a SAILING Magazine hat tenaciously and posed for a portrait with Will before being returned to the surf.

In the civilized category of destinations, the cruise took us to Gorda Sound and a déjà vu stop at the Bitter End Yacht Club. When we first saw it, the Bitter End was an outpost known mostly by the traveling cognoscenti, a remote spot with a few villas and a small restaurant. Today it's a tony luxury resort offering guests a plethora of ways to enjoy the sound and nearby bays and reefs with an eclectic fleet of sailboats and other water toys. Our plan was to spend a day at the Bitter End and let the boys sail small boats around Gorda Sound, but when the breeze piped up early in the morning, we decided, on another of those whims, to take advantage of it for the 20-mile passage (long by BVI standards) to Jost Van Dyke.

It was a relief to see the windspeed indicator rise about 20 knots. I had been telling the crew about the hardy tradewind-powered breezes of the BVI, but so far the wind had been disappointingly gentle. This day it came on as a strong southeaster, just what the big Bavaria wanted. I silently thanked the Horizon crew for giving us a boat with a just-scrubbed bottom as we watched the knotmeter climb over 9 knots and stay there on an exhilarating romp to Jost Van Dyke's Little Harbor.

The sail to Little Harbor was really a pilgrimage to a restaurant we discovered in our 1970's introduction to the BVI that seemed to embrace everything about the Caribbean culture we came to love. Back then, Sidney's Peace & Love restaurant was a glorified shack at the edge of the harbor. There was no dock; we anchored so close to a sand spit in front of the restaurant that after dinner, and I suppose after a few Mount Gays, I swam back to the boat, which took all of 15 strokes. Sidney cooked lobsters in a caldron over a fuel oil fire behind the restaurant. While he was busy doing that, guests were encouraged to help themselves at the bar, making a note of what they consumed and settling up after dinner.

Sidney's is now a sprawling place that can seat many sailboat crews, with a proper dock and-what else?-a shop filled with Sydney's Peace & Love logo merchandise. We were sorry to hear from Sidney's granddaughter that he was in a hospital in Puerto Rico and "everyone is praying for him." But the lobster from the kitchen was just as good as when Sidney prepared it for us-maybe better without the essence of fuel oil-and the honor-system bar was still in operation. When we praised the crustaceans, the face of our server Shanica lit up in a wide smile as she replied, "I'm dating the guy who caught them." In traps set off Anegada, she added.

The lobster dinner marked the last night of the cruise. The next morning, the last leg was a jaunt through the Thatch Island Cut at the western tip of Tortola to Nanny Cay. But first there was quick detour to anchor once more off the beach at Sandy Cay.

The sea creatures needed one last swim.