SAILING THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
One week of island-hopping with a crew of friends. Snorkeling, climbing, camping, sailing, and living on 'island time.'
Ben mentioned a year ago wanting to bareboat charter a catamaran to sail the British Virgin Islands. The idea sounded amazing, and I always had fun learning to sail on his boat in the city, but I never imagined that it would happen. The logistics of finding a crew interested and able to afford a trip like this was almost enough to stall the plan. Fortunately we got a crew of eight friends, mostly new to each other, to come together at the last minute.
Horizon Yacht Charters provided us with a captain for a day, to show us the intricacies of the boat and emergency procedures. I glossed over most of it, assuming I'd learn the important bits in the next few days. I was still tired from the flight to St. Thomas and ferry ride over to Tortola. I spent most of my attention instead worrying about the water. My experience swimming was thin and I hadn't ever been in open water.
There was a moment during the tour of the vessel that we spotted a pair of dolphins within the mooring field. Several people jumped in with snorkels to get a closer look. We were told by Arthur (from Horizon) that this was a rare and good omen for our trip.
The following day we sailed to Cooper Island, and moored the boat near the beach club there. As soon as we parked the boat, everyone geared up for snorkeling and jumping in the water. I quietly dragged my feet, taking my time in putting on my mask and flippers. Only Ben was aware that I wasn't comfortable with the water. I wavered for a minute too long on the edge of the boat, and I heard Kaila yell for me to jump in, and so I did.
Immediately I was on my chest peering into the ocean floor, easily floating in the salty water. There was a large turtle slowly swimming along below me and I lost all worry about the water. I would eventually take every opportunity I could get to take a dip in the water after that. The next morning, before we departed Cooper Island, Leah convinced me to swim ashore with her at dawn. She boldly hopped a Private Property - No Trespassing sign and I followed. We explored the small, boarded up shacks that dotted the hilly coastline for almost an hour before we swam back to the boat. I don't think she quite realized how nervous I was about the swimming, but that was good. I needed someone to push me a little further on to get completely over it.
VIRGIN GORDA - ON THE ROCKS
I was most excited for Virgin Gorda, a large island in the BVI known for its maze of granite boulders piled up on the white-sand beaches. I only recently became interested in climbing, and it seemed that Virgin Gorda was an underrated destination for world-class bouldering routes. We didn't have crash pads, and instead improvised with thick seat cushions dragged off the sailboat. As I made my way to shore, I dropped my phone in the water and bricked it instantly. I told myself to adopt an attitude of not caring (at least it wasn't my main camera), and carried that attitude for the rest of the week.
Several of us ventured off into a labyrinth of boulders, scrambling our way up, down, and around obstacles without any clear direction of where we were heading. From what I researched earlier, we were only experiencing a tiny fraction of the bouldering on the island. I knew I'd come back someday and dedicate a longer period of time to these rocks in the future.
We moved to The Baths, the highlight of the island. This part of Virgin Gorda has a collection of boulders that were lower into the water, forming caves, seawater-filled grottoes, and had beams of sunlight cutting through gaps between the egg-like rocks.
We spent longer than we planned on at The Baths, wading through the pale-green water. I met only one other group of climbers, a friendly bunch from Tennessee. They were here for a week to spend just on the Virgin Gorda, and were staying at a climber-friendly guest house nearby.
We left The Baths in high spirits and made our way to the north part of Virgin Gorda, mooring at Bitter End Yacht Club. This was far more developed than any place we had been to on the BVI. Someone compared it to being Disneyworld for sailboats. We had dinner at Saba Rock, a tiny island that's entirely a restaurant and a resort. I was glad we didn't stay for long; I found it a bit too resort-y.
HIKING, JET SKIS, AND KAYAKS IN LEVERICK BAY
We refueled the catamaran with diesel and fresh water on Leverick Bay, and then split up into smaller groups. I tagged along with Leah, Kaila, and Amy for a hike up to Gorda Peak. When we asked for directions to the trailhead, most of the locals thought we were crazy. It ended up being a quick hike, but they made it out to seem like it would take us hours. It's the only hike I've hydrated beforehand with a piña colada. While asking for more information on the hike at a restaurant, a guy named Aubrey offered to drive us to the trailhead in his truck. From the top of the hill, we got a clear view of the collection of islands in the North Sound, including Richard Branson's Necker Island.
After returning to the beach, the four of us rented jet skis and toured the sound on our own. I hadn't been on a jet ski before, but by the end of it I was trying to see how fast I could go without flying off.
Leah and I had the drive to keep exploring, so we rented a kayak and made our way to a secluded beach far from the mooring field. We noticed quickly that the beach was a dumping ground for garbage that washed ashore. That explained why it was empty. After snorkeling around, we took a bag and began collecting whatever trash we could get our hands on. I decided to take a bit more back with me; I climbed a 20ft tall palm tree and twisted off a coconut. The skin on my forearms and on my feet were shredded and peeling, but I felt triumphant.
We all regrouped at a bar for happy hour with a sunset. The waitress noticed me smashing the coconut on a rock, and came back with a foot-long kitchen knife. It probably wasn't the best idea given that I was a few drinks in and it was already dark. In any case, I hacked away at the coconut til I could drop a straw in and pass it around the table.
We had charcoal, so we ended up grilling burgers on the boat for dinner.
MARLA AND ME
Instead of heading north to Anegada, a sparsely populated island made of coral and limestone several miles away, we decided to sail west. Our goal for the day was to find a perfect beach, so we kept our eyes open as we made our way along Tortola's north side. A few hours later, we spotted a thin strip of white sand on Guana Island, sheltered in a bay. The water was too shallow for us to dinghy over, so we all swam to shore. It ended up being an ideal afternoon of napping, snorkeling, and even an attempt at acro yoga on a floating dock. On the way back, we swam through a massive school of little fish. Through my snorkel mask it seemed as if it was raining silver every move I made forward.
After being thoroughly relaxed, our crew headed over to Jost Van Dyke, which was a more developed island that we planned to get a solid meal on. We were late to arrive to the mooring, and ended up stationing the boat in a less ideal bay. It turned out to be a great decision in the end. Of the few options for dining in that bay, we chose Harris Place and were greeted warmly by Cynthia. Immediately we could tell she was going to take care of us and give us a meal to remember. She may have come across as pushy to some, but we were all feeling her sassy vibes that evening. I noticed how much she loved TripAdvisor and mentioned to her that I worked for them now. She beamed and ran to the kitchen while exclaiming how we were about to have an incredible meal. She certainly delivered on her promise. We were all stunned at how she was running the entire kitchen, bar, and table-waiting mostly by herself, with the help of two others.
After the meal, I ended up befriending and playing with Marla, the daughter of a woman who was working in the kitchen. For over 90 minutes, we played hide and seek, skipped stones, cops and robbers, and a host of other games she made up on the spot. I was beat and tired after 5 minutes but she seemed to have an endless supply of energy. As we were about to leave, Cynthia came out and gave us a gift of reciting one of her favorite recipes. Apparently we had made her night. We could say the same about her.
LIVING IT UP ON JOST
The following morning, Leah and I woke up early after a rain storm. We were rewarded with a large double rainbow cutting through the overcast sky.
Shelley and Ben woke up soon after and we dinghy'd ashore to refill on ice and wake up with some coffee. Outside the bakery we stopped at, Shelley was admiring a mango tree. The woman who owned the bakery noticed and told her son to climb up and pull one down for "the nice lady."
We briefly hung out at Corsair's, a divey-looking motorcycle pirate bar on the beach. We spent most of the time lounging on the hammock, beach chairs, and trees and noted that this spot looked like the beach used in Corona beer ads.
About half of us set out for a hike to the high point of the island. The sun was high in the sky the entire time and the trail offered no shade. I ran out of water and was free-loading off everyone else.
We regrouped with the others at Ivan's Stress Free Bar, where we were greeted by a stray cat that had followed Kaila for hours. She named it Tux for how closely it resembled formal wear. Tux mostly napped while we ate lunch.
Just in front of Ivan's we spotted a large trampoline in the water and headed over to do some jumps off of it. There was a wedding being set up right on the beach, but we managed to have some time to goof off on the tire swing right before the event started.
We had plans for dinner at Foxy's Taboo, which I'm told is the first bar that ever opened up on the BVI. Foxy himself is a legend, and we all were hoping to get a chance to meet him. Leah and I wandered to the back of the restaurant and saw him sitting with some friends drinking beers. He took a liking to us and began rattling off stories and many inappropriate jokes. We invited the rest of the crew to come meet him, and I think some people were disturbed by his humor, and MAGA hat.
NORMAN ISLAND'S CAVES
We had a long sail down to Norman Island, known for its caves that had amazing snorkeling opportunities. There were two caves in particular that looked like the eyes of a giant, submerged skull. Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate novel Treasure Island was apparently inspired by this island. We had some incredible snorkeling. I blanked on bringing my diving flashlight, so I only made my way into the caves just past where I couldn't see my fingers anymore in the darkness.
We made our way back to the boat and Ben and Shelley made a superb jambalaya.
We figured we'd check out the famous Willy-T, a floating bar on a large boat. Within seconds of stepping foot onto the boat, we all felt a wave of disgust. It was probably the trashiest place I've ever been to, and reminded me of what I imagine spring break is like for college kids, except over half these people were severely sunburned old people. We joked around about how hilariously bad it was, noticing the television slideshow of women who had previously visited Willy-T flashing their breasts and more for a camera.
SNORKELING THE INDIANS
On our last morning we made our way to The Indians, referred to by everyone as the best snorkeling destination in all of the BVI. There are very few mooring spots near the rocks, so we were extremely lucky to find a mooring ball become available just as we were struggling to park ourselves.
The coral here was the most colorful I've seen on the trip so far, and parts of it felt like I was in an underwater forest. In one sheltered area, there was a school of several thousand fish, quietly staying still as we made our way through them. It was a perfect way to cap off the sailing trip.
BACK ON LAND
We did a debrief of the boat when we returned it and packed our bags. All of us had a day more of vacation left, but most of us were splitting ways.
I decided to spend the last day on my own. After saying goodbye to everyone, I took a taxi cab to the West End Ferry Terminal. My destination would be St. John on the US Virgin Islands. My cab driver quoted my rate quite high, and then told me to make myself a rum punch from the cooler next to him. I wasn't particularly thirsty, but I made myself an nice drink anyway.
The next ferry out was over three hours away, so I sat at the nearby Fish n Lime bar for lunch. While reading a rock climbing zine, I ran into James Kell. I briefly met James two nights ago at Foxy's through Kaila. He runs a great sailing school, Sailing Virgins, geared towards a younger audience. I highly recommend it if you want to take a vacation to somewhere beautiful and learn something new. I complimented him on the branding of the hat he was wearing and he took it off and gave it to me as a gift! We chatted some more about the America's Cup race being presented on the television and about mountaineering, which he has experience in and I'm only recently getting interest in.
CINNAMON BAY CAMPING
My last day would be in a tent on St. John's Cinnamon Bay campground, inside US Virgin Islands National Park. My ferry and taxi got me to the site without much time to spare before sunset, so I opted out of doing a hike. Instead I let myself unwind on the beach, which was fairly empty given how beautiful the place was.
I slept well that night, and woke up only twice to the sound of pounding rain on my tent's waterproof shell in the dark. I woke up again at sunrise, just as the massive clouds above were starting to break apart and let some light through. I looked along the entire beach and realized I had the purplish-pink light all to myself.
I packed up my gear early and headed over to a cab that would take me to a ferry to St. Thomas, where I could catch a flight out. My phone wasn't working, so I was being conservative with time in terms of arriving early to the airport. As my ferry was preparing to dock on St. Thomas, I was bored and waving at random boats nearby. I did a double take when I saw who I believed was Marla. I couldn't believe it so I rushed to get off the ferry and ran to the other dock. I called out her name. She left her mother and ran over to me, speechless. It took a few seconds for her mother to remember who I was, and then she started to laugh, "Marla, it's your friend!" After taking a photo, Marla ripped off the heart-shaped tag of her beanie baby and gave it to me. We said our goodbyes, and before she rounded the corner, she turned around to yell that she loved me.
Big thanks to Ben for leading us safely on the water, and also to the rest of the crew for being so fun to live with for a week. I appreciate you all being cool and patient with me taking photos of you while I practiced shooting people for the first time.