Welcome to real-life Pirates of the Caribbean territory! The British Virgin Islands’ (BVI) notorious past as a pirate’s haunt is living inspiration for the famous movie series. It’s here, buried in caves lining Norman Island’s Privateer Bay, treasure chests laden with “pieces of eight” were discovered and Dead Man’s Chest is a coffin-shaped island with a dark past.
When sailing through in 1493 on his second expedition to the New World, Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands in honour of the 11,000 virgin followers of Saint Ursula who were martyred while making pilgrimage to Cologne, Germany. (Ugh? I’d not heard of them either, but you can read more HERE.)
Centrally positioned in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands were considered “the place on the way to everywhere”. In the centuries to follow Columbus’ brief visit, the European colonists recognised the archipelago’s strategic value, squabbling over them like children. The islands changed hands between the Spanish, French and Dutch, finally falling to the British. It was during these tussles for ownership arose piracy and “buccaneers” who harboured among the islands, plotting against and raiding fleets passing through of their gold bullion and treasures. Sir Francis Drake, a revered British-sponsored privateer whom helped drive out the Spaniards, has the BVI’s central channel named in his honour.
During time of Spanish rule, the native Arawak and Carib Indians were brutally killed off or enslaved elsewhere, all but stripping the region of its indigenous population. Today, like majority of the West Indies, the BVI’s largest inhabitant group are descendants of African slaves, once indentured to sugar and cotton plantations; eventually freed in the early 1800s.
Thatch Island is named after Edward Thatch, aka Blackbeard and Jost Van Dyke after ruthless Dutch privateer Joost Van Dyk. Other islands bare names of their various functions in times of trading and prosperous plantations: Beef Island where ships would provision for meat, Salt Island for its valuable salt ponds to preserve the beef, Cooper Island where barrels were collected to store provisions for the long passage home to Europe.
Today, pleasure sailing boats rule the protected waters, skull and cross-bone pirate flags flutter from masts and charter skippers regale legends and a romanticised history of pillage and plunder. But who doesn’t love a wicked adventure story of defiance? The BVI is now one of the wealthiest Caribbean countries; its good fortune cemented as one of the world’s most revered sailing destinations and leading offshore banking tax havens.
An unfortunate name from less peaceful times: Deadman’s Bay was infamously branded after Blackbeard marooned 15 pirates on tiny Dead Chest Cay (top left) with just a bottle of rum. Several died attempting to swim the narrow channel, their bodies washing up in this striking bay on Peter Island.
“Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”
Six blissful weeks. We cruised the magic BVI – a collection of 14 or so islands and dozens more islets spread over just 95 square kilometres – for six weeks; easily the longest we’ve lingered anywhere since setting sail early 2013.
And for several good reasons: with our late Atlantic crossing and intended passage south again for hurricane season, from this central point in the Caribbean archipelago, the further west and north we travelled the longer the slog back punching into the persistent easterly trade winds and swell. It made sense for us to pivot at this point. Secondly, we’d four weeks worth of visitors scheduled to join finally my darling and didn’t wish to inflict them to long and uncomfortable passages. We’ve learnt that slow and leisurely distances make for the most enjoyable visits or introduction to boat life. Thirdly, after a solid year on board Dad was eager for a two week break and the manageable distances and abundant anchorages in the BVI were the ideal location for Mike and I to take full responsibility of the boat for the first time. Last but not least, in the Caribbean, the BVI is pretty close to paradise.
Beach perfection at Big Trunk Bay, Virgin Gorda. In six weeks, and with friends on board, we returned to some anchorages three and four times – unheard of for the finally my darling crew!
Though paradise can be crowded. We arrived from Sint Maarten just in time for Easter and Trellis Bay’s famous full moon party; never having seen so many boats squeezed into an enclosed anchorage. By night mooring lights resembled a sky bursting with stars.
Line of sight sailing between islands, ample choice of anchorages, beach bars galore, mooring buoy fields, excellent amenities and provisioning, direct air access, calm waters and a constant easterly trade breeze are ideal ingredients for a charter boat vacation. And, deservedly, the BVI is charter boat capital of the Caribbean. Boats number into the thousands, with Moorings and Sunsail boasting the largest fleet in Road Town.
We watched more than one charter boat accidentally reverse onto, then grind its way off the reef (oh dear!) and thanks to well maintained mooring buoys for any greenish bareboat skippers, we could all sleep soundly at night… (proud to say we picked up an overnight mooring buoy only once in six weeks; at US$ 30 per night that’s a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer!) That said, chartering is a superb use of valuable vacation time with family, friends or colleagues; and no doubt the BVI has helped many fall in love with sailing for the first time. Thanks to the holiday crowd, the beach bar and happy hour culture was social and the atmosphere buzzing and infectious.
Infamous rusty pirate bar Willy T at Norman Island where debauchery, nudity and jumping off the top deck is encouraged.
In the BVI, the Painkiller cocktail trumps the Planter rum punch. A hefty serving of dark rum, mixed with cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juices topped with freshly grated nutmeg; it’s a happy hour staple and was famously first served in the 1970s at Jost Van Dyke’s Soggy Dollar Bar. This local institution got its name from the soggy dollar bills handed over by yachties who swam ashore to lounge under swaying palms in knotted rope hammocks. To this day, White Bay has no dinghy dock and when inundated by day-tripper catamarans and loaded motor boats, mid afternoon feels like Spring break for adults!
On Tortola’s north western edge, the reef enclosed anchorage at Cane Garden Bay offers a seductive sweeping stretch of sand, framed with tall palms and a colourful collection of barefoot beach bars, often hopping with live reggae music from Quito’s Gazebo or Myett’s.
The Coast Guard make visiting the US Virgin Islands by non-US flagged private yachts arduous. We had not prior-arranged B1-B2 Visas, nor were keen to make a special trip on a commercial carrier just to return with the boat later. A friend from Sydney along with her new hubby Mark were on their last stop of an incredible honeymoon itinerary that encompassed Costa Rica to Colombia, Curacao and the Caribbean. So I jumped on a ferry from Tortola to the national park USVI of St John to catch up with the blissfully loved-up honeymooners. A few days later they joined a day-trip and we met again briefly in the BVI on Jost Van Dyke. Fiona’s been following the blog since day one and was stoked to meet finally my darling in person!
Just to prove it’s not all sunsets and cocktails. We are just like every other cruising yachtie when it comes to boat repairs and maintenance (in paradise). Being called on as the in-house plumber is easily the least glamorous side of boat life. Otherwise seen here unclogging sand from the outboard’s cooling water tell-tail after too many beach landings.
Below the waterline, another world exists. BVI Tourism and Marine Parks are well organised and the most accommodating region for SCUBA divers we’ve encountered. Where many other countries in both the Med and Caribbean restrict diving, insist on diving with a guide or sites are basically impossible to find without local knowledge – the BVI welcome divers with open arms. Existing dive operators are already busy with clientele, so for those yachties with their own or rented gear (and in our case, our own dive compressor) readily available are dive books detailing sites, dive maps and almost every location buoyed. In six weeks we dived more frequently than in the two years previously; whilst sharing the fun with visitors Jasmin and Scotty, plus buddy boats Penny Lane, Symphony and Bueller.
One of the Caribbean’s most famous dive sites is the haunting broken wreck of the RMS Rhone. The 310-foot wood and steel steamer sunk off Lee Bay, Salt Island in 20 metres of water during an 1867 hurricane, losing at least 120 passengers and crew. It’s in remarkably good shape for its age, with a goose bump-inducing swim-through of the bow section and abundant marine life. Numerous mooring buoys in the marine park allowed us to dive directly off finally my darling’s stern and descend immediately onto the wreck. Throughout the BVI there are single wreck sites, multi wreck sites, a plane wreck, pinnacles in the exposed ocean, wall dives, coral gardens, caves, swim-throughs, plus an underwater aquarium of turtles, reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, spiny lobsters and a veritable kaleidoscope of inquisitive fish.
Thanks to Jasmin and Scotty for the sweet underwater Go Pro shots.
The BVI was a pivotal point in the Caribbean for many. It was here we said farewell to dear friends aboard Penny Lane, whom we’d met in Spain’s Balearic Islands last summer. We both crossed the pond with the Atlantic Odyssey and bumped into each other often up the eastern Caribbean archipelago. They’ve since continued north toward Florida and beyond, where they’ll spend hurricane season cruising America’s Intracoastal Waterway. An inspiring family and we miss them!
The original German owners of finally my darling today sail a grand 52’ Lagoon which they’ve also named Symphony. Over diving, happy hours, on board dinners and beach BBQs, we loved getting to know Herbert and Angelika better, sharing stories and laughs now we are no longer the newbie sailors they handed the keys to back in March 2013. We waved them a reluctant bon voyage as they departed Virgin Gorda’s North Sound on an epic month-long passage back across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.
At the southern end of Virgin Gorda, the island Christopher Columbus boldly named for what resembled a fat woman lying on her back, is the BVI’s most famous natural attraction: The Baths. Fringed with piercing blue water and coarse-sand beaches, massive granite boulders rest against each other creating an other-worldly landscape to explore. How these boat-sized boulders came to be stacked beside and on top of each other, many with water-eroded cavities on their undersides, could keep the curious geologist hypothesising for hours. Sunlight filtered through cracks into sandy-bottomed tidal pools; linked together by winding pathways, worn ladders and ropes. With guests visiting we returned several times, always anchoring just to the north in postcard-perfect Big Trunk Bay. In the soft light of late afternoon, once most charter boats and any cruise ship crowds from Tortola had departed, gifted an enchanting few hours for wandering and splashing.
Another acclaimed BVI yachtie haunt is the Bitter End Yacht Club located on Virgin Gorda’s North Sound. We enjoyed our visit most for happy hour and tug-o-war tarpon wrestling at neighbouring Saba Rock; plus we were in the company of dear Whistler friends Jay and Deanne, on what was their third annual holiday aboard finally my darling! (how sweet is that moustache?)
Barely distinguishable on the horizon, our longest trip in the BVI was a two-hour sail under Parasailor to the flat coral and limestone island of Anegeda. Since our February Atlantic crossing dead downwind sailing has been rare, though a SSE breeze allowed for a brisk cruise from Virgin Gorda’s North Sound, past Richard Branson’s private Necker Island and onto tranquil Anegada. Eighteen kilometres long and just eight metres at its highest point, Anegada “the drowned island” is surrounded by coral heads and shoaling Horseshoe Reef that extends a further 16 kilometres to the south east. The reef has claimed more than 300 known wrecks and until channel markers were added at Setting Point, the island was rarely visited by cruising yachtsmen and is still today “off limits” for many bareboat charter companies.
On approach to the breezy, exposed anchorage at Setting Point – the enclosed reef affording the only protection from swell – our GPS position on the chart plotter appeared completely out and with the shallow depth alarm constantly sounding we relied on the red and green channel markers and midday sun overhead to navigate through a dogleg in the reef. We anchored with just one metre under the keel.
Anegada’s fringing reefs have brought good fortune and fame to the island by way of the ultimate seafood delicacy: Atlantic spiny lobsters. Hundreds are caught in traps and sold at restaurants both on the island and throughout the Virgin Islands. On arrival a smiling and singing chef warmly greeted us by dinghy; he explained harvesting areas are rotated allowing the population to regenerate. Conch (pronounced conk), a grotesque snail-like mollusk disguised inside a beautiful pink-pearl shell, is also prolific on the island. Popular for fritters, chowder, curries or ceviche; whilst on a sweaty cruiser bike ride across the island we stumbled upon a backwater fisherman’s wharf with graveyards of discarded conch shells.
We’d no luck locating the island’s resident flamingos in their usual saltwater lagoon habitat; instead spotting the squawking flock overhead, a giveaway pink tinge reflecting in the afternoon sun. Anegada’s sleepy pace and empty beaches could have drawn us in for a week or more had we time to linger.
Another legend immortalised in the BVI: since the 1650s and for more than 300 years after, a daily rum “tot” was rationed by the ship’s purser (aka pusser) to sailors of the British Royal Navy. In 1979, a decade after “Black Tot Day” when the last rum ration was issued across the navy, the original recipe (a blend of five Caribbean rums) was commercially bottled as Pusser’s Rum. In grateful exchange for the secret recipe, a percentage of global sales are donated to the Royal Navy Sailors’ Fund charity. Company founder Charles Tobias resides in Tortola and Pusser’s Pubs and Stores can be found throughout the BVI, including here on the tiny island of Marina Cay.
The Caribbean has long served as a playground for America and not surprisingly the BVI has a predominately US clientele. Many resorts and bars throughout Cooper Island, Peter Island, Norman Island and Saba Rock are beautifully constructed and contemporarily decorated, hence less rustic than those found through most islands in the south eastern Caribbean. But none-the-less the setting was superb and we budget live aboard yachties felt we were spoiling ourselves with a holiday from the holiday.
Eco-friendly Cooper Island Beach Club on Manchioneel Bay was our second stop on arriving to the BVI and we returned several times to this favourite port-of-call. The yacht-friendly resort is a collection of breezy vacation cottages, rum bar, boutique, coffee shop (with REAL coffee!) and open-air shabby chic restaurant surrounded by boardwalks, palm groves, succulents and tropical gardens; complete with roaming hens, chicklets, hermit crabs and one of the BVI’s best happy hours. Take me back!
Painkillers, tropical sunsets and local wildlife with visiting Sydney friends Jasmin and Scotty, on one of our last evenings in the bold and bountiful BVI.
Reluctant to say good bye, for one final day we soaked up the sunny BVI bliss and diving. With Jasmin, Scotty and our American friends aboard Bueller in-tow, an easing in the easterly trades and swell provided an opportune window for a slow overnight motor in a south easterly direction (too tight and light on the nose to sail), on the home run in time for hurricane season.
NEXT STOP – the impossible island of Saba!