Saturday 23 March 2013

British Virgin Islands

We had forgotten how beautiful the British Virgin Islands are. This is the yacht charter capital of the world with reputedly one thousand boats available and it is the perfect sailing ground. A group of around twenty islands line either side of the Sir Francis Drake channel, with Tortola, the largest island and home of the capital Road Town, at the centre. It is no more than 20 miles from Virgin Gorda in the East to Norman Island in the West.

We make landfall at Virgin Gorda, irreverently named by Columbus because the profile of the island from seaward looks like a fat woman lying on her back. Gorda Sound is a large bay completely encircled by a group of small islands and reefs making it an ideal anchorage, protected in almost any conditions. We dinghy to the Bitter End yacht club to buy provisions and on our return to Juno we make a diversion to Saba, a large rock in the bay that houses a restaurant and a bar where happy hour is in full swing. It is also feeding time for the Tarpon, large silvery fish about four feet long which congregate near the rock every day in anticipation of being fed scraps of fish. These huge beasts look docile as they hang in the clear water like oversize goldfish, but in fact tarpon are one of the most aggressive game fish in the oceans with explosive power and speed. We soon witness this aggression as one over-enthusiastic feeder gets too close to the mouth of a large tarpon and ends up with a gash on her hand for her pains. We sit at the bar with two American couples who are also anchored in the bay and we exchange stories over happy hour drinks until it is time to head back to Juno for supper.

We have arranged to meet up with our friends Mervyn and Amanda who are also living on their boat, Aztec Dream, and exploring the Caribbean island chain. We clear customs in Road Town and race to Mulligans bar in Nanny Cay marina in time to watch the start of the rugby with England playing Wales for the final game of the Six Nations. The rugby is a disaster but we bump into Caroline from Girls for Sail and go for dinner with Mervyn and Amanda at the Peg Leg restaurant, while outside a torrential downpour rinses our decks and cools the air. The following day we sail in company with Aztec Dream to Norman Island where we spend two days in the calm waters of the Bight and almost as much time in the Pirates restaurant and the infamous floating bar called Willy Thornton.

Willy T, as it is shortened on VHF radio, is an old barge that has been anchored in the Bight at Norman Island since 1986 and has a reputation for raucous parties. We arrive just before sunset as the barge is filling up and we are greeted by the booming voice of a Dane who we nickname the walrus. Despite his faltering English he has us in hysterics as he laments the absence of his wife who has had to return to Denmark due to a cracked rib and punctured lung which she injured while under sail. We commiserate for her injuries but he looks at us in disgust; 'what's the problem? she has another lung' and then bursts into guffaws of laughter, and so his monologue continues, becoming more and more eloquent, due largely to facial contortions and arm gestures, as the cocktails remove any remaining inhibitions. A tiny rubber dinghy, packed with eight adults, each clutching a full glass, approaches the barge at some speed and as it bumps into the dock, two of the crew fall off the front onto the dock giggling and one falls off the back into the sea, cheered on by onlookers at the bar. The evening at Willy T has just begun.

Our next stop is Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, one of the prettiest islands in the BVI. As we are tying up to a mooring ball the charter boat ahead of us warns that they have lost their engine and are adrift. My concern is that they are rapidly drifting onto the reefs that fringe the northern part of the bay and I shout at them to drop their anchor. They don't realise the urgency of their situation and by the time they react they are almost on the rocks. I jump into the dinghy and race over to help, trying first to drag handfuls of anchor chain off the bow roller to stop them drifting further, then pushing them with the bow of my dinghy back into deeper water so that they can tie up to a mooring buoy while they sort out their engine problem. The boat has a young Swedish skipper and eight young Americans as passengers. The skipper is very inexperienced and gladly accepts my instructions while the hapless boys generally get in the way and the girls continue to sunbathe, taking no apparent interest in the fact that their yacht is close to sinking. Shortly after, the skipper returns to Juno asking for my help again so I meet him on board his boat. 'Hello James' say the girls. 'My name is Paul, actually' I reply. They smile, 'On this boat you are known as James Bond' and I am immediately disarmed. Later in the day we overhear a radio exchange with the coastguard when another charter boat anchored in White Bay has gone aground on the reef. Apparently they ignored the red and green channel markers and took the shortest way out of the anchorage, straight across the reef. No-one is hurt, but these two events in swift succession make us realise the perils of running a yacht charter company where no licence or proof of competence is required and how these harmless incidents could have had very different outcomes in more challenging weather conditions. 

We spend our last night at Cane Garden Bay, one of the great bays of the BVI, where live music thumps out until late into the night from several restaurants and bars along the sand. The following morning we sail the short distance to Sopers Hole where we have reserved a berth at Admiral Marine. We are met on the dock by an Englishman called Ollie, a young rangy man from Devon who is charming and helpful and runs this small marina which houses just eighteen yachts. We will leave Juno here now until I return in April to load her onto the freighter for her journey back to the Med, so we spend a day cleaning and packing, preparing her for another Atlantic crossing, albeit this time not on her own bottom.

Our taxi to the airport takes the Ridge Road which runs along the spine of the island, over the tops of the hills with amazing views down into all the beautiful bays that corrugate the shores of Tortola. It is easy to take for granted the Caribbean islands with all their social complexities and cultural limitations, but as we arrive at the little airport at Beef Island we remember to acknowledge that these are some of the finest sailing waters in the world and we will miss the perfect climate, the constant winds and the natural beauty of these dreamy islands.

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