BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS - MARCH, 2004
No Misadventures of Typhoon Tonya
If you've been following my travel adventures over the years, you've probably been grateful that you are not a travel insurance underwriter. It seems that the simple act of reaching my destination, or returning home, is fraught with peril. This time around, I'm happy to report the BIG news is that our trips to and from the islands were smooth and disaster-free. From limo to BWI to STT (a direct flight on AA, with a stop in SJU), and on to the ferry to West End, and all the way back, no hitches, glitches or miscues. Flights were even early, and on each occasion, Rick and I were able to score our favored exit row aisle seats.
Naturally, the vacuum created by smooth travels needed to be filled somehow, and Mother Nature got her revenge in the weather she dealt out for most of our week -- see below. You just can't win them all! (I will also note that the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat erupted in the middle of our week, just as it erupted in the middle of our trip in July, 2003. This time, the gale force northeasterly winds plaguing the region blew the ash away from us, instead of dumping it our deck.)
Three Sabres on a Beneteau
This charter was our first to the BVI in several years that included crew. Our fellow crew member was TJ, who was joined by his lady friend Dorothy mid-week. Between the original three crew members, we owned at the time three Sabre sailboats: TJ's 362 named Sabre Girl, our 34 named Lattitudes II, and our new 38 named Calypso. We figure that makes us discerning consumers of charter boats
We chose a Moorings 382 from the Footloose fleet, named Rainbow Chaser -- that name was naff enough that we elected to call ourselves Sabre Girl whenever the occasion allowed. Although I've chartered catamarans in places where skinny water requires shallow draft, I still prefer a monohull for charters, even as the waters of the BVI are being taken over by the Darth Vader-esque craft.
As with our past Footloose charters, customer service prior to departure and service at the dock was excellent. Since this was mine and Rick's 6th BVI charter (and second in 9 months), Jeannette waved us straight to our boat briefing, giving us a pass on the chart briefing. One-time base manager Julian Hodge is back at the Moorings, so we got our briefing from Stephen, who did the briefing on our first Footloose sail in 1999. He's a riot and a BS-artist, and it's a pleasure to get done with the tedious chores of setting sail with someone who makes you laugh. As the men went through the briefing, I busied myself stowing the provisions, which arrived from Bobby's 20 minutes early and just as ordered. We were off the dock by 11:00 a.m.
The boat itself was in pretty good shape for a charter boat with 5-7 years of hard use. Design wise, the interior has the charter trade in mind. The v-berth is roomy, with plenty of ventilation, as is the aft berth. But what we gained in space for sleeping, we lost in head space -- luckily, no one was watching my contortions as I tried to shave my legs! Similarly, the bunk space sacrifices storage, and we all ended up storing our duffels in the main salon. The galley is tucked in behind the engine compartment, and is truly a "one-butt" galley; there is a separate top-loading freezer and a front-loading refrigerator.
If only that freezer and refrigerator worked reliably We had to run the engine constantly, as the refrigerator/freezer were a constant drain on the batteries. Within two days, we gave up on the freezer altogether, and just kept it filled with cubed ice (is no one selling block ice anymore?). The stuff in the refrigerator was not especially perishable, and I made a point of using up the delicate stuff (like mushrooms and sliced turkey) right away, so we survived with minimal loss of food and no food poisoning. Nevertheless, a real pain.
Topsides, the cockpit was roomy and comfortable, except I could really do without the centerline table with useless cooler compartment (not insulated, and therefore worthless) that takes up so much space; a table that folded up against the binnacle would have been much more efficient. No real issues with the sails and rig, except that traveler car stuck; when I wrote it up on my charter evaluation form, under the part where it asks for how you solved the problem, I wrote "Brute Force." The engine was a champ, and we needed it more than usual, to charge the refrigerator and to help fight the heavy seas. The side decks on these boats are too narrow, and the handholds are pathetic, leaving you reaching for a sheet where there is nothing else.
We were saddled once again with a hard dinghy, circa 1973. Inflatable dinghies are apparently available on advance request, but I didn't know that. In any event, the hard dink did have its benefits: we always knew which one was ours at a crowded dinghy dock, and it was unlikely to inspire dinghy-lust in thieves. Plus, the outboard was terrific and started on the first pull almost every time.
Interestingly, even though we had two skippers aboard, TJ ceded the helm to Rick, relying on his familiarity with the area. (Even more interestingly, even though we had -- gasp! -- three lawyers aboard, you never would have known it. There are so many more interesting things to do and talk about than work)
Through the Eyes of Newbies
The last time we were in the BVI with crew, all of us had visited the islands before, so there was a somewhat blasé attitude. As well, there was no burning desire to visit some of those first-timer must-do spots, like the Baths. This time was different. TJ's only exposure to the Caribbean had been to St. John, which included a day-trip by rented motorboat to the BVI, a few months before. Dorothy had been to the Caribbean, but never the BVI. We, on the other hand, had been here many times before, but were anticipating that a return trip after this one would be a long time in coming. So, the interest of showing the newbies a representative taste of the islands, while at the same time having a "farewell tour" of our own, dovetailed nicely.
TJ's initial impression of Tortola was quite telling. He found it a bit shabby and ramshackle, and was especially surprised that the Moorings base (we stayed at the Mariner Inn our first night) was not slicker. He was amazed at how little the $179/night at the Mariner Inn got him. As regular and frequent island travelers, the landscape doesn't shock our eyes, and we know from comparison how relatively clean and attractive Roadtown is among Caribbean towns. We understand that the corrosive effects of the sun, salt air, and weather, as well as the challenges of limited infrastructure, result in a not quite Disney-perfect landscape -- not only do we accept these facts, we embrace them. After a bit of acclimatization, TJ was rolling right along with us.
It also became evident, by our first breakfast on Tortola, that Rick and I had failed to coach TJ in the niceties of island commerce. We naturally greeted our server with a pleasant "Good morning" and "How are you?" -- complete with eye contact and smiles -- before placing our order, which began with "May I have". Unschooled by experience, TJ very matter-of-factly (and normally, by U.S. standards) gave his order, without looking up from his menu. Though we were sitting at the same table, the difference in the attention we received from our server was marked. She was friendly and attentive to us, and virtually ignored TJ. As soon as I realized this, I explained to TJ how business is done in the islands, and he quickly took to the island way.
One of the nice things about introducing new people to the islands is that they can help change your perspective as well. Though we have ventured inland in our travels, like many charterers, Rick and I tend to hug the shoreline when we sail. After sailing, TJ's favorite leisure time activity is hiking in the mountains, and he took that interest along with him to the BVI. While going off on jaunts on his own or with Dorothy (most notably a leg-gashing bushwhack over the top of Norman Island), Rick and I joined him on two hikes as well.
The first hike started at the far end of the Bitter End, where we climbed a modestly steep and rocky trail over the ridge behind the BEYC. Only a few feet up, and the views were spectacular. Looking to the north, we watched daredevil kiteboarders flirting with Eustatia Reef, catamarans hobby-horsing their way towards Anegada, the gorgeous sands of Necker Island, and seas breaking all around (confirming our decision not to attempt to make it to the beaches of Prickly Pear by dinghy). As we walked further along, and reached relatively flat ground at the top of the ridge, we had a perfect vantage point of North Sound, where every single mooring was filled in hopes of finding shelter from the weather (alas, every mast was inscribing crazy loop-de-loops in the sky, as the wind and swell rocked and rolled the boats around). Finally, as we reached the southern reaches of the trail, we got an eyeful of Biras Creek's beautiful beach -- and were "encouraged" by Biras security to keep to the trail and get off resort property ASAP.