Sunday, May 8, 2016

The BVIs... Charter vs. Cruise

Not a bad way to wake up...
Not really much of a choice is it?  Either you CAN cruise your own boat in the beautiful British Virgin Islands... or you make do with a nice bare-boat charter boat for a week or two whenever you can swing it... The only other alternative is never to visit the BVIs... and that would be tragic...

Parking the dinghy near the ferry landing to visit C&I
Our plans to cruise the BVIs were still several weeks distant when we suddenly found ourselves waking up anchored outside of Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda waiting for the Customs & Immigration offices to open.

A charter cat swung peacefully behind us as some of our Friends From Home (FFH) slumbered on...

Must find ICE... Must find ICE!!!
Normally my blog just rambles on with day-to-day accounts of things as they happen... but I think that since our FFH have their own story to tell... It might be an invasion of their privacy for me to just lay it all out there.

Spanish Town Dinghy Dock
Then a chance comment I posted on Facebook about how different it is to Cruise the BVIs vs how it's been to Charter... having done so many times prior to now... I will answer the question posed by that Page Friend and try to quantify the differences for you and for myself.

Now we jump right to THIS!
So I begin with our entry to the Country.  Before we would come in by air and mindlessly shuffle through the day filled with many airports, crowds, being frisked by Homeland Security, long lines through Customs & Immigration and eating whatever bad food we could grab until we eventually ended up spit out of a cab into the night near some seedy-looking marina.  Cats would scuttle away as we peered around at the boats docked in the half light... looking for the name of our boat on unfamiliar transoms.

We would climb onboard and the boat would smell strange and look empty.  We would crawl between scratchy sheets, our bodies still unbathed... with the aura of a thousand unwashed hands still clinging to us... because we don't know where anything is... We either snack on something we've brought or drag our exhausted bodies to a nearby restaurant and spend way too much on food that we are too tired to enjoy... then we sleep fitfully as unfamiliar boat sounds bombarded our unconscious thought...

In the morning with renewed vigor, we would proceed through orientation where the rules were laid out for us and then we would take off hell-bent-for-leather to get to the first stop before all of the mooring balls were taken...

Now, we lounge in our cockpit as our home bounds over the seas bringing us closer and closer to this familiar place.  There is no anxiety.  We've been here before.  We know where to go and what to do.  And NOW we have real nautical charts!

Dos Libras and Omega
We arrive and set the anchor before dark, raise the quarantine flag and have a sun downer and dinner... then go to sleep in our own bed.  We have our own sheets and towels and dishes.  We know where everything is (sort of) and we have everything we need.

Instead of beginning on Tortola, we jump right ahead to the middle of the book... We chose Spanish Town so that we could be ahead of our friends as they came from Cooper Island after snorkeling on the Indians and the Rhone...  We would take care of our Immigration business and be ready to continue on when they arrive!

Our experience with Customs & Immigration is vastly different.  We find their offices onshore, evidenced usually by the country flag flying on the flagpole outside.  We take our passports and ships papers in and we wait patiently with eyes lowered respectfully.  We're there at opening time.  We dart glances at all of the obscure signage posted in the room as there will be something... some small sign that tells us which window is the Customs officer and which is Immigration.  You must NEVER visit Customs prior to finishing with Immigration...

We apologize for our brazen ways as we wait.  We fill out the forms as best we can.  Our arrival is not the same... we don't fit the form... we aren't staying in an hotel... we don't have a flight number... We don't even know when our departure date is!  We request the maximum.

ALWAYS request the maximum.  You never know when you'll need time to wait for a weather window.

We declare nothing other than household goods.  Of course we have who-knows-how many bottles of liquor and countless provisions onboard... but none of it is for sale, much of it is so old it's expired... and we can't even remember where we bought those bottles or where they're stashed!  Household Goods.  We may be jerked around.  We may have to endure rolled eyes, being ignored, exasperated sighs and being spoken to like we're children... but we apologetically and humbly accept it, pay the money and take our papers with the appropriate stamps on them out the door and don't look back...  WE'RE IN!!!  Now we can join our friends for this regularly scheduled charter - already in progress!

OK, lets back up... there's been a change of plans.  Our FFH appeared last night here at Spanish Town instead of staying at Cooper.  (no mooring balls available and you can't anchor at Cooper)  They hailed us on the radio while motoring into the marina looking for us.  We directed them to our position outside of the reef near Spanish Town to the south/west of the St Thomas Bay anchorage.  They question why we are out there all by ourselves and not anchored over there where everybody else is anchored...


It's a valid question.  Before when we chartered, we had a very limited number of days and there was a suggested itinerary for us to follow.  While it wasn't mandatory, some of the charter companies sort of lean on you making you feel as if you are supposed to stay on the path... You get a cruising guide which tells you where all the stops are and what to expect there.

There is a standard itinerary that will make it possible for you to hit most of the best places within your charter timeframe.  They send you around counterclockwise to take advantage of the prevailing wind conditions, not taking into account any aberrations in current conditions that could possibly make your charter less comfortable.  No matter what the weather, rain, wind or shine... you GO!

Underwater at The Baths, Virgin Gorda
Most of the hot-spots in the BVIs, the popular anchorages, have mooring balls.  Even during low season, because most people are on the same itinerary, you have to hurry to the next spot if you want to get there before all of the balls are taken.  The moorings cost $30 per night.  They make things easy and you don't have to worry about anchoring.

Back in the day, we weren't very secure in our anchoring abilities.  The few places we DID anchor in the BVIs left us nervous and losing sleep because we worried all night that we would drag...

Besides, we were still employed and we were on VACATION!  We were literally HERE to spend MONEY!!!

Some of our bunch removing flippers at The Baths
Now:  Nobody is directing us where to anchor or to pay for a mooring ball.  In fact, outside of a few places... you don't HAVE to take a mooring.  You can anchor for free in most of the popular spots, and there are tons of other places to drop the hook where you can find privacy, seclusion and awesome snorkeling.

Having been out here on our own sailing in unfamiliar waters for these many months... our confidence level has grown.  No longer must we do as we're told.  We have the experience under our keel to make informed and intelligent decisions (or suffer the consequences accordingly if we're wrong) about anchoring considering the given weather and ground conditions.  Our anchoring skills have been honed to an almost automatic level and we can deal with almost any situation with skill and ease.

The beach at The Baths
So - with that being said, we knew that there could be some squally weather during the night.  We have learned that being in an anchorage where many boats are packed together in squalls is undesirable because BAD things begin to happen when conditions deteriorate.  Boats drag and crash into one another due to inadequate holding in the anchorage or inexperience on the part of the captain.  We chose not to put ourselves into that situation and opted to anchor out away from the pack in peace and tranquility.  And it was FREE!

Entering the shoreside trail through the grotto at The Baths
We we're happy that our friends chose to anchor nearby, even if we were still under quarantine and had to remain onboard... And we were happy that they waited patiently for us to finish with Customs & Immigration before we all dinghied over to explore The Baths!

And we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this BVI Icon through their eyes. Realizing that our time was unlimited while theirs was sorely short... (another obvious difference) we made it clear that we did not want to influence their agenda.  We would bounce along with them, whatever they wanted to do.  We felt bad that they had waited for us...

Them... demonstrating their superior dingy strength!

The view from The Top Of The Baths Restaurant

Me and my Girlies at TotB.  I miss my Girlies

A squall working its way across Sir Frances Drake Channel

This week the weather was not ideal... although it was mostly sunny, there was a brisk wind blowing, so when our FFH told us that they were going to sail from Leverick Bay, North Sound, Virgin Gorda... to Anegada, a large, flat island several hours to the north across open ocean... we decided to skip it.

We've been to Anegada many times.  It's a beautiful place and the experience is not to be missed should the opportunity arise.  Many charter companies forbid you to go there unless you can demonstrate your ability or you've been before... so there is something of a cache to having been there.

Before:  You leave Leverick Bay early and take whatever the weather gods throw your way... this time a boisterous romp.  You make your way into the (first time, tricky) channel enter the the anchorage where everybody anchors. (maybe there are mooring balls there now... I don't know)  You dinghy ashore with your snorkel gear and beach paraphernalia.

You take a ride in the open vehicle across the island to Loblolly Bay... lounging on the faintly pink sandy beach and maybe having a drink at the bar/restaurant there... snorkeling along the protected reef... It's sublimely beautiful.

Then you bounce back across the island and dress for your dinner reservation.  You've ordered your lobster or chicken and you take your seat with your drink at the table in the sand.  The plates are brought out and you eat with your friends and many others, family style.  The food is simple but good and I think it's now up to $45 per plate, not including drinks.

Now: Although we loosely hung out with our friends, we had some household chores to attend to. We had no interest in sailing all the way to Anegada in "sporty" (to use the popular term for "sucky" conditions to spend WAY more than our dinner budget for a meal we've had before... then make the trek back to continue on to the remaining stops, hopelessly behind on household upkeep.

Now... we may go to Anegada again.  We will take advantage of benign weather conditions should they present themselves when we are in the area again.  We would love to go back to Anegada when winds are light and the waters are clear.

So... instead of heading off to the next spot on the itinerary no matter what... we indulge in the luxury of staying home doing boat chores instead... like laundry.  In buckets.  With sweat dripping off my body and then backbreaking work hanging all the wet clothes out on the lifelines to be dried in the air... if it doesn't rain...

Leaving Leverick Bay
But then, with all this leisure time before we meet up with our FFH again in Great Harbor, Yost Van Dyke... we took a leisurely sail.
Our Sail Leisure-O-Meter hard at work...
A squall between here and Anegada... I saw a tiny tail appear but it went away
Past the airport and Trellis Bay

Day moorings at Monkey Point
Yes, I said SAIL!  We sailed in the general direction but made a stop for snorkeling at a place we've never been before... Yes.  That's another NOW vs. THEN.  We have time to visit off-the-path places.  Like Monkey Point.


Visibility OK...
We lucked into a prime mooring ball and had a quick lunch before snorkeling right off the transom in one of the best snorkel spots we've been to recently.

TWO Flamingo Tongue Snails!

Strings of Baitfish

Done with snorkeling, we washed our gear and ourselves... including shampooing our hair.  Yes, we can do that because unlike BEFORE... we now have a water maker and can use all the water we want without having to worry about buying more or where to get it...

We learned that our friends were already on a mooring in Great Harbor so we skipped a stop at Sandy Cay... we can go back... and hurried on to meet up.

I will say that we had some trouble getting anchored in this Bay.  The moorings were full or we would have taken one, for convenience...

We tried anchoring in the more shallow water on the east side of the mooring field, but we could not get the anchor to hold.  It's too rocky.  So we went back to the western side between the mooring field and the channel and set easily in about 40 ft. of water.  Now this is another of those Before and Now things... Anchoring in deep water was something we NEVER did.  Now, although we prefer more shallow water... we are confident in our gear and our ability to get a good set, so anchoring in this deep water was not a problem.

We had dinner onboard Omega and brought our contribution of home made spanish rice to the table.

The next day we had another comparison opportunity.  We all wanted to go over to Foxy's Taboo and visit the Bubbly Pool.  Bruce and I had never been there before so this would be extra fun for us!  Before... we would have paid the $40 per person that the taxi driver asked for, to be taken from one Foxy's to the other...

Now:  When I heard what was going on, we offered to take our own boat over to the other anchorage because we weren't on a ball and thus, could not loose it...   Everyone piled onboard Dos Libras for a day trip! In the old days we would have just paid it... now we're too cheap! AND we have no problem hauling anchor and moving around!

Dinghy for 8

Unloading the group at Foxy's Taboo
The famous...

Bit of a hike...

Poison Trees

The Bubbly Pool Experience
We had a nice lunch back at Foxy's Taboo and then motored back to Great Harbor where Bruce and I were watched and critiqued in our anchoring skills as we once again took a spot in the deep end...

Once again at the dinghy dock.  It's a big part of the experience!
Because we were so helpful in saving our friends $40 per person, they graciously bought our dinner at the awesome BBQ at Foxy's that evening.  

It's so great for us to have THIS iconic photo with these people!


The anchorage
Happy hour before dinner
If you ever have the opportunity to have the weekly dinner at Foxy's on Friday nights...take it.  If you have to choose between this and the lobster dinner at Anegada... it would be a hard one.

We spent two nights in Great Harbor... a thing we never did when chartering... before moving on.  Time was drawing to a close for our friends and I was lobbying hard for getting them to just stay.  Just don't get on the plane!  What can they do about it???

We took a ball next to Omega
Against my better judgement and in direct opposition to my former vow not to get involved in their agenda... we presented an alternative to their planed last-night-anchorage at Cooper Island.  (I know... it's a sickness! I can't control myself) We suggested The Bight at Norman Island instead because it would be closer to where we were now and reduce the time we would spend slogging upwind to get there... then it would be closer to their charter base in the morning.  And there's the Willie-T!

Good snorkeling along the perimeter
So, there was a vote and we went to Norman Island.  Their goal was snorkeling, and there is great snorkeling along the wall in The Bight as well as just around the corner at The Caves.  We arrived a while after Omega and picked up a mooring ball right behind them.  Let the snorkeling begin!

These fish were hanging out beneath Omega

Huge Barracuda just watching... 

Bruce and I went on a reconnaissance mission to check out the dinner menu and to get some ice (for our still-non-functioning refrigerator - now ice box).  We motored over to the Willie T and were more than a little put off by the lack of dinghy parking.  There were powerboats parked on the dinghy dock side.  All the times we've been here before, powerboats used one side and dinghies used the other.  Now there was no room for dinghies and the mooring cleats were inaccessible.

Hmmm... and it's the middle of the afternoon and there are already drunken fools jumping off the top deck... The bartender was unresponsive and the ice was $10 per bag... Guess we're going to get a chance to check out that OTHER restaurant tonight!

We reported our findings to Omega and dinner was switched to Pirates Bight.  There are actually two restaurants there, one we had happy hour and an appetizer and the other we had an exquisite dinner.  Never again Willie T!  Our tastes have changed!
More discriminating tastes...
In the morning we said goodbye to our friends.  They packed their clothes and cleaned out the leftover provisions... which they gifted to us YAY!

The mood was somber, to say the least...
They don't LOOK like they're leaving... do they?
Even the weather was depressed...
I was sad as they motored away, leaving us here... <sniffle, sniffle>... all by ourselves IN THE BVIs!!!  OK no sympathy...

So this leads us to the final Before:  We would pack our stinky clothes and sit around waiting for our taxi... ride to the airport looking dejectedly out the window at the beautiful water and wonder how long it would be before we would see it again...

Begin the long day of airports, sitting in the lounge waiting for our boarding call.  I would literally be fighting tears as my heartstrings pulled for me to leap from the chair and run out the door!  Just run.  Back to the island life I love.  Just don't go home.  

Maybe if they call for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats, we will step up!  We could tell my office that we were bumped... they don't need to know that it was voluntary!  

But we don't.  Always returned to that other life where the only thing keeping me going was the fact that our NEXT vacation was already booked.  

Now: We say goodbye, having done our best to give our departing friends an alternative route... We shake off the melancholy... and we go around the loop again... Cruiser Style!


  1. Oh, man, just no comparison! Here's the funny thing: We've never chartered a boat because of the cost! Now isn't that kind of strange considering how much money we spend on a boat that's waiting for her turn to go south once more?

    1. What a profound thing to say! Never chartered because of the COST!!!! That just makes my credit card pulse and quiver... Chartering in the BVIs is just so easy and everywhere you go is wonderful there. It's the perfect charter vacation! But... it's even better if you BYOB.