A Sailing Virgin Visits
the British Virgin Islands
By Vivian Wagner
As the coffee pot slid back and forth on the sailboat's little gas stove, I realized that I hadn’t quite known what I was getting into when I planned this early January trip to the British Virgin Islands with my boyfriend, Arun.
We were anchored in Deadman's Bay on Peter Island, and the waves had rocked us strongly back and forth all night, spinning our boat mercilessly around its anchor. Making breakfast after taking my morning Dramamine, I swayed with the waves, starting to feel almost at home with their movement after two days at sea.
We’d been planning this sailing vacation for several months. I’d never been sailing, but Arun, who lives part-time aboard a sailboat in Alaska, mentioned he’d always wanted to charter a boat in the BVI. On one of his visits to my house in Ohio, we looked at Sunsail’s website, studying the pictures of serene blue oceans and rugged islands, and immediately I knew I wanted to try it.
When we left Ohio early on a Saturday morning, a foot of fresh snow covered the ground. By that evening, we were on our 36-foot monohull, Éfandee, in Road Town.
The first day, after a boat briefing and provisioning, we sailed over to Norman Island, a short distance across the channel. As we motored slowly through the harbor, Arun gave me quick lessons in man-overboard procedures, steering, starting and stopping the engine, using the autopilot, and interpreting the electronic charts.
I’d been studying BVI books and charts for so long that I knew the islands and their shapes by heart, so I recognized Norman Island and nearby Pelican Island and the sharp reddish rocks of The Indians.
Gradually, though, despite my excitement, I began feeling waves of seasickness. I downed a Dramamine with a swig of some Old Jamaica Ginger Beer and tried to focus on the horizon while Arun hoisted the mainsail and manned the helm. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until halfway across the channel the sail started flapping and the boat began to heel.
“Turn off the autopilot, man the helm and face into the wind,” shouted Arun.
I scrambled to do as he said, attempting to make sense of his commands through my Dramamine haze. I tried to steer us in the right direction while he adjusted the ropes and sail, and we made it over to Kelly’s Cove, just on the edge of the Bight. Over a snack of crackers, pepper jack cheese and mango hot sauce, Arun used his fingers to explain what had happened, but the more he explained, the more mysterious it got.
In the morning after breakfast, we motored the short distance to the Caves, a rocky area on the west edge of the island. We moored the boat, and Arun gave me some quick lessons in snorkeling — something else I’d never tried before. I practiced breathing through the tube and peering into the clear, warm underwater world through my mask. We set off to explore the caves, Arun diving down with his snorkel and GoPro camera and me swimming along the surface, watching parrotfish, butterflyfish, and angelfish swimming casually in and out of the rocks in their peaceful, meditative world.
That night, we anchored in the roiling waters of Deadman’s Bay at Peter Island. We paddled our kayaks over to the beach, planning to get dinner at the Deadman’s Bay Beach Bar and Grill. The strong waves flipped my kayak as I approached the shore, pinning me under it for a moment and giving me a painful sand burn on my arm. After I righted myself, we pulled the kayaks up to beyond the high water mark and walked up the white beach lined with palm trees. We were wet, sandy, rattled by the rolling waves, and ready for dinner. Once we found the bar, though, the bartender told us she was just closing up for the night.
Uncertain what to do next, we walked along the road that led to Peter Island Resort & Spa in Sprat Bay. As we entered the resort area, though, we felt immediately out of place. We made our way past the sparkling yachts in the harbor over to the restaurant, but it wasn’t serving dinner yet, and judging by the menu posted under glass it exceeded our budget, anyway. While I sat on the bench at the restaurant’s entrance, a security guard asked me if everything was okay. I nodded, realizing how ragged I must have looked. The sun would be setting soon, anyway, and I didn’t want to kayak through those large waves in the dark, so we decided to return to the boat and put together some kind of simple dinner.
I fried up some cheese sandwiches, sprinkling them with Caribbean salt seasoning. We ate them on the deck, listening to the crashing waves, watching the sun set, the sky grow dark, and the bright Caribbean stars come alive.
In the morning, after making a quick breakfast of coffee and cereal, we headed back out into the channel under cloudy skies, where the gray waves rose seven feet high. For the first time on the trip Arun felt seasick and lay down on the deck, instructing me to man the helm and head around Dead Chest Island. The large waves unnerved me. Our boat tossed around, and I tried to keep a safe distance from the tall, rocky island, seeing on the electronic chart that it was surrounded by shallow water and reefs. Eventually, Arun recovered and took over the steering, motoring us through the rain and against the wind to Virgin Gorda.
We put our anchor down in a rocky bottom just outside of Spanish Town. We weren’t sure how well the anchor took at first, but Arun snorkeled down and said it seemed it would hold. We rode the dinghy over to Spanish Town, tying up at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor and getting a late lunch of fish tacos at the Bath and Turtle. We wouldn’t be able to make it to the Baths before dark, so we walked a while around bustling Spanish Town, with its taxis and cars and people milling around the docks, before taking the dinghy back to the boat under a glowing pink and orange sunset sky.
All night the anchor made loud grating sounds as its chain rubbed against rocks at the ocean floor. We slept fitfully, getting up sometimes to look around and see if we were moving. It didn’t seem like we’d had any significant movement, but still we worried.
The next day, we rented a Suzuki Vitara from L&S Garage so we could get around the island. We first drove down to the Baths, where we explored the boulders and narrow caves and watery passageways. It was beautiful and mysterious, but overrun with German and Italian tourists piling in from cruise ships anchored off the coast. After a few hours, we drove the short distance up to the much less crowded Spring Bay, where we snorkeled around boulders, exploring the strange and beautiful landscape — our first truly relaxing day on the beach.
That afternoon, we drove across the island to check out an abandoned stone copper mine built in the 19th century by Cornish miners on the south side of the island, rising majestically over the cliffs and the large, crashing waves below. In the distance, the 1,370-foot high Gorda Peak rose up from the east edge of the island, and we knew that would be our next stop. We took the winding, steep road eastward until we found the trailhead. Climbing the rocky trail up the mountain, I felt the strange and disorienting sway of the sea, even though we were (presumably!) on solid ground. Finally, we made it to the top, scaling the wooden observation tower and looking out over the ocean and islands spread all around us. It was a breathtaking view, the wind whipping around the top of the peak, and we felt like we owned everything we could see.
Winding our way back to Spanish Town, we had dinner at an Asian-Caribbean restaurant called Chez Bamboo, where we had Vietnamese spring rolls, salmon sashimi, and crème catalan — a delicious version of crème brulée with orange, lemon and nutmeg flavors.
The night, the grating sounds from the anchor chain seemed even louder, and in the morning we realized with alarm that we actually might be moving, and that we were getting a bit closer than we wanted to an old abandoned boat anchored nearby. We brought our anchor up quickly, and just as another ferocious rainstorm hit, we motored out into the channel.
Finally, we’d be heading west, with the wind behind us, so we put up the sails. Arun instructed me in the still largely mysterious process of hoisting the mainsail and the jib, but I followed his instructions regarding the ropes and winches, and soon we were sailing along at a steady clip, sans motor, navigating between the Dogs. It was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful as we sliced through the blue water, our sails catching the wind and propelling us along.
We decided we’d get to Road Town in the afternoon and have time to explore the city before catching the 9:00AM ferry back to St. Thomas the next morning. We radioed Sunsail, and a man came out to help us navigate back into a slip and tie up the boat, and then we were free for the afternoon. We walked through the bustling city, stopping at a bookstore, where I bought a few Caribbean cookbooks, and a spice shop, where I bought some hibiscus tea and a spicy salt mixture. We made our way to Pusser’s Road Town Pub & Company Store, where Arun bought me a blue and black flowered sarong, and we sat on the veranda eating conch fritters and drinking painkillers, watching cruise passengers walk aimlessly along the waterfront.
The last night we packed and cleaned up, getting ready to check out in the morning. I squeezed the spices and books I’d bought into my backpack, and Arun packed the Cruzan and Pusser's rum into his dry bag. We rode the ferry back to St. Thomas, and as we waited to board the plane, I read a book about rum and a sailing magazine. I was tired and slept most of the way back, until about an hour outside of Columbus I awoke and looked dreamily down at the frozen fog and twinkling lights of the familiar-yet-strange Ohio landscape.
For several weeks after our return my ranch house pitched and rolled in imaginary waves. I’d lie in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and feeling my house circling around its anchor. Our week sailing the BVI had been so much more exciting and strange than I could ever have predicted, despite all my reading. The islands, the salt spray, the boulders, the waves: they all haunted me, finding their way into my dreams. At work, I’d find myself thinking of the volcanic cliffs, hearing the sound of crashing waves, watching the lively squirming of a blue trumpetfish.
I was hooked. By the time my sea legs wore off a few weeks later, I was ready to get back on a boat. No longer a sailing virgin, I began to read sailing books, signed up for a sailing class, and started making plans for our next adventure. On that one, I vowed, I’d know a thing or two about how to tie knots, hoist a sail, winch a rope, and chart a course.
And yeah, I'd pack plenty of Dramamine.
Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer and photographer based in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches journalism at Muskingum University.
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