British Virgin Islands: April 4-16, 2007

Click on the above thumbnail for a map during this time period

Tortola and the Sir Francis Drake Islands

The British Virgin Islands are close to the USVIs, and close to each other.  So navigation is easy.  Also, the waters between the islands are deep, and therefore the dangers of running up on a reef are minimal.  The waters are clear, and the weather is fine.  Consequently, the Virgin Islands have become an enormously popular center for chartering vessels.  Internationally popular.  We have seen charter and privately-owned vessels with flags from all over Europe and the Caribbean, and of course from the USA and Canada.  In addition to flying our large American flag on the stern and the British flag on the starboard halyard, we have, in response to the many Norwegian flags we have seen, begun flying our small Norwegian flag on the port halyard.  (For information to the landlubbers reading this:  the registration of the vessel determines the flag at the stern; the current location of the vessel determines the identity of the "courtesy" flag flown on the starboard halyard; flags on the bow and port halyard can reflect the personal choices of the vessel.  Here in the BVIs, some of the charters display on their port halyard a flag sporting a large cocktail glass.  Others are flying a large skull-and-crossbones "pirate" flag.  We are flying the flag of the country most notorious for its pirates, the Vikings!)

The islands of the BVI are relatively small, and relatively sparsely populated.  Unlike the larger islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, which have multiple mountain ranges with multiple interspersed valleys, and therefore internal rivers and villages and fields, etc., any given island of the BVI consists for the most part of a single steep meandering ridge of a mountain, with settlements confined to a slope along the sea.  For this reason, and perhaps also due to the interests of the responder, if you ask of the average cruiser or charterer in the BVIs his or her opinion of a particular location, you will almost certainly be treated to an assessment of the bars and restaurants thereto appertaining.  Period.  Nothing about other land-based attractions or much else.

No, I exaggerate.  You might also receive an assessment of the snorkeling, or more rarely, of the diving.  For in fact, especially along the chain of the small islands south of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the diving is quite good.  The most famous of the dive sites is the wreck of the RMS Rhone, lying near Salt Island.  We have dived the wreck three times to date, and have also found a number of other interesting sites.  It is good to be making bubbles again.  Indeed, life is good.

St. John in the USVI had Nat'l Park mooring buoys in the protected bays, and pay-boxes on shore, to be fed on the honor system.  ($15 per night, but half-price to Golden Passport holders.)  Most of the bays of the BVIs also have moorings, but they are privately owned.  No honor system here -- a dinghy or small boat comes around near nightfall and typically collects about $25.  That is $25 USA.  We may be in British VI, and on land they may drive on the left-hand side of the road, but everywhere we have been -- dive shops, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, laundries, gift shops, etc. -- good old American dollars seem to be the preferred tender.  Prices are expensive, however.  In Soper's Hole in Tortola we inquired about getting our dirty boat rags washed: $15 a load!  We waited until Road Town, and paid a mere $7.  (Yes, Tusen Takk II has a washer and dryer on board -- and a nice set at that.  But we don't want to use them on the rags that have been used for applying polish or fiberglass cleaner, etc..  So, we almost always wash our own clothes on board, and never wash our dirty rags on board.)

But I digress.  I was writing about moorings.  The dive/snorkel sites also have moorings.  One color for dinghies.  One for non-dinghies for diving and/or snorkeling, and a third color for commercial dive operators.  The latter are frequently also used by larger private or charter vessels, with no apparent complaint from the dive operators.  No charge on any of these moorings, but there is a 90 minute time limit.  (Some of the guide books do mention a diving permit, which appears to be pricey, but that is apparently only exacted from the charter vessels, which are treated differently in other respects as well.  For example, when we were checking in at customs, the chartering folks ahead of us were asked about the value of their provisions on board, and were taxed some percentage thereof.  But I had checked "private vessel" instead of "charter vessel" on my form, and was asked no such question.) 

We mentioned some of the "famous" bars on Jost Van Dyke, but none can compare to the fame of Willie T's .  Willie T is a floating bar/restaurant moored in the Bight at Norman's Island.  In former times, before someone got injured and the owners became concerned about legal actions, Willie T's was a very wild place.  Young ladies could get a free T-shirt if they jumped into the bay from the top deck.  Oh, um, they had to be topless.  Young ladies could get several T-shirts or a drink or something if they jumped topless and bottomless.  There were also rituals involving whipped cream and chocolate syrup and cuff locks and (temporary) tattoos on nipples and so forth.  How do I know this?  It gets talked about, of course.  Why do I believe this?  Because in addition to the above activities, pictures were taken.  Pictures of these activities and others too ribald and amazing to be mentioned in this "family" column, but that sometimes involved diving of another sort.  Pictures that were then entered into the official Willie T scrapbook.  A scrapbook that is to this day still available on request from the friendly bartender. 

I should also mention that their drinks are good, and their food is delicious and surprisingly reasonably-priced.  There are no longer public displays of nudity, etc., so far as I could see.  But the place has a certain reputation, and therefore a certain ambiance.  People flock to the bar, and get caught up in a loose-goose party spirit.  I mentioned that Foxy's on Jost Van Dyke seemed quiet while we were there.  Willie T's was alive!

We also had a fun evening in Trellis Bay, on Beef Island just northeast of Tortola.  We joined Amanda & Jim of Adventure Bound and Amanda & Kevin (& Amanda's father and his girlfriend) of Solstice for an evening's entertainment at the Last Resort Bar and Restaurant.  The act initially consisted of a two-man band.  They would sometimes be playing a song and then suddenly stop.  The person(s) that best filled in the next lyrics got a free shot of Tequila, dispensed right there on the stage from a container suspended from the drums.  If they guessed it wrong, they were served five shots.  Other quizzes involved guessing the names of songs after only a few bars, etc.  All done with remarkable humor and good wit.  The guitar player recognized a drummer in the audience, and he was cajoled into coming up and playing drums for the rest of the evening.  An excellent harmonica player was likewise cajoled into joining them for a few numbers.  Both were amply rewarded with free shots of Tequila, of course.

We had dinner one evening at Pusser's in Road Town with Roxanne & Bill of Raven. We had met them once before at an anniversary party for friends Jack and Jo (of Bodacious.)  Raven has been making her way north from Grenada, but will shortly turn around and head back down.  It was good to get a chance to become better acquainted with the couple; we had a very enjoyable evening.  Roxanne is quite the story-teller; were I not sworn to not publish, I could certainly dress up this edition of "Barb and Chuck go cruising".

World's smallest fortress? Little Harbour, Peter Island, BVI

The famous Willie T's early in the day before things got lively

Jim, Amanda, Amanda (and Barb) on Willie T's

Jim, Amanda & Chuck

New friends, Barb, Amanda, Chuck and Amanda

Al, friendly bartender

Cigarette boat stopping in at Willie T's

Roxanne and Bill join us for dinner at Pusser's

Beach Party at Jumbies Beach Bar, Gorda Sound, Virgin Gorda

Our first landing at Virgin Gorda was at the famous Baths (see several sections lower) for a quick snorkel.  ("Virgin Gorda" means "fat virgin", and was so-named by Columbus owing to its resemblance to a Rubenesque woman lying on her back.)  We then put in to Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour, built by Laurance Rockefeller, in Spanish Town, our first marina since Nassau, feeling that it was past time to equalize the house batteries, and knowing that it was one of our last chances until Trinidad to hook up to shore power with 60 cycles.  Of course, while we were in a marina with power and water, we might as well give the boat a good bath, and then, since the boat was so nice and clean, I might as well put on some fresh wax.  Whew, boat ownership can be so taxing.  (The marina slip was not expensive but we spent a small fortune on water and electricity.)  The next day (4/13) Steve and Linda (Seaman's Elixir) caught up with us, and we moved up to the north end of the island, to Gorda Sound, where we anchored in Leverick Bay just off of Jumbies Beach Bar.  Barb had picked up a flyer that mentioned Friday night BBQ buffet at Jumbies, and so we joined Steve and Linda (Seaman's Elixir) for dinner at the Beach Bar.  The buffet was quite extensive (and expensive: a full $10 more than the $25 mentioned in the flyer), and the "jumbies" on their stilts provided a crowd-pleasing show after the meal.

Jumbies - dancers on stilts

Dancing on one leg

The crowd dancing through the legs of the Jumbies

More dancing through their legs

Pretty awesome

Barb and Linda join in the after-show picture taking

Anegada Island

We decided to leave the Gorda Sound and travel some 14 miles up to Anegada.  Unlike the mountainous volcanic islands in the remainder of the BVIs, Anegada is composed of coral and limestone and at its highest point is only 28 feet above sea level.  It is created by the collision of the Atlantic and Caribbean plates which meet northeast of the island.  The island is only 11 miles long, and is fringed with mile after mile of sandy beaches.  Horseshoe Reef extends some 10 miles to the southeast and has claimed over 300 known wrecks.  So we would have loved to have done some diving, but the guide books said the reef was closed to fishing, snorkeling and diving.  All of the island is reported to be closed to diving, but we learned after arrival that it was permissible to dive -- if one did so with the local dive shops.  Phooey on that.  Steve and Linda were going, and they were enthusiastic about the snorkeling and beachifying at Loblolly Bay.  When we got to West End we tried to make reservations for lobster dinners, and were told that all of the lobsters had already been spoken for.  As we sat around the bar trying to call other restaurants and locate some lobster, we noticed that other folks were speaking with the bartender and reserving lobster.  Barb and Linda are far too assertive to let that kind of inconsistency go unchallenged, and so they made inquiries.  They were told that the late reservations were made by guests of the associated hotel, out of a pool of "extra" lobsters held for just that purpose.  Steve then entered the negotiations, and pointed out that they had been guests at the restaurant many times back in the days when they owned a charter vessel in the area.  And he sure would like some lobster for old time sake.  He was told that if he could but wait for a period of time, some might be found.  And so poor Steve was assigned the task of sitting at the bar and drinking beer while Linda, Barb and Chuck took a taxi into The Settlement to see what was there.  Our taxi driver had a diesel van.  He also had a knee brace and a quivering right hand.  He also had more than a few years on him.  But he was extremely friendly, and we enjoyed our trip to the airport -- there were other passengers as well -- and then the short side trip to The Settlement.  Somewhere, from one or more guide books, we had gotten the impression that there was something to see in The Settlement.  In truth, there really wasn't.  But the trip was fun anyway.  Tony, the driver, seldom got the van out of second gear, and seldom exceeded 20 miles an hour, even though the road was new concrete and relatively deserted.  We saw many cows and some goats.  Tony said the cows were owned by nobody, and that they just roamed around freely.  They were everywhere.  When we arrived at the airport, there was a detail of three men with shovels and buckets, cleaning up the cow pies in the dirt parking lot.  When Tony did manage to shift into third gear, he would often slow down to the point that the poor diesel was jerking from too-few RPMs.  Tony seemed oblivious.  He proudly showed us the town power plant and the town fire station and the town library and the town school.  And he stopped at a bakery, where we found a single low glass counter with a few cookies, muffins, and rolls for sale.  We all felt it would be diplomatic to purchase something.  It was difficult to learn what was in the baked goods, however, because a stereo speaker in the corner was BLASTING salsa at ear-splitting decibels.  The proprietor had to lean over the counter and shout into the ear of a questioner.  I bet she originally came from Puerto Rico.

When we returned to the bar/restaurant, we learned that Steve had been successful, and so there was really nothing to do but sit around and drink until the common serving time.  Cruising is such a trial sometimes.

The next day, Linda was feeling a might peeked, and so they headed back to Virgin Gorda.  Barb and I took the beach shuttle to the famous Loblolly beach, where we had a good lunch at Big Bamboo and a very nice snorkel.  Saw a submerged turtle that nonchalantly munched away on sea grass while we watched.  Saw many interesting fish.

Seaman's Elixir underway toward Anegada

Another shot

Seaman's Exlir anchoring at Anegada

Anegada looking back at Virgin Gorda (and Tortola to the right)

Anegada is flat and low

West End at Anegada

Spending the afternoon drinking while waiting for dinner

Things are relaxed at the bar

Tusen Takk II at anchor at Anegada -- note Virgin Gorda in the background

Taxi driver took us on a tour of Anegada

One of the few business places in The Settlement: a bakery

Excellent Big Bamboo restaurant at Loblolly Beach

Loblolly Beach

Loblolly Beach

Putting in a concrete road to Loblolly Beach


The Baths -- Virgin Gorda

As we arrived at Virgin Gorda, we tied Tusen Takk II to one of the park-provided moorings and then snorkeled in to the famous Baths.  The massive boulders make an interesting shoreline to explore by snorkel, but what really blew us away was the path through the boulders just back from the water.  Didn't have a camera along, of course, since we were snorkeling, but we vowed to come back and get some pictures.  And so, on what we thought would be the day before leaving the BVIs, we took our bikes down to the Baths and redid the path -- this time with the new camera.

Oh, and when we arrived at the Baths the first time, we saw an incredible sailing vessel.  We had heard her answering the questions of an awed bystander earlier, on VHF, and so we knew that the low-slung beauty carried a crew of 28, but had room for only 12 "guests."  Very long and very slender craft.  She had just arrived after a passage across the pond from England.  But what was most fascinating and astonishing was the manner in which her "sails" were rigged.  Each of the three massive masts contained separate panels of sails that were engaged by sliding out from within the mast and along the spreaders.  Need more sails?  Just spread more panels, since they were all independently engaged.  Understand, I'm not just saying that the masts were independent.  That is obvious.  I am saying that the panels on any given mast were independent.  The masts could also rotate, of course.  One suspects that half of the crew of 28 were engineers whose job it would be to keep all of the necessary machinery in good working order.  (See pictures at the end of the Baths section.)

Virgin Gorda Baths from sea

Baths ashore

Baths ashore

Baths ashore

Baths ashore

Cactus at Baths

Start of Baths shore path

The far end of the boulder strewn path

Very unusual sailboat

Note the separate sail panels


Copper Mine, Virgin Gorda

I had discovered on a previous jog the old copper mine on the extreme south-eastern corner of the island, and so even though it was getting hot, when we finished photographing the Baths we then took the bikes up and down the hills to the site of the copper mine.  It is thought that the town near Virgin Gorda Yacht Center, Spanish Town, got its name from the number of Spanish settlers who came to mine the copper ore early in the 16th century.  The mines were still working in 1867, and it is estimated that some 10,000 tons of copper ore were exported.  The substantial ruins that remain today were largely built by a Cornish mining company in the 19th century.   Working with 40 miners from Cornwall, some 150 local men, women, and children earned from 30 to 50 cents per day at the copper mine by 1840.  There are numerous mine shafts in the area, with some extending as far as 100 ft. beneath the sea.

Sign on long-abandonded copper mine, Virgin Gorda

Chimney and crushing plant (with engine house to the rear)

Hope you can read this

High-pressure boiler used for steam engine at the works

The stones used in the construction also contained considerable copper

One of the mine shafts


The Departure

After visiting the lonely site of the Copper Mine, we rushed back to Spanish Town to check out with customs and immigration, thinking that we would be leaving the next afternoon.  Took Tusen Takk II back to Gorda Sound, issued an invitation to friends of friends to come join us for "sundowners", and then heard from Seaman's Elixir that they had decided to depart for St. Martin that very night (4/16/07).  The weather window did sound awfully tempting, and so we decided to join them.  The friends (Susan and Keith, of Roamer) of the friends (Tom and Phyliis, of Cocoon) joined us at 5 pm, and enjoyed rum punches while we -- appropriately enough considering our location -- enjoyed "virgin" punches.  Susan and Keith have already been south and were a wealth of good information about the islands down the chain.  They were congenial folks, to boot, so we were glad we got the chance to meet them.  We departed Gorda Sound at about 6:40 pm, and had a very pleasant cruise through the night to St. Martin.  And what is St. Martin like, you may ask.  For that information, dear reader, you must tune in to the next exciting episode of "Chuck and Barb go cruising."  But here is a hint:  think "Paris" or "Provence".  Another hint:  we visited a pastry shop while we waited for the immigration office to open.

Keith and Susan from Roamer

Flag courtesy of ITA's Flags of All Countries used with permission.