Our family just returned from four glorious days cruising the US and British Virgin Islands on “Glad In It 2”, our beautiful new Saba 50 catamaran. To cut to the chase, sailing the USVIs and BVIs is still awesome, and you should absolutely go. Not because the local tourist economy needs your dollars (it does), but simply because it really is as good as ever. The waters are still gorgeous, the reefs are intact and filled with fish and other sea life, and all the favorite anchorages are no longer noisy and crowded. To be sure, you will see evidence of the devastation brought by the storms, but the relative solitude more than offsets this in our view.
I previously wrote about our last visit, when our eldest son and I helped complete the delivery of G2, as we affectionately call her for short. This was just over a month ago, and the progress made across the islands is impressive. There has been a lot of clean up completed, there are newly planted palm trees in the median on Veterans Drive, and power has been restored to many areas on St. Thomas and St. John. Power lines have been replaced in Frenchtown and the marina should have power back within days. Similarly, we saw a lot of progress in the BVIs.
Operations at the CYOA base are getting back to near normalcy, with eight boats now in the water and operational. After enjoying a Thanksgiving Eve dinner at Hook, Line and Sinker with our friends on the wonderful CYOA staff, we left base early Thanksgiving morning and headed toward the BVIs.
Our first stop was Sopers Hole. We were careful in our choice of mooring, not wanting to go too far in. Given the depth, diving on it wasn’t an option, so we backed down on it a little to reassure ourselves. We weren’t certain if the “customs tent” was processing private boats, but sure enough, it is. And the agents were even moderately pleased to see us, although they were still able to find fault with our paperwork 🙂 Repairs to the buildings housing the restaurant, market and shops are well underway. Dropping in at Pussers (it is open) for a painkiller and lunch was tempting, but we wanted to leave plenty of time to sail over to Norman Island and check things out over there before dusk. So we made do with grilling a few hot dogs and got underway.
Sailing over to Norman was brilliant. The breeze was on the lighter side for this time of year, but with the Saba’s large sail area and a freshly cleaned bottom, we saw really good boat speed. The weather could not have been more perfect. To our surprise, there were eight or nine boats moored in the Bight or just either side of it. However, we reminded ourselves this was Thanksgiving week when previously we would see the Bight completely full of boats by mid-afternoon. We chose to moor at one of our favorite spots on the opposite side of Privateer Bay from the caves. There were several other boats nearby, including a powerboat blaring loud music right outside one of the caves, but thankfully by dusk all but one had left us to more quietly enjoy this beautiful spot. As soon as we were safely moored — I dove the mooring to check it — we jumped in and snorkeled around the point. The coral here was in about the same shape as we remember pre-storms, which is to say a bit spotty. However fish were in absolute abundance. Several huge schools of blue tang, sergeant majors, and needlefish swam by. On the bottom, we spotted a rather large octopus, a buried ray or two, and another ray swimming around. The sealife apparently has been having a bit of a party with fewer humans around, and more nutrients as a result of the storms.
After snorkeling, we hopped in the dinghy to check out the Bight. We had read that the Pirates bar and restaurant would be opening November 15th, but after pinging them on Facebook we learned the new date is December 1. Repairs to the buildings are underway, but there’s clearly a lot more work needed to fully restore them. Two police boats patrolled around the Bight, and stopped and asked questions of several boaters — don’t be tempted to skip clearing customs! They also got up close to the now sadly beached Willy T to take photos. Even the police are doing the disaster tourism thing. With Pirates out of action, we went back to the boat and grilled burgers. At dusk, we turned on our underwater lights which attracted huge numbers of fish. Not just the usual dozen or so tarpon, but also blue snapper and other large fish, pursuing their dinner right in front of us. Before turning in we noticed that the stars were spectacular. With lovely clear skies and limited light pollution, the view of the night skies equaled anything we have seen in places like Africa and the Australian desert. To cap it off we saw multiple shooting stars, including the brightest and longest we’ve ever seen.
We all agreed that the day had easily been one of the very best we’ve spent cruising in the islands.
On day two it was nice not to worry about heading over to the Indians at first light just to get a mooring ball. However by the time we motored over there was already a Tradewinds boat moored, and three more from Tradewinds joined us within the next hour. A little more crowded than we expected, but when we set out for our snorkel around the formation nobody else was in the water and we had it to ourselves. The snorkeling was as fantastic as ever — this is our favorite snorkeling spot in the BVIs. The coral was only slightly impacted — the very tips of the staghorn and elkhorn corals have been broken off, but this is barely noticeable. And as with the previous day there were fish galore, along with a nurse shark. If you love the Indians as much as we do, know that they are still in great shape — and you will have (slightly) less competition to see them.
After the Indians, we began tacking our way up the Francis Drake channel toward North Sound. Again breeze was on the lighter side, but we still made pretty good time until the wind dropped to about 4 knots as we approached Mountain Point. We dropped sail and motored around to the passage into the sound between Mosquito and Prickly Pear islands. North Sound was among the areas hardest hit by Irma, and the devastation is tough to look at in places (especially the beloved but now destroyed Bitter End Yacht Club). We pulled into Leverick Bay and took a mooring just off the docks. The water was murky from the reconstruction happening on shore, so again we just backed down on the mooring to feel more secure on it. After nabbing a few groceries at the well-stocked store, we had just enough time to freshen up before our friends Ben and Kay from Sunchaser Scuba joined us for drinks and a steak dinner. It was sobering to hear their stories of withstanding Irma, but inspiring to hear how they’ve been assisting the people of Virgin Gorda and more recently getting Sunchaser back up and running. And it is indeed back up and running! They currently pickup up divers at Leverick Bay, but expect to soon be operating from the fuel dock at Bitter End. You can reach them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
(email strongly preferred).
The next morning we met Ben and Kay on the dock, and they took us out diving on Miss Lavelle. Miraculously both their boats came through Irma almost unscathed. Our first dive was at one of our absolute favorite BVI dive sites, Bronco Billy off George Dog. The last time we had been diving here was in March, and aside of some tree branches and twigs blown into the water in a few places close to shore, it was very much as we remembered it — but with way more fish! The second dive was on the wreck of the Kodiak Queen, a vessel that survived Pearl Harbor but was sunk off Mountain Point in April to provide an artificial reef and fish sanctuary, alongside some very fun diving. Installation artists have placed a giant metal octopus on top of the 160 foot wreck, which makes diving the wreck even more fun. The octopus is still intact, but the webbing that had coated it came off in the storms. There are several swim throughs that take you through the wheelhouse and one of the bunkers. Diving in the BVIs is as great as ever, there are tons of fish, and it’s unlikely you will have to share the dive sites with other divers for quite a long time.
Diving made us rather hungry, as it always does. Fortunately, the restaurant at Leverick is open, and serving great food. Eating roti’s and burgers, washed down with Caribs, while looking out over North Sound basking in the tropical sun felt like so many other similar times we’ve enjoyed around this beautiful spot. After lunch, we jumped back on G2 and did a quick tour around North Sound before heading back down the channel. By now it was already almost 2pm and we wanted to make Maho Bay or Foxy’s before dark, which was ambitious. Putting out the gennaker gave us a ton more boat speed, making 7 to 8 knots in 9 to 10 knots of breeze. (Sorry, the gennaker is off limits to charter guests.) By around 4.30 we’d made it past Nanny Cay, but the wind had dropped significantly so we pulled in the sails and started the engines. Foxy’s was by now out of the question, so we motored around to Maho Bay where a single cat was moored close to the beach. We took the ball next to it just as the sun went down. Our younger son dove the mooring and then we all enjoyed a dusk swim before the boys cooked up omelets for us for dinner. As the light faded we saw a small fleet of cherrypickers returning from their work to restore power at Coral Bay. After dark, we again enjoyed the stars and watching the fish attracted by our underwater lights before turning in early.
Sunday morning we made an early start. Before getting underway we noticed something slightly alarming. Just 30 yards from our mooring there is a huge log impaled diagonally into the bottom, with the end just peaking through the surface at low tide. Given the limited light the previous evening we had not seen it — hitting it could have been quite unpleasant. Anyone heading into Maho Bay should be on the lookout for it. In general, right now it’s good to be super careful going into anchorages (we hear some still have sunken boats), especially closer in. And do it in sufficient light.
After the short run across Pillsbury Sound and back to base we went through the usual rituals of fueling up, docking, packing up the boat and heading to the airport after grabbing a quick Sunday brunch at HL&S. All went quite normally, except that the TSA security checkpoint at STT doesn’t currently have access to their equipment, and they are doing manual inspection of all bags at the airport entrance. Needless to say this is creating long lines and delays. We were in line for about an hour, which was a lot less than folks several days earlier who ultimately missed their planes. The rebuilding work that necessitated this move reportedly will be done in a few weeks, hopefully before we return right after Christmas.
And so our brief but fantastic inaugural islands cruise aboard the fabulous G2 came to a close. We can’t wait to get back.
I will say that while we saw more boats out than we expected, it was Thanksgiving week, previously a very busy period in the cruising grounds. Off-peak weeks during the season you are likely to see a lot fewer. And since there just aren’t that many serviceable boats in the charter fleets you can expect it to remain pretty uncrowded for quite some time to come. Overall while our time on this trip was very short, it was a wonderful trip and we can honestly say that cruising in the Virgin Islands is still a delightful experience.