Bareboating in the BVI 

 Summer brought unexpected challenges and in December, when the chance came to spend a week sailing around the British Virgin Islands, my duffle bag was packed the day after I got word of the trip. “Pack light,” we were told. Bring swimsuits and shorts, and one outfit that will get a seat in a restaurant with tablecloths and more than one fork at the place setting.

After negotiating the labyrinth that is JFK, including two chaotic security checks, we boarded our flight and a few hungry hours later, landed in St. Thomas.  No further than the airport taxi stand, I was already celebrating December in the tropics, wishing I could stuff my winter jacket into the nearest trashcan.  We ate a quick, delicious lunch at Bella Blue, and then headed for Tortola on a ferry resembling Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen.

Once on Tortola, we cleared customs and took a quick jeep ride to Soper’s Hole Marina, home of Voyage Charters. The sailing enclave is classic Caribbean   –  pink and blue two story buildings trimmed in white, tucked between a high green hill and the yacht harbor.  It was late afternoon when we arrived and most of the shops were closed. We did get to shop for extras for our fully provisioned yacht at the Harbour Market, a two-story gourmet grocery stocked with meat and vegetables,   coffee, spices, and rubs, some of which  turned out to be the seasoning of choice for our meals onboard. The next morning I planned to roam around the colorful complex on the hunt for jewelry, local hand painted fabric and art, but there wasn’t enough time.   If I hadn’t come to sail, there was more than enough at the marina to hold me, including the small hotel overlooking the water and the tall masts of sailing yachts.

But Infinite Zest awaited – literally and figuratively.  To some, the words “sail boat” conjure up images of a vessel leaning halfway into the water being knocked around by waves, with a crew working the winch like manic organ grinders. Infinite Zest was anything but – the Voyage 500, a 50 foot sailing catamaran holds four double berths and two smaller, most with their own head (or toilet) and shower. We didn’t have to BYO; the boat comes stocked with towels, sheets and blankets.

The galley is a seagoing chef’s delight – a stove, oven and propane barbeque grill, double sink, microwave, refrigerator and two freezers to hold our water, juice and of course, our champagne.   Meals were served from the granite-topped bar separating the galley from the salon’s circular seating.  Outside the sliding doors, the cockpit has plenty of room for relaxing or even sleeping. That first night I made my bed out in the Caribbean night air. Later in the week, we were welcomed aboard with gracious hospitality by the crew of Wild Thing II, another of Voyage’s fleet of catamarans.   Infinite Zest will always hold a place in my heart, but Wild Thing II is a definite step up in luxury.

Vacation or not, some habits just can’t be broken, like the inability to sleep past the crack of dawn. Because I was the first one up each morning, the role of designated coffee maker fell to me. After a desperate, caffeine-crazed search for coffee filters, I improvised, making paper towels a handy second. One thing is certain – whether on land or sea, coffee is the elixir of life. Although I wouldn’t recommend it on a workday, each morning on Infinite Zest I and my fellow java drinkers met the Caribbean sunrise with coffee sweetened by Irish Cream. If the missing milk ever turned up, I’m sure that IC would still have been the creamer of choice.

The first time we sailed out into open water, I understood the expression “living the life of Riley,” at least the part defined as contentment.   Even if I had hopped the scene from separate pictures of paradise, that morning couldn’t have been more beautiful. The sky was one shade of blue, the water another. In between was the sun. We didn’t slice; we surged through the water,  passing other sailboats and watching divers tilt backward off the side of their live-aboard dive boat.  In summer, the Caribbean sun can be brutal, but in December the heat index was just right.

Our first stop was White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Autographed buoys, flags and t-shirts left behind attest to the popularity of   Seddy Callwood’s One Love Bar. It was the middle of a Friday afternoon, but the beach and bars were full of yachties drinking and eating, pitching horseshoes or swinging in the hammocks stretched between two tall palms.   Drinks in hand, we sat at  a shaded picnic table to hear Seddy talk in riddles and watch him perform magic with a length of pink string.  One Love is a family affair; while his wife served drinks, our host cooked up chicken and lobster and set the big platter on the bar for the eating enjoyment of his drinking guests. Further down the beach, I ate the first of the many conch fritters I would enjoy that week, washed down by a cold Carib with a slice of lime stuffed in the bottle’s neck.

Halfway between our mooring and the beach, I could see the shoreline of Cane Garden Bay. Even before we stepped off the boat, I knew I’d come back to this place again. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on the reason, chalking it up to the “you know it when you see it” instinct.   On land, I understood why – CGB is the kind of place made popular in songs by people like Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Buffet. It was the laid-back, low-key Caribbean of our dreams. No high-rise hotels or cottages built from some developer’s idea of paradise. Instead, local businesses lined the beach, from jewelry and clothing vendors to bars, hotels and guest houses up the rocky steps behind the beach.

That night we had dinner at Myetts Garden and Grill Restaurant. True to its name, the complex of hotel, gift shop, bar and dining room is open to tropical gardens and greenery. Our entertainment was a singer who made a seamless switch from blues to rocking reggae and soca. By the time he had us winin’ our waists to a hard driving calypso, it was time to hit the next spot. And we did, partying from Myetts down to Rhymers and somehow negotiating the steep step down into the dinghy and back to Infinite Zest.   A few days later, a change in plans brought us back to Cane Garden Bay for a day I consider the best of the best. I sat by the bar overlooking the white beach and turquoise water, with not a cheeseburger, but conch fritters in paradise.   It was Christmas time, but in a bathing suit with the sounds of sweet calypso and the sight of somebody’s Carib framed in a window ledge, the smell of pine, bayberry and Christmas cookies was hard to imagine.

When we moored again at Jost van Dyke, it was for dinner reservations at the world-reknowned Foxy’s. Night falls like a heavy curtain in the Caribbean; there is nothing like arriving by water and catching sight of yachts in the harbor, framed by the last gold and blue remnants of the day. We were early and with time to kill, some of us took a walk down the road that ran parallel to   the beach.  Further down, I spotted a small church, sorry I was without the camera that was usually part of my anatomy. At night the small structure was beautiful, reminding me of a rural country church at home. Nearby, the lights on a small dive shop were still on. The owner and his wife lived in a house behind the shop; she was taking a break and he was caring for their baby daughter, lifting her from the portable playpen when she wanted his attention.   Speaking with passion, he told us that his travels had taken him around the world, but the BVI is where he chose to settle with his family and live  the life he loved right there on tiny Jost Van Dyke.

My first sight of our next stop came from an episode of the Fine Living Channel’s Fantasy Camp as it  followed a group of amateurs learning the fine points of sailing. Located on the North Sound of Virgin Gorda, it was the last outpost for sailors before they reached open water – hence, the name Bitter End. Infinite Zest tied up at the dock near a sleek, burgundy yacht almost twice the length of our catamaran and a deep blue sailing vessel from Wilmington Delaware, an hour away from my home in Maryland.

According to its Fleet Fact Sheets, “the Bitter End Yacht Club is where professional sailors play and where novices learn.” Judging from the bustling activity, there was a lot of both going on. The resort maintains a complimentary club fleet of over 100 watercraft – sailboats, windsurfers, shells and kayaks, in addition to opportunites to snorkel, dive and kiteboard.The charter and excursion fleet includes 30-foot Freedom Yachts for living aboard and a power and sailing catamaran for cruising the nearby islands. In addition, the Bitter End operates a world-famous sailing school. Seeing is believing – from the teak lobby building down to the quarterdeck, its reputation as a water-sports mecca is well-deserved.

For the rest of us, the Blue, Yellow and Green beaches beckoned, each so named for the color of its striped beach chairs.  Fresh water lovers can lounge and snack by the Bitter End’s beautiful, palm shaded pool. Along with a delicious lobster salad, they serve the best fresh limeade I have ever tasted.

We capped off a great day with dinner in the Club House Steak and Seafood Grille, facing the water and open to the warm night air. The soups were superb. Fresh bread arrived, which along with pastries, is baked daily on the premises. Each table was set with complimentary bottles of spiced rum. From beginning to end, the setting, the food and service were superb.

The next morning we took a golf cart tour around winding hills carpeted with tropical greenery. On the long wooden deck of the room with a magnificent view of the resort and the Atlantic, I understood more of the Bitter End’s charm, especially the hammock stretched out on the long wooden deck. From where we stood, the tip of Richard Branson’s Necker Island was visible. Below us, boats dotted the water, all of them there for the total Bitter End experience. I’d like to return for more; to take an all-day excursion, Introduction to Sailing 101, or to simply move from beach to beach and soak up that experience a few days longer. When it was time to leave, as we sailed away from the dock, I took one last picture of the red-roofed clubhouse to remind me that I’ll be back .

In the way of great vacations, it was over all too soon. When we pulled into the dock at Soper’s Hole, the sun was setting in an explosion of dark, fiery gold. I was standing in the galley, but I grabbed my camera and hurried out on deck to capture the bittersweet beauty of our last night in the beautiful British Virgins.

I didn’t know what to expect when we first stepped aboard. With the exception of a hurricane and a leaky boat, how bad could December in the BVI turn out to be? It turned out to be more than I imagined – who knew I’d take an interest in celestial navigation? One thing I do know – I fell in love with the British Virgin Islands, and whether by land or by sea, I will be back.

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Pictures by Niambi Brown Davis

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