Since Penelope has never actually sailed in the Caribbean beyond the Bahamas, I took us on a week-long charter in the British Virgin Islands this past week, renting a 31-foot Beneteau from BVI Yacht Charters
, which in my past experience is among the best of the small charter companies.
We left Thursday morning, Nov. 29, and even though flying from Orlando is not that far away in real distance, we still had to go through Miami and Puerto Rico to catch our final flight to Tortola and didn't land until close to 1800 hours. It took no time at all to find the taxi sent for us by BVIYC, and Godfrey got us in no time to our first night's lodging at the Hummingbird House B&B.
Yvonne, proprietor of the Hummingbird, greeted us warmly, noted we were the only guests that night and showed us to a truly wonderful room away from the other rooms and overlooking bay at Road Town. We then took advantage of the honor bar in the lanai, made acquaintance with some of the feral kitties that Yvonne welcomed to the Hummingbird, had a rum and finally walked across the road to the Tortola Sports Club
for one of the four reasonably priced and really good meals we ate while in the BVIs. (Few visitors to Tortola know of the club's restaurant and bar, which is open to anyone.)
In my experience, the BVIs have become less hospitable over the years. There have always been and always will be very welcoming people on the islands, and you can always count on the proprietors of inns, small shops and such to be among them. But, because sailing the BVIs means sailing from tiki bar to tiki bar and boutique to boutique in bays crowded with mooring balls, the tiki bars and restaurants connected to them have a captive audience. Consequently, the prices for dinner, when most charterers come ashore after a day's sailing, are awful ... for example fish a chips at Saba Rock (on the lunch menu reasonably priced) commanded $30 after 1700 hours. And, can you imagine being in the islands and the calamari and conch were imported, breaded, frozen varieties - really, not fresh?? In any case, all the meals we had that were good, fresh and reasonable in price were on Tortola and away from the water's edge.
Anyway, knowing this about the islands and knowing that we like to cook for ourselves anyway, we planned to do more meals on the boat than ashore. I wrote ahead to BVIYC to get the size of the boats refrigerator and ensure it was working well. Small but in good working order came the answer. So we planned our provisioning for four fresh meat dishes, some clam linguini, eggs and pancakes for breakfasts, sandwiches for lunches and, of course, snacks of chips, nuts and such. And, of course, a good supply of libations. We ordered most of it ahead through Riteway Market, to be delivered to the boat on our arrival Friday afternoon.
That morning, we enjoyed a nice home-cooked "breakfast by Yvonne" and then set off from the Hummingbird to explore Road Town and do some gift shopping. Wow, we did not expect it to be as hot as it was. It was like August in the Caribbean, not the first of December and we sweltered, spending as much time in air-conditioned shops as we could. We had our second good and reasonably priced meal at the Roti Palace
, up the hill on a little walking street off Main, and on our way back toward the Hummingbird, we stopped at the Village Cay restaurant overlooking the harbor for a pick-me-up drink. We finally transferred our duffels from the Hummingbird to the boat at Joma Marina, really not that far a walk from the Hummingbird.
The first sign of trouble came as we approached the boat to find BVIYC's mechanic Chris working on the refrigerator. He apparently was adding freon to the system, and pronounced it in fine shape when he was done. So, we bought a bag of ice, our food arrived and we stowed it all, exploring Chablis
in the process. So much smaller than our Alizee
, we nonetheless, found sufficient room to stash all the food and our belongings. Rather than cook aboard this first night (actually the night before our charter began), we went up to C&F Bar and Restaurant
, a well-known local barbecue spot, which was a 1/2 mile walk from the marina. After talking to the chef/owner (on the right in the photo), who welcomed us warmly to his restaurant, we each ordered baby-back ribs, and were hardly disappointed by the amount or by the wonderful lime barbecue sauce. Overall, a really good meal, and we left with a doggy bag - as left-overs the ribs were even better than when first served. A lot of locals frequent C&F and they are very friendly and the atmosphere reflects it.
We returned to the boat and decided to sleep in the aft cabin, which had a couple of fans. I don't think it ever cooled off that night, and the fans were obnoxiously loud, but somehow we managed to get some rest. The next morning, I got up and perked us coffee (we brought our own bag of coffee, half Peet's Major Dickinson and half Dunkin' Donuts), and I discovered that the entire bag of ice in the refrigerator had melted. The cold plate on the fridge seemed hardly cold, and I noted that the house battery - even though on shore power - was only registering a little over 12 volts. I went up and got a couple of more bags of ice (on the house, this time), and we repacked the fridge, putting the ice down on the bottom as well as near the cold plate. Then, we walked to Riteway - just five minutes away - bought some provisions that we wanted to pick out ourselves and then returned for a 1000 chart briefing.
At about 1200, we set sail for Great Harbour
, just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, where we decided to spend our first night, catch up on rest and get used to Chablis
. This was also an opportunity for Penelope to try her hand at picking up a mooring ball. In the Bahamas and almost everywhere in Florida, we've found that mooring balls don't have "painters," a line extending from the mooring ball and on its own little float that has an eye on the end through which you can run a line to and from your boat. Without the painter, it's next to impossible to run your line through the mooring ball, unless you have a special pick-up device (commonly called a "happy hooker"), and naturally we don't carry a hooker, happy or otherwise. But, in the BVI, all mooring ball's have painters
I happily told Penelope. She'd have no problems!
Thus, in Great Harbour we approached our first mooring ball. WTF!?! No painter! "That's a fluke, sweetheart," said I, and off we motored to our next mooring ball. "You've got to be kidding!" I exclaimed. "No painter????" "Well," said I, "it's probably just because the Ocean's 7
tiki bar ashore isn't doing that well, so they've let their mooring balls deteriorate." Boy, was Penelope ribbing me, but nonetheless, I swallowed hard and motored off to yet another mooring ball, and lo and behold, there is a painter with a big orange float, and Penelope successfully picked up her first mooring. Until the last night out of our trip, when we came back to Great Harbour to pick up the same mooring ball with flawless technique, it was the only time we were not at anchor. Nevertheless, Penelope certainly looked relaxed and happy!
We cooked a linguini meat pasta dinner and spent a pretty good night on the mooring ball. It was still hot and the trade-winds seemed to have taken a break, but we were a lot more comfortable in the v-berth than in the aft cabin at the marina. Next morning, though, I found that the house battery was down to 10.5 volts, the fridge compressor was not operating (it had faulted out when the battery went below 12 volts), and the ice was about gone in the fridge. Just as a group from a cruise ship docked at Road Town came into Ocean's 7 for their on-shore party, I dinghied in and went up to buy some ice. One of the staff immediately said, "no way, we can't sell you any," whereas another, clearly one with seniority, listened to my plea and explanation that our fridge had quit on us, and agreed to give us some. For $5 they gave us an enormous bag of ice, which once we got it in the bottom of the fridge cooled the whole thing down and lasted for most of the trip, with us adding another smaller bag or two each day thereafter.
Once iced up, we dropped the mooring to head east to Virgin Gorda Sound
. In mid-November, two-weeks before we started this trip, I saw a post on Facebook from Jim Burke, whom Penelope and I had met the Sea of Abaco in the Bahamas the Spring of 2010. We'd struck up a nice friendship and kept in touch off and on. While we moved Alizee
over to St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast, Jim sailed back from the Bahamas to Jacksonville, Florida, where he sold his little sloop Blondie
and, with his new love Sharon, bought Sha Sha
, a 47-foot Beneteau. They spent the next year or so preparing Sha Sha
for cruising, sailed up to Boston and back to Beaufort, NC, and the message I got from Jim said he was headed out from Beaufort to the BVIs. He'd be there by the end of November. So, I got in touch with Sharon, who was still stateside and would fly soon down to meet Jim, and got a phone number for them in the BVI and told them we'd try and hook up while we were there.
We anchored easily in Drake's Anchorage in the sound within 100 meters of Sha Sha.
They weren't aboard when we arrived, so we decided to cool off with a swim, and as I was towing Penelope around the stern of the boat on a life buoy, they appeared and saw us. Pretty quickly we were aboard Sha Sha
having rum and coke, Jim and I catching up in the cockpit and Penelope and Sharon enjoying their rum on floaty things in the water. It's hard to not like a Beneteau 47. Roomy, all the amenities, and it sails well, too. And, plainly, Jim and Sharon were happy as clams. We planned to go to dinner ashore, but we all were pretty worn out from our early cocktail hour(s), and so we returned to Chablis
where I charred a couple of steaks for dinner and we hit the sack early. The trade winds were up, and it was a wonderful, cool night.
Jim Burke - truly a happy camper aboard Sha Sha.
The next day, Monday, we started the day in a leisurely fashion. After an omlelet a la Penelope, we finally got a bit of reading in. Around noon we decided to go into Leverick Bay
for some ice. We put the cooler that BVIYC had provided us in the dinghy, stopped by and told Jim and Sharon our plans and agreed we'd all go into Saba Rock for a late-lunch/early-dinner after we got back. Leverick Bay is a nice resort, with a hotel, pool, marina, a Pusser's boutique and, naturally, a tiki bar. There's also a little grocery there as well. I found a really nice new breeze shirt at the Pusser's store; we stopped at the beach tiki bar for an island rum drink and picked up some ice on our way out and back to Chablis.
Around 1330, we picked up Jim and Sharon in our dinghy and took them over to Chablis.
Then we weighed anchor and motored over to Saba Rock, where we found a spot to anchor along the north side of the mooring field. Once at the restaurant/bar, we settled in for what turned out to be a rather long sojourn ashore. We had appetizers and drinks, then adjourned to some couches set up overlooking the water, where we had more drinks. The place filled up more than we expected with charter boaters. Turns out that the entire Bitter End Yacht Club, the biggest sailing resort in the BVIs and almost next door to Saba Rock, had been rented out by an individual, probably for a major wedding celebration or such. The mega-sailing yacht Athena
, which had pulled into Great Harbour the night we were there, now sailed in as we supped our rums. Athena
is a 295-foot clipper
-bowed three-masted gaff-rigged schooner that Silicon Graphics founder James H. Clark had Royal Huisman build for him in 2004.
The result of this, of course, was that all the sailors in the sound who didn't go to Leverick Bay pretty much ended up on Saba Rock. It was a lively afternoon that led into an even more raucous evening. We finally managed to eat dinner, our most expensive and poorest quality meal on the trip, with a price tag that would knock your socks off. But, it was great being with Jim and Sharon for the afternoon and evening.
But we hadn't counted on being so long at Saba. We ended up dinghying back to Chablis and hoisting anchor to get back to Drake's Anchorage in the dark. We were violating charter company rules by being underway after dark, but it wasn't far and I knew the way. But we did run into a snafu, since a light had been left on in the head, it plus the fridge dragged down the house battery so far that the Garmin GPS plotter would not function. Running lights were fine, but I had to feel my way back to the anchorage using just the depth sounder and dead reckoning. I was less concerned than everyone else, but we made it without incident, got anchored and I took Jim and Sharon back to Sha Sha.
Charter boats rarely have solar or wind electrical charging devices, so one must run the boat's main diesel engine to charge the batteries. Typically, charterers are asked to run the engine for one to two hours in the morning and again in the evening. We were faithful to this charge, yet no matter how much we ran the engine, Chablis's house battery dropped precipitously fast from 12.9 volts to 12, then 11, then 10.5 volts. The fridge was the big drag, but the drop was so fast, that we found ourselves severely limiting our use of lights, not listening to music much and not running additional devices such as the cabin cooling fans. When in Great Harbour, we advised Anthony, the chief mechanic at BVIYC, of the problem. He said he could have someone in Virgin Gorda Sound meet us, but that didn't work out. Thus, on Tuesday, we bagged the idea of going to Anageda, and arranged meeting a BVIYC mechanic with a new battery in Trellis Bay later that day.
The sail down to Trellis Bay
, which is on Beef Island just a few steps to the airport that serves Tortola, was a splendid one. It was a bit roily getting out the channel into the sound, but once we turned west, we had a lovely broad reach ride. We split our time at the helm, and Penelope had a fine time sailing across Drake's channel. We found a nice spot to anchor in Trellis Bay, just a short dinghy ride to one of the local dinghy docks, and there Chris, the mechanic who had first been working on the fridge, came with his helper Elvis (yes, named after Elvis Presley), checked out the battery (pronounced dead) and replaced it with a new one. Feeling a lot better about BVIYC at this point, we cooked up a hamburger Stroganoff for dinner. Alas, the next morning we realized that new battery or naught, the electrical problem remained. That fridge was literally soaking up amps by the second, but without instruments to measure the amperage usage, we were only guessing.
Meanwhile, I was suddenly beginning to feel a bit ill. Heavy in the legs and really tired, we decided to stay in Trellis Bay for the next day. I napped a lot, we managed to get ashore and have some lunch (okay but not really good), we got some ice and I took a bit of a spill into the dinghy trying to get it in the cooler ... I was really wiped out. So, I napped until the sun was over the yardarm, had dinner ... I don't remember what ... and was asleep soon thereafter. Meanwhile, Penelope had figured out a way to rig one of the extra sheets on the boat as a shade cover in the afternoon sun, which made being on deck pretty pleasant, indeed.
Thursday morning, the Captain was feeling better, got more ice, and motor sailed over to Lee Bay on Great Camanoe Island
. "This is the perfect Caribbean spot," declared Penelope, when we arrived. It's just the sort of anchorage every cruiser looks for. Few if any other boats, peaceful, a nice breeze, good holding and great swimming and snorkeling. Another boat already there, departed fifteen minutes after we'd set the hook, and until around 1800, when a beautiful 1968 Islander 37 sailed in, we were alone. I snorkeled into the reef along the shore, which were disappointing because they were worn down, but Penelope had problems with her fins and went back to the boat. For me it was a thrill to find two little fish swimming with me, right in the face of my mask, all the way into the reef and back to Chablis
. But when I returned, I found that Pen had slipped badly on the cheap stainless ladder on the boat and badly torn the webbing between two toes. Again, the charter company let us down, for the First Aid kit was half empty, there were no antiseptics, no tape to secure a gauze pad, and only a few band aids. We managed to find an antiseptic wipe, with which I cleaned the tear as best I could, and then we used band aids to tape her two toes together. Surprisingly, this worked and the tear is healing slowly.
We ended Thursday by cooking ribs - our last major meal on the boat - and the next morning, after running the engine for a couple of hours, we sailed north and east around Great Camanoe and Scrub islands, thence down Drake's channel to Great Harbour. It was a lovely sail, and we picked up the mooring ball we'd dropped only five days earlier. The next morning, I arose early enough to watch the sunrise, and as I was sitting filling in the after-action report for BVIYC, I coughed and felt a twinge in my lower back. Damn/spit! Within an hour my back was stiff as can be, so we scotched sailing across the channel to Road Town, even though there was a beautiful 15-knot breeze. I simply couldn't get the sails up. While I tried to recoup, Penelope did a yeoman's job cleaning up the boat inside, and then we motored back to Joma Marina, arriving at 1100, pulling into the fuel dock, unloading our gear and then going up to the office to check out. At the office, Abbey agreed to give us $100 cash for our half-day missed sailing at Trellis Bay and waive the fuel costs ($25) which was about what we'd spent on ice. Then we caught a taxi and went to the Tamarind Club on the east end of Tortola, ten-minutes from the airport, for our last night.
The Tamarind Club
turned out to be another really nice spot. Very rustic with lots of locals as well as sailors, we were served a welcome drink, then napped, and came down for drinks and food around 1800. My back was really painful, and as we got to the bar that evening Sean, the barkeep, after I asked if they might have an ace bandage, offered up a spray liniment
that he said he'd tried on his "tennis elbow" but wasn't working. Willing to try anything, Penelope sprayed it all over my back ... a couple of doses ... and, lo and behold, the pain gradually dissolved. It reminded me of the liniment a friend of mine with whom I played soccer had used on ankles and shins after players had been kicked. He said it was horse liniment, which he got from a vet (my friend was a pharmacist), and it really worked well. Anyway, I asked Sean later if I could purchase the small bottle from him, and he said no, "you just take it; it's not working for me, and if I want more, I can get it here." I can tell you, he saved me a whole lot of pain as we traveled all the next day. And he was very generous with a couple of doses of Maker's Mark followed by red wine and a really great fish and chips dinner!
Our taxi driver, Mike, appeared in plenty of time the next morning to get us to the airport. We're happy to be home, from a trip that was an experience worth having, but perhaps not ever repeating a lot of it. We're looking forward to being on Alizee again soon.