In May of 2021 we took a bareboat cruising class with Offshore Sailing School (part of US Sailing) with the purpose of doing a trip to the BVI’s for Thanksgiving. We will write separate posts on the class as well as our warm up trip to Key West in August, but figured we would start with the real vacation, and that was our 9 day 8 night trip to the BVI’s. We used the Moorings charter company based out of Road Town, Tortola.
Travel in the time of the pandemic
As Americans we decided due to Covid and available direct flights to fly into St. Thomas (Cyril E. King Airport). There are several steps one must take to clear Covid protocols in both the USVI and BVI. As these change so frequently, and one day hopefully won’t be necessary, I won’t go into specifics. The best advice is to look at all the needed protocols on the CDC, USVI and BVI websites several times prior to departure as they changed slightly even in the few months prior to our departure. Also, print out and complete whatever you can prior to showing up at the airport. You will need to show all of this documentation several times throughout the journey so keep it separated in a folder. We used Smith’s Ferry to travel to Road Town out of Charlotte Amalie though there are several companies that do the crossing, so find the best one for your time schedule. (During non-Covid times, the ferries run much more frequently but are only running a few times a day right now. Because of that, we would recommend reserving and purchasing your tickets ahead of time.) The ferry was air conditioned and in very good shape. The crossing took about 50 minutes and after clearing customs and COVID protocols (which took about 90 minutes) we boarded a pre-arranged transfer which was waiting to us to the Moorings base, just a few minutes away.
A little bit about the Moorings and our experience. You get twenty pounds of ice and a cooler to start you out on your journey. Our porter gave gave us 30 pounds and it helped us make it to day three. The staff was very responsive repairing and assisting us where we needed it. The base is massive with clean toilets and showers on land and a great coffee shop. They even have a spa and pool if you have time to use them before or after your trip. We felt like they provided personalized service for each party. As an example, someone ran out for some minor provisions we forgot to order and delivered them directly to our boat. All of our other provisions were also delivered direclty to the boat. They supplied us with our National Parks certificate which affords you entry to numerous parks and access to free day mooring balls near most of them. Many companies may offer a few of these services but I felt this Moorings base really took a lot of the guess work out of the first day allowing us quickly unpack and relax upon arrival.
Southern Cross, our charter boat, was a Leopard 40 built specifically for charter, meaning it has all the things a charter guest would need (navigation by the helm, bean bags, lots of water, generator, A/C, etc.), but also a few amenities you may find on personalized boats. We had an owner’s cabin (3 bedroom/ 2 bath) setup, meaning the adults had one whole side of the boat to themselves with a privacy door, near-queen size berth, make up /desk area and spacious bathroom. It was nice to have our own space and the kids then had their own rooms and space in the other hull. If you don’t need more than three bedrooms this a great setup to have as a family. The forward bed on the kids side, though smaller had an opening to a forepeak area that a smaller child could sleep in, or as our youngest did, put their stuff in there to make the room less crowded. We have had 2 bath and 4 bath configurations in the past but prefer the size and amenities the 2 larger baths afford. The fridge and freezer were excellent, unlike our experience with fridges on prior boats. Everything stayed cold or frozen the whole trip. Also, this boat had a door connecting the front deck with the saloon, a feature common on boats over 50 feet, but very uncommon in a 40 footer. This was a great bonus for moving around underway and at anchor as well as a great source of air flow and light when not underway.
Day 1– Arrival and orientation at the Moorings base.
The Moorings base is huge and well run with many helpful staff. We were quickly checked in and escorted by a staff member with our bags, a cooler, and ice, to our boat which was clean and ready for us to move right in. As we have chartered before and since we had time, we chose to get our briefing and boat run through the night before. Our Moorings 4000 (a 40 foot Leopard catamaran made for the Moorings company) had only a few small odds and ends that needed fixed in the morning (2 small fans needed replaced and a dive flag put on board). After our briefing (which was complete and efficient) and the groceries, wine and beer that we preordered were delivered, we headed out to dinner at the restaurant on base. The food was excellent. We had jerk chicken, swordfish and BBQ ribs which really hit the spot after a long day traveling. That night in dock was quiet and cool with the A/C running on shore power, and relaxing. We once chartered a boat without A/C and I will say we will never do that again.
Day 2– Moorings base to Cooper Island
We awoke around 7 am and got the final repairs done by a cool guy named Beaver who incidentally has a number of interesting hobbies (farming, natural medicine, fishing, and boat repair) he shared with us, we were set to go. A quick call to the harbor master on channel 12 and two staff came out to help us shove off.
Our first stop was Salt Island, named for the three natural salt lagoons that have supplied the people of the area and the British Crown with salt for almost 150 years. Each year at the harvest, the local people would provide the Governor with one bag of salt as payment of rent for the island. The island is no longer populated but the harvest festival still takes place every spring.
We had a great sail over to the island with several tacking opportunities. Southern Cross got up to almost 7.5 knots despite only a 12-13 knot breeze. After lunch we had a wonderful snorkel of the RMS Rhone and surrounding reef full of many kinds of fish and sights.
The Rhone was a Royal Mail Steamer that ran into trouble on its way back to England from Peter Island in October 1867. A second ship was sailing alongside, the RMS Conway. The Captain of the Conway hailed Captain Wooley of the Rhone to alert him that he did not like the weather and thought they should shift to a different anchorage. While not hurricane season, an unexpected hurricane popped up and the ships tried to ride out the storm. When there was a lull in the storm the Conway changed anchorage to Road Harbour and during the second hit of the hurricane her funnel and mast were blown away and she ended up on the island of Tortola. The Rhone, however, tried to weigh anchor during the lull but the anchor got caught and fell to the bottom along with the chain. As she went toward sea to get space for the second part of the storm, the storm returned and forced the ship onto the rocks at Salt Island where she broke in two and sank, drowning 123 sailors.
We were able to see the huge rudder and tiller still intact at the stern side of the ship. The bow of the ship is more amenable to scuba than snorkeling because of its depths so we will have to come back and try that once we get our certification.
Next up was Cooper Island. The best anchorage here is in Manchineel Bay on a mooring ball, but since we were not able to reserve one or get there in time to grab a first come first serve ball, we headed a little further south past Cistern point to Haulover bay and dropped anchor close to the shore (in about 18 feet of water). This can be a rolling anchorage especially if the wind is from the south but as none of us mind a few rollers we had a fine night’s sleep.
We took the dinghy into Cooper Island Beach Club (they have two dinghy docks with plenty of room) for a drink and to explore. There is a solar-powered craft brewery on the island and the adults sampled the Turtle IPA and the Pilsner and can attest they were both quite good. When we got back to the boat the kids took turns jumping off the boat since we were in over 20 feet of water, while the adults got dinner started. That night was chicken and shrimp made on the boat and a screening of The Jungle Cruise on the Ipad (the boat did have a TV with DVD player but we forgot our Apple TV which we could have hooked up with an HDMI cord). We had a charcoal grill which I grew to enjoy throughout the trip. A tip I learned this night was if using a charcoal grill on a boat in the wind be sure to get some lighter fluid as it’s necessary to get the charcoal lit even if the bag says it’s not needed. We had some with us luckily, otherwise it would have been sandwiches for dinner. Also, you really need to leave a gap for air and wait 20 minutes and stir the coals some prior to starting to cook. This was a task we perfected by weeks end.
Day 3– Cooper Island to Leverick Bay
After another good night’s sleep we all woke up to a beautiful sunrise in Haulover Bay. We got the anchor up and motored out to Manchineel Bay to raise the sails. The wind was from the west so we had to do some beating to get to our destination which was immediately north west of us, but after a beautiful 2 hour sail we motored in the last 10 minutes to moor at one of the many free National Park mooring balls left. We arrived at the Baths at Virgin Gorda around 11am and there were still a few left. You must either go ashore in Saint Thomas Bay and get a taxi or dinghy to an appointed line where you can swim the last 100 feet in to shore. The water is deep (20 plus feet) up until the last 15 feet, so if you are not a good swimmer consider a life jacket. There is also a rope you can hang onto all the way in, but be careful as it is full of barnacles. A dry bag is also a must if you are bringing anything that can’t get wet. I didn’t bring ours so I had to swim arms out of the water which was my exercise for the day. What awaits those making it ashore is a true natural treasure, “The Baths”. We spent approximately 90 minutes exploring the rocks and the pools contained between them.
This trek is not for those who can’t bend low, climb steep steps and who have poor balance as there are many narrow and low overhangs as well as slippery rocks one must traverse. For those up for the trek it is well worth it, just make sure you bring a waterproof camera to document the views and sites.
After working up an appetite, we climbed to the top of the Baths to the aptly named Top of the Baths restaurant where we had conch tenders to start and then a boat of sushi. Anyone unfamiliar with conch should think of it as a mix between lobster and mussels in texture without any real fishy taste. The sushi was much better than one would expect given the remote location of the restaurant. They have a great cocktail selection including a wonderful painkiller, pink frozen lemonade as well as mocktails for the kids. There is also a pool the kids can enjoy, showers (for a nominal fee) and nice bathrooms so you can freshen up before going back to the boat. There is also the Mad Dog Bar around the corner which has a beautiful view as well.
On the dinghy ride back the boat we dropped the kids in an appointed swim/snorkel area for a 30-minute snorkel before swinging back in the dinghy to pick them up. They reported lots of fish and not much current. There are many areas to snorkel around the baths so one could really spend a whole day here.
We decided to skip Saint Thomas Bay/Spanish Town and head further north to Gorda Sound where we docked at a mooring ball in Leverick Bay. There is an entrance between Mosquito Island and Virgin Gorda but I would recommend taking the channel further north between Mosquito Island and Prickly Pear Island as it is a much safer entrance and only adds 10-15 minutes to the trip. There is a very wide and well-defined channel in this northern entrance and this also gives you an opportunity to see Necker Island which is now owned by Richard Branson. We mistakenly thought we were moored on a first come Boaty ball but it was actually a Blunder Bay Marina mooring ball. Make sure you determine what marina you are at when you arrive. The staff from Blunder Bay Marina came out and accepted our 30-dollar fee. As an aside, we realized throughout the week that only the orange balls go through Boaty ball system. All the other first come require payment to a bar or marina. Most of the time the people will come out in the evening and get your payment (all the balls were $30 and some come with free ice or water). Here, like many of the moorings, there are boats that come around to sell you ice and sometimes pick up your trash for a small fee. We took the dinghy into Leverick Bay Marina where we had a drink, relaxed, and picked up some very affordable provisions before heading back to the boat for a dinner of grilled Mahi Mahi and lime cilantro rice. The movie for tonight was Red Notice and it was enjoyable for the whole family. It rains in the BVIs often but not for long. Make sure you don’t leave anything out in the open if you’re away from the boat, else you may come back to wet towels, etc.
Day 4– Leverick Bay to Saba Rock
We awoke to another beautiful sunrise and made our way across Gorda Sound to Saba Rock. Recently reopened following a rebuild after Hurrican Irma, Saba Rock is a small boutique hotel, restaurant, bar and shop that is open to sailors and landlubbers alike. The original hotel was founded by world renowned diver, Brett Kilbride. Upon getting there, we grabbed the last first come first serve mooring ball. These balls are paid for in the Saba Rock gift shop so we went over to pay for the mooring ball (30 dollars) and pick up our free ice. Side note, you must come to the dock for the water and as we didn’t need any, they gave us 2×10 pound bags of ice. We did some shopping at the gift shop and explored the resort.
After we dropped our purchases and ice on the boat, we grabbed the snorkel gear to make a dinghy ride out to a small secluded beach with a reef north of it. We beached the dinghy and tied it off to a rock since the surf was rising and went out to do some snorkeling. This is not on any maps we saw but is a great snorkel area with no competition from others. It is about half a nautical mile west of Vixen Point and .25nm before the shoal area near the exit channel between Prickly Pear and Mosquito Island. The reef to snorkel is east of the small beach. You can also anchor just west of this area overnight when the wind is calm or from the west or north. Be careful to find a sandy area not over coral or reef areas. We playfully decided to call it WanderingKeller point.
After a 30 minute snorkel, we headed to the Sandbox, a family owned beach bar and grill, for a quick drink and to walk the beach. This is a great place to grab a bite, play some beach volleyball and watch the wild goats that run around the island.
After a short rest, we made our way back to Saba Rock to have a drink along the water and get some late lunch. The fish tacos were great, as was the lobster pizza. Would definitely recommend this as a great place to moor overnight, do some shopping and eat. The wait staff and personnel in the gift shop weren’t the friendliest, but the location and facilities, as well as the food more than make up for it. The dock staff are very friendly and helpful.
We had a very calm night sleeping in our quiet mooring near Saba Rock. For the teens out there, if you get one of the moorings close enough to Saba Rock, their wifi can be used on the boat. This caused our kids to spend much of the night on the front of the boat catching up on snaps and texts with friends.
See Part 2 for the second half of our BVI adventure!