Five years ago I spent a year with my mum and sister, sailing across the Atlantic (twice) in our own small boat, and cruising up through the Caribbean. I’ve been telling the story of our trip in numerous blog posts, hopefully now all tagged under the category of “sailing trip of a lifetime” because it really, really was!
I spent two weeks in February back in the UK visiting my boyfriend. It was absolutely wonderful to see him again for the first time since the end of October, but the Triple D Disaster curse (or the curse of me being a complete idiot) hadn’t lifted – one example of many is when I tried to check-in online for my flight back to the Caribbean, couldn’t, and called British Airways only to discover I had actually booked my flight back for a MONTH later than I had meant to! Luckily the nice man on the end of the phone laughed at me and then changed my flight to the one I had planned to get.
Back in the Caribbean, I landed at Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands. Mum and Jilli had anchored in Trellis Bay, a 2 minute walk from the airport, with a collection of brightly coloured shacks along the beach. It was a nice little bay but very crowded with boats, mostly “liveaboards” as we called boats like ours, crewed by people who lived on them full-time rather than just on holiday.
The BVIs were the first set of islands where we had to contend with the US dollar, and we were slight idiots about this as we didn’t look up the exchange rate. We just assumed that the dollar was roughly similar to the pound, a bit cheaper, without realising that it was actually almost half the pound at that point! The BVIs are an expensive place anyway as they are mainly a rich tourist destination, but our mistake over the exchange rate made it seem so much more expensive – we couldn’t afford to buy anything!
We ended up spending quite a bit of time in the BVIs but had to stick to a very tight budget. Luckily, the main things to do in the BVIs are entirely free – other than eating and drinking. We splashed out on interesting food in the well-stocked American supermarket, and bought spirits and fruit juice mixers so we could make our own cocktails on board. Snorkelling, swimming, sailing around and walking were completely free so we did a lot of that, to the extent where we got very spoilt and wouldn’t do any snorkelling unless the coral was perfect and there were hundreds of fish!
We also got ourselves off to a pretty good start on the snorkelling front at the caves by Treasure Point – extremely clear, deep water so you were able to snorkel at a reasonable distance above the coral, and hundreds of fish. Another snorkeler was feeding them, so they were swimming around so close!
The next day we sailed up to Cooper Island and took a mooring off Cooper Island Beach Club hotel. It looked like a wonderful hotel, with palm trees lining a white sand beach, fronds blowing furiously in the breeze and a lovely beach bar made out of grey teak. We went for a drink to use the wifi (when you are away long-term, availability of wifi becomes a key concern!) At 5pm the bell was rung for the start of happy hour, a huge group of Americans joined with their two-for-one ‘painkillers’, swimming suits and cover-ups, flesh spilling out. The painkillers are a nice mixture of orange juice, pineapple and rum, with a hint of coconut, the ‘national drink’ of the BVIs although probably just for the tourists. The wind was howling through the bar as the sun began to set, casting its ethereal glow behind the clouds, and the divers began to return, bedraggled, from their day under the ocean, to grab a drink before the end of happy hour. We felt slightly set apart from the holiday atmosphere – this was our life, not a two week “escape from it all” and the prices of the moorings – $25 – reflected the fact that they were mostly used by tourists.
We were glad we’d shelled out for the mooring as the wind was screaming about the boat all night, the loudest I’d heard it, sending the boat spinning and twisting and rocking and rolling around on its mooring. We were up early and on our way to Virgin Gorda, anchoring in Leverick Bay, North Sound – a huge bay created by the curving shore of Virgin Gorda and numerous small islands (including Richard Branson’s private island!) We went for a hike up to the highest point on Virgin Gorda, past rich, luxurious houses climbing up the seashore with pretentious names in other languages such as ‘vista del mare’ and ‘estrella de mar’, and into the inner parts of the island, without a seaview, where sheep roamed the streets and the locals lived in much smaller houses by the side of the road.
We met an American couple at the top of the hill who have a ‘cottage’ on this island. The typical “you’re alone? Just the three of you? Wow, that is just amazing!” response, to which we smile, and look embarrassed, and secretly feel that we haven’t done anything special at all, not at all.
I was missing London, without really knowing why. I wrote in my diary:
I miss glasses of cold milk, and toilets that flush with one button, and slouching on the sofa in front of the TV. I miss giggling with my friends and red wine. And I miss James.
That’s what happens when you go home. You get homesick. And you also pick up a cold which leaves you groggy and tired and in a bad mood. And it all takes a while to wear off, even in paradise.
A few days later we set off to Anegada, a desert island set a little further away than the main group of islands. From the top of Virgin Gorda we had seen it stretched out before us, one long line of white sand and blue water, and decided on the spur of the moment, “let’s go there“. Sailing towards it, it was so low to sea level that the first thing we could see were the tops of the palm trees, as if they were floating on air.
To explore Anegada, we decided to rent bikes, no suspension, the hardest saddles in the world, and cycled off down a dusty road. We spent some time at one beach and then decided to cycle to one on the north side of the island, which involved taking a secondary ‘road’ which was really just a rocky path with holes, boulders, and cacti obscuring the way. The north road was little more than an extension of the beach, so thickly coated in sand that our bike tyres got stuck and we had no choice but to walk the bikes. But the beach, when we came to it, was amazing. The softest, whitest sand, heaven to stand on, peaceful waters and not another person in sight. We had a swim and continued our cycling.
It was extremely hard-going on the sand and after another hour, with no end in sight, I was exhausted. Luckily at this point, a car full of American charter tourists came past and offered me a lift! My family still laugh about this today, how much things have changed. I JUMPED at the opportunity of a lift as I just could not bear to cycle one pedal further.
Another place we went to in the BVIs was Devil’s Bay and the Baths. We went wandering through the grey boulders that make up the baths, crawling through cracks in the rocks, wading through water and climbing up the rocks.
The contrast between the grey rocks, the bright blue water and the white sand was stunningly beautiful, so much so you barely noticed the other tourists.
Next, on to Jost van Dyke. We anchored a little way of “Main Town”. It was the main town on Jost van Dyke but really wasn’t worthy of the name “Main Village”. The only street runs along the top of the beach, entirely covered in sand, and is lined with outdoor beach bars and hammocks strung between palm trees.
It did have a good convenience store where we got chatting to the friendly man who owned it. As always, mum got a good quizzing:
“where is your husband? He dead? He run off with another woman?”
“I suppose”, mum replied, and we changed the subject quickly. When he found out what we’d done he was shocked.
“I never met a woman before who did that..”
We spent the afternoon relaxing on the boat and going swimming. Towards the evening, a young American man swam over from his boat for a chat. He was a guest on a skippered yacht charter (if you don’t know how to sail, you can hire a yacht with a captain who will do all the sailing for you!) and had absolutely no idea about how to sail. They had seen our Great Britain flag on the back of the boat and apparently had been discussing on their boat as to whether it was even possible to sail all that way. One guy had said that he thought it would be possible to sail from the UK to the BVIs, but the others didn’t think they should believe him!
It was well over a week since I had returned and I was still feeling homesick, starting to count down the days until we went back to the UK – not great as we still had several months left! I was slightly bored, I was getting a bit fed up of my family, I missed my friends, and I wasn’t enjoying having to watch our budget in such a holiday place. Our time in the BVIs felt like it was dragging on without really a reason – we had become used to moving on and exploring new places and we felt just a bit stuck in the BVIs.
We were very much in limbo as we were trying to work out how to get into the United States (to go to Puerto Rico) with our boat without a proper visa for the boat. As a result, we spent a lot more time in the BVIs than planned as we made numerous phone calls and talked to everyone we could find about how to get round it. As we had British passports, we could get visas for ourselves online, but for the boat we would have to go to an American embassy. The only way of doing this would have been to fly to a different country and we just didn’t have the money or time for this.
Finally we were able to sort it out. We hired a skipper to sail Triple D to the US Virgin Islands where we caught a ferry over. On arriving, our passports would be stamped and we would have 90 days to be on American territory. As the boat was brought in by an American, Triple D would be just fine. We had a few more lazy days of waiting until the skipper was free, so spent our time on boat maintenance, cleaning, swimming and sunbathing. It was too much time in beach paradise for us.
That is, of course, not to say don’t go to the BVIs. Definitely go – it is a wonderful place for a holiday and I would love to go back! For us, it was just quite “same-y”, and as we couldn’t move on for visa reasons, we all got a bit itchy feet.
But from there we were on to unchartered territory. A standard route for people doing similar trips involves getting to the BVIs, and then sailing straight up to Bermuda and on home from there. We had gone through the other islands slightly quicker and were about to make our way to Puerto Rico, then the Dominican Republic. This was well off the main cruising circuit and so we were very excited!