Sweet Sailing in the BVI

Note: We went on this trip to the British Virgin Islands in 2016.

And at the top of our bucket list…sailing school…and in the Caribbean no less! How freakin’ exciting is that? Beyond thrilled we left home to head to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to get certified with Offshore Sailing School as Bob’s retirement gift and our anniversary gift to ourselves.

So the day we left, Bob showed his excitement by wearing his new aloha shirt that was covered with signal flags (the flags that navies use to communicate the letters of the alphabet). And the smile…priceless! The night before, we dropped off our dogs at our friend's pet grooming and boarding business, A Bark Above dog care facility. I knew they would be treated like royalty, but I was missing them terribly already. Driving to the airport before dawn, we grudgingly anticipated the 25 hours of travel ahead of us from Kona, Hawaii to Los Angeles to Miami, and then to St Thomas where we would take a ferry to Road Town, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Basically traveling half way around the world to another hot, humid island.

You’re probably thinking “You’re crazy! Why didn’t you just go to sailing school in Hawaii?” And, you would be right, there is a sailing school in Hawaii. But the Caribbean is a different adventure and Bob had never been. My adventure to Grand Cayman diving in the 90’s was fantastic and I hoped Bob would enjoy the Caribbean as much as I did. Plus, the British Virgin Islands is known as a mecca for sailing enthusiasts. So for the same price (or very close) why wouldn’t we want to learn to sail in the land of pirates, turquoise water, and expensive sail boats? It’s a no-brainer (pardon my 80’s jargon!).

Dragging our weary bums off the plane in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, it was refreshing to be greeted by so many friendly faces. A welcoming attendant at the brightly colored airport entrance handed out all-natural bug spray and another very sociable attendant was handing out rum! Too bad we don’t drink any more…it smelled good! As we made our way to pick up our luggage (which was minimal since we were going to be on a boat most of the time), the most welcoming taxi and van drivers I’ve ever met contended for our patronage. An efficient and organized manager directed us to a responsive driver who put our luggage in the back of an air conditioned van. Oh did that feel good, since the sweat was already dripping from my forehead in the balmy 88 degrees F.

Arriving at the ferry desk back in the heat and humidity, with ferry tickets in hand (you can purchase them in advance), the somber attendants verified our passports, tickets, and destination. Then quietly escorted us onto the ferry. Entering the cabin into the super cool air conditioning, we noticed it was surprisingly empty. We chose a table at the huge windows near a group playing a board game. Bob and I were so tired after all the flights, layovers, transfers, and taxi rides that we barely noticed the jungle-clad islands as we sped toward Road Town to check-in. After departing the ferry, we still had to contend with customs. But even though there was a line, the process ended up being super quick.

It was so humid, and we were so exhausted, even the excitement of being in the Caribbean left us as we were directed to tourist taxis and vans. We could have just collapsed into whatever overpriced tourist trap vehicle that we came upon. Pleasantly surprised again, the taxi driver was super friendly and the price was less than expected. We even made sure we got the driver’s business card just in case we needed for the ride home (not knowing that he was a regular at the hotel we were staying at).

As we pulled up to the porte cochère at the Mariner Inn, a huge sigh of relief came over me when I saw the cool nautical blue and white trimmed building with slate floors and smiling attendants. I instantly felt a surge of energy after checking-in with the amiable woman at the front desk. She had that kind of smile that makes you feel like she’s going to take care of everything, no matter what. The teak staircase leading to our second-story room was well weathered, but upon opening the door, we knew we were in paradise.

The room was cool with pale blue walls and lively Caribbean colored floral drapes. I rushed to get my bare feet onto the cold, slate tile floor while dropping my luggage. Our room looked directly onto the crowded harbor. Bob dropped onto the bed and closed his eyes as I stood in front of the large sliding glass window and gazed upon the hundreds of white and navy sailboats adorning the worn wooden docks while workers scurried to prepare for incoming sailors.

After Bob took a short nap and I took a much needed shower, we walked along the property exploring and admiring the sailboats. Pleasantly surprised, we dipped our feet into the fresh water swimming pool and took a break on the lounge chairs as a slight breeze cooled our faces. It was amazing to see the enormous amount of boats crammed into every nook and corner of the docks. This was just at the end of hurricane season when most of the boats are stored in dry-dock or prepped for the difficult weather.

Desperately in need of higher quality of food than was offered on the flights or in the airports, we headed towards the lobby. Charlie’s Restaurant was on the water’s edge just outside the hotel’s main lobby and had just opened for dinner. What luck! The hostess led us to a planked metal table with an amazing view of the bay. The breeze was so soothing I could’ve have just stayed there all night, with or without food. It was so nice to have the restaurant almost all to ourselves. The restaurant served a variety of good quality steak, seafood, pasta, salads, soups, and appetizers all with a Caribbean flare. The service was excellent and the food was scrumptious. With our tummies full, and barely able to keep our eyes open, we headed back to the cool room for a night of sweet dreams on the comfy bed (even though it was still only 6pm).

Since Charlie’s was closed in the mornings, the receptionist directed us to a little French deli (with no name). There was no sidewalk, but plenty of room to make our way along the main road to a little shopping mall with the deli right on the corner a short walk from the hotel. Our jet-lag had us up a bit early and the store opened a bit late, but it was the only breakfast place around without taking a taxi. This deli had everything you would expect from a French deli including a bit of attitude toward tourists. However, the breakfast sandwiches were good enough and we took it in stride.

The sailing school representative recommended extra days before starting school so we had time to explore. Anyways, no one wants to travel that far and immediately start school! Walking around Road Town, the capital of Tortola, BVI, we enjoyed the slow pace and bright Caribbean colors of the buildings. The deep blue of the ocean and the vibrant green of the surroundings hills was mesmerizing even in the sweltering humidity.

With laughter and Caribbean music in the background as we winded our way to the cruise shop docks, we were curious to see the fancy dock called Tortola Pier Park. The dock entrance was encircled by brightly colored trucks designed for tourist sightseeing, some new, some aged, but all immaculately maintained and decorated. We passed a courtyard and grassy field with a stage on one end and a single, talented performer playing a variety of popular Bob Marley and other songs to a relatively empty space.

After taking a breath from the heat under a shaded overhang and enjoying the music, we continued towards the main two-story building. Inside it was crowded with numerous shops and small restaurants designed to attract tourist dollars. But it was fun to look. Exiting the building, the enormous cruise ship loomed next to the immaculate, cobbled pier like a massive giant staring at a puny rock. As the tourists began piling out of the huge ship, we strolled past the potted palm trees and colorful vendor booths to escape the crowd and head back into town.

Sauntering toward the “downtown” area of the charming little town, we noticed the friendly taxi drivers cooling themselves in the shade on the benches under the brightly covered roofs of the taxi stands. Mid-day here is definitely no time to exert energy! Our path continued across and down the street from the port entrance building to the main administration building which was colonial style with its white walls and nautical blue doors. Across the street from the administration building was this cute little courtyard with a fantastic breeze and a water fountain that was spraying water all over. We lingered allowing the breeze and the water spray to cool our sweaty bodies in the hot sun.

Our little tourist map led us a few streets inland from the courtyard to a modest wrought iron gate with a small sign indicating the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens. There was a small donation of $2 each to enter, but we needed some shade and Bob loves plants so it was well worth it. The gardens are 2.87 acres and include a wide variety of indigenous and exotic plants, a small waterfall, lily pond, and lots of birds chirping away vigorously despite the heat. It was just what we needed to end our little walking tour of the town.

Since we skipped lunch, hunger took over as we came upon Pusser’s Restaurant on the way back through town. Half-starved and overheated, Pusser’s was a cool refuge. The unique, nautical themed British style pub was loaded with naval plaques, decorations, safety rings, and tons of alcohol. The food was yummy, especially the Pusser’s nachos. This unique appetizer is an enormous pile of potato chips covered in blue cheese dressing and some diced veggies. Surprisingly they even carried a non-alcoholic beer for Bob. And the key lime pie was delicious!

With full tummies, heading back to the hotel we were unpleasantly surprised by a massive downpour. Unprepared in t-shirts, shorts, and slippers (flip flops), we took shelter under an overhang in a little mini-mall, we hoped the rain would let up. No luck! Drenched and cold, we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. And, of course, then it stopped!

Soaking wet and a little chilly, the receptionist was kind enough to schedule a tour around the island for us the next day. She also setup a dive trip for us on the following day and made all the arrangements so we could head back to the room to dry off. Since there was a tropical storm (possibly turning into a hurricane) headed towards the island, we weren’t sure if the diving would actually happen, but at least we had it scheduled.

The next day a very friendly local driver with a fantastic Caribbean accent greeted us for our tour around the island. The minivan climbed the narrow well paved roads as our driver took the time to stop at each of the most picturesque viewpoints and explain the local culture, lifestyle, and benefits of being a British protectorate. I was amazed at the numerous large homes dotting the island. Our guide explained that there are many government and banking incentives to build large homes where the owner lives on the top floor and rents out the lower floors. He also explained the many educational incentives from kindergarten through university levels. So many benefits and such a beautiful place.

As we winded our way past gorgeous, brilliantly colored 3 and 4-story homes that polka-dotted the lush emerald landscape, I envisioned living on this friendly little island and dreamed of the adventures exploring the hills, jungles, and ocean. Wait…back to reality. Still on vacation. Our driver pulled across the street from a roadside stand crammed with shells for sale into a sand parking lot. He directed us to enter a unique, eclectic multi-colored two-story building with a sign “The North Shore Shell Museum, Restaurant and Bar”. The museum was not without the subtlety of British humor with its many signs among the humongous collection of shells and recovered ocean-worn trinkets. They had a distinct collection of wind chimes, however my brain was on serious overload at the massive amount of collected items on display.

We pulled ourselves away from the enormous display of ocean relics and continued our drive to the old Callwood Distillery, which our driver had special permission to allow us to tour. It was nostalgic to witness an 18th century distillery that was still producing rum. While the building itself was closed for the low season, the exterior and our guide provided plenty of historic input to impress.

Next we ventured to the idyllic and famous Cane Garden Bay. I could definitely see the draw, especially if you were arriving in a sailboat with the expansive turquoise water softly lapping against the pale golden sand and the snippets of islands covered in jungle off in the distance framing the u-shaped bay. I only wish we had planned a whole day at this charismatic bay. A short drive from Cane Garden Bay, we stopped for a refreshing lemonade at Cruzin’ Bar and Grille and made friends with the owners who were extraordinarily friendly (unfortunately, a hurricane wiped out this lovely bar and our friends have since moved on to other adventures).

Back at the marina, we still had some time before dinner and decided to explore the docks to peruse the abundant collection of very expensive sailboats. One of our bucket list items is to live aboard a sailboat and travel the world. Whether or not it would be on this level is a whole other dream, but it never hurts to look! Strolling through the sea of white and blue we came across a reminder of home in a sweet 50 foot sailboat named “Waimea” and another humorous name “Abby Normal” on a large catamaran. Some of the boats were being prepped for their upcoming excursions since it was the beginning of the next season, and some were being cleaned after use by adventurous sailors such as ourselves in the off-season.

We decided to cool off in the pool before dining at Charlie’s again and getting some shuteye prior to our diving day. The next morning we met our dive boat at the end of one of the long wooden docks and climbed aboard after being greeted by the young, outgoing dive master and captain. We were to have other divers with us, but due to the approaching tropical storm that had been upgraded to a hurricane, the other divers had cancelled. As we ventured out into the large swells (6-8 feet) towards our first dive destination of the wreck of the Rhone (very famous in scuba circles), we geared up and tried not to get tossed overboard as the captain hit the swells head on. The swells were effecting the visibility to the point where the dive master was apologizing for the less than perfect clarity, however I was more worried that I was going to chum the fish if we didn’t jump in and descend quickly. Ooops! Too late! By the time Bob had entered the water and started his descent, the dive master made sure I was OK while I fed the fish, and descended to start the dive. I caught up after a few moments, and we ended up having an enjoyable, critter-filled dive on the Rhone including a teenage white tip reef shark checking us out for the entire dive.

Since the swells (and hurricane) were not decreasing, our dive master and captain decided that the second dive site should be a very protected, grassy and shallow area which ended up having fairly bad visibility (10 feet) due to the sandy, grassy bottom. But on the upside, it was a great test of our navigation skills and we ended up losing the dive master and completing the planned dive pattern all on our own. We even spotted some interesting marine life that we would not normally have seen in Hawaiian waters. Sorry we don’t have photos or videos, our underwater camera housing is toast! Since my dive career has led me to many dark and black water diving adventures, I was happy to have dove in warm water on the edge of a hurricane with the love of my life whether we had good viz or not. True water person!

The next day started sharply at 8am at the little classroom in a building behind the Mariner Yacht Club hotel pool, which also had enough of a hint of air conditioning to keep us from sweltering. Our instructor was super fun and the other couple we were learning with was very pleasant. We did half the day in the classroom reviewing aquatic rules, tying knots, and the technical aspects of sailing. Then we all climbed into an adorable 28 foot sailboat to practice what we learned. Crowding four students and an instructor on the little 28 foot sailboats was a bit tight, especially since none of us were particularly small individuals (except the instructor). But it worked nicely once we got the hang on maneuvering ourselves around the little boat under the close supervision. The afternoons on the small sailboat brought back wonderful memories of my teenage sailing opportunity for one semester in high school using sabots to sail in Mission Bay, San Diego. It was probably one of the most excellent experiences of my life with this being a close second. The feeling of the soft, warm breeze catching the sail and the closeness of the ocean water surrounded by the lush green island was an extraordinary sensory experience for me.

After passing all the required classroom and sailing portions of the first two days, we packed up our belongings and moved out of our hotel room and onto the handsome 50 foot Beneteau sailboat to spend our first night aboard and meet our next instructor (there were two different instructors – one for the 28 foot boat and one for the 50 foot boat). We were told to double check the provisioning to ensure it was correct and to make a quick trip the grocery store that was a 15 minute walk down the road to pick up any extras that we may need. The walk to the grocery store was not particularly pleasurable due to the large amount of traffic on the roads and since the humidity had increased due to the hurricane (which was now passing south of the island). But the store had everything we needed and more, and we loaded up and walked back to the boat to store our items. Then we headed to the hotel’s wonderful spa area to take a long shower before having to succumb to the minimal water usage required onboard. We also partook in another dinner at Charlie’s before having to cook for ourselves onboard the boat for the next few days.

In the morning after an extended briefing and planning session with our instructor, we watched the instructor and a professional crew back the sailboat out of the dock and off we were. We motored out of the marina and into the expansive bay to begin practicing the skills we had studied so hard to learn. The feeling of having a 50 foot long, sleek, luxurious sailboat under my control was amazingly powerful yet relaxing at the same time. And while the pressure of completing the required tasks under the vigilant watch of the instructor was intimidating, it was more than a familiar feeling that came over me…it was as if this was meant to be in some other life that I have dreamt about.

Each student took turns performing the required skills as the instructor watched and intervened as necessary. The wind lent itself to our endeavors and allowed us to practice reefing (shortening) the mainsail many times. I have to admit that the overwhelming beauty of the ocean and islands made it difficult to pay attention when it wasn’t my turn. Once we had practiced a good majority of skills in and around the bay, our instructor tasked us with completing our navigation to our first stop “The Indians” near