We are a group of five women, 3 professionals on vacation and two teenagers. We are all eager to sail, snorkel and explore as much of the Caribbean as we can fit into our week trip.
I had read a short history of the Virgins as named by Columbus in 1493 after St. Ursula and her following of 11,000 virgins who were attacked by the Huns and sacrificed their lives rather than submit to a fate less tolerable. Spain laid claim to this territory at the time, as it did with the Americas. There was a frontier mentality on the archipelago, which makes an arch from Trinidad to Florida. The native Caribs, who gave us the word “cannibal” already inhabited these islands. They had already absorbed the other native group, the Arawaks, and viewed the Spanish as more fresh dinner. Even the force of the Inquisition was not enough to conquer the determined violence of the Caribes.
As Spain’s hold on this territory began to fade, other nations began to use the Virgin Islands at a trading post due to their convenient location. Piracy flourished, and the term “privateer” was created to mean a sort of loosely legitimized brand of piracy for the benefit of the English, Dutch, French and Danish nations. Eventually colonization began to stabilize the evolving agrarian society based largely on sugar cane plantations, and brought with it the slave trade. In 1717 a census reports 625 people on the island of Virgin Gorda, half of them black. By 1750 the population had grown to nearly 2,000 with the largest number of them being slaves. The sugar beet became a cash crop in Europe at that time, which severely impacted the cane plantations, leading to slave revolts on all the islands. By 1800 the slaves were freed and the white population had all but deserted these islands. In 1893 it is reported that there were only two white men in the BVI, the Deputy Governor and the doctor. The economy was practically non-existent, and in 1917 the Danish islands were sold to the US as a strategically defensive position for protecting approaches to the Panama Canal. Eventually the unspoiled environment and comfortable climate of these islands began to attract tourists, and the islands themselves began to create a stable economy for the residents.
What we are presented with now is friendly people, living laid back lives in an outrageously beautiful cluster of islands. Our charter began at Road Town, Tortola, where we spent the night at Village Cay Marina before departure. The open cab ride up and down the hills and out to Cane Garden Bay for dinner was an adventure timed perfectly for a dramatic tropical sunset revealing the adjacent islands. We walked along the sand to select one of the half dozen ocean front restaurants for dinner. Open porches on a wide white beach, live music, good food and the sun setting over the masts in the bay was our introduction to the Caribbean.
After dinner, we decided to drop by Bomba’s Shack, a popular hang out on Tortola. The structure is made entirely out of drift wood, beach findings and ladies’ underwear. This is a wild experience, and not to be missed. Built entirely out of driftwood with the underwear of visitors who cannot resist an evening swim stapled to the rafters, It became in my mind the world’s largest lingerie display! Every driftwood surface was covered with hand written notes which dated back only to the previous hurricane. After each major storm a brand new supply of ocean worn building materials is delivered to the beach for rebuilding the completely erased previous structure. This has been going on for nearly 40 years. The music was impossible to resist, the other visitors were laid back and friendly, and the famous Bomba Shack Full Moon Party was on!
The first thing I noticed walking up the pier to board S/Y Edruska the next morning was how elegant she looked. Captain Alan Reynolds and his wife Jo-Anne were as welcoming as the yacht herself. Edruska is a 63′ Richleigh Yacht designed by Rich Ford. During his nine years of chartering he meticulously recorded the details of what makes a charter boat powerful to sail and comfortable to live aboard. These notes were central to the design of the yacht, and proved to be very effective at designing a fast sailing boat that is spacious and easy to live aboard. It is not hard to understand why the Virgin Islands are world famous as a cruising destination. USVI and BVI offer short hops between islands, line of site navigation, calm waters, plenty of wind and overall great sailing. Distance between islands is such that you can easily have breakfast in one spot, have a beautiful passage followed by lunch and snorkeling in another spot, and then head out again for a sail to a different anchorage in time to catch a sunset. We left Road Town and had a one hour sail to the harbor of Maya Cove on Buck Island off the eastern end of Tortola. The water is so clear that it is impossible to tell the depth, the beach is white and pristine. We were the only boat there, alone in paradise.
Lunch was served on deck, comfortably under the awning. Cold tortellini salad, with salami and fresh crunchy red peppers, chilled white wine and fruit with one of Jo-Anne’s special sauces on top was the first indication that we were in for many culinary treats on board Edruska. After lunch we headed to The Bitter End, Virgin Gorda. The breeze blew at 12 knots, and proud Edruska made clean and exhilarating passage. Our two 19-year-olds Katie and Jordan had a real desire to learn to sail, and Alan proved to be an experienced and talented instructor. All afternoon the girls were at the helm with Alan quietly near. They learned to feel the hull passing through the water, watch the shape and tension of the sail, observe the wind over the water, and generally perceive the boat as an animal interacting with her environment. He encouraged them to understand the primitive and the romance, but also to read the well laid out instrumentation. We were Gods of the ocean in the buttery afternoon sun as Edruska’s fine hull cut through the water with that telltale shiver of full optimization.
Virgin Gorda is 10 miles long with some peaks rising to 1000 feet over glistening beaches. As we approached, we could see boulders standing up out of the water, which gave way to wide, white stretches of sand. The vegetation comes in a perfectly orchestrated tapestry of color and texture, culminating in a horizon peppered with more of the giant boulders which just barely cleared the trees. The turquoise water below and azure skies above seemed to wrap themselves around this uncluttered place in peaceful isolation. The sun set over the stern, while the full moon rose over the bow. Life aboard a proud ship in the company of friends both old and new created the sense that we all wanted time to stop right here. Alan delivered fresh tropical frozen cocktails, while Jo-Anne made a snack of mushroom caps filled with mixed cheeses. Dinner was sea bass with a very thin crust of potato and Jo-Anne’s wizardry with spices. Next came fresh sweet peaches and sliced almonds in créme frâiche topped with cinnamon.
The next morning we set sail for a spot at the southern end of Virgin Gorda called The Baths. At first sighting we found huge boulders littered along the shore, and then in piles sprinkled with palm trees which formed the tip of the island. Alan ran us over to the beach in the dinghy and told us to take the “lovely path.” The path is actually a trail through the piles of mammoth boulders. Water flows between them in places, forming turquoise pools large enough to swim in with streams of sunlight poking through. We played like children happily going from one beautiful space to another, over, under, around and between the rocks, swimming in sun streaked caves, and scrambling around the sandy paths. Lovely indeed.
Meanwhile, back on Edruska, Jo-Anne was fixing crab tortillas with shrimp sauce. When we were finally lured in from exploring the shore with promises of lunch, the table was all set. Snorkeling was one of our priorities, so Alan began to plan a route that would take us to the most beautiful spots at the right times of day. The BVI and USVI offer plenty of activity for those who would like to dance under the stars, but we were interested in good sailing, dramatic sunsets, quiet evenings and good camaraderie aboard. So, after another delicious meal, we set sail for Norman Island. The wind was up and we had a fine sail while we sat in the stern and talked with Jo-Anne about the islands that we were passing Ginger, Cooper, Salt and Peter.
We sailed to Soldiers Bay for the evening and there was nobody else around, just what we wanted. It had been a great day filled with coral and fish, paddling the kayak, and laced with excellent food. The moon performed again, and Alan gave us his night vision glasses. That is when we discovered that there is barely any space between the stars once you can see them all. The three cabins on Edruska are very comfortable, air conditioned and roomy, each with its own head & shower. Still, I slept on the fore deck cushions that night, because the sky was as big and bright as I had ever seen it. As I watched the stars emerge and listened to the gentle lapping at the hull, I felt like the luckiest woman in the universe. Being out in the air under the stars infuses your soul with a kind of poetry and connection to the islands.
The next morning began at a lazy pace. I woke to the inviting smell of coffee and cooking in the galley. My friends emerged at their own comfortable times. Breakfast was served on deck, enough for twice as many as we were, and lots of variety. Over the three-course breakfast we discussed the tans that we were acquiring, and I was elected to ask the question. I told Alan that I currently did not have any tan lines, and was hoping not to get any. He had heard this from guests before and said that he would simply announce himself before coming forward on deck. From then on, the forward cushions were known as Lido Beach and total tanning was on.
Our photographer Dana is fearless, and she asked Alan if he would put her to the top of the mast in the boson’s chair. He was happy to oblige. She took of the islands from the top spreader. Watching her up there prompted me to want to see the view from 88 feet up. Before long the others wanted to go up too. My sister Audrey went only as far as the first spreader, due to her concerns with heights. Our captain was very attentive to the person in the boson’s chair and he stopped immediately at the first sign of her discomfort. It was an easy ride down whenever each of us was ready. Alan told me that no other guests had asked for this particular adventure, but from the mast you can see over the islands, from horizon to horizon and down into the coral reefs under the clear turquoise water. Alan wanted us to see The Caves on Norman Island, so we moved Edruska around the point.
Dana had her Nikonos loaded, and armed with a plastic bag full of bread we swam over. The amount and variety of marine life was amazing, and the fish emerged from every crevice when we began to feed them. We even had some time in the company of a sea turtle. The caves themselves are big enough to swim into, and contain a kind of glittery light that makes you want to stay forever. After lunch at the caves we set sail for Lameshur Bay, on St. John’s East End. The afternoon sail was so fast and beautiful that we were all hoping that it would take longer. After anchoring we took a drive into Cruise Bay to do a little necessary souvenir shopping and to clear customs, as this was now the USVI. The mountain road is treacherous with switchbacks and drop offs. The bay road offers incredible views into the turquoise bays. St John’s is 3/4s National Forest, so there are plentiful hiking trails.
We arrived back in time for a sunset hike to the farthest eastern point, Ram’s Head. It’s an easy one-mile walk through low shrub, with a variety of cacti. From here there are dramatic views back on to Salt Pond and towards Tortola. We saw a glorious sunset enroute, and got back to Edruska just before dark. Alan’s justly famous frozen pina coladas were served with baked mussels. Dinner was Grouper with salad followed by chocolate soufflï¿½ and a dramatic celestial display.
We woke to another perfect day in paradise. Alan is a dive instructor, and Edruska has tanks aboard but the water is only 30′ or so deep and perfectly clear for snorkeling. We set out from the stern with snorkels and swam out to the point. We saw a huge barracuda along the way, and lots of different fish and corals, but the big treat was that we got to hang out with a sea turtle. Alan went right to the bottom and swam next to it looking for all the world like a dolphin. We also found two different types of rays, and some squid during our swim, but it was time to head around to the north side of St. John. Edruska did her thing at 9.5 knots with the gennaker up, and we had a fabulous passage to Leinster Bay, where we stopped for another suit expanding lunch of salmon salad completed by carrots carved into palm trees, green pepper slices for fronds, with olives standing in for cocoa nuts. There is a small island at the entrance to Leinster Bay which demanded exploring, and a wide view of the Sir Francis Drake Channel and Tortola. The kayak went into the water again, and some of us snorkeled. Again we all hoped that time would stop and leave us in this clear water, under sunny skies on a sailing yacht surrounded by good friends. We motored around the point to find anchorage for the evening in Francis Bay. By then it was that lovely time when Alan would come up the companionway with yet another variety of his now legendary island concoctions.
Dana, Audrey and I firmed up our plans to hijack Edruska. We told Alan and Jo-Anne our plans and they described headlines reading “Crew Resists All Attempts at Rescue.” The next morning we headed for Christmas Cove on the western point of St. John. The girls snorkeled with a spotted ray that Alan told us is always there to greet his guests. In the afternoon we headed for Jost Van Dyke. This was going to be our only real land based party. As the evening came on we decided to have dinner at Foxy’s. This is a spot famous for good food, cold beer and excellent music. We danced late into the night, and slept late into the morning. All of us would tell you not to miss an evening on Jost, because it really makes you feel that life is grand and time is simply irrelevant.
We had become one family of explorers during this week in the Caribbean, and could not believe that it was coming to a close. Just to spend a bit more time together we made plans for dinner at a night spot called Latitude 18 in Red Hook, St Thomas. The girls had hand painted a T-shirt for Alan, which we brought with us and presented with great ceremony. We danced to El Gato Grande until we simply could not dance any longer. It was the perfect ending to a perfect week of roaming free in paradise.