We just returned from our BVI charter. Here are some extended notes that I finished up on the plane on the way home.
We provisioned the boat lightly for one meal on board each day which, due to our sailing schedule, typically was lunch. We generally skipped breakfast and ate out for dinner most days. So this was not the “find a deserted island” type of cruise, but rather one which we sought out some decent resort areas to enjoy snorkeling, a few drinks, and dinner. My crew consisted of my wife and my 23 year old son. The other two kids are a little less into sailing, so my 26 year old daughter stayed home at watched over my 16 year old son who was in school this week.
Our charter was with Sunsail, during their "double reef week" which gave us a 30% discount off their normal post holiday rate. This put their charter fee within about $100 of Conch Charters, and for that price we were getting a much newer boat than Conch offered. The model we wanted was only available as a "Premier" boat category which Sunsail advertised as less than 3 years old. Thanks to Google, I knew that the Sunsail 38
boat that we had selected (which internally was labeled as a Jenneau Sun Odyssey 379) had been introduced in a Sunsail press release about a year ago, so that we would actually get a boat that was at most a year old. It was in great shape with only minor cosmetic wear and tear. When we boarded Saturday evening, I immediately noted that its rig design was almost identical to my Catalina 250, with slightly swept back spreaders, no forward lowers, and a split backstay. The lack of forward uppers meant a cleaner foredeck with less to interfere with tacking of the headsail and movement about the foredeck. Unfortunately, this also meant less to grab onto when going forward while underway. The rounded, streamlined cabin with recessed teak handholds looked sleek, but also meant we had to reach much further down to grab on while going forward. I don't know whether it was this or something about the slope of the side decks, but my wife and I always felt a little less stable going forward (even while sitting still on a mooring ball) than we did on the Catalina 36 that we had previously chartered in Rock Hall. But that was probably my biggest complaint about an otherwise nicely designed cruising vessel.
: We were expecting the typical 15-20 kt Christmas winds from ENE, and Norman Island looked like it would be an easy reach from Road Town. But on the way out of the harbor I had last minute second thoughts. Since we had been to Norman Island twice before on group charters, we decided to head somewhere else first. If weather, mechanical problems, or other issues limited our destinations this week, Norman Island would be one that we could skip since we had been there before. So we attempted to tack directly into the wind toward the east end of Tortola, with an ultmate destination of Trellis Bay. I immediately noticed that sail trim was horrible, with the leech of the main luffing on almost any point of sail. I then realized that the boom was way too high, but when I loosened the topping lift, the boom did not drop. It turns out that the “Lazy Jack” or "Stack Pack" type of sail flaking system was holding the boom too high independently of the topping lift. This problem might have also been made worse because we had a reef in, since sometimes the boom needs to hang even lower to get leech tension when reefed (at least that's the way it is on our "Take Five." I'm sure cringle positioning can make this different with different sails). However, I did not know how the jacklines were rigged, and wasn't going to go forward to try to figure it out under these conditions, which had actually picked up to 25 kt sustained with 4-6' seas. It was clear that we would not make it to Trellis Bay before dark under sail, so we cranked up the motor, dropped the sails, and made the bouncy slog into the wind under power. As we rounded Beef Island we let out the genoa and cut the motor for some nice reaching and running, getting close to 7 kt as the breeze picked up to 30 kt. We soon learned why the breeze was getting stronger, as weather was clearly closing in. This made for a nice challenge grabbing our first mooring ball on an unfamiliar boat, but my son did a great job grabbing it and getting it secured just in time for us to head below and avoid the deluge. We later realized that we had gotten the last remaining mooring ball.
With darkness coming on, I made my first of three service calls to Sunsail. They got to know me a little too well this week. During checkout I had complained that there was no 360 degree light for the dinghy (as listed on the inventory sheet). The checkout captain told me not to worry, that it was in the dinghy storage compartment. My son had just made the difficult climb out of the dinghy onto the bow of the boat (due to stern-in docking) and did not want to climb back down again to check, so I took his word for it. Upon arriving at Trellis Bay, we discovered that it was not there. I called service, and they scolded me, telling me that it was on my inventory list, and how could I miss this? They said, "we never leave it in the dinghy - it's in the dinghy bag in the cabin." So this was second version we got of where this thing should be. I looked high and low, and there was no dinghy bag in the cabin. After some coercing, the service guy agreed to send someone out the next morning with a replacement light, which became unnecessary because late that night I finally discovered the light in a plastic "cookie jar" that had some bug repellant and some other sundry items. (No “dinghy bag” was ever found.) This was just one out of several times I got differing stories of policy, procedures, or inventory from different employees on the docks or over the phone. Try as I do to act laid back, especially while on vacation, at heart I am a somewhat anal East Coast guy who has different expectations of consistency when people are explaining things to me. As the vacation progressed I learned to relax and go with the flow on these things, and just hope that in the end they would be as laid back about things during the final inspection at the end of the charter, and not overly anal about damage and missing inventory items (like some have complained with other charter companies). Because with so many conflicting stories, I was a little nervous that I might be accused of missing something on the boat. (It turned out that the final debrief was very laid back, and unless they come back to me with some unexpected claims, everything will be fine.)
Back to our charter experience, we really loved Trellis Bay. The history says it used to be a really happenin' resort, but has declined since its heyday. The few remaining small businesses there, run by islanders, have a real homey feel about them. My wife loved the clothing and craft store there and bought a nice sweater cover-up for our daughter. We had a tasty dinner at the "Cyber Cafe
" (which was charmingly lower-tech than its name implied) and headed over to De Loose Mongoose
bar (recently reopened, though the restaurant and inn are still out of business) to watch the Redskins play the Seahawks. Since I grew up in the DC suburbs, and my son has relocated to Seattle, it made for some interesting rivalry. After a few drinks, I didn’t care that the Redskins got clobbered. lol
Our first night was a great success. I slept great, but my wife was bothered somewhat by the rolling of the boat, but she got used to that and slept better and better each successive night.
: We still had not planned out a full itinerary for the week. We were taking it one day at a time. But I decided that it would be good to get all the upwind slog done as quickly as possible, so we headed out for North Sound on Virgin Gorda. Prior to leaving, I was able to let out the jiffy lines enough to get the boom lowered to within a couple inches of the bimini. It was still higher than optimum, but significantly better than before. Apparently this boat was rigged for charter comfort more than performance, because the bimini was almost 7' high - nice for our 6'5" son, but not so much for sail trim. We motored ENE, directly into the Christmas Winds, until things calmed down in the lee of Virgin Gorda. At this point we were ready to raise the sails, but when we pulled on the main halyard it jammed with the sail up about 8'. Going forward to inspect, I discovered that the halyard had fouled around the steaming light on the front of the mast. We turned the boat DDW, slacked the halyard, and with some gentle coaxing from a boat hook held high by our 6'5" son, finally got a fair lead on the main halyard so we could hoist the sail. We had a nice sail around to the north side, but we saw weather approaching so used some motor assist into the wind, leaving the main up so we could motor-sail after making the turn to the south though the cut along Prickly Pear Island. We decided to grab a mooring ball at Bitter End
, since they were more protected than the ones at Saba Rock
. However, once the weather passed we quickly dinghied over to Saba for their $3 happy hour drinks. Saba Rock was a really cool little resort, isolated on a tiny island. We loved it! My wife had done a lot of research on restaurants in the area, and got a good tip for a nice little dining spot at Fat Virgin's
at the Biras Creek Resort, only accessible by dinghy. We also got an unexpected surprise, as the ultra-modern DynaRig Maltese Falcon was docked at Miras. My son had raved about this boat's automation before, and getting it to see it in person was an unexpected treat.
: We woke up in Gorda Sound to multiple strong squalls. The first one woke us up at 0600, and a second one at 0900 ripped the loop fastener for the port forward bimini strap right out of the deck. I saw the unsecured bimini getting lifted up and creating greater windage, so I secured it by lashing the strap to the dodger, otherwise the whole bimini would gone airborne. We waited an hour or so for things to calm down, but just as we were ready to leave I decided that maybe I had better report the damage to the office. Sunsail surprised me by ordering me to stay in place while they sent a service guy to inspect the damage (for a friggin' bimini???). I was in a hurry to leave while I had a weather window, but learned that their guy was right over at Saba Rock. He arrived in 5 minutes, did a quick inspection, and said we had secured it properly. On closer inspection, it was clear that this fitting had been ripped out and rebedded at least twice before. It appears that Jenneau's use of a ceiling liner prevented the appropriate through-bolt attachment. After we saw the service guy on his way, our departure was delayed by yet another very gusty squall(!), so in retrospect it was a good thing that we had waited for the service call. Finally the third squall passed over, blue skies appeared, and we headed out.
When we exited into open water, winds and surf really picked up into the 25-30 kt range, as it would be for the next 3 days. In retrospect, it was good that we had done the upwind slog already, as we relaxed and put out the genny alone for a nice DDW run to Marina Cay. We had originally planned to go all the way to Jost Van Dyke, but my son had difficulties finding an available diving boat (many companies were not running because nobody was signed up), and the only boat he found would only pick him up around the east end of Tortola. Once again we had black clouds closing in as we arrived at the Marina Cay mooring field, and I grabbed the first ball I found (only two were left) just in time to duck for cover.
After dinner at Pusser’s that evening I realized that our battery voltage was very low, so I decided to run the diesel for awhile to charge it up for the night. When I went to hit the start button nothing happened. There was not even a low oil pressure alarm that you would normally hear. The control panel was totally dead. Time to call service for the third time in three days! Over the phone they directed me to the wiring harness for the starter, and as soon as I touched a wire the oil alarm sounded. This woke everything up enough for me to start the motor and charge the battery. However, the guy asked me to stay put the next morning so a service guy could check over the boat. Knowing that a bad connection can increase resistance, and thus heat up and melt insulation or even cause a fire, I was happy to oblige. Also, I knew that we had to stay put all morning for my son's rendezvous dive anyway, clearly a violation of Murphy's Law since things usually go wrong at the worst time, not the best time!
was a beautiful morning with clear skies. The service guy, who introduced himself with the interesting name of "Gun," went right to the loose red wire. Looking over his shoulder, I could see that it was secured to a threaded post, and the nut securing it was very loose. As he tightened it with a wrench he accidentally contacted the engine block, and sparks flew. This reminded me why it was probably best that I let them do the work and not attempt it myself.
With the service call out of the way, my wife and I had all morning to explore the area. We had not gotten in any snorkeling yet, which is one of our favorite activities. But first we were curious about this brand new resort on Scrub Island
, so we dinghied over there to look around. It was a gorgeous, high-dollar resort (which I now realize is owned by Marriott), with all the patios made out of manmade cultured stone, air conditioned lobbies behind smoked double-pane glass with mahogany floors, etc. We hated it. It looked like the kind of place where rich New Yorkers who dine in fancy restaurants and live in penthouse apartments go to vacation in fancy air conditioned rooms and dine in fancy restaurants. It was all Disney – nothing authentic. We stopped into one of the shops, since we were looking for a polo or golf shirt souvenir for my younger son who stayed home. They had some, but were priced at $250! The one good thing that came out of this was our stop at the Dive BVI shop there, which had reasonably priced items and a laid back, friendly staff. (They were actually not part of the resort - they just rented that space.) They told us exactly where to go to find the good snorkeling on Diamond Reef, so we headed over there. Much to our surprise, as we were jumping out of the dinghy, our son's dive boat pulled right up next to us, so we were able to watch our son dive as we snorkeled around the area.
When his dive was complete around 1230, we already had the engines running and ready to head out for Jost Van Dyke. We motored through Camanoe Passage, avoiding the Beef Island cut that was on Sunsail's prohibited list. Once across Guana Bay, we stopped off at Monkey Point for some more great snorkeling. Then it was on to Jost, once again under genoa alone as we had a DDW run in 25-30 kt breezes. On the way we passed two larger monohulls who were struggling with both sails up. We saw a couple of ugly looking jibes, and were glad we had left the mainsail lowered. However, the swells were very large and did toss us around a bit. At one point, our dinghy actually surfed all the way forward to where it was a couple of feet forward of our transom on the port side!
We arrived at Jost Great Harbour just in time to dinghy around to White Bay for happy hour at the Soggy Dollar Bar, which we had visited last year and just fell in love with the gorgeous beach. Then it was back over to Foxy's for dinner.
was a very stormy morning, with continuous rain showers. They weren't really squalls because there was no excessively high wind, but visibility was very poor. We tried to wait it out and thought we had a window, so we headed out toward Sopers Hole around 1100. But as soon as we were outside the harbor I looked east and saw lots more rain coming. I decided not to raise the sails because of concern that one of these showers could turn into a windy squall, so I just put on the autopilot and ducked under the dodger to avoid getting soaked by the constant rain. Visibility was very poor, but good enough to give me time to get back to the helm if we had to dodge something.
Upon arrival at Sopers Hole, we discovered that most of the boats were smart enough not to head out in the rain – they were staying at their mooring balls! We passed up an outer mooring ball looking for something closer, and once realizing that it was the ONLY mooring ball left in the whole harbor, we raced back to it before the 2 boats following us in discovered the same thing. However, Sopers Hole was a disappointment. The shopping was too touristy. We tried to find a locally owned restaurant but couldn’t so we went to Pusser’s to wait out the rains. Things finally cleared off and we headed out for Norman Island around 1430.
The afternoon trip to the Bight was the best sailing we had up to that point. We were very close hauled into 20-25 kt winds, and made 6-7 kt consistently. We had a great close-up view of St. John the whole time. My goal was to make it all the way on one tack, and at first I thought there was no way, but as we approached Haulover Bay the island seemed to divert the prevailing wind just enough for us to pinch just past the rocks. From there things really opened up, with 25-30 kt breezes and huge chop and swells that got us all wet and soaked the headsail. We almost buried the rails a couple times. We made it to the Bight in time for happy hour at Pirate's Bight, dinner on the boat, and then some gawking at the debauchery on WillyT's.
: There were no rains overnight, so we could leave the hatches open the whole time. We awoke to a gorgeous view of St. John and the hills over Road Town, with perfectly blue skies. I can see why the Bight is such a popular anchorage. The view is the most gorgeous we had our whole time here, and we decided to make a late departure so we could enjoy the area first. My wife and I dinghied around to the caves for snorkeling while my son slept in. We've snorkeled the caves twice before, and it was just a enjoyable this time.
Since we had to catch an early ferry on Saturday, we headed out toward Road Town about 1330 on Friday, and discovered much milder conditions than we had seen all week. Winds were slightly more northerly than before, and only about 15 kt, with no swell and only 2-3' chop. This seemed to really be the boat's "sweet spot," as we routinely got 5-7 kt (with a reef still in) since we did not have the pounding slowing the boat down. We approached Road Harbour way too soon, and we weren't ready to end it yet, so we did a 180 and headed back out across the Sir Francis Drake channel on a beam reach that got us up close to 8 kt a few times. This was easy sailing at its best, and a great way to end our trip.
One interesting footnote: After returning, we had dinner at the Beach Club Terrace in Road Town. While speaking to the restaurant owner, he commented that we must have had an tough week to sail because of all the storms and high winds. I told him that I realized that this time of year we expected the "Christmas Winds" to kick up, and he said that this week's winds were the highest he had seen over a sustained period in the past 10 years, and much more than they normally get for the Christmas Winds. So I guess we rose to the challenge, since all week we felt like we were sailing well within our capabilities (with a reef taken out for greater comfort).