Sailing the British Virgin Islands


The British Virgin Islands lie 1,118 miles east southeast from Miami, 96 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and just a dozen or so miles east of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first European sighting of what is now BVI, was made by Christopher Columbus, in 1493, on his second voyage. Less than 100 years later, it was on the trade route of the African slave trade. In 1615, Dutch privateer Jost Van Dyke made the first European settlement on the island that now bears his name. In 1672, the islands came under British control, and remain so to this day.

The BVI consists of about 50 islands, approximately 15 of which are inhabited. The capital city is Road Town, located on the island, Tortola. The population of the entire country is about 27,000. British Virgin Islanders have had full British citizenship since 2002.

My friend, BB (Bruce), organized the first "Whale Sail" in 1987 inviting fellow Navy squadron mates to a get-away in the BVI on chartered sailboats. The name, "Whale Sail," was a play on the name of the plane we flew, the A-3 Skywarrior, which was nic-named the "Whale" because it was the biggest plane on the aircraft carrier. About every three years he organized another Whale Sail and the tradition has continued to the present. The composition has been both Navy and non-Navy, and family members were always welcome. I had always had an excuse not to make it, but this summer he invited me once again and I found myself ready to go. I called up a few squadron-mates, namely John H., Charlie G., and Tuna (Bill T.) and we had enough to charter a boat. It would be the four of us on the "bachelor" boat, and three couples on another boat.

Getting there was, as they say, half the fun. I did it in a mere four flights and a taxi. Others were cancelled twice and put up in hotels, three legs and a taxi. But, astonishingly, we were all assembled in Road Town, shopped for ten days of groceries, had our boat briefing, and untied lines, within a couple of hours of our original plan.



Approach BVI

The east end of Tortola Island, before touching down at the airport on Beef Island.


Main highway of Tortolla.

This is the main highway from the airport to Road Town, Tortola. "Island Time," the endearing term for the slow pace of Caribbean life, does not apply to driving, which is frenetic, and in the BVI, on the left side of the road.


Syros, a Beneteau 44

Our boat was the Syros, a Beneteau 44. It had three staterooms, and a dining settee which made a fourth bed.


Getting our boat brief.

BVI Yacht Charters provided our boats. Chris, the maintenance supervisor, was very well organized and gave us our boat briefings, here with Charlie G. Three of us on our boat had sailing experience, and all six on the other boat, French Maid, had sailed, so the briefing went quickly.


The crew

The motley crew of Syros: Don, John , Charlie (did the Colorado raft trip with me), and Tuna (Bill )


Leaving the harbor at Road Town.

Charlie motors us away from the harbor in Road Town, while John familiarizes himself with the various lockers and puts away the bumpers.


French Maid leaves the harbor

Just ahead of us, French Maid leaves the harbor. That they neglected to pull up their bumpers may have been mentioned when we assembled on their boat that evening for happy hour.


We left Tortola mid-afternoon into a crosswind of 18 knots. Our destination was the protected bay on the west side of Norman Island (see 1 on the map), almost due south of Road Town. The waves moving westward down Sir Francis Drake Channel were easily accommodated by Syros, it's 6 1/2 foot fin keel keeping the boat mostly level. The weather was unsettled, as it would be for the first five days, and occasional showers passed by quickly. In less than two hours we were using our mooring hook to catch the line off of a mooring buoy in a very sheltered bay.

As soon as we were secure, I peeled off my T shirt and dove into swimming pool warm water. French Maid was moored 50 yards away, so I swam over and visited with Ed and Anita, Fay and BB, and met for the first time Tom and Kim. For 48 hours we had been traveling, shopping, and storing supplies in the boat. It was time to relax and start the process of getting into Island Time. Soon we were all on French Maid, and visited with hors 'd oeuvres until well past dark. Across the bay, a derelict steel cargo boat had been converted into a restaurant/bar, named "Willy T." So we piled into our dingys and went over for dinner. My Wahoo, plantains and rice were excellent, and the ribs were said to be good as well. From the open kitchen, the cook scraped scraps into the water, which was illuminated by a bright spot light. Circling in the light were a half dozen, 4 foot long, Bone Fish, any one of which would have an angler smiling for a month. Although not good to eat, they put up a fight which is replicated by few other sport fish species.

In the morning, we took the dingy around the south entrance to the bay to "The Caves," which is a series of about six caves at water level. The area has been marked off as an underwater sanctuary. We snorkeled for about 45 minutes, enjoying the variety of tropical fish living both outside and inside of the caves. Charlie followed a Moray eel, which was swimming along the bottom, and I was pleased to spend time with a Loggerhead turtle. There was some Brain Coral and Staghorn Coral, but as we were to find throughout BVI, it was coated in algae and seemed less healthy compared to corals we've seen in the Pacific. One common characteristic of diving in the Caribbean is that one almost always has a large Barracuda swimming in formation about 10' to one's side. Such was the case here, and would be on most of my dives during the ten days. They stay exactly in place along side, and in clear water pose no threat. They are lightning fast swimmers, and in murky water there have been a few instances of them responding the the flash of something shiny, and attacking a swimmer.


Map of BVI

BVI forms an oblong circle, running mostly east-west, about 80 miles in length. The Sir Francis Drake Channel is a wind tunnel, channeling wind from east to west. In the bottom left corner of this map, St. John Island, is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands and not part of BVI. Once we had reached Norman Island, at the bottom of the map, our ten days of sailing took us roughly counter clockwise around the archipelago.



A passing rain shower enhances the background for French Maid.


Christmas lights on French Maid's mast

The French Maid is a Sun Odyssey 51'. It accommodated three couples in three state rooms.


Charlie and BB

Charlie with BB, who has organized all the Whale Sails.



Ed and Tuna

Ed and Tuna. These are all fellow A-3 crew members from our days at Naval Air Station Alameda in the 1980s.


Departing Norman Island.

Moored at Norman Island.

Crossing Sir Francis Drake Channel

Heading northwest across Sir Francis Drake Channel, Tortola Island ahead.


John at the helm.

John at the helm, while Tuna works on fishing tackle. It was his goal to catch something good while we were sailing.