A few years ago, before we sold all our possessions, purchased a sailboat and started sailing around the world, I would have said that my most favorite destination was sailing the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Having spent two wonderful flotilla sailing holidays (chartering a boat) in the BVI both my husband I and were eager to take our floating home, Britican, to an old haunt. (Note: the video of our BVI sailing travels is at the bottom of this post).
After sailing the British Virgin Islands for two weeks, visiting old and new anchorages, I felt our time was bittersweet
Some aspects I loved and yet others made me want to move on never looking back. Overall, the region is set up to cater to weeklong boat charters providing tourist offerings at ridiculous tourist rates.
Sure, there are a few places off the beaten path but they’re far and few between. If you sail around the BVI expect busy waterways, inexperienced sailors, and expensive food all, however, surrounded with some of the most picturesque backgrounds in the Caribbean (it’s bittersweet).
Top 16 reasons why to sail Or not sail in the British Virgin Islands
Allow me to start off with the things that make the BVI sweet:
1. The views are some of the best in the Caribbean – some of the anchorages and restaurants/resorts are truly set up to off a view of paradise. The beaches are white sand and the sea floor is navy with stunning turquoise and sea green patches. There’s an abundance of well-kept palm trees and shrubs offering bursting pinks, purples, yellows and whites. There’s no litter and the tourist areas are sparkling clean.
2. There’s an abundance of beautiful bays with well-maintained and easy to use mooring buoys/mooring balls. If you’re new to sailing and worried about the strong trade winds, the BVI is a perfect place to sail. Almost every popular bay has mooring buoys. (Note: A mooring buoy is made up of a concrete block seated on the bottom of the sea with a rope attached and floated on the surface by a large floating ball. A mooring buoy or also called a mooring ball acts as a replacement to your anchor. To attach the buoy you simply pull up the end with a hook and feed warps or ropes through an eyelet and fix back on the boat. I write ‘simply’ but it’s not as easy as you’d think it might be!).
3. There’s entertainment to be had at every mooring – watching the charter boats mess up can provide hours of amusement. Over the past week we enjoyed watching:
- a boat make 14 attempts to pick up a mooring ball
- a husband/wife team attempt to grab a mooring ball while the main sail was still up (the boat few right by the ball)
- a couple boats sail over the top of the mooring buoy and then they couldn’t find it
- several charter boats attempt to anchor, drag over and over and then eventually leave the anchorage. In most cases the crew were not putting out enough chain for the anchor to even hit the bottom of the sea let alone dig into the floor.
- several people on a Moorings charter boats (Moorings is a company that offers sailing vacations) turn on their engine, raise the main, detach from the mooring ball and then put the boat in reverse at maximum revs to get out of a mooring field. (We’re thinking that perhaps Moorings is teaching their clients to perform this task as it prepares the helmsperson to sail out of danger if there’s engine failure?! It’s the only thing we could think of…)
- many catamaran’s motor everywhere without putting their sails up.
- many mono haul’s and catamaran’s with full sails and the engine on at full blast
- a few boats attempting to put their main up with the wind behind them rather than pointing the boat into the wind.
4. The wind is plentiful – there is great sailing and nice breezes at anchor. After sailing the Med for two years and having either too much wind or no wind at all the Caribbean seems to be a dream come true for sailors. There’s almost always a wonderful 15 to 20 knot wind. The wind allows for great sails, cool breezes and a lack of mosquitos.
5. The snorkelling diving is very good. I’d like to say it’s great but like many other Caribbean islands some of the reef is dead or dying. It’s terrible to see. Otherwise, there’s a fantastic amount of small and large fish. It’s always great to see stingrays, moray ells, barracuda and the massive tarpon’s. Off Norman Island my husband and I spotted a 6’ nurse shark and it made our day! Diving the RMS Rohn shipwreck is well work the time, money and effort too.
6. You can sail for one hour or several – every island is very close. The longest passage we had was four hours and that was going from one end of the BVI to the other.
7. Picking up/dropping off friends, family or crew at the airport is super easy. If you pick up a mooring ball in Trellis Bay it will take you five minutes to take your dingy to a dingy dock and five minutes to walk to the airport – that’s it! If you have guests interested in visiting you this is an excellent region of the Caribbean to make the airport transfer painless.
8. Marina’s are expensive but good quality. Generally, the facilities are nice, many have WIFI and there’s various restaurants and grocery offerings. If you have to pick one marina to visit, I recommend Nanny Cay Marina. You’ll find the best chandlery around (Budget Marine), there’s a tiny but good supermarket, the pool is lovely and free to use for berth holders and there’s a nice little beach, restaurant and bar. For our 56’ mono hull we paid $95 USD/night plus water and electric.
9. Many bars/restaurants/resorts offer use of the beach, beach chairs, pool and the various facilities. To name a few places I enjoyed, Saba Rock in the Gorda Sound in Virgin Gorda, Marina Cay in Tortola and The Bight on Norman Island are all good examples of great places to spend the day or afternoon (if you’re not sailing). On Saba Rock you’ll find a restaurant with some rooms to rent. Dotted around the area are double cushion beach chairs, hammocks, sofa’s and restaurant seating. The views are breathtaking. After a snorkel, you can enjoy a lovely tasting (but pricey) lunch and then find a shaded or sunny area to allow for relaxed digestion.
And now for the things that are bitter…
1. It’s very busy. We enjoyed the BVI during May, one of the “quiet months”, yet it was still very hectic. I got the feeling that many charter boats woke up in the morning and raced to the next anchorage to ensure they got a mooring buoy. It seemed that by 9am everyone in a mooring field would be gone and by 3pm the fields were jam-packed. We never failed to secure an anchorage but I imagine that during the high season it would probably be prudent to get to anchorages early or have a few alternatives ready if you can’t find space. Fortunately, nothing is far away in the BVI – within an hour there are surely several places to get a buoy or put a hook down.
2. Anchoring is often not an option. We found this very annoying. In our pilot book the maps show several bays with both mooring buoys and space for boats that want to anchor. In almost every bay we entered the space for anchoring was full of mooring balls. You can’t anchor near a mooring ball due to the difference in scope. In other words, a boat that’s anchored will have a much larger swing circumference than a boat on a buoy. If you’re going to anchor near buoys you have to provide enough room to be far enough to swing and often the depths were too deep to do that. All the mooring buoys seem to be priced at $30/night and have a limit of 60’ maximum sized boat.
3. Authenticity is hard to find. We’re in the Western Caribbean now – leaving the Eastern Caribbean under our belt. In the east we experienced amazing local foods, great reggae and steal drum music and even learned a bit of the slang language. In the Grenadines, St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Antigua and Anguilla there was a sense of Caribbean culture. In the BVI, I feel as if I could be anywhere. While enjoying a ‘Western Caribbean Beach BBQ’ at the Bitter End Yacht Club we listened to a band dressed in Hawaii shirts singing cover songs by Lionel Richie, Phil Collins and Madonna! The BBQ was near the beach but it wasn’t on it. And the food…well, it was okay. There were rice and beans in addition to Roti’s, a Caribbean wrap, but I have to say I was disappointed. The food wasn’t like the ‘local’ dishes we got in the eastern Caribbean. It was food I could get anywhere. But that’s me – I like to feel a culture whereas other people are looking for warm weather, good sailing and food they’re accustomed to eating.
4. Food is expensive – groceries and restaurants. The BVI is certainly not a place to visit on a budget. It’s hard to find a cheap burger place…there are a lot of froofy (a Kim word) restaurants that provide lovely plated food at a high price. There are also several mediocre restaurants that provide normal food at a high price. If I didn’t experience places like Dominica where eight of us had a lovely lunch with a variety of local dishes for $50 USD TOTAL I probably wouldn’t complain. For a week long charter or a short stay in the area the prices are okay but if you’re living on a budget and have been to surrounding areas you’ll balk at the prices.
5. Defensive sailing is a must. You have to sail as if everyone else on the water is an idiot and doesn’t see you. Understanding the rules of the sea can often be confusing. Generally, boaters under sail give way to any other boat on a starboard tack (the wind is following over the starboard or right side of the boat). If two boats are both on a starboard tack the boat closest to the wind generally has to give way. Of course, no boat officially has right of way…all boats must be vigilant and prepare to move off course when necessary. In the BVI, it’s best to assume that every boat around you will think they have right of way – whether they are sailing or motoring. On one occasion we were on a collision course with a Catamaran. We noticed that the group of four on deck were not paying much attention and to be fair the sun was in their eyes. We were prepared to make a quick tack to avoid them and that’s what we had to do. When the people on the Cat saw us they all jumped in the air thinking, ‘where did they come from?!’ Heck, I suppose a 56’ sailboat can be difficult to spot?! (Gosh – am I growing cynical in my older age?!)
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Side note: I’ve made more sailing mistakes than most. Everyone has to learn and the best way to learn is to fail. Having to approach a mooring ball 10 times when you first start is normal and I totally respect people that are brave enough to get out there and fail over and over again. It’s not fun to fail publicly but that’s life. That’s how you ultimately find fulfillment… What troubles me is when people are reckless and that leads me to my next point…
6. People on the charter boats can come across as reckless or irresponsible. It’s not cool to drink (loads) and sail. Having a couple beers is fine but arriving in a mooring field drunk and leery is not cool. In the BVI we saw quite a few reckless people.
7. WIFI is available almost everywhere but it’s only good enough to do very light surfing – definitely not good enough to upload good pictures or video. If you’re looking to work while you’re cruising and need a reliable Internet connection, I can’t say the BVI is a good spot. Saying that, however, I didn’t get a SIM card. Digicel, and other carriers, are in the BVI so assuming you get a SIM card there might be hope.
My overall British Virgin Island rating?!
If you’re not a seasoned sailor and are looking for a great place to learn to sail or are in need of a fantastic sailing holiday I’m not sure there’s any place better than the BVI. It’s a holiday or vacation paradise for sailors. The sailing, snorkeling, diving, beaches and food are great – it’s a full sun, sea and sail package.
If, however, you’re a full time cruiser… as long as you know what to expect, it’s still a great place.
What I would suggest is that you stock up on your food and drinks in Antigua or Anguilla if coming from the south or Puerto Rico if coming from the North. Research the bays that have anchoring only; for the most part they’re a lot quieter than the bays with mooring balls. And it’s definitely worth seeing some of the sights.
The Baths on Virgin Gorda are a must-see, snorkeling or diving the RMS Rhone shipwreck off Salt Island is worth the time and effort and some of the beaches are down right spectacular.
My rating for the BVI is an 8 out of 10
Although our visit provided a bittersweet feel the sweetness was so very sweet that I must rate this region with top marks.
Anchorage or Moorings Britican Visited
– Nanny Cay Marina
– Soper’s Hole (mooring ball)
– Trellis Bay (mooring ball)
– Marina Cay (mooring ball)
– Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor
– The Baths (anchored)
– Leverick Bay (anchored)
– The Bitter End (mooring ball)
– Saba Rock
Jost van Dyke
– Great Harbor (mooring ball)
– Little Harbor (mooring ball) – Sidney’s Peace and Love is worth a visit. It’s a self serve bar. You get to go behind the bar and help yourself.
– Salt Island Bay (day only – anchored)
– Deadman Bay (anchored)
– The Bight (mooring bally)
– The Caves and Privateer Bay (day only – anchored)
– Benures Bay (anchored)
Sailing around the British Virgin Islands
If you’ve been to the British Virgin Islands and have something either bitter or sweet to contribute, please leave a comment below.
And if you plan on chartering a boat or taking your own boat to the BVI and haven’t yet been introduced to mooring balls, make sure to grab a copy of my guide!