Tips from a Captain Who Sails His Own Vessel
By Tab Hauser
Cruising does not have to be about boarding a large ship with 4000 of your new best friends on a set itinerary. For me, the big ships just have too many people rushing around to make dinner and a show or fighting for a poolside lounge chair.
A very personal way of getting on the water is to be your own captain. By chartering a boat you get to set your own destiny, dress code (bathing suits, shorts, and T-shirts), menu and where to sleep. It is also fun.
In the past, chartering was reserved for experienced sailors or those that would hire a local captain because they lacked sailing skills. Powerboats now make it easy to cruise on your own.
Marinemax (www.marinemax.com/vacations) out of Nanny Cay in Tortola charters motor catamarans.
Renting one of these boats and splitting the cost with close friends or taking the family is an adventure at a reasonable price.
For those with no nautical experience, a captain comes on board when you shove off to make sure you are comfortable with navigation and piloting. You can hire the captain for $205 a day as an option. You can also hire a cook.
For our week-long charter, we did not need a captain based on my nautical experience so we were able to get underway on our own quickly.
Regardless of skill, everyone chartering gets a mandatory briefing about the boat and I recommend everyone aboard pay attention to it.
For the new self-cruiser, the British Virgin Islands (BVI’s) are some of the best and easiest waters to get your feet wet for this style vacation. Here there are several nearby islands with beautiful bays and beaches to visit. Many bays have fun beach bars/restaurants. What makes the BVI’s safe is that in the event of weather, there are plenty of places to shelter.
We chose Marinemax 484. It is 48 feet long by 24 feet wide and sleeps four couples comfortably.
There is also a small extra crew cabin in the bow. The boat has a large dining area topside and at the stern. There is another dining area in the large salon.
The boat has air-conditioning with five thermostats. Each cabin has its own head (nautical for bathroom).
The galley, (kitchen) had good refrigeration and freezer space with extra coolers outside if needed. It comes with a commercial blender for frozen tropical drinks.
To get to the beaches there is a hoisted 12-foot dinghy and engine. The 484 has plenty of space to find a quiet corner to read a book.
Good Visibility Up Top
The helm topside has good visibility and intuitive screens for navigation. It cruises at about 11 mph which is plenty of speed for the BVI’s. For the beginner, docking in tight slips can be difficult without experience. The good news is that you can go a week without doing it by staying on mooring balls or anchoring. Docking does allow you to visit the resorts mentioned later.
Get to know the BVI’s in advance by purchasing “The Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands.”Also, review the information from Marinemax about an itinerary. Their people can answer any further questions before departures.
Our route was clockwise around the islands staying overnight at a combination of mooring balls, anchoring, and docks.
Jost Van Dyke Island
On our first morning, we cruised to the party atmosphere of White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Arriving by 10 a.m allowed us to grab a mooring ball just off the beach. White Bay is a sandy beach surrounded by beach bars. It has a lively atmosphere of music and drinks spilling over from the boats and the bars.
We dinghied to the Soggy Dollar Bar where the “painkiller” was conceived and the food and music were perfect for this first day. Here we chilled on lounge chairs taking in the scene and bobbing in the sea.
Check here for 30-second video at the Soggy Dollar Bar
At 4 p.m. we cruised 10 minutes to Great Harbour to a reserved mooring ball and dinghied into town. After getting go-cups at Corsairs we strolled the shops in the small village viewing the church ruins. For provisions go to Rudy’s Market. That night we dinghied to Foxy’s for a free outdoor concert.
Guana and Scrub Island
Morning two had us cruise the northside of Tortola admiring its mountainous lush landscaping to White Bay on Guana Island spotting dolphins along the way.
This is a picture-perfect palm tree-lined soft sandy beach to spend an afternoon on. Guana Island is private so you cannot walk past its long beach.
To celebrate the 60th birthday of twin brothers with a nice dinner we carefully maneuvered the channels to arrive at the Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina.
This Marriott Autograph property welcomes boaters with reservations. Docking here allows you to use their two-level pool and facilities.
For those that want to dine here but not dock, grab a mooring ball at Marina Cay nearby and dinghy in. While at Marina Cay, go across the narrow channel for some nice snorkeling.
Virgin Gorda was the plan for most of day three and four. After departing Scrub Island and spending the morning swimming and snorkeling the Dogs we docked at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour.
Here we arranged an island tour. Highlights included incredible views of Eustatia Sound including Sir Richard Branson’s islands while snacking on delicious ribs and strong rum punches at Hog Heaven high above.
Our next stop was the Baths, which is Virgin Gorda’s biggest attraction. The Baths are a unique series of giant boulders stacked on top of each over the water’s edge that you can walk through and under.
The easiest way to get here is to dock at the Yacht Harbour and taxi in. Otherwise, read the cruising guide for detailed mooring instructions. Get here after 3 p.m. when the cruise ship crowds are gone and wear water shoes.
Oil Nut Bay
Our next day was about spoiling ourselves at Oil Nut Bay (www.oilnutbay.com). To get here cruise through the narrow entrance to Eustatia Sound and exit where the Bitter End Yacht club is rebuilding. Watch your markers carefully in this area.
Oil Nut Bay is a high-end property-resort at the tip of Virgin Gorda. Its marina has a restaurant, small pool, billiards room, and store where we were lucky to take part in their weekly wine tasting.
The resort property, a mile away, has a beautiful pool, a very pretty beach (with turtles and stingrays to swim with) and good food.
When you buy a resort pass you get shuttled over and can use all of the facilities, water toys, and towels.
A Pirate Beach
After being on docks for three nights it was time to be on our own. We chose Deadman Bay on Peter Island to anchor for the afternoon and night.
Deadman Bay is another picture-perfect place with a soft sand beach and area to snorkel. The beach is named after Deadman Island nearby.
Think “Fifteen men on a “dead man’s” chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum”. The story goes that marooned pirates tried to make the half-mile swim from the island to this beach.
Floating on Mats
After securing the anchor we dinghied in to walk and swim the beach. Before sunset, we floated on mats watching the sky go from blue to orange.
Peter Island is a resort in rebuilding mode since Hurricane Irma so there are no services on it.
This small inn is a popular place for boaters having a solar-powered brewery, extensive rum only bar, ice cream and coffee shop and a lively bar with restaurant.
After securing the mooring ball we dinghied in for happy hour and walked our drinks to the cocktail tables in the water taking in the view. Dinner here was very good and reservations must be made in advance.
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island and its pirate caves, he was referring to Norman Island. These caves were also used in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The Bight on Norman Island is the place to stay with 70 mooring balls in a protected cove.
To see the caves, dinghy around Treasure Point and tie up to the floating lines. From there, snorkel the short distance to each cave.
You will see one cave is shorter in depth and but high while the other is longer, darker and narrow. Get here after 4 p.m. when the day tours are gone. This is not a good place when crowded. A bonus at that time is the late afternoon sun that shines bright on the high walls. While at Norman Island, dinghy out to the Indians for good snorkeling.
For food check out Pirates Bight at the end of the cove or for a party atmosphere with a limited menu visit the new floating Willy T’s. Boaters like jumping off its second deck. For evening entertainment go back, order a rum drink and sway to the reggae beat. From Norman Island, it is a 30 minute morning cruise to Nanny Cay to bring back the boat.
When doing a charter it is recommended you arrive the day before and stay aboard in the marina. The advantage here is that you get your briefing that afternoon or first thing in the morning so you can shove off early, gaining a day. The marina has a nice pool and beach bar to relax in after you are done provisioning. Another tip is to rent a dinghy ladder to get you back into it after snorkeling
Provisioning: Riteway in Road Town is a large modern supermarket with everything you will need. While I like to pick out my own food, they have a provisioning link and will deliver to the boat.
Your Cruising Guide will tell you what islands you can pick supplies or dinner.
Mooring: Getting a guaranteed mooring ball is now available through Boatyball.com. This company allows you to reserve at one at several islands starting at 7 AM.
The popular places go fast. If you anchor, learn the 7 -1 rule on depth verse chain and set your anchor alarm.