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Learning to Sail in the British Virgin Islands

Get in on one of the top activities in the BVI—sailing. Learn the ins and outs of chartering a boat, take sailing classes and you’re on your way!

 

Norman Martin has been a sailing instructor for more than 20 years, including in the difficult conditions off the shores of Boston with its squalls. Yet with British Virgin Islands (BVI) sailing, says Martin, “The circumstances [make it] hard to get in trouble [on the water] here.”

In fact, there are likely more charter sailing vessels in the BVI than nearly anywhere in the world. With no tides with which to grapple, consistent winds, more than 60 BVI islands for anchorage and most within sight line, BVI sailing is a sailor’s dream.

Henry Leonnig, operations manager at Horizon Yacht Charters, agrees. “The worst thing is laying out an itinerary and sticking to it—days change, weather changes, people’s demeanors change. If you find an island that [suits you], you might want to stay an extra day.”

In the BVI, that’s about as difficult as things get. Easy travels in this “sailing capital of the world,” however, do not come without sailors being duly qualified. (Note: Motor boat and fishing charters represent a small percentage of the charter business in the BVI, though they are available through operations like Virgin Traders).  

BVI Charters: Qualifying to Charter a Sailboat

The BVI is a bareboat sailing capital where the majority of those chartering boats (about 85 percent), choose to do so without a professional captain. The qualifications of the renting captain therefore become paramount. No company is going to hand the keys to a 57-foot Beneteau monohull or a new Lagoon catamaran without assurances that a skipper can handle the task.

But, that’s not to say one has to have sailed the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race) to rent a boat. There are two basic ways to qualify to charter your own sailboat: Illustrate with your knowledge that you’re qualified, or take a BVI sailing course to become competent.

Horizons Yacht Charters, which operates a sailing fleet, takes into consideration resumés and certifications from organizations like the American Sailing Association when reviewing a prospective captain’s credentials. Even more so, what they’re really looking for is hands-on experience. “You could have 20 years of experience,” says Leonnig, “but only on small boats.” He finds, however, that people rarely want to go beyond their ability, so things usually work out fine. Boat charterer, Lynn Hughes, agrees with a laugh, “A death wish is not usually what you want on a vacation.”

Horizon Yacht conducts a thorough briefing when a prospective captain arrives at the charter’s headquarters at Nanny Cay Marina on Tortola, a huge depot for rentals. The boat briefing is usually just an hour, but during that time a renter’s tactical experience can usually be determined. Topics covered include the boat’s electrical and plumbing operations, safety features, area charts and points of interest, mooring ball rules and more.

From there, if the prospective renter is a little nervous, Horizon Yachts offers to accompany the skipper on a free “check-out sail,”—a confidence booster with a couple of tacks and jibes. The prospective captain must also have at least one competent first mate.  

BVI Sailing Classes

For those without much experience, sailing classes are offered by most charter companies along with Rob Swain Sailing School, which is taught by Norman Martin from Nanny Cay Marina. The school conducts two days of basic sailing followed by five days of live-aboard classes—students have individual cabins.

On the live-aboard, according to Martin, “It’s docking and mooring, raising sails, lowering sails, going ashore for ice, going ashore for drinks, going ashore to dance.” That doesn’t sound too tough when you’re surrounded by beautiful tropical islands! Many clients take the class and soon return to charter their own boats.

“The thing that makes a big difference is people who have good judgment and know how hard to push,” comments Martin. The pitfalls occur, “if you hit the sauce (cocktails) in the morning with breakfast. Then nothing’s going to go right.”

Top BVI Sailing Destinations

OK, so say everything is going right, then where to go on your Caribbean sailing vacation in the BVI? The usual top choices are:

  • The Baths on Virgin Gorda for the stunning boulder formations at water’s edge that create natural cathedrals and gorgeous wading pools.
  • Jost Van Dyke, the “quintessential BVI” with Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar beach bars, the latter named for drenched sailors that swam ashore with dollars for rum libations like the original Painkiller. [Read more about Jost Van Dyke: A Pirate’s Paradise.]

A typical seven-day charter would make its way counter-clockwise around the BVI and include many other gorgeous highlights such as:

  • Snorkeling around The Indians near Norman Island, the latter said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
  • Lunching at Peter Island, the site of luxurious Peter Island Resort, or hiking the island’s beautiful trails from one side to the opposite side. Tip: you can have non-hiking friends take the boat around to meet you.
  • Mooring to scuba dive the spectacular wreck of the RMS Rhone off Salt Island, a British mail ship that went down in a hurricane in 1867. For guided tours, Blue Water Divers offers “rendezvous diving,” which involves picking up divers from area charter boats.
  • Enjoying Fallen Jerusalem’s boulder formations off Virgin Gorda’s south tip.
  • Visiting Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda’s North Sound, a nautical oasis and sailing resort in one of the most protected, deep-water harbors in the Caribbean.   
  • Sailing further north to the quiet, flat island of Anegada. Go ashore to place your dinner order at one of the island’s restaurants and return at your allotted time. “All the restaurants have the same food at the same prices,” laughs Martin. “It’s completely outside the experience of normal Americans.”

Everyone on your charter boat will likely need a good meal because in Martin’s experience with charters, no one ever wants to cook, especially the women. The usual mantra is, “I’m here on vacation, honey, and I’m NOT cooking!”

Costs for Sailboat Rentals

The cost of a one-week sailboat rental with Horizon Yacht Charters starts at $1,695 for a 31-foot Bavaria in low season and goes up to nearly $10,000 for a luxurious air-conditioned catamaran in high season. All charters come with a dinghy. For families with kids, packages can include kayaks, snorkel gear, inflatables and surprise goodie bags for children.

Aside from Horizon at Nanny Cay, other excellent charter companies in the BVI include The Moorings and Sunsail (which recently merged with German operator Tui), both in Road Harbor.

Virgin Islands tuition at the Rob Swain Sailing School starts at $1,995 for a seven-day course.

Day Sails and Beyond the BVI

Day-sail charters are usually skippered by professional captains (too much legwork to set up an independent captain for a day). Bareboat rentals may, with permission and proper documentation, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands or make trips further down the Caribbean (“down island”). If your interests lie down island, consider a one-way charter, or picking up the charter from Horizon Yacht Charters in Antigua rather than beating into the wind south toward St. Maarten.


Destinations: British Virgin Islands

Themes: Beach Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Boating


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