As everyone who hangs out in the U.S. Virgin Islands knows, the acronym for LIAT, the self-professed "Caribbean airline," means one of two things: Leave Island Any Time or Luggage In Another Terminal. It's a clever joke suggesting that you'll be screwed at two particularly critical points of your journey-starting it (whenever) and finishing it (where'd it go?). In truth, however, my recent flight with LIAT (it actually means Leeward Islands Air Transport) from Sint Maarten to St. Thomas, where I planned on spending a few days kicking back, was relaxed and on time. Then the fun started in earnest.
As a cruising ground, it sometimes seems that the U.S. components of the alluring Virgin Islands are the Rodney Dangerfield of destinations: They get no respect. (Those same locals who goof on LIAT refer to St. Thomas as St. Trauma.) And, yes, if you hang around the crazy cruise-ship docks in downtown Charlotte Amalie for more than 10 minutes, there's a good chance you'll be trampled by a sunburned, inebriated yahoo sprinting to buy another rum or T-shirt. But once you're under way, it doesn't take long at all to immerse yourself in tantalizing, crystal-clear waters featuring taut anchorages, protected parks, great hiking, sensational snorkeling, and countless stretches of sandy, world-class beaches.
In Christmas Cove, at nearby Great St. James, it didn't take long to find one crew enjoying all that the Virgins have to offer. To say they were doing so on an unusual cruising boat would be an understatement. But for the Mills family of Lake Placid, New York, sailing a former maxi raceboat-their striking red, 79-foot Kialoa V-isn't at all strange. After all, their previous boat was a racer-turned-cruiser as well, a Farr 68 called Ceramco New Zealand that Kiwi legend Peter Blake sailed in the 1981-1982 Whitbread Round-the-World Race.
"We like sailing fast, and older race-boats can be converted into great cruising boats," says Fred Mills, the skipper of a crew that includes his wife, Eileen; his son, Fred IV; and his son's friend, Erica Hyer. "In the islands, Eileen, Fred, and I can handle the boat fine," he adds. "We bring on crew for ocean passages."
The Mills, who spend six or seven months a year living aboard before heading back home to New York in the summers to work, took delivery of Kialoa V last December. Then, in early January 2008, they jumped off from Gibraltar bound for the Caribbean, a nonstop, 4,000-mile voyage that took fewer than 18 days. "The boat performed flawlessly," says Fred. "It was a great trip."
As frequent visitors to the islands, the Mills have become members of the nearby St. Thomas Yacht Club, and they plan on poking around the Virgin Islands as their base before heading for Bermuda.
"There are some wonderful anchorages around here," says Fred. "In St. John, we love Francis Bay and Maho Bay. On St. Thomas, the Crown Bay Marina area, off Water Island, is another favorite. Occasionally, we even anchor in the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, by Yacht Haven Grande.
"St. Thomas is a great place to get work done on a boat," he continues. "Riggers, diesel mechanics, refrigeration people-they're all here. It's difficult, if not impossible, to get things done in a lot of the Caribbean. And over the years, we've made some wonderful friends here. It's just a great place to chill out before heading offshore for Bermuda."
Over on St. John, I encountered another set of sailors having a fantastic experience in the U.S.V.I., but in a much different style. Bob Bynum and Laurie Rowley-and their purebred Australian terrier, Tillie-were basking in the late-afternoon sun aboard their Lagoon 38 cat, Tranquila, in the quiet anchorage of Francis Bay. And none of them were going anywhere especially soon.
That's because the able crew of Tranquila had committed to a three-month stint as volunteers with the National Parks Service in the U.S. Virgin Islands (www.nps.gov/viis). "We're here to inform, not enforce, and we serve as eyes and ears to help out the rangers," says Laurie. "We got our mooring for free, and we've now had the chance to thoroughly explore all the trails. We've really enjoyed it."
As the volunteer hosts for Francis Bay and adjacent Maho Bay, Bob and Laurie have met sailors from all over the world, which has been an unexpected fringe benefit. "I won't need to read any cruising guides for our upcoming trips," says Laurie. "I've found out about every place I want to go from the sailors who've already been there. Plus, we've had lots of friends visit because it's so easy to fly in to St. Thomas. I'd highly recommend becoming a volunteer to any cruiser."
Tranquila arrived in the Virgin Islands from Hampton Beach, Virginia, after completing the annual Caribbean 1500, a voyage that the crew-including Tillie!-enjoyed but were in no rush to replicate. Bob and Laurie were planning to put the boat on the hard in Puerto Rico for hurricane season while they returned Stateside for a visit, then returning to the boat later in 2008 to sail the eastern Caribbean in high season.
"Some people sail back and forth every year," says Laurie. "You've got to be out of your mind."
Another chap who has no plans to head north anytime soon is Bob White, aboard the Island Packet 38 Gypsy Queen. I found him enjoying morning coffee on his St. Thomas mooring at Vessup Bay, on the island's east end, just around the corner from Red Hook. Bob's a fan of Island Packets. "I've sailed a lot of them," he says. "Gypsy Queen is a very comfortable boat and nice and stiff in a breeze. She's a sweetheart."
Bob's a breed of sailor you meet quite often here, an adventurous soul who's put the mainland behind him and fully embraces the island way of life as a charter-boat captain. You can learn more about his one-man operation by visiting his website (www.gypsysailing.com).
"There are a lot of people down here like me who come to this later in life," he says. "I'll be 60 this year. I find that's not particularly an exception, which is interesting."
Though most of his clients wish to venture over to Tortola and the other British Virgin Islands, Bob says some of his favorite spots are in their U.S. counterparts. "I love St. John," he says. "The naturalness of Leinster Bay and Great Lameshur Bay is hard to beat. And the park-service anchorages are just so pristine and beautiful. I much prefer those to the typical charter destinations in the B.V.I., where it's all about partying."
After a few fantastic days checking out the U.S. Virgins for myself, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Too soon, I was sadly setting foot on another LIAT plane. Leave island any time? Why, I didn't care to leave at all.
Herb McCormick is a Cruising World editor at large.