“Is this a bad time?” I was feeling a little awkward invading the privacy of other boats, so it was important to approach on a polite tack, I figured.
“Is there such a thing as a bad time?” answered an elderly gent, who stopped buttoning up a mainsail cover aboard Polaris to chat with me. Polaris is a Passport 40 he’d helped his compadre sail from Puerto Rico to Trellis Bay, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. He grabbed the painter of the dinghy that held my partner, Captain Rick Martell, and me, and brought us alongside.
His-question-with-a-question comeback, the twinkle in his eye, and the smile all over his sunscreen-smeared face made me fall in love all over again with everyone and everything Virgin Islands, where Rick and I had cruised and worked as charter crew in the 1990s.
And yes, there we were, in the blazing sun, floating in the electric turquoise waters of a Caribbean anchorage. Rick had a winter gig aboard Queen of Hearts, a Dynamique 80, for decades a crewed-charter boat sailing throughout the tropics, including the San Blas islands. I’d caught a plane from Rhode Island, eager to catch up with old friends and be on the water with my other half. The woozy feelings of romantic promise and the charm of the characters who abound there held me in their grip, just as they had more than a decade ago. I felt homesick. I vowed, right on the spot and fully in the grips of this fit of selective memory, never to leave again.
True enough, everybody’s heard of Tortola by now. Cruise ships visit. Bomba’s Shack in Capoon’s Bay doesn’t throw the only full-moon parties-not by a long shot. Sailors equipped with laptops swap tips on good waterfront WiFi spots like they’re exchanging painkiller recipes. There’s even drive-through banking, but who cares?
Like so many others who cruise and charter here, each time I leave, I miss it plenty. It felt great to be back, even if it was for only a few days in the winter of 2006. Among the old friends and new acquaintances I’d encounter, this pair of distinguished elderly passagemakers puttering around the islands for a few months was a find, and I was delighted to stumble upon them.
And this probably accounts for how I failed to catch on right away to the truth behind their self-deprecating humor. My newfound friend glanced back at his smiling sailing buddy, who dealt with one end of the mainsail cover from the cockpit, and out came cracks like “Well, at least his crew didn’t sink him this time” and “Hey, we got here, no thanks to the mate.” Stuff like that.
It confused me, and I ignored it. I showed him my business card so he’d know I was legit. Then he showed me his. “You people have written about me from time to time,” he says.
I looked at the card. “William Butler,” it states, “66 Days Adrift: a True Story of Disaster and Survival in the Open Sea,” also the title of his reissued 1991 book about the experience. (See “Still Cruising After All These Years,” below.) So much for the image of two old sailors feebly gunkholing from island to island! That notion went up in smoke as Bill and longtime friend Siro Cugini spent the next few minutes getting us up to speed on their ties as well as Bill’s harrowing life-raft adventure with his wife, Simonne, in 1989, after their Siboney, a 38-foot wooden cutter, was stove in by whales in the South Pacific. CW has written about that and Bill’s other voyaging exploits in detail. In the annals of survival-at-sea stories, Bill’s ranks right up there.
But this passage from Puerto Rico was nothing like that terrible time. “This was an easy sail, in little wind,” Bill says. “No strain at all.” With the delivery of Polaris finished, Bill would fly home, and Siro would leisurely cruise for the next few months while entertaining visiting family and friends.
“No SSB,” Siro says. “No cellphone. I don’t think the VHF works, either.” We bade the crew good-bye, and as we chugged along, I realized that for Bill Butler, indeed, there’s no such thing as a bad time anymore.
The skipper of Polaris isn’t the only cruiser who still equates the Virgins with peace, quiet, and relief from a society hopped up on communications devices. As we made our way from Trellis Bay back to Queen of Hearts, anchored off nearby Marina Cay, I was eager to visit the boat whose laundry I’d seen fluttering from lifelines earlier that morning. “It has to be done,” says Tony MacDonald, skipper of Gabro, a Niagara 35. He welcomed us aboard, and when I’d gotten comfortable in the cockpit of the sloop that he and his wife, Suzanne, have cruised since 1996, I noticed a flourishing row of pots by the helm. “That’s Tony’s herb garden,” Suzanne says. “We both enjoy cooking.”
Actually, they enjoy much, much more. “We never have or make a plan,” Suzanne says. “We let life unfold. We just see what comes about. We have four children, eight grandkids, and two great grandkids, all in Canada. We’ve gone back to our simple lifestyle. No e-mail. No cellphone. No computer. No TV, VCR, or DVDs. Just music and books and snail-mail. There’s always one kid who knows where we are.”
As for their whereabouts, Tony likes to put them in context: “We’re the world’s slowest circumnavigators,” he says. “We spent two and a half years in the Bahamas, two years in the Dominican Republic, and the last six years we’ve gone back and forth among the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the United States, and the B.V.I. A big bungee cord pulls us back home every once in a while.”
The fact that the MacDonalds are retired from careers in the aircraft industry (Tony) and working for the federal government (Suzanne) helps support their lifestyle. From Marina Cay, they speculated they’d next head the mile over to Trellis Bay, but “after that, we don’t know.” I wasn’t surprised. I was envious.
Next stop: North Sound, Virgin Gorda, home to the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock Island Resort. I couldn’t wait to get there. As charter crew, I’d enjoyed taking guests to North Sound and wandering around the club’s paths. But as for Saba, I’d been warned long ago to expect big changes when I visited. And, yes, it’s been transformed from a scruffy bar on a lone rock with a parrot as a sidekick to a full-fledged resort-which is nice, but it no longer evokes the atmosphere of a real salty sailors pitstop.
Little did I realize then that North Sound would be the setting for a reunion with Anouk, a liveaboard cruiser who for 20 years in the B.V.I. has made and sold jewelry, a bit of which I bought during our chartering days. My visit to Luvly Jubly, a Columbia 36 that’s home to Anouk, her son, Lucien Valade, and Mike Dowling, a mechanic, was like taking a private tour of a department-store glass case, only much more low-key and backlit by the sun, not halogen lighting.
Anouk dinghies from boat to boat-both charter and cruiser, sail and power-and, with the help of a PVC tiller extender duct-taped to the outboard, stands to offer up from trays in a converted cooler the bead and shell bracelets, ankle bracelets, pins, toe rings, earrings, and necklaces she designs and assembles. “I don’t get tired of it,” she tells me. “People are always in a good mood; they have vacation money. It’s good to go in the afternoon, during happy hour. I haven’t gotten rich, but I have a very interesting lifestyle.”
Lucien has some stories to tell as well. Since they moved from Trellis Bay two years ago, he commutes three hours daily by ferry to attend the Cedar School in Road Town, Tortola. Sailors commuting into Manhattan daily, take note!
Not everyone’s just passing through the Caribbean, anchorage to anchorage. To many people, the islands are home, and their livelihoods revolve around the charterers and cruisers who visit. One of Tortola’s island-born who’s working diligently to raise visitors’ awareness of West Indian culture is Aragorn Dick-Read. In recent years, his arts center and studio have lured countless sailors off their boats and onto land. Like Anouk, Aragorn dinghies from boat to boat, but in Trellis Bay and Marina Cay, selling arts and crafts and T-shirts. He met up with us there, before we’d headed to the Bitter End. It was a great chance to catch up with him and hear how his arts center had evolved in the years since I’d left the B.V.I.
Aragorn also uses these boat-hopping visits to promote his monthly Trellis Bay Fireball Full Moon Party. The fireballs-large, metal, sculpted spheres set ablaze in the water-are the grand finale to the parties, which feature live performances of traditional dancing, music, and singing. As an alternative to Bomba’s notoriously adult-themed parties held on the north shore at Capoon’s Bay, these are “family-oriented,” Aragorn says. “Kids and old folks come. On New Year’s Eve 2006, we had 3,000 people here.”
Besides Aragorn, there are people who work directly in the marine industry and help maintain Tortola’s prominence in the world of chartering and sailing. Some are former cruisers who swallowed the anchor there, and such is the case with Chris and Karen Simpson, owners of B.V.I. Yacht Sales at Nanny Cay. Former liveaboards who crossed the Atlantic from England to the Caribbean more than a decade ago, they left jobs at a dive shop and a charter company to take over the boat brokerage from Thorpe Leeson, who recently became the captain of Apsara, a 61-foot Swan.
Chris and Karen, friends from our chartering days, hightailed it over in their go-fast 22-foot Ribtech rigid inflatable with a 130-horse four-stroke to visit with us aboard Queen of Hearts when we were at Marina Cay. Over lunch, we learned that the business of selling boats has been very good to them. Not only have the Simpsons helped launch dozens of cruising dreams for others; they’ve also been able to pursue one of their own: to purchase a home on Tortola’s south side, not far from where they work.
A trip to Tortola without visits to the charter companies is a trip not worth my taking. So before we departed Road Town for destinations up channel, we made the rounds at The Moorings, Tortola Marine Management (TMM), and Conch Charters. Brian Gandey, general manager and Conch co-owner, was proud to show us the company’s base of operations, which, about a year ago, was renovated and consolidated into one larger office space below Fort Burt, just outside of Road Town.
“We do everything in-house,” Brian says. “We’ve also started a small brokerage division, but we’re not looking to become anything but what we are. With everything in-house, it makes our clients happier.”
Conch, one of the island’s smaller companies, has been in business 19 years, and its fleet of monohulls and catamarans now totals 47. You can’t miss a member of the Conch fleet, as each boom now carries the company’s logo: “Best Deals on Keels.”
Though cruising and chartering remain two vastly different takes on the sailing experience, and some might argue that Tortola’s gone so far favoring the charterer that the cruiser’s needs are on the back burner, it’s also true that behind most bareboat charters, there’s a story of a faithful hull waiting back in home waters for the northern sailing season and their owners’ free time. Such was the case with Sunsail charterers George Cody, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Mary Jane McEneaney, of Wilton, Connecticut.
Though this pair was focused on the Oceanis 343 they’d taken out for the week-and on getting to Foxy’s Music Fest on Jost Van Dyke-George still had time to talk about At Last, the Catalina 25 he sails from Bridgeport, Connecticut, throughout Long Island Sound. His children teased him when he bought the boat, pleading with him to name it Dad’s Dream. “No,” he told them. “Dad’s dream is bigger!” He’s chartered for 20 years, and he told me he loves to return to the Virgins. Why? I asked.
“Tortola’s beautiful, the sailing’s great, and it’s the whole relax-and-enjoy-life thing.” Now that’s logic both cruisers and charterers can understand.