Warm trade winds gusting across the deck, blue sky overhead, a big cat beating across ocean swells along the exposed rocky Atlantic coast of Peter Island. For a tropical birthday bash, this one was getting off to a very good start. Roughly 40 hours into it, and we’d already enjoyed a kickoff dinner-dance party, had an easy sail to Norman Island, gone snorkeling at the Caves, taken a paddleboard tour of the Bight, watched in disbelief as late-afternoon partiers did unspeakable things at the bar aboard the latest iteration of the infamous William Thornton, and danced into the evening at Pirate’s Bight, on the beach. Whew—and we still had nearly a week to go!
For many a sailor, there’s perhaps no better way to mark a special occasion than with a bareboat charter vacation in the British Virgin Islands. So it made perfect sense, really, that the granddaddy charter company of them all, the Moorings, would invite yacht owners and customers back to where it all began to mark a milestone: the 50th anniversary since founders Charlie and Ginny Cary opened shop in Tortola with a fleet of six 35-foot Pearson sailboats.
It’s worth recalling that when the Carys made the decision to ditch the corporate life and start anew in the islands, bareboat chartering—renting a boat and sailing it yourself with family and friends—was a new type of tropical adventure. Fifty years on, the Moorings, along with corporate cousin Sunsail, maintains the industry’s largest fleet of sail and power charter boats, available at bases around the globe.
It was early this past November when I flew to St. Thomas, and then the next morning hopped a ferry to Road Town, Tortola. I’d not been to the Moorings base or the BVI since hurricanes Irma and Maria ravished the islands in 2017. Just two years later, the town was bustling with shops, restaurants and businesses, not to mention construction projects in every direction. Clearly, the islands were back in business and ready for visiting sailors.
If Road Town was busy, the Moorings base at Wickhams Cay 2 was a madhouse on that Saturday morning. Outside, construction crews toiled away at the ongoing facilities’ overhaul sparked by the tropical storms and the need for more of everything: dock space, hotel rooms, provisioning and laundry services.
In addition to the 100 or so sailors who were waiting to get aboard the 30 bareboat and crewed monohulls, sail and power cats taking part in the anniversary rally, scores more were arriving to begin their own charters. Suitcases were stacked everywhere, and already the bar appeared to be doing a brisk business. Around noon, I met up with my shipmates, Josie Tucci, Moorings VP of sales and marketing, and Franck Baguil, VP of yacht ownership and product development, and we headed off to find our ride for the week: the Moorings 5000 Abby Normal To. Jim and Shirley TenBroeck were already aboard when we arrived for lunch, and they were being entertained by Abby Normal’s full-time captain and mate, Richard and Shannon Hallett. The TenBroecks own Westminster Teak and were a sponsor of the celebration. Meanwhile, savoring Shannon’s cooking and deciphering Richard’s strong South African accent as he told tale after tale would be two of the more enjoyable pastimes over the next few days.
That evening, festivities began in earnest with the entire rally gathered under the stars for a buffet dinner. Though the Carys are both deceased, others from the early days were on hand, including Tony Rainold, a sailing pal of the Carys in New Orleans, who was a partner with them from the start. Back in the day, he was the numbers man, and also the map guy. In 1979, usable charts and cruising guides were scarce, so to keep charterers out of trouble, Tony collected black-and-white photos of the more-popular anchorages, and then drew arrows to show passes, rocks and the like. In those days, the name of each boat was painted on a board, and strips of masking tape were used to keep track of customers.
“The most amazing thing to me,” Tony says, “is that it was all accomplished before the age of computers.”
After Sunday night’s revelry at Norman Island, it was time for a sail. Outside the Bight, Richard poked Abby Normal’s bows into the wind, and we ran up the main, bore off and unfurled the jib. It took a few tacks to make it through the channel between Norman and Peter islands, but out in the Atlantic, we settled into a near reach that took us to the wreck of the Rhone, the stern of which can be seen when snorkeling off the south side of Salt Island. The surf was lively and our stay was brief. For lunch, we rounded the corner and anchored in the lee off a sandy beach for an afternoon of hikes, swims and paddles. Later, we headed to Peter Island’s Great Harbor, where we dined aboard before heading ashore for what turned into a spirited ’60s party. Luckily, Franck brought costumes to spare, so he, Josie and I fit right in with the tie-dyed, granny spec, bell-bottom-wearing collection that we encountered at the bar.
Tuesday’s destination was Leverick Bay in Virgin Gorda’s North Sound. We got going early to beat the crowd to the popular rock formations at the Baths. Unfortunately, surf warnings were posted, and Capt. Richard was not keen on us going ashore. Instead, Josie joined another boat for the day, and Jim and Shirley were among a group who decided to jump ship at nearby Spanish Town, and travel the length of the island with Sweet Ice Willie and his pickup-truck taxi to catch the spectacular views as the road winds up and along the island’s spine.
Me? I was sticking with the boat; I can ride in a truck back home. Franck had to depart the party early, so we motored across Sir Francis Drake Channel to drop him at a dock near the airport on Beef Island. Ashore, preparations for the Trellis Bay full-moon party were well underway. En route, we stopped briefly for a swim and lunch at Diamond Reef, which, according to Richard, has some of the best snorkeling in the BVI. He might be right.
That afternoon, I sat at the wheel taking long tacks from one side of the channel to the other. The sailing was lovely. The breeze was steady in the high teens, but toward either shore, it bent around to head us, making our progress slow. Finally, watching the sun dip lower, we fired up the engines and motored the remainder of the way to the anchorage.
Another harbor, another party ashore—this time a Caribbean barbecue that couldn’t be beat. Later, under a full moon, several of us piled into an inflatable for a fast and memorable tour of the sound. With the Bitter End Marina gone, obliterated by Irma, and the resort at Saba Rock still under construction, the hillsides were eerily dark, but boy, what a fun little cruise.
Wednesday called for a morning sail to Anegada and a rollicking afternoon party at Cow Wreck Beach, followed by a dinner of grilled lobsters, served under the stars at the Anegada Reef Hotel. Darned if the dancing didn’t start up again too.
I can no longer say that I’ve never been to the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke. We got a jump on the day and left Anegada quite early to begin our return trek. For a change, Josie and Shannon did the sailing, and Richard and I navigated to the galley to whip up breakfast along the way. In White Bay, Richard nosed Abby Normal past the reef and anchored just yards off the beach. From there, it was a short swim ashore. Though I had a drybag for my camera and wallet, I put a $20 bill in my pocket just so I’d fit in at the bar. Legend has it, that’s how it got its name after all.
A lazy afternoon on the beach provided a chance to catch up with fellow ralliers such as Nicole and Chip Alger from Colorado Springs, who were first-time sailors and there aboard a Moorings 5800. The charter life? They were loving it. And so were Gary and Betty Greene from Seattle. They have a Beneteau 42.3 in charter in the BVI, and first visited the islands 30 years ago. Now on their second boat, there might be a power cat in their future.
While we lazed about, the Halletts moved Abby Normal to nearby Great Harbour, home to the infamous Foxy’s. To get there, Josie and I hitched a ride on the VIP boat—a crewed Moorings 5800, with Tony Rainold, Peter Robinson from Robertson and Caine, and Moorings yacht sales manager Jean Larroux aboard, along with their wives. Jean joined the Moorings early on, and pioneered the concept of owners buying boats and putting them into charter. He and Tony spun some darned-good yarns about their early years in the Caribbean.
On Friday, we were on station and ready for the paddleboard race off the beach in Cane Garden Bay, where one last party was set for that evening. Our time, though, was coming to a close. Rather than stay with the crowd, we motored back around the island for one last swim at Diamond Reef, and then anchored in Trellis Bay for one last dinner and night aboard, close enough to the Moorings base for everyone to make their flights.
Two old saws come to mind when wrapping up this little tale. To be sure, all good adventures must come to an end, and so the 50th-anniversary rally did just that. But “you can’t go back again”? I’m not so sure. All you have to do is charter a boat. Once you’re sailing, the BVI will take care of the rest.
Mark Pillsbury is CW’s editor.
Eying the Next 50
While the Moorings’ 50th-anniversary festivities naturally focused on what’s been accomplished over the past half-century, attention at the company’s base at Wickhams Cay 2 this past fall was decidedly on the future. Work to upgrade the sprawling facility—also home to the Sunsail charter fleet—had already begun when a pair of back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes leveled much of the BVIs in 2017. Hundreds of boats were sunk or damaged, along with offices, the hotel, bar and restaurant.
But while the storms caused a devastating interruption to businesses in the short run, long term, they wiped the slate clean, if you will, and provided an opportunity to fast-track significant upgrades, according to Peter Cochran, vice president of operations and Antony Stewart, technical director for Travelopia Marine, owner of the two charter brands.
In the marina itself, docks are being reconfigured and expanded to accommodate the growing number of large catamarans that are replacing the smaller monohulls that once dominated. Repairs are essentially complete to public areas of the base, and now attention has turned to modernizing and greatly expanding facilities for services such as provisioning and laundry, both key to the base’s ability to see 800 or more charter starts a month.
Across the street from the base, where the charter operations took over the old Tortola Yacht Services yard in 2009, a full-scale commercial shipyard has sprung up, thanks to a hundred or more contractors who were brought in from more than two dozen countries to get the fleets back up and sailing as quickly as possible. At the height of operations, the yard was packed with wrecks, but now that many of those are back in charter, talk has turned to new service docks, paint and work sheds, a renovated carpentry shop, and other service facilities.
Most impressive, I thought as I toured the upgrades, is that all this work is underway while guests arrive by the busloads to relax.