Cruising the Virgins is surprisingly affordable in a leased ship

By John Eckberg, Contributor

No. 3 at Mahogany Run Golf CourseROAD TOWN, Tortola - Despite golf's allure, fish - specifically, snorkeling to see them - and sailing remain the prime draw of the British Virgin Islands, a destination that is surprisingly affordable in a leased ship.

While you can rent a catamaran or mono-hull with a crew, by far the best way to go is to do it yourself. It's called bare-boating. Leave your clubs at home and rent sticks from Mahogany Run before sharing the cost of a yacht with old friends, or get a small one for your family. While sailing always has been a challenge - hence the number of shipwrecks in the region - thankfully, motoring a boat is not. Most, if not all, come with a diesel engine or two that must be run at least two hours every day to recharge batteries.

If you really want to sail, many companies offer sailing schools. Once a prospective Popeye is accredited, firms will rent/lease 38-foot and 47-foot catamarans that are privately owned and have full accommodations.

The harbor at Road Town, Tortola, has hundreds of yachts chartered by Moorings but there are plenty of other companies as well. Start your search at b-v-i.com/Charter/Bareboat/bareboat.htm.

No. 13 at Mahogany Run Golf CoursePlan on buying staples for the trip in town, and expect a Saturday bustle at the dock on the day of departure. You'll find that hundreds of boats are docked here. When a tropical storm skirted the island this summer, about 80 yachts were moved to a back harbor, but that still left a full harbor in Road Town that stretched for hundreds of yards - a mast-to-mast panorama of sailboats.

Though the stakes are markedly higher, captaining a yacht in the B.V.I is really not unlike piloting a 28-foot pleasure boat at a large state park lake.

Watch out for rocks near shore, don't venture out into storms and pay attention to buoys because here the buoys actually mean something: red is on your right on exiting a harbor, green is to the right on reentry, ships with a wind from the right have the right-of-way. And pray for tranquil seas always.

It is relatively easy to sail or motor up the Sir Francis Drake Passage even as far as the north sound of Virgin Gorda. The key is to do it in stages. Leave ample time for snorkeling the Baths and the Caves of Virgin Gorda are popular stops. Make sure your party's captain keeps a radio watch and eye out for stormy weather, constantly checking and double-checking charts, the sky and the radio during longer runs.

Because the islands and key points stretch into the distance one after another from Norman to Peter to Cooper and onward it's easy to get confused without constant re-reckoning. Motoring within easy sight of shore is reassuring and catamarans tend to tame larger swells.

Great Snorkeling

If the map shows snorkeling, stop, tie up to a mooring and check it out. Points or peninsulas on the open ocean side of islands have reefs and shoreline that will usually offer a habitat for fish including sharks. They are shy creatures, though, and always turn back into the blue mist of the sea and away from snorkelers.

While sharks are relatively rare, you can expect to see vast silvery curtains of neon tetras that glimmer like diamonds on sunny days and thousands of persistent parrot fish with their toothy faces. If you're lucky or very observant, you can spot a solemn grouper down among the rocks and coral.

Calm anchorages mean great snorkeling over exotic coral, too: sprawling elk horn, starlet and big pillar coral are everywhere. Expect to see sea fans and fish too numerous to list.

Ports of Call

If you make it to Saba Rock up north (sabarock.com/), Executive Chef Jeremiah Ethan Smith may be playing the role of dock greeter, water seller and mooring registrar when you arrive. He will also suggest places to snorkel. An executive chef here apparently has many roles. Later at night, he'll be slicing tenderloin or pointing out the swordfish in curry at his expansive buffet.

Down in St. John, check out Cruz Bay for shopping or for general island interest. It's not on the BVI maps because it, like St. Thomas (Mahogany Run Golf Course), is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Jost Van Dyke, a sparsely inhabited island with a couple of small resorts and camping areas, has reggae rock most nights at Foxy's Bar, an unassuming beachfront shelter that is a legend among the yachting crowd . At the bight a big bay - on Norman Island, the permanently anchored William B. Thornton provides bare bones meals of local fare, great libations and an occasional celebrity sighting. Julia Roberts, Michael J. Fox, Kelsey Grammar, the old pirate himself, Keith Richards, and other Rolling Stones have visited this converted sloop.

In this area, jewelry, t-shirts and souvenirs are sold from ship to ship by enterprising artists and others. Buy and marvel at the brownies sold from the grocery boat Deliverance as it makes its way from harbor to harbor making deliveries and picking up passengers.

From Norman Island's bight, it's a quick sail or motor back to a home port like Tortola's Road Town - another good reason to make Norman your final sunset in the British Virgin Islands.

Orientation

The U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) and British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, Anegada, Peter and Norman) lie just off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, an easy flight from Miami or Atlanta and a short hop from San Juan. Some islands have the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other, and some are entirely surrounded by either body of water. It's a moot distinction, but the Caribbean shore is always calmer, a good thing to know if you're sailing and snorkeling among the islands. There are three golf courses in the USVIs, but none in the BVIs yet.

John Eckberg, Contributor

John Eckberg has been a life-long bogey golfer, whose addiction to the sport began with nine-iron pitches to and from neighbor Frank Haines's back yard and on the golf courses in and around Akron, Ohio. His fondest golf memories date to his teenaged-years when he and his brother would annually sneak into PGA events at Firestone Country Club, then spend the day eluding marshals as part of the army that trailed Arnold Palmer.


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