by Captain Joan Gilmore
"You'd better hold on with both hands!" I shouted. "You'd better hold on or I'll make you wear life jackets! Only two people on the net at a time!"
"Whee!" The crew yelled as ocean spray geysered up through the net of the catamaran, causing them to fly weightlessly up in the spray when the bow pitched. The happily squealing group ran back to the cockpit to encourage the others to put on masks and snorkels so they would be able to breathe when the waves washed over them. "Tie your swimsuit on tight or it will get ripped off!" They shouted.
This may sound like a scene from a group of kids at sailing school, but these crew members were all in their thirties and forties; normal adults from the Twin Cities, a physical therapist, a computer programmer, an engineer, and a social worker.
"That was one of the top 20 experiences of my life!" Exclaimed a happy sailor, a 34-year old artist who travels widely and has experienced more of life than most people.
Her comment is typical of the type of enthusiasm that a sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands elicits. Over the seven trips I have captained in the BVI, a majority of the crew has returned two, three or more times. Each time, we have a different crew mix and choose a different boat, from that 35' Catamaran to a 50' Beneteau with five staterooms, five showers and five heads, to our usual 42' sloop with accomodations for eight.
One group that takes an annual weeklong charter sometimes considers other Caribbean destinations, but always ends up booking a boat in the BVI because they know they will have a lovely vacation and because every time they return they discover new nooks and crannies in the endless choice of islands and anchorages.
The British Virgin Islands are a group of about 20 islands in a 45-mile long area northeast of the American Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John. In size and proximity to each other, they are comparable to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. Easily navigable by sight of eye, island hopping - sailing to three or four different islands in a day - is very doable.
Even though the area is considered to be among the best cruising grounds in the world, there are plenty of empty, white sand, palm-fringed beaches to enjoy, and a neighborhood feeling in the towns and harbors.
Since sailing the Virgins is so easy, many first-time cruisers get their start learning to anchor in the Virgins' prevalent sandy bays, where you don't really need to put your snorkel and mask on and dive in to check your anchoring job; you can just look down into the crystal clear water.
And with plenty of snorkel and dive sites providing mooring balls, everybody can get some practice mooring the boat under auxiliary engine power.
The weather in the Virgin Islands is most favorable after hurricane season is over and before the hotter, muggy weather starts. Prime sailing season is from late January through March. During this period, cruisers enjoy 80 degree weather with very little rain, and consistent 20 knot trade winds. For honing sailing skills, conditions could not be more perfect.
Sailing crews generally agree that The Baths in Virgin Gorda are the lost eighth wonder of the world. Crawling between giant rocks, finding hidden dimly lit pools to dip in, and crawling up bamboo ladders to view rock shelves and caves both above and below, sailors can easily lose track of time and forget about plans to sail to the night's planned anchorage.
Spotting giant sea turtles floating alongside our boat or watching as a pod of dolphins race through our wake is a part of every trip I have taken to the BVI. And the quiet, laidback culture is a refreshing change from city life when enjoying a star-filled evening at anchor.
My next trip to the BVI is scheduled for February 15 to March 15. This will be a teaching trip for sailors seeking charter certification. It will be fun to introduce a new group to the wonders of these paradise islands, knowing that the trip will influence the way these sailors will spend their vacations for the rest of their lives.
Captain Joan Cilmore is co-owner of Northern Breezes Sailing School with Captain Thom Burns and frequently contributes to Northern Breezes and Sailing Breezes Magazines. Information on joining her BVI trip can be found at SailingBreezes.com or by calling Thom or Joan at 763-542-9707.
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