I stood on the bow as we sailed into the small turquoise bay off Virgin Gorda. Feet splayed for balance in the Caribbean swells, I shaded my eyes to keep a sharp lookout for any coral reef in our path — a hazard to the catamaran we’d chartered for a week.
A flash of silver appeared in front of me with blue markings on its back. “Mahi!” I called. The two little boys watching from the cabin craned to see. My husband whooped and reached for his fishing rod while keeping one hand on the helm. But the fish raced away.
We followed its path to anchor for the night in Savannah Bay, where we promptly dove in. The sea was bathwater-warm and just as clear. Our 4-year-old dog-paddled beside me in his yellow life jacket and goggles — just like we had practiced in the public pool back in Montana — thrilled at the colorful fish that circled around our toes.
We had flown into the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) the evening before on the tail end of a storm, which had stirred up bigger-than-normal swells and winds. A few of our crew — six adults and three kids — had popped a Dramamine for the two-hour sail from Tortola to Virgin Gorda. Luckily, the rest of the week looked to be dry and sunny, back to the consistent trade winds that make these 60-odd tropical islands one of the top cruising destinations in the world.
My husband and I are avid sailors and — as one friend jokes — “island connoisseurs.” We’ve sailed over 10,000 miles through a dozen countries. Once our son was born, sailing also became my favorite way to bond as a family — no television, no traffic, no to-dos to distract us from each other. Just the sound of the surf, the delight in discovering new beaches each day and the intrinsic rhythm of waking with the sun and falling asleep under the stars.
Since we live in a landlocked mountain state, charters are our preferred means for accessing the tropical settings we crave come winter. As a family, we’ve cruised in the Bahamas, off the coast of California, and in Tonga. The BVIs was our first charter with our 6-month-old baby girl aboard.
But you don’t have to be sailing experts to cruise through paradise. Instead of the DIY bareboat charter we prefer, many visitors choose to charter a boat that comes with either a captain or a full crew. If sails aren’t appealing, several companies offer power yachts, too.
The BVIs have one of the largest charter fleets in the world because of the islands’ easy line-of-sight navigation and the dozens of beachside restaurants, marinas and bars that welcome boaters. Most of the dozens of charter companies are based in Road Town, the main harbor on Tortola. We chose Dream Yacht Charter because we prefer to avoid the crowds: Their lovely fleet is in a small marina closer to the airport.
After our family’s charter experience last year in the Bahamas, we learned that sailing with small children is more fun if you bring along other adults and other kids as playmates. For the BVIs cruise, I invited my sister, my father and our good friends and their young son.
We met up with everyone in the BVIs outside Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport. We had opted to take the 30-minute flight from Puerto Rico rather than flying into St. Thomas and taking the ferry to Tortola, since we had found that Jet Blue and United offered affordable flights to San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International airport.
As we flew over Tortola on the 12-seater prop plane, the damage from Hurricane Irma, which had hit the BVIs the previous summer, was still heartbreakingly evident. After our 10-minute taxi ride from the airport, my son and I walked around the Dream Yacht Charter base to see what the “storm wrecker,” as he called the hurricane, had wrought. Amid the sobering sights of twisted docks and windblown debris, we giggled when we spotted one run-aground yacht captained by a Halloween skeleton sporting a purple wig.
When we arrived at our shiny new catamaran on the docks, my son clapped his hands. Usually, my husband and I rent the smallest sailboat possible to keep the price down. But our bigger crew meant we had more people to share the costs. This was our first trip on a catamaran.
The extra space and smooth ride on the 40-foot Lagoon proved addictive — and definitely preferable to a cramped monohull for entertaining active kids. The boat had four double berths, two single berths and four heads (boatspeak for bedrooms and bathrooms), plus two ample sitting areas and a wide-open bow. We’d provisioned with a local grocery store ahead of time by ordering online. The store delivered the bags of food and drinks right to our boat when we arrived.
Those drinks came in handy at sunset. After splitting up to snorkel with colorful parrotfish along the rocks or build sand castles on the beach, our crew reunited on the bow for “sundowners” — gin and tonics for the adults, orange juice for the kids and a bottle of milk for the baby.
The sky turned pink, the ocean turned silver, a flock of flamingos flew west and the boys bounced on the trampoline-like netting that stretched between the catamaran’s two hulls. A perfect happy hour all around.
The next morning, after making egg-and-bacon bagel sandwiches and ensconcing the boys at the table with sticker books and the baby in a berth for her nap, we raised the sails and headed north to Anegada, the northernmost island in the country. Renowned for excellent fly-fishing and snorkeling opportunities as well as world-class lobster dinners, Anegada didn’t disappoint.
We headed ashore in our inflatable dinghy and rented a pickup truck to explore endless empty beaches. My husband cast to 10-pound bonefish near the mangroves while my dad and I swam out to see a lemon shark drifting through thousands of baitfish. Sitting barefoot at a table in the sand, we ate fresh snapper and Creole-seasoned rice at the Loblolly Beach restaurant. After lunch the boys — both big and little — played on a rope swing made from old buoys and driftwood.
Walking back to the dinghy at the end of the day, my son and I combed the beach for treasures. He pocketed an orange clam shell and a wavy chunk of coral. I found a small coconut perfect for an impromptu game of soccer.
That night, after our ritual sundowners and an easy-to-cook dinner of bratwurst, mashed potatoes and carrot sticks, he and I lay side-by-side on the bow to watch the stars come out.
“Mom, is that one Venus?” He pointed at a bright star near the waxing moon.
“I think that’s Mars. Venus is a morning star, so we can look for it when we wake up.”
I put my arm around him. He yawned, lulled quickly to sleep by the gentle rocking of the boat.
The next morning, during our three-hour sail south, we gathered around the chart to pick our next destination: a day-only mooring off uninhabited Great Dog Island to snorkel and eat lunch, then on to a protected cove on the west side of Great Camanoe for the night.
We prefer off-the-beaten-path experiences, plus with the kids aboard we weren’t interested in the BVIs’ abundant cruiser-centric nightlife. So we chose to anchor in more remote areas rather than in front of the popular tourist attractions.
Most nights, we shared a gem-colored bay with just one or two other boats. Or none at all, as was the case on our last night off Peter Island, where two turtles popped up their heads to say hello after we dropped anchor.
The boys each caught a small jack with their dads’ help . . . then gasped in amazement as they watched a three-foot barracuda with a menacing underbite dart in to chomp one fish right off the hook. We nicknamed our visitor “Barry” and fed him crackers after dinner.
The last morning, my son woke me at dawn. “Mom! We forgot to look for Venus!”
I followed him outside into the warm breeze to see the distant waves tipped in gold from the rising sun. We found the Morning Star in the east, winking bright from the lavender sky.
Smiling down at my son, I thanked the heavens for a week of fair winds and the chance to cruise through paradise with my family and my friends.
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Dream Yacht Charter
Hodge’s Creek Marina, Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Prices for a week-long bareboat charter range from $2,000 to $13,000 from April through December, depending on the size and style of sailboat. Prices increase from Christmas through March. To add a skipper, budget an extra $235 per night, or hire a fully crewed yacht for $15,000 to $32,000 per week. Double rooms are also available for set-itinerary tours of the British Virgin Islands from $1,426 per person.