Throwback: Our Sunsail Charter Review From January 2014

Editor’s note: to get our new blog going, we’re importing articles we’ve written in the past about our sailing adventures together. This article was written in January as the second in a two-part review of our week-long charter in the British Virgin Islands aboard a Sunsail 41. Part I of the series was a review of the boat itself which is published as its own article. Because narratives of people’s vacations can be a tiring for readers who are looking for specific tips and information on chartering, this article lead with tips readers might find useful and then followed with a media rich narrative for those who are more interested in living vicariously.

Tips & Tricks We Learned

  • Even though we traveled in mid January- which is normally a slow period – we had a very difficult time finding moorings or good space for anchoring at many of the anchorages. Our suggestion: consult Sunsail for the suggested route to take to see the islands, then try taking the exact opposite route. Here’s why: with most charters starting on Saturday and Sunday, we believe there was a big clump of boats traveling from island to island together that results in a shortage of both moorings and anchorage space at each. It’s possible that if you invert the route, you’ll have more space (we didn’t try it, so we can’t confirm it works).
  • There is a good local grocery store within walking distance of the Sunsail base. Here’s a tip: bring along an empty rolling bag from your flight to make the return trip easier. You can buy water and other beverages right on the Sunsail base, which can further lighten the load during the walk back from the grocery store. Another hint: it’s easier to over provision than to under provision so err on the side of conservative. You’ll likely eat at least one meal a day ashore.
  • This was the second charter we’ve done in the BVIs (the first was with The Moorings 14 years ago) and both times we found the ground tackle that came with the charter boats to be insufficient. The result was a very poor night’s sleep each time we anchored in 2000 and this year we didn’t even try it. It was either a mooring or a slip for us, so try to plan your departures early if you find you’re competing for mooring space at each anchorage.
  • The passenger capacity ratings for the charter boats are often much too high. Our 40 foot sloop was listed as being capable of sleeping up to 8. Although that might be technically true, it would be a nightmare trip with so many people aboard. We had two couples aboard and that was perfect, so consider cutting the passenger count in half from the max listed for the boat when choosing a size. Having an extra cabin purely for luggage and storage was key – be sure to leave at least that capacity available.
  • Look over your boat carefully when you arrive and be assertive about requesting any necessary repairs before you depart. Our boat had mildew problems and fresh water leaks in one of the bunks. Such maintenance items may portend greater problems with the boat (ours did – we had terrible problems with both heads) so consider asking for a boat change if you find more than a couple of problems right away at the dock.

Overall Reflections On The Trip

  • We had a great time, despite encountering significant problems with our boat.
  • BVI destinations are close together, so if you’d like sailing to dominate your sailing vacation there may be better charter destinations for you. The BVIs work best for those who like short sails with lots to do on beaches and on shore.
  • It’s often breezy, so be prepared to put on your big kid pants or motor when going upwind. That being said: don’t motor! Use the sails and enjoy the experience.
  • The clientele on other boats varies a lot, and they tend to flock to destinations accordingly. Expect to see lots of catamaran charterers at many destinations, many of whom resemble typical cruise ship passengers more than true-blue sailors. They will tend to flock to “party” destinations like The Baths. However, you will also see “Newport-like” sailors on your journey, who will flock to destinations like The Bitter End. Some destinations are a blend; Soper’s Hole seemed more like a traditional cruising destination (a balance between the two), leaning more toward traditional cruisers.

    Now The Entertaining Stuff!

    With those tips laid down, here is a narrative with some media for those who would like to get a better feel for what a BVI charter often looks like (hopefully minus the problems!).

    Saturday: We took a full day to travel from Maryland to the BVIs by way of Philadelphia, starting by getting up at 3:30am. We arrived at the boat around dusk and had time to unpack and grab dinner at the Sunsail base (it has two good restaurants). Although we’d chartered in the BVIs before, we attended the skipper’s briefing on the various destination ports.

    Sunday: After getting breakfast ashore, we walked to the grocery store to provision the boat, then cast off and enjoyed a close reach with a quartering sea to Norman Island. The sail took around an hour. There we had a quick lunch and went snorkeling right in the harbor. The sea life was excellent – we even hung out with a group of squid, a species my wife and I had never seen even after ~50 scuba dives over many years. Next we took our dinghy over to the Willy T floating bar (Google it) for an afternoon drink. After returning to the boat to clean up, we took the dinghy in for dinner at The Bight.

    Below: the sunset view at Norman Island.

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    Monday: We started a sail for Cooper Island but discovered to our horror that both heads were leaking sewage back into the boat. We altered course and returned to the Sunsail base to request repairs, which resulted in a three-hour delay back in the slip. We made the best of it and took a dinghy across the harbor for lunch at Pussers. After the repairs were complete, we cast off again and enjoyed a lively beat (20-25 knots) to Cooper Island with a reef in the main. Once we arrived we found no moorings available and despite considerable searching could not find a safe place to anchor given our charter boat’s short anchor rode. Although night was falling, we decided to dash for Scrub Island before night fell, which resulted in a stressful close reach trying to reach harbor before we lost all daylight. We arrived right at dusk. No sooner had we arrived than we discovered an identical problem to Cooper Island: no moorings or safe places to anchor. Defeated, we decided to eat the higher cost and pick up a slip at Scrub Island Marina. No sooner had we tied up and exhaled after such a stressful afternoon than we went below and discovered that the forward head had not been fixed and had covered the sole in sewage once again. We spent the next hour with a hose run down the hatch to clean the sewage. Once we were done, we showered and went up to find that we were too late for a full dinner at the Scrub Island Resort restaurant, so we made due with Caesar salads.

    Below: Views of the Scrub Island Resort.

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    Tuesday: We started the day by calling Sunsail and arranging for them to send personnel to us to repair the boat, then spent the balance of the day at the beautiful Scrub Island resort. This is a stunning (and very thinly patronized) destination with a great infinity pool, a hot tub, and superb amenities like a state-of-the-art gym. We ate lunch at Pussers on Marina Cay (a short dingy ride away), then enjoyed a fun and very wet dingy ride to look at boats in the mooring field. We had an extra treat during this trip: a pod of dolphins came to visit the harbor and lounged just feet from our boat. We rounded off the day with hot showers and a great dinner at the Scrub Island Resort.

    Wednesday: With the boat repaired we enjoyed a beat in fresh breezes from Scrub Island to The Baths. A note about the Baths: the destination is entertaining (Google it) but on the day we visited it was crowded with cruise ship passengers and catamaran charterers. Still we enjoyed a hike among the rocks, a great snorkel, then lunch aboard our boat. Another note about The Baths: we took a mooring on the right side of the anchorage (as one faces the beach) and encountered a big beam sea during our lunch. It was fine for a quick meal but would not have been pleasant for a longer stay. Next we reached in the lee of Virgin Gorda (expect light winds there) back out into open sea and beat in fresh breezes to The Bitter End.

    Below: the beat to The Baths.

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    Thursday: We spent the entire day at The Bitter End and loved very minute of it. The Bitter End is the Newport-like destination in the BVIs. Instead of lotion-soaked dark tan tourists, the Bitter End is patronized heavily by well-to-do (and stylishly dressed) Hinkley / Swan types. My three crew mates took a “while in Rome” approach to the Bitter End and started off Thursday with long massages at the spa, while I rented a Laser to bang around the harbor. We then enjoyed lunch on shore, a nap on the beach, and a great snorkel on the reef. We rounded off the day with a great dinner at Saba Rock.

    Below: Views of Bitter End.

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    Friday: We enjoyed our longest sail of the week on Friday, a four hour downwind run to Jost Van Dyke. We had lunch on board during the trip – even luxuriating in having the helmsman sit at the table for a bite while the auto pilot steered. We stopped for drinks at the Soggy Dollar (Google this one too) where the crowd resembled a blend between cruise ship passengers and college spring breakers. In fact, if you can imaging spring breakers whose maturity level stunted in college but have since aged 20 years or so, you’ll get a good feeling for the crowd there. It’s great people watching if nothing else, and one has to say s/he has stopped there during a visit to the BVIs. From there we enjoyed a brief beat to Soper’s Hole. At Soper’s hole we once again found a great shortage of moorings, though we were lucky enough to grab the last one available. The next morning we discovered one reason why it had remained unclaimed: the outer-most moorings at Soper’s Hole suffer from mammoth ferry boat wakes starting at daybreak. It was an eye opener for sure, so if you can’t get a mooring further in, turn in early the evening you arrive at Soper’s Hole!

    Below: The run to Jost Van Dyke.

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    Below: Soper’s Hole.

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    Saturday: We enjoyed a wonderful 18 knot beat back to Sunsail base, where we disembarked and spent the balance of the day traveling back to Maryland. We arrived home at 11:30PM.

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