I'm lounging in the spacious cockpit of a Jeanneau 54 named Endless Reach, watching the moon rise over Culebra as I listen to an impromptu after-dinner talent show featuring owner Rob Godwin on guitar. The softness of the evening, the warmth of new friendships and, of course, the rum, is bringing out the inner Bob Marley in all of us. Just then, our Grenadian flotilla captain, Ron Phillips, makes a sudden and improbable switch from “Jammin’” to a high-pitched rendition of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.
“Leave it to Ron to reach for the high note,” I laugh to myself as the rest of our party adds their voices to the most rollicking and joyful rendition of the song I’ve ever heard. Just two short days ago, at our initial flotilla chart briefing on Tortola, we were strangers to each other. Now we are fast friends, anchored together at the westernmost reaches of the Spanish Virgin Islands, united by a love of sailing, a thirst for adventure and, oh yes, the rum.
Most charterers sailing out of Tortola stay within the British Virgin Islands for their entire cruise. They do the same thing the following year…and the year after that. There’s a good reason for this. The BVI’s dramatic topography, pristine beaches and opalescent waters offer plenty of attractions. Throw in reliable wind, steady sunshine and line-of-sight navigation, and you have a sailor’s Mecca. Many learn on their first foray that you can’t sail the BVI just once.
Nonetheless, after a few visits to Norman and Peter islands, regular jaunts to the Bitter End and a few meanderings through the Baths, many sailors pine for something different. Sailors, after all, are always eager to explore what’s just around the bend.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I jumped at a chance to join a flotilla cruise to the Spanish Virgin Islands. Just 10 miles west of St. Thomas and six miles off Puerto Rico’s east coast, the Spanish Virgins offer a pleasant alternative for BVI regulars looking for a change of scenery. The key to making the voyage even more ideal rests in the concept of the flotilla.
Andrew Thompson and Sylvia Driver of Horizon Yacht Charters assembled our six-boat fleet in Tortola and launched us westward. Together, three Bavaria monohulls, two Jeanneau 54s and a Leopard 40 catamaran traced a route that took in Jost Van Dyke, arced across the top of St. John and St. Thomas, deftly skirting rock and reef, and landed in the pristine splendor of islas Culebra and Vieques. On the return to Tortola, we visited St. John, a singular jewel in the crown of the U.S. national park system.
Along the way, we discovered a remedy for old West Indies hands who mourn “the way it used to be.” The Virgin Islands of old can still be found in Culebra, Vieques and the necklace of outlying islets surrounding them and they have never been more accessible. Here you’ll find quiet, even desolate beaches and turquoise water teeming with coral and fish life. Take a look at sometimes hectic St. Thomas, then cast your gaze on nearby Isla Culebrita to discover what all the Virgin Islands were like a half-century ago.