The week before I flew out to the British Virgin Islands for a bareboat charter, I was having a few second thoughts. The islands had broken out of their Covid-enforced tourism hiatus in December, but the conditions of entry seemed a little stringent: a negative Covid test within five days of arrival, proof of travel insurance covering Covid, an online gateway for permission to enter, a second test on arrival, a third after four days of quarantine. (For a summary of BVI Covid requirements, click here. When the U.S. government announced you would need a negative Covid test within three days of your return flight, it all seemed a little too much. Would it all be worthwhile?
I needn’t have worried. What followed was one of the most relaxing charter vacations I’ve ever taken. Imagine all the attractions of the BVI–excellent sailing conditions, fine restaurants, lots of opportunities for diving, snorkeling and any other water-based activity you could want—but minus the evening scramble for moorings and anchoring spots. The cup-half-empty drawbacks I’d envisaged came to naught. My drive-through Covid test in Florida took maybe 15 minutes, and that at the airport in Tortola, where we each were issued a tracking device, scarcely longer. For we sailors, the onboard quarantine could hardly have been better—we were allowed to head off to any of 14 designated anchorages, yellow Q flag fluttering, where we could go ashore on deserted beaches and swim and snorkel as much as we wanted. I’d never been to many of the anchorages on the list, so it was a good chance to see some new sights. We headed out on Monday afternoon on our Moorings 4500 catamaran, Meow or Never, sailing over to Norman Island in leisurely fashion. We did a fly-by of Benures Bay, one of two approved Q anchorages on Norman, then sailed over to Peter Island. We briefly dropped anchor in South Bay, much to the distress of an elderly couple in a small Fountaine Pajot, who were at pains to describe the odd wind and current patterns that could result in a nighttime clash of cats. In the interests of sailorly relations, we graciously retreated and spent a calm night on a mooring in a lonely Benures Bay.
The following day’s sail over to Virgin Gorda brought home the effect the pandemic has had on the BVI charter industry. It was a perfect sailing day, yet we saw just three other boats. Picking up a mooring that afternoon in Malone Bay, a few hundred yards from Leverick Bay Marina, the contrast was as vivid. The last time I’d visited, there were 30 or more boats, and the restaurant was packed. This time, there were three.
And so it went. Anyone who’s sailed in the BVI is familiar with the tourist melee at the Baths, where throngs of cruise ship passengers bump into each other swimming between the rocks while grim-faced bareboaters jostle for a mooring. This time around, we anchored right next door, at Valley Trunk Bay, and there wasn’t another soul around to take advantage of the perfect conditions. It was surreal.
On the morning of the fourth day we made our way over to Nanny Cay Marina for our Covid test. We’d paid a $170 testing fee beforehand, which covered two Covid tests plus taxi fares. Next morning our results came back negative, and we were free to take down the Q flag and roam at will. Our first stop with the Bight on Norman Island, where we counted all of eight boats, including our own. One of them, a twin to our Moorings 4500, was crewed by the Gration and Pearson families from Anchorage, Alaska, who were coming to the end of their two-week charter.
“This has been the best vacation we’ve ever had as a family,” Jonathan Gration told us, while the four children splashed and clambered over a purple inflatable dragon behind the boat. “The quarantine was no problem at all. We loved the lack of distractions and the freedom to move around, compared to being stuck in a resort on land. And everywhere we went after quarantine, people were so pleased to see us. We had so many great experiences.”
After a fine dinner at Pirates Bight we adjourned to the Willy T, the floating hostelry whose notoriety was not much in evidence on this night, with just a dozen or so patrons scattered around the large bar. Again, the contrast to previous visits would have been painful, were it not for the ease of getting served.
When we emerged on deck for our last full day on Meow or Never (the sheer number of punny names catamaran owners come up with never ceases to amaze me) we had vague intentions of heading to Anegada, but made it no farther than North Sound. The breeze had built, and it looked a bit choppy out there for our delicate post-Willy T stomachs. Instead, we took a close look at the progress on rebuilding the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock, both of which had been hammered in 2017 by Irma and Maria, picked up a mooring at nearby Leverick Bay and then hired a taxi for a few hours, taking in drinks at Hog Heaven—which undoubtedly has one of the best views in the Caribbean—and an early dinner at Sugarcane.
The next morning we squeezed through the narrow channel between Saba and the main island for an upscale lunch at the Oil Nut Bay marina resort, as classy a joint as I’ve seen in the Caribbean. A saxophone player whose hair matched his yellow shorts serenaded an assortment of young women while children played in the pool. The restaurant was well patronized, but the marina was early empty, with only a big silver motoryacht and a trio of Moorings charter cats, all day visitors. The immaculately kept resort, too, looked like a ghost town. The sail back to the Moorings base in Road Town that afternoon was slow, and with our 1800 curfew—and more to the point, the Superbowl—looming, we reluctantly fired up the engines. The journey back along the Sir Francis Drake Passage reminded me acutely of my first visit to the BVI after Hurricane Irma in 2017—hardly another boat to be seen. Back then the islands had been stripped clean of vegetation and most of their infrastructure had been destroyed, along with the charter fleets. It’s cruelly ironic that only a few years later, another natural catastrophe has left the infrastructure untouched, but imposed an economic devastation that is, according to the islanders I spoke to, even worse. The pair of laid-up cruise ships at the Road Town docks, rust streaks down their sides, said it all.
Still, this is a fine time for sailors to visit the BVI. Even with vaccines on their way to the islands, it’s not likely that Covid restrictions will be relaxed any time soon, and in the absence of mass tourism, bareboat charter clients will have the best of it. If you want to experience the BVI they were 30 years ago or more (except with better restaurants), now’s the time. For up-to-date news on the BVI’s Covid protocols, go to.
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