A quarter mile offshore, the depth gauge was showing 50ft, but it might as well have been 15ft. The bottom was clearly visible, expanses of sand showing green-filtered white between dark swatches of weed. I’d not seen water that clear at that depth for many years. It was yet another weapon in the alluring armory of the Spanish Virgins, the group of islands east of Puerto Rico that are still waiting to be “discovered.”
Formerly known as the Passage Islands, Culebra and Vieques, the two biggest islands in a group that includes a couple of dozen smaller islets, or cayos—some of which are no bigger than glorified rocks—were used for target practice by the U.S. Navy between 1939 and 1975, when protests by the locals forced the Navy to stop shelling Culebra and concentrate on the larger Vieques. The last bombs fell on Vieques in 2003. Since then peace has reigned.
Perhaps the stigma of those days lingers among tourists and even sailors, because the Spanish Virgins remain firmly off the beaten track, both physically and metaphorically. This is just fine and dandy with those who like uncrowded anchorages, beautiful beaches, pristine waters and a total lack of cruise ships.
On my first visit to the SVI’s, piloting a catamaran from CYOA Yacht Charters out of St. Thomas—roughly 20 miles to the east—I spent several days marveling at how unspoiled by development these islands were, and how neglected by the cruising and charter communities. Four years later, I returned on a boat from Sail Caribe in Fajardo on the Puerto Rican mainland and marveled all over again at the lack of crowding and the unspoiled nature of the islands. It’s a rare thing in the BVI to have an anchorage to yourself: not so in the Spanish Virgins.
Similar in aspect—i.e. hilly and scrubby—to the other two groups of Virgins to their east, the BVI and USVI, the Spanish Virgins nevertheless retain a sense of sleepy individuality. The population of Vieques is concentrated in the middle of the island, as unexploded ordnance is still being cleared from the old ranges on the eastern and western ends, and some tempting anchorages are still out of bounds due to the risk of dropping your hook on top of a rusty bomb.
The main town, Esperanza, has a pleasantly Spanish vibe, with a decent anchorage, a pretty tree-lined promenade along the waterfront and a handful of restaurants serving up excellent local seafood. One Saturday night we watched a handful of young blades trotting up and down the main drag on their horses under the admiring gaze of assorted young ladies—a nice take on the age-old sport of Cruisin’ Main. After dinner, we took a kayak tour of the nearby bioluminescent bay, where fish drilled green tunnels through the inky waters below us and our canoes left sparkling wakes.
Culebra has a different vibe altogether. Its well-protected main anchorage is packed with sailboats, many of which have obviously not moved in some time. Not surprising, really—it’s the kind of place that makes you think, hey, I may just hang here for a while. We took a taxi from Dewey, the island’s only town, to Playa Flamenco, which I reckon is the equal of any beach in the world, only to find an even more enticing beach on the other side of the hill, where the youngsters enjoyed the tumbling surf for hours.
Our hands-down favorite on both trips to the SVI, though, was the tiny uninhabited island of Culebrita, where the ruins of a lighthouse atop the hill offers panoramic views and there’s a perfect half-moon beach for a post-lunch swim. You may have to share the anchorage with a couple of other boats, but there’s room for many more. Which, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up the attraction of the Spanish Virgins.
A Bigger Dink—Your bareboat sleeps nine, but your dinghy only takes six, so you have to make two trips each way. Grrr. The folks at Conch Charters on Tortola know all about that, which is why they’re offering you a chance to upgrade to a 14ft dinghy with a 30hp outboard. conchcharters.com
Go Mexican—The beautiful Sea of Cortez is a bucket-list destination for many sailors, which is why Dream Yacht Charters has opened a new base there. The boats are based at the Costa Baja resort in La Paz, an ideal launchpad from which to explore this remote sailing paradise. dreamyachtcharters.com
More Monohulls—Frenchtown, St. Thomas-based CYOA Yacht Charters is following up its recently added 2015 Beneteau 41 with a pair of spanking new Oceanis 45s and a new Oceanis 48. A new Lagoon 38 catamaran has also joined the fleet, with more to come during 2016. cyoacharters.com
Be a VIP—Fancy a week’s all-inclusive vacation on a fully crewed yacht from The Moorings? The VIP at Sea Sweepstakes offers just that—seven days, six nights on a Moorings 4800 catamaran in the BVI. Go to the company’s website or to its Facebook page to enter, before March 31. moorings.com