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The Great Octopus Hunt

Some people start a charter with a set itinerary worked out well in advance. Sunday night in anchorage X, Monday night on a mooring in bay Y, Tuesday the lobster special at bar Z, and so on. Others take a more free-form approach, only deciding where to go after they get up in the morning and check out the wind strength and sea state; if getting to X involves a stiff beat that’ll wipe the grins

Some people start a charter with a set itinerary worked out well in advance. Sunday night in anchorage X, Monday night on a mooring in bay Y, Tuesday the lobster special at bar Z, and so on. Others take a more free-form approach, only deciding where to go after they get up in the morning and check out the wind strength and sea state; if getting to X involves a stiff beat that’ll wipe the grins off the kids’ faces, then hey, let’s go for an easy reach to Y and spend the afternoon snorkeling.

I’m fine with either approach; choosing between them depends entirely on the crew. Some people are uneasy unless they know where they’re going and how long they’ll be there. Others embrace the unpredictability inherent in the pursuit of sailing, and take comfort in the knowledge that in destinations like the British Virgin Islands it’s hard to end up somewhere unpleasant.

It was with the latter thought in mind that we—me, Pip, Jojo and Harry—left Tortola late one afternoon in mid-December and pointed the bows of our Sunsail 384 catamaran toward Norman Island. After escaping frigid Boston, we didn’t particularly care where we went. The girls had their eyes on the comfortable trampoline between the bows; sunbathing and snorkeling were their sole ambitions. Harry, after finding charging facilities for his various electronic gizmos, expressed a long-held desire to see an octopus in the wild. And I, having sampled the delights of the BVIs on several previous occasions, had no set agenda in mind. I was looking forward to a week of following the dictates of mood, crew and wind.

After a leisurely morning snorkeling at the Caves (no octopus, but worthwhile nonetheless) we slogged up to Virgin Gorda. The twin diesels made light of the 25-knot headwind and the autopilot proved a perfect helmsman while I scoped out our surroundings through binoculars. Usually a stopover at the Baths, that jumbled collection of water-smoothed rocks you see in every BVI tourist brochure, would have been mandatory, but even without the binos I could see white surf in between the boulders and the red beach-closed flags were snapping in the wind. Perhaps tomorrow…

The wind. Ah, the wind. If you sail in the Virgin Islands between early December and late January there is a good chance you will become intimately familiar with what locals call the Christmas Winds. These are caused by a pressure gradient between big high-pressure systems in the Atlantic and small but persistent lows in the south-western Caribbean, which sees a succession of cold fronts trailing down the islands. The prevailing southeasterly trade wind backs into the northeast, or sometimes even the north, and can blow at 20-30 knots for days on end. So much for jollity and goodwill to all men.

It seemed Christmas had come early for us. Our first night, as we lay to a mooring at Water Point on Norman Island, just before the entrance to the Bight, was quiet enough, but when we stumbled on deck in the morning there was a brisk nor’easterly already whipping up whitecaps in the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Perhaps we should have waited for our heads to clear before deciding to plug uphill to Virgin Gorda that same day; but I reasoned that if the winds were indeed here to stay—and the forecasts said they were—then getting as far north as possible would allow us to sail downwind for the rest of the week. Lazy man’s passage planning, admittedly, but hey, we were in the Caribbean.

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