Cruising: A BVI Painkiller Tour

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Illustrations courtesy of Shutterstock

Illustrations courtesy of Shutterstock

It was sometime on day four that my resolve began to waver. It had held strong through the challenges of Charlotte Amalie, Road Town, Leverick Bay, Anegada and Cane Garden Bay; but now, sitting at a beachfront bar on Jost van Dyke, I had to face up to the sad fact that I just could not handle another Painkiller.

Like all such schemes, the plan for our BVI charter agenda had sounded wonderful at the inception stage. You can go two ways with bareboat charter vacations; either wake up each morning, yawn, stretch, and go where the wind wants to take you, or map out a blow-by-blow itinerary that satisfies at least some of the desires of each individual crew-member.

Having done it both ways, I lean towards the former approach, which on this occasion was encouraged by the fact that none of us were all that keen on snorkeling. This meant we wouldn’t be joining the daily scramble for moorings at hot spots like the Indians off Norman Island or the Baths on Virgin Gorda or the wreck of the Rhone off Cooper Island. At the same time, we did actually have an itinerary in mind. We would visit as many of the islands as possible in our one-week time frame, and on each one we would make it our mission to patronize as many beach bars as we could in search of the perfect Painkiller. We would arrange our agenda so as to make best use of the prevailing northeasterly wind, blowing away any morning-after cobwebs with some brisk sailing.

So it was that the Painkiller Tour was born, with myself and my friends Peter, Raymond and Jessica determined to do our bit to assist the BVI beach hospitality scene to continue its recovery from Hurricane Irma. Alka-Seltzers and Advil in hand, we boarded Ami, our four-cabin Leopard 40 catamaran, at the Sunsail base in Road Town, Tortola, on a sunny Saturday in June.

You don’t need to go to the BVI to experience its most notorious cocktail. If you’ve been to the Annapolis show, you have probably been among the many thousands of showgoers who eagerly knock back one or more of these potent mixed drinks at the dockside bars outside the Pusser’s establishment. In fact, according to Pusser’s, more than 140,000 Painkillers were consumed at the Annapolis restaurant last year. Now, you can mix a painkiller lookalike up with whatever dark rum you have to hand, but for the real thing it seems you have to use Pusser’s Navy rum. To that end, off we went to Pusser’s in Road Town for our inaugural tasting session.

The Pusser’s Navy Rum brand originated in 1979 when British sailor and entrepreneur Charles Tobias acquired the rights to market the Royal Navy’s blend of five Caribbean rums, nearly 10 years after the Admiralty had discontinued its daily rum ration (an infamous day in Navy history), and started producing it in Tortola. I hadn’t been to the Tortola Pusser’s since December 2017, three months after Irma, when the building had recently reopened with a tarpaulin for a roof. Almost miraculously, the wall art and furnishings on the ground floor had survived the storm surge and 150mph winds, and founder Charles Tobias was holding court in jovial fashion. He was nowhere to be seen this time around, but we enjoyed both a good dinner and perhaps one or two more Painkillers than we ought to have. Icy cold and extremely tasty, they set a high bar for what was to come.

By the time we had provisioned at the excellent Riteway supermarket next morning and stocked Ami’s capacious fridge and freezer, the sun was approaching the yardarm, but we bravely resisted the call—no hard liquor underway—and set sail for what was a rewarding cruise up to Virgin Gorda, throwing in a couple of leisurely tacks as Ami rolled along at a steady 6 knots. It wasn’t till we made the turn into North Sound that we had to resort to engine power.

In years past we might have opened the throttles and proceeded straight down the sound to the Bitter End Yacht Club, but Irma wiped out that option. The BEYC won’t regain its former glory for a while yet, though a marina and bar/restaurant will reopen early in the new year. The Saba Rock resort, another great spot for sundowners, was so badly damaged that it won’t be reopened for the foreseeable future. That left only one option for evening Painkillers—the Leverick Bay marina and resort.

When I’d visited in December 2017 the pool and restaurant had only just reopened, and there were only two other boats in the large mooring field. This time, we were lucky to find a vacant ball among the throng of charter boats. Ashore, there was elbow room only at the waterfront tiki bar. The Painkillers were well deserved after such a hard day’s sailing and went down rather quickly. By the looks and sound of the other patrons, they’d been there for a while. We soon beat a strategic retreat to Ami, where we fired up the grill and watched latecomers weaving around the mooring field looking for a vacancy.

The wisdom of drinking just one Painkiller was evident next morning, when we arose feeling motivated and had the sails up and drawing before we left the sound. The destination was Anegada, some 20 miles away, and we were aiming to get there well before noon so we could spend the day exploring the island. Ami trucked along on a reach at 7 knots, the sun shone, and the crew lolled around in the forward cockpit. It was such a beautiful morning that I was almost disappointed when we rounded up to strike sail at the entrance to the channel through Anegada’s surrounding reefs.

Of all the islands I’d visited in the BVI, Anegada seemed to have been least affected by Irma. It seemed asleep in the late morning sun, the beachfront restaurants empty, a few tourists wandering around looking lost. We debated getting a taxi to Cow Wreck beach but instead settled for renting scooters, since Peter wanted to find a beach bar whose name he’d forgotten but whose location he vaguely remembered from a visit 20 years before. It was a good excuse to explore this low-lying island, which seemed to be more of a giant sandbar than anything else.

Cow Wreck beach is one of those places you see on magazine covers, almost impossibly beautiful. At least it was on the day we were there, floating in warm water off a white-sand beach with a beer in hand. Raymond and Jessica, made of sterner stuff than me, sampled the Painkillers at Potters beach bar while Peter and I roared off—well, buzzed off—on our scooters. The sight of a sign pointing to the Big Bamboo resort on Loblolly Bay rekindled Pete’s memories, and it turned out this was indeed the scene of the long-ago crime. We enjoyed a single—you guessed it—Painkiller in the shade of the tiki bar, gazing through palm trees to the turquoise waters beyond, before heading back to the anchorage.

Time for a lobster dinner on Anegada

Time for a lobster dinner on Anegada

When on Anegada, it’s almost mandatory to have a lobster dinner at one of the beachfront restaurants. We dutifully followed tradition, and though I was underwhelmed by the lobster (living in New England sets the lobster bar pretty high) you couldn’t fault the setting, on a deck overlooking the mooring field. There was even free entertainment, courtesy of a Brit who missed out on his baked potato and dragged his entire family into the ensuing altercation with the staff. At $60 per lobster dinner, I kind of sympathized with them.

We could have easily spent another day on the island, but we were on a mission. It was now Wednesday, and we’d arranged to meet friends in Cane Garden Bay on Tortola. So it was that the crew of Ami enjoyed yet another excellent sail, reaching at 6-7 knots in flat water, before picking up a mooring in the bay at noon. Lunchtime entertainment was courtesy of a charter crew who wrapped their dinghy painter around their propeller and drifted onto us. We soothed the hyperventilating crew and soon had them freed with the help of the harbormaster in his dinghy.

Cane Garden Bay is far from the kind of secluded, quiet anchorage many charterers want to visit in the BVI, but it does have a good many waterfront watering holes and, allegedly, the best sunset views in the islands. We sipped Painkillers at Pussers and watched the sun set over Jost van Dyke to the west. The rumors were true—it was indeed spectacular.

The next day would prove the true test of our mettle as Painkiller tasters—Jost van Dyke, home of legendary beach bars like Foxy’s and the Soggy Dollar. We left Cane Garden Bay early and motorsailed over to Great Harbour, where we picked up a freshly vacated mooring before taking the dinghy ashore to Foxy’s dock, then hopped in a taxi for the ride over to White Bay. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that unfolded as we crested the hill; a slew of private and charter boats rafted together as their crews disported themselves on the beach and in the bars.

When I’d last seen the Soggy Dollar, in the wake of Irma, it was nothing more than a bartop and fridge under a hastily erected roof, surrounded by snapped-off palm trees. The whole beachfront had been regenerated in the intervening 18 months; not only was the Soggy Dollar the very picture of a beach bar in paradise, so were its neighbors. Gone was the rumshacky feel of the pre-Irma days, replaced by new roofs and heavily stocked bars.

The Soggy Dollar makes much of its heritage as the home of the Painkiller, and so it should. The story goes back to the time when Charles Tobias acquired the rights to produce Pusser’s Rum. The Soggy Dollar was owned by Daphne Henderson, an Englishwoman who kept her Painkiller recipe a closely guarded secret. Tobias took a sample home with him to see if he could copy it, and narrowed the recipe down to a 4-1-1-1 mix of pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream and rum. It subsequently became the signature drink of the various Pussers outlets around the world, and Daphne is still acknowledged as the creator.

It’s no surprise that the Soggy Dollar serves industrial quantities of this addictive tipple, as evidenced by the raucous crowd clustered around the bar, and our appointed taster-in-chief, Raymond, had two of them in honor of the legend. As for me, not being possessed of a sweet tooth, I finally had to cry enough after one, which was to prove my last Painkiller of the week. I was all rummed out. I sipped a delicious cold beer later that afternoon while the crew sampled Foxy’s version of the Painkiller, before strolling along the beach for a rather good pizza at Corsair’s beach bar.

After a walk to the Bubbly Pool next morning, we set off to Marina Cay, where we had the best meal of the week and (according to the crew) one of the best Painkillers too at the Pussers restaurant there (which, I was saddened to learn, has since closed). The week was winding down; we had a short sail to the Bight on Norman Island next morning, where some final Painkiller and general rum drink sampling took place. Then it was back later in the afternoon to the Sunsail base, just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, where we took stock of a week that had featured some fine sailing, some good dining, plenty of laughs and nary a hint of rain. But what of the perfect Painkiller? The verdict, said Raymond, went to Pusser’s in Road Town; nicely chilled, served in a real glass, and strong enough to make you feel no pain. Q

Peter Nielsen chartered with Sunsail (sunsail.com).

MHS Winter 2019

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