Voyage of Discovery
The well-trodden cruising grounds of the British Virgin Islands offer up a chance for Deputy Editor Jason Y. Wood and his family to reconnect with each other and their passion for the water on a Moorings crewed charter.
As dawn’s first tendrils of light slipped through the windows of our aft stateroom, my eyes eased open. I usually wake early—much earlier than this—if I sleep at all the first night anywhere. I put on a pair of trunks and a fishing shirt and made my way upstairs to the deck, glancing in on our daughter, Zuzu, in the forward stateroom berth, sound asleep. But she wouldn’t be for long.
As I came up into the galley and saloon area, wide and roomy on this catamaran, I smelled the coffee brewing in the 10-cup pot in the galley—nearly done. I stepped out through the saloon into the cockpit and looked out just as two sailing catamarans tossed off their mooring lines. They looked a far cry from the seemingly disembodied dinner parties from the night before, both boats hosting a table of revelers within glowing golden orbs floating in total darkness—our eyes eventually adjusted to see the faint outlines of their boats in the black night. They had looked up, their heads turning with interest as we sneaked into the anchorage in Kelly’s Cove on Norman Island well after dark.
The previous day had been a whirlwind of airport traffic, multileg flights, and ferries to get us to The Moorings charter base on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. But before we even began that journey, the days leading up to its beginning had been a steady workout of extricating ourselves from our day-to-day, as calls to my contacts at The Moorings had brought the whole charter process to full light. A storm was scooting across the Atlantic, and it seemed we were fated to meet up in the islands—Tropical Storm/Hurricane Danny was gaining or losing strength and changing course seemingly hourly, doing whatever he could to command our attention. Meanwhile, my wife Erica had been looking forward to this trip for months, and we were both due for a little relaxation, high winds be damned.
That storm was still at the top of our minds when we arrived at The Moorings base. It was quite late in the afternoon and we figured on a night at the dock, waiting to hear what the forecast would hold. That’s when we drew our first ace from the deck. You see, we had been booked in for a crewed charter, and the second the taxi pulled in to the dropoff zone, I could tell we wouldn’t be missing a trick.
Capt. David Blacklock waited to greet us with a ready grin and a dock cart, clad in the working crew uniform of Moorings golf shirt, tan shorts, and flip flops. As he and I loaded our luggage I got the sense that he had already been waiting just a bit too long, and he was already pushing that cart down the dock as we exchanged introductions.
When we met our Chef and First Mate Deb Mahan in the cockpit of our docked Moorings 514PC power catamaran, Exit Strategy, we got the same vibe—they were ready to whisk us away. And as Deb and David began to show us around, a lime-green float tube, inflated and ready to go, and stowed beneath the cockpit table, caught Zuzu’s eye.
David crouched down to speak to Zuzu at eye level. “We thought someone might like that,” he said. “Do you think that looks like fun?” She smiled and nodded, tired, shy, and excited.
We brought our gear to our respective staterooms in the starboard sponson of the catamaran, stowed a few things, and then returned to the saloon where a cheese platter and glasses of chilled sauvignon blanc had appeared—a perfect way to end a harried day of travel.
But it wasn’t to be.
I had only finished about half of my first glass when David turned to us and said, “Let’s get out of here.” He fired up the engines and they cast off docklines. Out we went into the dusk.
Scenes from the crewed-charter experience: Top row: Crews know all the best anchorages; Fun with the float; The Moorings 514PC is a stable platform. 2nd row: Seakayaking the shallows; Cool refreshments; The family enjoys the breeze on the St. Thomas ferry. 3rd row: Beach solitude on Anegada, Where should we go next? Looking at a BVI chart mural in Leverick Bay; The author and his sidekick enjoy the view from the flying bridge. 4th row: Crewed charter equals good eats; Reference-material check during cockpit downtime;
Sunset from the flying bridge. See more photos here. ▶
How often do you charter a boat in the Caribbean? We don’t get to do it very often, and to be frank, our time at home (like that of a lot of people these days) is fairly qualified as go-go-go. We like to slow down every now and again and get reacquainted, and time together on the water is the perfect way to do that. While bareboating has its unquestionable pleasures—independence being chief among them—I have to say that crewed charter was beginning to seem like just the thing for us. With Zuzu in tow on one of these trips for the first time, and both Erica and I ready for a little down time coming out of our hectic schedules, arriving and not needing to figure out a plan was the first leg of a voyage to relaxation.
David and Deb had been tracking the storm, of course, and they had also provisioned the boat completely with stuff we like. They had asked in advance, and, through a series of e-mails answered a few questions to help us—and them—plan a bit. Any bareboater who can come off a workday the day before and arrive ready to cast off as we did is definitely worth his salt. It was a great thing not to have to deal with it.
That morning in Kelly’s Cove we continued to figure out the advantages to the crewed-charter experience—local knowledge of where to anchor based on where the wind is coming from, and would be coming from later, is not a small advantage—but also just having David’s plan in place gave us a framework that really allowed our family to relax and enjoy each other’s company. I know us. At home we don’t often have wide-open days with nothing to do—I don’t really know anyone our age who does.
But here it was different. Want to swim a bit after breakfast? (We did.) David and Deb had a plan in place that was flexible depending on how long we wanted to linger. Nice not to have to think, and do too much of the admin, as we like to say, to make the most of those days of bright skies and soft breezes—and not to have to cook all that delicious food, too.
Don’t get me wrong, our halcyon island days were feeling the pressure—low pressure that is, of Danny. David was unimpressed with him, but kept an eye on his progress nevertheless. The SAL, David told us—that’s the Saharan Atmospheric Layer, apparently an enormous mass of dust and dry air that blows into the upper atmosphere from everyone’s favorite African desert at the end of the summer—robs tropical storms of their oomph. And we watched as he was proved right and Danny faded prior to affecting our weather appreciably.
But Danny had a dance partner following his lead: Tropical Storm Erika came barreling across the Atlantic on his heels. And before you ask, yes, of course my wife really appreciated the delightful coincidence. So the weather was in the back of our minds, but I know David and Deb were conferring on it. So we upheld our part of the deal, and swam off the back of the boat in that gloriously clear, warm water.
Zuzu is a new swimmer, and, as every swimming adult knows, the confidence in your ability is the trick to learning. We try not to force the pace with her with most things and this catamaran had an easy-to-deploy dive ladder on a swim platform on the port sponson. Zuzu, in her life jacket, descended with ease, with me in the water below, and we spent a little time getting accustomed to how the water felt, made all the easier because she loved that green watertoy. And as we went from cove to cove over the next few days, grabbing moorings or anchoring, she would get into her own rhythm, and untie the float from its lashing on the aft rail to get ready for our next swim. Because she’s young and inexperienced we didn’t let her swim alone. Needless to say, I logged a good amount of time in the water on this trip. No complaints.
We motored around a bluff to Treasure Point, to the caves that are said to have inspired Treasure Island and peeked around with some other snorkelers, then headed to Cooper Island where David and Deb dropped anchor. I got to dry out for a little bit while we had some lunch—a salad of grilled tuna and rice prepared and served by Deb, who had thoughtfully planned some alternatives for Zuzu in case our onboard diet tilted too far to the gourmet end of the spectrum.
I should note though, that if it were just our family on a bareboat, then lunch would not have been nearly so grand. I can either swim all morning or I can cook. I can’t do both, and Erica was on a much-needed break from her job and household duties, too. But we like to eat well. Another check in the “crewed” side of the ledger.
Same deal for dinners. The menus were exquisite and really well executed: pork tenderloin with braised cabbage and sweet potatoes; salmon roasted with herbs and breadcrumbs, potatoes with boat-made aioli and grilled zucchini; barbecued baby-back ribs with an Asian slaw. “I like to think of cooking as a passion, rather than a profession,” Deb said, and it really came through the varied snacks, the fresh-baked bread at breakfast and lunch, right down to the curation of the bottled hot sauces (some in flasks topped with tiny straw hats) that came out to accompany various meals. David acted as bartender as the gloaming set in and we repaired to the flying bridge to enjoy the breezes, the views, and some hors d’oeuvres prepared by Deb.
Like Zuzu, we got into a pleasant rhythm quickly too, swimming and eating, chilling out and exploring on board, maybe another swim before cocktails and dinner. One time we were anchored in the lee of Cooper Island and a 5-foot barracuda swam beneath the boat, right near the surface, I watched him and noticed that he had an 8-inch gash next to his dorsal fin, wide and bloody. He seemed to be just serenely hanging out in the shadow beneath the boat, but we opted to find something else to do with Zuzu for that morning.
Looking at the weather, David and Deb decided we’d best make the passage to Anegada on one strategic day, since it was longest stretch of open water they had on our itinerary, free-form though it was. Erika was making her presence known with a fair-sized swell at the onset. But still, there was no real rush to get there, as we swam for a while in the morning after breakfast. Zuzu, unfortunately, takes after me and can sometimes feel the effects of the sea, and she and I were both not feeling well. My wife seems to be immune. So I chilled out with my head in the breeze slugging off a bottle of water and watched as Erica and Zuzu chatted out of earshot in the fresh air as low-lying Anegada emerged from the haze. I watched Erica’s distraction take hold and Zuzu’s whole demeanor change as her mind ceased to dwell on her queasiness.
Exploring Anegada meant a day at the beach and we took a taxi ride across the island to Loblolly Bay for more swimming and playing in the sand. Probably we gave David and Deb a nice break too, though more than likely they were doing some food prep and weather forecasting. Palapas arrayed on the beach provide a bit of shade and we chilled out, built a funky, drippy sandcastle, and collected a few bits of coral to decorate it.
We visited an open-air bar at the Anegada Reef Hotel for a fruit punch before returning to the boat, and watched a sloop filled with young people moor near Exit Strategy. As we had drinks on the flying bridge the kids swung from a halyard into the drink, and their excited whoops blended easily with the breeze.
The next morning we cast off after breakfast with a few more ports of call to hit, including Leverick Bay, an anchorage away from the bareboat beaten path near Necker Island (the channel is too tricky without a local skipper), and we passed by the Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock, closed for a few weeks before the start of the fall cruising season.
And sure enough, Erika came on strong and the powers that be called us back to the Moorings base. Better to be safe than sorry there, and we settled in for a night at the dock, where winds were clocked well over 65 knots. And the next day, beneath gray skies as the remnants of the storm blew through, Zuzu kind of summed up our indomitable fun-at-any-cost spirit by drawing the last ace from the deck as she asked, “Which way to the pool?”
The Moorings , 855-247-5709; www.moorings.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.