As Covid restrictions slowly lift, a lifelong boater finds welcoming faces in familiar places.
It was the most 2021 of encounters. Foxy Callwood was nowhere to be found the night before, when we’d had dinner at his iconic restaurant in Great Harbour on Jost van Dyke, but here he was the following morning, hanging out at the island’s small medical clinic where Nurse Juliet was dispensing Covid tests to a handful of tourists. This was obviously the morning hotspot.
We chatted for 15 minutes or so, until my shipmate emerged, sneezing from her fourth test in little over a week: time enough for Foxy to tell me about how his ancestors had arrived on the island five generations ago, and to tease me about my New Zealand heritage with a couple of sheep jokes. Later that morning, four of us found him snoozing in a hammock outside his music school, and he invited us up for a tour and a series of spur-of-the-moment riffs for which he’s become famous.
Would this have happened outside the time of Covid? Probably not. The last time I’d visited the British Virgin Islands, we had snagged the last mooring in a packed Great Harbour and there were sailors dining along the entire beachfront. Foxy’s, the most famous party bar in the Caribbean, was teeming with well-lubricated boaters. This time, there were just five boats besides Caribbean Dream, our aptly named Mooring 534 powercat—two other charter boats, two cruising sailboats and an unattended TowBoatUS swinging on an outer mooring. Not much business for those guys either. No visit to Jost is complete without calling in at the Soggy Dollar bar in neighboring White Bay, which is usually so crowded you can’t get near the beach. Not this time.
The BVI locked down hard and fast when Covid hit, a tough decision for a country so dependent on tourism. Hotels shuttered, and the charter boat industry virtually went into hibernation. It couldn’t last forever, and on December 1 the government reopened the country to international flights, leaving the sea borders closed. When I booked my flight in mid-January, the protocol was thus: you had to complete an entry application online, with proof of a negative Covid test within five days of intended travel. You would then get an entry permit to present to the airline. On arrival at the Beef Island Airport on Tortola, you would be tested once again, given a tracking device and be subject to a four-day quarantine. At the end of that, you’d be tested yet again, and if negative you’d be free to go where you please.
This did not sound like much fun at all, but in actuality it wasn’t a big deal. Crucially, charter clients can quarantine on their boats, and move freely around the islands to a number of designated anchorages where you can swim and snorkel. You just can’t go ashore until you’ve tested negative after the four days, and you must be anchored or moored between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. We ordered plenty of supplies in advance, and then set off, marveling at the lack of boats on the sparkling waters. That set the tone for the next few days, as we moved from one near-empty anchorage to another. It was an almost guilty pleasure to be the only boat at Valley Trunk Bay right next to the Baths, which I’d scrupulously avoided for many years on account of the hordes of cruise ship passengers and the unseemly scramble for moorings.
We called into Nanny Cay marina for our Day 4 test, and 24 hours later were freed from restrictions. We celebrated by heading up to Virgin Gorda, where an excellent dinner at the Sugarcane was followed the next day by lunch at the resort at Oil Nut Bay. Then we pulled into the Bight on Norman Island, where the bartenders on the legendary Willy T party boat tried to wave us over. That evening found just a dozen of us there, where you could hardly move on a typical weekend night just a year ago. Cane Garden Bay, Guana Island, Marina Cay, Benures Bay, the Indians—the big, luxurious powercat made short work of the distances between the islands and harbors.
I visited the BVI soon after hurricanes Irma and Maria stripped the islands of their vegetation and most of their infrastructure in 2017. The islands were as bereft of boat traffic then as they are now, but there is none of the post-apocalyptic gloom. The tourists are slowly starting to return, though there is a long way to go before the number of visitors reaches “normal” levels. The first batch of vaccines arrived on the islands while I was there, and the sea borders were due to reopen on March 1.
In the meantime, this is really a fine time to charter a boat in the BVI. You’ll (hopefully) never see the anchorages as empty again, nor be able to enjoy the islands the way they were 30 years ago. The quarantine period flew by, and the charter companies have plenty of good deals on offer. And if you run into Foxy, tell him I have a couple more sheep jokes for him.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.