It is possible to reason with hurricane season and find blessed solitude in the British Virgin Islands.
If you’ve never chartered a bareboat in the British Virgin Islands, you’ve really cheated yourself. Quite simply, it’s the best place in the world to combine the pleasures of captaining a boat and enjoying a truly relaxing vacation. There are lots of reasons for this. For one, the BVI archipelago is compact—it’s only about 35 miles from Jost Van Dyke in the west to the tip of Virgin Gorda in the east—so there are no long passages getting from one destination to the next. The water is generally deep and free of obstructions, and the few hazards there are, such as rocks and reefs, are clearly visible with the naked eye as long as the sun is relatively high. Virtually all of the islands are clearly visible as well, so while it’s always prudent to refer to charts and a cruising guide, planning a day’s itinerary is no more complicated than pointing to an island and saying, “Let’s go there.”
Anchoring is a pleasure, not only because the bottom is usually sandy and unfouled, but because most anchorages—both daytime and overnight—have mooring balls that are maintained by a separate agency. Nowhere in the world will you find a more enticing variety of shoreside restaurants and quirky bars, and, of course, there’s the environment. The air and water are unfailingly warm and the wind always blows—and from the same direction. Large frontal weather systems are rare; it does rain but usually for no more than 20 minutes, and then the sun comes out and it’s more beautiful than ever. And finally, it’s close. Leave on an early-morning flight from nearly any major U.S. airport, and you can be at anchor on your bareboat that evening.
Sounds perfect, no? And it is, which explains the single biggest problem with chartering in the BVI: its popularity. In fact, during peak season, things can get downright crowded, and you may find yourself jockeying for both a mooring ball and a dining table. And you may not be able to get the boat you want. A popular option like the Moorings 393 Power Cat—perfect for two couples or a family of four—may be sold out, and you might have to settle for a larger and more expensive vessel like the Moorings 474 Power Cat or even—heaven forbid—a sailboat.
But the Virgins are not always crowded. In fact summer in the BVI can be an exercise in blessed solitude. Why don’t more boaters charter between July and September? Well who wants to go to the Caribbean in the summer, when it’s hot and there are all those hurricanes?
Surprise. It’s not hot. The average maximum daytime temperature in the summer is about 89 degrees; in the winter it’s 84 degrees, and with the constant trade winds, you’d be hard-pressed to notice that five-degree variation. It does rain more in the off-season—the wettest months are September through November—but again, the difference is minimal and you’re talking about passing squalls, not impacted fronts.
But oh those hurricanes. Peak season is August through October, and who wants to deal with that possibility? Well, maybe you, once you realize the likelihood of actually encountering one. Since 1944 a hurricane has hit the BVI about once every 11 years—pretty long odds. The most recent one was Earl, and while it did some damage, it passed quickly and most charters lost only a day on the water—which is a lot less than what was suffered by continental U.S. residents as Earl moved up the coast.
I’ve been through two hurricanes aboard charter boats in the BVI—Georges in September 1998 and Frances in August 2004—and in both cases, I spent just a half-day hunkered down in a protected bay as the storm blew by. That’s not to say that a major hurricane is impossible. Two big ones have occurred in our lifetime: Hugo in September 1989 and Marilyn in September 1995. But even those were just one-day events on the water.
And besides, it’s not like you’d be completely unprepared. The prudent summer charterer closely monitors weather reports well ahead of his trip, and if a strike is in the offing, works with his charter company to reschedule. After all, the last thing anyone wants is a boat and crew at risk. And travel insurance is a very inexpensive way to make sure that whatever happens, you won’t take a financial hit.
So what’s the upside? For one thing, you’ll have no trouble getting the boat you want, and you’ll pay a lot less for her too. As an example, if you charter that sweet Moorings 393 Power Cat in the summer, expect to pay about 40 percent less than if you chartered it in peak season.
And once you’re aboard, expect uncrowded anchorages with plenty of moorings, even if you arrive late in the day. The same is true for resorts and restaurants. I chartered a 393 last fall and was able to not only pick up a mooring at the popular Bitter End Yacht Club (www.beyc.com) on Virgin Gorda—admittedly the destination in the BVI—but also offer my party of three a prime waterfront seat in the dining room, all without a reservation. Try that during peak season, and you’ll be cooling your heels at the bar for a few rounds.
Of course, hurricane season in the BVI isn’t for everyone. There is some risk, and lots of boaters prefer to be in their home waters during the summer. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. Why not break up your summer boating with a week in the BVI? You might just get addicted to its nearly perfect water, weather, and carefree navigation.
The Moorings, 888-952-8420; www.moorings.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.