On board a charter catamaran in the British Virgin Islands: the more we are the better


The author is preparing to jump in the Caribbean while she is docked in Anegada while her sister returns aboard the catamaran. The warm waters and tropical climate of the British Virgin Islands are ideal for swimming. (Rob Roberts / For the Washington Post)

I stood in the bow as we sailed into the small turquoise bay of Virgin Gorda. Feet tense for balance in the Caribbean waves, I shaded my eyes to keep a strong focus on any coral reefs on our route – a danger to the catamaran we had chartered for a week.

A flash of silver appeared in front of me with blue marks on the back. "Mahi!" I called. The two boys watching from the cabin stood up to see. My husband shouted and reached for his fishing pole holding one hand on the rudder. But the fish ran away.

We followed his anchorage route for the night to Savannah Bay, where we promptly dived. The sea was warm and just as clear. Our 4-year-old dog, with his yellow jacket and protective goggles next to me, sat next to me – just as we had trained in the Montana public pool – excited about the colorful fish that surrounded his toes.

We had flown to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) the night before on the tail of a storm, which had caused waves and winds greater than normal. Some members of our team – six adults and three children – had set up a Dramamine for the two-hour sail from Tortola to Virgin Gorda. Fortunately, the rest of the week seemed to be dry and sunny, returning to the constant trade winds that make these 60 tropical islands one of the best cruise destinations in the world.

My husband and I are greedy sailors and – as a friend jokes – "connoisseurs of the island". We have traveled over 10,000 miles through a dozen countries. Once our son was born, sailing has also become my favorite way to bond in the family – no television, no traffic, no things to do to distract one another. Only the sound of surfing, the joy of discovering new beaches every day and the intrinsic rhythm of waking up with the sun and falling asleep under the stars.

Since we live in a landlocked mountain state, cards are our favorite means of accessing the tropical settings we want to come winter. As a family, we took a cruise to the Bahamas, off the coast of California and Tonga. The BVI was our first card with our 6 month old baby on board.


A rainbow bends over Great Camanoe after a morning rain has passed. The bright colors of the BVI impress both young and old. (Rob Roberts / For the Washington Post)

But it is not necessary to be sailing experts to cross paradise. Instead of the do-it-yourself bareboat charter we prefer, many visitors choose to hire a boat that arrives with a captain or a complete crew. If the sails are not attractive, even several companies offer power yachts.

The BVI has one of the largest charter fleets in the world thanks to easy on-line browsing of the islands and dozens of beach restaurants, marinas and bars that accommodate boaters. Most dozens of rental companies are based in Road Town, Tortola's main port. We chose Dream Yacht Charter because we prefer to avoid the crowd: their beautiful fleet is located in a small marina near the airport.

After our family's charter experience last year in the Bahamas, we learned that sailing with young children is more fun if you bring other adults and other children with you as playmates. For the British Virgin Islands cruise, I invited my sister, my father, our good friends and their young son.

We met with all BVI outside of Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport. We had opted to take the 30-minute flight from Puerto Rico instead of flying to St. Thomas and take the ferry to Tortola, as we discovered that Jet Blue and United offered cheap flights to San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.

While flying over Tortola on the 12-seater aircraft, the damage of Hurricane Irma, which had hit the BVI the previous summer, was still excruciating. After 10 minutes by taxi from the airport, my son and I went around the base of the Dream Yacht Charter to see what the "storm looter", as he called the hurricane, had provoked. Amid the overwhelming views of twisted docks and windswept debris, we giggled when we spotted a yacht enchanted by a ship headed by a Halloween skeleton with a purple wig.

When we arrived at our bright new catamaran on the dock, my son clapped his hands. Usually, my husband and I rent the smallest sailing boat possible to keep the price down. But our largest crew meant having more people to share costs with. This was our first trip on a catamaran.


Mark Thompson observes Talon Randall Roberts bouncing on the net between the hulls of the catamaran near Prickly Pear Island. Sunsets are the perfect time to gather in the bow. (Rob Roberts / For the Washington Post)

Extra space and a smooth 40-foot lagoon ride proved to be compelling and decidedly preferable to a cramped monohull to entertain active children. The boat had four double berths, two single beds and four heads (boat for bedrooms and bathrooms), as well as two large seating areas and a wide open archway. We had provisioned in advance with a local grocery store by ordering online. The store delivered food and drink bags directly to our boat when we arrived.

Those drinks were useful at sunset. After snorkelling with colorful parrotfish along the rocks or built sand castles on the beach, our crew gathered in the bow for "sunset aperitifs" – gins and tonics for adults, orange juice for the children and a bottle of milk for the child.

The sky became pink, the ocean turned silver, a flock of flamingos flew to the west, and the boys bounced on the trampoline-like network that stretched between the two hulls of the catamaran. A perfect happy hour all around.

The next morning, after preparing sandwiches with eggs and bacon and having placed the boys at the table with the books with stickers and the child in the bunk for his nap, we lifted the sails and we headed north to Anegada, the. the northernmost island of the country. Renowned for its excellent fly fishing and snorkeling opportunities and world class lobster dinners, Anegada has not disappointed.

We got on the ground with our boat and we hired a pickup truck to explore endless empty beaches. My husband threw a 10-pound bonefish near the mangroves while my father and I were swimming watching a lemon shark moving among thousands of bait fish. Sitting barefoot at a table in the sand, we ate the red snapper and the broken rice at the Loblolly Beach restaurant. After lunch the kids – big and small – played on a swing made of old buoys and woods.


Finn Thompson and Talon Randall Roberts create their obstacle course on the Salt Island beach. When sailing with children, it is useful to spend time on the ground every day to let them run and play. (Rob Roberts / For the Washington Post)

Returning to the boat at the end of the day, my son and I combed the beach looking for treasures. He pocketed a shell of orange clams and a piece of wavy coral. I found a small coconut perfect for an impromptu soccer game.

That night, after our evening aperitif rituals and an easy-to-cook bratwurst dinner, mashed potatoes and carrot sticks, he and I sat side by side on the bow to watch the stars coming out.

"Mom, is that Venus?" He pointed to a bright star near the crescent moon.

"I think it's Mars, Venus is a morning star, so we can look for it when we wake up."

I put an arm around him. He yawned, rocked quickly to fall asleep with the slight rocking of the boat.

The next morning, during our three-hour sailing south, we gathered around the map to pick our next destination: one day just off the uninhabited island of Great Dog Island for snorkeling and lunch, then in a sheltered bay on the west side of Grande Camanoe for the night.

We prefer experiences off the beaten track, besides with the children on board we were not interested in the abundant nightlife focused on cruisers. So we chose to anchor in more remote areas rather than in front of the most popular tourist attractions.

Most evenings, we shared a colorful bay with only one or two other boats. Or completely absent, as in the case of our last night off Peter Island, where two turtles lifted their heads to greet us after we threw the anchor.

The guys both took a little jack with their dad's help. . . then she gasped in amazement as they watched a three-legged barracuda with a threatening bite darting to chew a fish off the hook. We nicknamed our visitor "Barry" and fed him to the crackers after dinner.

Last morning, my son woke me up at dawn. "Mom, we forgot to look for Venus!"

I followed her out into the warm breeze to see the distant waves turned into gold by the rising sun. We found the morning star in the east, winking at the lavender sky.

Smiling at my son, I thanked the sky for a week of light wind and the chance to cross paradise with my family and my friends.

Randall is a writer based in Missoula, Mont. His website is briannarandall.com. Find it on Twitter: @briannarandall.

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