Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o'heaven,
An' drum them up the Channel as wedrummed them long ago.
—SIR HENRY NEWBOLT
If Sir Francis Drake "quit the port o' heaven" today and sailed forth into the channel that bears his name in the British Virgin Islands, he would probably find himself in more peril than ever he faced from those 16th-century Spanish Dons whose beards he so gleefully singed. The danger would stem from the dubious seamanship and cocktail-hour bravado of the myriad "bareboats"—yachts chartered without crew—that cruise those waters. The rent-a-boats that make the BVI a favored rendezvous of latter-day Drakes have a tendency to collide, run aground, exhaust their batteries and, sometimes, imperil old ladies.
"We had a hell of a flap the other day," says Rick Brendlinger, a crusty young salt who serves as assistant manager for Caribbean Sailing Yachts Ltd., one of the islands' top bareboat outfitters. "Old gal got spiffled and locked herself in the head. Her pals weren't much better off. There was screaming and yapping like to raise the joombies—that's ghosts in island lingo. I finally had to go down through a hatch in the overhead to set her loose."
One recent morning early risers at The Bitter End, a popular anchorage on Virgin Gorda, an island at the far eastern reach of the BVI, were appalled (or amused, depending on the extent of their nautical know-how) as they watched a 44-foot ketch, in the lightest of breezes, go aground on the resort's sandy beach while all hands on board performed the legendary Chinese fire drill. Seems that the auxiliary engine had somehow run out of fuel—and no one thought to use the sails. No harm done, though. The yacht got a handy tow from a passing outboard-powered punt and was soon luffing gently out to sea, the clink of ice cubes and the glint of pre-breakfast Bloody Marys enlivening the morn.
As the increasingly crowded waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel attest, the BVI are attracting more and more visitors every year. The reason: as the rest of the Caribbean grows either too slick (with new high-rise hotels and condos sprouting like piles of guano along the once deserted beaches) or too political (witness the hooliganism and murder in the U.S. Virgins, the big ports of the Bahamas, and Jamaica), the BVI stay small, low-key and perfectly happy to remain a British Dependency, though, oddly, the U.S. dollar is the basic unit of currency in the islands.
The primary pastime, of course, is sailing. The islands—some 50 of them, with only 11,000 inhabitants—flank the five-mile-wide channel in tidy clusters with plenty of safe anchorages and few bottom-cracking reefs. Only Anegada in the far northeast is truly treacherous. More than 200 ships have foundered on her coral fangs, and the bareboat charter outfits do not permit their clients to sail those waters. (Anegada means "overflowed" in Spanish; it was thus named by Columbus when he cruised the islands in 1493.) What with the northeast trade winds blowing virtually year-round, a dead calm is as rare as a blizzard in the BVI. More than 200 sailing yachts are available for charter here, and any day, winter or summer, most of them will be at sea.
"We have 70 boats altogether," says CSY's Brendlinger, "and there are only about a dozen lying idle in port at any one time. January through May is the real sailing season. That's when the true sailors come down. Hell, the rest of the year they're sailing back at home."
On a Sunday afternoon when the new charters are faring forth, the scene at a bareboat dock is one of sheer chaos. Most vessels will already have been provisioned by the charter company—whether CSY, The Moorings (which rents some 80 boats from its new docking complex), West Indies Yacht or whomever—but more and more sailors do their own shopping. Pallid men and women, some already pinking up toward the inevitable lobster burn, stagger along the docks, laden with duffle, chow, grog and gear; now and then a spear gun bristles dangerously, or a half-gallon jug of rum goes crashing to the concrete deck. All crews have sat through an hour-long navigational and piloting session, learning the danger spots and the good anchorages. Unfortunately, many of the sailors wear the glassy gaze of the jet-lagged, and one wonders how much of that detail sinks in.
Brendlinger shrugs off the potential hazard. "These boats are virtually unsinkable," he says, thumping the gunwale of a 44-foot CSY ketch (Caribbean Sailing Yachts rents 33-, 37-and 44-footers, all built under the company's own aegis and bearing the designations CSY 33, CSY 37 and CSY 44). "Watertight compartments below the waterline and plenty of ballast—you'd have to heel one over on her beam ends and run aground at full speed to put a bad hole in her." CSY, along with the other bareboat outfits, won't rent to an inexperienced skipper; it relies on the truthfulness of the renter to determine just how skilled a sailor he is. "So far we haven't lost a boat or a customer," says Brendlinger.
Once aboard, the crew can set sail for anywhere in the BVI except Anegada, and there are more fine places to visit in these islands than a year's charter could exhaust. Tiny, empty half-moon bays where bareboating can live up to its other meaning; crowded resort anchorages where one can dress for dinner ashore or take a welcome freshwater shower ($2.50 at The Bitter End, for example). In between lies the BVI's other great allure, the underwater world of reefs and wrecks found off the shores of the smaller islands—Salt, Cooper and Norman Islands near Tortola; Eustatia, Prickly Pear and the Dog Islands near Virgin Gorda.
Tortola, with some 9,000 inhabitants, is the largest and most populous of the British Virgins. (Columbus named the entire group for St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions, who, according to legend, were martyred in Cologne in the fourth century by the Huns.) Tortola means turtle dove in Spanish, and plenty of those sporty, reddish-hued wild pigeons still remain, preyed on only by migratory hawks because no hunting is allowed. As for the dove-gentle aboriginal residents of the islands, the Arawaks, shortly before Columbus' arrival they fell victim to a hawk-like invasion of cannibalistic Carib Indians, who in turn were slaughtered or sent to their deaths in slavery by the Spanish conquistadors. According to the early literature, Indians made poor slaves; they either escaped or pined away to starvation and death. Thus the turn in the sixteenth century to Africa for hardy, obedient chattels, who were the ancestors of most of the BVI's current permanent residents.
The early Europeans in these islands mixed plenty of blood and gunpowder in the pellucid waters. England, Spain, France and the Netherlands battled back and forth for dominance of the West Indies. Buccaneers, pirates, wreckers and privateers used the hidden harbors as ambush points to attack the slow cargo and plate convoys that passed through Drake Channel from the Caribbean to the Atlantic. One small islet off Tortola bears the name Dead Man's Chest. It was here, runs the tale, that William Teach—Blackbeard the Pirate—marooned part of his crew with nothing but a cask of gold and plenty of rum. When Teach returned, the rum was gone, the men dead, and the gold nowhere to be seen. It hasn't been found since, despite magnetometers and avid searching. Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of Perrier.
Road Town, with a population of 4,500, the closest thing to a city that the BVI can muster, is the hub of sailing activity in the islands. Here all the big charter outfits are headquartered, along with a handful of low-rise and low-key resort hotels (page 59) and concomitant support facilities—boatyards, outboard repair shops, car rental agencies; a delightful bookstore in the old town called Past & Presents, and, most delightful of all for the charter party that wants to do its own provisioning. The Ample Hamper.
Opened only three years ago by an English couple, Robert and Sally Dick-Read, The Ample Hamper has won over so many sailors to self-provisioning that the Dick-Reads now have two outlets in Road Town, one in the Village Cay Marina and the other at The Moorings. Fresh fruit, veggies, eggs and milk are supplemented by home-baked bread and costly but decent meats. That's for starters. In the mood for some Subahdar Lime Pickle? Fortnum & Mason's jams? How about pepperoni, Dutch cheeses or Vermont General Store Stoneground Wholegrain Wheat Flour? A box of fine Uppmann cigars from Castroland? Or would you rather a taste of Callard & Bowser's Old English Treacle Brittle? The Ample Hamper has them all, plus a stock of potables ranging from British Navy Pusser's Rum to Dom Perignon.
Robert Dick-Read, a photographer and African art aficionado before his transmogrification to BVI bareboat outfitter, and Sally, who once edited the British fashion magazine She, came to the islands 15 years ago, long before the bareboat business made the British Virgins a mainsail Mecca. "The bareboats were heaven-sent," says Robert. "We loved these islands but we were struggling—a car rental agency for a while, a bit of this and a bit of that. Then we hit on the self-provisioning idea—and bingo! Excuse me, please, there's a clamor from the customers who want to catch the outgoing tide...."
For the non-nautical visitor, there is still plenty to see and do on Tortola: snorkeling, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, beachcombing. Olympic yachtsman Steve Colgate runs his Offshore Sailing School out of the Treasure Isle Hotel in Road Town, and under the tutelage of the school's instructors, Dick Illmer and Peter Johannet, even the lowliest landlubber can learn to day-sail. The school uses 27-foot Olympic-class Solings as its primary teaching boats, and a week of morning classroom sessions and afternoons spent practicing in Solings on the breezy reaches of Road Harbour is excellent preparation for sailing bigger vessels and going on longer, deep-water cruises. My three-hour stint as a crewmember aboard one of Colgate's boats was more fun than I've had since the cow kicked over the outhouse: I simply couldn't capsize the thing, hard as I tried.
But the high point of Tortola, at least for the amateur natural historian, is literally the high point: 1,780-foot Mount Sage, the tallest peak in the BVI. Once a week John Smith, the estate manager of the Treasure Isle Hotel, leads a hike up the mountain and into the last remaining vestige of virgin rain forest in the BVI—a 50-acre parcel of beauty that few yachtsmen ever see. Smith, an Englishman who studied botany at Cambridge and Zurich, is a short, wiry plant lover with a special interest in island flora. At sea level he seems preoccupied and humorless; put him in his beloved patch of rain forest and he is all smiles, wit and information.
The road up Mount Sage is rutted, pot-holed and washed out in spots by recent heavy rains, but Smith pilots his Land Rover deftly through the stickiest spots. From a meadow near the peak where a chilly wind whips the grass in waves, you can look out over the entire spread of the BVI; on a clear day even Anegada, 30 miles distant, is visible. The sea is spiked with white sails—there must be 200 boats coursing up and down Drake Channel. To the north and far below lies the white-sand crescent of Cane Garden Bay, one of Tortola's best beaches. A few boats are anchored just offshore.
"The trail's a bit muddy from the rains," says Smith, leading the way to the top of the mountain. It's not a tough hike, because Smith stops at every other bush and weed to indicate something of botanical interest. "This is the so-called 'mammy apple,' " he says, pointing to a tree with shiny, elliptic leaves and handball-sized fruits just beginning to form. "Mammea americana. The fruit gets as big as a cannonball. It's apricot colored and very tasty. Down in Martinique they make Crème de Creole out of it."
Smith says that there are at least two dozen plants native to the BVI that are familiar house plants up north—peperomia, philodendron and dieffenbachia, among others. He points out a philodendron that stands a good 40 feet tall. "The Germans used dieffenbachia extracts for their sterilization experiments during Hitler's time," he adds. "If you chew a leaf of this plant, it causes temporary paralysis of the jaw." We stop to sniff the crushed leaves of Pimenta racemosa—"Bay rum," says Smith. "Before 1940, all the world's supply of bay rum came from this island group."
We pass through a gate with a sign that reads NO SMOKING OR LITTERING and enter the rain forest proper. Up to now we've been in second growth. The trees are thick-trunked, smooth-barked, looped and intertwined with one another and with a living webwork of vines. Parasitic bromeliads sprout from convenient crotches. A dim, greenish light barely penetrates the upper canopy of foliage. Great granitoid boulders stud the mountaintop—one reason the area was never logged off. "When the first Europeans arrived," Smith says, "this rain forest covered the island from 200 meters elevation to the top. Axes and saws took care of most of it in short order. The first settlers must have been awed by the rain forest—it was eerie, beyond their experience. Then, too, they needed open land to grow sugarcane."
For the next hour, as the sun sloped over nearby Jost Van Dyke Island (pop. 130), Smith enthuses over one plant after another. Here a reptilian-looking, ridged-leaf plant called Miconia laevigata; there the rare Ilex urbanii, a member of the holly family of which only 12 examples can be found, on Tortola and Puerto Rico, 60 miles to the west, which were one island during the low-water period of the last glacier. At one point. Smith begins clambering up a thick, rough-barked vine that looks like something Tarzan might favor. "This is pitch apple," he says. "Clusia rosea. It's a true strangling plant—climbs up its host, kills it, then uses its victim's trunk as a kind of skeleton to keep itself up near the light. The pitch can be used to caulk boats, and you can write on its leaves." He makes indelible marks with a stick on a big, oval leaf. "The Spaniards called it the autograph tree. They used to play cards with its leaves."
After the ancient silence of the rain forest, Road Town seemed honky-tonk—all bright lights, taxi horns and the ubiquitous steel bands. It would be good to shove off tomorrow for the less populous island of Virgin Gorda.
Where Tortola is bustling and British in tone, Virgin Gorda—named "the Fat Virgin" by Columbus for its resemblance to a plump, reclining girl—is slow, sprawling and laid-back. Gorda has a population of barely 1,000, and the road that connects the hamlet of Spanish Town at the southwest end to the North Sound resorts in the northeast was built only 17 years ago. A big new marina and shopping complex near Spanish Town makes it a hot spot for bareboaters, but the real attraction at that end of the island is the area known as The Baths, a jumble of house-sized, sea-and-wind-sculpted boulders interlaced with caves, grottoes and echoing labyrinths. The Baths consist of stone alien to the Virgins, but identical to that found in the Carolinas on the U.S. East Coast, leading some geologists to speculate that during the breakup of the last glaciation a huge iceberg covered with such rocks broke loose and drifted south, melting finally when it ran aground on Virgin Gorda. Others theorize that the rocks were spewed by volcanic action. Whatever the reason, the results are striking: snorkeling among the submerged rocks is like swimming among Poseidon's building blocks.
And if you go scuba diving in the coralline underwater world that surrounds Virgin Gorda, you'll probably meet Poseidon himself—or at least his latter-day lookalike, Bert Kilbride. A scuba veteran of more than 30 years' experience, Kilbride at 65 is a lean, dark, saturnine man with a frizzy beard and a penchant for gold jewelry retrieved from the sea. Bert's home and dive-shop are on Saba Rock, a coral outcropping grown with cactus that lies just off the beach of The Bitter End, a resort on Gorda's North Sound. From here Kilbride runs his 40-foot dive boat, Shah, to the rocks, reefs and wrecks that make the area one of the most varied grounds for underwater exploration in the Caribbean. His slogan is "Dive With Pride with Bert Kilbride," and it decorates T shirts he sells that show a tiny scuba diver confronting a huge shark. The diver is gesturing to the shark and his message is far from polite.
Bert's home on Saba Rock is comfortably cluttered with memorabilia from his long diving career, many of the items taken from the wreck of the Royal Mail Steamer Rhone, which, on Oct. 29, 1867, went aground off Salt Island during a hurricane. "She was the newest and finest vessel in the Royal Mail fleet," Bert says, "a spanking 310-footer under the command of a Captain Wooley. They were loading for their return to Southampton that day when the barometer began to fall. Everyone figured it was too late in the season for a hurricane—it must be a norther, which they reckoned they could weather. Then, at 1100, the glass fell fiat—down to 27.95—and a big wind blew up, ripping away a spar that killed the first officer. When the wind abated at 15 minutes past noon, Wooley decided to run out to sea and gain some maneuvering room.
"The second blast hit the Rhone just as she turned the corner at Salt Island. She would have been home free in another couple of hundred yards. Anyway, she broke up instantly on the rocks and sank in three pieces. There were 129 officers and crew aboard, as well as 16 passengers. All but 21 of the ship's company died, and the only passenger to pull through was a little Italian who spent six hours in the water."
Among his mementos, Bert counts the skull of the ship's carpenter. "His name was Steve Kenyon," he says. "We found his name on this snuffbox right with the skull." Other salvage includes His-and-Hers chamber pots ("Hers is bigger") and ironware table service for 16 persons bearing the Royal Mail company seal.
"I've been diving on her since 1958," Kilbride says. "They shot a lot of the wreck-diving footage for the movie The Deep in the hold of the Rhone. But you'll see for yourself tomorrow morning."
Bert wouldn't be able to guide me personally on the Rhone dive. He had an engagement with the Chief Minister, from whom he was seeking permission to salvage the wreck of an early 16th-century Spanish vessel he'd found on Anegada. My fate among the morays would be in the hands of his 26-year-old son, Jim, and Jim's diminutive girl friend, Francine Buckell. Jim is a short, peppery extrovert who "grooves" on the underwater scene. He emits groans of delight as he swims through a tentacled clump of slippery-soft gorgonians, and chirps gleefully through his regulator at the sight of a pair of spotted eagle rays flapping in slow-motion formation over a bed of staghorn corals. Francine, who weighs only 90 pounds and looks like a short-haired Veronica Lake, is more reserved and enjoys giving orders to the divers in a harsh, British drill sergeant's voice.
A heavy swell was running from the southwest when the Shah dropped anchor over the Rhone wreck, sending swirls of foam whorling over the rocks that took the packet's life, but 10 feet underwater all was calm. I followed Francine headfirst down the anchor line. Squadrons of fish greeted us at the bottom, looking for a handout: angels, parrots, trumpetfish, spadefish and a five-foot-long, baleful-eyed barracuda that the Kilbrides call Fang. We were at 75 feet and had no time for feeding them. Angling off to her right, Francine swam through a huge, upright framework of stanchions. Encrusted in gaudy corals, it resembled a Greek portico or perhaps a giant's bedstead. Then down, down into the gaping blue-black hole that led to the Rhone's ruptured hold. The sharp lines of a man-made structure in the midst of the sea's random array of forms, all of it covered in reds and yellows and blues and greens of coral, put me in mind of lines from Shelley's Ode to the West Wind:
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day.
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!
In the dark of the hold, something moved. Francine whooped through her regulator and grabbed for it—a hawksbill turtle. As her hands closed on the rim of its two-foot-wide shell, the turtle bolted back the way we had come, carrying Francine along until it crashed blindly into an upright stanchion. Then, with a clank and a cloud of gray marl, the turtle slipped loose and disappeared. Emerging from the hole, we slid down one sloping side of the ship, angling past corroded portholes that yawned at us with coral teeth, to a cannon that lay pinned under the wreckage. I peered into the muzzle. Three shrimp squirted out.
We prowled around and through the wreck for the better part of half an hour. The eerie green gloom reminded me of the rain forest I had visited on Mount Sage. Odd that, to my mind, the two most compelling places in the entire BVI should be the mountaintop and the deep. By contrast, the nodding palms, the powdered-sugar beaches, even the million-dollar yachts heeling along with bones in their teeth appeared workaday, banal.
I would dive again with the Kilbride Gang, but in shallower water and through less stirring scenery. I would snorkel around the strange rocks of The Baths, and in the caves at Norman Island, feeding bread crumbs to fleets of voracious sergeant-majors; I would explore the Indians, pinnacles that rise 50 feet above the sea and descend as far below into the rocky shoals across the way from Road Town. I would check out the other resort hotels on the islands and even spend an amusing half hour at the Tortola dump where huge pigs root in the smoking rubble while pelicans dive-bomb the shallows offshore. But the high point and the low point—the mountain and the wreck—would remain for me the essence of those easy islands.
JOST VAN DYKE
Sir Francis Drake Channel
DEAD MAN'S CHEST
JONES' GUIDE TO BVI HOTELS
For those visitors who don't care to spend their time on either a bareboat or a crewed charter, the British Virgin Islands offer plenty of first-rate resort hotels, each with its special ambience. Herewith some observations from Robert F. Jones:
Treasure Isle Hotel on Tortola is a neat, efficiently run hospice that offers a saltwater pool, its own dock, a courteous staff, a steel band on Wednesday nights and—most important—a central location that puts it within easy walking distance of Road Town. Botanist John Smith, the hotel's estate manager, conducts weekly hikes in the rain forest on Mount Sage. On request. Manager Peter Wimbush and his staff will arrange activities like day sailing and snorkeling expeditions. A tennis court is also available. Double room in season: $70.
Sugar Mill Estate, near Tortola's west end, is precisely that: an old sugar mill affable owner Len Kushins, a retired New Yorker, and his British wife, Joan, have turned into a 21-room hotel. The old mill walls, many of them studded with ballast bricks and brain corals, are bright with the Haitian paintings Kushins collects and sells. The cook, Mrs. Scatliffe, has a fine hand with everything from grouper to chicken Veronique. Quiet and convivial, though remote. Double: $52-58.
Smuggler's Cove Hotel fronts on Tortola's prettiest half-moon beach, but is reachable only by a tortuous, pot-holed road. The place is out-of-the-way, somewhat run-down and was plagued with mosquitoes when I visited. "It's all that rain we've been having," said Mrs. Nell Denniston, who with her husband, Bob, an avid ham radio buff, operates the hotel. There's a good snorkeling reef offshore and plenty of seclusion, at least from people. A restaurant is available. Double: $43-48.
The Bitter End Yacht Club, accessible only by yacht or motor launch from Gun Creek Landing at the northeast end of Virgin Gorda, is virtually a community unto itself. Its cool, breezy cottages overlook one of the BVI's busiest bareboat ports of call. An excellent kitchen offers fresh grouper and lobster; orange juice and champagne is a regular breakfast libation. Managers Don and Janis Neal run a taut but friendly ship stop. Double: $160 with meals.
Biras Creek Hotel, just around the corner from The Bitter End, perches atop a narrow neck of land with a coral-studded, surf-lashed beach on one side and a sheltered harbor to leeward. The architecture is Hamlet Modern—manager Jorgen Thonning is a Dane—and despite its setting, the place has a chilly feel about it. Tennis courts, a network of walkways through some superb plant-and-bird-watching country, and an excellent kitchen help to thaw the chill. Double: $185 with meals.
Fischer's Cove Beach Hotel, just outside of Spanish Town at the west end of Virgin Gorda, is run by Andy and Norma Flax, who cater to a family clientele. A lagoon protected by a reef offers safe paddling for the kiddies. Convenient to both airport and town. Two-bedroom house with kitchenette: $420 a week or $90 a day.
Olde Yard Inn, near Spanish Town, has no pool, no beach and no sailboats. But it does have a library that, for a book lover at least, renders the sun almost unnecessary. Owners Ellen and Joseph Devine are bibliophiles, and their collection includes complete hardcover editions of Dickens and Austen, lots of Conrad, and Nordhoff & Hall, as well as history and other nonfiction. Backgammon and chess boards round out the atmosphere. The food is first-rate. Double: $75-95, includes breakfast and dinner.
Peter Island Hotel And Yacht Harbour, a 545-acre complex on a small isle across Drake Channel from Road Town, likes to advertise that it offers "nothing," i.e., a true vacation. That "nothing" includes the customary sailing, snorkeling and beachcombing, plus horseback riding or walking on miles of lonely trails, an abundance of bird and animal life and a ferry service that runs six times a day to Road Town. General Manager Bruce Baxter collects tropical birds, and his parrots, cockatoos and the like are displayed in floor-to-ceiling cages. The food rates with the best in the islands. Double: $210 with meals.