Thursday, April 4, 2013

Final impressions of the BVIs


Now that we're back home, I thought I'd write a bit about some of our general impressions of sailing in the BVIs, in case anyone stumbles across this blog in preparation for their own trip. I know before we went, we did a few internet searches for ideas, thoughts, and advice, given that it was a long way and a big expense. So, for what it's worth, here are my two cents on a few relevant topics.


The Charter Company:

Prior to our trip, I spent a fair bit of time researching the various charter companies on their websites and thevarious sailing forums. We ended up going with Conch Charters, despite the fact that there was some negative opinion about them on some of the sailing forums. On closer inspection, it appeared that the negative opinions all came from one unhappy customer, and the criticisms didn't really seem – more like an unreasonable person with lots of time on his hands venting (or a competitor taking a cheap swipe? You can't really tell on the internet). Anyway, we went with Conch for several reasons. Mainly, they were significantly less expensive than the "first tier" companies (the Moorings and Sunsail). We knew this would mean we would get an older boat that had seen more use, and this certainly turned out to be true. However, given that we have chartered on older boats lots of times, and were comfortable fixing minor issues that came up, we were happy with this trade off. The service we experienced with Conch was very professional, and everything they promised, they delivered fully up to our expectations. Their charter base is a bit worn relative to the high end companies, but again, the people were pleasant, efficient, and responsive, so there is really nothing to complain about.

Would it have been nice to charter a newer, fancier boat? Definitely. Would it have been worth the money? Maybe not. In the end, we got to snorkel the same water, relax on the same beaches and eat in the same restaurants as those in the fanciest boats, and we were comfortable and well taken care of the whole time. Would we charter with Conch again? Probably, although if we were to go back to the BVI, it would be tempting to go with a different company in order to get on a different boat, just to experience a different manufacturer and a different sailing set up.

In the end, if we went back, I wouldn't stress as much about which charter company and what boat as we did prior to this trip. All the companies and boats we saw seemed professionally maintained, and well run. I think they are so busy, they can't afford to do things poorly. Any differences are minor shades of grey, but like everything else in life, you get what you pay for, so if you want a premium experience, pony up the dough and go with one of the top end companies. If you are just as comfortable with a slightly more used boat, you can save a few bucks on the charter, and buy more Painkillers at the beach bar. Either way, you can reasonably expect the company to take good care of you, and make sure you have a great experience.


The Boat:

Catywampus was a 2007 Leopard 43 catamaran, and based on the worn spots where the decals had previously been, we could tell that she originally was a Moorings boat. She was well maintained, but also had some signs of being heavily used, and I suspect she has had a busy charter life. She was more than adequate for our needs, and we were definitely comfortable on her. She sailed better than I thought she would, and we managed to keep up well with a 50 foot Voyage catamaran when we sailed across to Anegada. The sailing controls were not the most convenient, and we definitely needed at least two capable people on deck to handle lines, halyards, etc. whenever we were sailing. The anchor and chain were pretty worn, but the anchoring set up worked pretty well. The interior was comfortable and clean, but a gain, a bit worn around the edges. Overall, I'd say this is a good boat for chartering for a week or two. If I wanted to live on board a boat, I don't think I'd go with an older Leopard. I haven't been on any of the newer ones, but the Lagoons we have chartered previously have more liveable space, storage, etc., for long term use.


The BVIs:

The Islands themselves are an amazing place to charter, and deliver well on the promise of clear, clean, warm water, lots of sun, and easy sailing and navigation. It is really the perfect place to charter for someone without a lot of experience, as it is remarkably easy, with no significant tides or currents to worry about, and pretty consistent wind. The infrastructure for the sailing and tourist crowd is well established, and it is pretty hard to get yourself in significant trouble, and almost impossible to be very far from help if you do.

The downside of all this ease and convenience is that it is pretty busy, and the popular mooring spots were crowded during the spring break timeframe of our trip. We expected this, though, and set out early on the days we moved to new digs, usually arriving before noon. By doing this, we always managed to secure a spot wherever we wanted. The remarkable thing, though, that we didn't expect, was that it is pretty easy to avoid the crowds, simply by going to slightly less popular bays, and anchoring out, or even anchoring a bit away from a mooring field. There were several places we went into, picked up a mooring ball, and then realized that if we had looked around a bit more there was room not far away to anchor in the same area, a bit away from the crowd. As long as your main goal isn't restaurants, beaches, and night life, even during the busy time we were there, we managed a couple of quiet, relatively isolated nights by anchoring a little off the beaten path.

Given the relative lack of experience of many of the charterers there, most people spend to stick with the pack, and follow the published itineraries. The itineraries seem be designed, at least in part, to hook tourists up with the opportunity to spend money, so they largely focus around places with restaurants, yacht clubs etc. I won't write the name of our favorite spots, as I don't want to spoil the sense of discovery you could have by scouring the charts and looking for your own independent places. I will say that, if we went again, there are 4 or 5 places we would definitely go, and forego a few of the mooring fields we went to this time.


The People:

I can't say we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people living and working in the BVIs. Like any heavily travelled tourist destination, the overarching ethic seemed to be to separate travellers from their money as efficiently as possible, with as little personal interaction as necessary. The service was frequently brusque, and a few times downright surly. We got the impression that most of the locals were very clear they were unlikely to ever see us again, and they didn't have any vested interest in being pleasant, given that we would soon be replaced by another pink American with a fat wallet. It was slightly disappointing.

There were, however, a few remarkable exceptions. The lady that filled our outboard gas tank on Jost Van Dyke was initially as standoffish as everyone else, but when I took the time to engage her in a bit of conversation and ask about her life, she suddenly lit up with a big smile, and became really chatty. The same thing happened with our taxi driver from Charlotte Amalie to the St. Thomas airport when I asked him about where he grew up, and what it was like. And as I mentioned above, the staff at the charter operation was at the very least extremely professional, and a few were also really pleasant, personable, and welcoming. In the final analysis, I guess people, like everything else, give back whatever you put into them.

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