Sailing and Diving in Paradise
Rendezvous in the British Virgin Islands
by Bill Harrigan, Jun. 1997
Is there a diver who doesn't dream of sailing around the world on a luxurious yacht, exploring the world's great dive sites? For many of us, this is our rush hour entertainment, a fantasy we indulge in while stuck in traffic on the way to work.
Well, it doesn't have to be a fantasy; in the British Virgin Islands you can sail, dive and play ashore on some of the most perfect tropical islands in any ocean. With possibly the world's largest and most modern fleet of sail and power charter boats, scores of outstanding dive sites and beautiful beachfront resorts, the options are wide open. Stay ashore for part of your vacation and aboard a charter boat for the rest. Spend a week sailing on a dedicated live-aboard dive boat. Or, go straight to your own charter yacht and spend an idyllic week wandering the islands according to your whims. Circumnavigating the globe in search of diving adventure requires a commitment few of us can make, but the BVIs can be crisscrossed easily in a week and offer some truly world-class diving. And, the diving could hardly be easier, thanks to rendezvous service by the BVI dive operators.
Rendezvous Diving: The concept of rendezvous diving ranks right up there with automatic transmissions and permanent press fabric as far as convenience goes. Here is how it works: You wake up on your first morning as temporary owner of a yacht worth up to a million dollars and you feel like scuba diving. All you have to do is pick up the radio and call one of the rendezvous dive operators, such as Underwater Safaris, Kilbride's Underwater Tours, Dive BVI, Baskin' in the Sun or Blue Water Divers. Tell them where you are or where you are going to be and they will arrange a convenient rendezvous. No dive gear? No problem; give them your size and they will bring rental gear for you. If your companions sail while you dive, just let the dive operator know and they can deliver you to the new anchorage after the dive.
Dive instruction is also available on a rendezvous basis. This is particularly true of check-out dives for a certification course. You can take the academic and pool portions of your course at home and come down to the warm water of the BVIs for the open water dives rather than suffer through them in a cold, murky quarry.
The rendezvous diving concept makes diving and sailing more compatible than ever but there are some practical limits to keep in mind. The British Virgin Islands are serviced by landbased dive operators. Most of the popular anchorages are readily included but there are a few places where you're on your own. Having fresh tanks delivered to your boat by rendezvous is possible but not all of the operators are set up to provide that service.
BVI Diving: The diving conditions in the British Virgin Islands are as consistently good as you can find anywhere in the world. The visibility is nearly always 60 to 100 feet and frequently as high as 120. On three days out of the last five that I was there, the visibility was in the 100 to 120 foot range. The water temperature is typically between 80 and 84°F, dropping only a few degrees during a brief period in the winter. Thermal protection favored by divers from about March to December includes shorties, Polartecs, Lycra skins and T-shirts. Shorties and light wetsuits are more comfortable in January and February. The British Virgin Islands are not in the path of any strong ocean currents and the tidal range is fairly small, resulting in diving conditions where strong currents are rare. The conditions on the surface are usually calm, too, because the trade winds are blocked by the mountainous islands, creating protected lees where the water is flat. Most of the diving here is between 20 and 80 feet deep, and many of the most interesting parts are shallower than 60 feet.
The British Virgin Islands are not known for big creature encounters, although even these happen occasionally. During the last year, divers have been lucky enough to swim with Whale Sharks near two of the famous wrecks. What you can expect on every trip is an extraordinary number of fish species and a great deal of variety from site to site. BVI diving runs the full gamut and it will take you more than a week of intense diving to sample it all. More than anything else though, British Virgin Islands diving is a treasure chest for anyone intrigued by reef fish.
Another plus for diving in the British Virgin Islands is the protection afforded by the National Parks Trust Reef Protection Programme, in association with the BVI dive operators. Almost 200 moorings have been installed at prime dive locations throughout the islands. The moorings are of the environmentally sensitive embedded anchor type developed by John Halas at the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, which allow boats to be moored directly over the best spots without damage. Different color buoys have been installed for use by dive operators and charter boats, so potential conflicts are avoided while making it easy for everyone to enjoy the superb snorkeling and diving.
Superb Sailing: The British Virgin Islands are one of the best places in the world for sailing. In fact, many sailors would say they are the best place. The reason is these islands are blessed with nearly perfect conditions year-round. The clear, warm water, consistent winds and abundant calm anchorages are ideal for sailing. There are very few hazardous shallows and the islands are all within plain sight, so navigating is easier than finding your car in a mall parking lot.
Crewed or Bareboat: None of the sailing in the British Virgin Islands is difficult; the islands are too close together and the waters too protected for that; but a professional crew does all the work on a crewed charter. All of the charter companies offer this option, usually for their larger boats. For instance, a captain and mate are available on the Moorings 510s, 51 foot Beneteau high performance yachts that sleep up to eight in four separate cabins in addition to the two crew members. What is the advantage of a crewed charter? The crews are nearly all couples with extensive knowledge of the islands and many great ideas for what to do next. You can let them take care of everything, from sailing the boat to cooking the meals, while you just relax and have fun. It's like being one of those rich owners but you don't have to actually be rich. When three or four couples share the cost of a crewed charter, the price per person is competitive with many all-inclusive resorts. Another advantage of crewed yachts is that they can be booked by the cabin, so you don't have to charter the entire boat.
'Bareboat' refers to a boat that is chartered without a crew or provisions. You sail it yourself and buy and cook your own food. You don't need to be an expert sailor or have a Coast Guard license to take out a yacht, although you do need to prove to the charter company that you can bring the boat back in one piece. You would probably be surprised at how little experience is sufficient though, and the charter companies are generally willing to do whatever is necessary to build your competence to the proper level. For instance, if you know your way around power boats but you don't have much time sailing, many companies will let you take the boat with a captain for the first couple of days. When the captain is comfortable with your skills, he or she will sign you off to sail the boat yourself. If your experience with boats is very limited, there are learn to sail programs that combine two or three days of sailing school with a regular bareboat charter. The nice thing about this arrangement is that everyone learns at the same time, using the actual boat that you will sail on your charter.
Live-aboard Sailing and Diving: If you want the definitive combination of big boat sailing and diving, the trimaran Cuan Law charts a different course through the British Virgin Islands every week for up to 20 divers in ten spacious and air-conditioned cabins. You'll be pampered on this 105 foot luxury live-aboard, while making up to 18 dives from a pair of custom inflatables. Promenade is a 65 foot trimaran that combines a smaller dose of quality diving with all the other attractions of a week long sail. Promenade's 20 foot Wellcraft expands the diving horizon without interfering with other activities aboard. Millennium, a 55 foot performance catamaran, offers live-aboard dive and sail adventures for up to eight guests. Millennium is laid out for privacy and comfort and, like Promenade, is a favorite for family charters. All three of these boats offer the kind of exhilarating sailing that only comes from big boats with big rigs. Some of the harder to get to dives, such as the wreck of the Chikuzen, the wall at Drop-Off and cavern at Grand Central Station, are more likely to be reached on these larger live-aboards.
A Perfect Week: Six of us wanted a dive vacation together recently, so we chartered a boat to see how the dive/sail/shore adventure compares to staying ashore or diving on a live-aboard. We came with different expectations about diving. Some wanted to make a couple of dives, some wanted to dive as often as possible and one was not really interested in breathing compressed air at all. We elected to charter a crewed yacht, even though several of us are experienced boaters. It just seemed to free us up for fun, plus nobody wanted to cook. Besides, we had heard the food on the live-aboards and crewed charters was outstanding. Here is how our trip went:
Day One: We went right from the airport to our boat, a 51 foot Beneteau that was only three years old and still sparkled like new. Matt and Christina, our captain and first mate, were great. They seemed to have a sixth sense for when to be part of the group and when to leave us to our own devices. The charter company had already sent us a questionnaire about food, drink and activity preferences, so the boat was already provisioned and ready to go. Each couple had a private stateroom, including a double berth and a bathroom. The salon was large and airy; finished, like the rest of the interior, in lovely varnished wood. On deck, there was plenty of room for all of us to lounge comfortably in the cockpit, which was protected from the sun by a custom Bimini top.
We decided on an easy sail over to Norman Island from Tortola to get things underway. What a feeling to sit behind the wheel of that boat as it cut cleanly through the water! Our first stop was at the caves on Treasure Point, the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island. Matt moored the boat and then took us over by dinghy to snorkel in the caves. The shallow caves were filled with swirling Silversides and Copper Sweepers flashing brightly in the rays of afternoon sun.
Christina was taking fresh cookies out of the oven when we returned and we worked our way through the warm stack as we sailed to Little Harbour on Peter Island. Anchored close to shore for the evening, we watched a dozen or so pelicans dive bombing for fish and decided to snorkel over to observe the action. They were hitting dense schools of Silversides in about four feet of water.
Day Two: Right on time, the Underwater Safaris dive boat pulled alongside for our first rendezvous dive. We quickly transferred our gear, took a brief moment for the paperwork and we were on our way to Painted Walls. Three mini-canyons cut into Dead Chest Island at this site, with vertical walls literally covered with red, yellow, brown and green sponges and encrusting corals. The third canyon is the longest and ends with a swim-through that leads into a shallow pool. Pillar Coral, Brain Coral and many soft corals grow prolifically outside the canyons, where divers often come across Nurse Sharks and turtles.
For our second dive we made a leisurely run past Pelican Island to the distinctive rock formations of The Indians. We started the dive on the south side of The Indians, eventually making our way around the rocks to a point where we could cross a shallow lagoon and exit through a narrow swim-through back to the boat. The reef varies from encrusting corals on the tall slab side of the rock to big boulders of Star and Brain Coral on the level bottom.
After a short sail to Cooper Island, we moored opposite another fantastic beach for lunch. We were still ready for more diving, so we called for another rendezvous. This time Blue Water Divers was able to pick up us for a dive on the RMS Rhone. This is definitely one of the best wreck dives in the world. As is often the case, the conditions were ideal. Visibility was easily 120 feet and there was only a very light current. Built in 1865, the Rhone was 310 feet long and was one of the first commercial vessels designed with a propeller. Disaster struck only two years later, when the Rhone was broken apart on Black Rock Point during a vicious hurricane. The remarkably intact bow section lies on the sand in about 75 feet, while the stern section is scattered in shallower water. After the dive we sailed across Sir Francis Drake Channel to Trellis Bay where we dined watching the sun slide into the golden sea.
Day Three: After a gourmet breakfast we recrossed the channel to Virgin Gorda, mooring at The Baths. It's easy to see why this site is world famous, with its startling combination of smooth sand beach and giant granite boulders. We were happy to learn that it is one of 15 national parks in the British Virgin Islands, so it is protected from overuse and development. The unusual boulders are thought to have been formed about 70 million years ago and raised from the seabed by volcanic action sometime later. Once exposed, the wind and sea took over, gradually smoothing them into the round shape that they have now. Keith made sure we brought sneakers ashore and we needed them for climbing over and under the rocks. We even hiked down the shore to Devil's Bay, another park area where we snorkeled and relaxed on the beach.
We left The Baths and headed to North Sound. After mooring, we took the dinghy to shore and got a ride to the base of Gorda Peak so we could hike the trail to the top. The panoramic view was gorgeous. We could see across the rocky island of Fallen Jerusalem all the way to Tortola. For a change of pace we had dinner ashore and then retired to the boat.
Day Four: Since we were moored opposite the Bitter End Yacht Club, three of us dinghied over to dive with Kilbride's Underwater Tours while the others walked the Trail of Palms on Mosquito Island and snorkeled. We made two dives with Kilbride's, at Coral Gardens and The Chimney. Coral Gardens is a relaxing dive along a sloping reef bordering a level sand bottom. The fuselage of a Shorts aircraft sunk several years ago marks the turnaround point. The Chimney is another BVI dive that shouldn't be missed. In addition to a nice reef, there is a section where you pass through a shoulder width slot, the chimney, into a large cavern open at the top and then into a round tunnel leading out the other side.
Then it was on to Salt Island for another dive on the Rhone.
Day Five: After overnighting in Great Harbour we sailed to Sandy Cay near Jost Van Dyke to snorkel and sunbathe, then doubled back to the old pirate's anchorage at Soper's Hole. While half of our party went ashore to shop and sightsee at West End, the rest of us called upon Bas kin in the Sun for another rendezvous dive. They took us to a new spot called Little Thatch that has some of the most untouched coral we've seen. We reached the bottom of the reef slope at about 60 feet and spent the rest of the dive working our way back up to 15 feet, with lush coral and loads of fish all the way.
Day Six: We thought we had seen great beaches on this trip but Cane Garden Bay tops them all. After playing ashore for hours, we let Matt and Christina sit back while we sailed the boat past Frenchman's Cay to our first night's anchorage on Peter Island.
Day Seven: Back to Road Town. For the last week we had dived, snorkeled, sailed, hiked, ate and, yes, shopped until we were exhausted. Fortunately, we were booked at the Treasure Isle Hotel on Tortola so we could relax ashore before we returned home. During dinner we decided we would have to come back for another trip. After all, we had only been to a fraction of the 50 or so islands and we had missed so many great dive spots. We hadn't hiked to the top of Sage Mountain or bicycled around Tortola. We may need more than just one more week!
For more information about diving and sailing in the British Virgin Islands, contact the BVI Tourist Board at (800) 835-8530 or fax (212) 949-8254.
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The dramatic 1947 salvage of the cargo of the Diamond Knot was also filmed in 16mm color with technically accurate narration. The U/W portions of the film were presented by scientifically correct animated drawings. Copies of the film and of the 30 page booklet may again become available.
THE WRECK THAT ISN'T
Many people believe the Mary Celeste was wrecked. Such is not the case. The Mary Celeste became a mystery on December 4, 1872, when the De Gratia found her adrift in the Atlantic. Her crew and passengers had deserted her without a trace. The Mary Celeste was towed into port and eventually put back in service.
Of the five insurance companies that insured the vessel and her cargo, only one remains, the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company of New York. They had written Insurance on Freight on Charter. On the 100th anniversary of the company, in 1942, they published a 14 page booklet titled The Mary Celeste; The Odyssey of an Abandoned Ship. This small booklet may also become available.
Readers are invited to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to E. R. Cross, c/o Technifacts, SKIN DIVER Magazine, 6420 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90048-5515 with a request for information on both the Diamond Knot and the Mary Celeste.
There are more than one million wrecks in the waters of the world. In future issues of Technifacts many of the major wrecks will be reviewed. Stay with us and become one of the world's best wreck divers; from your armchair.
Kona Aggressor II First Handicapped Accessible Live-aboard: Last July, Aggressor Fleet invited two handicapped divers to evaluate the Kona Aggressor II and determine its accessibility to divers with disabilities. One diver was a paraplegic who works for the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) and the other was an upper extremities amputee.
Four days were spent diving and it was learned that the boat was quite accessible with minor modification. The catamaran design allows for more activities on each level, reducing the need to go from one level to the other. When that need does arise, the boat is equipped with a lifting device to assist wheelchair divers.
The showers have been redesigned, allowing the shower head to be raised and lowered. A seat is also available in each shower stall. Throughout the boat round door knobs were replaced with levers that will accommodate a diver with upper extremity prosthetics.
These modifications, as well as special handicapped diver course certifications, have earned the Kona Aggressor II an HSA Five Star rating. It is the first and only live-aboard to receive such a distinction. The new Fiji Aggressor is being built with similar features and will also receive a Five Star rating upon completion.
Captain James Hudgens is now a certified HSA Buddy Instructor and an HSA Dive Instructor. This training allows him to certify fellow Kona Aggressor crew members as HSA Dive Buddies.
For more information about Aggressor Fleet vessels, call (800) 348-2628.