There are six good reasons why the British Virgin Islands are the most popular cruising grounds in the Caribbean: Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, Norman Island, Peter Island, Cooper Island and Virgin Gorda. This necklace of gem-like islands is strung along Drake Passage, a protected channel whose steady winds and spectacular views make it one of the world’s great sailing venues.
The British Virgin Islands offer easy tropical cruising and a variety of island lifestyles. The best time of year for yacht chartering in the BVI is from November to April.
Numerous bareboat fleets, both sail and power, are headquartered on Tortola, while virtually every luxury charter yacht passes through the BVI at some point in the season. There are several modern marinas, but stunning anchorages are among the BVI’s chief attractions.
The must-see spots get busy during the winter season, and it’s best to hit them early so you can stay and play all day. They include the wreck of the Rhone off little Salt Island, where divers delight in the bones of the 310-foot Royal Mail Ship that sank in 1867, and The Baths – a garden of giant, semi-submerged boulders at Virgin Gorda’s south end. Evening activities such as bending an elbow at Foxy’s on Jost Van Dyke and the “Willy T” floating bar off Norman Island are equally popular. But the BVI’s broad beaches and uninhabited, sandy cays provide a beautiful natural balance.
Read Chris Caswell's story, Power to the Virgins
One of the reasons why chartering in the Caribbean is so popular is the weather, especially in winter, when sailors from northern climes delight in the balmy breezes and warm temperatures. The (mostly) reliable trade winds blow between 15 and 25 knots from the northeast, and a steady temperature in the low to mid 80s provide great sailing and comfortable nights.
The trade winds originate off the coast of Africa, and have been known to carry dust from the Sahara desert all the way across the southern North Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands. They have a huge impact on the Caribbean Islands from Hispaniola all the way down to the ABC’s (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), and their influence affects different parts of the Caribbean in different ways. Because they are further south, the Windward Islands (Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, and St. Vincent and The Grenadines) see milder temperatures during winter than the Leeward Islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Saba, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, St. Kitts and Nevis). The Windwards also have a more reliable breeze.
With their more northerly location, the Leeward Islands are more influenced by fronts drifting down from the mainland U.S., and can be slightly cooler and less windy, especially in the winter months. Because the trades are so reliable other effects can be noted as well. On mountainous islands the warm air is shunted up into cooler air, which produces rain. On islands such as Dominica, Nevis, and St. Lucia rain forests can be found, especially on their windward sides.
One drawback to chartering in winter can be the sheer number of fellow charterers who have all decided the same thing; that two weeks in the BVI in January is far better than two weeks in Chicago. Prices are higher, reservations are more difficult to get, and popular destinations are overcrowded.
Is there another time of year when the Caribbean is less crowded, less expensive, but still delightful? The simple answer is yes, and that time is in the summer, though you need to plan carefully so you don’t end up hunkered down in a hotel room watching palm trees get blown down and praying the power stays on as a hurricane roars overhead.
The two main worries of off-season in the Caribbean are hurricanes and the rainy season. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with the most active period running from mid August through the end of October. From May to July and October through December, the odds are definitely with you.
The hurricane probability table shown at left reveals the odds for individual islands. The best odds for a major hurricane strike in any given year in the Caribbean belongs to Antigua, which has a 6.7-percent chance. The lowest is Bonaire, with a 0.6-percent chance. Puerto Rico rings in at 4.2-percent, with the USVI scoring a 5.9-percent. In contrast, Miami scores an impressive 11.1-percent, and Cape Hatteras checks in with a 5.3-percent. See the rest of the list of hurricane probabilities for the continental USA.
Another way to virtually assure that hurricanes won’t mess with your charter, even at the height of the season, is to head “down island,” to islands such as Aruba, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Barbados. Those lucky few who live on boats in the Caribbean year round often head to those islands in hurricane season for that very reason.
The rainiest months of the year are May to June and September to October, but again, location is everything. The ocean temperature is cooler in the southern parts of the Caribbean due to upwelling (in which cold water rises to the surface as the wind pushes the warmer water south and west) and this helps prevent cloud formation, which means less rain and less likelihood of hurricane activity. The Caribbean islands which most benefit from this are Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.
A common misconception is the summer temperatures, which one would imagine would be much hotter than those in winter. But thankfully that’s not the case, and that, again, is due to those oh-so-helpful trade winds. The average temperature in Antigua in January is 83 degrees, but in August it’s only 88. The chance of seeing 100-degree temperatures is far more likely in the mainland U.S. than it is in the Caribbean, where such temperatures are mostly unheard of.
I’ve successfully delivered boats across the Caribbean Basin from Florida to Panama in August, from Tortola to New England in September, and from Sint Maarten to Panama in June, all safely and without worries, thanks to good forecasting and a firm grasp of the odds.
For more information about the Caribbean, or to find a yacht to charter, visit the YachtWorldCharters.com Caribbean page.
Tortola - Peter Island - Virgin Gorda - Jost Van Dyke - Norman Island
Sail from Road Town or Nanny Cay south across Sir Frances Drake Channel to Peter Island, a good overnight anchorage.
Depart early for the Baths, the site of an unusual rock formation at the southwestern end of Virgin Gorda.
Enjoy a few hours of snorkeling and exploring. Since the moorings and anchorage at The Baths are subject to an uncomfortable groundswell, enjoy a short sail across the channel to Marina Cay for the night.
A longer sail will take you up to the northeastern end of Virgin Gorda into the well-protected Gorda Sound. Enjoy the hospitality at The Bitter End, which is wonderfully welcoming to cruisers with four restaurants and a handful of bars.
Another long sail west along the north side of Tortola will take you to Jost Van Dyke, an area where you could easily spend a day or two exploring places like Sandy Cay.
Take some time to re-provision and check in with reality at West End (Sopher’s Hole) Tortola, where the WiFi is available for a fee and covers most of the anchorage.
A trip over to Norman Island will introduce you to the lure of that floating bacchanalia known as Willie T’s, a floating bar and restaurant located conveniently in the mooring field.
Photo courtesy Bitter End Yacht Club
St. Thomas - St. John - Tortola - Virgin Gorda - Cooper Island - Salt Island - Norman Island
Depart Compass Point Marina, St Thomas, cruise to Leinster Bay, on the north side of St John. Snorkel at Water Lemon Cay. Overnight anchorage.
Soper's Hole, West End, Tortola. Clear customs and visit the shops and restaurants. Spend the afternoon snorkelling and exploring Sandy Cay. Overnight at Little Harbour, Jost Van Dyke or Cane Garden Bay, Tortola.
Cruise up to Monkey Point at Guana Island for spectacular snorkelling. Overnight at Trellis Bay or Marina Cay.
Snorkel the Dogs and overnight at Virgin Gorda.
Enjoy the magnificent boulders at the Baths and continue on to overnight at beautiful Cooper Island.
Explore the Wreck of the Rhone at Salt Island before heading to Norman Island to overnight at the Bight. Snorkel the Caves for a breathtaking view of colourful Caribbean fish.
Cruise to St John. While anchored at Caneel Bay, head into Cruz Bay to clear customs and visit the village. Overnight at Hawksnest Bay before returning to St Thomas the next day.
Read Chris Caswell's story on a Virgin Islands powerboat bareboat charter.