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St. John Yacht Charter: A Week of Great Harbors

Small but with a powerful draw, St. John offers several excellent harbors for bareboat or crewed charters.

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St. John Overview

For charterers out of St. Thomas who want to spend their whole time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, foregoing a sail up Drake’s Passage through the British Virgins, or westward to the Spanish Virgins, St. John can offer great harbors for a full week of sailing, snorkeling, or just lazing in the sun. Visit the USVI overview page for a sample itinerary.

Thanks largely to the efforts and generosity of conservationist Laurance Rockefeller, who donated thousands of acres of the island in the 1950s, about two-thirds of the island makes up the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, while today much of the surrounding seabed, studded with coral and teeming with diverse marine life, is designated as the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument.

Overlooking Trunk Bay, St. John

Overlooking Trunk Bay, St. John. Credit: Doug Logan

This means that the pace of life within the park areas tends to be much slower, quieter, and, logically enough, more regulated than the two town centers – Cruz Bay on the west end of the island, with its busy tourist scene, and Coral Bay on the east side, home to a big harbor with local boats, as well as several good restaurants and shops.

An important part of the relationship between the National Park Service and boaters, whether crewed or bareboat charterers or private owners, is the mutual interest in protecting the natural beauty of the island. Because of years of carelessness, much damage was done to the coral around the island, and today anchoring is prohibited in much of St. John’s surrounding water. This is as it should be, but for sailors during the prime chartering season it can be both a blessing and a frustration. The park service has taken considerable care to install scores of safe, strong moorings in popular harbors around the island, and these are available for nominal overnight charges which are paid on the honor system in Park Service drop-boxes. First come, first served. It’s easy to pick up a mooring pendant, and easy to sleep knowing that your boat is secure for the night. The downside is that in prime chartering season it can be like musical chairs in the popular anchorages, with boats dashing from bay to bay, more concerned with getting a mooring for the next night than with absorbing the surroundings. (This is generally true in the British Virgins, too, during the winter months.)

In many cases, anchoring is permitted within certain boundaries if all available moorings are taken, but if you’re bareboating, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the National Park Service’s Boater Information, which includes detailed instructions on how to use Park Service moorings as well as links to maps showing the outlines of Perk Service territory, both on shore and underwater.

us park svc mooring pay station caneel bay.doug logan photo

The U.S. Park Service maintains moorings and honor-system pay stations in several harbors in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Credit: Doug Logan

For charterers bound eastward out of St. Thomas and looking for bright lights, music, restaurants, bars, and shops -- but on a smaller, more intimate scale than the scene in Charlotte Amalie -- Cruz Bay on St. John will be a good stop, although the harbor is crowded and you will need to take your dinghy ashore.

Moving clockwise around the island, the bays stretched west to east on the north side of St. John -- Caneel, Hawksnest, Trunk, Cinnamon, Maho, and Leinster, are so close together that they could all be visited in one day. But that would be hurrying, and hurrying doesn’t work in the Virgin Islands. From any of those harbors, better to get a late start, reach out across the trades past Great Thatch towards the uninhabited British Virgin islands of Great Tobago and Little Tobago, with Jost Van Dyck just six miles to the east – then reach right back again and pick up a mooring in the next St. John harbor.

For a bit more adventure, sail around the point of St. John’s East End, the eastern part of which lies outside the National Park areas, and check out Long Bay and Hansen Bay. Farther inshore, inside the protected Coral Reef National Monument, are Hurricane Hole and Princess Bay.

salt pond bay w. concordia. doug logan photo

Salt Pond Bay, St. John, with the Concordia eco-resort on the hillside above. Credit: Doug Logan

Keep sailing clockwise around St. John, past Leduck Island and around Ram’s Head (keeping well clear of treacherous Eagle Shoal) and explore the south side of the island. Salt Pond Bay offers good snorkeling and a nice beach. Poke into Kiddel Bay, Grootpan Bay, and Lameshur Bay – they have no moorings and anchoring is not permitted, but they’re well worth a look. Farther along there’s Reef Bay, which offers two daytime-only moorings close inshore.

Continue past the amazing array of shoreside homes perched on the steep hillsides on the southwest edge of St. John, with local harbors like Fish Bay, Chocolate Hole, and Great Cruz Bay to poke into, and soon you’re back at Cruz Bay, right across from Red Hook, St. Thomas. If you were wise enough to book a long charter, you might have time to circle St. John again.


Happy chartering.