Friday, June 20, 2014

Sailing in the Dream like Waters of the British Virgin Islands (Chapter 1 of 8)

Since we got our boat five years ago, we had talked about chartering a boat with our dock mates at Pier 121.  Typically these discussions would happen late at night when anchored out/rafted up In some small cove on the lake.  It would typically be after many drinks and we would forget the discussion the next morning.
These discussions ebbed and flowed like the gentle tide and it never seemed that anyone, including us, would commit to a date and just do it.  Years went by, Deb and I moved but stayed in contact with our friends there and would all get together a few times a year and these discussions continued over drinks.
Then all of a sudden it happened, the charter discussion came up, someone threw out a date and we all went and made the appropriate plans for taking off of work, budgeting, etc.  With that the plans were finalized.  Seven of us in early June on a catamaran in the British Virgin Islands.  Done.  Flights made, provisions ordered, booze planned, lists of things to bring, deposits made and then it was just counting down the time until it came time to depart.

So Thursday we all met in PuertoRico at the airport and then all took the same flight to Beef Island, Tortola.  We arrived about 8pm and the charter company had arranged for a van to pick us up at the airport.  Even with a delayed flight the driver was patient and waited for us.  Upon arrival at the charter base, the office was closed but there was a note on the door telling is which boat was ours.  We loaded our stuff in the boat, popped open a few beers and relaxed on the back deck of the boat.  We had made arrangements to spend the night before our charter on the boat rather than a hotel.  

A little bit about the charter company and boat.

We chose Conch Charters.  They are what some would call a tier two charter group meaning that the boats are not brand new.  If you use someone like Moorings or SunSail you will typically get a boat less than 5 years old.  When boats are a bit older than that they often go to the tier two charter companies.  As a matter of fact we could see on this boat where it once said "Moorings 4300" on the side.  The boat we had was in great working order, it was a 2005 if I recall and we were nothing but pleased with it.
Photo taken off Sandy Cay (Yes, we were flying our Texas flag proudly)
The boat was a Leapord 43' catamaran.  She was 24' wide and had a large cockpit that easily and comfortably sat all 7 of us.  The helm station was protected from the elements and the sun.  The large cockpit led forward through a set of opening glass doors to the large salon.  Galley to port, salon to starboard, and nav station to starboard facing aft.  There were views in all directions from the galley and salon with 6 opening ports/hatches in that area not counting the two large entry doors aft.  Down and to port forward was a stateroom with a large double berth and head with shower.  Forward of that was a small crew bunk that we used for storage.  The forward stateroom had 3 opening hatches and the head had two.  Aft of the forward stateroom was another that also had a double berth, head with shower and the same number of hatches/ports.  Under the aft bunk was access to the engines, bilges and water heaters.  The starboard hull was the same as the port so there were accommodations for 8 easily without feeling cramped.
We were very pleased with the boat.  The engines started right away and ran great.  Running them for two hours each day was enough to heat water and recharge the house battery bank with enough juice to run water pumps shower sumps, fans, lights, freezer, refridge, instruments, radios, etc and only one time in 10 days did we actually trigger the low battery alarm which was easily remedied by running the engines a little longer the next day.

Now on to Conch.  They were great to work with from the initial reservations, confirmations, answering questions, etc.  they provided a simple way to get them the information and experience of all crew members including the Captain and coCaptain.  When we arrived they had the boat lights on, air conditioning had been running to keep it cool and greeted us the next morning when they opened  They left a sign near the door of their office letting us know which Boat we should go to and where it was.  
They came aboard and briefed us on all systems, operations, etc.  This took less than an hour and was very thorough.  We then had the captains briefing where they went over the charts, provided all of our park permits, 
suggested anchorages, restricted areas, showed us where some of the more challenging reef navigation and provided us a cell phone in the event we needed to reach them or use it.  We scheduled our charter at the beginning of the "low season" which is essentially the first few weeks of hurricane season.  We had weather on the VHF and weather fax if we needed to download them.  Because it was low season, the rates were cheaper and the anchorages less crowded.  There was only one place where we didn't get a mooring like we had hoped to but were able to get one close enough that our destination was still just a short dinghy ride.
Upon return, they were just as good.  They asked us for anything we found that may be in need of repair and we pointed out a few routine maintenance items that would not be out of the ordinary for any of our own boats so certainly doesn't reflect poorly on the charter company or the boat.  These were as minimal as a sticking bilge pump float switch, a slow to drain shower sump, two heads with a joker valve that is likely approaching their time to be replaced but still working.  The only maintenance item we were not happy with was the anchor appeared to be bent and because of that just did not set very well.  We had a spare on the boat to use if we chose, but made do with what we had and picked up a mooring if it was a particularly grassy or rocky bottom.  They did a quick inspection of the boat, said that they would top off the fuel when the fuel dock opened and would charge it to the credit card on file.  They were going to have a diver check the bottom of the boat to be sure there was not contact with any rocks or reef that would do any damage to keels, rudders or props.  Check out took about 30 minutes and they arranged transportation for us to our hotel.

All in all, I would highly recommend Conch Charters.  We were all very pleased.  I had heard that in the past (late 90's) their reputation for good clean working boats was not that good, but that seems to have all a been completely remedied based on our experience.

Now back to our trip.  On the day of our charter we had preordered food for provisioning and the market would deliver right to the boat.  The first delivery was food and it came in boxes on a few hand trucks.  With a line of us handing boxes from dock to boat to salon we quickly loaded it all on board and the girls stocked the freezer, fridge and all of the dry goods.  Next came our booze/drink delivery.  This was embarrassing.  There seemed to be more of this than groceries.  The first load came down the dock and contained 3 cases of coke, 2 cases of Ting, 1 case of seven up, 2 cases of diet coke, 2 cases of bud light, 10 bottles of wine, 6 or so bottles of rum and 6 gallons of water.  Then the next load came down the dock and it was somewhere around 14 or 16 cases of Coors light. Conch provided us two coolers so we had cold water, soft drinks and beer.  We stores al the bottles of liquor in the salon seats and the cases of beer and soda in the aft end of the amas with plenty of room to spare.

We had planned on heading to Norman Island and anchoring in "The Bight" for our first leg of the trip.  The good news is that all of us on this trip have our own boats and most of us have or still live aboard, so we all "go with the flow" and on day one we needed to practice that.  During our flight to Tortola, one of our crew members arrived but their bag didn't.  We had confirmation in the morning. That it was on a flight and what time it would arrive.  It could be delivered to Conch but it would be a couple of hours after the flight arrived, so we decided that we would sail toward the east side of Tortola and stay in Trellis Bay right by the airport.  This meant day one was dead into the wind and as we got close to Trellis bay, we saw all the boats in the anchorage and chose to anchor inside the reef on Marina Cay instead.  It would be about a two mile dingy ride to get to the airport to pick up the delayed luggage.

The reef was nicely marked and we slid right in parallel to the reef and picked up our first mooring ball.  It was like we all knew what we were doing :)
             View to our right (See Reef)                                            View to forward, small waterside Cafe and Bar

Mike, ODay, and T took the dinghy to the airport.  Going between Beef Island and Marina Cay waves and wind conspired to make it a wet dinghy ride.  There were a few waves that broke over the dinghy and swamped it pretty good.  Running fast and opening the drain plug removed most of the water.  At the dinghy dock, there was a small store so trash bags could be bought to cover the duffle on its way back to the boat.  Those of us that stayed on the boat were oblivious to how wet the ride was until three soaking wet passengers unloaded from the dinghy and told us what they faced.  It was not dangerous, so just added to the stories that will be part of what has come out of this trip.

Oday and T took a swim over to the reef for a bit of snorkeling while the rest of us just relaxed in the sun and started to prepare for dinner.

We ate really well on this trip and just took turns making meals.  The first night Oday and T cooked and we had burgers cooked on the grill (mounted on the stern rail of the boat)For some reason food prepared on a boat just plain tastes better.  These had all the fixing including tomato, lettuce, cheese and onion.  We had a great fresh salad to go with it and chips to snack on.  The galley was fully stocked so we ate on china plates every day.  Someone other than the person that prepared the meal would clean up and it just sort of fell into a very well working routine on day 1.

The first evening we spent commenting on just how clear the water is, the weather being beautiful, the boat and how nice it was and just enjoyed being with good friends having a sundowner in the British Virgin Islands.  One of my favorite island type drinks is a rum and ting over ice.  I prefer spiced rum and I must say that Arundel Rum made in Came Garden Bay is pretty darn good.  Fill a glass with ice, add 1 part Rum to 4 parts Ting.  It is cool and refreshing. After a few hours of story and drinks, people were starting to get tired.  It is amazing how the fresh air, sun and water make you ready for an early bedtime.  With that, we each started to retire to our staterooms for bed.

What a great ending to our first night out on the water as opposed to at the dock.  There will be more blog entries related to this trip over the next few weeks.

We were playing a little bit with a little movie trailer for the trip.  This was based on little clips from the first day.  If you are reading this via email, you will have to click this link to see it.

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