My husband Stewart and I began this wonderful sport of sea kayaking after reading an article in The Great Outdoors magazine about a couple who kayaked and hiked for three days in the area of Loch Roag on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. We are keen hill walkers who travelled abroad on trekking holidays and also liked visiting the Hebrides in Scotland. We were intrigued about combining the two adventure pastimes. Our first trip in sea kayaks abroad was a two-week island-hopping journey in the British Virgin Islands. Surprisingly, at the time, the waters of the Caribbean provided us with some of the most challenging seas we had experienced in our early days of sea kayaking. The British Virgin Islands are located about 80 miles east of Puerto Rico and are popular with the yachting culture. Many of the people we spoke to spend the entire winter starting from Florida working their way south along the chain of Caribbean islands.
Logistics were not always that easy. Water was not available on the uninhabited islands and many islands were privately owned. Add to that a rugged landscape with small coves that rarely had beaches large enough to camp. If you were fortunate to find a beach large enough for your tent and kayaks, you were often confronted with sharp coral heads poking up out of the water ready to puncture your very seaworthy but expensive folding kayak. Night kayaking was out of the question because of these coral heads, and the yachts were usually berthed by 4pm since the coral is most easily identified when the sun is fairly high in the sky and lighting up the different shades of blue in the water. The water was truly exquisite – multi-hued shades of warm, crystal clear blue water.
Our flights went very smoothly, but I think it was our meticulous packing and keeping within the 2 x 23kg baggage allowance for each of us. That in itself required many sessions of packing and unpacking and weighing on the bathroom scale. We flew from Glasgow to London, London to Antigua and Antigua to Beef Island on Tortola, the largest island of the BVI. We were immediately immersed in the heat and Caribbean hospitality; several nice ladies greeted us with cups of punch at the airport entrance and a live band was playing some mellow reggae tunes. We collected our bags and took an expensive ($40) taxi ride to Brewar’s Bay campsite on the northwest coast of Tortola – a lovely sandy cove surrounded by palm trees. The campsite had large tents and tables already set up but they also had a few patches of sand for your own tent for $20. There was only one other camper there that night. So we settled down for what was to be some uncomfortably hot sleeping for the next two weeks.
Day 1: Brewar’s Bay to Cane Garden Bay to Smuggler’s Cove. We knew this section of the trip today and also tomorrow would test our fledgling kayaking abilities. We needed supplies and had two choices, either a $20 taxi ride to Road Town or kayak around the exposed north coast to Cane Garden Bay – one of the BVI’s most popular surfing beaches. In the winter the trade winds blow from the northeast or north daily at between 15-25 knots. That morning, in the shelter of the bay it looked relatively calm with no whitecaps and winds were from the northeast at a modest 10knots. Let’s go for it! We did, and the swells seemed enormous – a big surging, following sea at my head height with some waves occasionally higher. Much of the time we momentarily lost sight of each other. At first I was unnerved but soon relaxed my death grip and started to enjoy the rhythmic surfing of the open sea. How could I be afraid of these swells anyway? They were blue and warm and the sun was shining for God’s sake! After all, these are the very conditions I’ve been wanting to experience. We landed in Cane Garden Bay on the bit of coast that was to be mercifully free of big surf and headed for the supermarket in the small village. Our sand covered sandals brought disapproving glances and we soon learned to wash the sand off our feet by stepping into the small basins of water placed besides the entrances of beach bars or restaurants before entering. I love supermarkets in foreign countries. The products here were more American (my home country) rather than British. The BVI uses the US dollar and since I’ve been away the $10 bills have changed from green to orange. Strange.
We walked back through the village of brightly painted, plastered shacks which were mixed among the sumptuous mansions set on the scrubby hillside and set off into the swells to our campsite for the second night in Smuggler’s Cove. The landing was in gentle surf and we stripped off our t-shirts and shorts revealing hot, sweaty bodies in bathing suits and dove into that glorious, blue, warm water to rinse off before going into the little shack that was the beach bar for a couple of cold Heinekens. The customers were a mix of hippy ex-pat Americans and British, and native islanders. There was a perfect stretch of beach for a covert campsite not too close to any houses, but only a few hundred yards from the beach bar, so we waited until everyone left before setting up camp. Darkness came an early 7pm each night. A young American couple passed by and the woman asked, “Are you going to camp here? Can you do that?” Her husband replied, “Well they are.”
Day 2: We experienced more of the same wicked swell, but it was slightly overcast and a pleasant 10knots. We headed for a narrow passage between the BVI and US Virgin Island of St Thomas called Little Thatch Cut when the tide was at full flood of 2 knots. The rolling waves pushed us along until we rounded the headland to the marina of Soper’s Hole where we entered a different world of the yachtie subculture. The yachts and catamarans were huge and must have been in the 50ft to at least l00ft range some with masts dozens of feet high and were from all over the world.
Our big mistake was filling our collapsible 10L water bags in the bathroom. When I came out, I was confronted by a very big menacing man who looked like a policeman who told us it “was not proper” to just go in and take the water like that and you should ask the Harbour Master. Stewart politely asked, “where do I find the Harbour Master?” He replied, “Why I am de Hahbah Mahstah, mon!” As we bowed our heads in shame for committing such a dastardly crime, he said “Aw, it’s too late now, go on then.” Relieved he didn’t pull a gun on us; we slunk back to our kayaks and made a hasty retreat. Our next campsite was on an uninhabited island called Great Thatch. The machete came into use to clear the ground of sand burrs and small cacti. I found two foam camp seats on the stony storm beach and we were lucky to find a sandy patch just large enough on which to pitch our tent. Across the stretch of water, Thatch Cut was Little Thatch Island, where for a “modest” $500 a night you could hire a honeymoon cottage. I felt really smug until I found a small scorpion in our pots the next morning.
Day 3: The wind had really picked up (my hand-held wind anemometer read 17-23 knots) so it wasn’t a great day to make the 6km open crossing to Peter Island. We headed through the passage surviving the full strength of the 3knot spring tide surging against the stiff F5-6 which created a bucking bronco-type ride in the steep quartering seas. Luckily we were narrowly missed by the St. Thomas to Tortola ferry and finally reached the south coastline of Tortola now fully into the face of the afternoon F5-6 headwinds. Battling the chest high rolling chop was entertaining at first but after four hours was truly knackering. It was now near 4pm and we arrived at another posh Marina and running out of options for camping, begged the Harbour Master if we could camp on the small patch of scrubby ground behind the resort near the water. I was thrilled when he said “yes” and would’ve kissed him if Stew wasn’t standing there. It was a breezy night but our forearms were badly burnt and blistered and the salt, sweat and sunscreen were all starting to accumulate on my skin.
Day 4: Tortola to Peter Island. Our decision on where to go today was a turning point that would affect the progress of the rest of the trip. Continuing along the south coast of Tortola was out of the question since it was more densely populated and camping areas would not be easily available. By mid-May the trade winds should be coming from the E-SE, and not NE which would make our chosen route very hard-going since the chain of islands runs in a SW to NE direction. The sky this morning was looking a bit squally so we waited until around 10am before setting off. Miraculously, the clouds cleared, the wind switched to the E-SE at a pleasant 5-10 knots and the sun shone on a gently bouncing sea which made the 6km open crossing very easy and pleasant. Our next campsite was on the private, mountainous Peter Island in a lovely sandy cove. It had been previously used by a kayaking outfitter and was on the other side of the island from the marina and yacht club. So we set up camp, relaxed, lay in the sun and had a nice swim.
Later that night, we were awakened by an almighty clap of thunder followed by a torrential rainstorm that threatened to collapse the tarp set over our tent, which was erected without a fly sheet. Out of the tent leapt a naked husband who graciously collected a total 50L of water. Watching Stewart, naked on all fours, collecting rainwater in a torrential downpour was amusing to say the least, and the question of whether he was human or orang-utan occasionally entered my mind.
Day 5: Peter Island to The Indians to Pelican back to Peter Island. In the afternoon, we set off for a short paddle across to Norman Island where there is supposed to be buried treasure, hence its’ nickname, “Treasure Island”, but I was more interested in looking for sea turtles. We managed to spot one in a quiet, pristine bay where you could see the seabed 30 feet down even in the overcast conditions. We then headed around the Indians – stacks with good diving and snorkelling, towards Pelican Island, the home of dozens of pelicans, and then back home for another night on Peter Island.
Day 6. Peter Island to Cooper Island. Pelicans can predict the weather. At home in Scotland, an overcast sky with dark clouds doesn’t always mean rain. The rain had stopped, the wind had died, but the clouds were still dark and heavy. It was tempting to set out, but I noticed that the pelicans weren’t fishing. In fact, all the insect and bird noises in the scrubby woods had stopped. Within minutes, the skies opened up and yielded just about as much water as the previous evening.
Eventually, the rain stopped, the pelicans came out to feed, the clouds cleared and we had hot sun, sparkling, relatively calm seas, and a relaxed paddle to Cooper Island in search of Banana Daiquiris, Painkillers and Mongoose Magic at the next marina’s open bar. The bartender asked how we got our water during our trip and we boastfully replied “we collected it from our tarp”, when it was really by accident. Our illusions of grandeur this trip produced evaporated when he told us a couple of Norwegians were swimming, yes, swimming from island to island, towing their rucksacks behind them on floats. The yachties at the nearby table eyed us with suspicion and incredulity that it was possible to travel these waters in watercraft under 50 feet in length. Feeling tipsy after our drinks, we then rounded the other side of Cooper Island to find a campsite. While this wasn’t a private island, there were a few residents and we had neighbours that night – a fisherman living in a ramshackle dwelling, the shoreline protected by a fearsome looking coral-studded bay. We carefully negotiated the sharp coral heads protruding out of the water, as well as those just inches from the surface, and managed to avoid paddling in his front garden. We came to a campsite a couple hundred yards further down the sandy, gravelly coastline. By then, we were praying for nightly thunderstorms and their cooling winds, but for the next several days, the nights remained hot and stifling.
Day 7: Cooper Island to Fallen Jerusalem to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda to Great Dog. Another lovely day greeted us with great views looking up the island chain northward to Virgin Gorda. A swell soon built up and surged between the exposed Caribbean Sea and the Sir Francis Drake Channel side of the islands. The swells, which were a turquoise blue, were sprinkled with dazzling glitter from the morning sun. They pushed us delightfully along until we came to the last small island in the chain. Here the tide was surging through at around 2 knots. I thought nothing of it since the swell was pushing us in the direction we wished to go. Yet, we weren’t moving forward. I just couldn’t seem to pass the last two skerries no matter how long and how hard I paddled. After 20 minutes, I figured we were in a huge eddy or the current was against us so we veered away from the chain and deeper into the channel. Eventually, I actually felt a release from its grip. I was surprised at how big and how powerful that eddy or how strong that current must have been even though the swell was pushing us forward. The wonders of the sea! We took a rest on the small island of Fallen Jerusalem which is part of a National Park where there’s great diving and snorkelling. Afterwards, we headed to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. We were very hot and tired and I think that Stewart wanted to pitch the tent in the air-conditioned supermarket. We left Spanish Town for Great Dog and had to take great care, as the yachts were entering the harbour for the day with the buoy, “right red returning” according to the American IALA B system which is opposite to the British. Great Dog was uninhabited and provided a lovely sandy beach with coconut trees.
Day 8: Rest Day! We snorkelled with our new improved pool masks and saw many purple fish with orange tails and some striped fish. Pelicans were feeding which meant good weather ahead. Wielding his machete, Stew got down a couple of coconuts, hacked the tops off and we drank refreshing, sweet coconut milk, and lazed about the beach until dark, watching hermit crabs scurrying about.
Day 9: Great Dog to the Baths back to Great Dog. Light winds, sunshine, and gentle wind waves provided perfect conditions for a stunning day paddle and snorkelling in the Baths, BVI’s main tourist destination. Dozens of yachts were moored off this coast of sand, and giant boulders, and dumped their cargoes of fat Americans from their overloaded tenders. We elegantly and silently glided past with our kayaks, pulled them up on the beach and arrogantly parked them under the huge “No Dinghies Allowed” sign, while the dinghies had to go back to the dinghy dock. The boulders, coral and clear water create a fascinating underwater world with fluorescent fish swimming through small underwater grottoes and canyons. Sunburnt, I felt I was getting stronger and we leisurely paddled back to our uninhabited island home, hoping nobody stole our tent.
Day 10 & 11: Great Dog to North coast of Virgin Gorda. We made it to the north coast of Virgin Gorda and camped beneath steep mountainous hillsides on an elevated beach near Anguilla Point, a narrow, shallow treacherous pass for big yachts since the maximum depth was only six feet. It was early in the day, so we headed further up the Sound to Leverick Bay for lunch at another exclusive yacht resort. The wind was in our faces at about 15 knots and the supposedly “always calm” sound became a cauldron of closely-packed but pale iridescent green wind waves. At Leverick Bay, I had the best tasting grilled Wahoo fish sandwich in the world. Lunch was an astonishing $70 and I became quite tipsy after two Painkillers that must have had a double shot of rum each. We still had to get back to the campsite before dark so we cooled off and jumped into the posh swimming pool, sweat and all, before realizing that we should have showered before leaping in. We ate so much at lunch (the price included all you can eat salads and desserts also) that we didn’t eat that night. We watched a beautiful sunset and had another hot, wretched, stifling night in the tent. The next day the wind picked up to a F4-5 in our faces. We crossed over to Bitter End Yacht Club at the other end of the Sound in this stiff headwind and I discovered that if I paddled 45 deg just off the headwind, I felt a bit faster with less resistance, so we zigzagged our way back and it seemed to lift our morale. We ate another shockingly expensive lunch and I found it amazing that we were still welcomed into these open-air, breezy restaurants as grubby as we were. But with the dress code being shorts, t-shirts and sandals, we seemed to blend in without problem.
Day 12: Kayak to Bitter End. Ferry to Beef Island. Having looked at the forecast yesterday, the winds for the next couple of days were to stay in the mid-20’s knots which was a bit too strong for us to make the exposed, 8km open crossing back to Tortola. We paddled across the sound once again disassembled our kayaks and took the passenger ferry from Bitter End to Trellis Bay on Beef Island. We were right. The stretch we crossed a few days ago now had largish quartering seas and the small high-speed ferry wallowed to and fro, drenching us as we sat in the back. After so many days of being so intimate with the sea, I know felt strangely disconnected from it sitting on the ferry. Perhaps yachties feel too close to it while in their tenders.
We arrived at Trellis Bay and had to drag all our gear along a sandy road for about 200 metres to the modest guest house for the last two nights. It had no air conditioning but it had ceiling fans and it seemed like a mansion. Stew slept like a baby, but I actually slept better in the tent.
Day 13: Trellis Bay to Scrub Island back to Trellis Bay. Even though it seemed futile, I was sad about leaving this kayaking paradise so I convinced Stew that we could build up our boats in the morning, have a short paddle and take them apart again and pack for the flight. We headed from the beach in front of the guest house across to Scrub Island. I thought it would be quite mellow, but it was a bit hair-raising since the swell seemed to rise up over the shallow coral bed creating semi-monstrous, but lovely blue breaking waves. We survived that which was to be our last paddle in the BVI. We got back and while we were taking apart our boats, an American from Florida was very curious and asked where we had been and where we stayed. Where do you start? After explaining our exploits, he took a step back, folded his arms, gave an approving nod and said, “That’s cool!” It was cool, all right. In fact, it was fantastic. But if Scotland, with its stunning scenery and coasts had the warm Caribbean water, I would never go abroad again. I guess at this point I just wanted to get back home.