Opening photo by Jonah Gouin
A bead of sweat trickles down my temple as I hunch over the RIB’s bow, extending the painter just enough to take a wrap around the dinghy mooring line off Salt Island’s Black Rock Point. In the gin-clear water, about 30 feet beneath me, await the remains of the Royal Mail Service steamer Rhone that splintered on the rocks during a hurricane in 1867 and that today stands among the British Virgin Islands’ must-do dive sites.
As with any dive, the lead-up included an adrenaline rush and a bit of uncertainty. Once the dinghy was secured and the dive flag was deployed, I spit in my mask, swirled the saliva and rinsed before suctioning the mask to my face. I scanned behind me for jellyfish, and then casually rolled backward off the side of the dink into the bathtub-temperature water.
A week prior, I was dealing with uncertainties of a different kind: those surrounding the current state of charter in the BVI after years’ worth of hurricanes and a pandemic that refuses to let go its hold of the world’s travel industry. Getting our crew of eight guests to Tortola for a weeklong charter with MarineMax Vacations was far more complicated than usual.
Beyond the requisite company paperwork (booking contract, terms and conditions, guest arrival info, provisioning and water-toy request sheets, liability and boating resumé) were several new steps the BVI government had imposed. We needed proof of travel insurance (with Covid-19 coverage), proof of a negative coronavirus test administered and received within five days of departure, proof of full vaccination (unless you want to partake in a second Covid test and mandatory quarantine period upon arrival), and acceptance of said documents on the BVI travel authorization web portal prior to departure. No travel authorization, no entry into the islands—no ifs, ands or buts.
Adding to our concern, a national curfew had just been put in effect throughout the islands after a flare-up of the Delta variant, so the cluster of businesses that had finally reopened, whether from hurricane rebuilding or the pandemic, now had to close at 6 o’clock sharp every night.
But as we would quickly learn, the “getting there” part is the only real inconvenience of BVI charter today—and all things considered, there may not be a better time to charter than right now.
Our experience began even before we left the United States, with text messages from Fayola Browne, the company’s Nanny Cay-based office manager, who was on deck to help us with last-minute travel details. According to Raul Bermudez, vice president of MarineMax Vacations, the text-messaging system is fundamental to the company’s focus on customer service. The MarineMax BVI team, including Bermudez himself, sees every text between guests and staff so any questions or concerns can be addressed quickly and uniformly.
We touched down at Tortola’s Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (via San Juan), which I recommend as the best option, for now. Alternatively, you can fly direct to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and catch a ferry to the BVI, though we found scheduling to be erratic. We arrived after-hours because of airport delays, but Browne made sure our transport was waiting to whisk us to the charter base once we cleared in a surprisingly hassle-free process. We found Island Living, our new MarineMax 545 power catamaran, in the first slip unlocked and fully stocked. Browne’s team had left the lights on for us, a nice touch for a travel-weary crew.
Our briefer, Kevin Ballantyne, greeted us on board in the morning to walk us through Island Living’s systems, amenities and itinerary options, allowing as much time as we needed to get up to speed. He had masked up for the occasion, and we respectfully did the same. Per MarineMax policy on fleet boats that are independently owned, he would also be accompanying us on our first leg, in part to make sure we really knew what we were doing, but more so to provide a stress-free sendoff.
“So, where are we headed, guys?” he asked.
We had already decided on Norman Island, which made the most logistical sense as a first night stopover.
“One of my favorites—let’s go,” he said with a wink.
The Bight at Norman Island is an easy shot due south across the well-tempered Sir Francis Drake Channel, about 5 nautical miles from the MarineMax base. Once a popular pirates’ lair because of its favorable geography for an ambush or a quick escape (it’s also the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island), the popular anchorage has easy access to top diving and snorkeling sites such as the Caves and the Indians.
Cruisers can choose among more than 100 moorings—of which only about 20 were spoken for when we arrived. The new Willie T’s barge was open for business, having rebuilt after the hurricanes. (The remains of the original iconic party barge now reside somewhere on the island.) We consumed what would be the first of many painkiller rum concoctions that week, and a few of us may or may not have taken the obligatory plunge off the aft deck, in true Willie T fashion.
On the pristine sandy beach across the harbor, Pirates Bight Restaurant, another Norman Island hot spot, also beckoned but was about to close for curfew, so we returned to the boat and grilled out under the stars. As with boating anywhere, it’s hard to beat the view from your own flybridge, especially in a near-empty anchorage. That solitude is one beauty of being on charter in the BVI today—you, your Covid-negative crewmates and your fully stocked boat are a self-sufficient slice of paradise, with carte blanche to move around the island chain at whichever pace you please. If not for the occasional masked encounters with people on shore, you might forget, if only for a week, that Covid-19 is a thing.
And I asked myself this: All things considered when you’re on a private charter, how much time do you really spend on land? If I’m going ashore, it’s all about the beaches, and in the BVI, the key ingredients to enjoying a charter are good to go. There are enough onshore amenities and plenty of natural charm and hospitality from the locals. Are there some inconveniences? Sure. You’ll notice little things, such as some restaurants only offering food for takeout, businesses practicing strict mask-wearing and social distancing, and hand-sanitizer dispensers outside most storefronts—but it’s nothing we’re not already accustomed to back at home.
And it works. Despite the ongoing pandemic, we found plenty to love right now—starting with the family-oriented MarineMax 545.
The MarineMax 545 / Aquila 54
The 545 is a rebranded version of the Aquila 54 and the new flagship of the MarineMax fleet, set to eventually replace the current 484 model. With our crew of eight (four couples), I was curious whether we’d be arm-wrestling for personal space after a few days, but privacy was never an issue. The boat has five staterooms including a full-beam master forward. We even had an extra cabin for gear and luggage. There really isn’t a best seat in the house on the 545—there are several—but if I had to pick a favorite, it was the pulpit seat over the bow, facing forward and overlooking the vivid blue water while underway.
On day two, we encountered the only real issue we had with the boat all week: a nonfunctioning watermaker. We called the MarineMax base at 9 p.m. Tuesday evening, and two MarineMax techs arrived by dinghy Wednesday morning. For our troubles, they offered complimentary bags of ice—which might as well be BVI currency in July. Within the hour, we were making 40 gallons of water per hour and preparing to head for Jost Van Dyke. That’s the sort of customer care that superyacht concierge services are modeled after.
We played on the paddleboards and relaxed on the beach at Cane Garden Bay on Tortola. We swam in from our boat with wet dollars in our pockets to sip painkillers at Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke. We snorkeled a barrier reef and feasted on lobsters on Anegada. We dove the legendary wreck of the RMS Rhone on Salt Island.
And we explored the Baths on Virgin Gorda, perhaps the BVI’s crown jewel. As I climbed, ducked and weaved my way around the remarkable boulders that form the Baths, I found unexpected joy in encountering others not in our group, but who had been navigating their way around the BVI under the same Covid-19 precautions as we were—cordial, yet working together to stay safely distanced while sharing the experience of beholding one of Mother Nature’s all-time masterpieces.
An obvious effect the pandemic has had on the charter experience is in itinerary planning. At press time, reentry to the United States for citizens, regardless of vaccination status, requires a negative Covid-19 test administered within three days of departure from the BVI. Charterers can choose between two rapid testing sites on Jost Van Dyke or Virgin Gorda. Since Virgin Gorda’s site requires a taxi ride, we opted for Jost Van Dyke, so we built our itinerary around being moored at Great Harbour on Wednesday night for a 7 a.m. test in town on Thursday. Testing ends around 9:30 a.m., in order to get samples off to Tortola for next-day results. Reservations are highly recommended, and back at the MarineMax base, Browne came through for us once again. At 6:45 a.m., the line—of charterers primarily, plus a few locals—was already long, but it moved quickly once things got going. People chatted about their charter highlights and made small talk with other parties to pass the time. (I’ve experienced theme-park lines that were far less civil.)
Some areas are still rebuilding from the brutal 2017 hurricane season, but the lingering pandemic aside, the region should be back to nearly 100 percent for this charter season (barring any major summer or fall storms). On Virgin Gorda, the iconic Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock are in the final stages of renovation, with plans to reopen in October. And the charterers are coming back. We found some anchorages surprisingly busy, despite our visit being so far into hurricane season.
Rolling off that dinghy above the Rhone, I found myself immersed in an otherworldly paradise dominated not by the uncertainties of the pandemic, but rather by skittish reef fish, colorful corals, a playful sea turtle—which clearly didn’t get the memo on social distancing—and the wonderment of exploring a pristine century-and-a-half-old shipwreck whose 123 lost souls I could sense watching my every kick. Each time I thought about resurfacing, I pressed on, just a little farther.
All things considered, there may not be a better time to charter in the BVI than the present. According to Bermudez, bookings are going fast for the winter season. Whether you’re a charter veteran or someone who’s had a BVI charter on your bucket list, go sip a painkiller at Soggy Dollar Bar, enjoy a meal at Foxy’s, climb the boulders at the Baths—rediscover the one thing stronger than any virus: the spirit of the islands.
Dive in. The water’s fine.
I shake my head when travelers post-trip reviews online saying they were disappointed to not be greeted by the charter company, but by “a local.” I’m like, “What did you expect? You’re in the islands. This isn’t Disneyland. People actually live and work here.” I see local knowledge as a huge positive. It can be invaluable in the BVI, especially for first-timers. We’re the visitors in someone else’s home country. Greetings matter. Kindness matters. Smiles are usually rewarded with conversations that can open doors to your overall charter experience. The MarineMax team offered us a wealth of knowledge about the boat, our itinerary and logistics. If we could have brought them along with us for the whole week on the boat, we would have.
Our Crew’s Top 10 (Non)Essential Items You’ll Wish You’d Packed
Reusable water bottles. “It killed us to see all those plastic bottles being thrown away.”
Clothespins. “The few that came with the boat were in constant demand for hanging our wet clothes out to dry.”
Favorite coffees or teas. “The number of Starbucks in the BVI? Zero.”
Waterproof phone cases and dry bags. “We almost lost some of our tech for good.”
Personal koozies or Yeti cups. “With eight of us on board, we were always losing track of whose drinks were whose. Fortunately, we knew we were all Covid-negative.”
Big straw hat. “Because who doesn’t need your own personal, portable sunshade?”
Waterproof bandages. “The ones in the first-aid kit kept falling off in the water.”
Handheld VHF radio. “It’s a small amount of luggage space to sacrifice for total convenience underway.”
Extra pesto. “Good pesto goes with anything. One of our guests brought her favorite as a gift for the boat, and it was gone by day three.”
Music. “Seriously, forget the chef. He who brings the best tunes has all the leverage.”