Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o'heaven,
An' drum them up the Channel as wedrummed them long ago.
—SIR HENRY NEWBOLT
If Sir Francis Drake "quit the port o' heaven" today and sailed forth into the channel that bears his name in the British Virgin Islands, he would probably find himself in more peril than ever he faced from those 16th-century Spanish Dons whose beards he so gleefully singed. The danger would stem from the dubious seamanship and cocktail-hour bravado of the myriad "bareboats"—yachts chartered without crew—that cruise those waters. The rent-a-boats that make the BVI a favored rendezvous of latter-day Drakes have a tendency to collide, run aground, exhaust their batteries and, sometimes, imperil old ladies.
"We had a hell of a flap the other day," says Rick Brendlinger, a crusty young salt who serves as assistant manager for Caribbean Sailing Yachts Ltd., one of the islands' top bareboat outfitters. "Old gal got spiffled and locked herself in the head. Her pals weren't much better off. There was screaming and yapping like to raise the joombies—that's ghosts in island lingo. I finally had to go down through a hatch in the overhead to set her loose."
One recent morning early risers at The Bitter End, a popular anchorage on Virgin Gorda, an island at the far eastern reach of the BVI, were appalled (or amused, depending on the extent of their nautical know-how) as they watched a 44-foot ketch, in the lightest of breezes, go aground on the resort's sandy beach while all hands on board performed the legendary Chinese fire drill. Seems that the auxiliary engine had somehow run out of fuel—and no one thought to use the sails. No harm done, though. The yacht got a handy tow from a passing outboard-powered punt and was soon luffing gently out to sea, the clink of ice cubes and the glint of pre-breakfast Bloody Marys enlivening the morn.
As the increasingly crowded waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel attest, the BVI are attracting more and more visitors every year. The reason: as the rest of the Caribbean grows either too slick (with new high-rise hotels and condos sprouting like piles of guano along the once deserted beaches) or too political (witness the hooliganism and murder in the U.S. Virgins, the big ports of the Bahamas, and Jamaica), the BVI stay small, low-key and perfectly happy to remain a British Dependency, though, oddly, the U.S. dollar is the basic unit of currency in the islands.
The primary pastime, of course, is sailing. The islands—some 50 of them, with only 11,000 inhabitants—flank the five-mile-wide channel in tidy clusters with plenty of safe anchorages and few bottom-cracking reefs. Only Anegada in the far northeast is truly treacherous. More than 200 ships have foundered on her coral fangs, and the bareboat charter outfits do not permit their clients to sail those waters. (Anegada means "overflowed" in Spanish; it was thus named by Columbus when he cruised the islands in 1493.) What with the northeast trade winds blowing virtually year-round, a dead calm is as rare as a blizzard in the BVI. More than 200 sailing yachts are available for charter here, and any day, winter or summer, most of them will be at sea.
"We have 70 boats altogether," says CSY's Brendlinger, "and there are only about a dozen lying idle in port at any one time. January through May is the real sailing season. That's when the true sailors come down. Hell, the rest of the year they're sailing back at home."
On a Sunday afternoon when the new charters are faring forth, the scene at a bareboat dock is one of sheer chaos. Most vessels will already have been provisioned by the charter company—whether CSY, The Moorings (which rents some 80 boats from its new docking complex), West Indies Yacht or whomever—but more and more sailors do their own shopping. Pallid men and women, some already pinking up toward the inevitable lobster burn, stagger along the docks, laden with duffle, chow, grog and gear; now and then a spear gun bristles dangerously, or a half-gallon jug of rum goes crashing to the concrete deck. All crews have sat through an hour-long navigational and piloting session, learning the danger spots and the good anchorages. Unfortunately, many of the sailors wear the glassy gaze of the jet-lagged, and one wonders how much of that detail sinks in.
Brendlinger shrugs off the potential hazard. "These boats are virtually unsinkable," he says, thumping the gunwale of a 44-foot CSY ketch (Caribbean Sailing Yachts rents 33-, 37-and 44-footers, all built under the company's own aegis and bearing the designations CSY 33, CSY 37 and CSY 44). "Watertight compartments below the waterline and plenty of ballast—you'd have to heel one over on her beam ends and run aground at full speed to put a bad hole in her." CSY, along with the other bareboat outfits, won't rent to an inexperienced skipper; it relies on the truthfulness of the renter to determine just how skilled a sailor he is. "So far we haven't lost a boat or a customer," says Brendlinger.
Once aboard, the crew can set sail for anywhere in the BVI except Anegada, and there are more fine places to visit in these islands than a year's charter could exhaust. Tiny, empty half-moon bays where bareboating can live up to its other meaning; crowded resort anchorages where one can dress for dinner ashore or take a welcome freshwater shower ($2.50 at The Bitter End, for example). In between lies the BVI's other great allure, the underwater world of reefs and wrecks found off the shores of the smaller islands—Salt, Cooper and Norman Islands near Tortola; Eustatia, Prickly Pear and the Dog Islands near Virgin Gorda.