British Virgin Islands 2015 Trip – Part 4

Wednesday was our “down-time” day where we weren’t sailing anywhere, had no solid plans, and folks were allowed to do what they liked. Per the previous entry, a number of us had signed up for a snorkeling trip, which started at 10am. Several of us had also signed up for the “Out of Bounds Hobie Cat Adventure,” and I’d made arrangements to meet with the local kite-surfing instructor for a lesson in kite surfing.

There won’t be many pictures in this post–during this relaxing day I didn’t carry my camera around much, partially due to all the in/on-the-water activities.

The Snorkeling Tour

It turned out that we were on the same flat-bottomed boat for snorkel tours we’d been on during the 2011 trip, though with a different person guiding the tour. Unlike the day we’d taken the trip on in 2011, which was overcast, this time it was beautiful and sunny, which made the snorkeling that much better–colors of the coral and fish appear more vibrant, and you dry off a lot quicker in the sunshine after you get out of the water! Our first stop was the reefs just off of Oil Nut Bay, near the far northeastern point of Virgin Gorda. There have been some new channels dredged here due to a bunch of house/resort construction on the hills there. It’s unfortunate, because there is ugly construction going on in a place that’d been untouched until just recently, but also somewhat inevitable.

The coral formations are beautiful, but what I love most about snorkeling is taking the time to watch and follow individual fish as they go about their business. In a reef this isn’t too hard to do with many fish, because they live in the reef, either browsing slowly for food or maintaining their home among the coral. You’ll find different species of fish among different types of coral, many of them munching algae off of their coral home and patrolling around it, but never straying too far. The larger fish tend to roam slowly around as they’re too big to use coral formations as a home, but presumably their size makes them less likely to be somebody’s snack.

I should mention here that before this trip I’d never really liked snorkeling. It wasn’t the content of the snorkeling, but for some reason I could never get the gear to work very well–the masks would leak, the snorkel would let in water, all that. During the 2011 BVI trip and my sailing trip in Mexico in 2014 I’d used some corrective swim goggles and simply spent my time freediving with fairly good vision, beating being half blind with a snorkel mask as well. Freediving is great, but it doesn’t allow for the relaxation and observation that snorkeling does. Since I’d gotten LASIK back in January 2015, I went ahead and got a reasonable quality (but inexpensive) set of snorkeling gear. What a difference!

It worked even better when midway through our first snorkeling stop someone pointed out to me that I had the snorkel on the wrong side of my head. I didn’t even know it was supposed to be on one side or the other, but sure enough, switching it over made it work even more reliably and allowed me to dive down to the bottom without worrying about leaks.

After about 45 minutes of happy snorkeling we switched locations, heading over to a spot between Eustatia Island and Prickly Pear Island. This reef might have been even better, and we swam until we were exhausted. By this time I’d realized that the snorkeling tour was a bit longer than I’d thought, which meant I’d completely blown meeting with the kite-boarding instructor. Whoops. That’s the third time that I’d been really close to getting to go kite-boarding and missed it, once in Panama and twice now at the BEYC in the BVIs! One of these days…

Out of Bounds

I had lunch at The Crawl Pub with several of the others, relaxed for a while, and at 2pm met up with the friend I’d be sailing with and we headed over to get started on the Hobie Cats. First, the guide gathered us all indoors and showed us a route we should follow, which I’ve attempted to recreate here using Google Maps (where they used a whiteboard):

Out of Bounds!

Out of Bounds!

The wind direction is the arrows in light blue, and he told us it’d been holding steady at around 15 knots. We’d have to tack through the narrow passage between The Bitter End and Saba Rock, tack a few more times through the sound where we’d meet the guide, before heading up through a passage in the reef out to open water. They then sent us out, my friend and I put life-jackets on, and we were given a Hobie Cat.

That was it. As we picked up a small bit of wind and started scooting out into the bay, dodging moored sailboats, I realized they hadn’t told us either how to properly tack, or what to do if we flipped over.

Tacking took a bit of practice. There wasn’t a whole lot of wind in the protected bay (you can see that where we started, with the hill in the way), so it was hard to build up much speed. Consequently, when we shifted our weight was very important–the first few attempts we were shifting our weight to the other side of the catamaran too early, and we’d stall mid-tack. This was our first lesson.

I also realized that the dead-zone was huge. Back in Part 1 I talked about how in-general, monohull sailboats tend to be able to sail at about 30° to the wind, while catamarans generally can sail around 45° to the wind? Well, these single-sail Hobie Cats had it even worse, at what seemed like about 60°! So on each tack we had to turn through 120°, which meant slow going when heading into the wind.

Once we’d finally made it out into the sound, we passed our guide and he gave us the thumbs up to head north out past the reef. We’d been passed by one set of friends already who’d figured out tacking before us, we were hot on their tail as we crossed out through the passage into open water.

Hobie Cats aren’t large boats, and the only thing between their hulls is a tight-weave “trampoline”, with straps to loop your feet under. The waves, however, were fairly large–sometimes large enough that at the trough between waves we could lose track of the other Hobie Cats near us for a moment. This was awesome. Especially because the water is comfortably warm. We sailed up and surfed down waves, sometimes dipping a hull under the water, partially swamping us and sending a spray up. The feeling of acceleration on such a small sailboat is exhilarating. With just a small fraction of the inertia of the boats we’re used to, when you catch the wind just so you can feel yourself surge forward. The flip-side of this is that you slow down just as rapidly, so it’s important to try and keep your speed up however possible.

The feedback through the boat, tiller, and main sheet (the line controlling the tension on the sail) is immediate and visceral, so I was able to test new sail shapes for effectiveness simply by pulling down on the sail without adjusting the main sheet, feeling through the sail and motion of the boat whether it’d improve our speed or not.

Just to the northeast of Necker Island (the island our path circles around to the north in the picture), suddenly and without warning, we flipped. One moment we were starting to tip down a wave, the next a gust of wind hit, the boat flipped on its side with the mast, and both of us, in the water. This was a problem, as we hadn’t actually been told what to do. We swam around it (holding on to it, remember, we’re in open water!) and trying to figure out what to do, while a few of the other boats passed us. Not that we were all that worried, since we’d also seen another boat ahead of us flip, so it was clearly something that happened often. The guide hadn’t yet passed us either, but soon sailed past, telling us how to get the boat flipped back over.

I pulled myself up to standing onto the hull laying in the water, grabbed the strap he’d told me about, and leaned backward with all my weight. The boat righted itself with a whump back down onto the water. From there we pulled ourselves aboard and set about re-tying things and getting back to sailing.

It didn’t take long to pick our speed back up while laughing off the exhilaration. We trailed behind most of the other boats while sailing around the north side of Necker Island, but as we approached the narrow reef passage into Gorda Sound, we were catching up with several of them through close attention to the wind, waves, and our sail trim. So of course the wind died. With the steep slopes of Prickly Pear Island blocking most of our wind, we were reduced to a crawl on a beam reach heading south into Gorda Sound, and other boats around us weren’t faring much better. We fought our way through it though, greeting any short increases of wind with a quick sail trim, and eventually made it into the Sound.

Once we were out of the wind shadow, it turned from a battle against the waves into a fast cruise across calm water. With steady wind, I took us far south down through the Sound, intending on tacking as little as possible to maximize our speed and try to catch up with–or pass–the other boats. With some careful sail trimming and maintaining a constant angle into the wind we really flew through the water. It was an exciting ride, once again dodging moored sailboats, but soon enough we glided back onto the beach, right at the spot Club employee was waving us in to.

There are few times in my life I’ve had so much fun, and flipping the boat only made it more memorable.

Part 5 can be found here.

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