Island-Hopping in Paradise

 Karl Weatherly / Getty Images

It was mid-morning on the fourth day of our five-day cruise of the British Virgin Islands, and we were feeling tanned and fit, shipshape, squared away. Cocky, even, with a cooler full of lobster tails and thick snapper fillets. The big catamaran sliced through the seas, slow-dancing with the breeze. Sails trimmed, the trolling jig skipping behind our wake, there was — wonderfully — absolutely nothing that needed doing for exactly two hours and 44 minutes, according to the GPS. The autopilot twiddled precisely with the wheel, assuring that we’d keep our appointment with a chosen dot on the charts — a bank of shallow coral where we planned to dive. As if at some unspoken order to chill, my crewmates and I — five good friends with a full day of sun and water ahead of us — all produced sea-stained paperbacks and plopped down on boat cushions in the shade of the mainsail.

We were bareboating — “bare” meaning we hadn’t hired a skipper or cook. We didn’t need to either: We had our pal Dave, alias the Mullet, a man with gills behind his ears. After college, Mullet spent five years captaining a shrimp boat, and went on to open a successful seafood restaurant. An expert free-diver, he’s relentless in the pursuit of — and inventive in the preparation of — all things tasty from the sea. Last night’s garlic-sautéed lobster on spicy coconut rice, for instance, which we’d washed down with ice-cold Red Stripes. Now, although he pretended to be reading, feet propped up on the console, Mullet was probably contemplating what he’d do with that big snapper Tom had speared.

The 18th-century English pundit Samuel Johnson famously likened sailing to “being in jail, with a chance of being drowned.” But sailing the Star Eyes, our chartered 47-foot cat, was more like staying in a posh, mobile condo, with the certainty of snorkeling in crystalline Caribbean water. We’d all spontaneously high-fived each other when we first laid eyes on her at tether in Road Town, Tortola. So broad of beam! So spanking new! We were smack in the center of one of the world’s yachting capitals, with the rest of the Virgins arrayed all around us like the jewels of a watch. Just pick a point and go.

That first morning we shot straight out into the blue water of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, rounded the buoy and hung a left (came about to port) for Virgin Gorda. Almost immediately we lost an empty cooler overboard, and Paul — the least experienced but most enthusiastic sailor — earned the title and accompanying duties of “Boathook Boy” by snagging it on the first go-round. After that bit of rescue maneuvering we sailed error-free, close-hauled to the reliable southeast breeze, Mullet giving us a tutorial on sail trimming, striving to finesse a couple of extra knots out of the main and jib. Tom the Navigator worked the slide rule on the charts. Actually, we could see Virgin Gorda — virtually all the navigation in the BVIs is line-of-sight — and soon our first mooring, the Baths, a jumble of gigantic tawny boulders fronting a crescent beach.

In what would become a familiar pattern, Mullet and John (Tom’s younger brother and the second-best diver) plucked lobster from their hidey-holes under 20 feet of water, while the rest of us were entertained by the Baths’ underwater caves, surge-y swim-throughs, and creatures we couldn’t or shouldn’t catch — nurse sharks, turtles, schools of blue surgeonfish, and big, but wary, snapper. The backs of our legs sunburned and scraped by the rocks, we untied, hoisted sail, and made for the wilder waters of the Dogs, due north. At Cockroach Island, the smallest of the group, just a cactus-topped rock redolent of seabird funk, I jumped in and kicked after a school of flashing silversides — minnows menaced by some unseen predators — until I found the conductors of their synchronized swim: three armor-plated tarpon as big as grown men.

Mullet came up with two more lobsters stuffed in the pockets of his baggies. “I can’t help it,” he said. “They talk to me.” Yeah? And what do they say? “They say, ‘Take a nap, Dave.’ But I can’t. Not while they’re around.” We ate them that night — steamed, with a little local hot sauce — and slept in the lee of George Dog island, sun-stunned and water-logged, in air-conditioned bliss.

Off the southern coast of Anegada — after the longest sail of the cruise, out of sight of land for a couple of hours, largely because Anegada is perfectly flat, just a great sandy shoal — we found the honey hole, as Mullet called it. We all got our colorful spiny bugs (them lobster was chattin’ up a storm), and Tom shot his big fish, with an assist from brother John, who managed to grab the spear as it was swimming off, mortally skewered. Conch, too, we collected, the whole of our catch making an impressive spread on the transom: Neptune’s Treasure. As if in revenge, a bully squall began to brood in the east, black clouds flashing bolts of electricity, the roiling mass seeming to finger-walk its way on ominous waterspouts. We had time, while we ran for Tortola — making 10 knots, 12! — to clean our catch, bucket-wash the back of the boat, and secure the galley before Mullet ordered, “Drop the main!” He called for foul-weather gear and a hot cup of joe. And then the storm struck.

Paul’s life list included a storm at sea. He was riding the starboard pontoon hollering like a madman. Every time it plunged into the sea and then rose streaming seawater he yelled “Yeah!” and “Yeah!” I wrapped up in a slicker and joined him out there. The gale, topping at 42 knots, blew the tops off the waves, and horizontal rain swept across the seas like a sandstorm on asphalt. It stung, too, like driven needles, and soon drove us back to the cockpit, where Mullet was white-knuckling the wheel, conferring with Tom and John about emergency moorings. The seas surged to six feet, but they were following seas, and though the Star Eyes yawed in the troughs, she was surfing them just fine. We broke out into clear skies just as the moon rose full over Tortola, the island’s humped profile from the north like a 10-mile crocodile tangled in Christmas lights — a welcome sight.

Strangest of all, a weary seabird, addled by the storm, had come to roost on the trampoline. After we’d moored at Cane Garden Bay — prettiest anchorage in all the BVIs — John collected it in his hands and we passed it around from finger to finger. A brown noddy, maybe, it was as tame as any pirate’s parrot. The wind gusted all night, and Tom and John, sleeping out under blankets on the trampoline, said they’d felt like air-hockey pucks.

Tamed a bit by the storm ourselves, we made a day of poking around between Jost Van Dyke and Little Jost, just kicking around a shallow reef, admiring the coral and its critters, but not snatching anything. We didn’t need more food. After a quick trip to Little Tobago — where the water was churned up the color of chalk — and a slow beat back, I’d about decided to heck with this rinky-dink sightseeing, this light-wind sailing. We picked a reef about two hours away, set the autopilot, and settled in for a relaxing ride.

I’d just finished my book and must have dozed, for I awoke to excited voices in the cockpit. Tom the Navigator was passing the binoculars to Mullet, who was swearing reverentially: “Good Gawd Almighty!” There were only two things above water that we’d kept a keen lookout for all along (three, if you count navigational hazards): nearly naked women and surfable waves — babe-age and swellage, in the micro-slang of the cruise. As happily married men (all of us), and near-lifelong surfers (four out of five of us) who hadn’t brought boards, we were superstitiously ambivalent about spotting either — babe-age or swellage — though compelled to search for both.

“Lemme see!” I said, and glassed the horizon. A spit of sand, a considerable smear of foam — it was surf all right, and judging its scale by the silhouette of a single powerboat already anchored near the lineup, not small.

Mullet flicked on the motors and we grumbled ahead a few knots faster. I passed the scope to John. “Look at that! What did I tell you?” I’d had a hunch about this place, especially after the storm we’d sailed through. “They’ve got boards,” John announced, ruefully, as if that made matters worse, which it somehow did. Every surfer dreams of sailing to some far-flung tropical beach where perfect waves unreel across the reef — but not without boards! Events were unfolding for us like a brightly lit nightmare.

“Furl the jib! Drop the main!” Mullet cried. Well-practiced by then, we scrambled to the tasks, then motored to within hailing distance of the speedboat.

“You got any extra boards?” They did — one. A longboard. That was perfect. We liked longboards; these big, slopey, turquoise rollers were ideal longboard waves. “Could we borrow it?” We surely could.

I was already airborne over the rail. I windmilled it to their boat like Tarzan bent on rescuing Jane from the gators. Minutes later I was dropping in on an overhead bomber, its face perfectly groomed by the light offshores. The surf had a softness, a champagne fizziness that reminded me of Waikiki, and the rides were long. After catching another I waved to the Star Eyes, and paddled a little ways into the channel to meet our dinghy. We surfed for hours by rotation, trading off every two waves. It was ideal, in a way: You could grab a bite, a cold drink, and a bit of shade till your turn came ’round again. Our benefactors, two beefy men — bald Mr. Clean and his grizzled companion, who called himself Captain Chaos — had motored over from St. Thomas, knowing what the big blow might bring. They’d both spent a decade on the North Shore of Oahu, but called this BVI wave one of the best in the world. We sure liked it too.

We thanked them with a couple of cold Carib beers and a bottle of Pyrat Rum — Captain C’s favorite — and they said, “What the hell! We’re not in a hurry. Take all three boards and knock yourselves out.” John, Tom, and I went at it for another half hour, while Paul (a surfer-to-be) sat out with Mullet on the Star Eyes. The lobsters were talking to him again.

We were on a mission now: haul ass to Trellis Bay on the east side of Beef Island, and rent five boards from the surf shop there. That night we ate fried snapper with banana, avocado, and creole sauce and conch salad with pickled ginger. All through a celebratory last-night bottle of tequila we wondered if the Fireball Full Moon party was dinghy-able — we could hear some hell-raising from the island — and if “dinghy-able” was even a word. Around midnight John hooked a jig to a whole suspect chicken from the pantry (that Mullet, he was an over-provisioner) and lowered it with a spinning rod into the water at the transom. The bird was soon slam dancing with a frisky shark — and when it was all beat up, damned if a five-foot barracuda didn’t take the whole thing. We fought it for a half hour, the big ’cuda, leaping, tail-walking, the works, before politely breaking off.

We retired well-amused, hoping that the surf shop would open early on Sunday morning, and that there’d still be swellage when we made it back to the break. Hell, the way our luck was running, there’d be babe-age, too.