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Fun and sun in the British Virgin Islands

BVI Boating Week at the Bitter End Yacht Club is a tropical remedy for the winter blues

BVI Boating Week at the Bitter End Yacht Club is a tropical remedy for the winter blues

A celebratory boating week at a conveniently exotic winter venue with plenty of wind, sunshine, balmy temperatures and natural beauty in a protected setting may have found an annual home at The Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands.

In January the second staging of BVI Boating Week in Virgin Gorda’s North Sound (after its debut in 2004) featured more activities and sponsors that should build toward an even better event next winter. However, one must always be prepared for things to move on island time, especially when trying to get people, boats and events together for a week on the water in paradise.

Even so, there’s more than enough for boaters to do on their own at The Bitter End without relying on a cruise ship-style program. An extensive fleet of centerboarders, prams, Boston Whalers, center consoles, keelboats, kayaks, rowing shells and sailboards are readily available for most wind conditions, and all ages and experience levels. Sailing classes, day cruises to other islands, scuba diving and snorkeling, racing around the buoys, hiking and mountain climbing, beachcombing and beach-bar hopping, swimming and sunset sails can fill up days on end.

Co-sponsored by Soundings, West Marine ( ), Mount Gay Rum (, Sail Caribbean (, and the Bitter End, this year’s BVI Boating week ran from Jan. 6 to 14 and promoted the inter-related joys of boating — sail, power and paddle. The week was organized by Soundings consumer marketing manager Chris Buydos, an experienced boater who also produced a daily newsletter for the event and kept track of things in general.

Sail Caribbean provided an 18-foot RIB for general runabout use, and MountGay came on strong with one of its rum-tasting cocktail parties, hosted by Geoff Markle, from the rum’s home base in Barbados, and Sam Tucker, the product’s distributor in the BVI. Shirts and flags were passed out.

Sunsail ( ) brought in two sloops and a catamaran from its Tortola base for a mini boat show, and the two monohulls piled on crew to sail around the buoys in a two-boat “beer can” race. A new Lagoon Flybridge 440 power cat from The Catamaran Company in Tortola ( ) also was featured at the show.

A “Women on the Water” segment was handled by Martha Parker of Team One Newport, Janet Baxter of US Sailing, and Pam Wall, outfitting manager of West Marine and a former world cruiser. The goal was to promote the boating lifestyle for women without intimidating males around. Instructional classes began inside the sailing center and culminated with hands-on sailing on North Sound.

While I wasn’t up to single-handing tender centerboarders and multihulls in gusty winds of 20-plus knots, I did manage to race aboard a Hunter 216 and a Sunsail Beneteau 38. I also sailed a trusty old Rhodes 19 keelboat and a converted J/24. Other on-water events for me included sunset sails on the Bitter End’s 42-foot catamaran, cocktail cruises on a pontoon party boat, and visits to the Sandbox Beach Bar on Prickly Pear Island on a Boston Whaler and a kayak.

The busiest venue in this boat-happy community is the sailing center’s tiny beach, where small boats launch and land in a seemingly endless swarm. The facility’s keelboats are tied to mooring balls, and watersports and activities director Gordo Overing and other sailing center staff chased occasional stray Lasers and Hobies that sailed off on their own after capsizes. Retrieving sailors — wearing mandatory PFDs, of course — came first, however.

Considering the strength of the wind gusts, the waters of North Sound in the protected lee of Prickly Pear Island remain flat, though white-capped. But beyond Eustatia Sound on the open sea, 8- to 10-foot swells are broken up by a natural protective reef, which is popular with snorkelers exploring from Whalers.

There is plenty of deep, open water in the sound, and the Bitter End maintains 70 rental moorings close to shore for transient cruisers. A new $400,000 cement main pier opened in January, which can accommodate two mega-yachts side by side and stern-to with bow anchors set.

The Bitter End long has been a premier destination for cruisers in the BVI, while also offering many boating options and packages for its land-bound guests. At the watersports beach, easy friendships are made when a crewmember is needed, and strangers are thrown together to compete or not to compete. That’s how I met “Gibby” Rachleff, a Long Island, N.Y., bachelor and loyal Bitter Ender who sailed almost every boat in the fleet.

A spry 66-year-old who sported a pirate’s bandanna when sailing, this anesthesiologist at Manhasset’s NorthShoreHospital keeps a Sabre 28 on a mooring at the North Shore Yacht Club and owns a Yngling. His first visit to the Bitter End was in 1989, and he has since returned about 35 times as a hotel guest or on a bareboat charter, usually during the winter.

“I just love to sail and race, and there are plenty of boats here to solo or crew on,” he says. “Also, I meet a lot of old friends and make new ones when I come here.”

Gibby steered to a second place in one hectic race in a very tender Hunter with yacht dealer Ben Wilde of Essex, Conn., on the jib sheets and me trimming the mainsheet.

A week filled with boating activities is bound to produce some interesting incidents, one of which occurred during an outboard engine troubleshooting class conducted by Erik Klockars, a Soundings technical consultant and engine answer man, on hand for engine seminars. A small group had assembled at the Boston Whaler dock one morning as the session began. One student in a Whaler pulled the starter cord on a 9.9-hp Mercury 2-stroke and started the outboard just as world cruiser Wall stepped aboard. Somehow the gearshift, located in the tiller handle, engaged, knocking Wall off balance. She flew into the drink as the startled operator threw her hands apologetically into the air in surprise.

The Whaler charged forward but was restrained by a stern anchor, bow dock line, and hands on the dock. Watersports director Overing immediately jumped into the water and killed the engine. After Wall climbed out of the shallow water, dripping wet, she was asked by a bystander if anything like that had happened during her six-year circumnavigation, the subject of her delightful slide-show lecture the previous evening. “No,” she said, laughing.

For information on next winter’s BVI Boating Week, e-mail Chris Buydos at Soundings ( ) or call him at (860) 767-3200. For more information on The Bitter End Yacht Club, call (284) 494-2746 or visit