US and British Virgin
Islands - Trip Report.
Contributed by Greg Knight, Aqua Adventures of San Diego CA.
14 Days, Two Countries, 50 Islands.
For centuries sailors, yachtsmen, fishermen,
pirates, and many others have explored the U.S. and British Virgin Islands
in a variety of watercraft. Stories of sunken pirate chests, homemade rum,
and the American dream of "living the life of a Jimmy Buffett song" make
these islands a must for any kayaker.
With year-round temperatures of 75-85 degrees, white sandy beaches with
crystal clear 80+ degree water, it is no wonder so many people never leave.
Many people have used the Bermuda triangle excuse to why they never came
home, but most of those people can be found at one of the islandís many
With approximately 80 square miles and over 100 islands, most all within
five miles of each other, it seemed to be a "no brainer" that the best
way to explore the islands would be by kayak. Seeing how you can find a
kayak rental at every convenience store here in the U.S. and Canada, you
would think that there would be an abundance of rentals and outfitters
in the area Ė but NO.
After researching the area, we were only able to
find one outfitter, who only goes to a couple of islands that are within
close range of each other, and a small handful of sit on top rentals that
will rent you a 9-10 foot kayak for $25 an hour. After using all my
resources of quality kayak outfitters and shops in Florida, the remainder
of the East Coast, and England, I could not find any information on
kayaking the Virgin Islands which started us on the thought that maybe
no one has ever kayaked all the islands.
There were just two of us on this trip, myself (Greg Knight), and
We needed to bring our own folding kayaks with us on the plane to make
this trip happen. The best boat for the job was a 480C from First Light,
a New Zealand manufacturer of folding boats. Only weighing 22 pounds and
folding down into a backpack size, we were easily able to check both kayaks
right onto the plane as regular luggage. At 15í 9" it was fast enough to
be able to cover a lot of distance and carry all the gear that we would
need, yet light enough to carry through all the airport terminals.
Our trip started by flying into St. Thomas where we stayed at a dockside
Hilton Hotel. In the morning, we started to assemble the kayaks in the
hotel lobby. Three hours and a couple dozen comments later on how crazy
we were, we had assembled the kayaks, had our dry bags packed, and were
ready to go. We launched off a pier into the 80 degree water with our
chart, compass, and only a marginal idea of where we were going.
Our first night we camped on a small island called Great Saint James.
As we approached the island at sunset, I felt a few mosquito and "noseeum"
bites. As we got closer and closer the bites got worse. Finally I couldnít
stand it; I was being eaten alive. Literally, thousands of bites later,
our tent was up and we dove in. Our first night out on the islands was
spent in a hot, sweaty, sauna-like tent, scratching away and trying to
subdue the itch by eating raw garlic and onions (I heard rumors that
this would repel the bugs Ė it actually just repelled Cate) and drinking
a bottle of rum.
On most kayak camping trips that I have ever done,
the ideal campsite is protected from the wind on a soft beach in the
shade Ė but not here. When camping in the tropics, an exposed beach is
preferred as the cool wind comes into the tent and blows the bugs away.
Our only goal on day two was to find bug spray and a good camp ground.
The bug spray was not to hard to find as we paddled up the northern side
of St. John, but the campsite was another story. This side of the island
is lined with beautiful beaches, but the entire stretch is a national park
where camping is only permitted by reservation and much of the coast is
private property. With no where else to go that night, we headed to the far
corner of Maho Bay, a private resort beach, and put up our tent in a hidden
cove. At the crack of dawn we quickly got up and broke camp, not leaving a
Day threeís goal was to leave the United States and get to the British
Virgin Island of Tortola. As we started the crossing from St. John to Great
Thatch Island, the sky to the east turned very dark with black swirling
clouds and this darkness was moving towards us rapidly. We quickly retreated
back to a small cove on St. John as the squall passed. In five minutes the
squall had completely moved over us, dropping enough rain to wash Southern
California into the ocean and blowing so hard that the winds actually
flattened the white caps into smooth moguls of spray.
After the squall had passed we continued our quest for Tortola. The three
mile paddle to Frenchmanís Cay, the main port and customs for the British
Virgin Islands, took four hours! With white caps as far as the eye could
see, we knew that our day of paddling was over. Since we were stuck, we
decided to grab a bite to eat and check in with British Customs.
our kayaks, grabbed our passports and went into customs. When the Customs
officers asked, "What is the name of your boat?" we replied "We came in
two boats and they really donít have names. We came in kayaks." The officer
responded, " You must arrive in a registered boat with a license. Unless
your kayaks have registration numbers, you canít come to this country in
a kayak." Standing there, looking at our kayaks on the dock I replied,
"Letís pretend that we just did kayak to this country, what would we do
then?" He said, "You must leave".
By now the white caps had churned the
ocean into a "victory at sea" state! As we convinced the nice officer
that it would be way too dangerous to paddle back to the U.S. in this
weather, he gave us another option. "You leave your kayaks here and pay
$80 each to get on that ferry (pointing to a ferry boat right outside the
office). You will take that ferry back to St. Thomas (where we started our
whole trip), donít get off, stay on the ferry as it takes you back here to
Tortola and I will check you in with the ferryís registration numbers."
"Canít we just get on the ferry here, not leave, and just walk off so we
donít have to waste a full day pretending that we didnít kayak here?" I
asked. "The ferry leaves in 45 minutes", the officer replied.
officer was actually very nice, just a typical government employee
bombarded with red tape, restrictions, and rules. He understood that we
were very tired from the rough paddling and desperately needed something to
eat before we started our ferry ride. We took the kayaks down the street
to a local hotel, The Jolly Roger, where we stored the kayaks and booked
a room to get a little rest. The hotel appeared to be filled with a variety
of other fugitives and pirates but they were serving big juicy cheeseburgers.
After lunch, we needed to take a short "power nap", only to awake to the
realization that we had missed the last ferry. Since it was Christmas Eve,
the next ferry was not due for more than two days. We had to make a break
for our next island.
Ever since making landfall the first night at Great Saint James Island,
our kayaks were taking on water and we continuously had to bilge them out.
(Make trip note - do not paddle folding kayaks on to a razor sharp coral
beach ever again). We checked out of the Jolly Roger right at sunrise on
Christmas Day, only to find a customs officer borrowing a car from one of
the hotel employees. I donít think that the customs officer really cared
that we were there as long as we werenít in his office, but my paranoia had
the best of me. Two red kayaks stick out like a sore thumb in this area,
are they looking for us?
The hotel owner, who thought it was cool that
two people who had never been to the islands before would explore them by
kayak, told us about a shortcut. A small waterway that would lead us under
a bridge and keep us out of site and even more importantly keep us out of
the wind that was still blowing up white caps out at sea. So Christmas day
was spent paddling 10 miles up wind and avoiding customs in leaky boats.
The road in Tortola follows the coastline very close. Numerous times we
would see cars slowing or even stopping to check out what we were doing.
All I could think about was customs and our sinking boats.
arrived at Roadtown Harbor where we were able to find a marina that had a
restaurant open for lunch, even on Christmas. We emptied a lot of water
from our kayaks, but could not figure out where it was coming in and spent
hours applying duct tape in all the wrong places. We still felt we needed
to get off this island today, but time was running out and we still had more
than five miles to go. As we headed up to the eastern end of Tortola that
afternoon, we noticed that the wind had died to almost dead calm and we could
actually make a little distance.
This was the first place I have paddled where
the wind picks up in the middle of night, usually around 2am, and dies down
around 2pm. (Trip note: the paddling is easier in the afternoon, no more of
this crack of dawn b.s.!)
After making camp that night on a small stretch of sand between Tortola and
Beef Island, we were off to make our longest crossing (7 miles) to Virgin
Gorda Island. With the wind still up from the night before, we both agreed
that the kayaks were still taking on too much water to safely make this
crossing and stopped on Marina Cay. This was a beautiful little island that
was so small, a water droplet on my chart case totally obscurred it! It had
a small hotel, restaurant, great snorkeling, and supply store. It came at
just the right time as we were nearly out of rum, and we were now able to
really fix the leaks in our kayaks.
As we left Marina Cay that evening for
Virgin Gorda, something was different, we were paddling dry kayaks.
When we arrived at Virgin Gordaís marina we booked a nearby hotel and quickly
found the nearest pub. The next day, as we back tracked up the northeast
end of Virgin Gorda, we entered paradise, Virgin Sound. One island has a
beautiful white sand beach with no development on the whole island except a
sandy beach bar Ė a kayakerís paradise.
We stopped for lunch at a small
island resort called Saba Rock. The island is small enough that we snorkeled
around the whole thing in about a half-hour. We pulled our kayaks on the
dock and went in for a bite to eat. On the table, the menu said "Ask about
rooms available tonight", so we did. The hotel employee showed us a very
nice room that would run us $100, well worth it. When we woke up the next
afternoon, both of us agreed that a second night here would be fun. Plus,
our heads were still a little foggy from the night before.
When we asked the
hotel manager if we could have the same room for one more night, he told us
that our room was taken, but he could put us in another room upstairs for
$200. Itís not every day you end up somewhere like this, so we took it.
Rock has a water taxi that will take you to any of the neighboring beach
bars, so we had our work cut out for us that second day. After our second
day of drunken silliness it was time to check out. The hotel manager handed
us the bill - $650. I knew that we put lunch and dinner on the hotel bill,
but how did it get that high? Thumbing through a pile of receipts, he said,
"Here is a bill for two dinners, here is one for two lunches, here is
another for dinner --- oh!" as he paused, "here is a bill for seven rum
punches, six pina coladas, a couple painkillers, a bushwacker, a bottle of
wine, shall I continue?" he asked. We paid up and headed west.
After leaving Saba Rock, we had a good 20 miles of paddling in front of us
to get us to Copper Island. The manager of Saba Rock had told us that
Cooper Island was very similar - a small resort that caters to boaters and
has very reasonable rooms. After kayaking the 20 miles in fairly rough
conditions, we were looking forward to a nice hotel once again. But when
we arrived, the Cooper Island manager laughed at us. "A room at this time
of the year? I am booked up through next month."
We told him our story
and asked if there was any place that we could put up a tent. He told us
the house next door has a private beach that he takes care of and since
the owner wouldnít be back until the following day, we could put our tent
there for the night. Early the next morning we were awoken by an elderly
woman telling her friend, if the owner of the property were here she
would have them arrested (referring to us camping there).
We were quickly
packing up when she came back around. We told her that we had paddled
20 miles yesterday and just didnít have anywhere else to stop and that
the manager had given us permission. She then felt bad about threatening
us and asked us up to her house on top of a nearby hill for breakfast.
How could we refuse? Beautiful view, good food, and interesting stories
of a couple in their 70ís who have lived on this 2 square mile island for
When we left Cooper Island, we set our sights on Peter Island. Peter Island
is famous for Dead Mans Chest, a treasure left by Blackbeard the Pirate,
and a beach that has been rated as one of the top ten in the world. We never
found the treasure chest but the beach there was priceless. The whitest
sand either of us had ever seen with crystal clear water. A little too pricey
for us to stay ($1,000 - $15,000 per night for hotel rooms and even the
cheeseburger was $28) but definitely worth a visit.
We paddled down the
coast of Peter a few miles and found an abandoned beach resort camp. A
couple of snorkeling guides told us the resort was set up by a hotel on
Tortola that brings in cruise ship guests. When the cruise ships come to
port in Tortola, they taxi the guests to this resort where they can snorkel
and relax. They said it was a public beach and we were free to stay.
A couple of hammocks on the beach made a great alternative to putting up
The next island after we left Peter, was Norman Island. All weíd really
heard about Norman Island was that there was a pirate ship that had been
made into a bar. A quote from an older sailor we had met earlier stuck
in our minds: "I donít think my wife has been naked in years, not to mention
in front of that many people." It was New Yearís Eve, and we decided this
would be an interesting spot.
As we arrived at Norman Island, we noticed that the only sandy beach was
right in front of a bar called Pirates. We asked the bartender if there was
someplace that we could put up a tent. She told us to ask the manager and
pointed him out to us. The manager was the size of a medium sized red wood
tree at somewhere around 6í4", with arms the size of my body, and a very
deep Jamaican voice. I firmly sent Cate right over to ask permission for us
We told him that we really wanted to stay here for the New Yearís
Eve party and just wanted a spot to put a tent for the night. He said, "This
is private property. We donít like to have people come and just think they
can stay anywhere they want. But, for you two tonight, I give you permission."
The reason he let us stay is that Norman Island is famous for itís New Yearís
Eve Party and this was his pet project that you could tell he put a lot of
effort and pride into. Any other night we may have had to just keep padding.
The whole trip was starting to wear us both down a bit and the paddling was
not getting any easier as more and more squalls were coming through.
We were barely able to stay up for the New Yearís Eve party. From Norman, we
left the British Virgin Islands and came back to the U.S. We crossed from
Norman to Coral Bay on the southeast end of St. John. The crossing was only
about three miles but very nasty with solid force four and five winds at our
beam. The seas were in the 4-8 feet range and random white caps would land hard
in our laps. To make matters worse, it was now New Yearís day, and when we
finally did reach land, nothing was open. After paddling a couple of hours
around Coral Bay, we finally found a small local bar that was serving
cheeseburgers. The bartender (they always seem to give the best advice) told
us of a cove a couple miles away that would be perfect for us to camp the night.
He was right.
Our trip was scheduled to end on January 3, at Great Cruz Bay. From there, a
water shuttle would take us back to the airport where we would catch our flight
back home. We still had two more days of paddling and one more night of
camping before we were done. The paddling was still tough and the wind just
didnít want to give up. We set up camp in Reef Bay on the South side of St. John,
a beautiful sandy beach with nothing but a handful of mosquitoes, which I was
now used to.
Our final day of paddling was just going to be a simple three miles.
Though we had to dodge a big squall in those simple three miles, we finished our
paddle at the Great Cruz Bay Resort, a four star hotel where Cate had a
complimentary room! We pulled up to the beach which was covered with rich,
overweight, sun burned tourists. Most were paying $500-$1000 per night for the
privilege of sitting around a pool, drinking expensive watered down fruity
drinks, while their kids scream at the top of their lungs that theyíre still
hungry. None of these people have ever kayaked before and few would ever camp,
and they thought WE were crazy.