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 beach bars.
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 Cate Thero.
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 trace.
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.
We docked 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.
The customs 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.
We finally 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.
Saba 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 40 years.
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 tent.
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 to camp.
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.

Greg Knight.

Map of the trip.
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Packing the FirstLights.
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St Thomas, start of the trip.
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Maho Beach.
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Racing the squall.
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Gold at the end of the rainbow.
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Ready to leave Cooper Island.
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The beach at Cooper Island.
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Norman Island campsite.
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