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An article written by our staff and featured in The Charter Connection

by Ed
October 2005

This week my nephew, Rory, flies from England to hopefully crew on a charter yacht in Tortola. It seems fitting to compare what he will see, to what I saw when I did the same thing 33 years ago, almost to the day.

In 1972, anyone moving to Tortola was a bit of a pioneer. There were only about 8-10 principal white families that had lived on the island for any length of time and it was common to be the only white face on the beach. Unlike today, there were very few yachts and if you found more than one boat in an anchorage, the tendency was to sail onto the next one.

After leaving the yacht I had helped deliver across The Atlantic, I found myself looking for a job. With only about $100 in my pocket, funds were getting tight by the time I was signed on at The Moorings, as purchasing manager, boat and charter check-out person, and bareboat skipper.

The four managers took turns skippering when guests required it. We were paid $25 per day and tipping was virtually non-existent, but we thought we were in heaven. The pay went straight into the bank untouched and all our living expenses were paid by the guests. We were off the dock for a week, being paid to sail around one of the loveliest, pristine cruising grounds imaginable! These days a skipper gets $120-180 per day and a sizeable tip is the norm.

A typical Moorings charter would start in Road Town, at the docks by the Frances Drake Pub – then the center of Tortola’s social life (next to Tortola Yacht Services in the picture below). The huge Moorings facility on Wickams Cay II came many years later.

We would meet the guests and sail across to Little Harbor, Peter Island for a late lunch.

I will always remember one honeymoon couple I had. I believe she was Argentinean and he was from Belgium, but they lived in New York. She was stunningly beautiful and arrived in a sophisticated outfit, complete with heels. Her husband, in broken English, told me he can hear motors in Manhattan, so did not want to hear motors on his vacation, i.e. no engine.....

The starry eyed couple sat on the aft deck of the center cockpit Morgan Out Island 41 as we sailed across to Deadmans Bay, Peter Island.

Eager to impress, I passed, under full sail, inside an anchored boat at the head of the bay, to be close to the beach. As I turned around to ask the guests if they would mind holding the wheel so I could walk forward to get the sails down, I caught sight of them both diving off the stern!

Their other request was to wake up one morning, out of sight of land. The BVI is mountainous and you have to be many miles offshore to do this. I set sail in the dawn and sailed north. Somewhere west of Anegada, I hammered on the sealed companion way hatch to the aft cabin and they emerged – out of site of land. We had a magnificent champagne breakfast.

I got a Christmas card for many years from this couple. Two truly beautiful, special people. And the engine never ran for the week (except to charge batteries when they were off the boat.

The first night of a typical charter could either be at deserted Norman Island, where we would explore the caves or perhaps at Cooper Island, where Tim and Jan Short had a low-key bar, that also served excellent meals, including real Cornish pasties. Like most of these early bars, conversation among hosts and their half a dozen guests often went on well into the night.

Marina Cay was a similar situation – a small bar/restaurant on the top of the hill where everyone sat around one large table. Tony and Jackie Snell's Last Resort was the place to go for entertainment. An ability to laugh at oneself was essential and Tony’s humor didn’t go down well with a few who couldn’t, but for most people it was a lot of fun. Brandy in hand, he sang adapted versions of popular songs, while his famous pet donkey, which in those days walked between the tables, sometimes joined in. For those who knew Tony, he is still active - he drove through Wiscasset a couple of weeks ago, (yes, he still drives) on the way to his New Hampshire home.

At North Sound, the two resorts were Drakes Anchorage (then a hideaway resort for recluses, complete with sea plane ramp) and Bitter End, which was a tiny one-room restaurant. The old building was roughly where the bar is in the present complex. There were no other structures (which is hard to believe these days), except Biras Creek, which did not encourage yachtsmen.

We would then sail down the north side of Tortola, to Foxy’s little shack in Jost Van Dyke. The original, much smaller building was where the bar is. Dinners here were always popular. Again everyone sat around the same table, while the talented young Foxy entertained with true, spontaneous calypso. I remember one of my guests feeling sorry for an elderly local man fishing off the end of the little dock, literally with a stick, string and a bent pin. He was amazed when I pointed out that this man, like several inhabitants of Jost, had sold many acres of what is now Long Bay Resort in Tortola and had more money than he or I would ever have.

This sobering thought had quite an effect on this guest, who started to see the island and perhaps his own priorities, in a new light. Things are not always what they seem and people sometimes choose different priorities and customs from those we are used to in the US. There is something to be said for this more gentle lifestyle. After all, when did you last hear of an Islander with an ulcer?

This was what made skippering so much fun. We really did see people change during the week, sometimes doing things that they would never dream of at home, for fear of what the neighbors would think. I’m sure they would remember those secret moments for the rest of their lives. Everything was less commercial and a vacation really was an opportunity for so many different types of guests, from families to elderly couples, to experience something different.

No longer the bachelor's paradise with a 60's lifestyle, Tortola has grown more civilized and although in some ways it has changed almost unrecognizably, it is still a great place to visit and a fabulous place for a charter vacation.

Rory, I hope you have as much fun there as I did!

More old pictures of Tortola

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