Exploring the BVI by Kayak

This article was first written for Canoeist magazine and first published in January 2002.

It all started with a cat. A moment's pause to stroke this speckled animal led to a conversation with its owner, also the owner of a water sports centre. Naturally the conversation turned to kayaking and there the adventure began. It turned out that he was planning to expand the kayaking side of his business and was looking for a few competent paddlers to explore the area for him, with a view to setting up tours.

This was why, six months later, complete with several heavy bags of equipment we touched down at St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. After a short taxi ride, followed by a high speed ride on a converted navy gun ship to the British Virgin Islands and another taxi ride, we arrived at Trellis Bay, home of Boardsailing BVI.

Situated about 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands are of volcanic origin, rising sharply out of the Atlantic, separating it from the Caribbean Sea. They are composed of six major islands and many minor ones. Half of the islands belong to the US and half are a British Dependent Territory.

The major islands of the British Virgin Islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke. Tortola, the largest of the three, is topped by the peak, Mount Sage, and is where the bulk of the population lives. It also has the capital, Road Town, a lively town with a laid back attitude. Virgin Gorda, about two thirds the size of Tortola, is another centre of population. It has a number of expensive resorts as well as a bustling town, Spanish Town, affectionately known as 'The Valley'. Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the main islands. With its very steep hillsides it looks almost as formidable as the pirate it was named after.

The coastline of the BVI is very rocky, with massive cliffs hemming in long sandy bays. The traveller could be mistaken for thinking they had stumbled onto the pages of a brochure. The sea is azure blue, the sand pure white and the palm trees wave gently in the warm breeze, making this heaven for sea kayaking. Tiny coves, accessible only by kayaks, are in abundance, as are secluded snorkelling spots.

Carrying the boats down to the waters edge, we eyed our pile of equipment suspiciously. It looked like an awful lot of weight for our two small crafts. However, with a reel of cord in our hands we set about lashing things on. The single kayak had a forward hatch, perfect for storing the food and cooking equipment in. The double had no such luxury, everything was going to have to be on deck.

Twenty minutes late we surveyed our work. The boats looked top heavy and unstable, but all the equipment was packed and we were ready to leave. Heaving our now heavy crafts into the water, we climbed aboard, waved good bye and set off. The boats may have looked top heavy but they were perfectly stable. They had long centre line keels and this, combined with the weight meant they tracked in a straight line well and smashed through the rolling swells. With the sun overhead and happy to be away at last, we set off down the coast.

Try looking for a conventional sea kayak in the Caribbean and you will be disappointed. In an area where the temperature varies between 25 ° and 35°C, nobody wants to have their legs trapped in a fibreglass cockpit. For this reason, all the kayaks out there are sit-on-tops.

The sit-on-top is the ideal craft for the Tropics. It is small and light and it tracks well, allowing large distances to be covered and big crossings to be made with ease. The lack of a cockpit means that the wind keeps you cool and, if you are still too hot, you can just jump off, take a quick swim and remount. The flat profile of these boats means that waves just pass over the top, draining quickly off the sides, and, since the sea is luke warm, it is not an unpleasant experience at all.

We awoke just after six, as the sun began its fast ascent overhead. Rolling out of the hammocks and brushing sleep out of our eyes, we began to prepare breakfast and to dismantle last night's camp. By eight thirty the kayaks were packed and we were ready to set off. Even at that time of the morning the water felt warm as we waded out to float the boats over a reef. A quick scrabble and we were aboard and ready to begin the days paddling.

The previous night's camp had been on Fallen Jerusalem, and our route that day would take us past Round Rock, along the North shore of Ginger Island, around Cooper Island and finally to Salt Island. From here we had a fantastic view of the south shore of Tortola, including Beef Island, Fat Hogs Bay, Road Town and Sea Cow Bay.

The BVI are full of history. Originally inhabited by the Arawaks, in the late 1300s the warlike Carib Indians arrived. The Caribs were an aggressive race, terrorizing the whole Caribbean with barbarity and cannibalism and they easily drove the Arawaks out, plundering their towns and villages on the way. Columbus stumbled across the group of islands on his second voyage to the New World, in 1493, describing them as "of extraordinary beauty" and named them "the Virgins" in honour of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. His home nation, Spain, then laid claim to the West Indies and began to set up towns, ports and fortresses, and to use the Caribbean as a cross roads on route to North and South America.

It took until 1620 for the Spaniards to finally subdue the Caribs, but by then the Spanish ships faced a new threat, piracy by other European nations. This piracy was to continue for several hundred years, with the Virgin Islands swapping hands between the nations of Europe like a game of cards.

This ragged history is what gives the Virgin Islands a collection of names that would stir even the most jaded imagination. Places like Salt Island, where the salt for the Royal Navy was produced, and where the rent, one bag of salt, is still paid to the governor annually. Dead Chest Island, where the infamous pirate Bluebeard used to dump 40 men with a cutlass and bottle of rum each and let them fight it out for a chest of gold. Any men left alive after a week were permitted to join his crew.

Other places have equally romantic names, but their roots are lost in the annals of time. Sadly the origin of Fat Hogs Bay, Pull and be Damned Point and Quart 'o' Nancy Point may never be known.

Heavy rain in the night, coupled with some hefty gusts of wind confirmed what had been said during the weather report the night before, there was a tropical storm passing though. Rising early, we saw grey skies and the palm trees shaking violently in the breeze. A hurried decision, really more of a confirmation of what we had talked about night before, was made and we packed the boats in double time. We were running away.

Despite the fact we could almost see our base from the campsite, it was still nearly five miles away across an exposed channel. As we launched from the beach and rounded the end of our tiny island, we realised that it was going to be a rough ride. With nothing between Africa, some 2000 miles away, and us the waves had had plenty of time to build up. Huge Atlantic rollers were cruising through the gaps in the island chain. Between eight and ten feet tall, they made us feel very insignificant as we turned to run with them. The storm had brought rain and fog with it and our destination, marked by a 700ft hill, kept drifting in and out of sight. With pulses racing and the wind hammering at our backs we began the crossing.

Just over an hour and a half later we rounded a headland and paddled the final, sheltered section back to our base camp. Tying the boats down, we retreated into our base. For the next eight hours we watched as tropical storm Dean passed overhead, bringing four inches of rain and winds of up to 100mph. Only when calm had returned did we venture out in the kayaks again.

Situated in the Tropics, at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, the BVI are normally blessed with fantastic weather. They are just tucked into the northeast trade belt providing light, warm breezes that waft over the islands, keeping the tropical heat at bay. It rains almost daily, but only for a few minutes at a time and, with the combination of heat and wind, everything is soon dry again. However, June to September are considered hurricane season. The tropical storms that strike the BVI and the rest of the Caribbean, are formed either in the mid Atlantic or on the west coast of Africa. They begin to organise themselves into the classic spiral shape as they head west, gaining momentum and speed as they go.

Watched by satellite nowadays, they can be picked up as they form and tracked. It normally takes between two days and a week for the storm to cross the Atlantic, giving the islanders plenty of time to prepare. Modern, accurate prediction of the track of the storm means that islands in its path can batten closed the shutters and stock up on water.

If they do strike an island, the devastation can be immense. Many houses lose their roofs, trees are uprooted, valleys flooded and boats torn from their moorings. The islanders, however, are suitably laid back about it all. Most have lived through many hurricanes and will see many more.

Approaching a tiny inlet, not much wider than the boats, we tethered our crafts offshore and prepared to go snorkelling. Pulling on fins and masks and grabbing the waterproof camera, we slipped over the sides of our boats into the water. Several powerful kicks took us into the inlet, a sort of bowl shape with one side open to the sea. The water was warm and not to deep, between five and twenty feet. It was crystal clear and it was possible to see right to the bottom, even in the deepest water.

All around us were colourful fish of all different sizes and shapes. The smallest often had the brightest colours, moving in small shoals, creating a wave of colour. The larger fish, often up to two feet or more, swam with a regal air that comes from knowing you are the biggest predator in the area. Except that confidence was ill founded. The shoals of fish suddenly took on a more urgent, organised pattern, all headed in the same direction. We turned to see what had caused it and found ourselves staring eye to eye with a four foot reef shark. Oblivious to our shock he swam on and disappeared into the blue.

Swimming further into the inlet we saw sea urchins with foot long spines and small jellyfish with a sting that feels like a static electric shock. Light was filtering through under one of the walls of the bowl and a little exploration showed that it was possible to swim through a huge underwater rock arch. Taking a deep breath we dived and kicked hard, surfacing in the open sea, not far from the boats. We lazily swam back to them, remounted and started unpacking lunch.

The snorkelling is not a reason to go to the BVI, it is the reason. The water is warm and crystal clear. It is possible to see the bottom forty or fifty feet away. The area is full of reefs, a nightmare for yachtsmen but heavenly for snorkelling. With the kayaks it is possible to drift over reefs inches below the surface and reach places not accessible by any other craft.

The area is home to thousands of species of fish, of all different colours, shapes and sizes. They dart about the reefs either singly or in shoals, sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands. The reefs themselves are covered by corals and sponges in colours that match the variety shown by the fish. Swimming into a cave, it is possible to pick out the walls by the phosphorescent glow the corals emit.

Large creatures inhabit the area as well. As well as sharks, tuna and tarpin are regular visitors to the area and, reaching up to six foot in length, are quite a sight. Turtles surface briefly and then disappear again, often for many days. Dolphins will flank the kayaks, sharing waves and playing games with the wake.

The BVI is a perfect kayaking destination. It is warm, sunny and friendly. The sea is warm and crystal clear and the islands are close enough to make it safe. The pale sands, deep blue water and rugged cliffs will mean that you will not forget this paradise quickly.