Ducky's British Virgin Islands Trip Report

November, 1992
I had hosted a High Tech Heroes taping on a Wednesday evening. One odd afteraffect of doing a shoot is that I can't fall asleep until about three AM on the nights that we tape. (I can understand now how rock stars, TV hosts, and other big-name performers could get hooked on sleeping pills and uppers!)

Eight AM. The phone rang.

It was Kevin, a friend of mine, calling from the British Virgin Islands. He and his wife, Pat, had just finished overseeing refurbishment of a yacht, were about to take it out for a test cruise, and wanted to know if I would like to come down and help with "beta test". I thought as quickly as I could on five hours of sleep, told him I'd look into it, and we agreed that he'd call Friday morning at 8 AM.

I talked to my client du jour and determine that if I worked like a banshee all weekend, I could wrap up their immediate needs. (It helped that was a sailor himself.) So I arranged all that, bought a plane ticket, canceled my dates, and sat by the phone Friday morning.

Eight AM.

Nine AM.

Ten AM.

Eleven AM.

Twelve AM.

By this time I was getting nervous. I had work to do, things to take care of if I was going to take off on Monday! So I finally left a message on my answering machine: "Hi, this is Kate Sherwood. I'm not in at the moment, so please leave me a message. If this is the BVI shipping company, we are expecting delivery at 3 PM on Monday."


I then took off to take care of business. As I was bounding down the steps of my apartment, I had a sudden realization. "Oh no," I thought. "I just bought a thousand-dollar non-refundable ticket, and I bet I wasn't truly awake. I bet it was a dream!". But then I decided, oh well, if it was in fact a dream, I'd go anyways. I hadn't been on a vacation in a long time!

I came home later to find a message saying, " Uh. Right. Um, I guess that means you are coming." :-) Yay, it wasn't a dream! It turned out that Pat had sprained her ankle jumping off the dock, and they were off getting ex-rays when they were supposed to be calling me. He also gave me directions on how to find him in BVI.

The Planes

So Sunday I started off towards the British Virgin Islands. The first leg was a redeye from SFO to JFK, a seven hour trip or so. There was an hour of turbulance going into JFK, like a weak soprano on an uncertain C. I was not a happy camper when I landed.

Then I waited around for an hour, then missed the connecting flight to San Juan just because I dorked.

Then off to San Juan, Puerto Rico (which looked really pretty from the plane, have to go back), and from there to Beef Island, BVI on a tiny little plane which also bounced around a lot.

When the plane landed, we walked over to this small building which happened to be the airport - one of the smallest I have been in years. I think the airport in Chippewa Falls, WI was bigger.

Kevin had told me to take a taxi to the hotel, and I was thinking "large yellow American-made car". Instead, what I found was a vehicle with about ten bench seats and a little awning, sort of like the parking lot shuttles at DisneyLand. I got in the back, and the rest of the vehicle was filled with four 20-something couples down from Colorado.

As we pulled into the hotel's drive, I spotted Kevin walking by the side of the road. "Hey good-looking!" I yelled. "Where ya been all my life???" At which point the front three couples turned to stare at the woman of the couple in front of me. They thought she was being awfullly forward, yelling at some stranger!

(I almost got Kevin killed, by the way. This being the British Virgin Island, the cars drive on the left. While he had been down there for a while, he grew up in the States, and his unbridled joy at seeing me must have caused temporary amnesia. He looked the wrong way, and almost got flattened!)

Kevin was happy to see me, as was the First Mate, Pat. (And as she tells her husband, The Captain, "That better be ONLY Mate!") I was happy to see them, too, so it worked out. :-)

They took me to dinner at a restaurant with marvelous food. Fortunately, I had come from a colder clime and had decent clothes (i.e. non-shorts) for going out. It isn't that the restaurant was so posh, but that the BVI residents are somewhat prudish about skin. (They are, after all, British.) This surprised me, as I had heard from Kevin's talk before that the BVI folk are relatively casual about time. I had always assumed that time and skin casualness went together.

The air temperature is high, as is the humidity, but there is usually a breeze to take the sting off. But this means that if you shut up your dwellings completely, you will bake, poach, steam, whatever. The hotel that I stayed in the first night had "vanity windows"(?) - louvered slats - and there was grillwork on the outside. This meant that the breeze could flow right through, while still affording some privacy. This meant that I spent the night with a strong, warm breeze blowing over my naked body. It was like getting a gentle caress from a kind lover all night long. (When can I go back????)

The next day, I joined Kevin and Pat at the dock, where we had some breakfast. I got to feeling queasy on board while tied to the dock while eating breakfast. This was NOT a good sign.

Kevin and Pat rented a car and took me on a tour of Tortola, the biggest island of the BVIs. I noted a number of things:

The vast majority of residents were of African descent. Slaves were imported to work the plantations. When slavery was abolished, the sugar cane industry collapsed and the white folks went home.

What is "Wealth"?

I had heard that BVI was really a third-world country, but I was surprised at what I found. I associate "poverty" with "underfed" and "overcrowded", and neither of these were correct. The islands are quite sparsely populated, and the populace seemed quite well fed, clothed, and generally ok. Kevin and Pat tell me that the medical care is very cheap and quite good (for routine things). They also more or less all have a view that a Californian would pay a quarter million for.

Yeah, the houses were a little shabby, but the quality of a house doesn't seem so critical to me when you are living in a place where you can be outdoors 365 days per year. My friend Jason Winters, who has spent a lot of time down there, says that all the solid materials have to be imported, so that there would be concrete for columns and so on, but the in-between stuff would be just rubble - shells, rocks, old concrete, dirt.


They also were kind of casual about garbage. I saw a man finish a drink out of a paper cup and then casually toss the cup aside. There were pop cans here and there, and wrecked cars of by the side of the road that had obviously been there a long time, and obviously were going to stay there for a long time.

I actually took that as a sign of wealth. In California, you can't just leave wrecked cars in a grassy area because that is your park, your only one for miles around! And we don't have cans lying around because our urban carrion eaters collect them for the money.

Kevin has a different take on it. He thinks that a society has to have basic needs like food and shelter met, then the not-so-basic needs (infrastructure, education, lesiure time), before one can start worrying about the ecology; sort of a Maslow's heierarchy as applied to societies.


What they were really poor in was entertainment. There were not many bars, there were no discos, one very basic movie houses, no TV stations. There were no espresso bars, no large bookstores, no Chinese restaurants.

At one point I saw a young man loitering down by the docks, down by all the boats with expensive gear on them. He was still hanging around 30 minutes later, and I pointed him out to Kevin and Pat, thinking he might have mischeif on his mind to be watching and waiting for so long. "No", they said, "he's just liming about." Liming about, or hanging out, was just part of The Way Things Work down there. Watching the waves was about as big a thrill as he was going to find on that island.

Sunday morning I was listening to the radio, and heard a woman reciting the births, deaths, and church services times and sermon topics for about a half an hour. This was obviously a regular feature. I guess every day is a slow news day down there.

Kevin told me of a picture on the front page of the newspaper down there, with a BIG banner headline: Horse Wanders Into Laundromat, Requires Three Men To Remove.


The country also surprised me by being water-poor. The air is very moist and humid, but apparently there has to be a great elevation somewhere to force the moist air high enough that it will precipitate. There is not enough spring water to serve the country, so everyone keeps a cistern to catch the rain. (They had had a severe drought for long enough that all their cisterns were dry; they ended up building a very expensive desalination plant to provide them with water. I think the drought ended the week I was there!)


The residents keep sheep. No, not the big fluffy wooly things you see in the New Zealand postcards, short-hairs! They look very much like goats, but are better tempered. These sheep are also not particularly restrained. They just wander around the roads, much like stray cats or dogs. Apparently there was a resolution proposed recently to forbid letting your sheep loose like that; it was quashed by an enraged populace. Jason tells me that there are also a fair number of goats on the island.


The cars drive on the left, like in Britain, but with left-hand steering wheels like the US. People drive with very high acceleration but low speed. It feels a little like everyone is driving a go-cart. Most people do not have cars, with the result that there is an excellent taxi service. If you want to go from point A to point B, you just hail a taxi.

Touring Tortola

We had lunch at a restaurant high atop the island, at Sky World. From this peak, we had a nice view of Brewer's Bay and Little Jost Van Dyke Island.

From other points on the ridge, we had a great view of Roadtown, the capital of BVI, and the huge cruise ship that was just coming in to port. Kevin and Pat said that it was good that we'd gotten to Sky World when we did, or it might have been jammed with tourists doing the twenty-seven-islands-in-six-days cruise.

Brewer's Bay

After dawdling and taking photos and marvelling at the views, we found our way down a very scary road (one lane, straight down!), past an abandonded distillery, to Brewer's Bay. We hopped into the water and spent a very pleasant time splashing about in the water.


On our way back, we ended up behind a stuck tourist. My guides told me that when tourists come in think they will have to have a four wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the dirt roads, when in fact most of the major roads are paved. This tourist didn't have the ooomph to get back up the hill. He apparently had called someone to give him a push, as there were two men who appeared to be residents trying to push his car up the hill with their car. They then decided that they needed more of a running start, so preceeded to zoom down the hill backwards, right to where we were! At the last minute, the driver wheeled off the side of the road and into a fence. He graciously let us pass at that point. (His car wasn't really damaged, but now I understood why there were so many dents and dings on the cars!)

I'll talk! I'll talk!

After seeing me get queasy at the dock, Kevin put a scopalamine patch behind my ear. Scopalmine is the same drug as the truth serum of bad movie fame, but it is supposed to be really good at preventing seasickness.

Well, when I woke up the next morning, I understood how it worked. It just destroyed my sense of balance completely so that I couldn't TELL if things were moving around! I was able to walk and move around ok, but it FELT like I was staggering. (I think if I had tried to move with my eyes closed, I would have fallen flat on my face.) I also had the worst case of cottonmouth I've ever had. I didn't care if it COULD help seasickness, I'd prefer seasickness to feeling like that. I decided I'd take my chances with Dramamine and ripped the patch off.

Kevin said that he'd never seen anyone react to it that way before. He said that the dry mouth is a common side effect, as is blurry vision (I couldn't tell; things are always blurry before I put my contact in), and there was one other, less common effect, now what was it? Oh yeah - memory loss.

Anchors Aweigh

The next day we set sail. It was a grand and glorious day.

We wandered around for a little bit, then went to anchor at Norman Island at a place called Benure's Bay. I was a little surprised; I thought it odd that we put in so early. Of course, I thought that when you wanted to stop, you just threw the anchor over the side and that was that.

But no! There is a fine art to not getting yourself killed in a boat! One of the best ways to not get killed is to make sure that your boat is well and truly anchored, lest you go wandering off against a reef whilst you sleep. The anchor weighs about 50 lbs. The boat weighs about 21 tons. The anchor is NOT going to hold the boat just by virtue of its immense mass.

It is important to get the anchor well dug into sand. This is accomplished by dropping the anchor, then letting out 4:1 scope, i.e. four times as much anchor chain as the water is deep. The high scope is to keep the pull on the anchor roughly parallel to the bottom instead of straight up. Then, pull gently back on the anchor, using just the wind until the anchor has "bit", then with the engine more and more until you are well and truly sure that it is stuck. Snorkeling down to the bottom and actually LOOKING at the anchor is also a good idea, and you'd best drop a second anchor if you even think that there might be a chance of dragging anchor. In addition, having a second anchor down reduces your "swing". This makes it less likely that you will smack into another boat, and gives you somewhat less rocking around at night.

Mosquito Coast

We also had to drop anchor twice. We were parked about a quarter mile off-shore, but to my surprise, it wasn't far enough. The mosquitos found us.

Pelicans, briefly

We had been anchored for not very long when we saw an enormous gathering of pelicans absolutely dive-bombing an area of the water near where we were. As other pelicans saw the activity from a mile or two away, they came over and joined the frenzy. As other pelicans four or five miles away saw the frenzy, they flew over and joined in as well. There must have been about two hundred pelicans all smacking into the water.


Very shortly after that, night fell. Thud. It wasn't quite like turning off a switch, but it was close. At 40 degrees north, darkness takes its own sweet time. The sun sort of lazily circles around and down to gone. At a more equitorial latitude, it just goes straight down, none of this dallying. This is why we went to anchor. You do NOT want to be caught looking for a place to park (or trying to get a good anchor) when the lights are going out.


The scheduled entertainment for the evening was reading. (Ah, how one suffers when away from civilization!) This was quite fine with me, as I'd been wanting to read Jurassic Park for some time, and had picked it up at one of the many airports along the way.

Unfortunately, I can really get into books. After about fifty pages, I threw the book across the room, and then spent the rest of the night convinced that someone was going to clone dinosaurs, let them loose in the Caribbean, where they were going to swim a third of a mile out to our boat, and eat ME. Kevin and Pat gave me quite a bit of ribbing about that!

When it was time to go to bed, I left the book I had been reading, my hat, and sunglasses on the table. After all, I was going to be wanting them tomorrow. Kevin and Pat went through, however, and put EVERYTHING away. This rather surprised me, since I had never thought of them as neat freaks.

Cow's Mouth

The next day, we sailed around to Virgin Gorda, where we anchored in the lee of Mountain Point. We took the dinghy over to the Cow's Mouth - a rift about 40 feet wide between two outcropings of rock - where we went snorkling.

What an amazing abundance of fish! Colors to knock your eyes out! But what most amazed me was the noise underwater. I had grown up with Jaques Cousteau documentaries, and his undersea world is silent. Duh! It is hard to make microphones waterproof! Duh! Sound actually travels exceptionally well through water.

Because the speed of sound is so much higher through water than it is through air, it is impossible to triangulate. There is not enough separation in time between when the sound reaches the two ears. So it was hard for me to tell where the noise was coming from, but Kevin tells me that the noises are mostly made by the crustaceans (shrimp and barnacles) and to some extent the fish.

I was getting tired snorkling, and Kevin finally took me aside and told me I was doing it all wrong. When I would tread water, I would use the same motion as one would use with no fins on, a "bicycle" stroke. He pointed out that I could keep my legs straight and just casually move them back and forth in sort of a vertical flutter kick.

Besides, he pointed out, the water is salty, so one is more bouyant. "Watch", he said, as he ceased moving altogether. He sunk in the water until the water was at about the level of his eyes (which were behind a mask), then just hung in the water, breathing through his snorkel. "Ok, now you try it." I relaxed and let the water level rise to my chin, my nose, my eyes, my hairline... "Oh", he said. "I guess you aren't very bouyant."

Near the Cow's Mouth, there was a rock formation/cave/tube that made a low howl as the waves pushed air in and out. It sounded just like one of the dinosaurs that had tried to eat me earlier in the week.

Sailing, Sailing

We then went off to Grand Camanoe Island. On the way, Kevin let me steer for a while. This should be easy, right? You just point the boat where you want to go, right? Wrong. This is NOT your father's Oldsmobile! First, the response time of a boat is a lot slower than that of a car. This means that you turn, nothing happens. So turn some more. Nothing happens. Turn some more. Whooops! Now we're too far the other way, turn back. Nothing happens. Turn more. Nothing happens. Repeat ad infinitum. (This is NOT a sport for those with short attention spans!)

The other thing that you don't have to worry about when driving is wind direction. There is really a skill to keeping the boat pointed in just the right direction and all the sails at the right tension such that they provide power (analogous to "lift" on an airplane) instead of just going whap whap whap in the breeze. It can safely be said that I am not particularly good at sailing.

Cam Bay

We anchored in Cam Bay, after sailing right through a reef - or so it seemed. There is an opening in the reef that is about twice the width of the boat, after which you find yourself in a nice, calm (because of the reef) bay.

Here we went snorkling. Kevin pointed out a barracuda for me. I waved. He and Pat also pointed out a large number of other fish, but as they weren't food for me and I wasn't food for them, the incentive to remember their names was low. (Kevin tells me that the fish in/around BVI are not good eating fish. I thought that was awfully impolite of them.)

While we were in Cam Bay, Pat made us a scrumptious Thanksgiving Dinner. We think it was turkey, but we aren't sure. The bird that we found at the grocery store was simply labeled "Fowl". Whatever it was, Pat did a wizardly job on it, and it was excellent. :-)

What Drought?

As the day progressed, the winds started to pick up, and we started to see rain approaching. It was starting to get rough enough that we put down the second anchor, just in case the first one slipped. The good news was that the weather was blowing on-shore, so that if the anchors slipped, we'd get stuck in the sand towards the beach instead of slammed on the reef. The bad news was that the weather was blowing on-shore, so that we got no protection by being in the lee of the island.

I now understood why my hosts were such incredible neat freaks. If it isn't tied down, it might go flying across the room. It was sort of like permanently in an earthquake.

The boat, which was quite pleasant in nice weather, became quite hot and uncomfortable in the rain. In nice weather, all the ports and vents were open, and a nice breeze ran through. In a storm, all the portholes were closed, and it got hot and stuffy. We passed a hot, swaying night underneath great flashes of lightning. Kevin says that he had never seen so much lightning in three years down there!


The next day it was even worse. The winds were screaming, the sea was raging, and Kevin discovered that the pulley on the alternator was broken. Without the batteries getting charged properly, the radio, refrigerator, and most importantly, air conditioner would not work. In what seemed to me to be one of the greatest acts of either courage or foolishness that I have ever seen, Kevin set off in a quiet spell to find a replacement pulley.

Kevin says that he was worried about not having a functional engine for safety reasons, in case we needed to get out of Cam Bay in a hurry. I was hard pressed to think of some reason we might need to move the boat out of the bay, given that we were sheltered from the elements better there than almost anywhere else we could go. Swarms of giant killer mosquitoes, perhaps?

Meanwhile, the boat was just rocking and rolling, it was hot downstairs, and I was out of Dramamine. I had surpisingly not had any trouble with seasickness; I think perhaps I wasn't seasick at that breakfast at the dock as much as I had been queasy from the diesel fumes. So I did the only sensible thing: I put on my bathing suit and a rain poncho, cranked The English Beat on the boat's (waterproof) speakers, and boogied down on deck in the rainstorm. It was a lot of fun, but let me tell you that yachts make lousy dancing partners - no sense of rhythm at all!

Right when Kevin returned, the storm trebled its efforts. As I watched Kevin motor over, around, and through, the waves, all I could think of were the mechanical bulls that were popular when I was but a mere slip of a girl. How rough were the seas? Well, Pat had been quiet during this time because SHE was feeling queasy!

In addition to braving the angry elements, Kevin had had to hitchhike into town, take the assembly to three different shops, and hitchhike back to the dock. This was not like strolling down to the 7-11 to pick up a six-pack of soda.

With my expert help (I held the flashlight), Kevin reinstalled the assembly, and we were back in business. We were still stapled to Cam Bay by the weather, but at least we did have a functional air conditioner!

The Bitter End

The weather finally cleared, and we sailed over to Virgin Gorda. Passing a tall ship, we sailed over to The Bitter End, a poshish resort. For one price, you get lodgings, food?, windsurfers, snorkling gear, and mosquitoes. Pat and her sprained ankle stayed on the boat while Kevin and I got out for a little walk to admire the vegetation and mosquitoes, a move which I quite regretted.

By this time I had been on the boat for five days straight. Not only had I gained an admirable set of sea legs, I had completely lost my land legs! I felt woozy on solid ground.

We dined that night at a restaurant called Prusser's Landing at Leverick Bay. I don't drink, but that evening I was sorely tempted, in the hopes that it would make the room spin and re-equilibrate my inner ear. I ended up swaying and rocking back and forth all through dinner; I am certain that the other patrons of that fine establishment thought I was autistic.

Sqeaking Through

The next day - my last partial day there - of course the weather was beautiful. We defied death and the tides and the shallows of Virgin Gorda by going through the Anguilla Point, a strait with a maximum minimum depth of about 7 feet. (The boat has a maximum draft of about 5.5 feet.) I swear I felt the keel drag once, but Pat and Kevin say it was my imagination.

Beef Island

We moored at a very small island called Bellamy Cay, which is basically exactly the size of a bar called The Last Resort. We took the dinghy over to Beef Island, where the airport is located. The area has quite the pirate history, and this island is no exception. Appartenly there was an old lady who raised cattle on this island, and the brigands in the neighborhood kept stealing her beef. This annoyed her, but she decided to throw a goodwill party to try and get on better terms with her "neighbors". Perhaps this way, they won't rustle her cattle. So all the pirates came and ate, drank, and made merry. For the last time. The old lady poisoned them all!

Kevin, Pat, and I had some drinks at a bar called De Loose Mongoose, relaxing while the wind attempted to rip the door off its hinges and the screens off the windows. I sat there, rocking, with my orange juice, trying to visualize being on a rough sea.

Home Again, Home Again

We then walked over to the airport and installed me on an airplane. I have NEVER been so happy to get on an airplane in my life... because it was moving!

Mission Accomplished

One of the reasons that Kevin and Pat asked me down was to help shake the bugs out of their refurbished vehicle. (They knew I'd worked in Software Test.) Well, I certainly managed to find things to break. The alternator on the pulley, one of the showers, and two of the heads malfunctioned! But by the time the trip was over, they'd gotten everything fixed up and ready for release. :-)

The worst part of the trip was not the seasickness, was not the landsickness, was not the rain, was not the weather, was not the equipment malfunctions. These things happen. I could deal with that.

Losing three times out of three to Kevin and Pat at Scrabble, however, was almost more than I could bear! ;-)