Not yet in deep water

The British Virgin Islands boast a channel of protected sea that novice sailors can safely navigate - leaving the experts free to watch

The problem with a family sailing holiday is that there's no escape once you're on board. I know this from experience. Every summer of my childhood, my brother and I were tied by the straps of our lifejackets to the rigging of a 23ft Dolphin and sailed across an endless supply of choppy water - while my mother, knowing she had a literally captive audience, would Impart Great Knowledge.

The problem with a family sailing holiday is that there's no escape once you're on board. I know this from experience. Every summer of my childhood, my brother and I were tied by the straps of our lifejackets to the rigging of a 23ft Dolphin and sailed across an endless supply of choppy water - while my mother, knowing she had a literally captive audience, would Impart Great Knowledge.

Putting oneself in such an unhappy situation as an adult might be considered masochistic, but there are benefits to travelling with mum and dad. And a Pavlovian horror of sailing should never be allowed to get in the way of a free holiday.

Besides, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) have been rated as having the best sailing in the Caribbean - more people charter "bareboats" (self-crewing yachts) in the protected cluster of islands that straddle the Sir Francis Drake Channel than anywhere else in the world. Unlike the US Virgin Islands, which comprise a few large and densely populated rocks, the BVI are made up of some 60 scattered islets. With the largest, Tortola, to the north, and Virgin Gorda and the smaller islands creating a cushion to the south, inexperienced charterers can safely cruise up and down the Channel, far from the ocean's heavy swells.

That is not to say that we are inexperienced charterers. My father is adamant that while we may be chartering a boat for a family sailing holiday, we do not qualify as charterers. A regular Popeye, my dad is hell-bent on demonstrating his 40 years of yachting prowess, and within minutes of setting sail on Pepper, the crew is bombarded with a list of strange instructions.

"Ready about! Helm's alee. Let go the windward sheet!" My sister-in-law and I smile placidly and sip coffee. Not sure what all the fuss is about.

"Slide the jib block down the traveller!" Popeye barks at me. I look around. "The traveller!" he repeats. "The traveller on the port side!"

I am lost. Before I can even figure out what side of the boat the "traveller" is on, my brother leaps up and shifts a little metal thingy with some rope in it. My father shoots me a disapproving look, and sets a course for Norman, the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

According to some of the sailors hanging out at Billy Bones - the sand-swept bar in the only inhabited bay on Norman - there is a raft of problems with charterers. Once the rum punch and the daiquiris start to flow, so do the chartering stories. Last year, one tourist became the talk of the North South charter company when he phoned in with a "freak magnetic anomaly" off Denmark Shoal: his ship had cruised to a halt. Nothing would budge her. A few hands from the charter company came out and solved the crazy conundrum in minutes; they hauled up the anchor. Another charterer made the opposite mistake - he hauled up anchor and caught the line of another boat, sailing off into the sunset with a 36ft sloop in tow. Flapping and hollering from the hostage ship raised only a friendly wave and a shrug of shoulders.

Still, without charterers, the real British Virgin Islands sailors would have very little to discuss.

Whether on top of it, or underneath it, the great draw of the BVI is the sea. Diving is especially good around the wreck of the Royal Mail steamship Rhone, which went down in 1867 and is now preserved as an underwater national park.

For those without a licence to dive, the snorkelling is just as magical. Off "The Dogs" and Jost Van Dyke (an island named after a Dutch pirate), snorklers meet fish that look as if they were drawn by a wildly imaginative kindergarten student. Big and green with pink grins and blue tails, pale and grey with yellow racing stripes, or neon blue. At one serendipitous moment, we even chanced across a school of dolphins, intent on playing tag with the bow of our boat.

For landlubbers the attractions are less interesting. The restaurants in the BVI are fairly expensive, but often quite ordinary. Some, like the hotel on Marina Cay, do good Caribbean specialities, and the newly built Saba Rock Resort has a fine rum punch. At most places conch fritters are on the menu - rubbery chunks of sea food pulled from the interior of a conch shell, mashed with potato and fried. And as the BVI used to be the home of rum production for the British Navy, the old purser's shop, "Pusser's Company Stores", still sells untold barrels of dark rum, and painted tin cups from which to drink it.

Probably the best use of one's time on land is to sit at a clubhouse and admire the boats in the harbour. Ship names fall into a few simple categories. There are the mythical names: Pegasus, Avalon Sunset, Legend. The professional: Sailscall and Semi-colon (her owner is a proctologist and makes a living out of halving colons). And the downright banal: Dreamwalker, Dreamchaser, Dreamcatcher, and any variation on dream you can imagine.

The single must-see site is a large group of lava rocks on Virgin Gorda known as "The Baths". Some as large as sailboats, they have been thrown together in a haphazard pattern that leaves enough room to sneak between and admire the sound of an echo. They are also the BVI's most heavily attended tourist spot, with some 1,200 visitors a day, mainly from the sailor's traditional enemy, the cruise ship.

Tourism is booming on the islands, and with a new airport being built, and the cruise ship dock on Tortola expanding, local environmentalists and sailors are predicting the inevitable deflowering of the British Virgin Islands. So, in the spirit of the original Spanish explorers who discovered the BVI, we decide to head for the shimmering oasis known as Anegada.

A long, slim stretch of sand to the far north of Tortola, Anegada is the only island among the BVI that was not spat out of a volcanic fit. It is all coral and limestone, uninterrupted beaches, flamingos and iguanas. All but the best sailors are forbidden to take a chartered boat to Anegada - as a mark of how difficult it is to arrive at the lonely reef, there are some 80 wrecks sunk off its coast.

Here, the National Parks Trust is working to protect the natural environment against encroaching tourism. The flamingos of Anegada had been hunted to extinction, but a re-introduction programme in the Nineties has been successful enough to produce a sustainable bird population. Migrating humpback whales can also be seen on the route to the island; they too are being tracked in an attempt to keep them safe. But, every year the NPT issues stark warnings to tourists against removing marine life from the sea, and every year hundreds of sand dollars and conch shells are smuggled home.

After just a few days on board, I find I am not anxious to return home. There is less of the family chafing I remember from my teenage years, and we have settled nicely into our roles. My father is in his element. My mother is feeding spinach to my pregnant sister-in-law and giving the nutrition-in-pregnancy speech. My brother is first mate, a job he is taking seriously, as he and his wife will later sail the boat alone.

On the long tack up to Anegada, he asks my father about cleats and half hitches and monkey fists. Deep down I think he is asking different questions, about fatherhood and what comes next. My father offers no advice, as the knots are quietly tied and evaluated and retied, but they seem to have agreed, between them, that the first step to being a family is knowing how to sail.

 

Jennifer Chevalier flew on her father's Air Miles to Beef Island Airport on Tortola, via San Juan, Puerto Rico. She chartered a 36ft boat with North South Vacations (www.nsyv.com), which costs from $1,610 (£1,140) per week

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