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Learning the ropes

20 days sailing the British Virgin Islands

Words by Jenni Doggett
"FAT VIRGIN" the man opposite me bellows. I know I have a little post-yule padding but that seems unduly rude. We are strapped into a plane the size of a skinny minibus and the engines are deafening. Maybe I misheard.

"Faaaaat virgin" my neighbour roars again. "Translation of Virgin Gorda, Columbus thought it looked like a fat virgin." Turns out he's pointing to one of the dark scattered islands below, not the fact that I have tripled in circumference over christmas.

We transferred from hot chaotic Antigua less than an hour ago and through dusky cloud banks an alarmingly short runway comes up fast. A few bumps and we're down, ushered through the lazy evening warmth into the bungalow airport of Tortola, the biggest of the British Virgin Islands.

I'm here to sail. Or at least to try to learn to sail. I live on an old Dutch barge in London but am shamefully ignorant of all things nautical. My marina neighbours roundly mock me for securing my ropes with a double bow. I have tried to sail before but a few violent disputes between my head and a boom have so far scuppered my dreams of skipperdom and left me a little gunwale shy.

The British Virgin Islands are the world's nursery slopes for sailing. Located just east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea the predictably consistent trade winds and sheltered waters make ideal territory for nascent sailors. So here I am for a beginner's holiday hoping to very literally learn the ropes.

I wait on Trellis Bay's unlit splintery pontoon to meet my captain and teacher for the next 10 days. Exotic hens peck lackadaisically nearby. Hand-made blandishments urge you to buy "Many splendid tings" from a few brightly ramshackle shops. Sam Bartlett is 5 foot 2 with a face made for mischief, all biscuit brown and outdoors blonde. She drops my bag into a dinghy and we putter off into the dark water, torch aloft. Reggae and laughter drop in and out on the warm evening breeze. Within two minutes we're clambering onto Ibis, Sam’s 48-foot white fibre-glass sloop. We happily inhale a few beers with the other guests – mostly beginners, mostly single and all over the age of 40 – before Sam introduces me to my cosy little cabin. The bunk bed is a bit snug but it offers a welcome cradling effect as we roll gently with the waves.

Waking at first light I jump off the back deck into the deep teal sea. A few languid laps of the boat and my face nearly breaks with the smuggery of knowing I should be on a gloomy urban tube. I bob around on my back taking in the tingtinging of wire against mast and the occasional low buzz of outboards. A solemn vow is made to never again spend January in London.

In the ten minutes it takes to sun-dry from my swim Sam has safety briefed and set us on our course. Her teaching ethos is to learn while doing so she directs us on the move, forgoing too much naval argot in favour of us getting a feel for the boat. Sailing is a complex enterprise but we quickly begin to feel we could play our part as crew – trimming sails and steering for all the world as if we knew what we were doing.

Our first port of call is a pretty little deserted beach on scrubby green Salt Island. The BVIs are full of these empty coves and bays, only accessible by sea. We moor up to snorkel around the remains of the Rhone, a Royal Mail ship wrecked here in 1867. Mooring sounds like a simple task but I haven't yet found my sea feet and stagger around like a drunk infant. Catching the buoy resembles a fiendishly difficult fairground game where I have to snare a fist-sized rope loop 15 feet down in the water with a boathook, while Ibis bucks and rolls to stop me tying her down. On my third attempt I catch the rope and secure us with one of my newly learned knots. It is deeply satisfying and by the end of the first week has become second nature.

Sam balances brilliantly the slightly more stressful aspects of sailing with plenty of time to snorkel and explore. There's a lot to learn and things can happen fast at sea. Most of the crew are beginners so the concentration involved can be quite intense. Our captain carefully gauges our progress and when we need a break she schedules swimming stops at increasingly Edenic islands. The Baths on the north side of Virgin Gorda were my particular favourite. We tie Ibis up to a buoy and leave her pivoting gently with the current, for all the world as if she's wagging her tail.

Giant granite boulders form a sheltered sea basin busy with outlandish marine life. Skirting around a sullen triggerfish I glide past lavender coral filigree and hover for a while over an elegant Eagle Ray. Transfixed I lose a full hour following a pair of four-eye butterfly fish flying through the rocks in a surreal animation. They sport large cartoon eyes on their backs to confuse predators and I can barely keep up as they play high speed hide and seek. Blue tang and surgeon fish kiss the surface of the sea then race down to audibly chew off chunks of coral causing an inverted avalanche of particles to explode.

Emerging onto the icing sugar sand I collapse for a while before exploring Devil's Bay. It's straight out of Neverland, a jumble of huge smooth rocks falling in on each other protecting a series of perfect warm turquoise pools. I float peacefully around in a dream. The refracted sunlight describes a rippling helix on the stone. But soon it becomes very busy – at least by BVI standards. A cruise ship has stopped and the beach is filling up with what I overhear a local skipper call "the newly wed, the nearly dead and the overfed".

Back on Ibis Sam serves up a feast of Mahi Mahi and salad – breakfast and lunch are provided every day on board. All the fresh air and activity has restored our appetites to factory default. We eat when hungry, sleep when tired. For an hour after lunch we are starfish glued to the deck, snoozing in the mast's shadow. A fat bee bounces drunkenly in the breeze. A stately sea turtle pops up for air, bows to our stern and disappears. Eventually the crew slowly come to, one by one. Dopey and blithe no-one is ready to move for a while but Sam is alert and ready to go. “Jenni, can you check the hatches please and everyone stow their stuff. We're leaving in 10 minutes.”

My petulant limbs refuse to obey, I feel like a sulky teenager “But whhhyyyyyyyyy do we have to go?” my mind privately whines. But we rally, the hatches go down, the sails go up, the sheets are trimmed and there it is... That sublime moment when the boat’s engine cuts out and she see-saws magically on forward, powered only by raw natural forces. We hear only wind and waves and flickflacking sails. I silently thank Sam for pushing us and send my inner adolescent to her room. We race along with the white horses at 45 degrees, spellbound and serene.

For 10 days we slowly ricochet between the islands, each day some new configuration of the same routine – eat, sail, snorkel, sleep – rinse and repeat. We learn to gybe, goosewing and tack. Soon we know the difference between beam reach and close haul. We watch Sam expertly manipulate the ropes on Ibis like the strings on a marionette, making her dance.

Each night we stop at a new home for more mooring practice and dinner ashore. We shower off the day's salt on the diving platform with sun-warmed water from the tank. Mal de mer was my main concern before I came but mal de terre was more of a problem. Most evenings on land my brain would swing around in my skull on a gimbal and my vision swam until I realised the trick was to take sea sickness pills 30 minutes before heading ashore. Once the crew finds its landlegs we drink spicy rum sundowners at the beach bars, merrily comparing a litany of minor injuries. We feast on plump buttery lobster, golden knots of saffron pasta and lemony conch fritters.

Despite the piles of food I consume the extra pounds seem to be shifting. Swimming, winching sails, even steering all help exercise away the excess baggage. By the end of the trip I'm exhilarated but exhausted so I head to Peter Island for a little post-sail pampering. I'm greeted at the luxury resort with fragrant icy towels and a rum cocktail by Collin our host. He whisks me away in a golf cart narrating the plants we pass. Mother-In-Law's Tongue – sharp pointed leaves, the Tourist Tree – goes red and peels in the sun, Five-fingered cacti – you get the picture... And the Machioneel Tree, considered one of the world's most dangerous plants. Not only are its small green fruits highly toxic but stand under it when it rains and its caustic resin will burn you like acid. It sounds like a menacing fiction but I’m assured otherwise. A stark contrast to the fragile scent of frangipani that fills the air.

Peter Island is privately-owned with very limited development so the heavenly beaches are mostly empty. The elegant A-frame cottages are simple but luxurious, the baths are sea-sized and the balconies private. I take a few hours in my suite to wrestle the crazy out of my hair before ambling along to the grandmother of all spas.

After 10 days of sea salt and sun my skin is something like suede. An expert beautician applies layer after layer of creamy unguents until I resemble a human woman again. There are plenty of activities on offer but after so long at sea it's lovely to just loll in my hammock with a book, minty cocktails on tap, concocting elaborate plans to miss my flight home. After a few days of sloth though I begin to really miss the sailing, the satisfaction of working in a crew, exploring a different port every night. I now know three things. One, how to tie my ropes properly. Two. How to avoid villainous trees. And three, where I will be spending all my future Januarys.

British Virgin Islands travel tips

Go independent

Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick to Antigua from £524 return. 0344 209 7777. Catch a connecting flight with VI Airlink (connects with Virgin Atlantic flights on Fridays and Saturdays) to Tortola from £282 return. 00 1 284 495 2271. Sailing for Beginners in the BVIs on Yacht Ibis costs from $1,595 not including flights, a great deal which includes 9 nights accommodation, 10 days sailing instruction and all breakfasts and lunches. Sam offers a number of different itineraries and levels of sailing – check 00 590 690 251914. Sunsail offer a range of alternatives from more formal qualifications to bareboat yacht charter for the more experienced. 020 3773 7836. For the landlubbers most resorts offer various day excursions and tuition.

Where to stay

On Virgin Gorda the Bitter End Yacht Club's simple timber cottages make the ideal base from which to explore the BVI's. Access to an array of watersports and excursions or just rock some hammock-time from £288 per night 001 800-872-2392. To really amp up the glamour Peter Island is the place to stay from £305 per night 001 800 346 4451

Where to eat

Avoid the heavily Americanised bars and restaurants dominated by bland imported burgers, recorded cricket sounds and enormous sports screens. Away from the more commerical beach areas you can find more stylish establishments. The Dove in Road Town, Tortola was by far the best food of the trip and patronised by cool local folk. 001 284 494 0313. Average entree $32. Perched atop an ancient Kapot tree on Virgin Gorda The Treehouse is a real treat. 360 degree views of the island and fresh Anegada lobster make it a worthwhile climb 001 284 495 5482. Coco Maya is supercool open-fronted bar a few minutes walk from The Treehouse. Sitting around an open air fire sipping Ginger and Lychee Champagne Cocktails will still the sea sickness. Average cocktail $12. Local legend Foxy has two bars, Foxy's 001 284 495 9258 on Jost Van Dyke – apparently frequented by Keith Richards – for those who want to party. Its quieter cousin, Foxy's Taboo, is at the other end of the island and if you time it right you may get the bar to yourself. 001 284 495 9258. Average cocktail $7. Most places have a happy hour for sundowners where you can get a deal on cocktails.

Footnotes: Originally published in Sunday Times Travel. Words by Jenni Doggett
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