Family Boat Charter In The British Virgin Islands

By Susan Shingledecker

Two families with kids share a Caribbean charter vacation and discover close quarters can lead to amazing adventures.

The Baths beach on Virgin GordaThe Baths beach area on the island of Virgin Gorda. (Photo: Shutterstock/Plusone)

Summers in our house are a whirlwind of shuttling between swim practices, lacrosse clinics, and various camps. For my husband and me, that pretty much fills the hours between working and sleeping. Sure, we schedule in weekend time for family cruising, but this year we were determined to add a little — no, a lot — more fun into the mix.

British Virgin Islands map

Luke and I had chartered twice before — once in the Caribbean, and once in the Mediterranean. Both trips satisfied my love of travel and his need to be active. Just the two of us, footloose and fancy free. For this third go-round, a week in the British Virgin Islands, our kids, now 8 and 5, were showing clear signs of inheriting our shared love of boating. The chances of us stealing away for a week on a boat without them were slim to none.

Family on a 48-foot catamaran in the British Virgin IslandsTwo couples with four children between them spent a week on a 48-foot catamaran in the British Virgin Islands. Leaving the base in Road Town en route to Leverick Bay.

When we told them we were taking a family trip, their first question was, "Whose house?" It was then that I realized we'd only ever taken vacations with them that included visiting relatives. We aren't going to anyone's house, I said. "A hotel?" Nope, not a hotel. They were puzzled, but we tried to keep the surprise simmering as long as we could.

Andrew, Caesey, and Peter after a day on the beaches at AnagadaAndrew, Caesey, and Peter after a day on the beaches at Anagada.

We found the perfect crewmates in our close friends and their two kids, ages 10 and 6. At our pre-trip planning dinner, word finally leaked out to our little ones: We were not only going on a boat, but there very well may be pirates! We added that last touch just to ratchet up the excitement. That's right, four adults and four kids ranging from 5 to 10, on a 48-foot catamaran for a week in the BVI. What we would learn is, YES, you can have a blast chartering with young kids and make a thousand wonderful memories while doing it.

To read an update on the BVI recovery after a destructive 2017 hurricane season see this article "British Virgin Islands Recovery".

Island Time

When we flew into Tortola, with its white beaches and lush green mountains, it hit me that this would be the first time our kids experienced island life. Peter, our 5-year-old, exclaimed, "There's a chicken on the runway!" He then proceeded to spend the rest of the trip counting the chickens he encountered. Our older son, Andrew, first carefully studied the Moorings charter base, then explored every crevice of our boat, and was the resident expert aboard by the time our friends arrived later that evening.

Susan Shingledecker with her husband before dinner at the Wonky Dog in AnegadaThe author with her husband, Luke, before dinner at the Wonky Dog in Anegada.

Each family claimed a hull, and their 10-year-old took the skipper's berth for extra space. The purpose-built sailing cat was a perfect fit for our crew. The four-cabin layout provided plenty of privacy, with a great galley for my husband who loves to cook, a huge table for the kids to play games and create artistic masterpieces, and the kids' favorite spot was the stage (I mean trampoline), where they performed skits and dance shows most evenings with their captive audience sitting in the forward cockpit.

Crew Duties

Our first morning away from the dock was on a mooring, where we dinghied ashore to Leverick Bay Resort & Marina in gorgeous North Gorda Sound. Our friend, Ian, started the day by giving the 8 and 10 year olds their first dinghy lessons. He was well qualified as the head coach for the U.S. Naval Academy Sailing Team. While the older boys learned about engine-cutoff lanyards and how to work the throttle, the younger set swabbed the decks. I was worried they might be jealous, but no! Six-year-old Caesey declared, "I love filling the bucket!"

Exploring the warm rock pools at The Baths in Virgin GordaCaesey and Trey enjoyed exploring the myriad warm rock pools at The Baths in Virgin Gorda.

That's when it clicked. Filling their buckets. That had been my goal for the trip. In preschool, one of our kids had come home talking about an activity where each student was given a small metal bucket and a bag of cotton balls. As they went through the day, each time they helped others, or said nice things to others, they would place a cotton ball in the other child's bucket with the goal being to "fill up each others buckets." For the rest of the trip I looked for ways to fill up their buckets – with extra hugs, longer story time, toes in the sand, pizza nights, and lots of cannonballs into the crystal water.

Full itinerary

As we made our way from Leverick Bay to the paradise of Anegada, then to Cooper and Norman islands, Jost Van Dyke, and finally back to Tortola, our days were filled playing on pink-sand beaches, reading, taking longs naps, snorkeling off the boat, turtle and caterpillar spotting, hiking, and playing on paddleboards and floating toys streaming from the transom.

During the days, the bars of the BVI are a friendly host to the younger set. They excitedly explored Willy T, the legendary Norman Island floating restaurant and bar, and a few even mastered the ring game at the Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke. The resorts and restaurants made time ashore really fun.

In the evenings, watching the kids devour lobster, take in the fireworks show, and then have an epic dance party at the Wonky Dog on Anegada are moments I'll never forget. I watched my kids grow in confidence and independence, explore the world with new eyes, nap in the middle of the day, and play in ways I hadn't seen before. After nine days, we reluctantly pulled the boat back into the base, said goodbye to the chickens at the Beef Island Airport, and returned home, unwound, relaxed, and with buckets overflowing. 

Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs for the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy, was vice president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety & Clean Water.

— Published: October/November 2018

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