In the fall of 1995, I got a call from a good friend, Dan Look, who was an avid and experienced sailor and a person I had met and collaborated with in my consulting work in retirement housing. He said he was planning a week-long cruise in the British Virgin Islands and was looking for an experienced first mate. I immediately accepted. Neither of us had sailed in the BVIs before, and it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time. Dan ended up chartering a 50-foot sailboat with eight of his other friends on board, all men, most in our 40s or early 50s and working in the retirement housing field or members of Dan’s rowing club in Atlanta. Including Dan and me, the total aboard numbered 10. I still can’t believe how we got that many people on board or remember where everyone slept (some were in hammocks), but the experience was a blast. It was the first of 11 Dan Look Cruises, one occurring each year except for 1997 and 1998, not petering out until 2008. The second year we added a boat, which I skippered, and then another the following year, and each year expanded the cruising fleet until one year we had six boats and a total of 25 men cruising. I was on every cruise and often was assigned to be on my boat were two or three of Dan’s friends whom I had never met. One year it was the first time on a sailboat for all three men on my boat, and every year on my boat there was at least one person with very limited experience. I loved introducing them to the magic of sailing. There was not a person on these cruises that I did not like, and some became long term friends.
We had informal races from anchorage to anchorage, plenty of time ashore and for snorkeling , and meals at great restaurants overlooking anchorages. On the first day of every cruise Dan would hand out customized golf shirts he had ordered for everyone with a special logo and the date of the cruise. I still have many of them.
The highlight of these cruises for me was the evening meal. Every afternoon after a day of sailing and sometimes informal racing, everyone would pile into dinghies and head to Dan’s boat where he would be preparing a feast. Dan had his own company which provided dietary services to retirement communities, loved to cook, and was an extraordinary chef, often assisted on board by others in the food service business. For several years he was assisted by a guy who owned a chain of high-end steak houses in Atlanta. I was the self-appointed bar tender and prepared huge pitchers of pain killers for the thirsty sailors and came to be known by many as simply “Dr. Pain Killer.” It is hard to conceive how 20 or more men could fit on a 50-foot yacht for pain killers and a gourmet feast. Every inch below and above deck was occupied, and there was always lots of laughter, storytelling, bragging, and joke telling. These Dan Look Cruises will always be etched in my mind as one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of my life.
For some reason after about 10 years, enthusiasm started to wane, and 2008 marked the end of the cruises. By that time, however, I was hooked and became a boat owner of my own BVI Sunsail yacht, which I named “Second Wind” (a sale/lease back deal, which allowed me three weeks a year of “free sailing” at any of their 90 locations around the world). Second Wind was a 39-foot sloop, perfect for a crew of four or five, and enabled me to continue cruising in the Caribbean, usually twice a year, once in the fall with Embry and one or two other couples, and once in the early spring with three or four of my close friends, many from high school, college or graduate school days. After five years when the sale/leaseback deal was over, because I was unable to sell the boat down there, I had it moved to the Chesapeake where Embry and I enjoyed cruising and (for me) racing for another eight or nine years before selling Second Wind in 2021, marking the end of my official sailing career.
Why was it so important for me to have one final BVI cruise with my family? Over the years the experience had become for me almost spiritual. Often, I would arrive with a bad cold or respiratory virus and in days would be cured. I have put in my will that I want a third of my ashes tossed into the Caribbean Sea in the BVIs. The main reason for a Last Hurrah Cruise was to share this experience with my family (children and spouses had been done there with us before) and especially with my grandchildren.
Many consider the BVIs to be the finest sailing waters in the world. The place is magic, with its reliable trade winds from the Northeast and East, usually around 12-18 knots, perfect speeds for exciting but not scary sailing. The BVI Islands, all but one volcanic, are close together and accessible, the waters deep blue, light green, and crystal clear, with coral reefs and excellent snorkeling. The towering mountains and hills are gorgeous as are the white, sandy beaches. And the entire country is set up to accommodate sailors. Moorings are available at most anchorages, where you will also find small stores selling water, beer, ice, tee shirts, memorabilia, and items you might run out of. You will also find one or two local restaurants at all the major anchorages and at many of the smaller ones. The locals are friendly, and you do not have to worry about being robbed or harassed. If you are chartering and have a mechanical or sailing problem, help from the charter company can usually reach you in under an hour. In a word, it is a sailor’s paradise.
This is what I wanted my grandchildren to see and experience, and this is why two years ago I planned the Last Hurrah Cruise for the entire Howell clan. And now it was finally happening!
And here we were—at last! —in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. We passed through the tiny customs house in less than five minutes, ordered a cab, and in five minutes were at the marina in Spanish Town, the only other real “town” (population around 2,000) in the BVIs (population around 27,000) besides Road Town (population around 9,000). Within minutes we were reunited with the rest of our crew, Andrew’s and Jessica’s families, who had managed to sail the boat (“Odin II”) upwind in strong winds, rain, and squalls and dock her in the often-crowded Spanish Town marina. I was very impressed but not surprised. Afterall, Andrew and I had sailed up to New England and back in the early 90s, and Jessica had done a lot of small boat sailing.
We admired the large sloop, climbed on (with some help for me), and donned the sailing hats they had brought along, one labeled “Captain,” another “First Mate” and the others “Crew.” Embry had brought along 10 tie-died, multicolored tee shirts, and the “Howell crew” also had brought 10 “Last Hurrah” tee shirts which had been made for the earlier 2021 cruise that never happened. Embry also during the entire ordeal of getting to the BVIs had been carrying in a separate plastic case a small, plastic Christmas tree fully, if not tastefully, decorated. The tree immediately found its dominate place in the cockpit and remained a steadfast, silent member of the crew until we arrived back at the base when Embry gave it away to one of the workers, who seemed thrilled to receive it.
The five days that we spent cruising with the family were all that I had hoped for and more. It was indeed the cruise of a lifetime, a true “Last Hurrah.” The squalls of the first day on the second day were replaced by clear skies and “Christmas Winds,” which typically arrive around this time of year and are the strongest winds of year at speeds in the range of 15-25 knots instead of 12-18 knots. However, our 51-foot sloop with a double-reefed main could handle the higher winds easily. When we departed Spanish Town around two and headed north, upwind to the famous Virgin Gorda Sound, I took the helm and was astonished that crew assignments were in place. Our two grandsons—Jasper and Parker—were trained and ready, hoisting and lowering the main, trimming the sheets, reefing the main, tasks they performed with expertise, enthusiasm, and vigor. Maximum boat speed for our boat is about 10 knots, and with the Christmas Winds, the boat reached nine knots at times and on the longer beam reaches averaged around eight knots. Very impressive for any cruising sailboat!
Our two granddaughters—Jo and Sadie– also performed their assigned duty of keeping the cockpit sparkling clean, a job they performed cheerfully and gracefully. Our son, Andrew, helped out on the helm as did his son, Parker, who has had two sailing camp experiences and whom I had appointed Second Mate because of his experience. Peter, Jessica’s husband, was the official navigator and got us where we wanted to go and kept us from running aground. Embry, Karen, Andrew’s wife, and our daughter, Jessica, quietly kept the boat in good order, and took the lead (with some help from their husbands) in being sure the entire crew was hydrated with a variety of beverages and well fed.
Perhaps more important than what happened is what did not happen. No one fussed or complained. No one got seasick. No one got covid. No one was injured. And—at least from my observations—everyone had a great time. We were all captured by the charm of the BVIs.
The cruise began with spending one full day and two evenings in Virgin Gorda Sound, considered by many as one of the most beautiful natural anchorages in the world. We then sailed about 20 miles on a beam reach in 20-25 knot winds to Annagada, the only atoll among the dozen or so volcanic, larger islands and the most remote of all the islands. We spent two evenings there and one full day relaxing on the pristine, white beach on Loblolly Bay. Then we sailed about 30 miles on a broad reach in the same fresh winds to Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke where we moored for the evening, and the last day sailed upwind about 20 miles in more gentle winds back to Tortola and the Sunsail base via Pelican Island in the Sir Francis Drake Channel where we went snorkeling at the famous “Indians” coral reef. At every anchorage both the kayak and the paddle board got good use. We ate out only once, at the restaurant on Saba Rock in Virgin Gorda Sound, where the food was excellent.
It had been almost eight years since I had been down to the BVIs. Since I had Second Wind moved from there to the Chesapeake in 2014, we had not chartered. A lot had happened during that time, however, since the islands were hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, a Category 5 Hurricane with wind speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. The islands were devasted and have still not completely recovered though if you had never been there before you probably would not notice. The world-renowned resort on Virgin Gorda, the Bitter End, was rebuilt as only a shadow of its former self. The hotel cottages are gone and all that remains is a small restaurant. The famous Foxxy’s is back, however, and business overall is now reported to be good.
The biggest difference to me is how catamarans have replaced mono hulls, a sad development in my view. I am not a fan of those hulky, bulky crafts, which now account for about 90 percent of the charter fleet boats. It was the opposite when Second Wind was in the charter fleet. I was also surprised how few boats were sailing in what is usually the busiest week of the year. Early in the week moorings were around a third occupied when in almost every other cruise I had been on, if you arrived after four at an anchorage, you would be hard pressed to find an open mooring. I attribute this mainly to the flight cancellations.
There was one incident, however. The last day when we were in Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke the motor would not start. The battery that started the motor was completely dead. It is not possible to get into or out of a crowded anchorage without a motor. A heavy, 51-foot sailboat is not able to maneuver in small spaces without power. Not having a working motor is a big deal. We immediately called the Sunsail base, but were not able to get any definitive diagnosis or plan of action other than the Sunsail employee would try to find a mechanic. While Andrew and Peter were on the phone with Sunsail, two British young men, brothers, who were tanned and athletic, motored up in their dinghy and asked if we were leaving so that they could take over our mooring after we departed. Jessica said we were trying to leave, but the motor would not start. They asked if they could hop on and take a look, which they did, examined the battery that started the motor concluding that it was improperly wired to the generator. They replaced the starter battery with an auxiliary battery, and wired it properly to the generator. It started up immediately. The whole effort took less than a half hour. It turned out that the older brother’s job was a marine mechanic. Now how lucky was that? Embry’s guardian angel was on duty again. I recalled again the adage “that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
If there was a weak link in the crew aboard Odin II, it was me, the 80-year old captain, who needed help getting on and off the boat and into a dinghy. Old knees. Old age. When I originally set the date for the rescheduled Last Hurrah Cruise two years ago, I was well aware that my ability to do what I used to be able to do was fading. This is the way it is with us homo sapiens, as it is with all living creatures. I knew the time was getting closer when it would be beyond my capacity to do a week of cruising in the BVIs. Well, after two aborted efforts, I made it to 2023, stumbling across the finish line, as they say. And what a cruise it was and what a joy to be able to share my love of sailing with my four grandchildren and to watch them have such a great time. It does not get much better than this; and for this experience, for Embry, and for Andrew and Karen and for Jessica and Peter and for Jasper, Jo, Sadie, and Parker, I am profoundly grateful. This was for me a true “Last Hurrah Cruise,” one that I will cherish as long as I live. Of the hundreds of cruises that Embry and I have made, literally all over the planet, because of the fabulous Howell/Ellis crew of 2022, this ranks right up there at the top. Thank you!