You might not expect to see a red-suited, grey-bearded, bell-ringing Santa when you’re sitting in sunny 80 degree weather on the beach or at anchor in the Caribbean. Yet, this is just what cruisers and locals alike can enjoy at Christmastime at the Bitter End Yacht Club (BEYC), in North Sound, Virgin Gorda. Bernard ‘Bernie’ Charles, who is captain of the BEYC’s 80-passenger double-decker power catamaran, Corinthian, dons his jolly garb and spreads cheer on land and sea for the nautical resort’s Christmas Eve boat parade and once again on Christmas Day.
Charles, aka ‘Santa Bernie’, was born on Dominica. He fell in love with Christmas as a young boy when he and his friends would travel throughout this Windward Island singing carols. Charles also grew up avidly enjoying all water sports from fishing to sailing. He moved to the British Virgin Islands in the1980s. It was here that the BVI’s renowned Captain Poncho showed Charles how to ‘read’ the sea and drive boats. Shortly after he started work at the BEYC. Today, as a captain, he guides excursions to Anegada and the Baths and takes guests on day-long fishing trips for tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi and never fails to come back without a catch. But perhaps Charles favourite ‘job’ is playing Santa at Christmastime.
The Santa stint started over a decade ago when the BEYC’s general manager at the time asked Charles to dress up as the man in red for the resort’s children’s pool party. He was nervous initially and then quickly warmed to his role once he saw the joy on the kid’s faces in response to his suit, bell and big sack of candy. The manager declared Charles was the best Santa he had ever seen and the legend of ‘Santa Bernie’ was born.
Today, it’s leading the BEYC’s annual Christmas Eve lighted boat parade that Charles loves best. He hops aboard the M/V Ponce de Leon where he headlines the parade, ringing his bells and ho-ho-ho’s around the mooring field. Afterwards, there is a pool party with tropical Christmas carolling and it’s here that ‘Santa Bernie’ merrily greets the kids of BEYC staff members and resort guest families.
“I just love to see all the happiness on the faces of the kids,” Charles says, “It makes me feel like a big kid again.”
Charles makes his final appearance on Christmas morning. He walks around the resort and down the docks spreading cheer. Then he takes to the sea to circle the mooring field and whole of the North Sound handing out candy canes to all.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.