I have to admit I’ve often been guilty of those alcohol-infused delusions of grandeur. It’s an occupational hazard. After all, down here talk is cheap and so is the rum. Yet strangely enough, the idea of circumnavigating the British Virgin Islands on a sixteen-foot Hobie was not one of them. The purpose of the sail was not to prove that it could be done, the purpose was to prove that anything could be done.
At twenty-four years old I think the biggest problem facing young people is that collectively we hold ourselves to other peoples’ expectations. When looking to chase our ambitions we are constantly being told, no, you’re not good enough, you’re not educated enough, you don’t have the experience; you cannot do this. And we hear that so often, so many times, that we believe it ourselves, and this self-doubt is poisonous. It rots our resolve from within.
Simply put, the failure of not attempting this sail would’ve been more catastrophic than attempting the sail and failing to reach the finish line. It had to be done and it started at midnight on Necker Island.
My mate Chris would be sailing with me and together we charted a course around the BVI of almost one hundred miles exactly. The main grouping of islands lies in a northeast – southwest orientation. With a southeast breeze of around 14 knots we had ideal conditions and a clear night as we set off on the clockwise route. We slugged our way down the backside of the islands under the low, rising moon. Navigation was a rather simple matter: we counted black lumps in the night. We had a mantra going – Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter, Norman. Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter, Norman – and after passing black lump number five, Norman Island, we banged a right and headed north for the Narrows, the tight passage between the USVI and the BVI.
It was somewhere in the Narrows, a stone’s throw from St. John to port and spitting distance from Tortola to starboard, where we were presented with a magnificent sunrise. The wind dropped and the sea turned glass as we sipped tea and watched the sky graduate through all the colors of the wheel before settling on a clear, pale blue. We drifted lazily towards Little Tobago, the top left corner of the route. We arrived around eight o’clock, just as a flock of boobies were dive-bombing breakfast. The sailing was peaceful and slow, but I was anxious to turn the corner and head for Anegada.
When the wind did fill, our Hobie turned into a rocket ship and though she was laden down with extra gear we leapt off the waves. It was the longest passage – over thirty miles from little Tobago to Anegada, an island we couldn’t even see because of its flat topography. Close hauled we smashed our way upwind, starboard hull skimming just off the water. Finally, just before noon, I spotted trees hovering over the ocean, a most bizarre mirage, but unmistakably the west end of Anegada. We hugged the coast and with flat water screamed along throwing in a few tacks as the 13-mile long island bore away to the southeast. Before we could make that last turn for home one final challenge awaited us: we needed to punch through Horseshoe Reef, a monster that extends off the east end. But since we were on a plastic boat that wasn’t ours we found a narrow gap and surfed a breaking wave through the reef, dodging coral heads at full speed. We tacked onto port, cleared the point and set our sights for Necker.
We closed the gap fast. After fifteen hours, forty-one islands and one hundred miles our epic journey was sliding quickly into our wake. It was hitting me that it was done. As we covered the last few miles I came to see that when you’re twenty-four you live in an in-between place. You live where two worlds overlap like a Venn diagram of your life. On one side are your dreams as a child, on the other, your decisions as an adult. For me these islands embody that in-between place called youth. But each day those two spheres drift further and further apart as youth is swallowed up by time and space.
It’s a hard time to be young, but an exciting one as well. I love these islands. I love the in-between place and I love what it has taught me: that no matter what I do in this life, every day I should hold myself to my own expectations. And above all I should cherish the present, because one day I may wake up and that in-between place won’t exist at all.
Clear of Sandy Spit I made one last gybe and headed for Necker.
Chris Clarke, 23, is a sailing instructor at the Bitter End Yacht Club. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Chris moved to the BVI a year ago after completing college in Dublin.