On most maps, the British Virgin Islands are as big as the white tip of your thumbnail and about the same half-moon shape, angled southwest to northeast with the fattest end to the south. “De ilons” usually appear in the atlas section for “The Caribbean” with more blue on the page than colored blotches for land. There are no weather forecasts by zip code here, only for geographic coordinates in the U.S. National Weather Service sectors AMZ025, AMZ710, and AMZ722. However, the BVIs are the center of the world on Imray Lolaire chart “A232 Tortola to Anegada,” which shows all the reefs and rocks that look like clouds on Google’s satellite view zoomed in all the way. A taxi-direct flight-taxi-ferry transit from New York to Tortola takes eight hours. It takes longer to get to the middle of the United States, but when you step off the Charlotte Amalie-Road Town ferry, you’re at the end of the dirt road in the middle of blue nowhere.
There are parking lot chickens but no dogs. Reggaeton blasts from cars and the locals dress like they’re going to church – all day, every day – heels, some hats, no t-shirts. School kids wear pressed uniforms of plaid, knee-length skirts and Bermuda shorts and white button down shirts with short ties. Days start early, and it is impolite not to wish “good morning” on the street, even to strangers. Cab drivers play tapes of hymns, and every town has at least two churches. Graveyards are tucked around houses and in the bend of roads. The above-ground concrete mausoleums, painted white, flourish in sand and sparse grass. Everything is made of concrete blocks. Or corrugated tin. Windows have louvered glass panels that catch breeze and shed rain. The grocery store is full of canned food – meat, veggies, sauce. Turpentine trees are native. Okra was brought by slaves. Bacalao is a Sunday dish. The parking lot chickens reappear in roti and bar-b-que with beans and rice and mac and cheese.
Geologically, the BVI’s miniscule island chain is close to the junction of several tectonic plates under the Caribbean Sea. This ancient ring of fire is less isolated than the atlas page suggests. Small earthquakes happen weekly, but hurricanes are cataclysmic events, shared seasonally. The islands sit at the edge of a shelf that falls away thousands of feet, and the Atlantic Ocean begins. On top of the shelf, inside the island chain, the full force of constant northern swells and northeast trade winds is interrupted and a weary mariner can find safe harbor. Sometimes the land rises as a surprise out of hundreds of feet of water in strata of red or cream-colored rock topped with scrubby trees. Other times, you can see it coming. Water blue shifts to white sand to green wall, and a mountain top rises a thousand feet more. From far away, grey with mist, the line of mountains is the shadow of an undulating sea monster captured in silver gelatin print. Up close on a sunny day, the hills are stippled velvet green tied with swaths of turquoise ribbon.
The British are just the latest caretakers of this bit of land that seems prone to cycles of subjugation and decimation with a lot of small-town life in between. Global events trickle down and are visited upon whoever is “local” at the time – Arawaks, Caribees, Danish traders, African slaves, British adventurers, global ultra-rich, cruise ship tourists. Regular visitors and the current crop of locals make a big deal about limin’. Limin’ is island time, whenever what’s going to happen occurs in its own time and not before then. Limin’ is a sublime state worthy of achievement, they say. I say, maybe it’s a passive aggressive response to pushy tourists. Maybe it’s a way to sell more rum. Or maybe it’s a way to recalibrate your worries, a way to exert a little control over an existence governed by whatever the weather brings.
For the past 20-30 years, the weather has brought tourists intent on vacationing on a boat. A complementary supporting infrastructure on land has evolved, from “shopping villages” that open only for cruise ships to beach bars on otherwise uninhabited islands. Tourists mill around, half naked and sunburned, dosed on the requisite Bob Marley and painkillers – a rum and juice mixture over ice with nutmeg grated on top. Tropical eggnog. At its worst, tourists and locals perpetuate a myth about de ilons that I’m not sure ever existed. And for tourists not even interested in the myth, there are gated resorts with white beaches, bagels and lox, and the New York Times every day. (Full disclosure: I subscribe to the Times and my home is within a 10 minute walk of at least 4 places to get excellent bagels and lox. I just don’t need that on my vacation, too.)
But it is possible to have a less mediated vacation. Objects on Imray Lolaire chart A232 are much closer than they appear, and there are a wealth of anchorages to explore on a boat. We have always chartered sailboats, though there are plenty of catamarans about. They’re more expensive, hold more people, and are much more stable in the swells. They seem like the RVs of the sea. Our sailboats are usually the smallest on the water and feel like pup tents off the back of a jeep. albeit pup tents with teak and leather. It’s like camping in a posh hotel room with a two-burner gas camp stove and a toilet that you pump to flush. Toilet paper goes in a separate bag.
On a typical day, we’re up early and have tea. We’ll sail somewhere, then stop for a while or for the day. We don’t usually eat until we’ve stopped. Beer is the fifth food group, supplemented with peanut butter filled pretzels. We tie up to a mooring ball, surrounded by other boats doing the same, but we could also anchor or tie up to a dock. We jump off the boat to cool off and stop showering after the second day. Sometimes we snorkel around coral reefs. If there’s a bar, we’ll go ashore for a drink, and then come back to the boat for sunset. I’ll make dinner, and we’ll have more drinks and watch our neighbors grilling over their dingy fuel tanks; watch a fully loaded dingy of large people (aka Pakistani ferry boats) come back from the bar; watch the stars. Then we wake up and do it all over again. Usually something breaks, the weather is dicey, and we get bruised or cut or both. Occasionally tempers are short. But I wouldn’t trade this time on the boat, with one another, for anything. To look at the horizon for hours on end – your eyes refocus, time stands still, and you become content with your place in the universe. Maybe this is limin’.