British Virgin Islands

Virgin Islands

British Virgin Islands

  Set sail through the British Virgin Islands, following in the wake of  pirates, colonists, slaves and Irma, the greatest storm of all.
  Irma was rough. I felt like I was in a survival movie, man Fish were spinning right on up the street, the sea surged forward and a lot of boats got destroyed. There was no water, no electricity. I had chosen to keep a watch over my family's house, but the windows were gone, there was nothing left in the kitchen the wind had blown it all away.
  Yacht skipper Glenroy Johnson recalls 6 September 2017, when the eye of a cataclysmic storm hit the British Virgin Islands. Irma was the strongest hurricane ever to gather over the Atlantic and smash against the Caribbean, with sustained wind speeds of 185mph and gusts up to 220mph. Nine out of ten homes on Tortola the largest of the British Virgin Islands were damaged or ruined. Afterwards, the islands were dried completely brown,' says Glenroy. 'I wouldn't have wished what happened on my worst enemy.'
  In the months since, greenery has started to return amid the mangled remains of trees on the hillsides. Skippers such as Glenroy are in business again -ironically, as travellers are drawn back here by the wind. Before Irma's impact, steady winds and peaceful waters gave the British Virgin Islands a reputation as one of the world's greatest sailing destinations.
  The history of the British Virgin Islands has been shaped by winds both wild and fair. Trade winds first carried Christopher Columbus here during the late 15th century. A hundred years later, British privateers including Sir Francis Drake used the islands as a base for plundering Spanish colonial shipping. By the early 18th century, the pirate Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach was lurking in far spread coves, and slaves were shipped from Africa in their thousands. The slaves farmed the sugar cane and cotton that helped to build the wealth of the British Empire, and set down roots for many of today's 30,000 residents.
  Aboard a gleaming new catamaran, Star Eyes, Glenroy and I head for the shallows of Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke, named after a Dutch pirate who settled here in the 17th century. The drilling of roofs being reattached is overlaid with the sounds of waves lapping against a jetty, the bleating of a goat and the creaking of a hammock beneath a shade tree. From a beach shack where cats loll in the warmth, the rich chuckle of Philicianno 'Foxy' Callwood can also be heard.
  Foxy's Tamarind Bar is famed for its owner's unfiltered humour, and as a source of Painkillers the locally invented rum/pineapple/coconut/ nutmeg cocktail that, trust me, is a dangerous choice when you're jet lagged. The bar was ferociously damaged by the gusts and storm surge brought by Irma. 'I was damn scared but I count myselflucky,' says Foxy, his bare feet digging in the coral sand. 'I opened my first barin '68, over 50 years ago. It was primitive! My family has been here for seven generations, and I ain't going no place now.' He hands over his phone, to play a video of him singing a calypso song to Sir Richard Branson, the owner of nearby Necker Island. The lyrics cast un PC aspersions against a character named Irma (sample lines: 'How do I know? Cause she liked to blow!').
  Foxy has another well known connection: HRH Princess Anne. Above the spot where he strums his guitar is a faded photo of her presenting him with an MBE, an honour given for a lifetime spent promoting the culture of the British Virgin Islands. 'I'm only 80, and I'm planning for the future,' says Foxy. 'I want to make this island a preserve somewhere the kids will want to live when they pass 21.' He gestures towards an outsized development above the harbour. 'See those big houses over there? Next, there could be condominiums, shopping malls but no cows, no education. I want to build a school, instead.' As Foxy works through his back catalogue of calypso tunes, time meanders on. An interruption finally arrives with a tooting from the beach the catch of the day has landed.
  Joann Frett Turbé checks the haul. "The conch shell is blown to say we're ready,' she says. "We sell the fish mostly to locals some to people on the yachts, too. In this catch we have angelfish, yellowtail, doctor, blue parrot, snapper, grunt. The people here, they like the snapper and the angelfish have them with a little hot sauce.
  The fangs of a barracuda catch my attention, and I wonder if this is the same predator I met that morning while snorkelling under our catamaran.
  For centuries, Manchioneel Bay would have lured mariners seeking shelter. The enclosing flanks of Cooper Island form a barrier against the prevailing winds, their intact foliage showing how landscapes across the islands looked before Irma came. Papaya and banana trees emerge between bushes dense with flowers. Skipper Glenroy slings a rope around a mooring buoy and I swim ashore, my clothes drying fast as I clamber to the ridge that runs the length of the island. In the waters below, hawksbillturtles and stingrays shuttle between beds of seagrass.
  Outside the bar of nearby Cooper Island Beach Club, a chalked sign promises 'the largest selection of rum in the Virgin Islands'. Bar manager Glen Rooney pours drinks for a gregarious mix of yacht crew. 'We have about 300 varieties of rum here,' he says. Glen is from County Louth, the smallest county in Ireland. 'I just wanted to live somewhere with a little sunshine.'
  During four years in the British Virgin Islands, he has become quite a rum specialist. "There are no real rules to making rum,' Glen says. “Typically, molasses is used, but on Tortola, they make it with sugar cane. That gives a grassier flavour.'
  Glen lines up a flight ofrums, their tastes ranging from smoothly sherry infused to a real lip curler.    'This one, Arundel, is from a tiny distillery on Tortola. It's been there for 200 years,' he says. "This is Sebastian's, also local. It's very low grade, but people go crazy for it. It will give you the worst hangover of your life.'
  At sunrise the next day, a favourable breeze allows us to unfurl both of Star Eyes' sails. A course is charted for Virgin Gorda.'We're taking the Sir Francis Drake Channel,' says Glenroy. 'It gives room to manoeuvre and the best winds to sail in. Enjoy the weather. With his help, I take the wheel, learning to respond to shifts in wind direction and the currents beneath us. I admit I have adjusted to island time. ‘You’ve forgottenwhat day itis?’ saysGlenroy. ‘That’s good life, man.’
  On the hills of Virgin Gorda, houses in scattered villages wear new roofs in vivid reds and blues. At a rural dock, Kyle Harrigan is waiting. He is on a brief trip home to Virgin Gorda after three years working for the British Virgin Islands as a business development officer in London. The islands are among 14 British Overseas Territories, under a degree of British governance.'What do we take from the British?'asks Kyle. 'Not so much. We drive on the left and we drink a lot of tea.'
  As he gives me a lift through Virgin Gorda's interior, drivers of other cars cheerfully wave to us. 'I like living in London,' says Kyle. But when I moved there, the hardest thing was when people in the street didn't reply when I said hello to them.!
  We reach The Baths and Devil's Bay national parks, where gigantic granite boulders spill into the Caribbean Sea. Some of these volcanic remnants are 70 million years old and as high as a three-storey building. Life sprouts forth around us, with mangroves shooting new roots over the rocks.   Kyle points to the largest boulder by Devil's Bay. 'I reckon I must have first jumped off here when I was nine, in the times when I was kind of reckless,' he says. "Once school was out in the summer, us kids used to spend all day on the beach. Our parents would let us go.''
  Kyle reaches the summit of the boulder and gives a double-handed wave. 'It's so good to be back here,' he shouts, a grin stretching across his face. Then he sights a pocket of deep water and takes aim, before hurtling forwards in a leap of faith.

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