Obsession with the Sea
Snorkel and dive right from the deck of this 10-pack charter yacht in the BVIs
May. 7, 2005 10:00 AM
Once a favorite haunt of pirates, and the setting for Treasure Island, the riches in this area of the West Indies now lie in abundant coral reefs and unpopulated islands accessible only by boat.
The crisp, crackling underwater sound I heard was unfamiliar to me. I tried to pinpoint it while caught up in the mesmerizing world of slowly waving purple sea fans, magenta-colored coral, and schools of fish ranging from electric blue to vibrant yellow.
When I was able to tear myself away long enough to return to the tender of the 85ft Hatteras, Obsession, I removed my snorkel and asked Captain Gene Costa about the source of the noise. He told me it was the sound of the vividly colored, multistriped parrotfish chewing on the coral. In fact, he said, their teeth are designed for just that purpose.
I resumed my drifting, facedown in the 86-degree turquoise sea, this time focused on spotting the culprits. I suddenly came upon a whole group darting in and out of the reefs: stoplight parrotfish with brilliant stripes of turquoise, purple, green, pink, and blue, with a yellow band on their tails.
We were just a short distance from where we had anchored, but had taken the tender to explore the rocky caves on the northwest side of Norman Island (the inspiration for Treasure Island), where pirates reputedly hid their treasure hundreds of years ago. In the 1950s, a diver actually recovered a gold nugget in one of the caves, and the search has been on ever since. Unfortunately, we did not unearth any.
Our snorkeling trip was, instead, rich with sea life. As we entered one of the caves, a large turtle swam out, just barely avoiding a collision with Obsession’s First Mate Jennifer Frame, who had accompanied us as guide. After a leisurely swim in and out of the adjacent red-rock caves, we climbed into the tender with our waiting captain, famished and ready for lunch.
As we headed back, Capt. Gene pointed out Spyglass Hill, the site where legend says Long John Silver buried his treasure; later, it was reportedly moved and hidden in the caves in which we had just been snorkeling. The captain loves to educate guests about the islands – their history as well as what lies beneath the calm, azure water.
Our lesson began when we boarded Obsession’s tender in Village Cay Marina in Road Town on the island of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands (BVIs). Music was playing in the open-air marina-side restaurant and the masts of the many sailboats in the harbor were gently swaying against the background of the lush green mountains in the distance.
BEACH BARS OF THE BVIs
We were greeted by signs that said “No shirt, no skirt, full service” and “I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.” A skeleton pierced with a cutlass hung from a driftwood beam beneath the thatched roof. And a blender whirred constantly. Welcome to Pirate’s Bight, a popular seaside bar on the northeast coast of unpopulated Norman Island. The BVIs are sprinkled with places like this that are accessible only from the water; many reflect on the pirate theme. This bar also has a taste of Robinson Crusoe. Pirate’s Bight is the only establishment on the island and the bartenders its only inhabitants; they live there, in four-day rotations.
Nearby is the Willy-T, an old Baltic Trader that’s been anchored out and turned into a bar and restaurant. However, the Willy-T is best known for its T-shirt club. Members are women who strip and “walk the plank” high above the water. Once wet, they receive a free T-shirt.
Captain Gene admitted to accommodating several female guests from time to time, running them over to the Willy-T in the tender, and bringing them back with their T-shirts. – JM
As we headed away from the dock toward Obsession, Capt. Gene announced: “The adventure begins.” He oriented us by explaining that the islands were once a favorite haunt of pirates. Discovered and named in 1495 by Christopher Columbus, the area was frequented for years by Spanish trade ships. Pirates invaded the area to claim the cargo and the gold aboard these heavily laden vessels. The islands are proud of the rich lore, and the area abounds with lazy, seaside bars (see sidebar) and dive sites whose names make reference to the bold buccaneers.
The captain had certainly set the scene by the time we boarded Obsession. After telling us about the history of sugarcane and rum production in the islands, we were immediately handed a glass of local rum, chilled and tasting of oranges. We were then led on a quick tour of the boat as our luggage was brought below.
The 1974 Hatteras was totally refurbished in 1995. Ten feet were added onto the stern, providing an aft deck and swim/dive platform. One of the only 10-packs in the area, she sleeps 10 in 4 guest cabins, making her ideal for large family or group charters. The all-inclusive rate also makes her quite affordable. The captain says that multigenerational groups are his favorites. He welcomes children (in fact he was in the midst of hunting down a hermit crab to repopulate the tank he keeps in the saloon for their enjoyment), and says he loves the interaction between family members spending quality time together.
All but one of the cabins has en suite facilities. The largest stateroom, with a queen and two twins, is foreward of the galley. Our lower port queen stateroom featured two mirrored walls that made it seem larger, and two small closets and chests of drawers. All cabins have TVs and VCRs, with a selection of videos. The inviting teak-lined saloon is also enhanced by mirrored walls, and provides comfy tan leather sofas, a large-screen TV, VCR, DVD player, a large CD collection, and numerous board games. Captain Gene, who is a master diver, loves to hook up his underwater camera to the TV so you can see what lies below. This is great for pinpointing dive sites, or even for guests who don’t snorkel or dive, but want the thrill of seeing underwater life.
On deck, speakers provide music everywhere and there are enough water toys to keep everyone busy. I was eyeing the floating lounges myself, but there are also water skis, fishing gear, kayaks, full dive gear, two SEA-DOO underwater scooters, a banana boat, and tubes.
We sank into the blue-and-white striped cushioned lounges on the flybridge deck, sipping our drinks and enjoying the warm, gentle breeze. The captain settled into the flybridge, and we headed southeast toward Cooper Island.
As we motored along, Capt. Gene explained that everything in the Virgin Islands is governed by the trade winds. Just about 20 miles from one end to the other, the islands form a large ringlet that protects Sir Francis Drake Channel inlet from the heavy seas, thus making it an appealingly calm area, perfect for water sports of all types (jet skis, however, are prohibited). The channel divides the islands in half, with the British Virgin Islands on one side, and the U.S. islands on the other.
After a short ride, we anchored in a deserted little cove off Cooper Island. We headed for the aft deck, where Pam Costa, the chef – and the captain’s wife – had laid out a feast of her special homemade Crispy Spiced Crab Cakes with Mustard Sauce. Capt. Gene, who also loves to cook, had risen early that morning and made French baguettes to accompany the meal. “I love good French bread,” he said.
Throughout lunch, the captain and his wife kept us entertained with their many stories. They have traveled around the world but, says Gene, “There’s no place better than this.” Still he has fascinating stories to tell about time spent in southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, Alaska, and the Bahamas. He told other stories about excavating wrecks and participating in search-and-rescue missions. I particularly enjoyed the one about Gene and Pam’s attendance at an underwater wedding. Gene’s diving instructor and her husband-to-be exchanged vows on their favorite reef in the BVIs. The bride wore a white diving suit with ruffles sewn on and a veil over her mask. All the guests, as well as the minister, gathered around in full dive gear, kneeling slightly to stay in place. A sudden surge made everyone sway back and forth for the remainder of the ceremony.
The next day, after our snorkeling adventure in the caves of Norman Island, we were treated to a picnic lunch that Pam had prepared. Capt. Gene loaded us into the tender, along with a picnic basket packed with a mushroom and spinach fritatta, salad, spicy tomato-basil dip, another of Gene’s baguettes, and of course, a bottle of crisp white wine, and headed to the secluded beach just ahead of where Obsession was anchored. The crew laid the food out on a tablecloth on the powdery white sand, complete with china and crystal. Chunks of ivory-colored brain coral anchored the cloth.
After lunch, we floated in the calm, rippling water and gazed back at the picnic setting, where the scrub-and-cactus-covered island rose up from the deserted shore covered with patches of sea grapes and boulders. When the captain picked us up, we lazed on Obsession for awhile, then snorkeled off the boat on the surrounding reefs. No one else was in sight. Yellowtail snapper surrounded the boat, and the captain also spotted a barracuda or two. I knew the striped parrotfish were present as I heard the now-familiar crackling sound even before I spotted them.
Later that afternoon, Capt. Gene dropped us off at one of his favorite island beach bars, Pirate’s Bight (see sidebar), where we sat on stools in the sand and watched pelicans dive-bomb into the water to catch their dinner. A few small sailboats belonging to patrons bobbed on their moorings in front.
When we returned to the boat, Capt. Gene surprised us with a basketful of conch fritters for an hors d’oeuvre. We had told him earlier that we had never tasted them so he had whipped up a batch. Dipped in batter and fried, they were served with kosher salt and mustard sauce, and various types of hot pepper sauce. Light and crispy, not greasy, I ate way too many. The captain said he had worked on perfecting his recipe for some time, but was kind enough to share it with us here.
Fortunately we had saved a little room for dinner on the softly lit, covered aft deck: Shrimp Scampi over Linguine Aglio e Olio, followed by Cherries Jubilee over vanilla ice cream. We barely made it to the cushioned seating on the bow, where we looked up and saw nothing but stars. The breeze had died down and there was silence but for an occasional splash in the still, dark water.
Snorkeling the next day in a calm little cove off Peter Island brought me face to face with a large parrotfish, his turquoise eye flickering as he passed by. The sun above caused waves of light to sweep across the ocean floor in fluctuating chicken-wire patterns. Tiger barbs with stripes of yellow and blue swam in and out of the coral reefs that lined the rocky shore. A school of fluorescent-blue fish drifted in and out of fluttering purple sea fans waving in the current. Giant cannonball-shaped coral was visible on the sandy floor below.
Obsession drifted in the clear turquoise water just a few yards away.