Exploring Virgin Gorda's North Sound
Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
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As we passed the west entrance to the Sound we were approached by a dinghy with photographer identified as yachtshotsbvi.com. We knew of these businesses that take close up action photos of boats under sail to sell to the sailors. We would later see if he got any good shots with the assistance of friends and family back home that would have the internet access to view them.
After entering North Sound, we would initially ignore the must-see popular destinations at Bitter End Yacht Club and Saba Rock. While we admire and have enjoyed visiting these attractive, well run places in the past, we knew these spots would be that much more noisy and crowded during this busiest charter week of the winter between Christmas and New Year’s. Even if we wanted one, vacant mooring balls could be hard to come by. We planned instead to head for Drake’s Anchorage in the corner just east of Mosquito Island and just inside Colquhoun Reef – the large coral reef protecting the Sound from the north and through which all boats entering the Sound from that direction must navigate.
We had seen boats anchored here in the northwest corner of the Sound last winter and were surprised to see that none were present now. Perhaps the seas were still too rough from the pre-Christmas cold front? Still carefully passing charter boats through the reef entrance, we sailed into the Sound and turned downwind, furled the genoa, then jibed and lowered the main as we rounded up into the wind. Ahead of us was an expansive, vacant, sand bottomed anchorage with flat water behind the reef. We motored up to within a couple hundred yards of the breaking water over the reef and in 15 feet dropped the anchor which was quickly swallowed by the Bahamas-grade sand. Wow. What a great day! Not to worry, Mosquito Island was well downwind of us and it was breezy enough to keep its namesakes away….. (Use Google Earth "Fly to" to find 18 30'39"N 064 23'10"W)
We spent two nights in Drake’s Anchorage, enjoying late evenings in the cockpit under the stars at this bug-free location. We circumnavigated Mosquito Island in the dinghy searching for snorkel spots and took the dinghy over to nearby Leverick Bay to make another attempt to transmit a deposit authorization to Budget Marine in Sint Maarten for our March dinghy purchase. While the snorkeling was not particularly remarkable, we were finally successful in transmitting an authorization in payment of a deposit on the new dinghy.
After dusk on Wednesday, Dave noticed from across the saloon an additional breaker light was lit on the electric panel indicating an electrical load was on or running that isn’t usually on. Six instead of only five little green lights were lit on the panel. If you spend enough time on a boat something very subtle like this sticks out like a beacon. The extra breaker light was for the masthead LED tricolor navigation light which can only be turned on intentionally at the panel. Neither of us had reason to turn this on; we were anchored and the anchor light, which is part of the same masthead component, was already on. Only one of these can work at a time—a clue to Dave that something serious was amiss.
A quick look up the mast revealed that neither light was lit, and no matter what combination of breakers were turned on or off, neither light illuminated. To make a long story shorter (and not to get too technical), troubleshooting the circuitry led to a suspicion that an internal fault had developed within the masthead fixture, disabling both the tricolor and anchor light functions it provides, and the additional “on” breaker indication was actually false. The internal fault was supplying voltage to the load side of the tricolor circuit, lighting the panel light even when the breaker was off. The good news is that, in trying to fix the tricolor problems we experienced last winter, Dave had purchased an identical, spare masthead component which turned out at that time to be unnecessary when the final cause of that problem was found to be due to faulty wiring inside the mast. Fortunately this spare fixture was now available to replace the suspected faulty component, but this required going up the mast to accomplish, which requires a very calm anchorage. Finding such a spot became a priority….
We spent the next 10 days in the North Sound area, motoring the short distances required to sample different anchorages and snorkeling sites. We experimented anchoring in shallow, reef strewn Eustatia Sound to the northeast of North Sound several times, going to and fro through the shallow, narrow cut between Saba Rock and Virgin Gorda where you had to keep a sharp lookout for the active kite surfers convinced that they could cross your path. We had never explored Eustatia Sound in the past as it was generally off limits to charter boats and we didn’t have the time here last year aboard Pas de Deux. The pass next to Saba Rock (18 30'8"N 064 21'26"W) is now well marked and we saw numerous charter boats passing through it, so perhaps charter companies have liberalized their rules. (We witnessed one case in which they shouldn’t have….)
Below are our samplings of anchoring and snorkeling sites, in no particular order.
West of Eustatia Island (18 30'41"N 064 21'39"W) – just west of Eustatia Island, behind a small reef, is a big patch of very good sand in 8-15 feet of water. It was a bit rolly in the moderate north swell, so this probably isn’t a comfortable spot with any more significant swell. No remarkable snorkeling attraction here. We dinghied around to a small reef on the east side of the island and found some good, but shallow, snorkeling with healthy young growth and the juvenile fish that go with that. Eustatia Island is private with a resort, but we saw nobody there. On the north side of Prickly Pear Island there is a nice beach (opposite from where we anchored) where several charter boats anchored during the day for swimming.
East of Eustatia Island (18 30'28"N 064 21'26"W) – just south of the small reef we had snorkeled earlier (mentioned above) off the resort beach, we anchored in 17 feet. The anchor dragged before setting – we suspect a rocky, marl bottom. As the wind was light on this occasion, we trusted the anchor. This anchorage is more tenable in north swell compared with the west side anchorage, but the holding may not be adequate in strong winds. This is a good spot to watch boats coming through the Saba Rock cut. The channel markings run all the way out to Oil Nut Bay, at the far east end of the peninsula, so boats heading to the nearer Eustatia Island area after coming through the cut have to turn to port and exit the channel—just not too soon or they will fail to avoid the large unmarked reef just east of Saba Rock.
Dave watched several boats skirt the entry reef, and one who didn’t, running hard aground. He managed to back off unassisted and ventured our way. He spent a very long time after his encounter with the reef trying to decide where to drop his anchor in the area. There were children aboard who no doubt wanted to get in the water for a swim or snorkel. He finally anchored nearby. A couple of the kids flew off in the dinghy to look at another section of the reef that had snared them. Sympathetic to this boat that had already wasted a lot of time roaming around not knowing where to go, Donna reached the Dad by radio when the dinghy returned only a few minutes later, inquiring whether they had “found” what they were looking for. When the reply was “only some conch”, Donna asked how much time they had to spend in the area. The reply was “about 45 minutes”. Donna suggested with that limited time the closest snorkeling they would find was the juvenile reef nearby. More kids put on snorkeling gear and they all jumped into the dinghy so the Dad could transport them there. They left soon after, having inquired if the western exit from Eustatia Sound was passable, to which we responded yes. Just a sample of what the harried chartering itinerary can be like….
Eustatia Sound barrier reef (18 30'17"N 064 20'38"W) – A barrier reef runs parallel to the long, north shore Virgin Gorda peninsula jutting out to the east. We day anchored in several locations behind the reef and found good snorkeling spots. Especially good were the patch reefs clustered towards the east end along the channel approach to Oil Nut Bay. Sand can be found for good holding, but mild conditions are needed to anchor and swim comfortably in the winter. We would expect that spring and summer conditions probably afford more opportunity to enjoy this area and access the seaward side of the reef. We saw no other cruising boats anchoring in this area, but a few dinghies from mother ships anchored back in North Sound could be randomly seen exploring the area.
While snorkeling in this area of Eustatia Sound we saw the biggest barracuda we’d ever seen—seemingly even bigger than the huge King of the Reef we encountered last year in the Tobago Cays. It’s hard to estimate size due to the distortion from our masks, but this guy must have been at least six feet long. See the picture and judge for yourself!
We also observed a very large hermit crab attempting to “move up” to larger digs, or so we thought at first. We had read that hermits, not having their own shells, have to “move up” to larger shells as they grow. To do this they abandon the shell they’ve outgrown for a larger one when the “market” provides one – sometimes doing this simultaneously with multiple other hermits of increasing sizes in a cooperative daisy chain. Really! But this hermit was a loner and the largest by far of any we had ever seen. He was occupying a very large conch shell and was slowly wrestling with another – but the new shell didn’t seem to be any bigger, so what was the advantage, we asked ourselves? We could watch all this from the surface as the depth was only about 8 feet.
Upon closer examination diving to the bottom, Dave determined the new shell was not vacant after all and the hermit appeared to be attacking a live conch – reaching inside with his pinchers. We observed the crab’s efforts for quite a while—it was barely making any progress but was definitely not willing to give up, as evidenced by how quickly it scurried forward to grab the conch again when Dave moved the conch a foot away. We finally had to leave when a rain shower was about to douse the boat and we needed to close our windows. We’ve attached pictures of this small drama at play, but will have to do some research to learn more about what the hermit crab may have been up to. On a side note, there are plenty of sizeable live conchs throughout Eustatia Sound.
Oil Nut Bay (18 30'06"N 064 19'49"W) – The new Oil Nut Bay resort is open and still expanding in the small bay at the far east end of the peninsula. The channel to the Bay inside the barrier reef is well marked. Approaching the Bay, it gets shallow and you pass over numerous patch reefs just begging to be snorkeled. There are plenty of clustered reefs outside the channel safe to swim. At the east end of the Bay the barrier reef merges with the shore. This is a very lovely and exotic location with a classic crescent, white sand beach. The eastern half of the bay is a very shallow pool of sand except for a portion just off the resort beach and in a somewhat wider area just at the bay entrance off the resort ferry dock. As a result, there is very limited space for anchoring. On our first visit another boat was in the most attractive wide spot off the dock and we touched our port rudder trying to anchor further in off the beach, so we decided to return another day when the bay was unoccupied.
We ended up returning on two separate occasions. We spent one mild night anchored in the prime spot. A couple other smaller cats managed to anchor for the daytime in the shallows, but never more than two at a time. From here we explored very good snorkeling spots on the patch reefs from the dinghy. In mild to moderate conditions this is a terrific anchorage for a couple boats. The best time may be in spring/summer conditions when north swell is minimal.
Deep Bay (18 29'54"N 064 20'52"W) – also accessed from Eustatia Sound, Deep Bay is oriented NE to SW and, as such, seems to be a viable, secluded anchorage if wind from the NE isn’t too strong. We didn’t anchor here, but motored into it for a look. There is a beach resort at the head of the Bay with a defined no-entry swimming area extending pretty far out, in front of which an anchor could be set in 15-foot depth on a clean sandy bottom.
Robin Bay (18 29'26"N 064 22'8"W) – a North Sound anchoring alternative close to Bitter End and Saba Rock. Robin Bay is the wide bay on the south shore of North Sound halfway between Biras Creek and Gun Creek. We first spotted this as a calm, protected location that permitted Dave to go up the mast to repair the anchor/tricolor light. The anchor holding is good in mostly sand, but can be deep. Better sand in shallower water is available closer to shore, but also closer to skeeters. We spent several nights here over three different occasions. Few cruising boats anchored with us, but usually there was at least one mega yacht nearby.
We snorkeled the shallow reef located at the east end of the bay and spotted some very different reef creatures – three bicycles, two boat batteries, an air conditioner, and numerous pieces of large outboard motors. The downside to this anchorage is the boat wakes from the numerous ferries running between Bitter End and Gun Creek or Leverick Bay. Of course, the frequency of ferries seemed to increase right as Dave got to the masthead to repair the anchor/tricolor light. The top of the mast rocks a LOT more than the boat at the bottom. After confirming the initial diagnosis of an internal fault within the light itself, he was successful in installing the functioning spare.
Prickly Pear Island (18 30'12.5"N 064 21'43"W) – an even closer anchoring alternative close to Bitter End and Saba Rock. Along the south shore of Prickly Pear between Vixen Point and Saba Rock good sand anchoring outside of the mooring field can be found. We had anchored here last spring and returned to see if the internet connection from Saba Rock still existed. It did, but the high traffic volume of the crowded New Year’s period made it very slow and useless. Despite being able to anchor closer to Saba Rock than some mooring balls, the downside of this anchorage is that you have to be very close to the mangrove shore to be in shallow enough water. Close + mangroves = skeeters, so on go the screens!
We had remained in the North Sound area for New Year’s, anchored New Year’s Eve in Robin Bay with a good view of the Bitter End area hoping to see some fire works at midnight. We saw a terrific show last year at Bequia, SVG, including numerous (presumably out of date) signal flares fired from cruising boats. When midnight arrived in North Sound there were only loud mega yacht horns to ring in the New Year. No fire works, not even any flares. Maybe it’s just that those Brits are so reserved or well behaved! But it’ll be a good year, nonetheless….
On New Year’s Day, instead of watching parades and football, we de-frosted the freezer. We have to do this after the first two months (and then again when we switch use from the large freezer to the small freezer about midway through our time in the islands). We load the contents into coolers and wrap them with blankets and towels for extra insulation for the hour and a half thaw. While re-loading we take an inventory. For dinner that night we treated ourselves to filet mignon with sautéed onions, sweet potatoes, and corn pudding. A productive and rewarding New Year so far….
We visited the yachtshotsbvi.com office at the Bitter End to look at the eleven photos they had taken of Pas de Deux. After a couple days of consideration, Dave decided to make a purchase and you can see those photos on this blog. Also look below to see several videos and pictures of the reefs snorkeled in Eustatia Sound. The pictures can be viewed as a slideshow. The videos must be clicked on individually.