Click Photo To Sail/Dive The BVIs
On The Cuan Law Dive Boat
Privateers Bay. White Beach. Smugglers Cove. These are actual places in the British Virgin Islands, not themed restaurants in an amusement park. Why aren’t you here?
There is no better way to enjoy
a tropical climate than on a boat.
I have a philosophy: never scuba dive from the beach when you can dive from a boat. When boat diving, you don’t get sand in your air regulator, and you’re just a few yards away from a hot or cold drink. Oh, and have you ever tried to wade through surf wearing thirty pounds of gear and fins the size of clown shoes? It’s no contest — boats are better. And my fondest wish is to combine the adventure of scuba diving with the comfort of a luxury Caribbean cruise. My prayers are answered!
The Cuan Law (www.cuanlaw.com) redefines the concept of a “live-aboard” dive boat. Most live-aboards are somewhat crowded and force their guests to wolf down their simple meals in order to make the next dive. Aboard the Cuan Law, on the other hand, you’ll feel like you’re in a movable hotel with a gourmet restaurant. Believe me, you won’t want to rush through lunch here. In fact, the food, service, and comfort may keep you from wanting to don that damp wetsuit for another dive.
Mealtimes feature the cuisine of
a fancy restaurant, the atmosphere
of a vacation, and the friendliness
of a family dinner.
Be strong! While the delicious food, cool drinks, and comfortable hammocks beckon, it would be a shame to miss the underwater playground surrounding the British Virgin Islands. The reefs are well-preserved and teeming with wildlife, and the visibility ranges from “good” to “I think I can see Bermuda from here”. Better still, the fish seem accustomed to seeing divers, and many will let you approach fairly closely for a photo.
We boarded the Cuan Law on a sunny Sunday morning in Road Harbour. After introductions all around, guests were served lunch on the aft deck. Our chef set a pattern of greeting us at every breakfast and lunch and describing each item of the meal. I set a pattern of responding, “Yes, yes, yes, and . . . yes!” We ate quite well.
While most cruise ships are owned by large corporations, Cuan Law is owned and operated by Duncan and Annie Muirhead with a few partners who share their love of boating and diving, and the couple happened to be aboard on this trip for an annual get-together with friends. How great is that?
The captain steers the boat out of
the harbor and makes ready for sailing.
The boat was designed by Duncan, who first met Annie years ago in England at the christening of another boat. Later they moved to Canada to build Cuan Law and her sister ship, Lammer Law. Named for the Lammermuir mountain range in Scotland, Lammer Law operates in the Galapagos Islands, which are stunning above and below the water. The diving is more challenging due to strong currents of cool water swept up from the depths of the Eastern Pacific, but the reward for this challenge is a fantastic array of wildlife to see. As if challenge weren’t its own reward, of course!
We set sail in the afternoon for Norman Island, reportedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, and the site of our initial “checkout” dive in a shallow part of Privateers’ Bay to ensure our gear was working properly.
The staff on this ship are very thorough and professional, and they emphasize safe and responsible diving. Since several qualified dive instructors are onboard, one of our guests completed her open-water certification course on the trip. Cuan Law has Nitrox gas available on request and can certify students in its use. I was impressed that Duncan had modified the inflatable dinghies to meet the crew’s exact diving needs. These folks have been operating dive charters for thirty years and really know their business.
When the ski is tipped up, you
either drink your shot or wear it.
After a lovely dinner on deck, several guests and crew members rode the rubber dinghy to the nearby Willy T’s, a locally infamous floating bar and restaurant. Four of us tried the “shot ski”—a water ski with four shot glasses attached. The trick is to drink your tequila shot without spilling all over yourself. Women reportedly can earn a T-shirt from the establishment by jumping from the roof into the bay without their clothes on. No one did that tonight, but such an act would have provided a good rinsing for one young woman who must have been quite sticky from the “body shots” she was doing. This place isn’t your average cocktail lounge. Why aren’t you here?
“Cuan Law” is Scots Gaelic for “mountain on the sea,” and given the boat’s size, it’s aptly named. Her 105 foot trimaran hull is eminently stable, for those of you with sensitive stomachs, and her 44 foot beam allows a spacious salon for socializing with ten surprisingly roomy cabins for up to 20 guests. For people who love sailing (what, doesn’t everybody?), she can make about 14 knots under full sail — not that you’ll feel like hurrying anywhere. You can do some sailing of your own on one of two small catamarans carried onboard or paddle a sea kayak if you’re not tired out from all the great diving.
The British Virgin Islands were so named by Christopher Columbus because the few large islands surrounded by many small ones reminded him of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers. The undersea environment merits the name, as it looks quite untouched except for a few wrecks that are now popular dive sites. In 1867, the R.M.S. Rhone sank in a huge storm near Salt Island and is now one of the best-known wreck dives in the world. Wrecks provide shelter for small fish and make terrific artificial reefs. For this reason, ships and airplanes have been intentionally sunk around the world to help the critters thrive. A recent addition to BVI’s reefs is an airplane fuselage that has already become a home to many fish, including a large barracuda. He patrols his domain slowly, like a security guard, keeping an eye on us visitors.
Tortola, named for the island’s abundant turtle doves, is home to the territorial capital, Roadtown. The lively little port city has a nice mix of old British culture and Caribbean spirit. Virgin Gorda is home to the Baths, where snorkelers can explore sheltered pools and grottos created by the large granite boulders that Mother Nature piled along the sandy coastline.
Other islands are named for commodities produced during the colonial era. Beef Island once produced the dried beef needed by sailors on long voyages. After being cured with Salt Island salt, it was packed into barrels made on Cooper Island. Henry Smith is an elderly Salt Island resident who still operates the old salt pond and harvests the sea salt for sale to BVI residents and visitors. His ancestors on the island had rescued many of the R.M.S. Rhone’s passengers after its sinking in 1867. Queen Victoria showed her gratitude by decreeing that the island would thenceforth belong to its inhabitants in perpetuity for the price of one bag of salt per annum. The ceremonial presentation of the salt to the Governor in Roadtown still occurs as a formality, I’m told. In return for his friendly tour, our crew will bring Henry some beer and fresh bread later.
The author checks out the reef with his fellow divers.
Our first “real” dive was at Santa Monica Rock, a shoal named after a ship that had discovered the spot long ago. Actually, it was the rock that found the ship. In the 17th century, the area’s tricky reef passages and sheltered coves were havens for pirates who preyed upon the cargo ships loaded with treasure and trade goods. The Spanish had largely ignored the islands after their discovery because they weren’t large enough to have a lot of gold. The British turned the islands into plantations for growing tobacco and sugar cane (read “rum”), but after slavery was outlawed in 1838, the planters migrated elsewhere. Now the British Virgin Islands, less heavily developed than their U.S. neighbors, are a pleasant haven for just what we were doing: sailing and diving. I was immediately impressed with the colors of the reef. After a second day-dive near Peter Island and a bit of sunset viewing from a hammock, I prepared for a night dive at Manchioneel Rock.
A blue tang shelters behind a red coral at night.
If you haven’t dived at night, I recommend you try it. The difference is similar to day vs. night in the mountains: during the day, your surroundings are wide-open, like a huge arena, while at night, the boundaries close around you like a small room. You see only what your torch illuminates. (“Torch” is British for flashlight, in case you’re not bilingual.) You become more aware of underwater sounds, including your own breathing. You see a different bunch of fish, the ones that are nocturnal. I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it’s different — and you’ve just doubled the breadth of your diving experience. Oh, and when the dinghy brings you back to Cuan Law, you’re extra hungry for your sea bass dinner and a glass of wine in the balmy Caribbean air. Then your bed feels even softer as the westering moon slants down through the overhead hatch in your stateroom. And you know what? This was a Monday.
Guest Judy swims through an arch at Mountain Point.
Tuesday was “Rhone” day. The Royal Mail Steamer Rhone left Southampton, England, in 1865 on her maiden voyage and operated among the Caribbean, South America, and England. In October 1867, she was preparing to sail from Peter Island with 120 passengers and a load of cargo, when the barometer began dropping despite the blue sky. Weather-satellite coverage wasn’t too good in those days, and by the time they knew a big storm was coming, it was too late to escape. The captain was swept off the deck, the ship foundered, a flooded boiler exploded, the ship was blown in two, and many lives were lost. The only good news was that she sank in sufficiently shallow water that the wreckage was found, and people today can learn about that fateful event.
The Rhone is an interesting dive, with many “swim-throughs” in her structure where divers can get inside the ship. In two daytime dives we saw the bow and stern sections, and after hors d’oeuvres at sunset, we returned for a nighttime look at the bow. The site is a national park (no fishing), and the huge lobster we saw sitting on an old beam must have known he was safe from the boiling pot, or he wouldn’t have looked so smug. Several slender trumpetfish hid vertically among soft corals, stalking their prey. That morning we watched a turtle cruise by, trying to shake off a pesky remora that wanted to hitch a ride. At night we tried to get a close look at a stingray without being too pesky ourselves. Lying on the slanted main deck, he was fortunately the patient sort.
Duck! (Did I mention we ate well?) After a delicious dinner of fowl, we ducked into the TV room to look at underwater footage shot by the two amateur videographers in the group. I wondered what my friends back home were doing that evening. The thought didn’t trouble me long.
Tiny fish and crabs sometimes inhabit tube sponges.
Early on Wednesday morning I stood on deck with a cup of coffee as we approached Ginger Island (named after a commodity it had once produced, not for any sexy, stranded TV actress). After breakfast we boarded the dinghies for a dive at nearby Carvel Rock. This is a relatively wild dive, in deeper open water with some current. I love these dives. In gentler environs, a diver can start to feel like he is in a big aquarium. Out here, you’re definitely swimming in the ocean. Our dive guide told us to look for “pelagics” — larger, open-water species of fish such as tuna, jacks, sharks, and large rays, which come around looking for — us? Cool. After seeing a huge barracuda, some large permit, the strangely-designed trunkfish, and a pair of white-spotted filefish (which mate for life and enjoy a permanent Caribbean honeymoon), we drifted back up to the choppy surface, climbed aboard the dinghies, and plowed our way home through a passing rain squall. Cool!
A hawksbill turtle browses among the corals.
Oh, man — prawn and avocado salad, and spicy pumpkin-coconut soup! But for the reputation of the next dive site, I might have stayed at the table all afternoon. “Alice’s Wonderland” is a gentle, shallow “aquarium” dive, but what an aquarium! Banks of coral form underwater canyons, and for almost 1-½ hours I sat, kneeled, and lay on the sandy floors of these canyons filming the shy and not-so-shy critters: moray eels peeking out from nooks and crannies in the reef, goatfish probing the sand for food with the “barbels” under their chins, and bright blue chromis darting about among large sponges and coral heads. The only things drawing me back to the ship were my dwindling air supply and the prospect of one of the bartender’s tasty “painkillers” — as if I were suffering.
Canyons among the coral heads provide sanctuary for wildlife.
The night dive at Paul’s Grotto showed us more coral canyons. A Spanish lobster crawled along the bottom like an underwater armadillo. The next morning we dove at nearby Mountain Point, where we rode the current through some interesting arches near the surface and got a close look at another Hawksbill Turtle. A huge Green Moray made menacing faces at us from inside his coral house.
Betcha didn’t know you could get great pizza in the Caribbean. After lunch, we sailed to Virgin Gorda and moored at the famous Bitter End Yacht Club. The afternoon dive was a choppy dinghy-ride to “The Invisibles,” another wild dive site surrounding a submerged rock outside the sheltering barrier reef: strong current; oceanic triggerfish; tame turtle; many pelagics; much happiness. Speaking of happiness, several people rode into the yacht club that afternoon for some shopping, while the rest of us rolled with the punches (rum punches, that is) in the sunshine on deck.
Sunshine can’t last forever, of course, and even the largest ship is subject to the weather. We had hoped to visit The Baths the next morning and have a barbecue lunch on a nearby beach, but a rising swell from a tropical storm to the northwest made it too choppy for beach landings by the dinghies. Instead, we had our cheeseburgers onboard, then raised the sails and rode the wind back towards Tortola. Anchoring for the night in Little Harbour at Peter Island, we laughed over roast lamb as one guest (a man, of course) told us of a dream he had: the wives in the group were all dancing for money, and their husbands were the customers. The Caribbean can affect people that way.
Duncan and Annie Muirhead
Cuan Law Trimaran
Cuan Law sets sail for regular six-day jaunts on Sundays, but there are occasional longer trips as well. Go to www.cuanlaw.com for schedules and rates. The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board has more information on fun things to do here.
The nearby tropical storm finally brought us some real rain on our final day as we returned to Road Harbour. However, the weather wasn’t bad enough to delay my flight home from this Paradise. Okay, so not all my prayers were answered.
Feature by R.L, Jetsetters Magazine adventure correspondent.
Guest Fiona completed her open-water dive
course with Cuan Law’s instructors.
Colorful barrel and tube sponges
provide habitat for small fish.
This foureye butterflyfish has a parasitic isopod
hitching a ride on its face.
When a parrotfish eats coral, you can
hear the crunching sound.
Can you spot this trumpetfish?
He hopes his prey can’t.
The blue tang is a common
but rather shy Caribbean fish.
Blue chromis dart about among the soft corals.
Guest Les descends the dinghy’s mooring line.
At Salt Island, your shore excursion consists of a
handful of people, not a crowd of hundreds.
A stone graveyard remains on Salt Island where
several victims of the Rhone’s sinking were buried.