RYA Competent Crew in the BVIs

February 24, 2021

Reading time: 20 minutes

“Cow!” Skipper Mick shouts from the helm.

We confusedly jump across to the starboard side and follow his outstretched finger, catching a glimpse of a green scaly head before it disappears below the waves.

We look back at Mick. “Well, you can’t shout turtle. They’ll know you’re on to them”.

This is the story of our very first week sailing on our journey to live aboard. We had completed our RYA Day Skipper theory by correspondence at home. For our practicals, we decided to complete our Competent Crew and Day Skipper back to back in the BVIs in October 2015.

This post will focus on the Competent Crew week, a great intro to sailing, and we’ll share details of Day Skipper in our next post.

Join us in Ailsa’s diary as we fly from Antigua to the British Virgin Islands on 9 October.

Arriving in Tortola

Our flight, scheduled for 5pm, gets called just before 4. In typical Caribbean style they’ve decided that as all passengers are present, they’ll just leave early. This isn’t unfamiliar, we’ve had Fly Montserrat do the same. It makes a nice change from delays!

The plane is small, only 10 seats including the pilot. This at least has proper airline seats instead of the bench seats on the Montserrat flight, so it’s bigger. The refreshment service is a cooler in the aisle with bottles of water. We slide it back and forth when someone calls out. The hour-long flight is full, and hot, but it’s also peaceful after a long day.

We land on a beautiful runway between islands. Richard Branson’s private jet sits there, surrounded by chickens. The terminal is small and we pass through quickly. We’re soon in a cab to Road Town through scenery that looks a lot like Montserrat.

Meeting at the Moorings

The Moorings Marina in Road Town is incredibly new and shiny, and very well provisioned. We make ourselves known and sit drinking a beer as the sun sets. It’s hard to believe we woke up in a dreary Gatwick.

The photo is taken from the bow of a 47ft yacht, looking back towards the stern. It's in a marina. Hardly visible, is Ailsa smiling from the cockpit.
Waking up on Nipolos 3

Mick, our instructor, meets us soon after and shows us to Nipolos 3, our home and training vessel. She’s a 47ft Beneteau Oceanis, and she’s beautiful. She’s far more spacious than the yacht we spent a weekend on in France earlier in the year. We look around and choose the rear left-hand cabin. I start to feel very tired and stressed, and freaked out by the small space, and the heat. Colin helps me unpack, and we use the bunk cabin which will be empty for the week for extra space.

We find the marina shower facilities, which are clean and beautifully designed and air-conditioned. Refreshed, we eat a mahi-mahi sandwich and chips at the marina’s poolside bar, chatting with Mick and enjoying the breeze. We make it until 9 pm and head back to the yacht.

I’m ashamed to say we immediately look up a potential place to stay for the two nights between the two courses. We had planned to stay on board but having found out we’ll have to pack up and leave the boat for Friday we feel we might as well find aircon and a good nights sleep.

Day 1

Overnight we hear sounds to suggest that the other person taking the course with us has arrived. It’s a hot and not too peaceful sleep, but at least on shore there are normal toilets – I’m struggling to get used to the hand pump!

We sit around chatting. Our coursemate is Dave*, an ex-soldier from Yorkshire. Provisions arrive and we pack them away, removing all cardboard, before filling the water tanks.

We head over to The Family Food & Bakery for breakfast, where Tyler the chef greets Mick like an old friend. Once back in the boat we have our safety talk, then it’s time to get out of the busy marina.

* We’ve changed the name of our fellow coursemate

Casting off

Ailsa stands at the helm of a yacht for the first time, looking intently at her destination. An island and town is not far behind her.
Set a course for Dead Man’s Chest

We finally get underway late morning, tidying the ropes as Mick motors us out. To my great delight, soon after leaving the marina I’m told to take the helm and steer for Dead Man’s Chest. I find steering comfortable far sooner than I’d expected.

We practise some motoring drills using steering, speed and tacking (minus sail), which I’m relieved to get on fine with. I end up at the helm long enough that my back starts to feel toasty. As we motor, we cover some of the principles of rules of the road and buoyage.

As we approach Virgin Gorda we help by tying on fenders and preparing mooring ropes. We settle in the marina in Spanish Town after checking in and picking up a key card for the showers.

The Baths

Colin, Dave and I get a “taxi”, an open-sided pickup to The Baths, one of the BVI’s most popular attractions. We walk the national park, and through amazing natural caves with blue underwater pools. The scenery is amazing, and it’s very quiet. We’re lucky to have arrived late in the day, and before the season gets busy. We grin with childlike glee as we see where the path will take us next – the arrows showing the route remind me of Labyrinth. We spend an hour and a half walking, exploring and swimming before taking the taxi back to the marina.

I’m annoyed to realise that we left our shampoo and shower gel in The Moorings marina, so we head to the supermarket to replenish and buy food. We find that Skipper Mick has also managed to tip the shower card down a gap in the cabin sole, and is facing a $100 fine. By this point I’m flagging as I’ve only eaten two biscuits since breakfast and it’s after 6 pm.

After showering, we eat dinner at the Bath and Turtle, where I perk up after a beer. Colin has an amazing roti. We have a couple of beers back on the yacht before bed.

Day 2

We’re up at a respectable 7:30, having slept somewhat better. Skipper Mick had a good go at retrieving the lost shower key card with no luck, but he sweet-talks the marina staff into letting him have a week to find it. He hatches a plan to retrieve it once it’s back at The Moorings (we’ll never tell!).

I try a ginger and garlic tea from the marina bar which is surprisingly tasty, and we prepare scrambled eggs and ham on toasted muffins for breakfast. After cleaning up and getting some last minute shore tasks done, and the deck tidied, we motor out towards the Baths.

We’re using the Baths as a handy site to go over some theory before we start the day proper. Colin and I have our first opportunity to tie up to a mooring ball. It takes a couple of attempts, but we get there. From there, we learn about raising the sails.

Sails up

Once we’re all comfortable with the theory, we work as a team to hoist the main sail, and we sail off the buoy. Our destination is the North Gorda Sound. Once we come around the north western headland of Virgin Gorda, Mick demonstrates tacking. This gives us time to get familiar with changing the sheets and using winches.

We’re due to have a go at steering but there’s rough weather ahead so we abandon plans for further sailing practice. Mick reefs both the mainsail and Genoa and tacks to avoid a nasty looking squall. We get clear, but the going is choppy. He tells us afterwards that we’ve now sailed in forces 5 and 6. I’m shocked, but also really pleased as it wasn’t too bad and I’d been scared after theory study of going over force 4.

Sir Richard, is that you?

The shot shows a small island in the distance, with wooden structures set on the hills. In the foreground is a choppy sea and the kite of kite surfer, but the figure kite surfing is not visible because of the distance and light.
Necker Island. And Richard Branson, we’re sure of it.

We find ourselves sailing with Necker Island in sight, and we fancy that the kite surfer we see is Branson himself. We motor sail into the North Gorda Sound and eat lunch in a deserted bay at Biras Creek. Colin attempts to snorkel but the sight of three jellyfish brings him quickly back on board. He’s still traumatised from a sting in July…

We spend the remainder of our learning time practising steering up to and catching mooring buoys. Colin gets it first time. I take a few goes on steering to master it but manage, and we’re told we’ll have plenty of practise. We also learn and practise man overboard, thankfully with none of us jumping in! Instead we use Winston, a buoy with a bucket attached. We taunt Winston about leaving his credit card onboard, but rescue him successfully each time.


We motor around to Leverick, a really beautiful bay, and tie up as the sun sets. Then it’s what we discover will become our favourite part of the day – a beer after getting moored for the night. As we’re staying on the buoy I shower on deck which is lovely and cooling. For dinner, we take the dinghy ashore and eat at Jumbie’s, a very prettily located beach bar. There’s something freeing about heading out to dinner barefoot. The fish tacos are very tasty, but it’s been a long day. After a beer back on board, it’s time for bed.

Day 3

In the foreground is a paved area, where a pelican sits facing out to a quiet marina. It is sunny and no people are visible.
Morning in Leverick Bay

We wake up after a peaceful night’s sleep, and after getting an idea of the day ahead we dinghy ashore to use the loos. We motor across the bay and practise dropping the anchor before eating a quick breakfast. As we leave so early, we get away without paying the mooring fee for the night.

Tacks, gybes, and butterflies

After breakfast, we learn and practise tacking and gybing. Tacking I find quite easy to pick up but gybing confuses me. Once again we find the wind picking up and we get to experience sailing in gusts of up to 30mph, or force 7. Taking it in turns to man the helm and sheets, we all have a few attempts at each part of the manoeuvre.

The photo is taken from the cockpit of a yacht, looking forward. Two men, one of them Colin, are setting the sails. Clearly visible are the words "Sunsail Sailing School" on the yacht's sail bag
Colin and Dave butterfly the sails

We set the sails to butterfly position and each practise steering with the wind behind us. We snack on crisps for lunch and have the minor debacle of finding that one of the water tanks is leaking and the bilge is filled with water. I’m mildly disturbed to see Skipper Mick tasting the water coming into the saloon to check if it’s seawater or freshwater.

I’m at the helm as we head inland for our afternoon stop and get confused and frustrated when I get the gybe wrong. I redeem myself slightly by steering effectively up to a mooring ball at Monkey Point on Guana Island.

Bikini overboard at Monkey Point

The image is of an orange sunset, the sun going down behind a land mass with the sea in the foreground.
Sunset at Monkey Point

Because we’re going to do a night sail we have some downtime. Colin and I snorkel around looking in caves, and see plenty of fish and sponges and thankfully no jellyfish. After an outdoor shower, we have some quiet time reading as the sun sets.

We start to prepare dinner, with a planned meal of barbecue mahi-mahi and rice. I prepare the rice, flavouring it as best I can with lemon and lime. As we cook we have two big interruptions. One is Mick burning himself on the bbq, and the other is Colin throwing the bottoms of my favourite bikini in the sea. We do our best to save them, but it’s impossible to hook them on a boat hook while also holding a torch. Colin gallantly launches himself into the dinghy but can’t get there fast enough.

Oddly, the mahi-mahi steaks we’ve grilled turn out to be beef steak. We have no idea how we missed it when we unpacked them. Either way, it’s a very tasty meal.

Night sailing

We clear up dinner and prepare to sail. As it’s night-time, we get into life vests and harnesses and turn all the lights off. I’m quite nervous about the night sail – we’ve become familiar with using landmarks to sail and the night sky is so different under the new moon.

As we set sail out of the bay, well after 8 pm, we see a shooting star, only the second I’ve ever seen. It feels like a reassuring sign.

We sail along the north of Tortola, with Dave at the helm. I’m relieved not to be in control; all I have to do is man the Genoa sheets as we gybe. We see distant lightning, thankfully behind us, and the bright lights of St Thomas. Night sailing is beautiful, the peace and the stars are a wholly new experience for me.

We make it into the bay, hunting for impossible-to-see buoys, and after some difficulties with the anchor and furling the Genoa we settle up for the night. Reaching beer o clock at 11 pm is welcome.

Day 4

I could have done with more sleep but woke up at 7:30. I’m clearly still asleep when I trap a finger in the loo pump and give myself a good blood blister.

Cane Garden Bay

White sands with the shadow of a palm tree are in the foreground, with a turquoise sea. Some beach structures and chairs are visible, with densely forested hills wrapping around the bay
Cane Garden Bay being stunning

Cane Garden Bay is beautiful, the perfect Caribbean beach with green hills behind, palm trees, brightly painted buildings, pristine white sands and turquoise seas.

We dinghy ashore for breakfast, a very American style omelette and hash-browns. One of the requirements of Competent Crew is that we all prepare a meal for the rest of the crew. Colin and I are able and happy chefs, but our companions are less so. Our approach to food has Mick getting interested in cooking, and he’s started to ask about herbs. Dave, on the other hand, is the least foodie person we’ve ever met – his culinary contribution for the week is to buy breakfast!

Colin is crouching on a beach petting a small, scruffy black and white dog. In his other hand he's holding a multi pack of Diet Coke.
Colin finds his beloved Diet Coke and a friend

We stop into a shop to stock up on Diet Coke, which Colin usually drinks like water. Before setting sail we see a huge barracuda feeding off the fish who are hiding in the shadow of our dinghy. I’ve had a fear of barracuda for years ever since a diving instructor told me one would come for my shiny watch, but I’m realising that may have been a fib.

Points of sail

We hoist the sails and motor sail out of the bay with me at the helm, and head south with full sails out. I can feel my steering skills improving as we go. We take it in turns to sail around Sandy Cay, an idyllic small island. I go last and find I’m able to get Nipolos going good and fast. I’m still a bit uneasy, but getting more comfortable. I’m pleased to get all of the manoeuvres right.

I stay at the helm and steer us on a clear course, fighting the wind changes, into Sopers Hole. My imposter syndrome is slapped down again as I steer to a mooring ball and we catch it on the first attempt. We’re all feeling smug after seeing a charter catamaran with her topping lift so tight her sail was a baggy lump – this is like the sailing equivalent of walking out of the loo with your skirt in your knickers. We warm rolls and make subs for lunch, and I find that I’m useless with the gas oven when I burn the rolls.

Dad jokes and wet cats

Looking forward from the cockpit, the image shows a yacht sailing on a heel with a land mass and visible rain clouds ahead
Squalls ahead

After lunch, we head back out to sea with the sails up. Over the afternoon we find ourselves fighting to avoid squalls and other yachts. As a result, we make slow progress and get the odd spattering of rain. In the squalls the going is rough and I bash both my feet and knuckles trying to man the Genoa winch. Mick is hilarious, a sailor who can’t stand getting wet – he’ll always try to outrun a squall before going to get his waterproof. He reminds us of a cat, always avoiding the water.

Taken from the cockpit the image shows a man, barely visible, slowing the yacht. Behind him is an island with the sun setting behind it.
Skipper Mick brings us in to moor as the sun sets behind St John

Despite the challenging conditions, it’s a fun passage full of singing and bad jokes. As we approach Norman Island the light is fading and we get into the rain enough to get out the wet water gear (much to Mick’s misery). It’s almost dark when we reach The Bight, and Colin and I catch the mooring ball as Mick steers.

Willie T

After I get a quick shower we take the dinghy over to the Willy T, a famous bar and restaurant on a barge [this was the original, since destroyed in Hurricane Irma and sunk as an artificial reef]. The food is great, Colin and I delightedly share conch fritters, fries, and a mahi-mahi sandwich. I see a cockroach which creeps me out as I’m useless with them, and looking down at the water we can see enormous tarpons swimming in the lights from the boat. There is a large, loud and rather annoying group in the bar, so we don’t hang around after eating much as we’d have liked to. We get a good soaking in the dinghy on the way back. A standard couple of beers on deck and it’s off the bed for the last night on board of our Competent Crew week.

Day 5

We wake to views of Norman Island and get off to a slow start. Our ‘lessons’ are essentially done, so the day is to be a leisurely potter back to Road Town. After I get a decent amount of packing done, sitting in the wake of the fan to keep cool, Colin and I toast muffins for breakfast. My finger, after being smashed against a winch in yesterdays squalls, is very sore around the knuckle and barely bends.

Our peace is broken by a group of high-speed racing dinghies, and we think about the day ahead. We decide against snorkelling at the nearby caves as its only Colin and I who would do it, and it’s Dave’s last day to get some good sailing in. We head instead for a bay on Peter Island. With the wind on our side, it’s a long and gentle trip with few tacks.

Peter Island and returning to ‘tola

We stop at a near-deserted beach club and after a snacky early lunch of nachos and dip Colin and I dinghy ashore. There’s little to see but we enjoy the chance of a swim. Unfortunately, it’s a short swim as I feel something at my arm – it’s the back of a jellyfish. We make a hasty retreat after a near miss!

Taken from a small yacht, the image shows two men on the deck looking towards a very large cruise ship.
Laughing at the cruise

Dave takes the helm for the last time to sail us back over to Tortola, completing our full circumnavigation of the big island. We laugh at the absurd and enormous cruise ship as we enter the harbour – they think they’re seafaring?

It’s before 3 pm when we enter the marina, and I’m amazed at Skipper Mick’s skills in reverse parking all 47 feet of Nipolos 3. We all pitch in tying lines and fenders, and just like that, our last bit of sailing for the week is over.

Colin and Ailsa sit in the cockpit of a yacht, smiling and taking a selfie. Both are wearing sunglasses and holding a bottle of Carib lager.
Celebrating passing Competent Crew with a Carib

We complete the paperwork for the course and are all pleased to receive certificates. We’ve sailed our first 105 nautical miles, and have already had 3.5 of the 4 hours of night sailing we’ll need for Day Skipper. We enjoy a celebratory beer on deck, which has become sweltering without the sea breeze.


The view is of a clearing in a rainforest with the sea and an island in the distance
The view from our AirBnB

After saying goodbye we load our luggage into a hire car and, head to our AirBnB via a supermarket. We spend 2 nights surrounded by the sounds of whistling frogs, catching up on sleep at night, and exploring Tortola by car and on foot in the day. It’s not enough time – Tortola has some incredible beaches and hikes that we barely have chance to set foot on.

After our two nights, refreshed, we head back to Road Town to do it all again for Day Skipper – lookout for our next blog to see how it went!



As you may well know, the BVIs was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Mick was updating us throughout, and we’ll never forget his messages from the eye of the storm. Sadly, he lost his boat (and home). He’s now skippering and maintaining boats in Greece.

We were supposed to return to the BVI in 2018, but the islands just weren’t that ready for tourism. As well as the destruction to homes and public buildings, a lot of well-known businesses disappeared, and both hotels and charter fleet had to be largely rebuilt. We hugely encourage people to visit once it’s possible to do so, and contribute to the economy of these amazing islands. We can’t wait to spend Christmas there.

For more info on the recovery of the BVI’s and volunteering opportunities, visit the Virgin Islands Recovery and Development Agency, and BVI Stronger.