BVI Bareboat Basics – Get Your Crew Here and Through Customs and Immigration

Bareboat BVI Customs ImmigrationLast summer I asked some friends if they would be interested in doing a bareboat charter in the British Virgin Islands. I was not surprised to find that they were interested since the BVI is one of the most popular boat charter destinations in the world! For the past 15 years, I have been lucky enough to sail in the BVI every winter and have gotten to know the islands and anchorages fairly well. I am not necessarily on a first name basis with the fish, but I certainly know where they hang out!

I know from experience, if you invite ten people to go sailing, only two or three will show up when it is time to leave the dock. A quick phone call to the charter company firmed up their prices and provided a schedule for payments. This turned out to be the catalyst that encouraged the crew to get out their checkbooks and put money down to reserve our spot!

Getting to the British Virgin Islands

From the United States

Our discussion quickly focused on the logistics of where the British Virgin Islands actually are and how to get there. Most of the crew were coming from California, which is a long plane trip across multiple time zones. The fact that the airport on Tortola does not connect directly to the US is an added complication. Finally, we knew that the charter started at noon, so we had to factor that in our plans.

All but two of the crew from California made arrangements to travel as far as they could without tight connections and to spend a night in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 45 minute flight from Puerto Rico to Tortola had a fairly reasonable departure time and they only had a five minute walk from the airport to the dinghy dock. They were in their swimsuits within minutes after clearing customs!

From the USVI

For the two of us who live on St. John, the answer was simple, we would take an inter-island ferry and then taxi to where the boat was berthed. The remaining two crew members from the States accepted our invitation to come spend some time with us on St. John and take the ferry over with us.

There are several options for ferry companies between the USVI and the BVI. For the schedules and different departure ports and destinations, click here.

The main thing to keep in mind when navigating the myriad of options is where the departure and arrival ports are. Usually, there will be at least one taxi ride involved to get where you want to go. In general, the ferries connect the larger communities of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas with Roadtown, Tortola; or the smaller community of Cruz Bay, St. John with West End, Tortola. It is not a bad idea to call your ferry company of choice prior to travel to make sure that the schedule is still accurate.

Since we were coming from St John, one option was to travel to West End Tortola then take a taxi to Roadtown. We could also take a ferry to St. Thomas, taxi to the dock in Charlotte Amalie, and a ferry to Tortola. We opted for less changes and made our way to the Inter-Island Boat Services (IS) dock in Cruz Bay, St. John.

Inter-Island Boat Service TortolaWe were a little concerned by the logo for the ferry company, but were quickly reassured that this was the place to get our tickets to the BVI’s as a tourist, and not a one way ticket to become a terrorist!

Customs and Immigration

Unlike plane travel, we were able to travel with plenty of water and some of the leftovers from our fridge. We took advantage of a few minutes before we boarded to fill out the BVI Customs and Immigration forms. (Much easier done at their picnic table than on a moving boat!)

Our arrival in West End Tortola was smoothed greatly by the assistance of a BVI port official who made sure we had filled out our documents correctly and then arranged a group taxi ride for us to Roadtown. Thanks to this friendly official, we were able to get off the dock before noon and motor around to Trellis Bay on Beef Island to meet the crew arriving from California via Puerto Rico.

After a week of fabulous weather that came straight out of a brochure, we were back in the same anchorage taking the dinghy ashore with the same four people for their return to the airport.

Two of them had decided to connect through San Juan and continue on to the US, the other two had decided to stay in Puerto Rico for a few days and do some island touring there.

BVI Bareboat CharterThe remaining four of us took advantage of a quirk in the charter schedule. The next charter guest had requested to join the boat in Red Hook, St. Thomas so we offered to take the boat there in exchange for an extra 24 hours on board! This meant we had to stop in West End and clear the boat and crew out of the BVI. Fortunately, in the British Virgin Islands, not everyone has to be present so while the captain dealt with the paperwork, the crew lounged on the boat and enjoyed a rare visit by dolphins in the Soper’s Hole anchorage!

Next stop for us was to clear the vessel and crew in to the USVI at the Cruz Bay, St. John dock. Unfortunately for the crew, everyone has to go ashore to be seen by the customs agent. A quick dinghy trip took care of this and within an hour, we were tied up at American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook, St. Thomas. The next day it was an easy walk to the passenger ferry terminal to St. John and a quick taxi ride to the airport for the last departing crew.

PRO TIPS:

1) To speed arrival on a private vessel, download the forms from the US Customs and Border Patrol web site. To download the forms, click here for the Crew List and here for Vessel Clearence.

2) Our fliers decided to break up their travel connections and relax in San Juan. Coming from California, they had four time zones to deal with. If it takes you 18 hours or more to get here, I suggest taking an extra day before you arrive at the boat to relax and get on to island time!

3) Be flexible! Adding the delivery to St. Thomas extended our trip and made our adventure twice as enjoyable.

4) While we were sailing, I kept one eye on the weather and always considered it when picking a spot to spend our time. Like most travel destinations, the BVI’s have a checklist of more places to see than you can manage to tick off in one week. After years of traveling, I have learned that is always okay to leave a few places for next time!


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Glenn HarmanGlenn Harman is a USCG and RYA licensed boat captain who has been sailing in the Caribbean for the past 15 years. He is now a resident of St John and the author of the book “Captain Glenn’s Guide to the BVI’s”. It is available on Amazon and at www.glennsguidetothebvis.com.

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