Beautiful bays, warm water, and white-sand beaches litter Tortola. It’s not nearly as consistent as other Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, but if you’re there when there’s surf, you will lose your marbles and fly into the air like Tommy O’Brien did.
The British Virgin Islands' little secret.
Words: Zander Morton
Photos: Charlie Garcia
Where: Tortola is located within the British Virgin Islands, sixty miles east of Puerto Rico.
What: The largest and most populated of the BVI, Tortola spans 13.5 miles end to end and is three miles at its widest point. The island (along with the other 50 islets and cays that comprise the BVI) has been dubbed "nature's little secret" after its stunning scenery and turquoise water. There are three main breaks here: Apple Bay, a fairly consistent reef break that resembles Lower Trestles; Josiah's Bay, a soft beginner-friendly beachbreak; and Cane Garden Bay, an inconsistent (though at times world-class) right point.
When: For a chance at surf, November to March is the best season to visit. That's when large winter low-pressure systems push off the United States' eastern seaboard and into the Atlantic, sending groomed open ocean groundswell to the north facing shores of the Caribbean. The summer months are typically dead flat, and even in the winter the wait between swells can be grueling. Unlike Puerto Rico, Tortola's surfable coastline is situated to the northwest and does not pick up any east trade swell. If there isn't a low pressure spinning in the Atlantic, don't expect much surf.
Why: Though catching one good wave at Cane Garden Bay when it's firing is worth the trip alone, it's never a guarantee. If you want to have a good trip, ignore the swell maps and hope for the best. Instead, plan your trip around the lunar cycle. The once monthly full moon parties at the Bomba Shack, located on the beach at Apple Bay, are one of a kind. Shroom tea, topless women—need I say more?
How: Though there is no airport on Tortola, Beef Island to the east connects by bridge. You can find daily flights to Beef Island (EIS) on American Airlines, typically ranging between $400–$800 dollars from the East Coast. Otherwise, fly to nearby St. Thomas (STT) on either Delta or Spirit and take the hour-long ferry into Sopers Hole on Tortola's west end operated by Smiths Ferry service. The charge is roughly $50 roundtrip per person, and an extra $20 for each board bag.
Places to stay: There are hotels on the island, but if you have sailing experience you might just find a few lesser-known nuggets. You can charter a boat at voyagecharters.com. Most sailing catamarans sleep up to ten people, plenty of room for the entire family or group of friends. This option offers the possibility of cruising the entire BVI in style, and if you're lucky you may even enjoy the view of a Cane Garden tube from your boat. Otherwise, check out Sebastian's On The Beach, located near Apple Bay and the Bomba Shack, offering double rooms starting at $80 a night. Another option is the Jolly Roger Inn, offering similarly priced rooms in picturesque Sopers Hole, a quick five-minute drive to the closest beach.
Dudes and babes: The BVI's favorable trade winds make the area one of the most popular sailing destinations in the world, attracting tourists from every corner of the globe. Because of this, it certainly has its fair share of lovely women. The only nighttime anchorage on the north coast is Cane Garden, and naturally it boasts the best after dark activities in the area. Except, of course, on full moons, in which case you know where to be. Bomba Shack or bust!
Crowd factor: Though the island is readily referred to as nature's little secret, the word got out long ago about the surf potential. The waves here have been surfed for many years, and the breaks are far from secret. Unfortunately, you will seldom surf alone on Tortola. In this age of online surf forecasting, most proper swell events for the island are predicted days in advance. Many of the local population surf, and mixed with travelers from the U.S., South Africa, and other nearby islands, the lineups can get pretty hectic. This is especially true at Cane Garden Bay, where many ex-pat American's spend entire winters hoping to score the rare classic day.
Even heavy waves in the Caribbean that have that aqua-blue water color seem to look way more friendly. So just imagine how friendly this little runner must be. Nathan Carroll.
Stuff to bring: The surf rarely gets huge on Tortola, so a couple of shortboards and a step up will do just fine. Bring a wetsuit top and spring suit as well, because the winter trade winds can feel awfully chilly in contrast to the warm Caribbean water, especially in the morning. Most importantly, bring patience and a good attitude. Flat spells here can last weeks, so be prepared. Tortola is one of the most beautiful places on earth, so sit back, mix a rum drink cocktail, and enjoy life.
If the surf is flat: Take a quick ferry over to Virgin Gorda and visit the Baths, a surreal formation of giant, home-sized boulders created during the Ice Age that jut into the Caribbean. The snorkeling, swimming, and bronzing here will fill a whole day and make you temporarily forget about surfing completely. Or if you are scuba certified take a day trip over to Salt Island and dive the wreck of the RSS Rhone, a 310-foot royal mail steam ship that sunk during a hurricane in 1867. Her parts are still intact on the bottom of the ocean, 75 feet below.
More information: You can check some of the different surf forecasting sights for the region if you're going to try to time a swell, but don't say we didn't warn you. To go more in depth, grab a copy of the Lonely Planet Virgin Islands and dig in.
Tortola can serve up long rippable rights, heaving wedges, and mellow rollers. Nathan Carroll leaves a tag on a wall.