Saturday, December 27, 2014

This Week: Virgin Gorda, BVI

Boats and Billionaires

The roosters had no sense of time. The cawing echoed in my ears intensifying my already aching head. The chicken cacophony was in complete contrast to the gentle chirps of the tree frogs. The beasts sounded like they were right below our balcony and I couldn’t close the windows, because there were no windows, only screens open to the world outside. I thought roosters only crowed at dawn. Didn’t they know the sun still had three hours’ sleep?


The previous day had started early. Awake at 6:30 AM San Juan time; that’s 4:30 AM in Colorado. We had an 8 AM island hopper to catch, but this wasn’t our first rodeo. We had ridden island hoppers before. At least we had two pilots this time. The Seaborne Airways flight was uneventful, just as it should have been. Several thousand feet below us the islands of the Virgins passed, St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola… there’s Jost on the left. There’s Norman Island and the Willie T on the right. With these islands we were familiar. Then an oblong patch of green with a white rock border came into view and the plane went into a banked curve before approaching a dirt runway. This was it. An island we had not stayed on before:  Virgin Gorda.


 “Welcome to Jumbies,” said Ali the bartender. A round black man with black polo shirt and khaki shorts, he handed us a laminated drink menu. I ordered a Painkiller and Christian ordered a Rum Punch. Then we asked if he served food. Ali handed us a laminated food menu. Ali asked where we were from and did not like our answer.

“Colorado? Mon, how can you stand all that snow?” he said making a face like he’d just bitten into an onion.
“How would you know ?” asked Christian. “Have you ever seen snow?
“No mon,” said Ali. “I’m an island boy. Don’t wanna see snow.”
“Are you from here?”
“No, I grew up on Barbados,” he said. “But I’ve been here for 14 years.”
“Why did you come here?”
“To bartend,” said Ali.
“Oh, so that’s what you’ve always done?”
“Yeah, been bartending for almost 20 years.”
“Why did you leave Barbados?”
“Had a friend here and he said come on over. Been here ever since.”
 “So, do you know Rhianna?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” said Ali. “She lived in the same parish as me, but she’s a few years younger so we weren’t in the same classes or anything like that. She was pretty cool though. And we knew she could sing. Oh, mon, even back then you knew....” and he trailed off because now we all know she can sing.

A group of two gentlemen and two women, with two small boys playing in the sand behind them, began chatting about something; I didn’t hear what, but Christian heard them.

“Hey, where you guys from?” he butted in.

“Fort Collins.”

“As in Colorado??” The guy nodded. In all the years we have been coming to the Virgin Islands we rarely met anyone from west of the Missouri River and had never met anyone from our home state of Colorado. His name was Jimmy and he was quick to offer up his story:  He had been laid off his job, but received a nice chunk of severance change and while trying to decide what to do next with his life, he and his family were spending the month of February renting a boat and sailing the Virgin Islands. Jimmy, his wife and two kids had just spent the first two weeks with family on the boat. Then the family went home and now his best friend from college and his wife here for the next two weeks. He was thrilled to be able to spend this time with his boys who were running around between us. During this conversation, Ali asked all of us if we wanted to reserve seats for that night’s show.

"Yes!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“What show?” we asked.

“You don’t know about the pirate show?” Jimmy gasped. “Let me fill you tell you!”

Pirate Michael Beans performed every happy hour, or as he called it “Happy Rrrrrr.” From October to April Pirate Beans ruled the Leverick Bay sunset with songs, stories and a joke or two. Bartender Ali added that he drew 100-150 people a night so a reservation came highly recommended.  Jimmy told his boys to get to the dinghy as they had to get cleaned up before the pirate show started. We traded our expensive cocktails for cheap beers and headed to our assigned seats to wait for the party pirate. Even though it was still early, several tables began filling up.

A few minutes before 5 PM, the dastardly pirate himself made his way from the resort building. He was barefoot, his puffy pirate shirt was tattered, and he had an unkempt beard and a black pirate hat on top of his head. He held a guitar in one hand and a conch shell in the other and he greeted each guest as he walked through the tables to his tiny stage at the far end.

After leaning his guitar on a stool, he took the conch shell and stood on the stonewall that separated the bay from the bar. He put the conch shell to his lips and blew a mighty trumpet tone across the water. As he blew people began to roust from their boats. They climbed into their dinghies and motored to the dock. One of those dinghies held the Ft. Collins family. When the Jimmy docked his two boys jumped out before it was even tied and came running over the tables. They were decked out in pirate gear complete with hats and white shirts; they even had eye patches. Pirate Beans came over to greet them as they found their reserved table right next to the stage.

“Ahoy, maties!” he cried as he gave each boy a hug. “You look ready for the show!”

As the boat people took their seats, Pirate Beans began. He strummed a guitar, blew a harmonica and stomped his bare feet on a wooden box below his stool. He sang traditional songs like Drunken Sailor and The Grog Song and told jokes between each one. Then it was time for audience participation No 1. On every table were several plastic water bottles filled with sand and rocks. Our purpose was to shake the bottles like a Polaroid picture.  I fulfilled my role with gusto as Pirate Beans sang Yellow Submarine.

We were seated at a long table with a several other couples. Our server Doreen with her broad white smile took care of us. Realizing we needed some food after all the beers we drank we asked her for a menu. The guy sitting next to Christian tapped his arm.

“Hey! We already ordered a pizza,” he yelled over the music. “You guys can have a slice!”
Pirate Beans took a break about halfway through his two hour show and we were able to meet our tablemates. The couple that ordered the pizza were Steve and Debbie from Canada. Then there was Jeff and Kelly from Nova Scotia and Jeff and Katie from Wisconsin. The first thing Katie asked was…

 “So what boat are you on?”

After some um’s and ah’s we pointed to the hill behind the bar and said we had a room at the resort.
“They have rooms here? We didn’t know that,” everyone exclaimed.

We were surrounded by boat people. Steve and Debbie were renting a boat and sailing around the VI’s for a month. Jeff and Kelly had sailed here from Nova Scotia and were on a six-month journey that would take them to the lower West Indies. Jeff and Katie were the boatiest of the bunch. They were sailing a boat they had spent the last several years restoring at their lake house in Wisconsin. Then Debbie, after 25 years of teaching, and Jeff, after 25 years of construction, and with two grown sons finally out of the house, left their jobs, sold their house and then sailed through the Great Lakes, down the Hudson, down the east coast of the United States to the Virgin Islands. After sailing through the Caribbean they planned to eventually end up at the Panama Canal, where two more people would join them for sailing across the Pacific in late fall. For them, boating was a way of life.


After his break Pirate Bean returned and announced it was time for a conch shell blowing contest. All four men at our table headed for the stage, along with many other people. Each person was given a practice blow and a little instruction from Pirate Beans. After a woman tried a practice blow on the conch, he handed it straight to the next woman.

“Don’t worry, honey. Just take a swig of rum if you want to kill the germs.”

After each contestant had a practice blow, it was time for the real deal. Whoever could blow the conch the longest would win a six-pack of Carib beer and a Carib hat. Once again audience participation was a must. We had to count out how long the contestants could sustain the note. Most contestants didn’t get past the count of two.  However, our new friend Jeff went over 40 digits. Christian, who went right after him, got to 30, but faded. Jeff was the winner. Before continuing on with the music Pirate Beans had everyone raise their glass for a toast.

“There are good ships, and there are wood ships, and ships that sail the sea, but the best ships, are friendships, and may they always be."

After the show, each of us took turns buying rounds of rum drinks with our new friends. Christian and I forgot we were at sea level and consumed way more than we normally would, hence the hangover that the roosters kept interrupting. Cock-a-doodle-doo was stuck on repeat.


The next afternoon we found ourselves once again at Jumbie’s Beach Bar happy hour and another Pirate Beans show. Our boating friends had already arrived and saved us some seats. Pirate Beans walked by in his bare feet just as we sat down. In front of us a group of boaters were all decked out in pirate gear, but these weren’t young boys; these were full-grown adults with hats, stick-on tattoos and eye patches. One guy had a stuffed parrot propped on his shoulder.

Also joining the show tonight was a large group of young, rather good looking men and women who corralled two long tables together. They sang with gusto and each person had a different foreign accent, British, Australia and Dutch. According to our boating friends, the group belonged to the crew of the giant yacht that had pulled into the bay earlier and they had all been drinking since they arrived. Some of them began heckling Pirate Beans.

“Where you guys from?” Pirate Beans asked them.

Each person yelled out their home country making for a confusing jumble of answers.

“Are you all from the big boat?” he asked. This time they all yelled in unison as they held their drinks high over their heads.


After Pirate Beans’ show we were hanging out with our new friends listening to their sailing stories. Listening was all we could do because we didn’t have any of our own. Then suddenly, one of the handsome young men from the yacht crew came over and asked us how we were doing. He introduced himself as Dave. Katie, who had had a few rum punches, immediately grabbed his arm for support and plied him with questions.

So where are you from? “England.”

What is your position on the ship?  “Second Mate”

Where did you sail in from? “Gibraltar.”

How long did it take you? “A little over two weeks.”

Who owns the boat?  “I can’t say, but he’s a Russian billionaire.”

Oh, com’on. “I can’t say.”

It’s not like I know a lot of Russian billionaires. “Nope.”

“Is it the guy who owns the Nets?” Christian asked. Dave laughed. “No, not that guy.”

“So, how does one become a Second Mate on a billionaire’s yacht?” asked Katie. “Oh, I took some classes, worked my way up from deck hand, the usual,” he said.

“I don’t know what the usual is so please explain.” He then explained how he had been working on ships since he was 16, starting as a deck hand and learning the ropes and taking navigation courses between boat gigs. He had worked on a millionaire’s yacht before moving up to the Russian billionaire’s.

“So how old are you?” asked Katie. “27.” She just about fell over, although she may have fallen over at any answer, with all the rum punch she drank.

“So what’s it like working on a billionaire’s yacht?” Kelly asked. “Do you sleep in the billionaire’s bed when he’s not on board?”

“Oh, hell no. We’d get fired. Very strict.”

“Why are you in the BVI?” asked Kelly’s Jeff. This was the story we got:

It was for the Russian Billionaire’s son’s 10th birthday.  The Russian had sent the boat ahead to the BVI and hired some “Hollywood producers and writers” to travel with it. The boat and crew were to spend the week traveling the islands checking out restaurants, coves, activities and beaches. The job for everyone on the boat was to find the best places to moor and the “Hollywood producers and writers” were going to put together a “script” for the 10-year-old and his cousins. “The Script” would be a pirate story and the kids would be involved in finding pirate treasure on their voyage.

We all cocked our heads to the side. “No really,” he insisted.

“So how much does it cost to run a boat like that for one week,” Christian asked.

“About 250,000 dollars US, including food for the crew, cleaning, fuel, salaries…”

“So,” said Christian, “He’s already spent $1 million and he hasn’t even had his vacation yet.”

“Ah, yeah, I guess that’s one way of putting it, but that doesn’t include the Hollywood people. I don’t know what that costs.”

“So how many kids are coming?” asked Katie.

“Oh, I dunno, 7 or 8.”

“Who are these cousins?” Katie’s husband Jeff asked. Dave just laughed.

“Most of them are the billionaire's illegitimate children. We call them cousins.” Now I almost fell over.

At some point during this most fascinating discussion, a DJ arrived and set up shop near the tiki bar and began playing dance tunes so everyone moved to the sand dance floor next to the bar.


Such is life in the Virgin Islands. A life filled with singing pirates, career bartenders, unemployed dads, sailors of all ages on boats of all sizes and even the one percent. It’s a place where everyone belongs. On this night the cackles of the roosters wouldn’t wake me up.


If anyone doubts the validity of the Russian Billionaire, then I suggest you read the November 2014 issue of Islands Magazine, starting on page 32, Chasing Time by Jad Davenport.