More than two decades ago, a handful of downhill skiers went looking for new adventure. They found it. Now 300 people regularly descend on the BVI for a week of boating and camaraderie.
For some, the BVI Reunion unofficially begins in the St. Thomas airport. People who haven't seen each other for a year — some for many years — come together from various American states to pile into taxis and board the ferry from Charlotte Amalie to West End, Tortola. The British Virgin Islands (BVI) Immigration and Customs staff are welcoming, as always, and there is friendly conversation about fish stew, fungi, yam, bullfoot soup, and all the other local delicacies they'd remembered from last time they sailed together.
For Niambi Davis, who hails from Maryland's Eastern Shore, the reunion officially begins when she steps out of the taxi at the Soper's Hole charter base. Davis is part of a loose association of groups of around 20 people each, that, for this reunion, combined into one supergroup of nearly 300. Some of them, like Davis, had been coming to the BVI for more than a decade.
Formed in 2012, the group called themselves No Drama Vacations. Others called themselves names like Nauti-by- Nature, E-Dock and Friends, Pirates of the Chesapeake, SailFete, and The Downriggers. Their goals were all the same — enjoy a week of new and old friendships on chartered sail and powerboats in some of the best boating waters in the world.
Otterside, Davis' 60-foot sailing catamaran, sat berthed at the top of the dock and had been dubbed "The Mothership." Some of the crew was aboard, assembling gift bags of trip swag and memorabilia. On that day, nearly every Voyage Charters boat on the dock had been chartered by the reunion. For the next seven days, the groups, separately and individually, would enjoy happy hours, amazing food, fishing, snorkeling, and shoreside fun.
A Pipeline For Creating Captains
In 1997, Paul Mixon, who recently passed away, scrambled to find enough sailors for the first group charter. Mixon, who was also active in a downhill ski club for African Americans called the National Brotherhood of Skiers, contacted some of those members and suggested something new — a Caribbean flotilla that would be known as the Black Boaters Summit (BBS). Eight people signed on and made the first BBS cruise a reality.
By 2008, the event brought together 126 people on a 16-boat flotilla, captained by African American men and women. One of the group's captains was even the inspirational Bill Pinkney, who holds the record as the first African American to sail around the world solo. Pinkney is also Master Emeritus of the freedom schooner Amistad, a reproduction of the vessel that made history when its cargo of slaves rebelled and gained their freedom.
Some other captains for the group had come up through the ranks. For years BBS offered a learn-to-sail program during a weeklong liveaboard session that ended with the students becoming qualified to captain the vessels — and an invitation back as charter captains.
While BBS was the genesis of the first cruise, it's now morphed into part of the larger group. The reunion was made up of boaters from many groups and clubs, plus lots of individuals. Davis says everyone agrees, that had it not been for the vision of BBS founder Paul Mixon, most of them never would have known each other.
Folks Learn Quickly, & Fall In Love With Boating
The participants come from widely varying backgrounds. There are college professors, doctors, engineers, attorneys, retired military, teachers, firefighters, police officers, and more. None of that matters on the water, though; professions are only discovered by chance if it comes up in conversation, sometimes long after the trips are over and lasting friendships are made. Some participants have never been on any body of water, or have only sailed on cruise ships. They hang out with novice and experienced sailors, recreational boat owners, U.S. Coast Guard Masters, delivery captains and crews, and members of racing teams, and they learn fast. Members may be retirees or young people still in college. Everyone blends together, and learns the ropes from each other.
Not everyone is African American. Davis says there's no restriction based on race. "All are welcome, and there have been white participants throughout the years, too — and internationals, when a couple from Brazil joined the flotilla. Most participants come from referrals, and the flotilla is always open to “somebody who knows somebody."
Davis says that it's the willingness of people — many of whom have never sailed, and a few of whom have never learned to swim — to get on a sailing catamaran, a monohull, and even a dinghy, sometimes with total strangers, that makes it special. Many go home feeling that they've been on a vacation of a lifetime.
For Davis, the magic happened the very first time she sailed into Cane Garden Bay with its palm trees lining the beach and colorful houses dotting the hill. She says it was being on a boat, watching the sails, feeling the dip and rise of the boat through the water under sail, and it was watching the sun set over Right: Captain and crew getting ready to set sail. Opposite top: The reunion flotilla en route to Savannah Bay in 2017. Several groups are organizing a 2020 sail. The clubs plan to continue the tradition begun by Paul Mixon. Opposite bottom: The crew of Ottertude captures a memory of their time together. the fleet anchored out in the water. For many, it's the sense of camaraderie that's magical. For others, it's the feeling of discovery. For others, she says, it's the deep feeling of pride that black people feel about their long history as mariners and navigators, and their love of sailing. On every trip, Davis says, the large group of African American sailors are often a fascination. Some people stare, others ask where they're from and how they happen to know each other. The sailors all welcome the dialogue.
Supporting The BVI Through Challenges
Davis said that two years ago, before one of the most devastating Caribbean hurricanes seasons ever, the reunion held their annual Black and White party at the Bitter End Yacht Club (BEYC). People came dressed in white, in black, or in black and white. It rained all night, the last day before BEYC closed for the season. Not long after, the legendary sailing destination was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. Some of the boaters scoured BVI message boards, hoping to learn the fate of the local captains who'd sailed with the group. Some began GoFundMe pages for the captains they'd befriended over the years, and they started planning their next reunion — to see the local people they'd come to care about.
Each time they land in BVI now, Davis says, it's like going home. "If it's a home you love, you can't stay away too long."