BEYC Time Machine: The Quarterdeck

Even before it was Bitter End, North Sound’s breezy, calm northeast corner was a hardcore yachtsmen’s hangout, the indisputable best anchorage just about anywhere. The only requirements to hang out were being able to sail there from somewhere else and competently deploy proper ground tackle; to have the resources on board to make cocktails, plus a galley equipped and provisioned to feed the crew; and finally, to have a dinghy along that could be beached on the nearby deserted shore.

Then, a renegade charter skipper, Basil Symonette, came along and started to change everything. He got his hands on 30+ acres at John O’Point, built a proper bar and restaurant a few meters from the shoreline and added a short jetty that could accommodate his own boat and a few visiting dinghies. He also put down a handful of moorings, totally eliminating any need for self-reliance. He called it Bitter End and its shock waves would lead to immutable changes in BVI yachting.

When we Hokins showed up in Alianora at Bitter End and unsuspectingly bought the place, our expectation was simply to have a family retreat in a spectacular place with awesome opportunities to do what we loved. We fully expected to maintain the Basil-era status quo. What Basil cunningly had forgotten to disclose to his credulous buyers was the existence of a cabal based in Tortola, led by Jack Van Ost (CSY Charters) and Charley and Ginny Cary (Moorings). They collectively sensed that Basil’s Bitter End portended the breakdown of BVI yachting’s old order.

Striking swiftly, they invented something that would forever change BVI yachting – the bareboat charter industry. Bareboating was indeed iconoclastic. One now could cruise the BVI without first having your own boat and beating it up during a 1,500-mile open ocean passage; or without taking the expensive chance of a traditional Virgin Islands charter yacht that came with 20 years’ worth of mildew, leaky decks, a disagreeable skipper, a surly crew and a terrible cook. It suddenly became possible to be your own skipper in paradise for a week or two, no strings attached. Proof that Jack, Charley and Ginny were on to something was the BVI bareboat fleet’s hyperbolic growth during the late ‘70s. More and more sailors were discovering North Sound and the anchorage in its northeast corner.

The seeds of Bitter End’s marina already had been planted when Myron decided Alianora needed a berth alongside Bitter End’s waterfront. That called for a dock that could handle a 72-foot, 100-ton yacht with 9-foot draft, the first iteration of what’s now known as “A” Dock. Around the same time, the first “marina building” was built as a combination boat-shop/storeroom plus a marine laboratory searching for the organism that caused ciguatera. After a few years, the structure was enlisted to house Bitter End’s Trading Post, a career cut short by Irma.

It didn’t take long for us to discover that Bitter End was and always would be a work in progress; and that only added to the fun factor. We remodeled Bitter End’s five original cottages to accommodate the extended family. Early on, many nights saw more Hokins than visiting sailors frequenting the bar and the restaurant. That all began to change with the surge in bareboating. It would be years before the bareboat fleet’s amenities included hot showers, mechanical refrigeration or AC power; and there were no cell phones to keep in touch with the world beyond the BVI. We quickly discovered that our yachting visitors often were seeking more than rum punch and grilled lobster.

Along with early charter visitors and globetrotting cruisers, a handful of sportfishing boats would make the trek over from Puerto Rico to fish the nearby North Drop and to spend quality family time in what they called “Gorda Sound”. The boats would be on Bitter End’s moorings or at anchor and they joined in Bitter End’s shoreside life along with resort guests, transient cruisers, and charter visitors. It was a melting pot of people messing about in boats. But one thing the fishing crowd really wanted was a place to dock, hook up to shore power and wash the fish scales out of the cockpit. This loyal group of friends surged with the 1982 addition of the QD docks and the Quarterdeck Club.

The Quarterdeck Club provided dockside membership features that would appeal to boaters whose Bitter End visits were frequent and usually longer than one or two nights, just the ticket for our Puerto Rican friends. Among the earliest members were the Bacardi, Cabrer, Vicente, Santiago, and Rodriguez families, many of whom became the true “first responders” for Virgin Gorda and North Sound in the days following Irma.

By the late 1980s, bigger motor- and sailing-yachts became more numerous and what’s now called “A” dock became their preferred berths. We responded to these larger yachts with a plan to replace the wood dock with one constructed of concrete. The project was accelerated when an out-of-control a freight barge delivering a cistern took out a big chunk of the wooden dock. The new concrete dock became a solid berth for the bigger Browards, Burgers, Bertram and Hatteras that shared the dock with freight barges and Bitter End’s ferries.

As we neared the millennium, peak demand was stressing the Quarterdeck, its docks and other facilities; but we were able to figure out how to shoehorn 50-plus boats into 25 berths during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Presidents’ Week, Easter, not to mention our Puerto Rican friends’ “Christmas in July” holiday week. Slip reservations were in high demand, and visitors didn’t seem to mind rafting with their neighbors. Hurricane Luis in 1995 provided an opportunity to reconfigure the Quarterdeck dock, to extend the fuel dock, and to make the South End’s Carvery Dock a viable berth for regular visitors. Hurricane Earl visited in 2010 and that was curtains for the wood pilings supporting the Quarterdeck dock, which opened the door for the current reconfigured concrete structure. Along with “A” Dock and the fuel dock, the Quarterdeck dock successfully rode out Irma and Maria; and all will be up and running for the 2020 season.

Nick & Jenny Trotter were the Quarterdeck’s first managers. They recall that the best part of their experience was the enormous variety of people that visited Bitter End’s docks and mooring field. There were school teachers, dentists, circumnavigators, billionaires and celebrities, all messing about in boats one way or the other. How many people ever got to see Walter Cronkite come alongside in his 64-foot Hinckley, Wyntje, wearing shorts and Topsiders rather than his CBS News coat and tie?

Jenny recalls, “Sure, we saw a lot of really nice boats over the years. But it was more about meeting a lot of really nice people…during one exceptionally busy Thanksgiving holiday, a dock guest brought with him on his private plane a fully cooked 18-pound turkey for the Quarterdeck staff.” And on another occasion, “a Quarterdeck member offered to airlift a sick staff member out on his private helicopter. There was no shortage of warmth and camaraderie amongst Quarterdeck members, staff, and the local community”. Nothing speaks better to the spirit that has been and always will be Bitter End’s lifeblood and the energy that no hurricane of any strength can extinguish.