Most charter companies provide a navigational chart and one or more cruising guides onboard with your charter. However it is a very good idea to purchase a cruising guide and current nautical chart prior to your visit, and spend time familiarizing yourself with the islands, waterways, and possible destinations ahead of time.
Captain’s Chart Briefing
Most charter companies will provide you with a chart briefing before you sail. If not, ask for one. In this brief meeting they will review the most recent, local knowledge of any conditions that may affect your sailing, such as missing navigation buoys, waterway obstacles, any problems with theft, new or closed attractions, etc. Even the most up to date nautical chart and latest cruising guide can’t beat local knowledge of sailing conditions.
In the chart briefing, you can also get advice on where to visit based on your crews’ interests. Love to snorkel? They may recommend certain places where the snorkeling has been superior in recent weeks. Want to eat out? They can tell you where the best chefs are currently working or point out restaurants that have unique menus. Looking for adventure? They may suggest places to try windsurfing, kite surfing, or scuba.
Here are a few recommended cruising guides, charts, and apps to assist you in your planning.
There are several Virgin Islands cruising guides on the market, each containing unique, helpful perspectives and information. (There are also some less helpful cruising guides, that are so full of advertisements they are almost impossible to use.) One that is particularly good is Cruising the Virgin Islands, by Joe Russell and Mark Bunzel. It is available now from Amazon.
Another very handy reference is a collection of good quality aerial photographs of the most common anchorages. The best set is available in a book called Virgin Island Anchorages, which contains two images of each anhorage: a photo of the anchorage with highlighted buoys and navigation channels, and a second image with no highlights or annotations. This is a great way to viualize an unfamiliar anchorage before you visit. I recommend getting the spiral bound edition which helps it lay open on the chart table as you plan your route.
Charts and Apps
Sailors are increasingly turning to digital charts on iPads, smart phones, and similar devices, rather than using paper charts. Recently, the NOAA announced that it will stop publishing its paper charts (although 3rd party paper chart companies may still do so.
Garmin’s Bluechart Mobile will turn your iPad into a full color chart plotter with all the convenience of the iPad’s touchscreen interface. The app is free to download from iTunes, and then from within the app you’ll need to purchase Garmin’s maps which cover the Caribbean.
Active Captain is a tremendous free website that lets sailors contribute tips, findings, and experiences in any given location to the website. With an Active Captain account (which is free), you can browse through the areas where you will be sailing and read advice and ratings from fellow sailors. Active Captain is available in an offline mode, which is helpful when you are sailing and do not have internet access.
And here is the best part. Enter your Active Captain login information into your Garmin Blue chart Mobile app, and it will download a copy of all the Active Captain information. The information will then be available to you offline, and will show up on your Bluechart maps for quick reference!