Rule Change at The Baths, BVI: What You Need to Know

The Baths BVI

The Baths in the British Virgin Islands is a must stop visit for yacht charter crews.

But, a recent rule change (or perhaps I should say rule enforcement) has caused a lot of confusion at this top attraction.

Don’t get caught off-guard on your next trip – here are the details you need to know.

View from inside the granite boulders in the Baths

Background on the Baths rule change

If you’re not familiar, The Baths is a BVI National Park, renowned for the massive granite boulders piled atop each other along the western shore of Virgin Gorda. There are several incredible trails, including one right through the granite boulders, known as the Caves.

You can enter at the parking lot at the Top of the Baths, or, in settled conditions, you can swim ashore from a dinghy mooring.

As tourism has grown in the British Virgin Islands, along with more frequent cruise ship visits, this popular attraction has become quite crowded.

Veteran crews know to avoid the Baths when cruise ships are in town since the Caves trail can become a standstill gridlock. Why? Aside from too many people, the Caves trail has several ladders and narrow passages that quickly backs up with 2-way traffic.

Rule change at the Baths BVI means the Caves trail is now one way
The entrance to The Baths is now at Devil's Bay, and is one way only

The Baths rule change: one way only

So, the BVI government recently instituted or started enforcing a rule change. The Caves trail is now one way, entering on the southern side at Devil’s Bay, and exiting near the Poor Man’s Bar.

But that’s not all!

Even if you have a BVI National Parks permit (included in all charters), you now must pay to access The Baths. It is an exception written in fine print on the back of the permit: The purchasing of this permit does NOT include entry fees to The Greater Baths National Park.

Here is the fee schedule:

  • Adults: $3

  • Kids $2

My view? Collecting the fees from swim-ashore visitors was the real driver for enforcing the one way, not crowd control.

Sign at the exit of the Caves Trail

How does the Baths rule change affect your plans?

So here’s how it works.

  • You can use the dinghy moorings on either side of the Caves trail

  • Swim ashore

  • If you land near the exit, you’ll be directed to the entrance near the Top of the Baths

  • Pay the fee

  • Hike down to the entrance, and enjoy the Caves trail (and the beautiful Devil’s Bay beach of course)

  • Swim back to your dinghy

  • If you land at Devil’s Bay first, you’ll first do the Caves hike first before looping back to the entrance to pay your fee

Make sure you bring a good pair of water (or hiking) shoes! Bring some soggy dollars as well for the fee – but you were probably already planning on that for a post-hike painkiller.

So are there any workarounds? Perhaps. I suppose if you get dropped off in the dinghy by a crew member, they could pick you up at the beach near the exit to avoid the loop back to the top. 

But, rules are rules, and I’m not suggesting anyone break them.

I don’t think the new fee is a big deal, but make sure you consider the added time needed to hike up and back down. Perhaps you have some kids in tow. Round-trip, however, it’s less than 3/4 of a mile.

The Baths, BVI

Other tips for visiting the Baths

First time visiting the Baths? Here are some of my other tips:

  • If there is a northerly swell running, there will likely be a yellow or red flag flying. Consider changing your plans to swim ashore. Grab a slip at the Virgin Gorda Yacht and take a taxi. Or, rent a car from North Sound. Stop along the way for a barbecue lunch  and amazing views at Hog Heaven
  • We like to visit early – the mooring field can fill up quickly and we don’t like waiting inside the Caves trail

  • Make sure to check the cruise ship schedule. Avoid days where cruise ships are in town. If you can’t avoid it, go as early as possible, or later in the afternoon

Best of luck on your next visit to the Baths! You can read more of my articles about the British Virgin Islands here.

Navigating the Great 2023 Caribbean Sargassum Bloom

The great 2023 Caribbean sargassum blooom

Photo: Flamenco Beach, Culebra in November 2022

By now you’ve surely heard the media reports…it’s coming.

It’s stinky, unsightly, and it’s on the way to ruin your Caribbean vacation.

Yes – this year’s 2023 Caribbean sargassum bloom in the looks like it will be one for the record books, surpassing many other recent seasons.

There are already reports of many popular vacation destinations such as the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, and Florida Keys, experiencing waves of the stuff washing up on beaches since the beginning of the year.

But don’t cancel your plans. I’m going to show you how to have a great time in the Caribbean this year, in spite of the sargassum. This article focuses on those taking yacht charter trips, but there are useful tips for any type of vacation traveler.

The 2023 Caribbean sargassum bloom - this probably wasn't what you were expecting for your vacation!
This probably wasn't what you had in mind for your Caribbean vacation!

What is sargassum and the why is this year so bad?

Sargassum is a yellowish brown floating seaweed that blooms in a five thousand mile long belt in the Atlantic Ocean, dubbed the Sargasso Sea. It floats on the weather in a westerly direction towards Florida, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.

I’ve been sailing on bareboat charter trips for over 10 years in the Caribbean, and we regularly sail past sargassum patches, or step over it on beaches.

It’s usually not too big of a deal, but some years are worse than others. This looks like one of those.

Scientists believe elevated nutrient levels from rivers and storm runoff are acting like fertilizer for the sargassum, boosting their growth. Manmade causes are usually to blame, but there is still a lot of uncertainty. You can read about its origins in one of the recent media articles on the topic.

The bottom line: batten down the hatches. It’s coming.

2023 Caribbean Sargassum | Source: USF
Sargassum patches detected by satellite imagery, courtesy of the University of South Florida (March 2023)
Caribbean sargassum - April 2023
April 2023

So much is coming that it can be detected by satellite images. The University of South Florida has a great project called the Sargassum Watch Project where you can keep track of the blobs progress. You can even animate the images to see how it’s changing over time.

Here’s how to see the latest sargassum map:

  • Open the webpage and click “SaWS Clickable Map”
  • Select the region
  • Choose the date, there is usually a 1-2 day delay
  • Click “Composite DOY 080”, and then click “FA_UNET_DENSITY 7 Day Information”

Try “Animate” to see how the sargassum is progressing over time.

While this is helpful to identify larger trends, there’s no way to know for sure if your favorite beach will be impacted weeks, or even days in advance.

Sargassum bloom headed to the Caribbean in April 2023
Plenty more sargassum headed to the Caribbean (April 2023)
Sargassum is heavy on the west side of Flamenco Beach in the Spanish Virgin Islands
While the Sargassum was heavy on the west side of Flamenco, Culebra, we had clear near where we anchored on the east side

Navigating Sargassum during your yacht charter trip

Let’s not let the sargassum ruin all the fun. I’ll be sailing in Antigua in May, and while I’m not worried, we are getting prepared to deal with it. Here’s what we are doing.

Keep looking – the sargassum-free beach is out there

The beaches that are most exposed will be windward/eastward facing, as that is the direction the sargassum is creeping from on wind, wave, and current.

Best advice to finding an idlyllic Caribbean beach, sargassum-free? Remain flexible. We’ve always found that even if some beaches are infested, others are perfectly fine.

One example? We visited the beautiful, crescent-shaped Flamenco Beach in Culebra this past November. While the west side had plenty of sargassum washing ashore, the eastern side was clear.

Keep looking, ask around, or check local web-cams, such as these in the BVIs, to get a first-hand account.

Another thing to keep in mind? Tourism is important in the Caribbean. I would expect public officials have plans to try and keep some beaches clean, especially those that are heavily reliant on tourism. Those beach bars need to keep pouring tropical drinks to sunburned customers!

Get the latest scoop when you arrive and be flexible. I promise you that you’ll find your own piece of paradise, sargassum free.

Catching sargassum
Clearing sargassum weed from our lures on a recent bareboat charter trip

Going fishing? Change your tactics.

On our recent USVI and Spanish Virgin Islands sailing trip we caught some fish, but not as many as we had hoped. I’ll blame the sargassum. Nearly every time we reeled in to check the lures, we were dragging sargassum.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do if you plan to troll a couple lines in between anchorages. These tips, however, might help:

  • Check the lines more frequently than you otherwise would

  • Don’t put the lures too far back, so it’s easier to reel in and check

  • Skip the diving lures: when they grab sargassum, the resistance can make it really difficult, and time consuming to reel in and clear. Stick to surface skirts

  • Put out a smaller spread: this last trip we had 4-6 lines in the water. That’s a lot to check and clear. Stick with 2-3 and you’ll have more of an enjoyable time.

Other advice? Heave-to, stop the boat, and cast or use a jigging lure. Throw some leftovers in the water as chum. While sargassum blobs are bothersome, they also foster marine life. Mahi mahi love to hang out underneath them. You can read more about those techniques in my sailboat fishing guide.

If you have some ballyhoo, you can also try rigging one of these weedless ballyhoo rigs.

Sargassum floating near Barbuda
Sailing past large blobs of sargassum between Antigua and Barbuda on our May 2023 charter trip

Get ready for some DIY maintenance to your sailboat

You are motoring along, and then suddenly one of your catamaran engines dies. Or perhaps an engine alarm is blaring from overheating.

If you’ve gone through sargassum patches, it very well could be the culprit and is a logical starting point to attack the problem.

Troubleshooting the water intake for the engine (or generator) is a great technique to arm yourself with. It might be clogged by sargassum at the intake, at the strainer, or somewhere in between. We even once successfully attacked the “somewhere in between” clog with our dinghy blow-up pump.

If you’re on a bareboat charter, you’ll be much happier spending the few extra minutes to clear these yourself. No one wants to be inconvenienced waiting on a chase boat from the charter company.

Make sure you check during the chart briefing about the proper way to attack this and get the OK for the DIY fix. Cleaning the strainers daily might also be a good preventative measure in sargassum infested waters.

Best of luck fighting through the blobs of sargassum seaweed blooms this season. I’ll report back soon on what we experienced in Antigua. Unfortunately, this is becoming a more regular event in the Caribbean, and we’ll just have manage it. I’m not going to let it ruin my vacation!