During my first bareboat trip to the BVIs many years ago, I didn’t pay much attention to the weather forecast. Big oops!
Everything was fine and we enjoyed the steady 10-15 knot easterly trades and an occasional isolated thunderstorm – typical British Virgin Islands weather. But – what if we were caught in Cane Garden Bay when a northerly ground swell picked up at 2:00am?
It could have been dangerous and at a minimum quite uncomfortable for the crew.
As I’ve become more experienced (and wiser with age) I watch the BVI weather like a hawk before and during our sailing trips. I’ve even figured out how to use an Iridium GO! and download Predict Wind forecast data over satellite.
The good news for the BVIs is that with decent cell phone coverage throughout the sailing grounds, you can get everything you need from the palm of your hand.
In this post, I’ve collected all the info you need to plan for and monitor the BVI weather for your next boat trip. And, given the proximity of the BVI neighbors – USVI and Spanish Virgin Islands – this weather info will be just as good for those sailing destinations as well.
Here’s what I’ll cover:
British Virgin Islands weather information links
NOAA marine forecast
This is the official NOAA marine forecast for the Virgin Islands.
Once the map loads, click on the area you will be sailing in. Precipitation is likely to be similar between the different forecast regions, but sea height will have notable differences: sailing within the protection of the islands (AMZ725) you can expect a lesser sea state (vs AMZ715).
I like to follow it for a couple weeks before my trip, and then I check it daily. It covers 5-6 days and provides you information on 5 areas.
Synopsis – general overview of the weather features affecting the area
Wind speed (here’s a link to the Beaufort Scale if you need to freshen up on your terminology)
Sea state – wave height and period
Chance of precipitation
Northerly ground swells (see below)
Difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms
You’ll often see the terms isolated or scattered thunderstorms in the marine forecast (instead of the % chance of precipitation common with many weather forecasts. Here’s the difference
Isolated thunderstorms (or showers): expected to cover 1/8th of the forecast area
Scattered thunderstorms: expected to cover 1/8 to 1/2 of the coverage area
I like the windy app to visualize the forecast. It also works on your desktop and is free!
In addition to wind speed/direction, you can see wave, swell, cloud cover, and more.
For a more chart-based view, some cruisers like Windguru.
Radio and VHF
If you don’t have internet access while underway, you can pick up the marine forecast at the following channels:
- Radio: ZBV 780 AM
- Daily marine forecast:
- M-F: 8:05am
- Sat: 7:30am
- Sun: 9:45am
- Weather updates are also broadcast throughout the day. You can check the schedule here.
- Daily marine forecast:
- VHF: The NOAA forecast is broadcast nonstop on WX3 and WX4.
If you are sailing where you’ll have regular access to cell service, consider installing the RadarScope app on your phone. In BVI, you’ll get coverage from the TJUA radar in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There is generally cell phone service throughout BVI.
You’ll get hi-resolution doppler radar so you can keep track of thunderstorms. I like how you can see your location and heading on the map. Gives you a better picture of where the storms are in relation to your sailing yacht.
10-day forecast: Wunderground
For a standard 10-day forecast, my go to is Wunderground. This link is for Road Town, Tortola.
BVI weather features to watch out for
Northerly ground swells
This one can catch novices by surprise. Ground swells can affect northerly exposed anchorages, making them uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.
From Nov-Apr, strong storms in the far away North Atlantic produce these swells that then travel all the way down to the British Virgin Islands.
The result can be extremely rolly anchorages and even breaking waves on the shore. Boats have been known to be thrown ashore from ground swells, so take caution.
The good news is they are extremely well forecasted, so check that forecast often. You can also see the Cane Garden Bay surf report. For a live shot, check out Quito’s webcam.
Notable BVI destinations affected by ground swells:
Cane Garden Bay: if any ground swell is forecasted, we avoid CGB. Try Diamond Cay or other Jost Van Dyke anchorages instead
The Baths: while not an overnight destination, the mooring field will be quite rolly and swimming ashore from the dingy tie-off can be very dangerous. If you don’t have schedule flexibility and need to fit it in, you have two options
Take a taxi from anywhere in North Sound
Grab a slip at Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour and get a taxi
Cooper Island: swells can wrap around into the mooring field, again, making this one unpleasant
Backwinding while anchored
Backwinding is possible at some popular BVI anchorages. Make sure you understand what it means and how to plan for it. You can see at example above at Muskmelon Bay at Guana Island.
Strong winds (~15+ knots) blow, in this case from the easterly trade winds in the BVIs
When the wind reaches this speed and blows over tall terrain (like many of the BVI islands), it doesn’t just blow straight over. A vortex is created and creates wind at the surface in the opposite direction of the trades.
So despite easterly trade winds, at the surface you may experience a westerly wind which would push your catamaran towards the shore (see the picture above when we were anchored at Muskmelon Bay – the bow is oriented towards the west as a result of being backwinded)
Given how close you have to be to shore, it can be a concern at some BVI anchorages due proximity to the shoreline – this can happen at White Bay, for example, when the wind is from the NE
Being backwinded can be acceptable if you plan for it and have enough swinging room to manage the phenomenon
What is the weather like in the British Virgin Islands
But seriously you’ll enjoy some of the best conditions for sailing anywhere.
Generally, for weather conditions, you can expect steady 10-15 knot trade winds from the ENE-ESE, puffy tradewind cumulus clouds, and an occasional shower or squall.
I like to break the BVI sailing calendar into 4 seasons:
- High season: December to March
- Shoulder season 1: April to June
- Peak hurricane season: July to October
- Shoulder season 2: November
Read about what to expect in each in my post about the best time to visit the British Virgin Islands.
Want to learn more about sailing in the British Virgin Islands? Check out my BVI Beginner’s Guide for other useful insights.
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