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:
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.
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.
Here’s what you can expect during the various cruising seasons.
High season (December to March)
This is the busiest time of year. Hurricane season is over, and the annual pilgrimage of cruising boats has made it’s way from mainland U.S. and Europe to enjoy the warm Caribbean winter.
Days are shorter (~11 hours vs ~13 hours in the summer).
Most notably, you can expect the Christmas Winds: several days of strong winds (15-30 knots) created by strong high pressure systems in the Atlantic. Make sure you know how to reef those sails!
Wind is usually out of the E to NE and less precipitation falls this time of year.
Shoulder season 1 (April to June)
This is my favorite and I believe the best time to visit the British Virgin Islands for sailing trips. We’ve been to the BVIs 3x in May. The crowds have thinned out somewhat and the weather has become more settled.
Expect easy 10-15 knots from the E to SE and an occasional shower to cool things off.
Peak hurricane season (July to October)
It can be hot, the trade winds lessen (5-15 knots), and tropical mischief can be brewing.
But, you might have the place to yourself. On the flip side, however, some establishments are closed, so keep that in mind if you are planning to hop around the beach bars.
This is the wet season thanks to developing low pressure systems.
Shoulder season 2 (November)
This is my second favorite time to sail in the Caribbean.
Again, the crowds haven’t arrived yet and the weather tends to be settled – similar to April-June.
Trades blow 15-20 knots with wind direction from the E.
The biggest downside of this time of year is the lessening daylight. It can make a difference if you plan to spend long days on the water.