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Jet Skis in Paradise – Novelty or Nuisance?

Photos by Dan O’Connor and David Blacklock 

I heard the steady hum of Travis Walters’ 110-horsepower jet ski before I saw him approach the dock at Leverick Bay. I tapped my dad on the shoulder and pointed as the jet ski’s rooster tail dropped and the engine purred to and idled into the beach. I was admittedly excited.

My father and I have jet skied at various places we’ve vacationed about a dozen times before. We’ve ripped around the waters of Lake Michigan that line Traverse City, the crystal seas of Key West and most recently on a tour around the non-protected waters of the US Virgin Islands. But never in Virgin Gorda’s pristine North Sound.

Travis greeted us with a smile and a handshake as we waded in shallow waters off the beachfront and awaited his friend to bring another identical jet ski. He explained that we had two options:

We could either each take a jet ski and rip around the waters within Travis’ line of vision, or we could follow Travis—one at a time—on a tour through the North Sound and to the back side of Virgin Gorda, all the way to Oil Nut Bay and Biras Creek. We gladly chose the latter.

I was anxious to see how the mostly wind-based boaters of the North Sound would react by the sight of the jet skis.

Travis was quick to establish guidelines and school us on the strict safety measures needed to navigate the often busy North Sound waterways: He would lead the way, and I needed to stay 200 feet behind him at all times; when we got into any mooring field, we would slow the jet skis to a 10-mph crawl; life jackets were a must.

Travis later explained to me that he completed CPR training and lifeguard training before starting his business, which he received a license for with his partner, Joshua Wheatley, in 2011.

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The two obtained a license for Blue Rush Watersports and Jet Skis, and have been allowed to bring otherwise outlawed personal watercrafts (jet skis) to the territory under Joshua’s uncle’s previously acquired license.

The family had essentially been grandfathered into the approval since Joshua’s uncle began Vixen Point Watersports—also known as the former Sandbox—before personal watercrafts were outlawed in 1989, according to Deputy BVI Customs Commissioner Dean Fahie.

At the time of the banning, government officials deemed the watercrafts “dangerous, due to a number of accidents,” Fahie said. However, only the Wheatleys and Al Henley, who runs Cane Garden Bay Watersports, are allowed up to ten jet skis for rental purposes in the BVI.

All others attempting to use jet skis in BVI waters—including those carried in on megayachts and cruise ships—are subject to a $5,000 fine.

But on a perfect day in April, my father and I would do what some seafarers view as taboo in BVI waters and jet ski through the North Sound. After idling through North Sound, we passed Saba Rock and crept safely over the shallow reef off Eustatia.

We opened up the throttle and bounded over the choppy swells on the backside of VG at a top speed of 50mph. Within a minute or two, we were at the prestigious and secluded Oil Nut Bay. We trolled around and chatted a bit about the construction happening at Oil Nut Bay. “That’s David Johnson,” Travis said, pointing to the developer of Oil Nut Bay, who was walking to the gazebo at the end of the beachfront.

Johnson, he said, had no problem with his business venture. I later found out that some in the prestigious North Sound neighbourhood felt differently. John Glynn, general manager of the Bitter End Yacht Club, voiced concerns about the high-speed business venture.

“I know from years of personal experience at boat shows and travel trade shows that people, in general, like the fact that the BVI has a moratorium on jet skis—to the point of not allowing yachts or cruise ships to operate them, as well,” he said in a recent interview. “Transient cruisers and charter sailors tend to strongly dislike jet skis, and that why the BVI is so popular among this very important tourism sector.”

BEYC has made a name for itself in the BVI as one of the premier sailing resorts in the Caribbean and have a strong preference for “windand human-powered vehicles and watersport activities. “[Jet skis] are not in keeping with the ‘feel’ of the BVI,” he concluded.

“Long term, we feel that jet skis will have a negative tourism impact on the area.” At least one other North Sound proprietor—who requested to remain anonymous—agreed with the BEYC general manager’s concerns. However, others who enjoy the high-octane thrill associated with the tiny watercrafts are already voicing their pleasure with Blue Rush’s business venture.

The company has garnered three five-star ratings on TripAdvisor, including glowing words from commenter “AnkinBas,” who wrote, “Super fast, super exciting, super intense, super fun. Definitely something that should be on your bucket list, but once you do [it], you just want to do it again and again.”

My tour took us around Eustatia, past Necker Island to the backside of Prickly Pear and back to Moskito Island and finally Leverick Bay. The 30-minute excursion allowed me to see what sailors who traverse hundreds or thousands of miles to the BVI at speeds of a dozen or so knots could only hope to see in a full day. But, in the same breath, that’s what they probably set out for: quiet, relaxation and a wind-powered celebration of the sea.

Travis said with the help of a loan he hopes to secure from Sir Richard Branson—who is no stranger to helping local small businesses having trouble with the banks—he hopes to bring two more high-powered jet skis to the territory.

With those, he said, he would like to also bring flyboards—or waterpowered jetpacks—to North Sound. He and his partner’s ambitious plans might also include a floating base in the sound, he said.

Young businessmen like Travis and Joshua, and longtime ones like Al Henley in Cane Garden Bay, are able to operate their controversial rental companies well within legal standings. That doesn’t, however, mean that those they share the waters with are obligated to smile and wave them through as they pass by.

While the territory develops and grows, the mantra among public leaders has always been to preserve nature’s little secrets.

Overall, those asked in the North Sound said that as long as Blue Rush and CGB Watersports are in operation, they respect the responsibility and bestowed upon every resident to protecting and preserve the special nature of the BVI that separates us from other islands.

Erin Paviour-Smith

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