There are moments in life that you know you will never forget... walking the alleys of Venice, nearly driving off a slippery cliff in Cape Breton, surfing your first wave across the face. Certain things just stay with you. On a recent trip to the BVI's just such an experience was had. It can be summed up in 3 words.
Surfing Tortola, BVI.
Jamaican born, Icah Wilmot is a pro surfer. From Barbados, to North Carolina, to Florida, to South America and Europe, to even the far-reaching Tahitian islands, Icah has competed far and wide. Sponsored by some of the top names in the industry (including Billabong and Red Bull in the past), it goes without saying that he's a top surfer who has a handle on big waves, steep take offs and even air maneuvers.
When Alex Read, who owns Surf School BVI with his business partner Steve, told me that I'd have the opportunity to take lessons with Icah, who had just returned to the BVI's from a contest in Barbados, I was honored.
With Pro Surfer, Icah Wilmot
Very cool, Icah is not the kind of athlete with a big ego. With a fun and laidback approach to teaching, it was going to be a good couple of days surfing Tortola, BVI.
The spot? Josiah's Bay.
Tucked into the north eastern part of Tortola, free of any major structures (just two little beach bars owned by friendly locals), the beach is a natural beauty. With a sandy bottom, it's perfect for beginners. On bigger days (reaching 15'), it's a fun and easy break for intermediates and advanced surfers, too.
Our first day in Tortola, BVI and the conditions were edging on the intermediate/advanced side. I have to take a sidebar here and apologize to Icah if I was unfriendly when we first met. My jaw just about dropped when we hit the beach and saw this sneaking out the back...
"It's about head high out there," Icah said. "I wasn't sure of your skill level, but Alex said you've been taking lessons in St. Martin every week. So, I think you can probably handle it." I laughed to myself. The waves in St. Martin can get big, but I had never been in surf like this.
There was no turning back though. Up at 7am, we had driven 40 minutes along mountainous road, with our Jeep Wrangler often in the lower of its 4 wheel-drive gears, to get here. Today was the day to push some comfort zones!
The expression on my face was overtly perturbed. "I can see that you're scared, but it'll be OK." With the rain coming down and grey skies overhead, everything felt kind of ominous already, but Icah seemed casually confident. He wasn't pushing me hard, but he wasn't throwing in the towel either and just kept walking towards the water, pointing out where we would be entering to catch the waves.
The paddle was long and hard, getting pushed off the board by bigger sets coming in. "Are you OK?" He kept checking. "Paddle, paddle, we're almost there."
Once we were out, I took a few minutes to wrap my head around what was about to happen. The truth was, while they were an impressive size, the waves weren't hollow. They built more gradually, which made the take off and drop more manageable (the speed of the waves DID have me wobbling on most of the ones I caught, though). Pretty long waves that break mostly right (with a few lefts), and all sandy bottom, what's the worst that could happen, right?
Icah helped me catch a few smaller ones (see video above) before pushing me into one of the bigger ones that day...
My first head high wave and I'll always remember it. The drop was impressive, I didn't think I would make it to the bottom. And, when I did? An entire wall of water forming to my right. I tried to turn fast, but wound up falling off my board, intimidated by that wall bearing down on me. Nevertheless, Icah congratulated me, "I was stoked when I saw you land the wave!"
Time to paddle back...
After a few more, I was worked. The combination of paddling over larger sets, getting rolled by even bigger ones and pure adrenaline and fear pumping through my veins, it was time to call it a day.
We would be back tomorrow.
And tomorrow couldn't have been more different.
Sunny and with pure azure seas, was this the same beach as yesterday?
Totally relaxed, the day had plenty of this...
When the swells did come, they were perfectly small and glassy.
"Paddle HARD!" Icah laughed.
Clear and calm, with longer rides, it's the ideal beginner spot in Tortola, BVI.
Now, I can see why Icah holds his classes here. The waves aren't too intimidating, the rides are solid and the bottom of the bay is very safe. You won't get into any danger, except maybe with the rips and currents if you are swimming.
From a day of big wave challenges to hanging out with Icah on the smaller waves, surfing Tortola, BVI was a blast.
Later on in the week, the swell picked up, with conditions being too big and powerful for me. Instead of hopping on a surfboard, we jumped in the car and played spectator, watching the waves roll in at some more "expert" spots around Tortola, BVI. Two of the most famous breaks are Apple Bay and Cane Garden Bay.
Also on the island's north shore, always with at least one or two guys in the water, Apple Bay looks like the most consistent spot for intermediates/experts on the island. It broke every day we were there.
The take off is a touch more critical, and depending on where you start and finish, there are sharp rocks and a little bit of reef. It's best to go with someone who knows the area.
There were GOOD surfers in the water every day. Two swift paddles and this surfer was up time after time!...
And then there's this...
Only breaking one day during our visit to Tortola, BVI, no one was out in the water yet when I snapped the photo above. Barreling and clean, people come from around the Caribbean and the east coast U.S. for this wave. It is world-class. The peak is steeper and more of an "expert" level wave, but there are sections, when the swell is stronger causing the wave to break across the whole bay, that are do-able for intermediates.
THERE is my incentive to return to Tortola and the BVI's to take Alex up on his offer to explore these waves when I get a little better! ;-)
A big thank you to Surf School BVI & the ever-cool Icah Wilmot for having just the right approach to getting me on my first head high wave. Encouraging you to find inner will and strength to commit and go, "do it if it feels right," he would say. And, it did. The rush was undeniable, the feeling utterly unforgettable.