Uncle Walker and Auntie Nancy: The couple who put Anegada on the map

One thing is for sure: Anegada is a place quite different from the rest of the BVI and you either “get it” or you don’t. There does not seem to be any half-way on this. — Walker Mangum

Indeed, if you’ve been to Anegada, you know how different — and to some people, special — this low-lying, coral island is, with its wild landscape and gorgeous blue-green water. And if you’ve sailed here, you know how difficult it is to navigate to and around Anegada, with the 18-mile-long Horseshoe Reef and numerous shipwrecks that dot the waters around the island. 

Aerial view of Anegada, taken from Walker and Nancy’s airplane.

In fact, navigating to Anegada is so difficult that in the 1980s, BVI charter companies forbid their customers from sailing to Anegada unless they had a local captain who was “certified” to sail here. But that changed in the 1990’s, thanks in no small part to a sailor, pilot, and rocket scientist named Walker Mangum and his wife, Nancy.

The Forbidden Island

In the late 1980s Walker was racing sailboats in the U.S., when he and a friend decided to go sailing for fun (not racing). They wanted to go to a place where they could just “chill and have a good time on the boat,” and the British Virgin Islands seemed to fit the bill. The BVI had already earned a reputation as a sailor’s paradise, but with the charter industry here in its infancy, it was still a hidden gem, lacking the crowds of tourists that other Caribbean islands had already succumbed to.

So Walker, his (now deceased) wife Gail, and two friends chartered a bareboat for a week with a company based out of Nanny Cay marina. The company had an ad in Sail magazine that said, “Sail to the Forbidden Island.” They were the only company at the time allowing bareboat captains to sail on their own to Anegada. Of course, this “Forbidden Island” intrigued Walker, so around day four of their charter, they made their way up from Virgin Gorda to Setting Point – the anchorage at Anegada. But their navigation was off, and they ended up on the west side of the island. Finally, they made it to the anchorage and came ashore.

Walker says that he knew from the moment he stepped on shore at Anegada that this was the place for him. He candidly describes himself as obsessive-compulsive, and as he puts it, “Anegada became one of my obsessions.”

Walker and Nancy with Lowell Wheatley, who opened the Anegada Reef Hotel. Lowell — who was famous for his grilled lobster and “Anegada smoodies” — was one of their first friends on the island.

One of the charms of Anegada for many people is that there’s still a good portion of the island’s roads that are unpaved. But back in the late 1980s, there were no paved roads at all — just sand. And back then, the only real hotels on the island were Anegada Reef and Neptune’s Treasure. The now-famous Big Bamboo restaurant and bar was just a tiny shack, with an ice chest on the sand and a charcoal grill. In fact, on that first visit to Anegada, Walker and his friends went diving at Loblolly Bay. And when they came in from diving, there was a young guy cooking chicken on the little grill that was Big Bamboo. That young guy was Glen Levons, son of the owner, Aubrey — and he was 14 years old at the time. 

In 1988, Walker’s wife, Gail, passed away from breast cancer, so he didn’t make it to Anegada that year. But in 1989, he brought his new wife, Nancy, to the island, and they started visiting every year. For the first 12 years or so, they chartered a yacht and stayed on the boat. That is, until his friend Randy, who managed Neptune’s Treasure, said one day, “Walkah, you know you got the most expensive room on the island!” As Walker says, Randy had a “curious way of telling you things.” But Walker got it, so he and Nancy ditched the charter and began staying ashore on Anegada. And the more time they spent there, the more living on Anegada became Walker’s dream. 

Uncharted Waters

Around 1990 — just when portable GPS units were coming out — the Moorings charter company had a promotional offer — if you paid for your charter by March, they would give you a GPS unit. None of the charter boats had GPS units at that time, so Walker jumped on the offer and got a GPS unit with his Moorings charter. When they sailed up to Anegada, he decided to record the positions of the channel markers. Walker took the GPS positions and called them out to Nancy, who meticulously recorded them in a notebook.

This was also the time when the worldwide web was just coming into existence. So Walker took his Anegada experience and data and created a web page showing how to navigate to Anegada, both with and without GPS. In fact, Walker’s “Navigating to Anegada” webpage still exists, and people still use it! 

The approach to Anegada, from Walker’s “Navigating to Anegada” website.

About six months after the webpage was created, Walker got a call from a guy in England who asked Walker if he was confident in the positions he’d recorded for the channel markers at Anegada. By this time, Walker had returned to Anegada with another GPS unit (this one from his Piper Saratoga airplane) and checked the positions of the channel markers against his initial recordings — and they matched up perfectly. So Walker told him confidently, “Yes. These are the correct positions.” 

The guy explained that he’d been to Anegada in the 1960s on an RMS Steamer, and they had taken some soundings around Anegada, but only a few. He told Walker, “You know, at this time, all the charts that are published on the waters around Anegada are based on soundings taken before the U.S. Civil War. The last sounding data from Anegada is from the 1850s!” Walker was floored.

One of his passions when he first started visiting Anegada was windsurfing (in 1992, Walker won the North American sailboard racing championship), and he’d windsurfed here every year, so he knew the waters all around the west end of the island. And one of the things he’d observed during his windsurfing trips here was that the seafloor changes. Sand moves. He knew those 1850s soundings were worthless. So he decided to do his own mapping.

He created a grid of points around Anegada, and he and Nancy went out on a boat with a portable depth sounder, his portable GPS, and a handheld radio. They navigated around the island, and at each point on the grid — with Walker in the water and Nancy in the boat — Walker would call out the point number and the depth. They spent about four days mapping the waters around Anegada, from Government Dock to the west end — as he puts it, “All the places where people have any business going.” Then they took all this data and compiled a chart of Anegada, which Walker put on his website. 

He also sent the sounding data to his friend in England, and that data — compiled by Walker and Nancy — is now on the British Admiralty chart. And on the back of the chart, Walker Mangum is credited.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a busy night in the harbor at Anegada was a half-dozen boats — all cruising boats and liveaboards, no charters. But after Walker’s “Navigating to Anegada” webpage was published in 1990, charter boats began coming in. When they were there, Walker — being both observant and inquisitive — would talk to the newcomers, and almost without fail, they would tell him, “Yeah, the charter company gave us this,” and show him a printed copy of his webpage on navigating to Anegada. Walker and Nancy had literally put Anegada on the map!

Anegadians took notice of the increased activity, and more and more businesses started opening up to accommodate the newfound popularity. Walker and Nancy became good friends with the people of Anegada and are considered family by many of them. In fact, most people on Anegada refer to them as “Uncle Walker” and “Auntie Nancy” — nicknames that started with the Creques.  

What the hell is a cow wreck?

In 1995, Jimmy Hodge — a friend of theirs who was a well-known charter captain from Sea Cows Bay, Tortola — came to visit Walker and Nancy at their home in Houston. During his visit, Jimmy told Walker, “Walkah, you got to go to Cow Wreck.” Walker said, “Cow Wreck — what the hell is that?” “It’s on the north side, and it’s new, and you’ll really like it!” So when Walker and Nancy went down to Anegada in the summer of 1996, they visited Cow Wreck for the first time. And that started their friendship with the Creque family.

Ten years later, in 2006, they were visiting Anegada in the spring, and Bell, the matriarch of the Creque family, told Walker, “Walkah, you got to come back in July.” Walker asked, “Why July?” “Because I’m having a family reunion, and you’re my family.” Walker and Nancy happily obliged, and it was at that reunion that the names “Uncle Walker” and “Auntie Nancy” really took hold. 

Anegada’s Hidden Treasure

Walker told me that when he was growing up, his grandparents’ house had a galvanized roof, and he always wanted to live in a house like theirs, with a galvanized roof. Well, in 2007, Walker’s dream came true. He and Nancy built a cute little yellow cottage with a galvanized roof on Cow Wreck Beach in Anegada, surrounded by some of their dearest friends. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and a fitting home for the couple — Uncle Walker and Auntie Nancy — who put Anegada on the map. 

Hidden Treasure in 2007, shortly after Walker and Nancy moved in.

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