There's a saying that if you learn to sail on San Francisco Bay, you can sail anywhere in the world -- having passed the tests of obliterating fogs, wayward currents, haystack waves, and frigid winds thrown at you nearly year-round.
What our small group longed for was a change: sailing as a warm weather sport, shedding our scientific layering systems and foul-weather gear for the direct contact of sun on the skin. After slogging through yet another freezing San Francisco Bay drenching in July, "bareboating" sounded very appealing -- renting our own boat in tropical waters, sans skipper and crew.
After extensive research, the consensus among fair-weather mariners was to cut our teeth on the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) in the West Indies. Blessed with near perfect weather twelve months of a year, sailboats in the BVIs are heeled over by the big push of the Northeast trade winds, yet the seas are calmed by the chain of fifty islands, presenting mountain tops dense with greenery, spilling down to the water's edge.
George Abbott -- a Dennis Connors look and sail-alike -- was the skipper of our motley crew. Having a certified American Sailing Association (A.S.A.) Captain among your group is a prerequisite for chartering a bareboat in the BVIs. The rest of our eight-person crew varied in sailing experience from seasoned old salts to a couple of landlubbers who learned along the way.
Our first day, in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, we boarded and provisioned "Windswept" -- a forty-four foot ketch, and by the second morning of our three week odyssey, we were cruising amidst the islands. Land is never out of sight in this compact island chain, and with favorable winds, it takes no more than a few hours to reach a new anchorage.
Our first stop was Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands. Awestruck by the tropical beauty, we gazed out at the paradise of Cane Garden Bay. The boat rocked like a cradle, swiveling slowly on its anchor, offering a new view every two minutes.
"Isn't this beautiful?" R. said.
"Sure is," everyone murmured their agreement, looking in different directions. The Caribbean was so clear, so transparent over the white bottom that we could see every ridge and wrinkle in the sand. Shaking ourselves from the shared state of relaxed bliss, we rowed ashore in the dinghy -- heading for Rhymer's, home of the best "cheeseburger in paradise," familiar to Jimmy Buffet fans. There we met professional beach boy, Julian Rhymer.
"Have you lived here all your life?" I asked.
"Yah mon -- I'm too poor ta go ahneeway else."
Or too rich to leave, I thought, taking in the powdery sand, the coconut palms, and clouds puffed up by the trade winds. A dozen cheeseburgers and a slew of pina coladas later, we sauntered next door to Stanley's, an open air cantina. A Caribbean monument to dancing, drinking, and gentle debauchery, Stanley's was populated this full moon night with the cast from a Somerset Maugham novel: native beach boys dancing with debutantes fresh off the ninety-foot "Windjammer"; serious, thirsty cruisers, just in from the Grenadines; sunburned bareboaters trading anchorages; the president of a multinational bank swinging wildly inside a tire tied to a palm tree bent like a long bow over the silver lagoon. Everyone swayed to the steel drums syncopating in the lush night air -- air as soft and smooth as velvet.
Early the next morning, we lifted the hook and ran with a heavy beam sea; steering was like riding a horse down hill. An hour later, we anchored at Jost Van Dyke and stayed for three days, getting acquainted with beach-bar owner and entertainer Feliciano Callwood. Better known as "Foxy," he strummed his guitar and spontaneously gave the weather, sociological commentary, and a running account of his woman troubles in verse. Four miles long, Jost Van Dyke is home for 130 people. There are four private cars and two telephones on the island, and no paved roads. It's a tiny village from a forgotten fairy tale, and as we left we hoped it would stay that way forever.
One afternoon, midway into our cruise, we anchored between the tiny islands of Congo and Lovango. The boat was our hammock, as we stretched out in midday napping and reading -- the silence broken only by the creak of the rigging. Then, tiring of the overabundance of rest, we donned snorkeling gear and slipped into an underwater wonderland -- swimming over elkhorn, star, and fire coral reefs teaming with neon-bright fish: schools of yellow grunts, red-tinged squirrel fish, the regal purple queen angel, and rainbow-hued parrotfish darted in and out of the coral. Tall, graceful sea fans swung in the current. Huge, meaty lobsters covered the rocks.
Although these tropical waters often bring to mind the image of voracious sharks, barracuda, and giant moray eels, the waters of the BVIs are essentially benign. Rare is a shark attack in the Virgin Islands, with the sharks preferring deeper water outside Drake's Passage. The truth is that more injuries are sustained by cuts from coal than by encounters with underwater predators.
When asked about his fascination with diving, Jacques Cousteau once said: "It's the weightlessness. It's the only element in which you forget gravity. Since we are born we are crushed on land by our weight. . . To me, it's the concept of original sin. When the first vertebrates crawled out of the sea, that was the original sin." In the Caribbean, we found our redemption. And not just underwater. Some days, the water, air, and your skin all blended together, creating a very bearable lightness of being.
After a dinner of barbecued fish and vegetables, we enjoyed long, slow talk over drinks on deck. Visual entertainment was provided by the sunset -- a fiery Technicolor expansion that seemed to last for hours, staining both the sky and sea. When darkness set in, the Big Dipper looked close enough to reach up and swing on its handle.
Past midnight we recounted hair-raising stories of the pirates that haunted these waters, situated on the treasure route between South America and Spain. The most notorious buccaneer, Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, reputedly went into battle with slow matches alight in his beard and behind his ears to enhance his resemblance to the devil.
For the next week as we "plundered" backwater bays and isolated cays across the BVIs, we dressed and talked like swashbuckling captains of yore. As we tacked past Dean Chest Cay, where Blackbeard marooned a mutinous crew, we sang out Robert Louis Stevenson's famous shanty from Treasure Island: "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
Our ketch, "Windswept" often seemed to sail itself, especially downwind. Our longest sail -- six hours out to the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda -- brought us to a plush resort, filled with honeymooners, and home to one of the finest "universities" in the world -- the Nick Trotter Sailing School.
Wanting to stretch our sea legs, we took a ferry from the Bitter End to the center of Virgin Gorda and set out hiking to the top of the island. As we climbed the steep road, past cantinas, goats and roosters, a squall hit. Rather than running for cover, we soaked up the rain, warm as bath water. Five minutes later the hot tropical sun seam-cleaned us; we walked on as the smoke rose from our clothes. Suddenly we were engulfed by a flock of bandy-legged schoolchildren, flitting like butterflies around us. Most of them landed on R.. They grabbed her arms -- touching up and down her skin. "Vat are dees tings?" they asked in their English Creole dialect.
"Freckles," R. said. "See, I'm a redhead." She removed her hat. At the sight of her flaming hair, the children screamed and laughed, running away wide-eyed. We weren't the first white people they had seen, but she was definitely the first with a head of red.
Back aboard the boat, for the only time during the cruise, someone glanced down at his watch. We had one day before we had to leave -- an unimaginably wrenching thought -- ending this life of languid ease. By now our daily rituals were dictated not by clocks, but by the elemental rhythms of water, sun, and wind. As bareboaters, we had the freedom to sail, read, think, swim, and make love without care or interruption. In the BVIs there's is no official "happy hour," for there's no unhappiness or stress to compare it to.
We set sail for Tortola -- Cane Garden Bay -- to hold onto paradise as long as possible. Speeding downwind across the palette of yet another dazzling sunset, we arrived and dropped our hook, furled the sails, and wrapped lines like the seasoned crew we had become.
After dinner on deck, the wild tympanic sound of steel drums floated out across the velvet night. We looked at each other and smiled. Dressed up in our best shorts, we padded barefoot into Stanley's where we danced and flew in the tire to our heart's content, for one last night of redemption.
by Michael Modzelewski, E-mail: AdventureM@aol.com
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