Best Days of Our Lives on a BVI Charter
A divorced father treasures the time with his young son on a bareboat charter.
Although I have joint custody of my son, I finally had to go to family court in the state in which we live—Arizona, not a noted seafaring state—to ask for permission to take Gus on this trip. The judge, a mother herself, professed alarm at the idea. To my dismay, my experience as a sailor counted for very little. The concern shared by Gus’ mother and the judge boiled down to the inescapable fact that I was proposing that Gus and I would be alone together on a boat for a week. What would happen to him if something happened to me? So Gus’ mother’s attorney and the judge quite reasonably argued. Nothing’s going to happen to me, I spluttered in court, horribly aware for the first time that the judge’s maritime reference was probably not much different than Gus’. “There’s the radio, Channel 16, which I’ll show him—.”
But the judge interrupted me. “They’re on TV all the time, these people in trouble on boats,” she said. “Boats are dangerous.”
She knew this for a certainty. What, I asked the judge, if I wanted to take Gus camping for a week?
“Just the two of you, alone?” she said, looking at me as if I were mad. “Then I would ask the same question: What’s going to happen to Gus if something happens to you in the middle of a forest or desert?”
He’d have a cellphone of dubious use, a compass, some Clif bars—he’d be in big trouble. “But the Virgin Islands—.”
She cut me off. “I’m going to have to take all of this under advisement.”
Gus was disappointed to see our thrilling weather visibly drifting away to leeward. “Will we have another squall?”
“Will we?” he insisted.
“Do you promise?”
“I can’t promise.” I’d do my best to avoid them, but “we’re almost certain to have another. It’s what happens here.”
In gentle and sunny conditions, we circumnavigated the inscrutable Dead Chest, singing, “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
We sailed on to Peter Island’s Great Harbour, anchored, and dinghied ashore to look for signs of buried treasure. We found them everywhere and did some digging. As the sun set, I remembered the speed of the tropical twilight, and we returned to the dinghy and sped back to the boat to make pasta, Gus’ favorite food.
We had a cellphone with us and Gus’ mother called. He told her excitedly about the real sailing and Dead Man’s Chest and she heard how happy he was. I had dreamed of this, exactly this, for eight years: Gus and I sailing in the Virgins. Where I’d lived on an old, engineless wooden sailboat for several years in the late 1970s; where I first learned to sail. Except for a few yacht deliveries in the 1980s, I hadn’t been back since. I knew much would be changed, but it was always here that I’d pictured myself introducing my son to boats, to sailing, to a glimpse of a way of life, in what must still be the gentlest and most forgiving of all cruising grounds. Where nothing would go wrong, I believed; where I could take the best possible care of him and set a precedent for future happy times on boats. Such a thing would seem to be a parent’s inalienable right.
The next morning, Gus was eager to put to sea. We raised the main, which was perfectly managed at all times by that ancient and peerless invention, lazy jacks. Gus raised our anchor with the electric windlass controls—simpler to operate than a Wii remote—and we floated out of Great Harbour. We were headed to Trellis Bay, off Beef Island. Out in Sir Francis Drake Channel, we met the waves and wind on the nose, trimmed sail, heeled, and beat northeast in mildly plunging tacks. Gus was thrilled when he heard the coffee percolator, which I’d forgotten to put in the sink, crash to the sole below. “This is real sailing!” he yelled.
Then he did some real sailing. “See those little bits of red string at the front of the sail? We want to get them flowing horizontally. Watch.” He helped me crank winches, trim sails. He steered, getting the hang of the compass and fixing the bow on some distant mark.
From a sailor’s point of view, astonishingly little has changed in the Virgin Islands over the last 35 years. The unexcelled sailing, the weather, the beauty are all as they were. There are a lot more boats, of course. But most noticeable to me was that everywhere that I’d once dropped an anchor for free, there are now mooring fields. You pick up a mooring at $25 to $30 a night, or you drop way out in 60 feet.
We did both during our week, and it was fine. It’s great when you have a ton of chain and an electric windlass, which Footloose had supplied. But the Virgins Islands are no longer a place for young, boat-crazy youths in old wooden boats to hang on their hooks for years on end, reading, writing, dreaming, living on a hundred bucks a month and still having enough for cold beer ashore. And time enough. I wonder if Gus will ever know periods in his life as simple as I knew then, when my deepest fears ran no farther than ground tackle.
“Daddy, where’s the horn?”
“Winston said to use the horn if you really want to get noticed.”
I’d noticed Gus noticing the girls of all ages jumping in and out of the water from a trimaran moored beside and a little ahead of us in Trellis Bay. But so far, they hadn’t noticed Gus, despite his half an hour of insouciant lounging on the bow.
“I think Winston meant if we were in trouble, Gus. Like if we hit a rock or something.”
“Well, how do you get noticed?” he said, betraying serious frustration.
“You mean the girls over there next door?”
I suggested an old sailor’s trick. We would put on masks and flippers and casually swim over there, as if in thrall to the Silent World below, and accidentally bump into them. Gus admired the plan. But just as we got our gear and sat on the dive platform on the stern, the girls of all ages and several men got into their dinghy and motored off to Beef Island.
“Daddy!? What’ll we do?”
“Sometimes they get away, Gus. Maybe we’ll get to see them later.”
We were both keeping logbooks. Gus’s entry that afternoon reads: I saw some girls that I liked I tryed to get there atainchon but it was no use.
Later, in the quick onset of civil twilight, we also motored ashore. A small boat’s tidy interior on a still evening, the nonpareil setting for the examined life, isn’t a natural environment for a small boy. Gus needed action, girls, or brightly-colored moving objects. But ashore, Trellis Bay village, whose jaunty ad in the cruising guide promised art studios, shops, cafés, and “fireball” beach parties, was a disappointment. I was reminded of Noël Coward’s remark on his only visit to New Zealand: “It was closed.”
Back in the dinghy, we motored out to Bellamy Cay. When we arrived at the rickety dock, the outboard, which usually stalled in idle, this time didn’t stall, so I removed the emergency-kill-thingie-on-a-lanyard that slots under the choke pull. I should’ve put it back.
As worn and charming as an old wooden boat and a relic of an older Virgin Islands, the Last Resort was open for dinner. While our table was prepared, I sat at the bar with a cold one, and Gus made friends with a perfectly white cat.
I was peting a white kitty then the girls came in. I was so eager to meet them it was like a knife to my heart. [There was a particular girl, about his age.] After there diner she went to pet the kitty. [I suggested that Gus introduce himself.] When I came up and interduced myself my name is gus she just said C O O L witch I was not expecting. I was very bumed out.
I told him I knew how he felt, but that didn’t help him. Then the girls left.
Then it got a lot worse.