Best Days of Our Lives on a BVI Charter
A divorced father treasures the time with his young son on a bareboat charter.
We left and it started to rain like crazy I got soaked. The docks were loose and I was afraid that I would fall into the water. Then when I got into the dingy daddy fell down.
My lawyer and I were both surprised by the judge’s decision. Realizing that this was what Gus’ father did and what he had to offer his son, she said in a telephone hearing with the two lawyers, she would put aside her own fears for the child and allow the trip if I’d submit—and if she approved—an emergency plan detailing what Gus would do and how I would prepare him in case anything happened to me on board the boat. I submitted my plan: I’d familiarize Gus with VHF Channel 16; I’d ensure that he knew at all times where we were so that he could provide our location over the radio; the boat itself would be moving only at five or six miles per hour and would undoubtedly slow and stall if unattended; help would reach Gus quickly. I don’t think anyone read my plan.
In pouring rain—we hadn’t brought jackets—I untied the painter and stepped into the dinghy. My foot slipped on the wet rubber. Slipping thus in a rubber dinghy, getting your head hit by the main boom, mashing fingers in anchor chain—these are some of the generally beneficent learning experiences one continues to absorb while sailing. But I couldn’t help seeing myself through the eyes of the judge as I crashed headlong and heavily at Gus’ feet on the hard floor panel.
Gus anxiously asked if I was all right. I’m fine, I said, as I sat up. I tried to start the outboard. Of course the kill-thingie was hanging by its lanyard. It was black out, the few lights from the Last Resort blurred in driving rain and growing dimmer as we drifted away from the dock. Again and again I thought I’d slipped the thingie under the choke, and I pulled and pulled the cord, but the engine wouldn’t start. Gus began to cry. Loudly.
Finally my fingers figured it out, the engine started, and we bumped our way through the anchorage, Gus crouching on the floor and crying inconsolably. “It’s OK, Gus,” I chattered encouragingly. “Everything’s fine, sweetheart. We’re on our way. We’ll be back at the boat any minute.”
But Gus had seen me fall, hadn’t understood the struggle with the engine, and was cold and wet, and the few bouncing lights in the squally dark by which I navigated us back to our boat meant nothing to him. He’d glimpsed the vertiginous abyss between the plan and the reality. And I was mortified at what had happened and by the thinness of the veil that separates control of events from the sum of all judges’ and mothers’ fears.
Back aboard the boat, I rubbed Gus down with a towel and filled him with milk and Chips Ahoy cookies, and we cuddled up in the forward berth and watched several strangely comforting episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on his DVD player. Comfort and security regained, Gus was magnanimous in his account of our trials. To him it was something that we’d shared, not a near misadventure precipitated by my inattentive footwork.
Thanks to my wonderful daddy he got us home.
We spent two days in the playground of Gorda Sound.
We went snorkling at east end of prickly par Island. I was full of wonder I even saw a barrucoda he was just staring at me then he swam away. The reef looked like the movie finding nemo.
What better? Gus’s log proved insufficient a record, and in a blue composition book he began to write and illustrate a wide-ranging textbook titled Sea World.
Ashore, at the Bitter End, we played pool and foosball and ate hamburgers and frozen Snickers bars and had a bang up Thanksgiving dinner. The Bitter End also provided daily camp activities for kids, and Gus spent an afternoon of competition sandcastle building with creatures of his own kind. I, too, was supposed to have some time to myself. I had a book to read. But mostly I sat in a chair and watched Gus as he played.
An 8-year-old boy is an amazing creature. Part puppy, part Barbary ape. Morphing like time-lapse photography before one’s eyes. I was a late father, and I remain amazed by my son and that I’ve been granted one. I believe I’m as afraid for him as his mother. I spent this week I’d long dreamed of tense with apprehension for Gus’ safety—now that I’d been granted absolute charge of it—and chastened by a sense of near miss at Trellis Bay. But I was also sure I was doing the right thing. There is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply getting a kid onto a boat. And I saw how much he loved it.
On our last day, Gus trailblazed our scrambling, wading, paddling route through the pools and boulders of The Baths like Meriwether Lewis. Or like a seal pup. On many days he’d said to me, “This is the best day of my life.” That day, he looked at me seriously and said, “Daddy. This is the best day of my life.”
It might have been mine, too.
CW contributor Peter Nichols is the author of the memoir Sea Change, the nonfiction chronicle A Voyage for Madmen, the novel Voyage to the North Star, and other books. He lives in Northern California.