Did you say "Sailing" and "Vacation"?
Chester the driver veered right and straight up a hill steeper than anything we have back home in Vermont. "I'm taking another road to beat rush-hour traffic," he said. The minivan labored, winding up and around the hairpin curves above Road Town, on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Then it coasted down to the smell
of burning brake pads.
Chester pointed out mountain roads he was avoiding that would've been killer black-diamond ski slopes back home up north, where my sons, Nicholas and Sam, were headed. I'd just put them on an airplane after we'd all spent a week on the nearby island of Virgin Gorda. Now, Chester and I were headed west to meet a boat at Nanny Cay Marina for my first sailing vacation ever.
Ask 10 people to describe their ideal vacations, and you'll get 10 different answers. Sailors usually think that meandering about an island group is the only vacation worth having. If you're reading this, you probably fall into that camp, preternaturally fixated as you are on anchoring off palm-fringed white-sand beaches, ambling barefoot up to thatch-roof bars, snorkeling off the stern, hauling sails, and carving a wake from one calendar picture to the next.
Personally, I've only associated the words "sailing" and "vacation" when I've offered other sailors the opportunity to put the two together, which is what I do part-time to help pay the bills. Yes, I'm the one who organizes charters and flotillas so "they" can relax. The last time when combining "vacation," "adventure," and "sailing" wasn't part of my job description occurred when I was first introduced to all three as a 16-year-old on my father's boat.
And in the more than 25 years since, I've never even been assigned to captain's quarters; instead, I've always been relegated to saloon settees in every conceivable configuration, all in the name of fitting in more guests or to give my boys their own space. Till now, "sailing vacation" for me has been a pure oxymoron. Poor me.
Then I was invited last year to join the Cruising World Sail-a-Cat Adventure Charter scheduled for December in the British Virgin Islands. I was told I could have my own cabin, and all I'd have to do was show up and maybe do a little talk on one of the evenings. Sure, I replied. Talk is easy, and going anywhere on a boat as a guest was a fantasy come true. Lucky me!
So, in the weeks before Christmas 2008, when Chester delivered me in one piece to the docks of The Catamaran Company at Nanny Cay Marina, my Sail-a-Cat fantasy hit the ground running.
Dear N and S: Remember how finding a shower with a door and water pressure was so important on our voyage in 2008 into the Pacific Ocean? Well, you should see Nanny Cay. There's an air-conditioned hallway lined with something like 10 separate bathrooms. Pick one, close the door, and make yourself at home with the swanky marble-and-porcelain sink, toilet, and shower! I'd make this my first landfall after a transatlantic crossing just for the showers. However, if the crossing took place on the catamaran to which I've been assigned, these bathrooms wouldn't be as cool. Comet is a 50-foot Lagoon, which doesn't sound too monstrous until you factor in its beam. Imagine a boat that's 28-feet wide! I have my own cabin-one of five full cabins with individual heads-that's almost bigger than my bedroom at home. This thing is a behemoth, with three separate outdoor hangout areas-one on the upper deck, where the steering station is located; one in the shade of an enormous covered cockpit off a huge central saloon and galley area; and one in a sunken lounge on the foredeck. We could have some serious parties in this space. More later.
Across the dock stood the second catamaran in our group, Shrek, a Lagoon 420, a cozier size to which I was a bit more accustomed from previous charters and more the type of boat that my kids coveted. Its one distinguishing feature, however, was a hybrid engine that looked like the body of a biggish fan. Examining the alien instruments at the steering station, I wondered how it would work out.
I also met Peter and Carol King, the vacation brokers who collaborate with CW to present the flotillas. I watched as they stowed gear and greeted the charter guests, who arrived all northern pale, hot, and ready for the trip to begin.
The cheerful Kings offered cold drinks, directions to the lovely showers, and a meeting time for dinner at a restaurant ashore. These are usually my tasks when I organize and book sailors on flotillas that I run-but not this time. For once, everyone who showed up was a complete surprise to me, a whole new person to meet, and I joined the rituals of checking each other out while settling in and unpacking.
People back home are often curious how these trips work, with random guests from all over deciding to take a vacation in a relatively small space with strangers; after all, the square footage of even a gargantuan catamaran is only the same as a small two-bedroom apartment. They expect to hear nightmarish tales of overbearing, demanding ship-mates and the wing nut who ruins the trip for everyone.
But these horror stories are extremely rare, I tell them, if not entirely mythical. It's a pretty self-selecting process, and it draws people with a flexible, accommodating attitude, the successful sailor's must-have trait. It helps to have a good sense of humor, and it seemed, from first impressions, that this convivial group fit the bill.
Shrek carried seven people, Comet held eight, and the release of energies from 15 bodies and brains beginning to decompress propelled the first getting-to-know-each-other dinner conversation.
We were a ragtag collection of couples and singles of all ages, some already the owners of boats, some wanting more experience before getting their own boats, and some most content with chartering boats. One couple were liveaboard powerboaters who were willing to cross over for the week. Listening and chatting, nobody worried too much about remembering names. We'd have plenty of time for that later.
Dear N and S: I wish I could say I miss you, but I don't. Oh, the luxury of my own cabin, of not having to even think about provisioning or meals or the size of fuel and water tanks or how many hours we have to run the engine for the fridge. Get this: Two ladies stowed fruits and veggies into under-the-counter compartments that they thought were fridges, and everything turned to ice. Imagine that, two freezers that freeze-overnight. We've checked in, met Captain Piers Helm-yes, I'm finally on a boat with a captain who isn't me! You'd like him. He's young, as gregarious as they get, and loves the word "ridiculous." We're spending our first night off Cooper Island, after a late-afternoon snorkel stop at the wreck of Rhone. The turtles you saw on your dive last week are still here.
At the wreck, folks donned masks and snorkels, tootled off with foam noodles for buoyancy, and came back with the turtle stories. I headed for the upper deck and listened with those who elected to remain aboard while Piers, our captain-I love saying "our captain!"-held court.