Did you say "Sailing" and "Vacation"?
He told the history of how in 1867, Rhone, an iron-hulled British packet ship owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, took on the passengers of another ship before heading out to sea to escape a hurricane. Rhone hit a rock, the steam engines exploded, and the ship broke in half and sank. All but 23 crewmembers perished, he said, waving toward Salt Island, where many of the unfortunate souls are buried. The long-ago tragedy has turned into one of the most popular dive sites in the eastern Caribbean. It was a ridiculous disaster, Piers told us.
The next day began with a beat up to the renowned Baths, the boulder formations at the southern tip of Virgin Gorda, followed by another beat up island to North Sound, from where we'd have enough northing to head to the low-lying island of Anegada.
I accompanied Shrek's crew as a second pair of eyes for designated skipper Ken Rollins, and I wanted to see what a hybrid engine was all about. Well, it was all about silence. There was no revving to listen for and no rumbling to indicate that the motor was even running. The electricity gauge on the instrument panel provided the only sign that it was working.
Shrek's generator, which relies on diesel, charged the hybrid. As innovations go, this one is a classic case of a work in progress, as the generator needed at least as much diesel as did Comet's two engines. On the first day of the charter, I busied myself with puzzling over the operations and reading and rereading the manual, and we all began wondering why Shrek's entire hard-top bimini wasn't paved with solar panels. There's always something new to learn on the way to the mooring ball.
Oh, yes-moorings. Insert sigh of relief here. A defining feature of a perfect sailing vacation is the complete and utter absence of any worries about whether you let out enough rode to provide sufficient swing room and whether the hook is reassuringly set so the boat won't drag in the middle of a great dream. Roughly 20,000 bareboats are chartered annually in the British Virgin Islands, and if everyone anchored-charterers, local sailors, cruisers-there'd be nothing left on the ocean floor. Just about every anchorage is equipped with a mooring field, and all one has to do is locate an available ball, nab it, run two lines through an eyelet, cleat them off, and voilà! For a small fee, you're good for the night. Nice.
Dear N and S: We're now at The Baths, at Virgin Gorda. Do you remember how you loved all the little pools, alcove beaches, and caves separated by massive boulders? And here's one that will make you really jealous, Sam. There's a Scrabblehead on Shrek. She brought along tiles, a board, and even the
dictionary! We're already two games into the week, and we're tied at one game apiece. Her husband wanted to challenge the verb eke.
In addition to meeting someone else who was fine with back-to-back games of Scrabble, another highlight of this trip for me was Anegada. I'd sailed in the B.V.I. only once before-as captain, of course-with my 5-year-old son and diapered 2-year-old son, a friend and her 5-year-old son, and another friend. Both grownups were total landlubbers. Between skipper duties, fouling the prop, and making sure that all the kids stayed on board, that "vacation" ranks among my most stressful lifetime memories. And I'd planned the easiest routing possible, which led nowhere near Anegada. Most charterers are frightened off by the substantial fringing reef and the charter company-approved chart, which highlights the whole island in red and bears the words "off limits/hazardous area."
With Piers, however, we effortlessly arrived at the moorings off the Anegada Reef Hotel after a reach across healthy ocean swells. Only 13 miles away from the north end of Virgin Gorda and the typical charter route that circumnavigates Tortola, Anegada proved to be another world. With few boats, sleepy docks leading to small buildings, and flat topography, the long, narrow strip of windswept white sand and clinging greenery, all surrounded by an enormous reef system, seemed like a brochure for a faraway South Pacific atoll. The Comet & Shrek Road Show barreled into the postcard and caught a ride to Loblolly Beach, its quintessential bamboo beach bar plastered with signage made from messages seared into driftwood with magnifying glasses by many other charmed visitors.
Dear N and S: I did my talk tonight at a place called Neptune's Treasure, where everyone feasted on lobsters plucked from cages attached to the dock. You guys would have a ball with underwater hunting in Anegada, the jewel in the B.V.I. crown. Alas, I caught a cold on vacation, so my stories were honked out. It didn't matter. Since we've already spent the past couple of days nattering on about everything, it was more of a chat with full crew participation. You know we've all thoroughly bonded when plates get passed back and forth across the table with everyone sharing, offering tastes, asking for trades, just like with the family.
On these trips, the family analogy works to the good-no buried resentments and grudges allowed, all dirty laundry left home. One week is just right for the show of best behavior, with the best stories, the best and cleanest outfits, the favorite recipes, the laughing freshness of getting to know new people without enough time for stories to start repeating themselves. After Anegada, instead of going ashore every night, we started having potlucks and barbecues aboard, all of us easily gathering around Comet's huge tables. Peter's rum punches flowed, Piers downloaded his ridiculous wealth of local knowledge, music played, and just like with any family gathering, we all kept eating too much. Or, at least, I did.
We visited Bubbly Pool, a spot on the eastern tip of Jost Van Dyke where jagged bluffs nearly come together, leaving an opening just wide enough for the Atlantic swells to compress through and release as a thundering wave of foam and spray. I thought this cove of salty champagne was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen. But the cruising guide devotes one short paragraph to it, lavishing more attention on other places where we called, such as the Soggy Dollar Bar at White Bay, with its reputation as the home of the original Painkiller-which one of us needed after another Scrabble trouncing.
When the end arrived, it didn't bring for me the usual relief that comes with turning in the keys to another charter boat safely returned to the dock-definite proof that this had been a true vacation. To cap it off beautifully, Piers executed the finest parallel-parking job ever when we pulled into the fuel dock at Nanny Cay Marina, nudging our 50-foot beast into a 51-foot space both expertly and swiftly-perhaps because he was eager to check another ridiculously successful charter off his list.
Now I know how it feels to swing off palm-fringed white-sand beaches, amble up to thatch-roofed bars, and snorkel off the stern of a boat, all without a care in the world and all while allowing somebody else to be responsible for carving a wake from one calendar picture to the next. Thank you, Sail-a-Cat-I love sailing vacations. If you ever want to invite me back, I think I can make it.
Tania Aebi continues to work on her writing, her crops, her flotillas, and learning how to relax in the hills of Vermont.