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.
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 voila! 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.