Fathers and Daughters

On a charter vacation in the British Virgin Islands with his daughter, two god-daughters, and his best pals, the author discovers that on a trip to paradise with a gaggle of young girls, time can absolutely stand still . . . or move faster than ever.

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So right before the trip, I purchase a brand-new Red Sox cap--a white cotton one 'cause I know it's going to be hot in the islands--and as a lifelong fan of the Boston Nine, I reckoned it was time to replace my ratty old blue one after the Sox finally "reversed the curse" and won the World Series the previous fall. You never know when and where the opportunity to yank the chain of a Yankees fan might present itself, right?

Now we're sitting in Trellis Bay, near Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, on our Moorings 4700 catamaran. I've just strolled back from the airport at Beef Island to meet the incoming flight of my old friend PK and his daughter, Helene. While I met the plane, another pal, who goes by the nickname Furbio, waited back on the boat with my daughter, Maggie, and his two daughters, Molly and Lauren. And yes, the trip did have a pre-conceived theme: After many years of idle chatter, we three dads were finally taking our rapidly growing "little girls" for a charter-cruise vacation.

As PK and Helene sort out their cabin in the forward port stateroom of our big cat, Saturday Knight, the rest of us slip over the side for a refreshing swim. Soon enough, everyone's in the drink.

We all come back aboard, and everyone's taking turns using the freshwater shower off the aft deck. Maggie pulls off her red bathing suit from beneath the towel wrapped around her and gives it a carefree toss before disappearing below to change.

A while later, we're all lounging around, getting the grill and the dogs and the burgers ready, when it occurs to me that I should be wearing my Sox cap. As I might've mentioned, you just never know who could be hanging out on the next boat over.

So I'm hunting everywhere for the cap and no one knows where it's gone to and I'm starting to wonder--egad!--if it might've blown overboard, when it finally appears. Under Maggie's red bathing suit. Maggie's brand-new, soaking-wet, red bathing suit!

My crisp white cap is now, well, damp pink, but I pull it on anyway. And later on I take it off and look at it. And as the evening unfolds I look at it quite a bit. And every time I do, I think of my beautiful little girl, and the pink hat starts to grow on me. I mean, really, really grow on me. By the way, isn't beer great?

So just before bed, I kiss my already snoozing daughter on the cheek and put the hat up on a shelf--the very same hat that just a few hours earlier I'd been planning to give a good scrub with hot, soapy water--and I go to sleep. As slumber comes, it occurs to me that I'm never going to wash that pink hat. Like, ever.

From the very moment I learned that fatherhood was on my horizon, I wanted a daughter. My dad and I had ultimately weathered the slings and arrows of some outrageous father/son misfortunes--at times the outcome was seriously in doubt--but I'd had a good, hard look at that movie and was terrified by the thought of a sequel. Plus, I know precisely what happens to boys, and when. To paraphrase the comedian Paul Reiser, I went to high school with me.

Not that I didn't realize that raising a daughter would have its own tests, but all in all, I preferred my chances with the fairer sex. After all, my very own sister always seemed to be Daddy's Girl, even as he and I were at each other's throats. Would it be asking too much to have the same sort of relationship they shared?

There were, of course, early trials and tribulations. I was on a magazine assignment in New Zealand when I got the news that, back home in Rhode Island at the tender age of 3, Maggie had plunged some 15 feet from the balcony of a health club, of all places. But she never lost consciousness and had a pithy comment to the ambulance attendants after they'd strapped her to the gurney for the ride to the hospital: "I'm stuck." She recovered fully and apparently inherited her dad's hard head.

She hated loud noises--thunder, fireworks, roaring surf, the sunset report of a yacht-club cannon--which were all things I loved. She adored stuff--snakes, spiders, all the creepy-crawlies--which gave me the willies. But from her earliest days we undoubtedly shared a passion for several of the most important things: reading, music, the water. Especially the water. By 7 she could swim nearly the length of a regulation pool--underwater. She was so oversensitive to some things I could scream, so compassionate in other ways I could weep. I guess it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: I love her so.

Then there were my pals, PK and Furbio, as good a set of friends as a fellow could ask for. We'd all been born in Newport Hospital a few months apart when Ike was still running the big show, been constants in one another's lives for decades on end, stood up for one another at marriages, and been right there with an open ear and a shoulder to lean on when parents set forth to the great beyond. PK was Maggie's godfather; his daughter, Helene, and Furbio's youngest, Lauren, were both mine.

I had a long history with these lads, and for years and years we'd been talking about chartering a sailboat and taking a spin together through the B.V.I. And that's all it had been: talk. Then, somehow, all the planets in our different daily universes fell into alignment--the i's of school vacations were dotted, the t's of work commitments were crossed--and suddenly we were in Trellis Bay last spring with a freezer full of food, a chart spread out on the saloon table, and a week's worth of plans to be made. We were finally going sailing after all.

At 7, my Maggie was the youngest aboard. Helene, 10, and a terror on the lacrosse fields back home in Baltimore, was just enough older to think Maggie was at times goofy, and just enough more mature to be her good buddy anyway. Fourteen-year-old Lauren was happiest listening to musicals on her portable DVD player, but she was a pacesetter when the activities turned aquatic. At 16, Furbio's oldest daughter, Molly, was the elder of the tribe in many ways: Her wry observations soared over the heads of the other girls about 99 percent of the time. And if Maggie grows up to be half the water-woman Molly is, I'll be very happy.

The first stop, naturally, was The Baths at Virgin Gorda. We ferried the girls in as far as the dinghy mooring on one of those days when the rollers were breaking on the beachfront and, when swimming ashore, you had to time your approach between the wave sets to avoid getting crunched at the last moment. I actually only learned this after Maggie's successful, if spluttering landing. She never would've tried it had the other girls not been over the side the moment we picked up the mooring--in other words, before I could say anything--and it set the tone for nearly all the adventures that would follow. The very last thing my daughter was going to be was left behind.

I've wandered The Baths a few times over the years, but it was all so very different with a bunch of kids who'd never been there before, whose joy and energy over all this new terrain was contagious, and this, too, would become a recurrent theme for the voyage. If you want to view something familiar through a fresh set of eyes, do not hesitate to bring a few fresh sets of eyes.

That night we anchored in Gorda Sound for another round of swimming and a barbecue, and next morning we hopped ashore for a tour of the Bitter End Yacht Club, a discovery for the girls that was on a par with Columbus' of the New World. Luckily, since the next stop was the parched island of Anegada, I had a quick look at the water tanks before we shoved off, and promptly topped them off while I still had the chance. Do you have any idea how much fresh water four young ladies can consume in the space of 48 hours? Neither did I. For some reason, my lecture on the benefits of saltwater bathing was met with silence.

In Anegada, we ran into my old pal Bob Grieser, the marine photographer, who was there on assignment for another sailing magazine. Included in Bobby's wide repertoire of skills is his remarkable ability to imitate a barking hound, and thus the nickname Photo Dog was bestowed upon him. If a voyage can have a mascot, he became ours, for the girls, especially Maggie, adored him. He joined us for the ride out to Loblolly Beach and an epic snorkel on the reefs--the new experiences just kept coming and coming--and when we returned to the harbor, he made chums of the local fishermen and did his best to get the girls to pose for a picture with a big, live Anegada lobster. Only brave Helene had the nerve, though they all made extremely short work of one after its brief detour to the open-fire grill.

Our little trip was flying by, but it was starting to get really good, and it would get better still.

One wishes he could say the vacation was a success on absolutely all counts, that the girls took to sailing like the fish they resembled once they splashed the water, but that would be pushing it. For them, the sailing was simply the means to reach a new island: Maggie generally hit the trampoline or the settee and zonked out for every passage; the other girls retreated to books and iPods or joined my daughter for a nap. But I made some serious inroads with the guys, neither of whom had sailed much before. By trip's end, Furbio was envisioning the day he retires as a firefighter to move aboard a catamaran, and PK, though not exactly bitten by the sailing bug, is now in the market for a cabin cruiser. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

But the longish sail from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke was one of my highlights, mainly because it gave me the chance to reflect on the trip so far. I was actually glad to see Maggie curled up and snoozing; her mother would've been scandalized by the hours she was keeping, and she clearly needed the rest. But her days (and nights) had been filled with swimming and laughter and camaraderie. She may have been the junior member of the sisterhood, and as such she spent equal amounts of energy learning from the others and seeking their approval. But in return she was granted generous helpings of time and patience and friendship. It was a wonderful thing to watch.

Yes, we could've taken the kids to Disneyland or on a ski trip, but what's better than a 24/7 sailboat excursion in the Caribbean, where the best lessons learned are the intangible ones--what it takes to be a good shipmate, to be considerate of others while living in a small space, to conserve water and energy and be immersed in nature and the outdoors? What other venue could give you what you get--what you earn--by being on a small boat for a real voyage?

As we dodged one squall after another on the sail to Jost, I realized our week together would ultimately become one seamless memory--all of us together, frozen in time, healthy and tan and very happy--like an image from a favorite old photograph. Who knows what the future will hold, what these little girls will eventually become, what grand adventures are waiting out there for them? At that moment, I couldn't have cared less. We were all together on a boat cleaving purposefully through the blue Caribbean sea. Whatever happens, I realized in a sappy moment for which I have no excuses or apologies, we'll always have these islands.

Well, I'm sure you can guess what happened to the pink cap. By week's end, the sweat and brine had conspired to erase the reddish tint almost completely, and it looked just about brand-new. Like our little trip, now coming to an end, Maggie's pink present simply wasn't meant to last forever.

After Jost, we pulled into The Bight at Norman Island, where the piercing sound of a yelping mutt signaled a final drive-by visit from the beloved Photo Dog and where the girls had a quick, unfortunate glimpse of the antics atop the lewd, infamous Willie T's, which led to a round of questions that were simply impossible to answer and fingers' crossed that the moms would never hear about this singular lapse of judgment.

Finally, we got up real early on our last full day and made our way over to The Indians--the B.V.I.'s signature outcropping of rock and sea life, one of the great snorkeling spots in the Caribbean--where we scored the best mooring around and set up for a long morning and afternoon of water sports.

By 0900, Maggie and I were in the water with masks and snorkels and making for the nearby reef. She insisted on leading and took right off, and I had to do some serious booking to keep up. I was a pretty proud papa, I must say, when something happened that will remain with me for a long time.

I could see she was heading for simple trouble, a fringe of coral with no pass and small, breaking wavelets, where there was no option but to turn around. It was no big deal, really, but she had a moment of panic and started babbling away, her eyes very wide, though it was impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of her distress since she refused to take the snorkel out of her mouth. "Rrrrrrrmmmmmmmrrrrr," she said. In any event, I waved for her to follow me in the opposite direction, and she dutifully collected herself and obeyed.

As we worked our way into deeper water, she sidled up alongside and grabbed my hand, and she held on as we calmly resumed our way back to the boat, now enjoying the play of light on the reef and the schools of small, colorful fishes.

It was much later, on the flight home actually, that it dawned on me that the entire little escapade encapsulated so many transitions one deals with as a parent: trust, discovery, discomfort, fear, support, recovery, more trust.

And the final little moment, just before we reached the boat, gave me a clear look at the coming attraction that all fathers of young daughters will someday inevitably face. As we approached the swim ladder to climb back aboard, she gave my fingers one last, tough, lovely squeeze. Then she let go and was gone.