Jump into a Winter Escape

A one-week charter is hardly enough time to soak in the warmth of the islands, but it provides a heck of a chance to throw a good birthday party. A feature from our March 2010 issue.

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Lily¿s birthday festivities took place off Saba Rock (above), at Virgin Gorda.Mark Pillsbury

Sunlight poured through the open overhead hatch and hull port, and I took my time waking up, drinking in the feel of the catamaran dancing at the mooring and the warm, moist December trade winds swirling through the cabin. It was, to be honest, a very welcome change from the lurching I'm greeted by most mornings on my own boat, docked for the winter in Newport, Rhode Island, and buffeted by relentless icy northwest winds. Outside, I could just hear noises from shore, where Virgin Gorda's Saba Rock resort and the nearby Bitter End Yacht Club were coming to life, and then, just beyond my cabin door, there was the unmistakable giggles of teenage girls.

"Oh, boy, what are they up to now?" I thought. Since we arrived in the British Virgin Islands, the younger half of our crew, my daughter, Lily, and her two senior-in-high school friends, Kate Hall and Maddy Sheffer, had been yukking it up nonstop: standing at the rail, their long hair flying wildly on the ferry ride from St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Watching tricks dealt by cardsharp bartender Japeth Destouche of Charlie's Bar & Restaurant, at the Sunsail base in Wickham's Cay, Tortola. Tattooed and dancing well into the night at the infamous Willy T's, at The Bight on Norman Island. On the trampoline with their legs and feet over the bow, pummeled by waves on our wet and wild upwind bash that took us the length of Sir Francis Drake Channel to North Sound, Virgin Gorda, on the second day of our weeklong out-of-school adventure.

Pulling on a T-shirt, I stood on the sole in the starboard hull and gazed up into the light and airy saloon to where Kate and Maddy, decked out in plastic grass skirts and coconuts, taped dangling pink and orange stars suspended from springy pastel-green stems to the cabin top. Soon all was ready, and they gathered us-my brother, David, his wife, Peggy, and me-into the cockpit for Lil's 18th-birthday wake-up call. We watched through the open hatch of her cabin as the girls pushed open the door and grabbed her by the leg. "Oh, my god!" followed "Oh, my god!" amid a flourish of hugs in the cabin doorway. And then before you could say "Hey, that's my banana!," they'd taken over the saloon table to begin their seemingly insatiable grazing for the day.

This birthday cruise to paradise had its start on the docks of the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, in early fall with a simple offer from Sunsail to have someone from the magazine come and try out the new Morrelli & Melvin-designed Sunsail 384 in its natural elements, the British Virgin Islands. Sunsail was eager to show off the first multihull created exclusively for the company and built by Robertson and Caine in South Africa; it's intended to be the building block that it will use to expand its catamaran fleet. And why wouldn't Sunsail be proud of it? The private-owner version, marketed as the Leopard 38, would go on to win both Best Multihull and Import Boat of the Year banners for 2010 in CW's annual new-boat contest.

Standing there on the docks that Columbus Day, who was I to say "No"? So, on Pearl Harbor Day, with masks, snorkels, and sunscreen in our bags, the six of us left Boston-just missing the first snow of the year. The direct flight to St. Thomas eliminated the possibility of lost luggage, and to be honest, the Fast Ferry ride to Road Town, Tortola, gave us a good opportunity to check out another side of the islands.

We arrived Saturday night and took full advantage of the new lounging areas at the Sunsail base while our boat, La Bella Vita, was being provisioned. The next morning, base manager Antony Wighting dropped by and gave us a few tips that would get us off the beaten path, and after a short boat briefing-the 384 is relatively uncomplicated, from a systems standpoint-we were on our way. Outside the breakwater, we hoisted the main and were off, bound for Norman Island and a visit to The Caves. We were all eager to dive in for a swim, so eager, in fact, that in the light air we found right outside the harbor, everyone, sans moi, jumped in for a tow behind the boat. Wouldn't you know, that's all it took for the trade winds to kick in and never falter for the rest of the week. Rounding up to slow us down, I collected the crew, and we pushed onward to The Bight for the night, and from there to North Sound and Virgin Gorda.

By the conclusion of the birthday-breakfast festivities on Tuesday, we were ready for solid ground, so we called Nat, owner of Nat's Taxi, and arranged for him to meet us at Gun Creek, a small harbor in North Sound served by a free shuttle boat from the Bitter End. We piled onto the benches in the back of Nat's Ford truck and headed up, up, up and over the top of Virgin Gorda to Spanish Town. A charter skipper back in Newport had suggested the trip, and now I can recommend it to anyone who wants a breathtaking view that, once and for all, puts all the islands, reefs, and beaches into spectacular perspective. At The Baths, that intricate sculpture of giant boulders that can be reached as easily from the beach as it can be from the water, the girls swam while we enjoyed a beer at the beach bar. Then we roamed through the rocks as the girls watched the backpacks. My favorite view came about halfway in, where rocks tower skyward in endless shades of gray until near the very top, an eye of dark-blue sky shines through.

Wednesday had us steering 007 M for Anegada. The sail there was fantastic, with 25 knots on the beam. We covered the dozen or so miles in seemingly no time, dodging short squalls along the way. The last one hit us with a bit more wind than the rest just when it was time to dowse sails. Arrr, the girls learned some salty slang.
We'd arrived midmorning, and there were plenty of moorings available as we motored into the inner harbor. This changed quickly, however, with the arrival of a Sunsail flotilla and a seeming armada of other charter boats. And so, we kicked back-adults in the cockpit, teens sunning on the trampoline-and watched as skipper after skipper nearly tore arms from their crew as they attempted to pick up moorings down wind or under full power from every which direction.

Dave, swimming near the stern, shouted out at one point, "Hey, that guy just ran over our mooring." I turned to see a lumbering Moorings 4600 go past.

"Just checking out the babes on your boat," the rotund skipper called, grinning lecherously. Just then, a crosswind pushed his boat down on the next mooring over, and this time, he managed to wrap a pendant line around his saildrive and rudder. His boat met the neighbor's with a resounding crack of fiberglass, followed by lots of hectic screams.

Ah, karma. Those paybacks are a beautiful thing, I thought, as I kidded to the girls that it was obviously all their fault for falling asleep on the bow.

In the afternoon, we took another taxi ride, this time across to the north side of the island to snorkel on the reef at Loblolly Bay and explore the ribbon of white-sand beach. We sat on a bench under palm fronds and watched a black squall roll around the point to the east. Dave and the kids stayed to watch the show, while Peggy and I gathered up the backpacks and retreated from the horizontal rain and wind-driven sand to the nearby Big Bamboo, where we watched the employees string up Christmas decorations.

Driven by a too-tight schedule, we set out early on Thursday, headed downwind to Jost Van Dyke. We surfed down big rolling swells, pushing our speed well past nine knots with hisses of foam. Later that afternoon, after a lunch stop at Sandy Spit, off Green Cay, the girls sat on the swim step of one of the pontoons with their feet in the water, eating pie as we did a sail-through of Jost Van Dyke's Great Harbour before heading to Cane Garden Bay for the night.

By late afternoon, Dave, Peggy, and I were content to swim and sit on the boat, but the girls had other activities in mind: They loaded into the dinghy and went ashore, where they found the happy hour affordable and the company first rate. Before long, they were invited to grab percussion instruments and join the band on stage, or so I'm told.

The slow days on island time passed far too quickly. Friday morning, we were up early for the long trip around the western end of Tortola to Peter Island, our last stop before returning the boat to its rightful keepers. Dave tacked us upwind through the pass between Soper's Hole and Little Thatch Island, then into a blustery Sir Francis Drake Channel, where I think we had the best sail of the entire trip. We scooted along closehauled, spray flying off the bows.

The same charter captain who'd advised us to take the taxi over Virgin Gorda also recommended stopping in Peter Island's Great Harbour, where, he said, the snorkeling is quite good. He was right. We picked up a mooring along the rocky shore and swam along it toward the beach at the far end. We floated in swarms of glittering fingerlings and came face to face with grouper and silver tarpon, the first one of which scared the bejesus out of every one of us.

On the beach, we met Conrad Smith, who, with his cane, hobbled across the rocks in a one-man welcoming committee. He invited us to explore Great Harbour Point and the bay beyond, and he explained how the fishermen would set their traps when the tuna chased the bonito into the bay.

Later, aboard La Bella Vita, we began to organize our belongings and clean up in preparation for our return. With bags of food left, Peggy, Dave, and I returned to the beach and gave the supplies to Conrad, who said he'd put them to good use. After visiting his home, made up of a few small concrete-block structures, we were sure he would.

That night, we sat up enjoying a star show and the manmade lights along the hillsides of Tortola. As on earlier trips to the islands, we'd seen enough to just whet our appetite. We schemed ways to return.

Saturday morning, squall clouds masked the sunrise as we motored across the channel a final time. We were a quiet crew as we boarded the ferry for St. Thomas and the trip home. Back in U.S. territory, the border agent in St. Thomas asked the usual questions about bringing beef, fruit, or booze into the country. Then he turned to Lily and asked her how old she was.

"Eighteen," she replied. "You know, it feels pretty darned good to say that."
Can't beat a birthday like that.

Mark Pillsbury is the editor of Cruising World.