Put into Tropical time-out

On a family sailing charter, quiet time is precious time. A feature from our April 2009 issue

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Family life is simplified when the author lets his son, Tim, and the autopilot drive.Dave Reed

The blue bar on the computer's download window stalled, and these words appeared: Estimated download time: 14 hours 32 min 19 sec. "Uh-oh," I muttered aloud. "That's not gonna work."

Huddled over my laptop at the nav station, I sat mere feet from a tempest brewing inside the main saloon of our 38-foot catamaran. The hatches and sliding door were dogged tight against pea-sized raindrops. It was another day of this lousy squally stuff, and although our two families-Matthew and Kimberly and their 4-year-old son, James; Dana and I and our two kids, Amelia, 6, and Timothy, 4-had logged three remarkable days hopping through the Bahamas' Abaco Islands, the moms were showing signs of early-onset cabin fever.

The children had thus far rolled superbly with our little bareboat adventure. But now they were getting mutinous. The tub of Legos was no longer a source of peaceful entertainment. Now it was fuel for belowdecks bedlam.

To prevent the Lego skirmish from escalating, I was grasping for the tech-age pacifier: a movie. We intentionally didn't bring any along. This was supposed to be an unplugged vacation, but upon finding a wimpy WiFi signal in the far outpost of Little Harbour, I promptly paid the connection fee, logged on to iTunes, and clicked Buy Now with bated breath.

But just as I whispered the interminable download time to the others, Lego mayhem erupted, then a chorus of wailing sobs. Dana chuckled menacingly as she reached for a nearby bottle of Gosling's Black Seal rum. She poured a generous shot into her coffee mug. "Anyone?" she asked before tossing her head back and downing it like a lady. The rest of us followed her lead before exiling the warring parties to their individual cabins.

With peace established, we took stock of where we'd been and where we were headed. And despite the utter absence of deep-blue sky and white puffy clouds, the beauty of this tiny, barren, sea turtle-filled harbor brought us back to clear heads: We were here to have fun. So just roll with it. The Lagoon 380 we'd chartered from Sunsail was named Island Time, but the truth is, we were on Their Time-and by "Their," I think you know of whom I speak.

The Abaco Islands, pearls on a brilliant blue sea, are one of the most accessible and vast cruising grounds north of the equator. A lot of cruisers get here and never leave. I can see why. The Sea of Abaco, all 1,000 or so square miles of it, averages 12 feet deep. Everywhere you go you can see the bottom, a kaleidoscope of sea grass, powder white sand, and giant sea stars. Sailing distances, particularly those recommended in charter itineraries, are casual and short and bring you to a variety of anchorages with small settlements, resorts, and casuarina-lined harbors.

If an isolated cay with a palm tree on it looks good and there's enough water, you can pretty much park there, too. In fact, you can anchor smack in the middle of the Sea of Abaco, if you so desire. It's a novice bareboater's dream: shallow, protected, and there's just enough navigation-waypoint hopping on the chart plotter, really-to keep it interesting. And as we'd come to find out, with so many resorts welcoming bareboaters into their poolside bars, it also makes for a no-brainer family sailing destination. You can pretty much pool-hop your way down the Abaco chain. You'll love it, and the kids will really love it.

In my experience, the only way to start a charter is to get there a day early, which gives the airlines more time to get your luggage to you. Our early arrival also allowed me to cajole the Sunsail staff into letting us aboard sooner than the standard 6 p.m. check-in time. Once we got the OK, Dana and I hit the provisioning while Matthew and Kimberly entertained the kids-poolside, of course. We got out of the grocery store for about US$600. We planned on having all of our meals on the boat, so that wasn't bad given what we'd been told by our cabbie: "Everything's expensive in the Bahamas. Everything."

With our provisioning out of the way, we stalked our chart briefer, Holly, a young, raspy-voiced, and sun-kissed Brit with eyes the color of the Sea of Abaco.

"So what is it you guys want to do this week?" she asked, as my first-mate designate Matthew and I sat with her at a picnic table, chart and guidebook splayed out before us.

"I don't want to see a single marina," I said.

"In that case, you want the bottom," said Holly. "The stuff up north is more developed. The islands down this way"-she pointed to a map of the lower Abaco Islands-"are quieter and more natural."

That's exactly what I wanted to hear.

Holly helped us build an itinerary that covered a lot of ground without too many stops. First was Baker's Bay, at the northern tip of Great Guana Cay. That's as far north as we'd go. From there, the southerly route would give us a pit stop on Guana for a side trip to Nippers Bar and Grill. She duly cautioned us about its celebrated drink, the Frozen Nipper, and made this point: "Some days, the place is like Willy Wonka's gone wrong."

Next would be a sprint to Man O' War Cay, then down to Lubbers Quarters for a "legendary" full-moon party, farther south still to Abaco Island's Little Harbour, then back north on the return leg with day stops and two nights in the picturesque harbor at Elbow Cay's Hope Town. The wrap-up would be a lazy run to the base for an 11 a.m. return. In seven days, we'd hardly be scratching the surface, but chartering isn't about how much blue territory you cover. It's how you cover it.

What I didn't realize then was that the design of this, my first family sailing vacation, was flawed from the get-go: I hadn't accurately accounted for the routines of the wee ones. I'd envisioned a carefree island-hopping excursion, but as it turned out, our schedule came to revolve around breakfast, lunch, snacks, naptime, and bedtime.

Interspersed among these were stints of sailing, swimming, and the scattering of Legos. I'd eventually realize, as well, that my vision of a week devoted to hanging at anchor off that deserted island with its one palm tree was also flawed. The numerous resorts had essentials I hadn't thought of: pools, other kids, and outdoor showers, the latter to better preserve our onboard water supply.

With some hustle on our part-and the help of the excellent base staff-we got out of the marina on the first night of our charter, when you're technically supposed to remain at the base. We dropped the hook, literally around the corner, in eight feet of placid water off Matt Lowe's Cay. We stuffed the kids with Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, then sent them packing before the adults sprawled on the forward trampoline with our box of wine to watch a nearly full moon transit the star-filled sky.

The kids awoke with the excitement of Christmas morning, and nothing follows Cheerios better than a morning snorkel. Honestly, I was more excited to snorkel than anyone else. Years ago, I started teasing my daughter's imagination with the Reef Fish Identification Guide and promises to take her to see them in person. We'd pored over its pages at many a story time, always noting the juvenile damselfish-my personal favorite.

After a quick dinghy ride, the group plunged into knee-deep water where blue tang and needlefish hovered inches below the surface. I delighted in Amelia's wide eyes, muffled grunts through the snorkel, and finger pointing as we hovered hand in hand over a small reef.

We could've loitered off Lowe's for another day, but our pressing itinerary lay before us: a snorkel stop at the Fish Cays, snack time, then on to Baker's Bay. En route to Baker's, we sent the kids to their cabins for their first nap under way; the engines, like sweet, diesel-guzzling angels, droned them into deep sleep. As the wind filled, we killed the engines, and the bows rhythmically hissed as they cleaved the chop. The girls went forward with their books as Matthew, new to sailing, confidently took the wheel with a beer in hand, the chart plotter guiding him along.

At Baker's Bay, we anchored as near as we dared to the beach. Once we were settled, we dispatched the dinghy for our first beach outing. The brochures were right: The beach went for miles, and there wasn't a soul on it. Amelia promptly proclaimed it to be the best beach she'd ever visited.

After erecting and destroying sand sculptures, it was back to the boat for a Father's Day feast of burgers and corn on the cob from the grill. It was also here at Baker's where we learned how to make the kids earn their keep. With deck brushes and buckets, they happily swabbed the cockpit clean of the evening meal's crumbs. That's about all they were good for when it came to maintenance.

The following morning we pulled into Great Guana's Settlement. There was this business about Frozen Nippers. While Matthew and Kimberly supervised the kids, Dana and I set off under a sizzling sun to find Nippers, overlooking the stark, deep-blue Atlantic. It's a sprawling, open-air place with multiple bars, tiered levels, and pools connected by a waterfall that you can sit in with a drink.

Thirsty from our trek, we toasted our brief hiatus from the kids, the warm sun on our backs, and the sweet, icy concoction in hand, a secret blend of sugar and rums. It was, in fact, as Holly had warned, impossible to have just one.

Figuring that naptime was about over on the boat, we hustled back to gather the tribe, and we all returned to Nippers like hummingbirds drawn to nectar. The kids couldn't get enough of the beach and the waterfall, and the reef turned out to be one of the best snorkeling spots of the trip (except for the plastic drink cups strewn across the reef). The place was a score.

As we were winding down, we met a gentleman from, of all places, our home state of Rhode Island. Thunder rumbled in the distance; he claimed it hadn't rained in the Abacos for more than a month. Then came sheets of rain.

Given the promise of more squalls and a Nippers' buzz, we stayed put in the Settlement. It wasn't the prettiest anchorage by any stretch, but it was a mooring and a restful sleep.

Just south of Great Guana was Man O' War Cay, and this was next on our hit list. Man O' War has quaint streets to wander and unique little shops. We also scored ice-cream sandwiches for the kids and our most important commodity: ice. The highlight, however, was a 12-inch freshly baked cinnamon bun straight off the back of Ms. Lola's golf cart as she made her late-morning deliveries.

It was no beach day, so we committed to a change-up in the itinerary and a long haul to Little Harbour. It would've been a straight shot if not for Tilloo Bank, a two-mile-long speed bump of a sandbar that goes dry at low tide.

Talk about a detour.

Once in Little Harbour, countless sea turtles greeted us, sneaking up to the surface and quickly disappearing. Turtle spotting was excellent entertainment for the kids, and the anchorage was a hit with the boys, particularly the finding of rodent bones in the shallow caves in the southwest corner of the harbor. But our stay here was brief: We had to get to Lubbers Quarters for the hyped full-moon party at a bar called Cracker P's.

Cracker's, however, was a bust: it was hopping, but it was no kid-friendly party, so we dinghied back and celebrated the moon phase with our own routine: card games and drinks, jokes, and forgettable embarrassing moments.

Next on our overnight list was Tilloo Cay. Holly said it was a must, so a must it was. We anchored on Tilloo Bank for an incredible afternoon of sand-dollar hunting and beach walking. But before long, the squalls came arumblin' again. We were too exposed, and we hustled off the bank just in time. The anemometer hit 40 before it stopped working, and as we motored headlong into it, hand steering through the steep chop, I was sure I was scaring the dickens out of the kids. But down below in the forward leeward cabin, they were pressed up against the window and screaming with delight.

Back to Lubbers Quarters we ran, happy to be afloat.

At this point, I still hadn't found my ideal secluded Abaco anchorage, so I was hesitant to hang my last night in Hope Town's jam-packed harbor, but after squall dodging and anchor watching for so many days, it simply made sense. After a beautiful and quiet light-air morning sail, it made even more sense when we pulled in to picturesque Hope Town and stumbled upon the upscale Abaco Beach Resort. Its front door is steps away from the public dinghy dock, and its back door-technically, wooden steps coming up from the beach-looks out high over the Atlantic. Empty beaches do stretch for miles.

We beached, snorkeled, and pooled that place all day long, and the conch fritters-the first thing we didn't have to cook all week-were heavenly. It was nice, but I sure was glad I was on the good ship Island Time. My resort had sails.

At this point, I also felt that while the trip hadn't been quite what I'd envisioned, it was nevertheless an absolute success: The warring parties grew to understand personal space and learned to entertain themselves with sailing, swimming, books, shells, games, and even the sharing of Legos.

We never did download that movie.

But the ultimate reward, for me at least, came as we made one last snorkel stop at Mermaid's Reef, just outside of Marsh Harbour. The reef was moderately healthy, but it presented to us the greatest variety of fish thus far: ballyhoo, tangs, pufferfish, gobies, and rays. My son, Tim, had by now finally learned to use his snorkel. And as we glided along hand in hand, as I'd done with Amelia a few days earlier, I could feel in his grip his excitement and awe.

Dave Reed is the editor of Sailing World.