As a serial circumnavigator, I’m addicted to the new: new harbors, new oceans, new people. But we are currently back in our beloved Virgin Isles, where we are instead contentedly cruising the intimately familiar. My wife, Carolyn, keeps asking me, “Do you need a chart?” and I keep replying happily, “No, I know these waters like the back of my own hand.”
Once upon a time, I thought St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was the most beautiful island in the world. I now know that there are islands around the world that share the beauty of St John. Fatu Hiva’s harbor is dramatic; Chagos is remote; Cape Town is impressive; Phang Nga Bay is otherworldly; and Bora Bora is beautiful because of its encircling reef, jagged ridgeline and breathtaking lagoon.
Though we hail from the Midwest, Carolyn and I have spent more time living and sailing in the U.S. Virgins than in the continental United States, and thus, there are more people we love on tiny St. John than in all of the 50 states combined. That is why we’ve been returning for a year or so between circumnavigations to hug those continentals and West Indians we love so dearly and who have treated us so well through the sun-kissed decades.
St. John is home in every sense of the word, regardless of whether we are anchored in Great Cruz, Caneel, Maho, Coral Bay or Salt Pond.
The very best thing we did while headquartering out of St. John from the late ’70s to the year 2000 was raise our daughter, Roma Orion, aboard. She allowed us to experience the delights of the cruising life anew through her fresh eyes. Yes, our cup runneth over in terms of family love and family cruising, which are one and the same to us Goodlanders.
And so it was immediately apparent these past few months that Carolyn and I were missing something precious as we sailed through our hometown islands and Virgin memories: our daughter, Roma Orion. “But Dad,” she said over the phone from her Asian island home, “Singapore is so far away. It is so expensive to fly. And I don’t think I can get time off work.”
“Honey,” I said softly, “I didn’t raise you to value mundane pencil-pushing over extraordinary sailing, and while Singapore might be far away, these modern jets are extremely weatherly. Loosen up the purse strings, OK? Work can wait. The ocean calls. Come visit.”
So we recently spent a wonderful month cruising small distances in very familiar places with our daughter, Roma, and her daughters, Sokù Orion and Tessa Maria. In a sense, our laughter-filled journey was twofold: Roma was reliving her aquatic youth while Sokù and Tessa were inventing theirs.
Roma’s favorite moments this trip came as we were anchored off the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands. This has been one of our favorite anchorages since the 1970s. We watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Sand Palace, a free-of-charge palm-fronded video hut on the beach, and explained to 6-year-old Sokù and 3-year-old Tessa that this sacred palace was the only place their mother had a chance to watch a movie until she went off to Brandeis at age 18 on scholarship.
“But she could watch her iPad, right?” asked Sokù.
“Nope,” said Roma. “Nor did we have a 12-volt TV aboard. And it was an all-day beat to windward to get here on the engineless Wild Card from St. John, but it was worth it to see an actual movie!”
Roma also still remembers every business from St. Thomas to Trinidad that sold Ladybird books or Archie and Veronica comics. They were two items that almost bankrupted me as a struggling writer.
“Turtle!” Tessa screamed on the east end of Jost Van Dyke, when she spied one slowly poke its nose in the air.
“The USVI is one of the few places in the world with a growing turtle population,” Roma told her. Then she recounted her tales of helping turtle hatchlings on St. Croix find the sea on a full-moon night as an environmentally aware teenager.
“Gosh,” said Sokù while looking down at Barry the Barracuda, who lived under our boat while in Salt Pond. “Those grinning teeth sure look nasty!”
“Snake!” yelled Tessa at a moray eel a foot or two beneath the surface. “I see a green snake!”
Both girls love being toyed with by the Mysterious Wave Splasher, the patient underwater god who waited and waited as we sailed to windward, and then splashed them when they least expected it.
Sokù, being older, helped us with our ship’s chores. She especially enjoyed raising and lowering the dinghy on its davits, paying out the staysail tag line and helping Grandma pick up a mooring in national park waters.
And, of course, we sang songs as we sailed. “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “A Whole Boat of Mixed Up Animals” were our family favorites.
We all laughed when I asked Tessa what her favorite sea chantey was and she immediately replied, “‘She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain when She Comes’!”
“Can I switch on the anchor light?” asked Sokù as the sun set astern of us. (In this part of the tropics, the sun always sets astern while we’re at anchor because our vessel is always pointed into the easterly trade winds.)
We found it interesting to sail with our daughter while she was actively parenting and nurturing her own two children, a much more stressful job than merely being a kid aboard while we were doing the same with her.
“Now I realize why you always made me wear my safety harness offshore and a life jacket while in the cockpit,” Roma informed us. “Although, it drove me nuts at the time.” For the record, Roma could swim at an early age. We began “drown-proofing” her at 3 months.
In our month together, there were little surprises that delighted us. I was reading a book on the aft deck when Sokù approached and asked unexpectedly, “Grandpa, can we check the oil?”
I immediately stopped what I was doing. We went below and I watched her remove the dipstick from our still-warm diesel, wipe the oil off with a soft cloth, reinsert the dipstick and finally check the oil level. “Never use a paper towel,” I reminded her. “Tiny bits can adhere to the stick and eventually clog up the engine.”
“The level is a tiny bit low,” she said, showing me the dipstick.
“That’s only about an eighth of a quart down,” I replied. “This Perkins M92B never burns a drop. She’ll be fine until the next oil change.”
Besides mastering the mechanical, there was a larger lesson there: Never get overly complacent, and always check to confirm what you think you know. Perhaps Sokù was too young to fully grasp it, but I’ll show her again and again when she visits, until she absorbs it.
How do you know when you demonstrate something to a young sailor that it might benefit them for their entire life, both ashore and afloat? That’s why I always try to seize the teachable moments when the kids are totally engaged, not just when it’s convenient for me.
At 65 years of age, I value my privacy and the silence of the sea that normally embraces me. Carolyn and I are a solitary couple, for the most part, but I love the chaos of visiting family as well. I consider it a great compliment that Roma, who could easily vacation in any luxury destination on Earth, often chooses to spend time with us aboard our boat. Then again, she’s been on the boat in Tahiti, Australia, Thailand, Asia, South Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
Perhaps the best times of this most recent voyage came after a highly active day when the grandkids fell asleep and Carolyn, Roma and I sat in the cockpit under a million stars. “How is The Sea Gypsy Manifesto coming?” Roma inquired about my current writing project.
“Fine,” I replied. “And how is corporate life on the fast track of Singapore?”
The questions are not important, really, nor are the answers — but the asking and the replying is everything. Love is made from such mundane evening mutterings.
Too soon, the blissful month was up. The kids were both sunburned. They had boat bumps, mosquito bites and stories galore. I luffed up into the bay beside the St. Thomas airport. Carolyn and Sokù seamlessly lowered the dinghy into the water as though they were practiced partners. Then our daughter gave us the ultimate compliment by sighing and saying, “I’m not ready to leave yet; I want to sail just a few more miles.”
“Don’t worry,” Carolyn told her while hugging Tessa. “We’ll sail Ganesh back to Singapore soon.”
The sea had worked its magic, as it always does. We were tired but not weary. We were comfortable in our own skins, and happy within each other’s embrace. Sokù said proudly, “Ganesh is the best boat in the whole wide world!”
One thing is for sure: This sailing family agreed.
Please consider donating to the relief efforts currently underway in some of Cap’n Fatty’s favorite cruising destinations affected by recent hurricanes, including St. John in the USVI.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are getting ready to point the bow of Ganesh toward the southern Caribbean, just south of the hurricane belt, where they’ll slowly prepare to shove off on their fourth circumnavigation in early 2018.