Passage Notes: Escaping the Big Chill

Having scraped the "wintry mix" off his car and driveway, our roving correspondent found himself in Tortola 12 hours later, squawking among snowbirds with longer migratory cycles

Nothing like a little climate shock to carry you through a slow-coming spring. Last March, I got up at 3:30 a.m. to chip the "wintry mix" off car and driveway, and 12 hours later I stepped off the plane in St. Thomas into that wonderful wall of scent, warmth, and humidity that breathes "tropics" into every pore of your body. Aaaah! And even as the Fast Ferry pulled into Road Town, Tortola, my eyes still ached from the vibrant blues of the water.

With time to kill before my real work began (a photo assignment for a future feature), I sauntered down the road to Fort Burt Marina, home to Conch Charters. This is one of the smaller bareboat companies in the B.V.I., offering a fleet of slightly older than brand-new boats to a clientele who aren't looking for a hand-holding experience. The briefing room is the patio of The Pub, which overlooks the marina and offers three meals a day of reliably high quality. And it's where I cornered charterers Harry and Lynda Munro and Lynda's brother, Steve Cranton. The Munros' daughters--Eva, 20, a student at McGill, in Montreal; Fiona, 17; and Monica, 15, at school in Nova Scotia--were due to join them later.

Steve and Lynda, from Canada, raced sailboats as kids, taking part in local regattas as well as the Canadian Olympic Regatta, Kingston (CORK). Harry, who grew up by Cromarty Firth, in Scotland, was a powerboater before meeting Lynda, who coaxed him onto her Laser. In his teens, he built a 20-foot lapstrake Orkney Launch, trading his labor in the boatyard for space and materials.

Harry, a lawyer, and Lynda, a dentist, live in Pictou, Nova Scotia. They love their home cruising grounds, but in winter the area can be a little forbidding. Pictou's location on Northumberland Strait gives them ready access in their Nonsuch 30, Full Circle, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, by passing through the Canso Causeway, the Bras d'Or lakes.

"A gunkholing dream," Harry says of Bras d'Or. "About 2:30 every afternoon, a lovely southwesterly breeze blows up, then dies away again after sunset. It's perfect." And when they stay on the Gulf side, the Îles de la Madeleine are but a 20-hour sail away. Sailing season doesn't really begin until June, after the ice pack flows out. But then, Harry says, while ice-chilled ocean waters create a fog that cloaks Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is fog-free. Nearly enclosed and relatively shallow, the gulf warms up rapidly, the incoming tide absorbing heat from the vast expanses of sun-soaked intertidal rocks and beaches until the temperature reaches 70 F. It's then quite pleasant even through December, when winter truly sets in. The Munros like to make their trips to the Caribbean in the latter part of March because when they get back, they can begin to think about sailing season. "We can go out and buy our boat-cleaning supplies and get the canvas mended," says Harry.

Steve lives in Okanagan, British Columbia, where he races a Dash 34 on the lake. "It's already showing green there," he said, "and we've begun our winter series." At which we began to show green. Steve looked as though he was there to provide muscle for the winches, and no doubt would, since the others aboard seemed more inclined to recline than to heed his calls for "trim." His luggage bore the evidence of an incurable sail-tweaker: yards of red yarn and VHS tape to adorn the shrouds of their chartered Beneteau 445, Candis Lynn. "I was pretty sure there'd be no telltales on this boat," he said.

Roger and Ardy Ellis of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, aren't exactly cruising sailors, but they've been taking winter breaks in the B.V.I. for longer than they can remember--and longer than Conch Charters' computer can remember.

For the Ellises, summer in Pewaukee usually means racing C Scows in such exalted company as the Harken brothers, Peter and Olaf, and, until recently, the late Olympic sailor Peter Barrett. In winter, iceboats take over the lake.

When he's not on the water, Roger represents a German machinery manufacturer. He can date his sailing days back to 1966, when he was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Naples, Italy, and a friend would take him out on a 40-foot boat. He started sailing scows soon after returning. Ardy, an administrative manager for an insurance company, caught the bug from Roger and particularly enjoys brisk conditions.

Having chartered at least six times through Conch Charters in the past 12 years or so, Roger thinks of the Sir Francis Drake Channel as his personal lake, but he does have pangs of nostalgia for the days when they didn't have to share The Bight at Norman Island with 90 other boats. The folk at Conch reward Roger and Ardy's good custom (and good record) by giving them leeway to take some of the less-trodden paths, including that to Anegada, where this year they spent a couple of days hiking and exploring. The Ellises limit their visits to alternate years "so as not to spoil a good thing by overdoing it," says Roger. On the last two occasions, they've sailed with friends John and Sharon Lotz on a Lagoon 37 catamaran, which, while it doesn't go to weather like a C Scow, doesn't heel, either--a comfort to Sharon.

By going to the B.V.I. in late March, these Wisconsinites know that on their return home, winter will be in retreat: The iceboats have been put away, the ice is breaking up on the lake, and it'll soon be time to warm up the lawnmower.

Roger is tempted to try different locales. They once spent a week in the Leewards--St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Kitts--aboard Procyon, the state-of-the-art sailing-industry showboat built by the Harkens, et alia, in the 1980s. That vessel had a captain with local knowledge, an accessory that, on another boat, might tempt the Ellises to venture farther afield.

And, Roger says, if they were to move closer to a bigger lake, they'd probably put a bigger boat on it.

Karen and Roy Thorpe both grew up sailing on Manhassett Bay, Long Island. "Everybody we knew had a boat," says Karen. They later owned a series of boats that they sailed on Smith Mountain Lake, in Virginia. The last one of these, Good Buddy, a Hunter 27, they took with them when they moved to the Chesapeake Bay area. Two years ago they sold it, deciding then that they would get their sailing through chartering. That way they could try different locations, preferably where evenings and the water are warm, like the B.V.I., where they've been chartering since 1999. They could also try different boats and maintain the pretext that they were looking for the ideal one--or, at least, that was the plan. Having convinced themselves they had no good reason to own a boat in their home waters, in January they then went and bought a 1993 Hunter 42, named it Freedom, and found a berth in Solomons, Maryland, a little over an hour's drive from Falls Church, Virginia, where Roy is the city attorney. They expect to begin their explorations with forays to places within a day's sailing range before succumbing to relatives' invitations to sail to Maine.

Last winter, the Thorpes had already taken a break in Belize, but it didn't come up to expectations, so when Karen got a new job, at the National Institute of Mental Health, she decided she needed another break before settling into it. While shopping around companies with bases in Tortola, Karen came across Conch Charters, which happened to have a center-cockpit Beneteau available at two weeks' notice, at an attractive rate, with a sleepover, and with The Pub conveniently nearby.

Northern breezes blow cold in winter, especially in the Minneapolis area, so it was no surprise to find Thom Burns, editor of the sailing magazine Northern Breezes, taking a long spell in the Virgins. "You have to," he says. "You can't live in a place like Minnesota without leaving it for a while in the winter."

Thom also owns Northern Breezes Sailing School, an American Sailing Association (ASA) school on Lake Superior, and it's his custom at this time of the year to move his teaching venue southward. I accosted him and his crop of students as they were disembarking from a J/120, Jahazzi, at Tortola Marine Management (TMM), bearing all the signs of a week well spent in a sunny and salty clime--the winds had been up in the high range most of the time, to which faces and hair lent ruddy and unruly evidence.

This was the third back-to-back charter Thom had taken in Tortola this year, and he was getting ready to fly to St. Vincent to take another TMM boat down through the Grenadines.

The first time Thom came to the B.V.I. was in 1979, when he took Steve and Doris Colgate's cruising class. The following year, his brother and his wife--"They're over there, on the cruising catamaran, right now," he said--followed suit, and it's been an annual ritual ever since.

And it makes concrete sense when you can bring your business with you, especially while your assets are frozen into Lake Superior. Thom teaches the ASA cruising courses, and he always has a cook along. Filling that role on this crew was Deb Sanders, who's also an instructor. "It really helps to have someone else available to go on one of the boats with the students," Thom says, adding that because Deb's a woman and doesn't have tremendous upper-body strength, she's particularly supportive for the female students.

I was beginning to think that Northern Breezes must be a thin magazine, because as well as sailing his Islander 36, Aerie, on Lake Superior "as much as possible," Thom also makes time to race trimarans and a Wilderness 21 on Lake Minnetonka. It's just as well the summer days are long in Minnesota.

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Associate editor Jeremy McGeary was denied the position of Editor at Large While Winter Lasts. He's not yet over it.

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More Passage Notes from the Field by Jeremy McGeary

Dragonfly Takes Flight:
On last summer's solstice, Janna Cawrse and Graeme Esarey sailed away from their Whidbey Island wedding aboard their 1973 Hallberg-Rassy 35 ketch, Dragonfly, on a cruise around Vancouver Island, the shakedown for their extended honeymoon: a circumnavigation of the Pacific. They are now well into the dream itinerary, which started in Seattle and includes Central America, the South Pacific, Japan, Russia, and Alaska. "It's an audacious goal," Janna says, "so we keep reminding ourselves of the ancient cruisers' maxim: All plans are made in Jell-O."

Dragonfly is an old girl, but she's sturdy, and her comfortable motion inspired confidence in the high winds and rough seas Janna and Graeme encountered off the Pacific Northwest coast and while crossing southern Mexico's Golfo de Tehuantepec.

"So far, cruising has exceeded our expectations," says Janna. "We love life aboard, and we've enjoyed the fascinating people we've met and the adventures we've had."

While holed up in Noyo River, California, they made fast friends with other cruisers and traveled south with them. In Bahia Santa Maria, Baja, they dinghied up a mangrove estuary, climbed up an arroyo, hunted (successfully) for whale bones, and wandered through sand dunes "a la Lawrence of Arabia." In Oaxaca, Mexico, as well as in El Salvador and Nicaragua, they made trips inland so they could explore more than just beach towns. And although numerous visits from family and friends significantly affected their cruising schedule, they feel having them aboard has been worth the effort.

Graeme has had the cruising bug since the age of 5, when his family moved aboard their fishing boat, Ingrid, for a year. Thus began his long career of commercial fishing with his father in waters from northern California to Alaska.

Janna, too, grew up in a boating family, exploring Washington's San Juan Islands and B.C.'s Gulf Islands in Captain Teach, a Bill Garden-designed powerboat.

Before they became full-time cruisers, Graeme headed international operations for a Seattle company that imports stone building products, and Janna was a high-school English teacher.

Graeme and Janna are in their early 30s, much younger than many of the cruisers they meet. When older cruisers say they wish they'd set sail when younger, Dragonfly's crew counter by saying that they envy the retirees' ability to cruise into the sunset and not have to return to work to restock the cruising kitty.

On March 30, Dragonfly set sail from Costa Rica for the Galapagos, and if the Jell-O plans remain fairly firm, Janna and Graeme expect her to be chugging down the Inside Passage, homeward bound, in about a year and a half. They post news of their travels on a website (www.svdragonfly.blog spot.com).

Trudy and Graham Norbury Aboard Luna Azul:
Trudy and Graham Norbury met at high school, in England, at the sweet ages of 16 and 17 and together pursued their passion for windsurfing on inland lakes in England and on holidays in Turkey.

When they moved to northern Virginia for work in the booming world of software development, lack of a windsurfing breeze drove them to explore other avenues for being on the water.

Graham had spent his childhood sailing with his father in the English Channel on classic wooden boats built for handling the often cold and gale-force conditions, but Trudy's sailing experience had been in dinghies in Poole Park. To test out Trudy's sea legs, they took a series of courses with Annapolis Sailing School.

"From the first moment we saw Luna Azul, a Nicholson 35, at anchor, we knew that her classic design and oceangoing capability were for us," says Graham. It was a bonus that she was built in Gosport, England. They bought her in July 1999 and sailed her on weekends and occasional holidays, not expecting that the bursting technology bubble would induce them to leave their large American house, move aboard, and go on a sailing adventure for a year. On October 12, 2002, they did just that, along with their two cats, Shadow and Sylvester.

On their way south, they made their first 24-hour offshore passage to shake down themselves as well as Luna Azul in preparation for crossing the Gulf Stream a month later. "We spent the winter in the Bahamas fishing, beachcombing, and making new friends," says Trudy, "and Graham got to race on a traditional Bahamian C-class racing boat--but it sank after a botched jibe."

A four-day, 825-mile offshore passage brought Luna Azul back to Beaufort, North Carolina, from where Graham and Trudy motorsailed to Oxford, Maryland. A planned cruise to Maine was scuppered by a lightning strike, but they had a fun summer crewing on a J/22 while Graham worked as an electrician/mechanic at Oxford Boatyard and Trudy reupholstered the saloon.

Graham and Trudy began their 2003/2004 winter season with a nine-day passage from Beaufort to St. Thomas, and after several months spent exploring the Virgin Islands, the south coast of Puerto Rico, and Luperon, in the Dominican Republic, they returned to the Bahamas. While there, they fished and caught up with friends from the previous winter. Graham raced on a Bahamian C-class boat that stayed afloat to place third at the annual Farmers Cay Regatta.

Having lived aboard Luna Azul for 18 months, Graham and Trudy suspect they'll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Find out at their website (www.bond car.com).