Island Dreaming

Chartering a cat in the BVI seemed like a good way to get a taste of full-time cruising life. That was our excuse, anyway.

By Wendy Mitman Clarke

There’s a barracuda snoozing (if they ever really do) under the boat, enjoying the shade. It’s blowing 25–30 with gusts to 40, sunny, gorgeous, a little wild. We’ve already been snorkeling twice. Sergeant majors, parrotfish of all types, squirrelfish (longspine and dusky), blue tangs, a variety of grunts, yellowtail snapper, yellow jack, bluehead wrasse, blackear wrasse, stoplight parrotfish, and many others that aren’t listed in the Fish Flips, this cool little book we got at Blue Water Divers in Tortola.  –Thursday, 30 November, The Bight, Normans Island, BVI

I was reading that entry in my journal, sitting on the foredeck in my jammies when my friend Karen handed me a cup of coffee and settled in beside me. She was in her jammies too. We didn’t say much. Really, that’s because we were slack-jawed at the view. Above us, castles of clouds the colors of rainbow sherbet. Beneath us forty feet of perfect blue. Upon us the zephyr that within a few hours would be a steady breeze. It was barely six in the morning, the kids and hubbies still asleep. It was December. We were a far cry from the Chesapeake. And this, as they say, didn’t suck. Our two families had teamed up at the U.S. Sailboat Show in October to book a bareboat charter with Voyage Yachts in the British Virgin Islands. Sharing a 44-foot catamaran that, compared to my family’s 34-foot sloop seemed like a mansion, we got a deal on a week just after Thanksgiving, before the real winter rush began. Our kids were still pretty young—in the 6- to 10-year ranges; each of us had a boy and a girl—and we could still slip them easily out of school for this adventure. And this was an adventure. I am a lifelong Chesapeake-based sailor, but at that time I’d never been south of about 32 degrees north latitude—Bermuda. Here is the sum total of what I knew about the BVI as we booked the charter: They were British. They were islands. There was rum (lots) and a place called Foxy’s. The water was really, really blue. Robin Lee Graham had stopped here on this way around the world in Dove, and his description of the Baths at Virgin Gorda, which I had read at the impressionable age of about 13, set the standard for romantically exotic in my as-yet-lightly-traveled book. That was pretty much it. So I really wanted to check it out, but there was another reason too, this one a bit more subversive. Since my husband Johnny and I had met, we had nurtured a dream to go sailing full time. Life had happened (you know how it does that) and now we had two young kids. True, they had been sailing since before they were born, and by the time they were six years old, they’d already traveled more miles than most adults on the Chesapeake. But they had never been in big water. And they’d never lived on a boat for longer than a long weekend. And they’d never been snorkeling, or diving, outside of a swimming pool. And they’d never seen a sea turtle in the wild, or a dolphin under their bow. It was bribery, that’s what this trip was—pure and simple. They would love it; they would have to love it. What kid wouldn’t love to get out of school for a week, live in a floating condo, sail, swim and play on perfect white beaches all day long? And what kid wouldn’t, after that experience, want to do it all the time? As in, engage in a major lifestyle change. They would beg to trade public school for Clarke Homeschool Academy. They would jump for joy to leave everything they knew behind. Okay, so maybe it was more like bait-and-switch than bribery—but hey, this was a dream we were talking about. And they were kids. Either way, it was going to be amazing.

Yesterday we went snorkeling in this little bay right around the corner from the bight. On the way back Bird was holding my hand and suddenly squeezed tight and pointed; there, on the seafloor beneath us, nearly entirely camouflaged, was a young green turtle, maybe the size of a really big serving platter. Perfect. Beautiful. I’m not sure who was more excited, me or Bird. We swam along with her for about 10 minutes. One time as she was coming shallow Bird touched her shell. The whole thing was purely magic. I was so excited for her. She wrote in her journal: “Today my dream came true and I swam with a sea turtle.”  –Friday, December 1, Kelley’s Bay, Norman Island, BVI

Not counting the in-flight movie Talladega Nights, the trip down was painless—Baltimore to Miami, Miami to Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico to Tortola, followed by an exciting minivan ride to Soper’s Hole, Voyage Yachts’ home base. We spent our first night in their tidy little apartments and boarded our yacht the next day. We had asked the charter company to provision for us; they’d sent what amounted to a grocery list and asked us to check off what we wanted. They did a fine job, but in retrospect I would shop myself next time—there was a nifty local grocery right there, and it would have been cheaper and more fun to do it ourselves. The checkout procedure was pretty simple, largely because we—Johnny, myself and Karen’s husband John—had piles of sailing experience among us. Which is why we got a snootful of water down the open forward hatches that we’d neglected to close. Duh. Before we knew it two healthy bucketfuls had sloshed onto a couple of the forward berths. Blue, yes, warm, yes, but still wet and salty. Duly noted: We were not in the Chesapeake anymore. From then on, leaving any mooring ball or harbor meant a tight boat. They have these things in the islands called the Christmas Winds. It wasn’t Christmas yet, but these winds—which are really just the easterly trades gearing up a little bit at that time of year—were already cranking. In fact, we never saw the wind drop much below 25 to 30 in the Francis Drake Channel, the main body of water that runs between the big island of Tortola and the chain of outer islands. This would have been fine had we been only trying to go downwind or even across it. As it was, it was so windy and rough they closed the Baths at Virgin Gorda, and a passage upwind to Anegada was entirely out of the question. Initially disappointed, we reexamined the charts and readjusted our pressurized, East Coast, go-go-go brains, and instead of bashing ourselves silly to get someplace, we stayed a little closer and traveled to the downwind islands we could get to more easily. A few days at and around Norman Island, followed by a hop to Marina Cay and then Iguana Island (no iguanas sighted, much to our son’s chagrin), we shot downwind to Jost Van Dyke, a gorgeous afternoon of bluewater downwind tradewind sailing in a big fast cat—you know, the kind of stuff you read about in the magazines.

There are three rum shacks here, two on the western side of the bay and one on the east (Sydney’s Peace & Love, Harris’s and Abe’s, respectively). We dinghied into Sydney’s as the full moon rose over the mountain on the opposite side of the bay. Had fresh-roasted lobster, cole slaw and corn for dinner. You make your own drinks and keep a tab. There’s the ubiquitous T-shirt shop, and a woman named Strawberry braided part of the girls’ hair into plaits. They look very island-y now. As a mom, of course I’m worried about one more place to sunblock, the scalp showing between the rows.  –Monday, December 4, Jost Van Dyke

On Jost Van Dyke and its neighbor, Little Jost Van Dyke, we hiked the hills looking at the descendants of Captain Bligh’s famous breadfruit trees. I got my first taste of real Caribbean heat and sun—sunblock SPF Nuclear might work. We wandered pure white beaches, finding hermit crabs in West Indian topshells the size of baseballs among the sea grape leaves and purple sea fans tossed from the reefs to dry on the sand. The outboard on the dinghy quit, and a radio call to Voyage Yachts resulted in a brand new dinghy being delivered within a few hours. (Note to prospective cruisers: This is not how it works when you’re cruising on your own boat and your outboard craps out.) On our way back to Voyage Yachts’ home base on our last day, dolphins finally paid a visit, playing in that magical way they do underneath the boat’s bows. It was a bittersweet sendoff. We never did get to Foxy’s, or the Baths or Anegada, but that’s okay—I’m pretty sure they’re still there, waiting. Two years later, we would leave the Chesapeake on our own boat, heading for tropical waters, places far more exotic, and another adventure that would last for four years. And that week in the BVI, windy and blue, helped us weave that dream into reality.

Wendy Mitman Clarke