NOTE TO READERS:
February 1, 2005
Our Diary Of A BVI Charter
By Bernadette Bernon
Today Douglas and I closed all the through-hull fittings,
locked up Ithaka, taxied to the Miami airport, and flew to Tortola in
the British Virgin Islands to accompany a flotilla of catamarans chartered
by Cruising World, my old alma mater. This is one of the magazine’s
Adventure Charters – they organize four or five a year, and always
send one of their editors to join the group of readers in different destinations
around the world. For this trip, they invited Douglas and me to be hosts,
and we were happy to accept.
Also on the charter are Peter and Carol King, of King Yacht Charters, who organized everything for Cruising World, and who’ll be with us on the lead boat, along with a professional flotilla skipper named Mark. We’ll meet Mark tomorrow. Also along on our boat are two of our best friends, Margo and Rob from Newport, Rhode Island, who we’ve enticed to join us on the charter. Already, I’m thinking our boat will be a great group.
Peter and Carol spend the evening moving from guest to guest, introducing people to one another, putting faces with the familiar voices and names, and answering questions about the activities of the week. I admit to being alarmed for a moment to see one group of six guests wearing neon glow-in-the-dark necklaces – a harbinger of geekdom that makes my inner alarm bells go off – but upon meeting these folks, they seem like terrific sports.
The docks are a hive of industriousness. We all lug our stuff to our catamarans, pick cabins aboard the boats, and move in. We try on flippers, masks and snorkels, and stow them. Mountains of food are delivered and we begin stowing it all in these cavernous – between 41 and 47 feet – catamarans. We fill the freezer with tons of fish, chicken, and meat, and load the fridge with enough food to feed an army. Snack foods alone fill an entire bin under the main settee seat. The beverages arrive next, and we’re all momentarily stunned by the quantity that we’ve ordered. Too late now. We stow it all, as the rising temperature drenches us in sweat.
Mark, our skipper arrives. A dapper handsome man in his 50s, originally from South Africa, he has a buttery accent of such elegance and refinement that I wonder what on earth he’s doing with this lot, instead of reading the news on the BBC.
Eventually, everything is stowed, and there’s a call to start the engines. This herd is moving out of the corral. One by one, with crew from The Catamaran Company assisting, each of the boats shoves off from the docks, and makes their way out of the harbor. Because there are so many new sailors in our flotilla, Cruising World has put a professional skipper on each of the boats just for this first day, to teach everyone the ropes of sailing catamarans – an inspired idea, as it turns out. On Cat.Com, the lead boat, we’re lucky; we get to keep Mark for the duration of the charter.
We crawl out from the charter base, with Mark at the wheel, and we’re no more than a few feet beyond the channel and into deep water, before he’s giving us instructions about putting up the sail. Unfamiliar with the cat, we bounce off each other in the big cockpit like bumper cars. Finally, we get the sail up, catch the breeze, and take off like a rocket. Over the next couple of hours, we soar toward Cooper Island, the great cat tacking in sweeping displays of speed. By early afternoon, we pick up one of the many available mooring balls, and with brown boobies soaring over the reef we jump into the turquoise water. Our charter has officially begun.
That evening, we dinghy ashore, join all the other charterers, and order up a big dinner of ribs and cold beer at the Cooper Island beach restaurant. In the midst of dinner, someone screams, “A cat is drifting toward the beach!” It’s Cakrawalla. All the professional skippers are long gone, already shipped back to the base, except for Mark and Dennis, who leap out of their chairs, jump into a dinghy, and tear out into the night to intercept the drifting boat.
A half an hour later, Mark returns, calm as a cucumber, resumes his dinner, and whispers, “They didn’t tie the line properly to the mooring. No harm done.” But, there are no secrets in a flotilla charter. The crew of Cakrawalla, a mouthful of a name anyway, begins thereafter to refer to themselves as the CaCa gang.
We set sail for the infamous Baths at Virgin Gorda, huge rounded boulders the size of Volkswagens balanced artfully on top of one another along the white sandy beach. Again, when we arrive, there are mooring balls to pick up – no need to anchor – and each boat grabs one, some with more familiarity of the procedure than others. CaCa ties theirs on with numerous cleated lines. One boat motors up to a ball, the woman at the bow grabs the mooring pennant with a boat hook, ties it onto a bow cleat, gives the signal to her husband at the wheel, and then to our astonishment we watch him put the engines in reverse and back down on the ball, as though digging it in better.
Meanwhile, just then, on another one of our boats, all the seat cushions fly out of the cockpit in a big burst of wind, and Karla from Change Order dives in to retrieve them. A former competitive swimmer, Karla would have numerous calls to arms during the week (“Kaaar-Laaah!!! QUICK!!!”) as everything from boat hooks to dinghies are dropped overboard, and go floating off.
We linger at the Baths, swimming and exploring, then sail to Scrub Island, and pick up moorings behind the protection of the reef. Those who need to top off the water tanks and buy ice make their way to the small fuel dock -- no easy feat. The wind is howling, and I fear for the new charterers attempting to dock these big cats, with their twin screws, for the first time. I’m sailing aboard CaCa for the day, and as we approach the dock, our crew runs around chaotically hurling docklines into the water, and then as we kabong up alongside, I notice the occupants of a lovely French cruising cat, already at the dock, watching us disdainfully, ready to leap with fenders to defend their boat. I understand their feelings, but at the same time I’m protective of the CaCa crew and their valiant efforts to get the hang of this steroidal boat.
Later, Mark and I buzz around in the dinghy and tie fenders onto the last two unoccupied moorings in the harbor, saving them for our last two cats to arrive, Certitude and Gato Chateaux. The rowdy gangs on both boats, who hadn’t known each other before this trip, have bonded, and we often hear their music late into the night. Peter and Carol, the matchmakers who put everyone together, begin to relax; they’ve done well.
Margo and Rob and I go ashore to walk around the island, which has a small resort, then we take the ferry over to the other side, where there are a few shops. We linger at the Aragorn Studio and try on hats, and jewelry, and all kinds of beautiful things made by the local artists who own it. It’s Rob’s birthday this week, so Margo and I whisper to each other about a champagne breakfast surprise.
That evening, a skiff from Donovan’s Reef restaurant picks us up, and we go ashore for a gourmet dinner – blue cheese and apple salad, seared scallops on a nest of cappelini with tomato concasee, grilled yellow-fin tuna, and, finally, dessert of key lime pie and chocolate mousse cake. This week is no hardship. People ask us if this is what cruising is really like. Right.
With clear sky and strong breeze, we sail from Marina Cay to North Sound, the home of the busy Bitter End Yacht Club; we pick up mooring balls. Soon a skiff named Deliverance putters through the anchorage crewed by two beautiful entrepreneurs in skimpy bikinis. The skiff carries a big sign advertising what they have for sale: ice, freshly-baked bread, ice cream, homemade brownies, fruit, liquor, and “whatever you need.”
It’s a quiet afternoon. We swim, and drift, and read, and contemplate our next feeding, while Mark and Peter take the dinghy from boat to boat, personally reviewing the sailing instructions for the next day with each crew. Tomorrow will be the longest sail of the week, twenty-something miles across the boisterous Anegada passage and around some reefs into the anchorage. This will be a stretch for the group. Mark and Peter think everyone’s up for it, but just to be sure they want to go boat to boat to be sure everyone understands the charts.
We snake our way through the reefs and into the shallow anchorage, now crowded with cats, and pick up one of the last mooring balls. A surge of sheer terror occurs a few minutes later, when the Change Order crew decides to charge their batteries. Somebody, somewhere on another boat, screams to us. “You’re MOVING!” Change Order was still in forward gear. A mere two feet from T-boning the monohull ahead of us, somebody throws the throttles into reverse and we retreat. As Mark would say, no harm done. Barely.
That night, after poking around the beautiful sand spit of an island, we all have dinner ashore. Douglas and I get up and tell stories about our travels; Phil from CaCa plays the guitar and we all sing along; in a rare moment of dis-inhibition, Mark acts out a hilarious story about Prince Charles’s wedding night. It’s a night of yarns and music and laughter, everyone telling stories about their accumulating adventures and lessons of the week.
The day dawns gray. If we were on Ithaka, Douglas and I would probably stay put and let the weather pass. But this is a charter, and there’s too much on the agenda for lollygagging. We set sail through the squalls toward White Bay – a spectacular crescent beach of white powdery sand, home of the Soggy Dollar bar, which is the birthplace of a drink called the painkiller. To reach this bar is our a noble quest.
I’m sailing today on Freedonia, and arrived onboard this morning to join a rowdy breakfast, already in progress, of rum-soaked French toast and mimosas. At first, I thought this lavish and boozy spread was prepared in my honor, but no; it turns out this is standard fare on Freedonia.
For me, today is the most hilarious of this charter week. The people on Freedonia are irreverent, loud, and up for anything. They are incredulous that Peter and Carol -- who they and the rest of the flotilla now call Mom and Dad out of earshot -- could have had the prescience to put this particular group together, to somehow know, despite their differences in lifestyles, ages, and tastes, that they were all of the same varsity party-animal caliber. (Later, when I ask Mom why she grouped the Freedonians together, she shrugs and says, “They were all engineers.”)
Music blares loudly all morning from one of the four iPods aboard Freedonia as we whoop and sail at top speeds toward painkillers at White Bay. Back on Cat.Com, our lead boat, I knew exactly what music they were listening to at that moment: either the dulcet tones of Andre Boccelli or the operatic Charlotte Church. Period. We’d all forgotten to bring CDs, except for Carol, who’d brought five mellow selections, and we’d been listening to those over, and over, and over…
As soon as Freedonia moors in the clear green water, we all dive in and float around the boat, amazed by the color. Larry, Belinda, and Dave swim a half mile to shore. Soon after, the rest of us grab shirts and money, jump in the dinghy, and head for the busy beach. A giant Windstar cruise ship is anchored outside the bay, and hundreds of their guests have been brought in by launch to stroll the shoreline. As we trace the beach with the dinghy, Gwen and Amber, in their bikinis, begin yelling a war cry, “Lar-ry! Lar-ry!” – over and over -- as we look for our friends amongst the strollers. Everyone along the beach stares.
Finally, reunited at the end of the beach, we wiggle our toes in the soft sand, and rock back and forth in hammocks under palm trees. A couple wanders over and asks, “Um, who’s Larry?” And we tell them, he’s our muse, our fearless leader, he’s the life of our Freedonia party.
In reality, Larry is a refined father of grown children, reserved, and recently divorced, who came on this charter solo, was assigned to this boat, and became the mascot to this band of rowdy Freedonians. Despite the fact that his young crewmates tease him relentlessly, they’re crazy about him, and Larry’s having a ball.
Several painkillers later, we motor around the corner and anchor (yes, anchor!) in Great Harbor. Just as the Freedonians pop open a few beers, and turn up the tunes, Mark swings over in the dinghy to take me back to the civilized rituals aboard Cat.Com – where, he says, the afternoon kettle is on. “Kettle?” says Amber, stunned. I leave. Reluctantly.
This is the first time the flotilla will anchor for the night, rather than pick up mooring balls. Freedonia, with Larry at the controls, dug in beautifully, despite his trepidation. And now, one by one, Mark and I watch the other cats come into this popular anchorage and putter around like dogs circling their tails before nestling down. The anchorage is deep, and quickly filling up with three dozen boats; it’s presenting our gang a bit of a challenge.
It turns out that Change Order is the most anchor-challenged. They drop the hook, drag, drop, drag, again, and again, and again. It’s painful to watch, but of course everyone in the harbor is mesmerized by it — and grateful it’s happening to somebody else. In the midst of the show, we see two people getting into a dinghy from Change Order, and zooming off; we learn later that one of the guys is taking Lisa ashore. She can’t bear to be part of this stressful anchoring mayhem, and demands to be taken to shore immediately. After 14 tries, Change Order is hooked.
An hour later, Change Order’s dinghy comes our way, Ron and Mike drop off Karla and Rick to visit with us on Cat.Com, and then zoom ashore to retrieve Lisa. We sit around chatting until Rob and Margo notice…
“Hey, is Change Order dragging?”
Sure enough, the cat is farther away from us than it once was. Douglas and Kaaar-Laaah! dive in and swim toward the cat at top speed, get Change Order’s engine running, and re-anchor. I’m beginning to see the wisdom in Peter and Carol’s decision, when planning the charter, that almost all our evening stops are at places with mooring balls.
That night at Foxy’s Restaurant, one of the charterers tells me that he heard that Larry from Freedonia has left an autographed pair of underwear to be part of the collection of other such memorabilia at the bar. Incredulous, I ask him about it later. “You, Larry?” I say. He blushes, and whispers to me that his crew wanted to leave an article of intimate apparel, which is tradition amongst Foxy’s more risqué clientele, and upon checking with each other, to squeals of delight, the crew of Freedonia discovered Larry was the only one wearing any.
The next morning, we sail to the Indians, a dramatic outcropping of rocks reputedly named after the Amerind Indians, cannibals who’d inhabited the islands before the British took possession. Cat.Com bobs on a mooring, directly over the coral bed surrounding the Indians, and we jump into the swaying formations. The three great rocks rise up from the ocean floor, and the coral grows all along the walls. We swim and explore for a couple of hours, until lunch hunger pangs lure us back to the cat.
Our final stop is the Bight at Norman Island, where the happening joint is called Willie T’s, a barge of a boat, made into a restaurant. There is a standing challenge at Willie T’s, we learn when we get there, that anyone who jumps naked off the platform on the third-floor deck, at night, then presents themselves downstairs at the bar, will be given a coveted “I Came, I Saw, I Jumped, At Willie T’s” tee-shirt. Brenda and Gwen, from Freedonia, take the challenge, strip off, hold hands, and jump buck naked into the darkness in front of 100 or so stunned patrons, including Larry, who stands, agape, shaking his head.
But the jump itself isn’t what will make Gwen and Belinda legendary in the annals of Cruising World charters. What they do next does. They climb back aboard the Willie T, make their way through the restaurant, through the parting crowd to the bar, and there they casually order shots while awaiting their tee-shirts. Buck naked.
Finally, it’s time to head back to the barn. Sailing toward Nanny Cay, the crews of every cat are now all finely oiled machines. On Cat.Com, we no longer knock into one another. Now we perform graceful pirouettes as we slide past each other in the corridors of the boat. And we’re tacking like champs.
The speed of the cats has become addictive. We sail back toward the charter base at 13 knots, until the wind gets fluky. Then we “slow” to 7 knots, which is when Margo rushes out into the cockpit, asking “Why did we stop?” It’s a change in perspective.
Over the week, everyone on the charter has gone from disparate strangers to a warm group of sailors who’ve gotten to know each other’s frailties, funny bones, and foibles. We all have our “in” jokes, now, and our shared adventures to bond us. At the same time, we’ve had our minor problems; these are boats after all. Freedonia had no deck shower; Certitude and Change Order broke halyards; for a day CaCa lost forward gear. Then there was the night, when their ship’s anchor light bit the dust, that Change Order had to use their glow-in-the-dark necklaces, placed all along their lifelines, as anchor lights to find their boat with the dinghy. The first few days, folks were comparing their new shin bruises; but by the last couple of days, everyone was comparing boat speeds, suntans, and everyone looked relaxed and proud.
Finally, back at the dock, we all stop by each other’s boats, and exchange email addresses, while a few of the guys rush around looking for something, anything, to bring home as presents to their wives. Gary from Freedonia has woven a little shell into his beard. Dad gets on the radio for the last time, thanking everyone for coming, and then says, finally, “This is Cat.Com, signing off.” Douglas and I hug Margo and Rob goodbye, hoping they’ll fly down sometime and visit us on Ithaka, and then we head to the airport with our memories. Just then a Category 4 earthquake rocks the Caribbean. Luckily, no harm done.