My Very Own Yacht. Almost.

By Gretchen Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day One of my Caribbean winter sail did not bode well for the rest of the week in the Grenadines.

It wasn't the rainy season, but the skies were opening off and on, turning the famed turquoise waters and white sand to a dull gray. The Christmas Winds had kicked in right on schedule, complicating our sea-leg adjustments as my friend Judith and I boarded our private yacht. The charter service had described the Bon Bini as "not a luxury yacht, but very cozy." I quickly translated "cozy" to "cramped" as we unpacked in the tiny, increasingly damp space below deck. Most perplexing was the presence of an extra crew member, Brad Sadler. We'd expected only our skipper, Ellie Mae Byas, and her 5-year-old first mate, a yellow Labrador named Scooby. Now it was four people and a dog on a 36-foot sailboat for seven days.

But, hey, this was an experiment. I wanted to see if it was possible to charter a private dive boat on the cheap, and if the Grenadines lived up to its reputation as the Caribbean's last untrammeled paradise. I also wanted to find out how much I could still rough it and whether dragging a friend along would ruin the relationship. I also wanted to learn to sail, or at least gauge how much I'd need to learn before I could do a bareboat charter; i.e., without a crew.

The remoteness of our destination made it a big draw but also a hassle getting there (e.g., infrequent flights, multiple connections, tiny planes). St. Vincent and the Grenadines covers some 30 of the Windward Islands north of Grenada (which is not part of the Eastern Caribbean nation), about a 2 1/2 -hour flight from Puerto Rico. Though big cruise lines are making inroads and the Canouan island airport will start receiving bigger jets later this year, the area is still relatively off the beaten track both geographically and culturally.

We flew into Canouan, which has one of the best-connected airports in the region. While its beaches are nice enough, there isn't much else there except the pricey resorts recently erected by Raffles and Donald Trump. We stayed one night at the comfortable Crystal Apartments near the waterfront. Our apartment had two beds and a kitchen, but the latter did little good because there weren't any utensils. Someone had left a few grounds of coffee behind, but we had to rig a sock over a cup to brew them.

My spirits -- and the weather -- lifted with the sails as we set out. Our first stop was Tobago Cays, five deserted islets designated as a wildlife preserve and sea turtle sanctuary. Alas, by the time we got there -- two hours by sail power -- it was pouring again. However, I was so eager to baptize myself in this escape, I dived right in.

Visibility was too poor to enjoy the coral gardens that make this a premier snorkeling and dive site, and the turtles all seemed to be hiding. But the water and the rain were warm enough to give me that "we're not in the mid-Atlantic anymore" sensation.

When we reconnoitered below deck, however, I prayed the weather would change soon. I felt as if I were crashing in someone else's very small, very cramped, very dank apartment. The Bon Bini, which means "welcome" in the Dutch Antilles Papiamento language, is Ellie Mae and Scooby's year-round home, and every nook was crammed with their stuff. Judith and I had the beds in the bow and stern while the crew slept in the midsection, so there was no public area to hang out in -- except above deck, where you competed with Scooby for the best cushions. The biggest discomfort was what Judith called "a spit of a shower," a solar-heated bag hung at the stern where the exposure required showering in one's bathing suit.

Fortunately, Ellie Mae's cooking made up for a lot. Every night in her tiny galley, the 44-year-old Dutch native would whip up a fresh meal, such as Asian stir-fry with local tuna, perfectly browned pork chops skillfully paired with potatoes and veggies, or an Indonesian dish with coconut milk. Breakfast and lunch were more basic: fruit, yogurt, boiled eggs, sandwiches on surprisingly good bread. Ellie Mae's foodie creds stem from her long galley experience: She has sailed the Bon Bini around the world. She is also good at haggling with the locals, who motor by in dinghies each morning to offer their latest catch.

The accommodations may not have been luxury, but our transport certainly was. Having our own yacht meant we could swim and sleep wherever and whenever we wanted. Most of our destinations were a morning's sail away, so we'd swim, snorkel, read, nap or eat the rest of the day away. I was uncharacteristically content with the light agenda and didn't even bother with the sailing school part of my plan.

I learned right away everything I needed to know about sailing sans skipper: that I would never have the guts to do it. Surprisingly, lots of charter companies are happy to send sailors out in their luxury boats without any real proof of experience, and Brad told me all I'd really need was a week-long course on the Chesapeake. But even I -- risk-taker that I am -- knew that I'd need a lot more training to feel safe alone at the helm. And anyway, Ellie Mae and Brad (a 38-year-old Canadian friend, who turned out to be a great addition, despite the tight space) were a bargain. Most live-aboard scuba charters in the Caribbean cost at least $400 a day per person including food, with an extra $60 or more per dive. We paid just $175 a day per person, and my dives were $40 each. (The extra fee covers tank air, equipment upkeep and guide services.)

Judith's diligent research had landed us the deal. She's a refugee of Windjammer cruises, where those who eschew dressing for dinner sail on old clipper ships for a relative song. Windjammer suspended operations last year (temporarily marooning crews physically and guests financially), and when Judith searched for an alternative, she mostly discovered what a good deal she had uncovered.

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