Ice on the Potomac. Ice on the Chesapeake. North winds howl out of Canada and sailors repair to the pubs of Washington and Annapolis to linger over drinks and memories.

It's warm and safe here. The stories get wilder each time they're told. And the best tales of all are the worst of all -- of moments when shackles gave and the mast buckled and green seas swept over a pitching bow, with safe harbor near yet hopelessly out of reach.

There was a stiff east wind the day we arrived in St. Vincent in the British West Indies. There is always a stiff east wind there, which is why devotees of the splendid sport of sailing know no place finer to ply their elegant trade. It's why they call them the Windward Islands, and why charter-boat operations flourish there the way exterminators flourish in the hot slums of Miami.

What could go wrong here?

In our little presail lecture we seven Washingtonians could barely bring ourselves to pay attention. The sweet smell of frangipani and jasmine wafted on the breeze. We saw the dozen 41-foot charter yachts bobbing at the dock, fresh and white and clean under windworn palms.

Our instructor seemed so casual. The people at Caribbean Sailing Yachts don't bore their charterers with a great litany of dont's before they send them off to do battle with the reefs and blustery breezes between the islands.

They just smile, hand over the chart, make two small points and send the the newcomers off to the dock. Two little simple points that no one could take as ominous.

Don't sail after dark.

Don't swim after dark.

You don't sail at night because the West Indies remain quite primitive in their navigational aids, which is to say they don't have any.So the only people who know where they're going in the pitch-black night are the people who've been doing it all their lives, and they're smart enough not to try.

You don't swim in the dark because the waters are infested with sharks, and sharks feed at night, and they respond to noises on the surface, and they swin incredibly fast, and they can lop off a leg or an arm before anyone know's they're around.

So we went to the West Indies and went sailing at night and swimming at night.

Not because we wanted to.

Because we had no choice.

We had no choice because we were ignoramuses who set off on a potentially perilous journey with about as much forethought as a run to the grocery store might take.It could easily have cost lives.

We were seven aboard a 41-foot Caribe sloop on the hell cruise of February. There were three men, three women and a nine-year-old girl. We had met twice in the comfort of a Washington den to discuss the particulars of our voyage to unspoiled islands. At both meetings the adults had alluded at great length to their expertise and experience on blue water.

It wasn't until blue water was rippling around our familiar hull that we discovered that only one of us knew anything at all about serious sailing and there was significant holes in his knowledge.

So it came to pass that on the fifth night out our yacht was anchored off a postcard-perfect pleasure island. The boat was crippled with a busted motor, largely a result of our inexperience with the workings of a diesel. We were waiting for a parts drop from the island plane and for the resident island mechanic's installation of the new piece.

We had been towed in to the anchorage behind the mechanic's 30-foot Bertram.

We ate a good dinner in the cockpit and enjoyed a round or two. Then three of our party -- two women and a man -- decided to go ashore and taste the pleasures of the little island cafe.

The outboard on the dinghy was down to a few drops of fuel. It was decided that the shore party should row the hundred-odd yards to a small dock on the beach.

They set off under a blanket of stars in the moonless night. A good stiff offshore breeze pulled them away from the boat, and we chuckled as they battled to get the oars in the rowlocks and get on course. Then we went off to clean the dishes.

We thought no more of it unitl a few minutes later, when we heard distressful cries. We ran to the stern and looked, but no rowboat was in sight. We found a flashlight and scanned the dark sea.

There they were, a hundred yards dead astern, still struggling with the oars and drifting straight away from the shore with nothing but black ocean ahead of them.

We watched helplessly as they drifted farther and farther off, waving the oars over their heads and hallooing in the night. Then they were gone, out of range of the little flashlight. We were horrified.

What could we do?

Our engine was on the fritz. There was a radio transmitter aboard but no one seemed to monitor the radio at night. We tried but no answer came.

We could try sailing to the island to get help, but the beach was ringed by a dangerous coral reef and there wes nowhere to put ashore anyway. We could shout for help, which we did, but the roar of the surf drowned out our cries.

We could swim.

I felt eyes on me.

"Well," I thought, "we can't just let them drift off to Panama."

My daughter looked at me with great tearful saucer eyes as I battled to get a pair of flippers on. I wrapped a flotation jacket around my chest and put on a serene face.

"What the hell," I thought. "Only a hundred yards."

I waddled up to the bow pulpit, gave Laura a big hug and bade farewell to the others. Then I jumped overboard and proceeded to swim a hundred yards in exactly 3.8 seconds, never once touching the water. I was moving so fast that when I hit the beach I plowed a furrow in the sand with my nose.

Johnny the mechanic was in the bar, chatting amid the tinkle of glasses and fine china, and he came running when he saw me stumble up in my shorts.

We made a quick dash to the beach, where he had a rubber dinghy. We took that to the Bertram and fired up the engines.

He wet a finger to read the wind and checked the beach to read the tide. "My guess," he said, "is that they're headed straight for the reef. If they're in it there's no way we can get 'em out. It'll tear a hole in the Bertram this quick." He snapped his fingers.

What will it do to the dinglhy?

"Same thing," he said. "Put a hole in it and sink it. The water's not that deep, but when they go down the surf will smash them against the coral, and that stuff is as sharp as a razor. I don't want to be around when the bleeding starts."

Oh yeah. Sharks.

We found them a mile out to sea and fifty yards off the reef. The man and one of the women were standing at opposite ends of the dinghy, paddling furiously in opposite directions, canoe style, which had the effect of sending the rowboat into a furious spin as it drifted along on wind and tide. The second woman was seated amidships, alternately crying and screaming at the top of her voice.

We were seven again.

Two nights later, on the last evening of our disaster cruise, the screamer was at the helm. She was a commanding woman who backed up her insistance on control of the vessel with a broad shortfall of knowledge of the basics of sailing.

We had timed our final day well and were approaching our last anchorage on schedule, just as the sun began to set behind it.

It was a difficult approach. The harbor lay between two high bluffs and the channel was only thirty or forty yards across between two coral reefs. The breeze blew straight out of the channel mouth at about fifteen knots.

Time was running out. We could see the yachts at anchor in the cove and longed to be with them. Our captain barked out the orders.

We would motor in, she said. We hopped to the mast to drop the sails. She fired up the diesel. As we gathered the sails in we heard a roar from the stern -- the engine racing wildly. Then came a crunch as she thrust it into gear at about 2,000 rpm.

I watched the starboard jib sheet, a hunk of half-inch nylon line, flapping over the side. Suddenly it was taut, then it stretched incredibly and finally burst with a bang.

The boat lurched and the engine began loping crazily, roaring and dying, roaring and dying.

She had cut the sheet with the propeller, and now the line was wrapped around the blades. We were without power and drifting lazily toward a coral reef at night.

I've done some ridiculous things in my life but the next I'm still ashamed to report. Our captain decided our plight was hopeless. "Get below," she barked, "and call a Mayday."

Mayday is the ship captain's way of announcing he is officially doomed. It is a catchword reserved for hopeless situations, when the water is pouring in over the gunwales and only minutes are left.

I found myself in the cabin clutching a microphone and screaming at the top of my lungs, "Mayday, Mayday."

Fortunately no one was listening.

Meanwhile the one person aboard who had any idea how to drive a sailboat had worked out a way we might get in to port. It involved a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, but what it came down to was sailing in on one sheet by backwinding the jib. It was almost pitch-black by then, and we felt our way gingerly along, waiting for the crunch that would signal contact with hard coral, a likely hole in the bottom and a mile swim through dark, sharky waters.

But we made it.

There were other, less stunning moments of danger on our scary voyage and even an occasional pleasant day sail. But overall, our Caribbean adventure turned out to be a humbling disaster.

Airplane pilots have a parable they like to tell when folks say how nice it must be to fly around in the sky.

Better to be down here wishing you were up there, they say, than up there wishing you were down here.

Likewise sailboats. Next time, if there is one, I'll make sure there's a captain aboard. Even if we have to pay him.