One day aboard the 37-foot, cutter-rigged cruising yacht Perseverance and we had adjusted to the balmy days, clear waters and white sandy beaches of the British Virgin Islands.
Tony was at the wheel, Tom was getting frosty Heinekens and I was slathering myself with suntan oil. Silently, out of the corner of her eye, our captain, Rita, was watching dark thunderheads rise and quickly roll in from the southeast.
"Furl the jib, and then prepare to reef the main," Rita suddenly told Tony and Tom, taking the wheel with both hands. "Hold on," she yelled to me, "we might be blown around some." The sky turned black and the nearby islands which minutes earlier seemed to be within swimming distance disappeared in the fog. The wind stopped and stillness ensued.
The first raindrops were warm, but as the wind picked up and the storm moved directly overhead, summer turned to winter and our thoughts went from excitement to survival. Perseverance rolled from port to starboard. Rita turned the boat's nose toward the wind and we rode out the storm.
As quickly as it came, it was gone. The calm brought another surprise, a perfect, 180-degree rainbow. Centered below the bands of blue, green, red and yellow was a lone sailboat, her white sails filled, smoothly making her way up against the wind.
The only other time the sun made an appearance during our 10-day Caribbean sailing vacation was at St. John, a green mountainous island in the nearby U.S. Virgin Islands. We camped there for three days before boarding our bareboat charter, Perseverance. An extended camping weekend, we decided, would give our untanned bodies a chance to adjust to the tropical sun.
Night had fallen by the time we arrived at our $5-per-night tent site in Cinnamon Bay campground, part of the U.S. national park that comprises one-half the area of St. John. We hadn't been camping in years and, in our blissful ignorance, hadn't brought more than a sleeping bag and a pup tent. A flashlight, a broom to sweep rocks from the ground and a can of bug spray would have made that first night in the wilderness without amenities much easier.
Our traveling companions rented accommodations at Maho Bay, the only other camping facility on the island. Their tent was like a tree-house -- the green canvas walls built into the mountain upon stilts left them nose-to-beak with the hummingbirds. For $30 per night there was a bedroom, tiny living room, fully equipped kitchen and a wooden deck.
Maho, a small crescent-shaped beach, is dotted with black rocks which are stoops for pelicans dive-bombing for fish from 100 feet above. Pleasure yachts anchor off shore. Snorkeling is excellent here -- clear water with an abundant underwater world of fish and coral.
While swimming to the tip of land where bay meets sea at Maho and where we were promised the company of a family of giant sea turtles, we admired white and red coral, purple sea fans, starfish and sea urchins. A manta ray glided across the sandy bottom and a two-foot barracuda lurked nearby in the shallow water. A laughing young couple, who suddenly appeared on the rocky shore ahead, asked if we had seen the small shark they had just speared. We returned quickly to the beach, not pausing to look for turtles.
A jeep for a full day costs $35, plus $3 for insurance. We used it to reach hiking trails and snorkeling waters on the other side of the island. There are trails all over St. John varying in length from one-half to several miles. A trip into the thick, tropical rain forest, parts of which swallow the remains of old Dutch sugar plantations that spawned one of the first slave rebellions in the Western Hemisphere, gives a different perspective to this present-day island playground.
Restaurants do not abound on this undeveloped island. But we did manage to find a funky local hangout, the Sputnik Bar, where islanders and an occasional tourist gather to drink beer, play pool, talk and eat after work. Chef Abu's cooking combinations are as unusual as the three rhinestone earrings in his left earlobe. We ordered his $4.95 rich, filling and garlicky kingfish platter. Along with the tender fish steak came a plateful of pureed pumpkin, crispy potato fritters and yesterday's spaghetti.
Two ferries (Sundance II and Bad Lee) leave St. John's Cruz Bay for Road Harbor, BVI, at 3:30 p.m. daily. It is a 30-minute ride and you will need to present a passport at customs. Taxis line the tiny dock to take you to your hotels for a negotiable fee. Be sure to check with your hotel beforehand, as they often have a courtesy pickup service.
We chartered our yacht from Caribbean Sailing Yachts (CSY), the largest (they say) bareboat chartering company in the world. Because a bareboat charter is self-crewed, the captain must submit a resume of sailing experience. Demand is great between December and April, so arrangements should be started several months in advance. Our captain had lived aboard in the Caribbean for three years, so clearance came quickly.
We spent the night at the CSY marina and awoke early the next morning to a two-hour briefing in the chart room. We were told about anchorages, tricky channels, good snorkeling waters and out-of-bounds boating areas.
Perseverance had two of all the important things -- staterooms, heads and showers. A fully-equipped galley, an engine-cooled freezer and a grill for on-deck barbecuing made our days quite comfortable. She cost $1,120 for the full seven-day voyage ($280 per person).
Provisions are available directly through CSY, most of which is canned vegetables and meats. Tinny-testing food on so exotic a vacation was not appealing, so we ordered our food from a mail-order grocery store, Ample Hamper, located one block from the marina. Six weeks before we set sail, they mailed us an extensive list of available groceries from which we selected a variety of fresh and some frozen foods. Our order was delivered to the dock. We spent $11 a day per person for food and drink.
Sailing through the BVI, rain or shine, is exhilarating. Gray skies and fresh breezes dominated our days. We averaged five knots tooling around the Sir Frances Drake Channel; cruising along the 26-mile ocean voyage north of Tortola from Virgin Gorda (the Fat Virgin) to Jost Van Dyke, we averaged seven knots. We met the islanders, toured the islands, swam every day and even saw a shark. By the trip's end we were salty dogs with calloused fingers, dirty nails and tanned bodies.
A charming few hours can be had at Salt Island, a day anchorage, where the population has dwindled to nine people over the last 80 years. Clementine Smith, 70, and her sister Beatrice, 75, welcome visitors and will talk at length about their life styles and the three natural salt ponds that supply their limited source of income. They live, with their husbands, in pink and blue tinframed shacks along the shoreline.
The waters off Salt Island are the site of the shipwreck Rhone, a mail ship that sank in a hurricane in 1867. The Rhone, which you may recognize from the movie, "The Deep," is visible from a dinghy and with snorkel gear and nice weather you will have a nice afternoon's dive. After a leisurely lunch, dark clouds forced us to move on to our nearby anchorage at Cooper Island.
A well-anchored boat means a good night's sleep for a captain. So we made it a habit of diving to check all anchorages firsthand. It was 5 p.m. by the time our plow dug into the ocean floor. Ready for a late afternoon swim, Tony and Rita elected to check the anchor, forgetting that the small fish schooling in the shadow of Perseverance might present a tasty meal to the sea's predators.
The anchor wasfine, they reported from 20 feet offthe starboard beam. But from port,a sleak, four-foot, black-topped and white-bellied fish swam under our boat and presented himself as Tony and Rita approached the ladder. Rita, experienced in these things, looked, yelled and scrambled up into the boat with Tony close ather flippers.
There were other islands and places. Gorda Sound has a good overnight mooring at the Bitter End Yacht Club, where you can eat, rent their small day-sailers or shop in the club's stylish gift shop. The Biras Creek Hotel is also located there and has a reputation for fine French food at a high price.
Four- to five-foot swells along our ocean voyage to Jost Van Dyke's Little Harbour made a gueasy day for everyone but our captain. By nightfall, however, following dinner at Sidney's Peace and Love Bar, where you make your own drinks keep your own check and geta whale of a lobster dinner for $15,everyone was revived.
The last night was spent at Norman Island, the inspriation for Robbert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." During a break in the afternoon weather we took dinghys into the four large, ocean-flooded caves, snorkeled in the crystal-clear water and explored the nooks and crannies where pirates could easily have hidden their booty.
That night the clouds disappeared and millions of stars lined the black Caribbean sky. Orion came out and wished us farewell, fish jumped, and you could hear singing from other yachts down the beach. We cooked steaks on the grill and ended our vacation with champagne, just a little sad knowing it was time to head home.