Looking back on it later you do not remember specific events, times or days of the week so much as a pleasurable blur of free-floating images:
Dawn, with the wind down to nothing and all the surrounding boats silent, motionless, lifeless even, except for one or two solitary figures quietly sipping coffee and waiting for the day to take shape around them.
Squadrons of brown pelicans that alternately plunge for fish with the grace (and gliding angle) of a Fifth Avenue bus or ghost along with motionless wings, a reminder that pterodactyls must have been breathtaking to watch, as well as dangerous.
Miniature underwater "cities" of coral, now shaped like spiky fans, now like replicas of Victorian cushions or Shakespeare's Globe Theater, pink or yellow or black, and -- when you drift in close -- alive with fish, pink or yellow or black, each in perfect camouflage.
For northern sailors, especially in contrast to the slushy sidewalks and snowbound airports of home, such recollections are double dazzling. They are only a few of the cheerful returns from a week's "bare-boat" rental in the British Virgin Islands, one of the world's favorite winter sailing grounds.
"Bare boating" is a figure of speech, of course. It means that you sail the boat you rent; it does not come with a hired skipper (or "Rhinestone Captain" as they are known around the British Virgins). Our bare boat -- waiting at the yacht rental basin in Tortola's Road Town along with the four friends who made up our five-man crew -- was a 44-foot cutter with a notably sappy name, "Hi Jink." But it came with everything: binoculars, pillows, sheets and blankets, depth sounder, a pair of anchors plus an electric windlass, a huge "ice keeper" and freezer, a dinghy and outboard.
The yacht rental company insisted that anything missing when you turned in the boat at week's end would be charged to the renter, so we really plunged into Hi Jink's inventory. The diesel didn't start. Some electrical switches were on the fritz. There were no nautical charts. Instead Hi Jink had a "Treasure-Islandy" type of map, clearly marked "NOT FOR NAVIGATION." Everything was quickly set right, except for the charts. For an additional $10.50 at the company store, we made do with a 1983-84 "Yachtsman's Guide to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico" (no bare-boater should leave Road Town harbor without one).
We breezed through the briefing: These are international waters so what would be red markers in the United States are green -- as in "green right returning." Never swim at night. Barracuda are harmless unless you are wearing a shiny ring, watch or bracelet -- a theory I'd hate to test too far.
But by the time we were ready, most of the other boats had drifted out ahead of us. They were on a broad reach, spread out across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, bound for Norman Island, which has pirate caves reputedly used by Robert Louis Stevenson as background for the last part of "Treasure Island."
There are so many rental companies (at least 10 on Tortola alone) that the rush of preparations and the parade of departing craft remind one of the start of a July club regatta up north. We decided to stay away from the crowd by dropping down the channel to Soper's Hole -- a harbor on the west end of Tortola -- for the night, then heading north to Jost Van Dyke, the least-populated and most isolated of the British Virgins.
Hi Jink had a clean bottom, a small main, a club-footed staysail, a roller-reefing jib -- and no speed in light air. We were soon longing for a genoa jib. The boat rolled sluggishly as we tacked downwind, to get some use out of the staysail, and I was prey to secret suspicions that the trip would not prove worth all the cost and effort. Even so, it was hard not to be delighted by the look of this sailing ground.
Taken by the old white magic of sail, we drifted past the brown-green hills and began to feel rich and carefree. Off Little Thatch Island, in the late afternoon, came a yachtman's epiphany. Soper's Hole lies north of the island and through a handsome, narrow strait, and when we came abeam of the entrance the wind obligingly blew harder. Trimmed up to a narrow reach, Hi Jink for the first time really began to crack along as we sliced toward one of the great thrills of cruising -- the chance to poke your head into an unknown anchorage.
V.S. Pritchett once wrote that until the age of 25, whenever he glimpsed a distant city for the first time, he wondered if he would find in it the girl he would eventually marry. Something of that promise, with none of the possible long-term complications, attends any first look into a new harbor.
This one was small and steep-sided. It had a combined customs house and ferry dock, quite a few moored boats, a place to buy gas and, this night at least, plenty of evening calm. Local rental rules forbid both sailing at night and "rafting" (i.e. tying up side-by-side) by bare-boaters, which makes for quiet. The only dissonant voices belonged to an army of roosters in the surrounding hills, each determined to have the last word.
The first supper afloat, often a harbinger of things to come, worked fine despite our deeply diverse party. Hi Jink was carrying one smoker vs. four non; two vegetarians vs. three carnivores; sailing experience ranging from years to a few weeks; an age span from nearly 60 to under 30, not to mention the presence aboard of two father-and-son combinations, the sons having more or less come of age in the 1960s.
Among our group was an advanced student of philosophy and computers who was by far the best seaman among us -- and a good mechanic (no cruise should leave port without one). There was also a young flutist and composer deeply into listening to the sounds of earth, who turned out to be a whiz as volunteer cook. (His best dish was a confection called Peaches au Rum a la Oreo Cookies.)
It was he who, after supper, proposed a curious, ice-breaking conversational gambit called "Pass the Stone." It has been used for centuries by Indians, he said, when they want to settle complicated group discussions without bloodshed or bad feeling. The basic convention is that a stone is passed from person to person, clockwise around the circle, and (no matter what the provocation) you can only speak when you have it in your hand. The conference is closed when the stone has come full circle with nobody adding another word.
"Pass the Stone," I suspect, might prove fairly trying as a steady party game. In the short run, at least, it encourages long-windedness, philosophizing and sentimentality. But for the opening night of a cruise it has a lot going for it. After some mawkish observations and some cross-generational shots ("to heck with your stoic Roman values," is one I recall), we simmered down into a brief reflection on what pleasures the cruise might provide and stumbled to our bunks, sun-drugged and foolishly swearing to be off "at first light" next day.
Naturally, a chorus of roosters, untutored in "Pass the Stone," beat us to it.
Hi Jink's scrappy log was filled with forbidding notations made by apparently feckless previous renters. Sample: "We radioed for a chase boat to fix our windlass. The guy came. His comment was 'No can do, mon, it's a pile of rust!' " And this: "Wow! real showers, real docks, no draggin' anchor! Everybody finally got a good night's sleep."
We did have to put out a second anchor one night. And we got caught in a 40-knot gust or two with torrential rain, proving conclusively that you need foul-weather gear and a Swiss Army Knife, even for this kind of clement cruising.
Sailing always requires attention and, above all, a clear idea of what can happen and what you're going to do about it if it does. But for the most part the trip began to drown us in a pleasurable round of swimming, snorkeling and sailing, a succession of eye- and mind-filling spectacles, and a few forays ashore.
One of these was at Cane Garden Bay -- on the northwest coast of Tortola -- which boasts an ancient rum distillery. Forgetting the days of the week, we reached it on Sunday and, closed down, it merely seemed grim and, well, spiritless. But the bay's short white beach, protected by a high, green headland, was exotic. Right at its center we found a smallish pink hotel like the one in the first chapter of "Tender Is the Night," with (sure enough) a few of the beautiful people lounging in front of it, oiled for the hot sun and gently wiggling their toes.
The hotel turned out to be the home of the Rhymer's Bar, with signs advertising a "BIG PIG ROAST" for next Saturday night. It was flanked by a small general store, where our composer cook picked up a box of rice. Cardboard posters advertised a mini-laundromat for sailers, also "BREAD AND CAKE."
By the bar we poured over a bulletin board with cards and messages nailed to it by past visitors from all over the world. There was a business card from the owner of a small computer company in Connecticut, offering work, and our computer expert jotted down the address.
Little Jost Van Dyke produced our first South Sea Island vision, a reef leading to a tiny round island, with a tuft of greenery set in a white saucer of surrounding sand. Beyond it was blue water so clear over a white bottom that you constantly mistake its depth.
From Jost Van Dyke we sailed to Norman Island, where we swam through blizzards of little fish, shifting this way and that, as if blown by erratic gusts of snowy wind. We swam away from shore, confronted with layers of different colors (like a pousse-cafe') from pale blue against white to deep blue and finally threateningly dark depths. There were fish beyond naming. (But the only barracuda we encountered during the week's cruise was a big one -- about three feet -- who came to lurk under Hi Jink's coppery green hull when we tied up to turn the boat in on our final Friday. Whether it was lurking for shiny baubles or a fresh bite of pectoral muscle we carefully did not try to establish.)
A lack of fondness for civilization, plus the skill and good will of the cook, mostly kept us happily afloat for meals. But so great was the drumbeat of admiring publicity for a restaurant and night club called The Last Resort that one night we gorged there. The place is run by an English couple, Tony and Jackie Snell.
Sitting on Bellamy Cay, an island about the size of a Washington traffic circle, The Last Resort looked somewhat like a low, delapidated stone fort. To get to it, we sailed north from Norman Island, east along the southern shore of Tortola and around Beef Island to its northern shore. Then we dropped down into tiny Trellis Bay, anchoring in protected waters only 200 yards or so from the restaurant.
Dinner was a gargantuan buffet, with piles of splendid roast beef, pork, chicken, baked dolphin, heaps of green beans, carrots, potatoes plus a giant salad. (With drinks this prix-fixe provender for five came to $112.50, including tip.)
And after dinner Snell, who greatly resembled novelist William Styron, threw in songs and skits, accompanying himself on an electrified and sometimes ear-splitting guitar. The jokes were mainly about the shortcomings (nautical and otherwise) of bare-boat sailors.
By popular acclaim aboard Hi Jink, the island to have if you're having only one is Virgin Gorda -- or rather Gorda Sound, on its northern side, where we spent the last two nights of the trip. The place is like a Pacific lagoon, totally protected -- except for two narrow channels -- by surrounding hills and miles of coral reef. We anchored east of Mosquito Island and took the outboard down to Drake's Anchorage (no matter that Sir Francis could never have stopped there) to look at another coral reef.
The next day we motored east across the sound toward Biras Hill, anchored again and drifted, face masks down, over what seemed like miles of shoal lagoon and reef near Prickly Pear Island.
You do not leave the great world entirely behind, of course. The anchorage near Mosquito Island was filled with bare-boaters who made use of the nearby Drakes' Anchorage Hotel, especially the bar and small dance floor. At night as we lolled on deck by moonlight, the reggae band at the bar blasted out Boy George's "Karma Chameleon" while yachting parties danced and downed pin a coladas.
A still flossier place, the Bitter End hotel complex in the lee of Biras Hill, is not only an anchorage, but a way of life. In fact, the Bitter End is a big deal, chock full of activities, bars, boutiques and daily movies. It is also studded with small sailboats for rent or use by any hotel guest, and anybody who flies to Virgin Gorda and can afford the rates can be as nautical as the deuce in Sunfish, Lazers and a pair of Cal 2-27 small cruising boats. There is even a stationary trainer, always bathed by an onshore breeze, on which (with help of sails and hydraulic plungers to simulate the necessary balance -- or imbalance -- of forces) guests can learn windsurfing skills on dry land.
The steadily prevailing wind blows east to west down Sir Francis Drake Channel, so when your time is all but up, you can just breeze on down from Virgin Gorda to Road Town. We'd kept careful track of what went right and wrong and what the boat needed, so turning Hi Jink over to the rental company was swift and pleasant.
The flight from Beef Island airport on Tortola to Puerto Rico, where we changed planes for the U.S., was a low-level excursion over islands and bays we had come to think of as our own. It was a seven-day adventure run backward in miniature and slow motion. "Look!" we said to each other, "There's where we had to put the second anchor out!" Or, "Look at Little Jost van Dyke, it's got no roads!"
There was a wait at San Juan's airport, where I discovered that a shot of rum at the bar cost $3 but a bottle of duty-free rum was only a touch over $4. Was it fate or chicanery? No matter. I bought a bottle. After all, no Caribbean sailor should come home without one.