Monday, April 4, 2005

Where’s the Dinghy?

or, How We Learned Most of Cruising's Lessons in Just One Week


My wife Nan and I chartered our first bareboat together this past May. It was important to me going into the trip that it go as smoothly as possible because I had dreams of buying an ocean-going yacht and sailing away, and of course I wanted Nan to go with me--willingly and happily. If this little shake-out cruise went well, it would help to build her confidence and comfort level, and maybe she would begin to share my dream.

Alas, it was not to be. The trip had the makings of a disaster before we even got on the boat. We had planned to fly into the British Virgin Islands the Friday night before our charter began on Saturday, but we only made it as far as San Juan, Puerto Rico because our flight, the last one of the day, was canceled due to mechanical problems. So instead of staying at the Prospect Reef Resort just west of Road Town, Tortola, in the BVI, we ended up at a seedy hotel that was hosting an all-night hip-hop party.

Day 1 (Saturday, May 1, 2004)

Somewhat sleep-deprived the next day, we landed at the BVI's airport on Beef Island. Unfortunately, my duffel bag didn't make it. "No problem. It will show up," said the airline representative who eventually helped us. When I asked when, she said, "Maybe on the next flight. Maybe tomorrow." Her lack of concern convinced me I would never see my bag again. Visions of wearing the same underwear for days on end began to fill my mind.

Off we went for a wild cab ride, on what we Yankees would consider to be the wrong side of the road. We soon arrived at Conch Charters headquarters at Ft. Burt Marina, on the west side of Road Harbour. Sweaty-looking, barefoot guys in "Staff" t-shirts kept walking past us and our baggage, saying, "Good day." One of them finally realized that we were charter customers and showed us to our home for the next seven days, a 1996 Hunter 295 sloop named "Girls Day Off." That name would come to mean many things to me during our trip. It was a nice little boat that had obviously been well used but also well maintained. Nan quickly decided that the aft berth was too hot, too dark and too claustrophobia-inducing for us to sleep there. So the forward v-berth became our cramped sleeping quarters, and we stowed our stuff aft. After checking the tiny galley, we realized the breakfast and lunch provisions we had ordered were not yet on board. This made us hungry, so we went in search of a late breakfast.

Four hours later, after final payment arrangements and a chart briefing with Emma, a complete boat system orientation with Alex, and the arrival of our provisions--except for any bread products, which required a second delivery--we were ready to set sail. Miles tied a second dinghy to the stern, expertly maneuvered us out of our slip, said the conditions didn't look too good, "maybe just a headsail today," shook my hand, wished us luck and motored away in his dinghy. I had been nervous about this moment for a few months already but now here we were heading into sheltered but open ocean on our way south to the Bight at Norman Island, and the wind out of the east was just howling. I had plotted our course before we left, so I pointed the boat on that compass heading and got a visual idea of where we were going, just six difficult miles away. As soon as we cleared the harbor, the seas picked up considerably. Five-foot swells in a thirty-foot boat are not much fun, like a hungover roller coaster ride.

We had motored along at three knots for fifteen minutes when I started to think about what Miles had said about maybe using just the headsail. Then I thought about how we were going to accomplish getting that sail unfurled safely. Finally, I thought about the one-and-only ground rule we had made for this trip: No yelling! It was time to teach Nan how to steer. When I suggested she come back and take the wheel while I put out the jib, she gave me a horrified look through her spray-covered sunglasses. I smiled and explained that all she had to do was keep the boat pointing in the direction it was going, and that she could use the piece of electrical tape wrapped around the wheel as a guide for when the rudder was pointed straight ahead. She looked uncertain as she grabbed the wheel with white knuckles, so I said I would hurry. In less than a minute, I uncleated the furling line, snapped out the jib and winched in the jib sheet on the starboard side. When I took the wheel again, we were a little off-course but not too bad. Nan gave me a look that clearly said, "Don't make me do that again." She had just learned that steering a boat in bad weather is nothing like steering a car in any kind of weather. The combination of the motor and the jib now had us flying along at better than five knots. Alex had told me in our orientation that our fuel tank held only twenty gallons, so I didn't want to waste any if I could avoid it. It was time to turn off the motor and just sail. That must have been a signal to the weather gods to unleash hell because it immediately started pouring rain. I stood up tall under the bimini to keep my head dry while the rain soaked the rest of me, including my only set of clothes.

When we arrived at the Bight, it was time for Nan's next lesson, how to pick up a mooring. But first we had to get the motor started and the jib furled. Since we were now in the shelter of Norman Island, this went smoothly, and Nan actually looked like she was gaining confidence with the steering. We rounded up to an isolated mooring ball not too far from the William Thornton pirate ship and floating restaurant, known by one and all as the "Willy T.", and Nan snagged the mooring line with the boat hook on her very first try. I ran forward to show her how to secure it to a cleat, and our first day of sailing was complete. Still a little soggy, we putt-putted our four-horsepower dinghy over to the Pirates restaurant for dinner and a well-deserved painkiller, a local concoction of rum, coconut milk, pineapple juice and orange juice, with nutmeg sprinkled on top. Dylan, our bartender, just smiled and added extra rum as we told him of our afternoon's adventure. We stopped at the gift shop on our way out to buy a t-shirt and swim trunks to expand my limited wardrobe. Then it was off to the Willy T. for a nightcap and a chat with Alex from Conch Charters, who moonlighted there as a waiter. He had said if my missing duffel bag showed up during the afternoon, he would run it over when he went to work. No such luck. The Willy T. was hopping though, so we stayed for a few margaritas. Not too smart on top of the painkillers. At one point, I turned to Nan and said, "Is that girl topless?" She just nodded. Time to go. As late arrivals to the mooring area, we were left with one of the most exposed moorings. Nan's first night ever sleeping on a boat was a long one. We tangled toes in the v-berth, opened and closed the hatch above us as it rained and cleared, and swung wildly back and forth at the end of our mooring line as the wind continued its long blow.

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