A Boat of Their Own
Six women of a certain age set sail together. Will ditching their husbands be the making of them, or will it all end in girlie tears?
As a non-sailor, I have two points of reference when it comes to boats. One is being skippered around Majorca, in the days when I still sported a bikini body, sometime around the late ‘80s. The other was being hoodwinked into smuggling a propeller shaft into Gibraltar, then applying anti-fouling for a week and severely sun-burning the tops of my ears. Both experiences led me to believe that one day, someday, somehow, I would find myself back aboard a boat.
So when a friend invited me to go sailing in the British Virgin Islands for a week, I wasn’t going to say no, was I? What could the downside be? “It’s a six-man girl-only crew,” she said.
“What? No men to do the manly things? Manly things that need massive amounts of muscles and buckets of macho-ness?” I squeaked, feeling weak as a kitten and sounding rather pathetic.
So, I did what every self-respecting woman would do: I shaved my legs, bought a ticket to St. Thomas and dusted off my ukulele.
Lesson I: just book a ticket and worry about the rest later.
For reference, The British Virgin Islands (the BVI) are miles from my home in Britain. They might drive on the left in a civilized fashion, speak English and have a Union Jack on the national flag, but that’s about where the similarities end. It was only when I’d arrived at the Miami airport, facing another flight to St. Thomas, and then a ferry to Tortola—back onto British soil no less—that it dawned on me how very far I was from home. And I hadn’t even set sail, although I was looking forward to seeing my boat.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much I know when it comes to sailing. I don’t understand the terminology, nor the science, nor the etiquette. I don’t know my heads from my hatches, my tradewinds from my trapped winds. Luckily, I do have a 1986 camper caravan, which is kinda the same thing, right? Minimal living. Limited fresh water. Small living spaces. Just go where the open road takes you…
The only difference, I suppose, is the small matter of sails and moorings, and loads and loads and loads of ocean. I’ll be fine. Then there’s the other small matter of meeting three of your six-girl crew for the very first time. I’ll be fine. Three women with whom I will be sharing showers and carbon dioxide for seven days. I’ll be fine. Without WiFi or any hope of Facebook. I’ll… Fortunately, the rest of the crew not only turned out to be divine, they looked agile and capable of weathering me through a storm.
Lesson II: pick compatible sailing partners.
We were chartering what I now know is a catamaran. This had to be explained to me. It has two hulls, unlike a monohull, which has one. A catamaran looks, frankly, ridiculous, like a huge blob of a children’s Playmobil or Lego toy. It does not look sexy, streamlined or slick. There’s no place suitable for a Kate Winslet Titanic pose. Still, it didn’t look like it would capsize very easily, which I found very comforting. And it was to be my home for the next seven days.
The interior of Santa Cruz Blues—a Leopard 43, I’m told—was beautiful: light, airy, surprisingly spacious with a hint of luxuriousness. I was excited. The nice people at Conch Charters had even put a couple of trampolines on the bow for me! Moreover, I had bagged a cabin to myself—something to do with my snoring and spirited renditions of sea-shanties sung in my sleep.
IN THE KITCHEN
If there is one advantage to going away with a women-only crew, it’s in the kitchen—or should I say, galley. Unlike men, we know what we are doing. We don’t make a mess, and if we do make a mess, we clean it up. Immediately. We also like Ziploc bags. We are in control.
My crew threw in $100 a head and filled the boat with food, fresh cilantro, ginger and lime, along with bottles of wine and spirits. We were going to eat like lords and drink like little fishes. It was dawning on me how nice it is to be without men. No clanking crates of beer on my ship. Just mixers and bottles and ice.
Before we set off we were all very excited and chatty. There was also a lot of poring over maps featuring islands with names like “Pelican,” “Prickly Pear” and “Dead Chest,” talking about swells, turning dials and knobs on control panels, and nodding approvingly. At one point my bunk was upturned and Skipper Pip and co-pilot Dawn had a palms-on-hips discussion about engines and water tanks. Clearly, I was in safe hands.
Lesson III: make sure somebody knows what she is doing.
And we were off!
WHAT TO EXPECT ON DECK- DAYTIME
Days melted into days. Days of gloriousness and deliciousness. The pure expanse of clear turquoise sea never failed to take my breath away. It’s quite amazing how busy you can be doing nothing. There were fish to feed, paddleboards to launch, dinners to prepare, cocktails to mix. And all that Sarong-knotting and swimming costume a-hoisting.
There were clothes to rinse, clothes to shake out and clothes to peg out along the lifelines until the boat looked like a Chinese laundry. There was slathering yourself in sunscreen and then slathering after-sun lotion on all the bits you missed the day before. There were also three unavoidable questions we had to answer every day: 1) Are we prepared for mooring? 2) Where are we mooring? 3) Where do we go if there is no space to moor? There was also a lot of talk about the weather. Oh, and don’t use the water.
THE SMALL MATTER OF MOORING
The BVI has some wonderful quiet little mangrove-lined bays filled with turtles and well-maintained mooring buoys, and it is really, really important that you execute the mooring operation as efficiently as possible. In fact, the moorings are more important than the turtles. If you don’t moor up properly each night, the alternative is anchoring, which is a very manly activity involving a winch and a frightening amount of loud and heavy chain. You need to be secured or risk bobbing around all night and ending up in Puerto Rico for breakfast.
Mooring is fun. Fun to watch, that is. The pressure is on. There’s an awful lot of trampoline bouncing, bending overboard and shouting. (I did some helpful pointing one day.) All this must be completed without losing either your fingers or your temper.
Mooring is skilled work (see Lesson III). It involves locating the buoy, maneuvering to the buoy and hooking it up at exactly the right moment. This must be done quickly, especially if another boat is eyeing your mooring with plans to spend the night there if you screw up. (I think the etiquette here is dubious. When it happened to us, I just waved regally and that seemed to work.) Once you reach the buoy, slow down gently, and if any lines get tangled up in the propeller, abandon ship, call the embassy and get on the next flight home. Seriously. Men get very excited about mooring. They swear and lumber around a lot. We women, on the other hand, just apologize for sounding a wee bit stressed and, once safely moored up, have a group hug and pour a round of G&Ts.
SURVIVING ABLUTIONS AND WATER MANAGEMENT
Water on a boat is sacred, and your skipper will turn into a water Nazi if you are not careful. She might keep you from showering. Or worse yet, she might make you go ashore to get more!
Before we set off I got a very speedy lesson in using the facilities, or “heads” as they are known. It was a load of flushing and valves, and I didn’t understand it much. It sounded like an accident waiting to happen. There was something called a “holding tank,” but I was never very sure what it was holding. After three days at sea I had inputted much more than I had outputted, if you see what I mean. I just checked for nearby swimmers, pumped and hoped for the best. No idea where it all went.
Lesson IV: make sure you understand the plumbing.
SAILING, STEERING AND CRUISING
Having grasped the dynamics of mooring, I thought I would try my hand at steering. This takes a bit of practice to get the hang of, but it is not difficult, and out on open water there is little chance of major incidents. I think the general rule is to look ahead, focus on a point, and do not expect the boat to respond immediately.
I was generally happy motoring gently around, but as the BVI offers one of the finest sailing winds on Earth, it would have been a shame not to hoist up a sail or two. This is quite hard work and potentially hazardous, but my winching wenches did us proud, and we sailed off at 6 knots, submerged in total silence, bar the sound of a gentle breeze whistling through the sheets.
MESSING ABOUT AT SEA
If you think being onboard is great, try life off the boat! Looking elegant when you transfer to the dinghy is tricky, but you’ll find it’s worth the effort once you anchor your dinghy out a bit and snorkel in the crystal waters. I found that keeping some Cheerios in a Ziploc and dispersing them intermittently around fish was a great trick: they gathered like bees round a honey pot.
Lesson V: do not attempt to climb back onto the boat ladder still wearing your flippers. It is probably impossible, and you will look a complete twit even trying.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON DECK— AFTER DARK
The order of the evening, each evening, was eating, drinking, practicing “Sloop John B” on the ukulele, conch shell-blowing, lying on the trampoline and naming all the stars in the southern sky.
We ventured ashore a number of times if only to compare variations of the local cocktail—the Painkiller—a heady mix of cream of coconut, rum and nutmeg. Watching the sun setting on White Bay, black frigate birds silhouetted overhead, the gentle surf washing my toes with a Painkiller in hand, I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life.
If you are a man reading this article and you fancy a week away from the wife, book her a charter. She will love you forever. Or you may never see her again. Either way, it’s a win-win situation. If you are a woman reading this article and you fancy a week of testosterone-free adventure, go charter a boat with some female friends. Just book a ticket and worry about the rest later (see Lesson I).
Sometime PR professional, occasional sailor and
ukulele enthusiast, Sian Davies moved back to
her native England from San Francisco a few years ago
Oh, the Places We Went
The eternal question facing charterers in the BVI is “Where shall we go?” Our crew’s only must-see destinations were White Bay on Jost van Dyke (home of the best Painkiller on the planet!) and Bubbly Pool on Diamond Cay. Beyond that, we were happy to go wherever the wind took us—after all, there are no bad places in the BVI.
In the skippers’ briefing we learned that an unsettled weather pattern would bring 8- to 10-foot swells later that week that would prohibit us from visiting or overnighting in any north-facing anchorages, so we decided to visit our must-sees first. We spent the first night in Little Harbor on Jost van Dyke and enjoyed a hike to the Bubbly Pool on Diamond Cay the next morning.
That night we made it through the tricky entrance into White Bay, but the predicted swells built during the night and, as we were moored close to the reef, the skippers did not sleep too well. From there we went to Trellis Bay, via a fantastic lunch and snorkel stop at Monkey Point. An early morning dash to the Baths came to naught when, shortly after we picked up a mooring, the red flag was raised, indicating it was too rough to come ashore by dinghy. We made the best of it and had a cracking sail up Sir Francis Drake Channel to Gorda Sound, where we anchored behind the reef in Blunders Bay before motoring down to Biras Creek to spend two peaceful nights.
On our last day there was a perfect breeze. We enjoyed it so much that when we got to The Bight on Norman Island and found all of the moorings were taken, we simply sailed around the corner to Soldier Bay and had the whole place to ourselves. With heavy hearts, we returned to the Conch Charter base the next day. Our week’s weather was less than ideal, but it really did not bother us; one of the beauties of the BVI is there is always shelter to be found and a long list of great places to go.
Beyond forming a ukulele band, the only other activity our crew expressed an interest in was paddleboarding. One phone call to Scott at Island Surf and Sail (288-494-0123, bviwatertoys.com) and a board was delivered to our boat at the charter base. It got a lot of use during the week, whether for peaceful early morning nature tours or as an endlessly entertaining yoga platform.
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