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The Great Octopus Hunt Page 2

Some people start a charter with a set itinerary worked out well in advance. Sunday night in anchorage X, Monday night on a mooring in bay Y, Tuesday the lobster special at bar Z, and so on. Others take a more free-form approach, only deciding where to go after they get up in the morning and check out the wind strength and sea state; if getting to X involves a stiff beat that’ll wipe the grins

The Bitter End Yacht Club is always a welcome sight at the end of a breezy beat. We picked up a mooring and the kids headed ashore to check email and Facebook while the adults prostrated themselves on the trampoline with a well-deserved cocktail. We’d stocked the cat’s capacious fridge with enough food and beverages to last us a couple of days, and so dined aboard before spending a restless night (well, at least I did) as the wind gusted and swirled and the cat tugged at her mooring.

After a beachless day, some snorkeling was in order—but where? We tucked a reef in the mainsail next morning as we hoisted it and took a couple of long boards downwind, sailing just high enough to keep the jib full and waiting for lulls before gybing the big main. We checked the Baths—red flags still up—now what? A quick look at the cruising guide settled the matter. Monkey Bay supposedly had great snorkeling, and I’d never been there. On the way we could stop at Trellis Bay for ice cream and a mandatory email/Facebook check at the cyber caf, and a browse around Aragorn’s pottery studio.

One of the beauties of the BVI is how easy it is to do things like that. You’re seldom fighting much of a current to get anywhere, and the distances aren’t great. Should you change your mind partway through a passage, there’s always a convenient bay or harbor to drop into instead. And no matter how many times you’ve been there, you always seem to find something new. Like the narrow passage between Great and Little Camanoe islands, a rollicking stretch of water if ever there was one, especially with the strong current fighting the equally muscular wind.

I was suspicious the moment I saw a couple of vacant moorings in Monkey Bay, and rightly so. The ground swell not only had the boats rolling nicely, it had stirred up enough sediment to cut snorkeling visibility down to a few feet. There would be no octopus today. Half an hour after picking up a mooring we were retracing our course. And so we got to experience the Camano Passage twice in one day, before picking up a mooring at Marina Cay in time for happy hour at Pusser’s.

The thing about strong winds in places like the Caribbean is that they only seem to matter if you have an agenda, such as seeing an octopus. Once we put the wind on or abaft the beam I had no problem with it; quite the opposite. I’d gotten the hang of the Sunsail 384 by now, and found it (as a monohull guy) oddly satisfying to sail. It liked the strong winds and dealt with the sometimes steep chop almost contemptuously. No, the wind was only a big deal because of the ground swell it kicked up, which was no good for snorkeling.

Day four, and still no octopus. We had in fact seen precious few aquatic creatures of any kind. We checked out the Baths again—more red flags—then enjoyed an excellent sail around the back of Peter Island to one of my favorite anchorages, Key Bay. There would be no anchoring today, though—we found the anchor so firmly wedged in its rollers that only tools we didn’t have could free it. Reluctantly, we steamed across to Norman Island and picked up a mooring in the Bight, hard against the steep northern shore. Here, at last, we found silt-free snorkeling among the rocks, with colorful fish scooting here and there, but no sign of any cephalods. As darkness fell and we fired up the grill, silver flashes in the water prompted us to shine flashlights off the transoms. They revealed a pair of huge tarpon knifing back and forth, soon joined by a gang of other large fish, including a decent-sized nurse shark that immediately cured me of any urge to take a post-prandial dip.

Another of the good things about chartering became apparent next morning—if something on your boat doesn’t work, you don’t have to fix it yourself. A smiling Sunsail engineer showed up in a skiff and eventually freed the anchor, whose shank had been jammed against the boat by a poorly placed roller. The octopus hunt continued, with a couple of hours at the Indians, those distinctive rock pinnacles off Norman Island; more snorkeling later that afternoon in lovely Key Bay on Peter Island, where we dinghied ashore to scale the cactus-covered hillside while being eyed suspiciously by feral goats; and more fish-feeding that night in an anchorage we had all to ourselves.

And so we entered our last full day. It was still blowing 20-25, raining in fits and starts, with a ground swell that turned a morning expedition to the wreck of the Rhone, off Salt Island, into a washout. Needless to say, still no octopus. I consoled the kids with another visit to Trellis Bay for a cyberfix, then we set sail and broad-reached back and forth across the channel while we tried to decide where we would spend our last night. Since we had to be back at the base next morning, we opted for another night in the Bight.

As if to taunt us on our last day, the wind eased that afternoon and briefly shifted south. We dozed and read, then regrouped in the cockpit for a final snorkel. The Bight has a reputation as a snug anchorage and as the home to the Willy T, the floating bar where women who jump topless from the upper deck are given a free T-shirt (or so I’ve heard). It is not renowned as a great snorkeling spot, which is why the panoply of fish around the sun-dappled rocks and boulders came as a surprise. I had not often seen such a variety or quantity of sealife anywhere in the BVI, let alone in such a heavily trafficked place as this.

My ruminations were interrupted by a whoop of glee. “Octopus!” Sure enough, there it was, maybe two feet from tentacle tip to tentacle tip, hiding in plain sight on a rocky ledge about 10 feet down, camouflaging itself as a patch of sand. We watched it change color as it slowly moved over the bottom. When Harry swam down to get a closer look, it stayed put, until touched by an extended finger. Then—whoosh—it was gone.

Sometimes, the last day of a vacation really does turn out to the best day.

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