Can the Princess and the Sailor find true happiness on vacation? The answer is an unequivocal YES, and I can tell you the secret.
The story begins a few years ago on the Caribbean island of Antigua. I (the Sailor) had just completed an Atlantic crossing and was visiting friends there. I decided to take a dive course during my stay, and began the fundamentals in the pool of a very upscale resort. By the pool, I caught my first glimpse of Princess Annie, who was staying at the resort (should this have been a hint?) and she glimpsed me back. By the end of my course, I was awarded with not one but two licenses; divemaster and marriage!
We set up home in Charlotte NC for practical reasons, but the land locked Sailor soon began to feel the call of the sea. How, though, could I fulfill the urge to run before the wind and avail myself of the company of the Princess at the same time?
One day Annie handed me some brochures she had requested from a yacht charter brokerage. My dusty, salt spray bereft nostrils flared as I devoured the photos of untrammeled tropical islands, sleek sailing yachts and undersea encounters. Annie was captivated by the below deck accommodations and the outstanding menus- all the comforts of home in a Caribbean paradise. My only reservation was that I would not be in control of the vessel. As it turned out I was wrong. Annie's good sense prevailed, and we booked the trip.
We had outlined our requirements with the brokerage by phone, (food preferences, sleeping arrangements, water toys, destinations etc.) and we subsequently chose a Irwin 65' 'Capital Gain', which could very comfortably sleep 6 guests. The aft cabin with king size bed and en suite bathroom was the deciding factor. A happy compromise between serious rail down passages and the air conditioned comfort and space desired by Annie. Because of 'Capital Gain's' spaciousness, we persuaded our good friends Grant, Marie, Bob and Sandy who are always looking for new experiences to share our adventure.
Following a surprisingly easy flight to St. Thomas, a short cab ride took us to Yacht Haven Marina. Even from dockside we could see that our yacht was going to live up to all our expectations. We boarded 'Capital Gain' to the warm welcome of Capt. Brock Johnson and his wife Capt.Barbara.
I will admit that up to this point, in spite of all the information we received from our broker and having talked to Brock on the phone, I still had some reservations. Any lingering doubts were soon dispelled as we toured the boat and shed our stateside burdens in the staterooms.
Our small group was filled with excited anticipation. Neither the Sailor or the Princess were disappointed, we both felt in our element. Our yacht sparkled from bow to stern, meticulously and lovingly maintained both above and below decks.
It is at this point that the contrast between a crewed yacht and a bareboat is most obvious. Although these professionals make it look easy, a great deal of work is involved in operating a charter vessel. Obviously, preparations for our arrival began long before we left for the islands.
'Capital Gain' was provisioned according to our food and bar preferences, (including my favorite brand of beer!) and there was even a small sail for the windsurfer, so we could all use it regardless our level of expertise.
Following a short safety and familiarization briefing by our Captain and a light lunch we cast off and headed out to sea. We gathered in the cockpit and Brock piloted us along the SE coast of St. Thomas. I was so engrossed in the beauty of the numerous small islands and cays I forgot to be upset about not being "in charge"!
Before clearing the windward passage between St.Thomas and St.John and entering the waters of the British Virgin Islands en route to Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, we all felt we had entered a different dimention. And, indeed, we were now in the exhilarating world of cruising--not just transplanted armchair tourists but active participants in the exclusive and unique 'yachtie' lifestyle.
As Brock maneuvered 'Capital Gain' by Pull and Be Damn' Point at the entrance to Great Harbour, he recounted some 18th. Century Privateering tales. The sovereignty of the BVIs was hotly contested by European colonialists, as well as, pirates, and they all left their legacies. This amalgamation gives rise to names like : Sir Francis Drake Channel, Deadman's Bay, Treasure Point (all inspiration to R.L.Stevensons in-residence writing of "Treasure Island"), the Spanish named Virgin Gorda and Anegada, and the Dutch Jost Van Dyke. The BVI's 50 or so islands and cays are now a British Colony and the cruising grounds are considered among the finest in the world.
We anchored in Great Harbour and were charmed by the vista. Other yachts lolled in the calm turquoise waters, and the white sandy beach was sparsely dotted with tiny wooden buildings housing small shops and the Customs House.
Jost (as it's known in these parts) is a small island (4 miles long) north west of Tortola and a popular destination for boaters of all types, especially those that truly want to get away from it all. Like the rest of the BVIs, a carefully maintained balance of nature and tourism. A handful of cars on unpaved roads is as close to downtown as you can get. There are more bar stools on Jost than natives (about 140) hence earning the title 'Party Island' of the BVI. Jost is mountainous and lush and has some outstanding beaches scattered with pretty island houses and beach hostelries that resound to the tales of last night's anchoring sagas mingled with Bob Marley.
A short dingy ride to the dock landed us within a few steps of our official business and Foxy's. Brock took care of "formalities" while we poked around this corner of paradise. At the end of the scimitar shaped beach we found ourselves at Foxy's.
Caribbean cruisers and voyagers from all over the world will almost certainly land on these shores, and Foxy's Tamarind is a "must stop". The profusion of business cards and banknotes left by visitors that adorn all available surfaces testifies to the truly cosmopolitan nature of this tiny speck in the ocean. We were lucky to find Foxy himself sitting in the shade of a palm tree cradling his somewhat battered guitar. As we entered he launched into a calypso serenade, his lyrics a clever mix of individual observation interspersed with a bit of political satire. As more people filtered in, we enjoyed Foxy's musical humor, and struck up conversations with boat owners and guests from other yachts anchored for the night.
It was agreeably surreal to sample such diversity in this tiny and pristine beach setting. Yes, the Sailor was lost in the tropics, and the Princess was happily immersed in reggae laced with a whiff of rum! The heady atmosphere, the tropical sun and the whiff soon had us on the beach and into a "jump-up" (an impromptu party with dancing in several languages!)
Brock and Barbara returned to Capital Gain after arranging to pick us up at around 6:30 for dinner back on board. Our groups disparate eating habits had looked to me like a recipe for nautical culinary disaster, not quite on the scale of the Titanic, nevertheless, I imagined, a challenge for Barbara. The Princess leans towards exotic fare, Grant and Bob are 'meat and potatoes' guys, Marie eats no red meat, Sandy counts beans like a demented CPA and I, (some seadog!) am allergic to seafood!
Seated around the candle lit cockpit table set with all the china and crystal a Princess could ever want, our appetites sharpened by the tangy sea air and the days activities, we were ready to eat! This would not be the last time that Barbara would amaze and delight us with her culinary expertise. Not only was she able to cope with our (we all had to agree) peculiar needs, she also presented us with her own published cook book.
Over dessert we recalled 6 different nationalities that we had met at Foxy's that afternoon, and Marie made us add a seventh-the Californian actor and his wife she met by the bakery. (She thinks California is another country.) Appreciation of the unusual and the freedom of the ocean is the common thread that binds us.
Relaxing, sipping coffee and liqueurs, we took in the balmy night air and discussed our itinerary for the next day. Decisions! Decisions! Should we aim to be on Peter Island for dinner? Could we arrange a rendezvous dive for me while the non divers snorkeled? Are there enough days left in our week to sail to Anegada? Sandy sensibly suggested we decide in the morning.
The sun rose early and so did we. A quick injection of juice and coffee was followed by a 'sprint swim' to a nearby deserted beach, (The ladies took the float mats out for sea trials.) staying just long enough to let the sun dry us off. We had disagreed on many issues in the course of our long friendship (Grant voted for Perot! and Bob was a fully paid up member of 'The Flat Earth Society'?!) but we had to agree, this was pretty darn close to our kind of paradise.
Capt. Brock, well aware of my sailing experience on account of all the "twas a dark and stormy night" stories we had shared, gave me the pleasure of planning and skippering our next leg. This, of course, was just the excuse I needed to shout confusing orders at everybody and to use well worn nauticana like "the lashings will continue until morale improves". My motley crew treated me with amused indifference. I was happy.
A short sail brought us to Cane Garden Bay on the north west coast of Tortola where we snorkeled and 'gunkholed' the shoreline in ocean kayaks. This is probably a good point to mention some of the toys and amenities = on-board Capital Gain which are typically found on charter yachts. As well as the kayaks, we had a 14ft. Caribe inflatable with a 25 hp. Yamaha, water skis (which we all tried with varying degrees of success), = a sea biscuit (a definite hit with everybody), a windsurfer, fishing poles and underwater video camera.
I know of nothing better than a tropical sail followed by a couple of hours of spirited frolicking in, and on, the water to give you the appetite of 'The Tasmanian Devil'. Lunch was an interesting and delicious combination of Curried Chicken salad Roti and Lemon Pasta with Shrimp, fresh baked bread and selection of beverages served under the cockpit canopy.
It must be a universal truth: A hard morning's recreation followed by a delicious lunch will make you sleepy! Grant and Marie retired below to watch a video. (Captain Ron, maybe?) Bob and Sandy languidly played backgammon, Annie and I read and dozed in the deck hammock, gently swaying to the rhythm of the ocean.
Suitably refreshed by a lazy afternoons napping, swimming, sunbathing and fortified by the timely appearance of a 'Painkiller', (Pussers Rum, coconut, pineapple and orange juices, sprinkled with ground nutmeg) we agreed to take a taxi to nearby Apple Bay to experience the famous (some = would say notorious) Bombas Shack Full Moon Party. This may be the 'Extreme Games' of the local "jump-up" where all kinds of hair is not only let down, but abandoned, to the extent that having exhausted our supply of 'Rogaine we were compelled to buy locally, but very badly made toupees!!
Each day is a new adventure, beginning with our morning itinerary meeting when the hardest decisions of the day were made. Which island to visit next? Where shall we anchor for lunch? Which T-shirt to wear?
Bob and the ladies elected to go to the island's capital, Road Town, Tortola. They had heard that some interesting gift items, particularly artwork, could be found there. I don't eat fish, but I do enjoy seafishing (you never know what denizen of the deep will be dangling on the line). Grant and I would catch lunch. In a couple of hours we had several bites and proudly offered them to Barbara. Being unfamiliar with local fish, what looked like an interesting selection to us was politely rejected by Barbara as she explained what was good eating and what not. The two small Red Snappers we caught weren't enough to feed us all, so we released our catch and decided to go for the barbecued chicken and "cheeseburgers in paradise" instead. Jimmy Buffet would have been proud of us.
Cane Garden Bay was our peaceful anchorage that night. We took the dingy ashore and landed at Quito's Gazebo where local recording star Quito Rhymer can be heard singing island ballads. A spectacular tropical sunset providing the backdrop to our enjoyment. For true romance, nothing beats an evening of stargazing from the bow of a boat, listening to Quito's love songs drift across the bay.
We were still planning our day while we enjoyed a morning sail past the West End of Tortola, through the Narrows into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Destination: the private and uninhabited Norman Island. Capt. Teach, commonly called Blackbeard, (among others) is said to have used the island as a repository for his ill gotten gains. We snorkeled the Indians and The Caves, not one 'piece of eight' to be found. The treasure we did take home was an underwater video of us hand-feeding the reef fish!
Sitting on the bow of 'Capital Gain' savoring the moment and reflecting on our happy circumstance, I gave thanks for Annie's good sense and our friends decision to join us thus making our vacation even more affordable. I am still somewhat amazed that we had become the vessel's de-facto owners for the week without the ultimate responsibility for her safety and integrity. "No worries mate" as the Aussies perceptively put it. What this meant to me and our happy group of adventurers is that we were involved in all aspects of our trip without the worry of literally "running into something unexpected" due to lack of local knowledge, not to mention Brock and Barbaras 'secret' places that became ours.
It really is difficult to be objective about what a customized private yacht charter is, and harder still to avoid clich=E9s and superlatives. But it has to be said: "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." From "Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame
In my short week on board 'Capital Gain', talking to other skippers and boaters my informal investigation came up with the following general information: The Caribbean is usually broken down into three main cruising areas.
The British Virgin Islands... short sails between islands, ideal for the 'inexperienced charterer'. The island group comprises over 50 islands and cays, many uninhabited and accessible only by small boats. Main islands include Tortola, Jost van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Peter Island and Norman Island. Excellent beeches, snorkel and dive sites abound. These tropically lush islands include mountainous vistas, unsophisticated charm, friendly inhabitants and beautiful unspoiled anchorages.
The Leeward Islands... stretching from Anguilla to Antigua, longer sails between islands in more exposed waters. The islands in this chain to visit include St. Martin [French/Dutch] St.Barts [French] Nevis, St.Kitts, Barbuda and Antigua [British]. Due to Western European colonial influences some of these islands are very sophisticated offering night clubs, casinos and fine dining.
The Windward Islands... some of the most beautiful and spectacular islands in the Caribbean. St.Lucia, with its green mantled mountains, wide beaches, fishing villages and a bubbling volcano provide a touch of the South Pacific in the Caribbean. The Grenadines are also a part of this chain which includes St.Vincent, Union Island, Bequia, Mustique, Palm Island, Canouan and the very beautiful Tobago Cays. Short sails between islands, contrasting cultures and spectacular topographies make this part of the Caribbean perfect to sail throughout the year.
The Yachts... are reviewed on a regular basis to ensure high standards are maintained. There are over 400 sail and power vessels chartering in the Caribbean ranging from 40 ft. to 250 ft. Honeymoon couples, families [children are welcome] individuals and groups of 30+ may be comfortably accommodated both on deck and below. Your broker will assist you in the selection of the ideal yacht that will reflect individual and budgetary requirements. Cabin layouts vary, en suite bathrooms are normally available.
The Crew... is a very important ingredient on a successful charter. Each vessel has at least a professional captain and cook/mate on board [larger yachts will have appropriate crews]. They are congenial hosts and wonderful guides to the islands. Their extensive local knowledge ensures that your cruising vacation will be an adventure to cherish.
Prices... compare very favorably with first class hotel, resorts, = private villas and are inclusive of all meals [open bar is normally included also]. As a guideline a 2 guest yacht starts at around $3000, 4 guest yacht $4500, 6 guests around $6000, 8/10 guests around $8000 a week [8days/7nights]. Charters may begin on any day of the week and rates quoted are for the whole yacht and include the use of on-board water toys and facilities. Scuba diving is often available to certified divers at a small additional charge. There may be a local government cruising tax of around $5 per person per day depending on the season and the registration of the vessel. As with any service, a crew gratuity is always welcome at around 15% of base charter rate but obviously this is at the client's discretion.
Brokers...are extremely important when it comes to selecting a crewed vessel. They should have personal experience and up to the minute information regarding the fleet they represent and be a member of some professional organization such as CYBA [Charter Yacht Brokers Association] which oversees and regulates its members. Make sure your broker regularly attends the annual Caribbean yacht charter shows in St.Thomas, Tortola and Antigua. They should be on first name terms with the crews that they represent.