As some of you may not be aware, having missed the bulk rate mailing, the billboard, and the blimp at the World Cup finals, Steve and I were on a much-needed vacation these past two weeks. We went down to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) for sailing school. And what did we find there? Well...
The first week of our stay was a course taught largely on land, with 3-4 hours of sailing a day in a lovely 26' keelboat. (They call them keelboats because they only rarely keel you over into shark-infested waters. And when they do, they're always very sorry.) The course was quite a lot of fun -- first they soften you up with a 2 hour lecture in a comfortably infernal room. Occasionally they turn on the slide projector to cool it down. Then it's off for 3 hours of fun-filled exercises on the boat. It was on the boat that I learned to empathize with broiled chicken. There I was, all white and juicy, laid under the hot sun for hours at a time, occasionally turning over to better expose myself to the heating unit. I'm afraid I was slightly overdone on one side, though, and am now all tough and flaky. I managed to only just avoid spontaneous combustion.
The hotel where we stayed is the largest in the BVI, having almost 100 rooms. (Many of the hotels have no more than 20.) This creates a very friendly atmosphere, where the hotel staff all know and avoid you within hours of your check-in. The brochure for the rooms promised all the amenities of home -- cable TV, air conditioning, room service, etc. It seemed a fine choice. While I was slightly disappointed to be unable to receive hotel points with Westin or Hilton for my stay (you know me and travel points), it was well worth it to be somewhere that shunned such large and impersonal chains for the warmth and inconvenience of a family-run hovel...er...hotel.
The room was indeed air conditioned, by luck. Many of the rooms were not, but as we were travelling in the off-season and the hotel was only a quarter full, they were kind enough to give us a room with A/C. Or, to be specific, a partially-insulated window air conditioner dating from at least the disco years. It was, however, a fairly decent unit and kept the room pretty cool. We also had a minibar (banged up old refrigerator) in which to store Coke and water and the like, so we were pretty happy. The first evening, Steve went to shower and complained of cold water, but I couldn't see what he was bitching about. I mean, in tropical heat who wants a steaming hot shower? So the hot water heater didn't work so well, so what! The next morning I discovered what. Somehow the water managed to be colder than anything else in the place, including the air conditioned air. I'm not clear where they ran those pipes (Siberia?), but definitely not anywhere near the sun. Teeth chattering, I begged Steve to call the front desk and ask for maintenance. Ten minutes of gloating later, he did. The nice maintenance man came, looked briefly at the hot water heater conveniently placed in our closet (I had mistaken it for a stray shoebox) and flipped a breaker in the panel on the wall. Ah. I see.
After flipping the remaining breakers in
panel, we discovered both light and the ability to create 15 second bursts
of boiling water, but we were unable to locate a television. Given
the experience with the hot water heater, I carefully checked the Gideon
bible and the stationary folder before enquiring at the front desk as to
the location of the TV. I was told that they did indeed have cable
TV in all the rooms, including ours. I nodded, having seen the coaxial
cable coming from the wall, and explained that it was really the TV itself
that I was having trouble finding.
"Ah! There is no TV."
"Really. Oh, I must have misread the brochure -- I could have sworn it said you did."
"We have cable TV, but no TV. TVs, dey walk off very often."
"I see, so you DON'T have cable TV."
"Yes we do! But no TV."
But still, we had air conditioning, a fridge, and the ability to take very fast hot showers. And the sailing was great.
The next week we went to our second course, live-aboard cruising. This is essentially a regular bareboat cruise with an instructor on board the boat to teach you what you need to do to captain a chartered vessel yourself. (Swearing at other boats seems to be a key component. Ditto bemoaning the lack of single white women in the islands.) So we were living on a 45' boat with two strangers for 5 nights -- not ideal, but not unreasonable. The instructor was a nice guy, if slightly romance-impaired. The other student, an architect named Will from Dallas (and I do mean FROM Dallas) was nice if a bit distracted. ("Will, we're docking now, would you like to join us? Perhaps put out the cigarette and grab a line?")
Before they let you on the boat, though, you have to go to a chart briefing. Me, I expected a session where they, with great seriousness, tell you about the anchorages, the dangerous reefs, the limits of the contracted area, etc. You know, don't go to the red bits on the chart. There were three sections of the chart briefing:
Section One: Don't go to the red bits on the chart.
Section Two: Stupid stuff you can do
that we will find out about.
"When you leave da dock, there is a big green buoy. Go around da buoy. Dere is a reef over dere. You don't go around the buoy, you run aground, and everybody is laughing at you."
"Dere is a passage on Virgin Gorda. It looks like shortcut, but is very shallow. You don't go dere. Dere is a lady, she live in big white house on the hill, she see you. She call us. We know."
"You have number on your dinghy. You go to dinner, be sure you get the right dinghy. Tie da dinghy to da boat nice and tight. You come back with no dinghy, wrong dinghy, too many dinghies, this very bad."
A wit in the crowd asked what would happen if they brought back an extra dinghy from another charter company -- would they get a reward. It was telling that the guy running the briefing had to think about it. Apparently people do find stray dinghies all the time, and then demand ransoms to get them back. As the charter company charges $500 for a lost dinghy, a case of beer and some ice is usually a small price to pay to most captains.
Section Three: A hilariously bad video that purported to lay out a possible 7-day itinerary, but really showed a couple boinking their way across the BVI. Significant looks, lots of hand-holding, lots of swimming close and kissing, oh my. Considering that the average charter group is either a family of 4 with some spare children along or groups of 55-year-old couples, this seemed a bit odd to me. Did they notice their demographic?
At the chart briefing we also heard again about the "Willy T", a bar/restaurant on a boat. Someone in the crowd asked about taking children there, and the briefing leader sort of hesitated and said that he didn't think that was a very good idea. Considering the stories we had heard so far, and the leers from repeat charterers, I was beginning to think that this place was lucky it hadn't sunk. The previous week our instructor had attended a bachelor party there and was much the worse for wear the following morning. Steve and the other man in the class asked about the place (it has a reputation) and eventually got this disjointed story about rugby players, hookers dancing in the buff, dollar bills flying like discarded G-strings, and oceans of rum. Each time we heard about the place, we were more and more convinced that it was the most lawless, free-wheeling, hell-raising site in the islands, which is saying something in a country with 30 national holidays and a monthly all-night full moon party.
(As a side note here, our week on the boat happened to coincide with carnival in the British Virgin Islands, in which the entire country takes three days off work. Apparently, if you don't show up on Thursday, you won't get paid for Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, so Thursday everyone pretty much sits at their desks/cash registers/taxicabs and nurses a hangover without getting much done. Then comes Friday, which is, well, Friday, so...)
The first day on the boat consisted of menu planning (men like meat), water conservation (men don't shower), steering the boat (men like BIG wheels), and the use of the binoculars (men like -- Steve, cut that out). I began to understand why women stereotypically do not like sailing, and rarely captain large boats. I tried to winch in a sail. Or rather, I pulled with my entire weight on a winch handle and succeeded only in bruising my hand. Later I tried to help raise the mainsail (just grab this line and pull down with all your weight) and managed to almost fly up in the air by the force of friction alone. Oh well, maybe I can steer.
At our first stopover point, we learned the gentle art of anchoring. It truly is a skill, and one that I think takes a while to master. We learned mostly things like "Try not to tangle the anchor chain around the keel" and "Don't back over the dinghy". The anchorage was beautiful, a very secluded bay with no other boats, only a couple of houses (all empty at that time) and some birds. We watched pelicans dive on their prey, seagulls play in the thermals over the hills, and mahi-mahi swim playfully in the crystal-clear water. Postcard sort of stuff, really.
The next day we did some docking practice ("No, the dock is to your starboard side. Turn starboard. Starboard. RIGHT! TURN RIGHT NOW!"). I rediscovered my empathy for broiled chicken (my legs looked like I'd been dipped in boiling water like a lobster, then pulled out just pre-butter). That night we anchored right near a very picturesque construction site, inhabited by the world's largest colony of mosquitos.
A word about sleeping on a boat. Now, thankfully, Steve and I are both of that iron-stomach variety that can lie down on a rocking boat and think "My, how restful", not "Which was the leeward rail again?". However, in incredible heat no gentle rocking will help me get to sleep. Palpable waves of hot air wafted down from the open hatch to attack us. You know how it feels when you open the oven to check on dinner? Yeah...like that. For extra fun, we had cooked dinner in the galley, thus adding needed heat and humidity to the air. Spaces are small enough that you have to climb over something to get anywhere, including the head. The head itself is adequate in size for a phone booth, but is somewhat less comfortable to shower in. There is also the tricky fact that you shower in the same space that looks to the landlubber eye like a really tiny powder room, and personally I kept rapping my shins on the toilet. Not to mention the lack of good refrigeration (icebox is the best word for the galley cooling system), the wholly inadequate fans that nonetheless managed to sound like the RAF was landing on your foredeck, and the trash receptacle of odiferous glee.
Fortunately, after you've not slept due to painful sunburn and periodic mosquito bombing raids, you get to sail.
The third day's sailing was lots of fun -- a 14 mile open passage across the Atlantic (ok, a very small bit of the Atlantic) to Anegada. Anegada is a coral head of an island that is very short (only 28 feet at its highest point), and therefore invisible from the other islands. The others are all volcanic, and therefore very pointy and noticeable. It makes navigation easy for the most part -- sort of a point and shoot system. Anegada is off-limits to almost all charterers, though, as there is a very dangerous reef, a tricky channel, and difficult anchoring. As we had a captain with us, we were allowed to go (and in fact have now gained privileges to sail there again). And a good thing, too, as otherwise we would have missed this island.
Anegada is about the size of Tortola (8 miles by 1 mile), but rather than Tortola's rather sparse 17,000 residents, it has 180. Not counting the occupants of the 4 hotel rooms and the wild cattle. Or the wild goats. Or the wild chickens. (Catching a theme yet?) We began to suspect that its original name was Anegada da Vida (Anegada the empty). (Don't hurt me for the joke -- it seemed funny at the time.)
Upon landing our dinghy (#42) on the dock, we asked for a cab to the other side of the island, where the really good beaches are. The cab was on a run, but quickly returned. The "cab" was an ancient pickup truck, from with the tailgate had been removed (rusted off?) and to which two large padded benches had been attached in the bed. We climbed up, 9 of us, onto the benches and prepared for a leisurely drive on the sand roads to the other end of the island, some 5-6 miles away. As soon as we were on board, the pickup took off at 30 MPH, bouncing madly down the rutted and stone-strewn road. We passed all sorts of wild farm animals (presumably with only 180 people on the islands, fences and brands are sort of superfluous), nearly turning some into steak on the way. We careened wildly around blind curves, passed the half-dozen houses fast enough to throw stones in their yards, and finally arrived at the beach. I had been sitting in the frontmost seat of the benches, and had been hanging onto my hat, my glasses, my hair, and my sanity the entire way. I was a little unsteady getting out, I'll admit. It was worth it, though -- 8 miles of uninhabited, untouched white beach. It was even worth the ride back. After dark. (At least in the dark you didn't notice the cattle until you heard them lowing indignantly from the side of the road as you passed.)
The next day we sailed back to Tortola, anchoring at the lovely Cane Garden Bay, famed in Jimmy Buffett song. In the song, this is a quiet place where you can gaze with superiority at the lights of St. Thomas 20 miles west. (The USVI are much more densely inhabited, have large hotels and the Gap and cruise ships and other crimes of humanity.) By this time, I was sufficiently in the swing of things that I, too, looked down my sunburned nose at St. Thomas, relieved that I had chosen the more genuine and peaceful BVI.
And what was it about Cane Garden bay that was so restful? Was it the dozens of like-minded vessels that entered the harbor after us, performing an anchoring follies performance that would do "America's Funniest" proud? ("No, Marge, LOWER the anchor!" "But Harvey..." "Do it, Marge!" "But Harvey..." "Do I have to come up there and do it myself?!?") Was it the local 14 year olds that were holding dinghy races across the harbor (first one to fricassee a snorkeling tourist wins!)? Was it the jam band that played at Aerosmith concert volume until 11pm? (Okay, who wrote an arrangement of "Blowin' In The Wind" for steel drums?) Who can say.
We woke bright and hot the next morning and headed back to Road Town to drop off our instructor and head for the not-so-open seas on our own. The morning started poorly when we tried to use the windlass to raise the anchors and discovered that our battery had run down and we had to raise them by hand. Both of them. Each with 90 feet of chain. Oh, good. We then discovered that the battery was so far down that the radio, cell phone, refrigerator, fans, lights, etc. didn't work either. So we boldly sailed off to the harbor, running the engine and praying for a charge. Actually, Will was praying that it would be unfixable, and that we would have to stay in a hotel that night. Will was prone to sea-sickness, hated loud noises and the smell of exhaust, and couldn't sleep in heat. So you can tell he was having a great time. Alas for Will, the battery was fixed and we were able to head for Norman Island, a short 5 miles away.
Now, Norman Island just happens to be the
site of the aforementioned "Willy T.", the debauched bar/restaurant on
a ship. (You men in the audience will recall naked hookers perhaps?)
We got a good look at it -- didn't SEEM too bad -- and Steve and I decided
to go there for dinner. There were four very good reasons for this.
1) We couldn't stand to cook on the boat one more night,
2) We had very little edible food left, due to the refrigeration problem that day,
3) We were dying of curiosity,
4) We thought that no matter what, it would make an entertaining paragraph in this email.
We took our dinghy (#42), with great trepidation, over to the Willy T at about 7:30. We docked, tied up, and slowly peeked around the ship. Whathorrors did we see there? Seven year olds eating hamburgers. A group of Mediterranean men who should not have invested in Speedos. A bored-looking South African bartender handing out beers and Cokes. Yup, debauched indeed. We stayed to a surprisingly gourmet meal, saw absolutely no nudity (unless you count the 4-year-old who had a slight problem with his bathing suit after using the head) and no drunkenness. Not a G-string in sight. Another myth broken. I'm almost sorry we went -- I had this great mental image that would have haunted me all night. And this paragraph is nowhere near as interesting as I had hoped.
The next day we turned in our boat with a sentimental tear in our eyes, and sprinted for the showers. A few hours of air-conditioning (down to 26 degrees Celsius! About 79 degrees F for you non-metric users) and a nice long lukewarm shower (the hot water heater in this hotel was the size of a small ottoman, and we knew enough to flip the breakers as we walked in this time) restored our good humor. We ate dinner looking out at the boats and wondering when we could return. The sunburns had all healed (I now have an actual dark tan on several odd bits of my body), the mosquito bites faded (apparently if you burn hell out of them they give up), the salt washed out of our hair, and we were reluctant to see it all go.
We will go back, probably next year, and plan to take friends. We'll go up to Anegada and sing 70s music as we hurtle down a sandy stretch of road. We'll eat only cold food unless we go ashore to a restaurant. We'll go back to the Willy T and hope for...well, anything. We'll scan the waves for spare dinghies that we can hold for ransom. We'll slip into harbor early and bring a videocamera so we can make some money from Bob Saget. We'll play musicals at top volume on the CD player (provided the battery holds out). We'll bathe in sunscreen, get burned anyway, and decide that "Eau de Benadryl" is really a lovely aftershave. And we'll have a terrific time.
Want to come?