Sailing the British Virgin Islands

The highest point on the volcanic island of Tortola gives a magnificent view of the surrounding British Virgin Islands - Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada - in the Caribbean.

Standing there gazing at the hazy islands in the moist air, I felt the pull of adventure. I was able to see the course we had planned for our upcoming sailing trip: a counterclockwise voyage around the BVI that would leave us plenty of time to snorkel and explore various beaches and towns.

It was the last time for days that I would feel so firmly rooted to the ground, so omnipotent, and so steady.

My husband and I had agreed to charter a sailboat with his family for seven days. The last time I had been sailing was a few years ago in the Chesapeake Bay, and it seemed like forever.

We were greeted by a 45-foot French Jenneau, sparkling white and trimmed in green. I was surprised how much room there was below deck. We climbed down the stairs into a wide common area, surrounded by three compact sleeping berths and a kitchen so efficient it made Manhattan kitchenettes seem like a waste of space.

The charter-company representative climbed on board and gave us a technical orientation. He had previously given everyone who was renting a boat plenty of information about good anchoring spots, prime snorkeling sites, and troublesome areas to avoid. Now he went over the final, technical details, making sure we were set.

READY TO SAIL: This fully equipped boat provides a pleasant way for a family to vacation together.

Courtesy of the charter company, we were self-sufficient: tanks of water, fuel, and more food than an army could eat.

As we sailed out of Maya Cove that afternoon, my father-in-law turned to me and told me to pull in the genoa line.

"Pull in the what?" I replied, baffled by the various ropes coiled beside me, and forcing myself to swallow growing feelings of panic at what seemed to be an overly aggressive tilt of the boat. When sailing at a close angle to the wind, your boat can tilt - called heeling - and when it's been a while since you've been on a boat, it can take a little time to get accustomed to this sensation.

I could barely stand, and couldn't imagine living at such cataclysmic angles for the next six days.

Somehow, during those first 24 hours, I began to get used to the boat's constant motion. By the next day, I was relishing the process of tacking - turning the bow back and forth across the wind - as we made our way toward a distant point on the horizon.

My husband would let out the genoa lines on one side of the boat. I pulled in the lines on the other, feeling the power of the wind as it caught the billowing sail and filled it out. We quickly settled into a daily rhythm: sailing until early afternoon, settling into a protected harbor, and snorkeling for the rest of the day.

Sailing a 45-foot craft is a little like luxury camping. You have bursts of activity during the day - adjusting sails, steering, dropping anchor - which are physical enough to make you feel muscles you didn't know you had. By the end of each day, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've accomplished something. But, better than camping, you have the reward of a hot (if cramped) shower and a leisurely dinner on board.

The BVI's total area is only 59 square miles, making it perfect for short day sails that leave plenty of time for snorkeling. Steady winds, line-of-sight navigation, and sheltered waters create ideal conditions for even less-experienced sailors.

Sailing makes you pay close attention to the world around you. There is the world on top of the azure-blue water: swells and wind, squalls that disappear as quickly as they blow up, and the always-thrilling sighting of a sea turtle or whale coming up for air. You sail by volcanic islands, plush resort towns, and other sailboats and catamarans. Below the surface is an entirely different world of tropical fish, coral reefs, and vast depths.

At uninhabited Norman Island, reputedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," we saw hundreds of brightly colored yellowtails and sergeant majors swimming among The Caves, a series of openings above and under water.

At Cooper Island's Manchioneel Bay, we spotted more parrot fish and blue tang, a sea turtle benignly swimming along, and one distant barracuda - a harbinger of another barracuda encountered at a less comfortable distance at Virgin Gorda's Bitter End. This meeting immediately entered the annals of family fish stories.

The transition back to landlubber from sailor was not as easy as my transformation from landlubber to sailor. The sea legs I had worked so hard to attain insisted that I was still rocking when I was firmly planted on land. I didn't mind, though. I felt seasoned and strong. And I'm eagerly looking forward to the next chance I get to launch from my land-locked urban life into the watery world.

For more information, contact Stardust Yacht Charters on Tortola at 800-772-3500 or (284) 494-5538. Or visit the Web site at www.sunyachts.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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