The Walter Mitty part of me has always wanted to run away to sea. Oh, to be in a 60-foot Morgan now that winter is here. Or something along those lines. Sure, I had learned my starboard from my port by sailing down the dammed-up Ohio River in something called a ''Penguin.'' But I wasn't what you'd call a duck taking to water. I capsized the boat while it was still tied to the dock.
Nevertheless, I fantasized of balmy trade winds and the sound of halyards twanging against a mast. So when the opportunity came to leave the driving to somebody else, I grabbed my resort wear and headed south to where the stuff of sailing dreams are made - the British Virgin Islands.
Here are azure seas, trade winds as regular as milk runs, and more than 40 hibiscus-carpeted islands and cays nosing up through the waves. To the yachting set, this is the Holy Grail of ocean cruising - consistent breeze, protected seas, and simple eyeball navigation. As one of the world's most frequented sailing areas, the region now earns roughly 60 percent of all its tourist dollars from charter boat operations.
While more experienced boaters have begun to head for the Lesser Antilles, which offer more open ocean sailing conditions - several charter boat operators based in the British Virgins have recently opened branch facilities there - beginning sailors remain loyal to the Virgin Islands. In fact, many professional yachtsmen rate the area as the No. 1 cruising spot in the world.
First off, keep in mind that you don't need to have been born with a silver rudder in your hand. You don't even need to own a pair of the proverbial Topsiders.
What is recommended is a love for adventure, or at least a willingness to experience it. And a tolerance for living in bobbing, rabbit-warren conditions for a week. You should also be able to prepare a light lunch for four while tilting at a 45-degree angle. All without losing the mayonnaise or your temper. If you pass this simple muster, climb aboard.
How to make your plans
Unless you are desperate for a good deal on a Gucci watch, it is easiest simply to skip St. Thomas and fly directly to Tortola from San Juan. Tortola is the main island in the chain and offers more than half a dozen charter boat operators from which to choose.
If you have a personal favorite or a particular company comes highly recommended, go with it. Otherwise it is best to try one of the larger, well-established operations. Horror stories of nonrefunded deposits and scheduling snafus are rampant in the industry, and with this much cash at stake - most week-long charters start at about $1,500 prepaid - you don't want any extra concern. If the company is unknown to you, ask for referrals or check with the British Virgin Islands Tourist Authority.
Once you've settled on your charter company you will next decide on the type and size of boat. This decision will obviously depend heavily upon your knowledge of boats, your purse strings, and the size of your party. If inexperienced, look for the words ''cruiser'' as opposed to a ''performance boat.'' The former label designates a craft that is comfortable and stable in the water, while the latter indicates a faster, more responsive boat.
Also pay attention to the number of cabins and heads (bathrooms) listed. Two people per cabin is generally the rule - and no one really wants to sleep in the main salon, because that is where you might have to stow the crew.
Which brings up the next most important point - the decision whether to ''bareboat'' or to hire a skipper. Most yacht chartering companies will require some proof that you can navigate a 30-foot-plus vessel among reef-studded seas before they will let you sail off into the sunset. Sometimes they will put a captain on board for a couple of days just to get you started; other times it might be wiser to take one along for the whole ride. It all depends upon your sailing abilities - and what sort of vacation you want: a hands-on or hands-off trip.
For my initiation ride around the Sir Francis Drake Channel I went to the Moorings, one of the oldest and most experienced yacht chartering companies in the Caribbean. There, I was outfitted with a 50-foot Gulfstar named Wheeler Dealer, along with a captain and a cook. I obviously needed the captain's abilities and I figured why waste time in the galley when I could be snorkeling among the parrotfish? Off-season (Mid-April to Mid-December), this arrangement runs about $400 a day, usually with a 5- or 7-day minimum. In-season, the per diem is about $100 more. Casting off
On a typical eye-squintingly brilliant Caribbean morning three of us cast off from the dock in Road Harbor, Tortola, and headed out to sea. Because of the many little islands making up the British Virgins, any number of sailing routes are possible. Most charters, however, seem to take a counterclockwise route, heading southeast out of Tortola. Norman, Peter, and Cooper Islands are all directly south, about an hour-and-a-half sail away, and all have good overnight anchorages and onshore restaurants, and all make an easy first-day sail.
Our trip was an abbreviated two-day jaunt across the waves, so we headed directly east toward Virgin Gorda, home of the famous Baths. Because of the consistency of the trade winds, this is the only direction in which it's necessary to beat to windward, generally considered the most uncomfortable sailing position.
After a brisk four-hour tack upwind, we reached the Baths - an unusual granite outcropping that is a deservedly popular stop with the flocks of charter boats. But because of our late afternoon arrival we had the hidden pools of bathtub temperature water all to ourselves. After a brief frolic here in what seemed an aquarium built for human beings, followed by some snorkeling, we clambered back on board and headed up the coast.
Bareboat charterers here are generally forbidden to sail after sundown - proliferating shoals and reefs make night sailing too dangerous - so it's best to plan your overnight anchorages in advance. Not only are the good harbors often some distance apart, they can also fill up rapidly.
We got as far as St. Thomas Bay, just off Spanish Town, the main metropolis of Virgin Gorda. After dropping anchor and doing a few housekeeping chores around the boat - then partaking of piping hot showers - we dined on barbecued chicken (yes, there is a grill on board) and promptly retired. Respect the sun - and other advice
After a few days of life at sea, only the hardiest of landlubbers will adhere to a late-night routine. Early to bed and early to rise, in compliance with the sun, is the order of the day. (It also goes without saying that the first couple of days on board should include a healthy regard for the sun - and the need for adequate clothing protection.)
Keep in mind, too, that no matter how spacious and roomy the boat, if you're unused to life on board you will undoubtedly feel cramped the first couple of days. As for the roll and pitch of the boat - well, you'll get used to it.
Many charterers continue to head north toward Gorda Sound - a large, protected bay with wonderful snorkeling and good anchorages. One could then sail directly west across the north side of Tortola and on to the islands of Jost Van Dyke and St. Johns - the latter one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, though requiring customs clearance when entering from the British Virgins. The final stretch
Because of our limited time, we turned Wheeler Dealer southwest and ''reached'' over to Salt Island and its very popular dive spot, the wreck of a 19th-century steamer, the Rhone.
One of the major settings for the movie ''The Deep,'' the wreck is among the most accessible scuba-diving spots in the Caribbean. We found the stern of the vessel - only 20 feet below the surface - just as exciting viewing for snorkelers.
After exploring the wreck and some nearby coral reefs where fish resembling chunks of butter swam, we rendezvoused on board for lunch.
Too soon, however, it was time to head back across the channel - a straight two-hour run back to Road Harbor.
Then with a glass of something cool in your hand and the wind at your back, it is considered very much in order to start planning the trip all over again for next year.
Specifics on charter boat sailing in the British Virgin Islands may be found in tomorrow's Arts & Leisure section.m