My first whiff of yachting in The Grenadines came in a breeze of sailing banter on the eve before setting sail. ''If you sail here ... you go aground,'' said one old salt on a pilothouse ketch named Lydia Grace out of Tampa, Fla. ''It's a fact of life.''
''Sure it's rough, but more hurricanes have hit Long Island than all The Grenadines put together,'' said another, cranking a winch on a 37-foot cutter in the adjoining slip.
''The islands are so steep, you can pull up right along shore and lasso a tree instead of throwing anchor,'' laughed one young girl at the wheel of Hoot Mon from Jacksonville, Fla.
Thus my scene was set as I eyed the fleet of Caribbean Sailing Yachts at the CSY marina here and contemplated my imminent tour of 14-plus Grenadine islands. With a handful of yachting adventures already under my belt, 10 days in the Virgin Islands among them, I strolled the dock planks confidently.
My skipper appeared and impaled me with a steely glare: ''Everything you've done in the BVIs (British Virgin Islands) is easy compared with this,'' he said. ''I hope you love sailing.''
It was time to admit that I merely knew how to crank a winch, duck when the sail came around, and throw anchor. I could also reef the mainsail - with instruction - tackle a flailing jib, and help fend off boats with a pole - but that was about it.
''Not to worry,'' said this wiry, West Indian-born CSY skipper of 14 years. He promptly put me in a category with the majority of aspiring bareboaters who are more interested in vacation than high seas adventure. I didn't feel nearly such a novice when he told me that 85 percent of those wanting to bareboat charter here (rent a yacht with no skipper) fail to qualify outright. Most need a skipper at least for a few days. There are three reasons CSY needs to be more selective here than in its other charter areas in the Virgin Islands, Florida Keys, and Bay Islands: higher winds, bigger seas, and ubiquitous reefs.
Also at dockside, I met and talked with Pat Flynn, a vacationer from Dallas who this year sailed The Grenadines for 14 days after five years of trips to the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands are one of charterdom's prime measuring sticks, because of consistent breezes, protected seas, and eyeball navigation. ''The Grenadines are a much more physical brand of sailing,'' she said. ''It requires more strength at the wheel, more attention to everything from sails to charts.'' The Grenadines are much better marked with ranges and buoys. ''They need to be,'' she added.
My cruise was to be an entirely skippered affair called ''Sail 'n Learn.'' This is the charter world's answer to one of its own problems - renting yachts to people who aren't yet qualified. And it's also perfect for those semiexperienced sailors who aren't confident enough to take a 40-footer out alone in unfamiliar seas. For me, besides leaving the compasses, charts, and worries to someone else, it was great to have Lorraine Ross, a lifelong Vincentian, show me the islands through his eyes.
On the first day's sail I found myself en route to Bequia (pronounced ''beck-way'') at the wheel of our 44-foot mid-cockpit cutter. CSY builds the boats it charters, which are known for their strength and heavy displacement - meaning that they are good heavy-weather boats, perfect for the type of sailing found here. When a squall overtook us from behind, however, the boat heeled to starboard so dramatically that I needed reassurance.
''It's impossible for this boat to turn over, right?'' I said, with some vague idea of hull physics dancing in my head.
''Almost,'' Lorraine said.
The next few days' sailing was carefree and spirited. Sailing during the off-season - better known as the rainy, or hurricane season - I found that squalls came and went. Seas were indeed high, and rolling. The distance between islands - the most daunting statistic on paper - turned out to be less than it seemed. Sailing time between islands averaged about two hours, never more than four. You can sail against the wind from the southernmost point (Petit St. Vincent) to the northernmost (St. Vincent): 45 miles in nine hours.
Navigation is still mostly by eyeball, and prevailing winds are out of the east. Many a yacht we passed had a person standing on the bow to negotiate the reef areas near harbors and bays. There are no moorings, no slips, no launch services, no harbor captains. As one bareboater put it, ''You throw anchor and dinghy in.''
As we ran south down the wind, The Grenadines looked like a partly submerged giant sea lizard off portside: The island of Mustique was the head; Petit Mustique and the three Savan Islands were the spiny back and tail. The latter are uninhabited.
To starboard was a panorama of sea and sky that seemed to drop off into nothing. ''If you get too far out to the west of the islands, it frankly is a little scary,'' Ms. Flynn had told me. But as I watched my own nimble skipper dash over a high-pitching bow in bare feet without so much as looking down, I felt all the elation of a sail with Ted Turner coupled with the safety of the Queen Elizabeth 2.
Our main destination for the trip was the Tobago Cays, noted for exquisite snorkeling and turquoise water. To get there you have to negotiate an 80 -foot-wide channel - difficult in off-season and even more daunting when on-season bareboaters have to queue up for access.
When we arrived, I agreed that the horseshoe-shaped channel, about three-quarter miles in radius, had the most gorgeous, translucent-green water I'd seen in all my trips to the Caribbean. The color oozes out from half-rocky, half-sandy beaches like licks of glowing blue and green. The spot - a prime one for windsurfers, with high wind and low waves - is protected by a broad windward reef.
Our southernmost destination was the upscale, 113-acre resort on the rolling hills of Petit St. Vincent, its posh pavilions a far cry from the poor huts and terrible roads of our first stop on Bequia. The islands themselves are mostly poor, undeveloped, and not as lush as islands farther north and south. Several have resort hotels. Vegetation is most verdant in the hilly folds where water trickles down.
Sailors should know that many of the small coves and bays are not well protected - notably Grand Bay on Mustique and the southern side of Petit St. Vincent. Ms. Flynn had said her party spent four or five nights ''rolling all night.''
Although the creature comforts of more touristed areas are few and far between here, each of the inhabited islands had at least one small town, with reputable restaurants and night spots. Among the latter are the Frangipani Restaurant on Bequia (owned and run by the newly elected prime minister, Pat Mitchell of St. Vincent, and his wife); Cotton House on Mustique; Palm Island Beach Club on Palm Island; and Petit St. Vincent Resort. Markets are locally owned and use east Caribbean dollars for currency, which, due to favorable exchange rates, go further than United States dollars on more northerly islands.
My last morning off Petit St. Vincent, a swimmer sliced the silver stillness of dawn as I peered out the porthole of my aft cabin. We set sail at 6 o'clock, rounded Union and Mayero Islands, and tacked against the wind clear back to the CSY Marina on St. Vincent. Later I compared trips with Ms. Flynn.
''We came for vacation, but definitely ended up with more of an adventure,'' she said, telling of escapades that included ''heaving to'' in a torrential squall (a maneuver designed to make the boat go in a circle when navigation is difficult).
My own response was renewed respect for the sea and those who can roll with the waves and smile in a squall. Thanks to an expert skipper, my Sail 'n Learn cruise through The Grenadines was a hassle-free lesson in disciplined daring. Even though sailing here at other times of the year - notably January through March - isn't as challenging as the rainy season I experienced, I'll recommend The Grenadines as a high seas venture for the intrepid but not the daredevil; for the confident, but not the brash. GETTING THERE:
Connecting flights to St. Vincent and The Grenadines are available from Barbados, St. Lucia, Martinique, and Trinidad. LIAT Ltd. provides several daily scheduled flights to St. Vincent. Tropicair, Aero Services, and Mustique Airways are available for charter to and from St. Vincent, Mustique, Canouan, and Union Islands. Caribbean Sailing Yachts Ltd. is located at Box 491, Tenafly, N.J. 07670. Toll-free number: 800-631-1593. New Jersey or Canada call collect: (201) 568-0390.