I had taken the courses. I had the diplomas. It said right there in black and

white that I was a fully qualified deep-water sailor. Now in marinas all over the world,

charter companies would willingly entrust me with sailboats worth hundreds of

thousands of dollars.

             Somehow I didn't believe it.

             The term that describes do-it-yourself sailing is "bareboating."  For those who

don't know how to sail, the alternative is to hire a boat complete with captain and crew.

but for people like me, occupying some vague territory in between, they invented


             Webster defines a flotilla as "a fleet of small vessels." In flotilla sailing, several

bareboats are prepared and provisioned, destinations and moorings are

predetermined, and a lead boat is captained by an expert sailor. For sailors who are

not completely secure in their seamanship, flotilla sailing is very reassuring.

             My courses were with the Offshore Sailing School, so when I learned that they

would be sailing flotilla style from St. Lucia to Grenada, I rushed to sign up. It is 8

o'clock on a grey, cold January morning when a BWIA jet painted like a yellow

cockatoo lifts through the New York smog and descends several hours later onto an

island rimmed with beaches and pierced by forest-clad volcanoes.

             My shipmates are a far-flung group: 10 women and 15 men from such places

as Dallas, Chicago, Sacramento, Toronto and Hamburg. Our cruise leader is Mike

Birch, a friendly, enormously likeable guy with a bushy blond mustache. We've been

parceled out on five boats - 43 foot Hunters - with skippers and navigators designated

by Offshore.        

             I am on "Orion," captained by Lawrence Kennedy, a dentist from Knoxville,

Tennessee who looks like a younger Jimmy Carter. Lawrence is the only captain I've

ever met who calls his crew, "Darlin'."  "Tighten the main sheet a little, Darlin'," he

says in honey-dipped tones (when the crew is wife Nancy, that is).

             But the name "Earl" he delivers like a shot out of a gun. "Earl's muh man!" he

says, the two of them having sailed together in Offshore's Tonga flotilla. Earl and Ellie

have escaped to the Caribbean from Michigan. Ellie, who has never sailed before, asks

if there are tornados on the water. Yes, we assure her, but they're called water spouts

and pluck you right out of the cockpit. We tease her, but later, when one of us gets

seasick, it isn't Ellie.

             There are three cabins below, one for Lawrence and Nancy, another for

Earl and Ellie. The last cabin is for Adele, an Offshore alumna who will be plotting our

courses. The other single sleeps on the convertible dining room table. Guess who.

             Many sailors consider the Grenadines the best sailing in the Caribbean.

They're the most southerly of the stepping stones to South America, a curling cluster

of gemlike islands where the winds are strong and steady. We'll be riding "downhill"

on a broad reach all the way. Those taking our place on the return sail will have their

faces into the wind, a wetter and wilder ride.

             Clearing the lee of St. Lucia, great dark waves tufted with foam lift us high and

drop us into the troughs. These are "African rollers," coming all the way from that

distant continent. We may be on the Caribbean Sea but it feels like the ocean to me.

             Bequia (Beckwee) is our first mooring, the essence of a Caribbean small town.

In five minutes I'm into the hills, looking past sprays of bougainvillea at our tiny

armada being serviced by a floating water salesman. Kids in uniform are playing

during recess outside a cinderblock school. A shock of blond hair shines like a light

bulb among the tumbling black faces. Back at the beach, I come across a workshop

where three men are handmaking beautiful model ships, the finished products lined

up in rows on shelves above their heads.

             The island of Mayreau is a speck on the map, but if there could be only one

perfect tropical anchorage, Salt Whistle Bay would be it. From "Orion's" deck we look

at a half moon curve of beach lined with palm trees, a necklace of sand so narrow that

breakers can be seen through the fronds.

             We spend the night here, and as the first of countless stars makes its

appearance, we drop two anchors for security. This is a new technique to me, but not

the least of a flotilla's pleasures is learning without being taught.

             One thing I learn is that leaders know more than followers. Visiting Mike Birch's

boat, he shows me at least three things I was doing wrong on "Orion." I also learn that

a leader's life is not a carefree one. If a head (toilet) overflows - and it does - Mike fixes  

it. If a crew wraps their anchor line around the propellor - and they do - he dons mask

and fins, takes the plunge and unwraps it. One afternoon Mike rows to "Lone Star" in a

squall because their dinghy is sinking. When he gets there, they've found the missing


              The passage to Tobago Cays is treacherous, with submerged reefs at every

turn, so we motor there like ducks in a row. One moment we're alone in the universe,

the next we join dozens of sailboats anchored amidst a cluster of tiny atolls. They've

come from heaven knows where for the snorkeling, but not today. The wind is up, the

rain is down, and after a drenching, all five crews retreat to their cabins.

             Late that night Adele broadcasts on the ship's radio: "To all the boats on the

Tobago Cays, has anyone lost a dog? We've picked up a very friendly red Airedale.

She's making herself at home and eating our food. Please call 'Orion.'" Two women

from the flotilla motor from boat to boat while the dog keeps us company until late that

night when the owners are located. But not before Ellie has given her a name: "Flea."

             By now we five have fallen into a comfortable pecking order. Lawrence and

Earl, the most experienced sailors, are interested in fine tuning "Orion" to squeeze out

the best performance. They make minute adjustments in sail trim and rigging and

rejoice at each fraction of a knot increase in speed. Adele pours over her charts,         

making sure we get from A to C without running aground on B. Nancy and Ellie

are content to soak up the sun and listen to Jimmy Buffet tapes, but they make up for

it by assuming most of the galley chores. Which leaves me exactly where I want to be,

spending a lot of time behind the wheel, with the feel of the sea under my feet and the

sails billowing over my head.

             Along the way we hop off at a string of pearls, islands so close together that

they should be identical, but are surprisingly different. Palm Island is 130 acres of

sand, 2000-plus palms and a cluster of rental cottages. The landlord is famous not

only for having sailed the Pacific single handed in a leaky sailboat but for planting         

each palm tree by hand.

             If Palm is for the hale and hearty, Petit St. Vincent is posh. Feeling a little like

trespassers, we wander the well-groomed paths past very private cottages where

yellow flags are raised for room service or transportation. A red flag means, "Leave us


             At Carriacou I snack on a "roti," a curry concoction wrapped in pastry that

answers the question, "What happens to the chicken's feet after the bird's been


             In the superabundunce of idyllic islands, tiny Sandy Cay is a special case. On

one end, three palm trees sprout like a New Yorker cartoon, bedraggled and battered

by the wind. A thin strip of pure white sand leads to the wide end, perhaps 50 yards

across, and the whole curves around a cove of bright blue water where we drop

anchor and snorkel. As at all the best spots in the Grenadines, we are not alone.

English, Argentinian, French and other sailors have brought  their often gorgeous

boats, adding international spice to our flotilla.

             That night we order out for dinner. At our anchorage on Carriacou, islanders

row up selling jewelry, T-shirts, and in one boat, two young boys with menus. We

make our selections and at 7 PM, under a pitch black sky encrusted with stars, the

boys are back with lobster, rice, salad and vegetables on foil-wrapped plates. After our

al fresco feast they return for the plates and our heartfelt thanks. There will be no

galley duty tonight.

             The final sailing day is a long reach to Grenada. The flotilla gathers outside the

harbor, we raise our sails and set out together. For a while we sail as a group, then

gradually spread out as each navigator sets a slightly different course. Hours later

we're back together, sailing in the lee of lush green mountains dotted with bright

orange immortelle trees in full blossom and houses perched on hillsides above small

neat fishing villages.

             Adele is at the helm when the skies open up. Rain pelts us and we huddle

under the cockpit cover while Grenada basks in full sunlight. "There'll probably be

another damn rainbow," Nancy drawls as we scamper below leaving Adele to suffer

the storm. In minutes it's gone and we're reaching again under a clear blue sky. Just a

momentary break in paradise.

             Tomorrow we'll have a short sail to Secret Harbor Resort on Grenada, where

we'll turn in our boats and have a farewell banquet. Then we'll spend a luxurious night

on large beds and dry land. I'm sure it will be fun, but right now all I can think is, "It

doesn't get  much better than this."



             Offshore Sailing School's flotillas are offered to graduates of any of their

sailing courses which are given in New York City, Captiva Island, Florida, the British

Virgin Islands, St. Lucia and Cape Cod. Future flotillas will be in St. Martin,

Guadeloupe, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Martinique, the Mediterranean

and the South Pacific. Contact Offshore at 16731 McGregor Blvd., Ft. Myers, FL         

33908. Tel. 800 221-4326 or 813 454-1700.


     are welcome and made to feel at home. Although many flotilla members are         

friends sailing together, noone feels like a stranger for long.


             ranges from expert to beginner, the former taking captain assignments and

others participating as their skills allow. All are enthusiastic sailors and many want to

combine learning with pleasure.


             in both St. Lucia and Grenada are worth while. Each has beautiful beaches,        

colorful markets, forested mountains, and excellent accomodations. The area of         

the Pitons in St. Lucia is one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Hiking in

Grenada's rain forest is especially rewarding.