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
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."
FLOTILLAS IN THE CARIBBEAN
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.