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Seastruck

By JUDI DASH

© St. Petersburg Times


The squall came on fast and furious. Twelve-foot waves crisscrossed our bow in violent slaps, then shoved again from behind like a bully, while rain pelted us in sharp needles. As our 50-foot sailboat lurched and foamy water sloshed over the deck, my husband David took quick action.

"I'll have another Jack Daniel's," he yelled through the wind, "and some of those little cheese crackers ... with dip."

Ah, the luxury of chartering a yacht with a crew. David was nowhere near the wheel but was snuggled next to me, yelling "Isn't this fun?" I struggled to keep down my lunch.

And this was Hour One of a weeklong sail.

When we'd decided to sail the Grenadines, friends had urged us to rent a bareboat -- one without a crew. How private, how romantic it would be, just us and our sleek white craft gliding through the turquoise waters of the Caribbean's most beautiful island group. Strung out like green gemstones between St. Vincent and Grenada, the islands range from lush tropical expanses with high mountains and bustling harbors to tiny patches of sand with a few palms and perfect snorkeling reefs.

Of course we'd need to brush up on our sailing skills, but quality courses abounded, and our buddies insisted that for the most part, the Grenadines were so close together you could practically navigate by sight.

Tempting. But we never got around to lessons and, besides, an inner voice nagged that seven days of "you captain, me crew" would not play out well. I had no desire to cook or clean, and neither David nor I is very good at taking orders from the other.

So we booked a one-week package from St. Lucia to Grenada that included the sailing yacht Melissa Lee, a rubber dinghy that bounced along behind us like an inflatable pet, a crew of two, all our meals (except for three dinners ashore to give the cook a break) and assorted water toys, from snorkeling gear to a windsurfer. Our charter company, the Clearwater-based Moorings, sent us pre-trip questionnaires about preferences in foods (no red meat for me, low cholesterol for David), wine (him red, me white), and goodies "you can't live without." David requires chocolate chip cookies for survival; I slather Grey Poupon mustard on everything but dessert.

The company also arranged a get-acquainted phone chat with our crew, a French-Canadian couple who had three years' experience taking guests through the Grenadines. The Melissa Lee was their year-round home, their mailing address the Moorings' St. Lucia base at Marigot Bay, from where our charter departed. We worked out an itinerary that took in most of the notable islands along our route:

St. Vincent, famous for 3,000-foot Soufriere volcano and which has wonderful rainforest walks.

Bequia, favored by the international yachting set, who stroll the waterfront along Admiralty Bay, where fishermen in brightly colored boats cast nets into the shallows.

Mustique, playground of the rich and famous, with multimillion-dollar villas along cliff tops and beach fronts.

Mayreau, which has perfect beaches and a wonderful hilltop restaurant with a joyful weekly "jump-up" party that includes 2-pound lobsters and a rousing steel band.

Palm, a diminutive resort island with a scenic 1'-mile trail around the perimeter.

The Tobago Cays, among the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean, with legendary blue-green waters and an extensive reef system teeming with underwater life.

Carriacou, which has great inland hiking and interesting taxi tours featuring farming villages, local craftsmen and hilltop views.

Grenada, a green, green land with rainforest hiking in Grand Etang National Park and a colorful open market at St. George's, which also boasts one of the Caribbean's prettiest harbors.

We never regretted that we'd nixed going it alone -- and for many reasons we hadn't even considered.

There were the obvious perks. Adrien Cheverie and Louise Breton, respectively our captain and cook, were take-charge types who carried out their duties with panache. Standing erect, chin thrust out proudly, Adrien rode the sea like a Royal Canadian Mountie who had simply switched from steed to stern for a stint. And Louise, her English delicately spiced with oui's and bon's, delighted in conjuring from her little galley surprisingly tasty versions of fettuccine Alfredo, West Indian roti (a kind of chicken and potato stew rolled in tortillas) and imaginative desserts, including one dramatic presentation of bananas flambe.

She even surprised us one brunch with an elaborately laid out platter of lox and bagels -- which she pronounced salmon fame avec le bagel, and served, of course, with creme fromage.

While David and I lazily yawned our way from our little cabin to the topside deck each morning, Louise and Adrien bustled to get hot coffee into our mugs and fresh toast on the table. As we lay reading some pot-boiler or splashed about in our snorkels and fins, our hosts washed dishes, checked ropes and performed other shipboard chores, or dinghied ashore for provisions or customs clearance. (Our sail took us across several borders, requiring immigration formalities.)

For us, sunset was a time for languorous admiration of red skies and silvery seas, as, cocktails in hand, we watched the sky go dark and stars sparkle out over the evening's anchorage. For Louise and Adrien, the end of the day meant churning out hors d'oeuvres and getting dinner started, always to the accompaniment of mellow mood music, from Jimmy Buffett to country and western ballads, and the latest love songs via Quebec.

We weren't particularly demanding guests, our hosts assured us, but nor did we lift any fingers unnecessarily. We did make our own bed each morning, bring out the trash from our tiny bathroom, and fetch our own cold sodas from the starboard ice chest -- though if Louise was up, why make two trips?

Perhaps we were a little grumpy after a particularly warm night, when no air came through the above-bed hatch that was our ventilation. (Larger Moorings yachts have air-conditioning.) And when, in less-sheltered anchorages, the boat rocked and rolled instead of gently bobbing like it was supposed to, I might have let slip a disgruntled moan or two.

By and large, however, all was copacetic, especially when we were sailing.

Some days, with the wind at a perfect heading and sails billowing, the Melissa Lee sliced through the water like a knife through butter. Other times, when calm prevailed or the winds were against us, we reluctantly motored to our next destination -- a community decision with Adrien as final arbiter.

Whether tackling the rough open seas and capricious winds of the seven-hour-long haul from St. Lucia to St. Vincent (our longest and roughest stretch of sea) or carefully navigating the shallow reefs around the Tobago Cays' prime snorkeling spots, our captain proved repeatedly that sailing the Grenadines was no breeze.

"See that buoy?" Adrien called out at one point, indicating a floating object that he said was supposed to signal a minor obstacle in the immediate vicinity. "What's really there is an extensive reef that goes all the way to the shore; bareboaters run aground there all the time."

Another time, when our dinghy's motor refused to start for a shore excursion, Adrien nonchalantly dismantled the thing and quickly got it back in working order. Had we had more serious trouble, such as the broken propeller that befell a neighboring Moorings yacht in the Tobago Cays, our captain would have donned diving gear and headed below, tools in hand. For any problem he couldn't fix, a ship-to-shore call would have quickly summoned help. Of course, bareboaters are backed up by repair support, too, but having onboard mariners can expedite solutions.

As it was, the week we had thought would be more than sufficient for exploring the 130-mile stretch between St. Lucia and Grenada was barely enough to get our feet wet. Each island had distinct charms that begged for attention, and not just a quick perusal.

On many islands, hours evaporated in conversation with fishermen, fruit merchants, cafe owners, artists and other yachtsmen. A quick question about where to find flashlight batteries or a request to take someone's picture could turn into a lengthy exchange about West Indian politics of funky Caribbean bars. The tug between seeing every speck of the Grenadines and fully experiencing the life of each island community seemed impossible to resolve, given our time limits.

And so we schmoozed at length with the floating merchants of Bequia who hawked wine, lobsters, T-shirts, jewelry, and even laundry service from brightly hued skiffs that prowled Admiralty Bay, zipping over to each arriving yacht with a wave and a smile. And we danced the night away at the Saturday night "Jump Up" party at Dennis' Hideaway on lovely Mayreau, scarfing down Carib beer and 2-pound lobsters to the beat of a seven-piece steel band.

We happily devoted two days to the famous snorkeling reefs of the Tobago Cays, clustered in shallow waters that ran the entire blue/green spectrum. Each reef we inspected had a different personality, though all were within a few minutes' motoring of each other.

We snorkeled right off the beach at Sandy Island, a long, narrow spit near Carriacou, where island women offered hair-braiding at $30 a head and sunbathers lay burning to a crisp on the treeless sandbar.

The days floated by, each treasured but ultimately blurring into one another so that later we found it hard to sort out at which point we had hiked, when we had sailed, and when we had just hung out on the Melissa Lee.

Though losing track of time was a clear sign of a successful vacation, time did not lose track of us, and as our seventh day approached we were right where we were supposed to be -- Grenada-side. Our "ship" had come in -- and we had to get off.

In truth, we were ready for air-conditioning, a king-size bed, and a bathroom bigger than a bread box. Checking into our Secret Harbour room, where the balcony hung over the harbor, we gazed down at the sailboats bobbing in the sun, including our own Melissa Lee. We could see Adrien and Louise fiercely scrubbing trash bins and swabbing the decks, and agreed that we had the better deal, all and all. If you go

Crewed yacht charters usually include a captain and cook, typically a husband/wife team, who do all the work -- though passengers are welcome to help with sailing and chores if they choose. Meals usually are included in the price of the trip.

Vacationers with a substantial amount of sailing experience may opt for a bareboat charter, where you're on your own. An in-between alternative is a bareboat charter, which includes a captain or cook to take over whenever you want to take some time off. The information below deals exclusively with crewed yacht charters.

A weeklong Moorings Grenadines charter for two on a 50-foot sailboat with a crew of two costs $6,349 until June 30, then $5,754 through Oct. 1, when the price rises again. Sharing the boat with a larger group -- termed the Stateroom package -- saves nearly $4,000 per week for the current season and more than $3,500 for the next season. The Moorings divides the year into five price seasons.

Boats have four small double cabins (one is for the crew), each with a tiny private bathroom with shower. Most meals and alcoholic beverages are included in the price. Airfare into the Caribbean ports is extra, as are hotel accommodations before or after the charter, taxes, on-shore meals and tips. You'll need a valid passport. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.

The Moorings also charters yachts in the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin and Guadeloupe. For information about charters, contact the company at 19345 U.S. 19 N, fourth floor, Clearwater, FL 34624; call (800) 437-7880. Other Caribbean charter companies

While I have had several successful charter experiences with the Moorings, there are many other firms to consider, as well as dozens of individual boat owners who will take charter customers. I recommend going with a larger company, which can provide fast repair service (and a replacement boat, if necessary) should you run into mechanical problems. Following is a selection of respected charter operators that rent crewed yachts:

Lynn Jachney Charters, 1 Townhouse Square, second floor, Marblehead, MA 01945; (800) 223-2050.

Nicholson's Yacht Charter, 432 Columbia St., Cambridge, MA 021415; (800) 662-6066.

Catamaran Charters, 1650 SE 17th St., Suite 207, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316; (800) 262-0308.

Sun Yacht Charters, P.O. Box 737, Camden, ME 04843; (800) 772-3500.

Sunsail, 115 E Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301; (800) 237-6627. When to go: Charter operations in the Caribbean run year-round, but there are pros and cons of sailing at different times. The height of the season is December through March, when most North Americans and Europeans are looking for escapes from winter, but that means prices are highest then, too. April through July brings a profusion of tropical flowers -- and lower prices, and foliage is especially lush November through January. The hurricane season theoretically is June through early October, and prices are at their lowest at that time of year -- as much as half the winter rate. Resources: A good source of information about chartering a yacht -- either crewed or bareboat -- is Smarter Charters, by Christopher Caswell ($14.95, St. Martin's Press).

An excellent source of detailed information about the Grenadines is the Sailors Guide to the Windward Islands, by Chris Doyle ($17.95, Cruising Guide Publications), available from the publisher; (800) 330-9542. The book provides navigational insights, recommends attractions ashore and lists yacht charter companies throughout the region. The Moorings distributes a free copy of the book to charter parties. -- JUDI DASH

Originally published April 27, 1997



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