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Prescription for relaxation

When this Connecticut doctor wants to unwind, he heads to the Caribbean for a sailing charter

Predictable conditions and line-of-sight navigation make the British Virgin Islands a popular charter destination.

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Jim Ouellette is a busy family physician with a busy family life who has found that a Caribbean charter is just what the doctor ordered.

Keeping a tight daily schedule - seeing patients every 10 or 15 minutes - and  blocking out time on evenings and weekends for family activities, the father of three is "always on the clock," it seems. The clock goes into a locker when he charters.

"We take our watches off, let the sun be our clock, eat when we're hungry, sleep when we're tired," says Ouellette, 44, of Colchester, Conn.

Cut loose from his workaday schedule, he takes time to explore. It's a bit of a National Geographic adventure. "We go places on our itinerary that few people see," he says.

Ouellette charters in the British Virgin Islands for a week at a time with his father, Don Ouellette; his wife's uncle, George Stacey; and two friends. The group has gone three times in the last nine years.

Ouellette keeps a 19-foot Lightning at his father's home on Cape Cod, Mass. The two of them sail it on Cape Cod Bay in the summer when the family vacations there. Ouellette doesn't think he would use a larger boat often enough to justify the expense.

His wife, Kelly, a Vermonter who grew up skiing, isn't a sailor, and his children, ages 15, 13 and 11, are focused on sports and school activities.

The Ouellettes usually spend winter vacations together on the slopes and summer getaways with the grandparents on Cape Cod or in Vermont. Ouellette usually charters in the spring, when offseason rates prevail and hurricanes aren't blowing yet.

Jim Oullette

"At this stage of our lives, it's hard to have a boat in the marina a half hour from our home and feel like we're making good use of it with all these demands on our time," says Ouellette, a primary-care physician. "The chartering thing is good for those who aren't 100 percent interested in sailing or their families are not 100 percent interested in it. Chartering scratches that itch at a reasonable cost."

He figures that a week's charter costs less than a week's family ski vacation.

Stacey taught Ouellette how to sail on a 22-foot sailboat on the Lake of Egypt in southern Illinois. When Stacey asked Ouellette a few years later whether he wanted to join in a group charter in the BVI, "I jumped at the chance," says Ouellette. Working through a charter broker, Ed Hamilton & Associates, they chartered a 42-foot monohull from Sunsail and, on subsequent charters, a 50-footer.

The BVI has been their charter destination of choice each time. "The sailing is simple," Ouellette says. "The water's calm. You're not in open ocean. It's line-of-sight navigation."

And the islands are relaxing. One of Stacey's friends, a lawyer with a Type A personality, arrived at the docks for one of their charters with his laptop so he could check e-mail morning and afternoon, but he couldn't get the boat's Wi-Fi connection to work.

"He became one of the chief hammock testers," Ouellette says. "He said it was the best week in his memory. God was smiling on him: 'Thou shalt not work.' "

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Ouellette took a boating safety course before his first bareboat charter, and on each charter he learned more about cruising from Stacey, who usually is the skipper. Ouellette now believes he could skipper a bareboat himself. The family - including Kelly, who doesn't like the big seas normally associated with bluewater sailing - spent a week in June in the BVI at the Bitter End Yacht Club, a boating resort on Virgin Gorda. The Ouellettes lived shoreside but took a daysail over to Anegada, about 12 miles away, and sailed Hobie Cats, sailboards and Hunter 21s on the protected North Sound.

"I managed to get the wife interested enough that she's talking about chartering," Ouellette says. "She enjoys the beach. She enjoys the swimming. I think, with time, she'll enjoy the sailing part as well."

Ouellette can see another Caribbean vacation in the family's plans the year after next, and it might be a charter vacation. If he goes chartering again with his buddies, he might lobby to expand their horizons and charter out of St. Martin or the Grenadines.

Meanwhile, Stacey's work as a lawyer has taken him to Andover, Mass., where he has joined a fractional sailing club, SailTime, in Boston Harbor, which gives him a time share in a cruising sailboat. "We've sailed with him a couple of times up there," Ouellette says.

Maintained by the club's management, a SailTime boat "gives you all of the good part of sailing and none of the drudgery," he says.

Chartering does that, too. Ouellette says the charter boats he has sailed have been well-maintained and are ready to go when he arrives at the dock. Base managers have been available to lend support if he has a problem under way.

"I think it's a superb value," he says. "I like to take off the watch, make it up as we go and have that sort of freedom."

That's this doctor's prescription for relaxation.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.