VOYAGES

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Channeling the inner Fletcher Christian

How do you win when your spouse is acting like Capt. Bligh and your boat is playing dirty?

Channeling the inner Fletcher Christian

How do you win when your spouse is acting like Capt. Bligh and your boat is playing dirty?

Plain and simple, I am terrified.

The fish are fed. My breakfast, last night’s dinner. I focus: pull in the mainsail or grab an airplane? I will be taking our 9-month-old son Dash away. The proposed six-month trip? Ends today! Even the wild-eyed look on our 4-pound Maltese begs, Could anyone else adopt me? My husband, Angus, is at the helm. I glare at him. He who first suggested this trip. He who now beats our boat into a gale. He … my Captain Bligh.

Weathering hard

It had been a beautiful morning. The weather forecast called for moderate seas, a possible squall or two. With guests itching to see more, we gave it a go. Leaving early from Culebra, we planned on being at St. Thomas by lunch. We weren’t planning on 10- to 12-foot waves and winds of 30 mph, gusting higher. Our Beneteau 411 sloop Dirty Diapers fights us, rebelling our attempts at control.

Baby wails, I go below. I go below, I get sick. I rush to the rail … the baby wails. And so it went. Six hours of up and down. Forget our guests; they’re bunk-bound or retching in the head. I keep it together. Then the final straw: another wave crashes in my face, and Angus — himself nervous— chuckles. Fletcher Christian builds within. My dagger? My look. His response, “You either laugh or you cry.”

I cry.

A strained beginning

Dirty Diapers taunts me. She has chosen me her nemesis. Our introduction has been tense, a litany of close calls and minor catastrophes. Reaching for Dash’s bottle, her vengeful icebox crashes on my arm. Trying for sleep, her evil hatches leak rain. Preparing pasta, her wicked oven tilts boiling water. Dirty Diapers, dirty opponent.

The funny part? This trip to the Virgins was to make me comfortable, a confidence-builder before heading down-island. Dirty Diapers defies these goals. Even last week’s daysail from Vieques was wrought with anxiety. I, on the helm, realized that the “very fast fishing boat” was anything but. The “fishermen” wielded not rods, but weapons. When Homeland Security ordered me to keep course, my jerky movements all but convinced them of our guilt. An hour later they realized Dirty Diapers transported only its namesake. By then my quaking nerves wished otherwise.

Then the St. Thomas town of Charlotte Amalie appears. I am elated. For once, it has nothing to do with duty-free shopping. I now notice how drenched I am, how hungry I am, how drained I am. I cannot decide which to address first. Doesn’t matter. Dash trumps them all. I go below and hug him tight.

Calm before the storm

I wake to calm waters. A plane buzzes toward Cyril King Airport, and I consider it. But my best friend, Laure Wang, will soon visit from Hong Kong. Perhaps I could give it a couple more days. After all, we’re now in the Virgin Islands’ protected waters. How bad could it be? That’s probably the same thought Columbus had seconds before the Caribs let those poisoned arrows fly.

We visit St. John. With 9,500 forest acres of National Park it’s easy to forget the water. We explore the Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins. Dash happily rides in his backpack. Things feel good again.

But Dirty Diapers waits. As I drop the mooring line, the engine purrs, then sputters … and dies. With reefs on both sides of us, Angus quickly drops anchor. He rushes to bleed the diesel.

Unsuccessful. Meanwhile, I try to ignore an earlier comment from a well-

meaning guest: “Wow. You hit a reef, this boat will rip right open.”

It can’t be that bad. Keeping watch, I sense the boat dragging. My imagination? I hope so, but when Angus — usually calm in these situations — looks above and yells, “[Expletive!] Call park service to tow us … NOW!” I know it’s not. My hands shake as I dial. Our satellite phone fails us not once, not twice, but three times. Coral heads gain on me. But the ranger reacts quickly; he tows Dirty Diapers to safety. The following morning we sail (without engine) to Soper’s Hole. Once a haven for pirates, it’s now a den to mechanics. With a final punch to the wallet, Dirty Diapers revives.

Girl interrupted

A quiet place. I just want a quiet place. Peter Island fits the bill. I sit in the cockpit decompressing. I watch Conrad Smith, a longtime resident, greet sailors coming to shore. Dash laughs at the antics of diving pelicans. Angus snorkels fish traps. It’s peaceful. Finally, the idyllic trip we had anticipated has begun. I secretly forgive Angus for introducing me to sailing. And as I fall asleep, warm and secure with wavelets lapping the hull, I even admit that I may, indeed, be fond of Dirty Diapers.

“Get up! We’re dragging!” Angus races to the bow, I to the helm. I can’t hear a word as Angus screams over howling winds. No matter, I think, we have hand signals for just this situation. But Dirty Diapers is clever. She pulls this trick on a night with no moon. I can’t see the wheel, let alone Angus. I struggle blindly … and deafly.

Very aware of expensive catamarans closing in on my stern, I edge Dirty Diapers forward. Suddenly, Angus yells, “Reverse! We’re on the beach! We’re on the beach!” That, I hear. The depth meter pulsates “0.” I ram Dirty Diapers into reverse. Neighboring boats light up. The harbor becomes a stadium. Spectators shout. In the cacophony, I suffer a moment of clarity: I understand how Mr. Chubb, the previous owner of the island, made a fortune in insurance. Finally, the anchor sets and Angus returns.

He notices my white-knuckled stance. Wrought himself, he sternly states, “This is the adventure. If you want it safe, you’d be on a cruise ship.” Too tired to listen to the Fletcher within, I return to my berth, bedraggled, exhausted, defeated and scared.

New philosophies

The long-awaited visit from Laure Wang arrives. As a high-powered venture capitalist, working 20-hour days is her norm. Sailing is not. She loves every second of it.

We wade through the grottoes of Virgin Gorda’s Baths. Discover cavefish as our treasures at Norman Island, legendary home to Stevenson’s classic. Savor drinks at Marina Cay, the declared site of the Republic of Cuervo. Understand first-hand why Jimmy Buffett claimed Cane Garden Bay to be the land of peace and plenty. Enjoy our “15 minutes of fame” when Foxy sings about “A lady, a baby and a dog” at his Jost Van Dyke watering hole. And are transported to the days of Hemingway as we walk the desolate shores of Anegada.

It’s her third day. Angus washes the cockpit. As he throws a bucket of water, he’s stunned to see her hatch open. Water cascades on Laure’s life … her Hong Kong cell, her San Francisco cell, her PDA. Time freezes. We wait for the expected response but instead, Laure shrugs, smiles. Goodbye, stressful life — at least until she’s back home again. Sailing, she’s the first to say, has done her good. I’m impressed.

It’s two days after Laure’s departure, and Dirty Diapers conspires with her dinghy. As I innocently take it to shore, a breaking wave catches me on the beam. It flips. Somersaulting, I see the speeding propeller. I curse myself for not wearing the safety lanyard. And I know I only have seconds to swim from underneath. Adrenaline kicks in. I lunge from the voracious propeller and flip the dinghy right-side up. All 100-plus pounds of it.

Returning to Dirty Diapers, I shriek into the cabin, “I flipped!” Angus inquires about the boat. I am livid. Does he not realize I could have lost a limb? I demand an answer. He states that most likely would have been noticeable. He also points out how calm the waters are. How, he wonders, is it possible to flip on a pond? I look at the ocean. Indeed, it is calm. In fact, an aberrant green pepper that fell off the boat last night still bobs in nearly the same location. But that’s not the point. Then, through my tears, I feel the beginnings of a smile. And then a chuckle. Then a laugh … and the laugh keeps coming.

And so my sail with Captain Bligh continues.

Tara McCann Beavers put aside a Hollywood career as Francis Ford Coppola’s producing partner to cruise the Caribbean with her husband and infant son. She will be filing periodic dispatches from Dirty Diapers, their Beneteau 411.