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Sun, Surf, SAIL : Cruising the U.S. and British Virgin Islands

October 19, 1986|BOB DROGIN | Bob Drogin is a Times staff writer.

New York was gray and bleak. Unseasonal sleet and snow rattled windows, flipped umbrellas and chilled the winter-weary soul. It was late April.

Enough was enough. I picked up a yachting magazine, then the telephone, and began dialing. An hour later I called my girlfriend: "Cancel everything. We're going sailing in the Caribbean."

Five days later, we were. Our hastily chartered 31-foot sloop, appropriately named Surprise, was heeled over in a stiff afternoon breeze off St. John. Spray sparkled off our bow, flying fish skipped across turquoise waves, and a brilliant blue-and-yellow rainbow beckoned over distant green mountains.

That night, anchored off a shining Francis Bay sand beach with waving palms and gentle surf, we celebrated our freedom from winter's woes with a $2 bottle of the best dark Cruzian rum and with cheeseburgers grilled on the boat's tiny charcoal barbecue.

Suddenly, as the full moon bathed the bay in a soft glow, the distant, dark skies erupted with the rumble and roar of the fireworks that mark the close of Carnival Week on St. Thomas. We cracked a bottle of cold Champagne to acknowledge the welcome.

Thus did two unseasoned salts and sailing amateurs begin eight days of cruising the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Neither Maggy nor I had ever attempted a week's sailing by ourselves.

I had reasons to be reluctant. When I began sailing four years earlier, 11 friends and I sailed for 10 days aboard two large mid-cockpit cutters based in Tortola. By trip's end, one couple had broken their engagement and, except for the shouting, were barely speaking. Our captain, given to drink and other distractions, had developed a disturbing habit of falling overboard.

More recently, in December, I had helped a friend sail his 60-foot staysail schooner from St. Croix to St. Thomas. After 10 long hours of six-foot seas and wild winds, we had jointly sworn off sailing and agreed to open a bar called "Fools, Felons and Failures" as a warning to other mariners.

This time, I need not have worried. Even a nervous night of dragging anchor (no damage), two days of steady rain (we got wet) and three days with no engine (we sailed without it) didn't dampen the fun.

First, the sailing. The Virgin Islands are justly famed as prime cruising waters, with steady eastern trade winds and well-marked reefs, and with anchorages in more than 100 islands and cays. Hurricanes are rare and tides are negligible.

Most navigating is done by eye, with islands usually in view. Even the crystal-clear waters are easy to read: Deep water is inky blue; sand gives off an emerald or turquoise tint; coral heads and rocks appear as black or brown blotches.

More than two dozen Virgin Islands sailboat-chartering companies offer everything from simple 28-footers built for two to sleek America's Cup racing veterans and huge floating palaces complete with VCRs, microwave ovens and air conditioning. For those unwilling or unable to go bareboat, captains and crew are available.

To charter, prospective captains must attest to sufficient sailing experience. Even so, most charter companies offer cram courses for neophyte navigators and provide detailed charts and guidebooks. Displayed in one chart book are aerial photos of 50 anchorages; another contains drawings profiling the horizon as seen from the helm.

Most companies also offer full provisioning by telephone, which enables crews to order their food and drink from shore before their arrival. We didn't have time for that, so I spent two hours and $140 in a supermarket for a week's worth of milk, eggs, wine, frozen meats and other staples.

I had chartered with Avery's Boat-yard, which advertises itself as the oldest chartering company in St. Thomas. At first glance, it looks it. In the old native quarter of Frenchtown, the yard is cluttered with dilapidated dinghies and debris, and several once-proud yachts hug the pier.

The price, however, was right: $790 for eight days. And Surprise was clean, sleek and yare. It had a forward V-berth for sleeping, a well-equipped galley and a comfortable living area and was sloop-rigged with a mainsail and jib.

The next morning, owners Dick and Marty Griffin spent three hours with us explaining the intricacies of the boat's plumbing, propane stove, diesel engine, icebox, rigging and radio. Over coffee and charts they offered navigating tips and warnings, restaurant recommendations and good luck.

By mid-afternoon we were sailing out past the cruise ships in Charlotte Amalie Harbor, tacking past big Buck Island, Christmas Cove and St. James Island. Our course was around the east of St. Thomas to St. John and on through the archipelago.

Once underway, I explained the law of the sea. I was captain. Maggy was chief crew and coffee mate.

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