A tall ship crosses our path at sunset

A tall ship crosses our path at sunset

We’re at the Toronto Boat Show at last. Once the show rolls around, spring seems so much closer, even though we know we have at least two or three more months of cold to endure. Wandering among the gleaming boats one can imagine going “down to sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, when all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” to quote John Masefield.

The sailboats seem bigger and bulkier than ever, standing tall in their cradles, mast-less and somehow not quite real. They’re more akin to big plastic wedding cakes, with the looky-loos up on the deck, posing like endless rows of sugar brides and grooms. Once on the raised catwalk, the boats look, well more like boats, as if the catwalk were a dock. In-water boat shows are a much more realistic way to check out a new yacht. In the water they look sleek and with their masts up they have all the proper proportions. But this is the show we’ve got and we might as well enjoy it.

On a beam reach off St. Lucia

On a beam reach off St. Lucia

We see friends from the sailing community and compare boats we’ve climbed over and through, taking off shoes to avoid marking pristine decks. Of course, they are lovely and they smell new. Boat interiors are designed to pack in more stuff per square foot than you can imagine, but it’s amazing how often they get things wrong. Where’s the self-draining wet locker for the foul weather gear? Where’s the extra storage locker for the inflatable life raft? Where are the attachment points for the safety lines that will stop you going overboard in a storm? Why do you have to take the master stateroom to pieces to get to the emergency steering post? Answer to all of the above: the boat is going to sit at a dock, silly, like a floating gin palace, and only venture out when the skies are sunny and the winds fair.

We hook up with the people from Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre sailing school, and the chief instructor, affectionately known as Captain Bligh, whom I’ve sailed with as a friend for years. Having been on some of their Caribbean adventures, I know how much fun it is to be able to handle a big boat in challenging seas. In the Windward Islands the early spring winds blow steadily at more than 20 knots and the waves rolling in from Africa can be 15 feet high. Big winds and big seas need some well-taught knowledge and a steady hand at the wheel.

We set off early one February, Captain Bligh, four other crew members, my then teenage son and myself. Air Canada delivers us to Barbados and we connect to our base at Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. We check out our boat from The Moorings and stow our gear. We’ve packed very light, T-shirts and swimming trunks mostly, plus our sailing paraphernalia and instruction books.

Exciting seas

Exciting seas

We share the jobs and the first morning I’m cook. Eggs Benny for breakfast, fist size sandwiches, hot soup and snacks to keep us going on our long full day and night sail. Across lumpy open water, it’s hard to sit down for a meal. Our day is divided up into nautical watches and I take the watch between 2000 and 2400, with my son. It’s very heavy weather until we get into the protected lee side of the islands we pass and we have to reef the main sail in the dark. Life jackets for all as a crew overboard would be almost impossible to find. I crash in my bunk as soon as I come off watch, but my son, a good sailor, decides to go all night. I relieve him at dawn and he’s so tired he’s clipped his safety harness to the wheel.

As the sun comes up we’re in sight of Bequia in the Grenadines, our southernmost destination. A rain shower crosses the horizon and leaves a spectacular rainbow in its wake. We anchor off pretty Princess Margaret Beach, eat lunch and sleep for the afternoon. Bequia is a very nice small island, which I’ve since visited again, with several good hotels on the east coast, where the strong Atlantic breezes keep one cool and the bugs at bay. There’s plenty of choice for a good dinner ashore and we book into Frangipani, with energetic dancing afterwards along the beach at The Whaleboner. Late in the evening we lie on the foredeck looking up at the stars, gleaming like a trillion diamonds on black velvet. This is a perfect Caribbean moment.

Nigel visiting the set of "Pirates of the Caribbean"

Nigel visits the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean”

Much rested, we’re all glad of a hearty breakfast. I’m on the helm again and Captain Bligh springs a surprise. We’re going to up-anchor under sail, a tricky manoeuvre we have to master for our advanced course.  It’s easy sailing on another grand day, up to the lovely island of St. Vincent, which we had passed in the dark. We head for Wallilabu Bay, where much of the first Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed. We enjoy wandering round the remains of the set, which sadly has been allowed to decay, though very atmospheric – we visit again by taxi in 2011 and the set is amazingly still standing. For our overnight anchorage, we pick picturesque Chateaubellair Bay. The mooring is off a spectacular cliff, with vines and palm trees clinging to it.

We sail north the next day, up the coast of St. Lucia. The weather turns stormy and I’m glad of a waterproof sailing jacket. In spite of the rain, the scenery is spectacular. Great volcanic mounts rise from the land, covered in dense jungle, the rock bursting from their green shroud as if still in upward motion. We pass close enough to see some of the luxury resorts that dot the coastline. Highlight of the sail, and perhaps of the whole trip, was a visit from some friendly dolphins. At least three pods raced in front of the boat, playing in the waves and leaping out of the water. We count 15 of the creatures. Our plan is to return to Rodney Bay and practice anchoring in the dark, another element of our course. We’re successful and reward ourselves with a visit to Scuttlebutts, for live jazz and drinks. The village is great fun, with lots of hotels and night life. On the way back, all seven of us squeeze into the dinghy and it’s so low in the water we take a short cut under one of the docks. It’s not usually recommended, but it’s spitting with rain again and that’s the only time we’re dry.

All too soon, the trip is over. We’ve been at sea so much that the ground seems to be heaving under us, a strange feeling. We’ve stuck our noses into nooks and crannies along a chain of islands that are only accessible by boat. Perfect strangers have eaten and drunk and lived together in harmony for six days in a box 45 feet long and 12 feet wide. All of us take something very positive away from the experience. Captain Bligh’s plan to flog the crew every day until morale improved, never materialized, I’m glad to say.

A spectacular anchorage in Chateaubellair Bay

A spectacular anchorage in Chateaubellair Bay
photo by Matthew Napier-Andrews

LIAT, the local airline jokingly named “Leave Island Any Time,” does just that and we barely make the connection for the flight back to Canada. In future, I vow to break my journey in Barbados for a few days of dry land on either side of sailing trips.

POST SCRIPT: I’ve earned the last bit of paper I need to charter my own boat in future, and I will enjoy that. It’s a good feeling and the excellent instruction has given me a confidence  and skills I doubt I would have gained any other way.

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