On Tortola, a ship's prow figurehead of Julius Caesar weighing 7,000 pounds marks the Pusser's Rum Store & Bar. Everyone in West End hails Caesar and bellies up to the bar for a Pusser's Painkiller. The secret's in the rum. Lance Carter, our first mate, brought $24 worth of "painkiller" aboard, drank it and arose the next morning as bright as a brass button. (No one can outdrink a New Zealander.)
We sailed past pricey Peter Island Resort, a holiday hideaway for such privacy-seeking stars as Alan Alda and Bill Cosby. And on Little Dix Bay, we gasped at young yachties trapezing on spinnakers, soaring like artists in Ringling Brothers' center ring. None of us had ever before seen a sailor sitting on a cloud.
There are nightly barbecues, game playing and costume parties aboard. When not playing practical jokes, guests and crew curl up in the bow net or deck chairs to discuss life, love and other states of grace.
Near the beautiful Baths of Virgin Gorda, a place where boulders the size of dreadnoughts form hidden sea caves, we walked the shore under a lambent moon, our feet warmed in the caught sun of night sands. Even at a late hour, purple bougainvillea cast royal shadows across the water.
Over the next days we sailed and motored, raced and lazed, swam and water skied, ducking into coves and corners off the Sir Francis Drake Channel. When the sun tipped behind the yardarm, Karen, our laughing barmaid, served pirates' rum punches. Newton, the jovial Jamaican chef, dished out baked grouper, conch fritters, pumpkin cheese cake and Key lime pie -- not haute cuisine, but island cookery designed to sate ravenous adventurers.
By day we'd pop into the galley to watch Newton kneading homemade breads with big, powerful arms. At night we'd sometimes dine in the intimate, mahogany paneled salon with bar, television, videocassette recorder, stereo and library. More often dinner would be topside.
On our last evening, moored off Cooper Island, the sky was awash in gold. No one spoke. No guitar played. No sailboard rippled the water. It was as if a spell had been cast -- and we were caught in its magic mesh.
A tall ship is the ultimate treasure: cruising at its most sublime.
If you go . . .
The Sir Francis Drake offers year-round three-, four- and seven-day cruises. Rates per person, depending on cabin category, begin at $420 for three days, $545 for four days and $895 for seven days (double occupancy). (Rates from May 1 to Nov. 1 are $380, $490 and $805. For children over 12, add $100 per day. Children 12 and under who share with two adults pay 50 percent of the adult fee. Prices include all meals, snacks, beach barbecues, rum punches and use of sunfish sailboats, windsurfers and snorkeling equipment. There are some extra charges for activities such as water-skiing. Group and charter rates are available.
The ship visits as many islands as time and tide allow. Depending on wind and weather, you might visit St. Thomas, St. John, St. James, Jost Van Dyke, Peter Island, Dead Man's Chest, Cooper Island, Tortola and Virgin Gorda.
Pack lightly; closet space is limited. Sailors wear bathing suits and shorts. You may need a sweater and slacks in the evening. If you have your own snorkeling gear, you may want to bring it. Carry your passport; you'll be crossing into British waters.
Purser Conny Gummelt has nurse's training. Although even the greenest sailor on our trip did not get seasick, her instant remedies have you right in no time. St. Thomas has the most renowned free-port shopping in the Caribbean, and many small islands offer irresistible boutiques. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
For more information and reservations, contact Tall Ship Adventures, 1010 S. Joliet St., Suite 200, Aurora, Colo. 80012; call (800) 662-0090. You may also contact Si Smith's Sailing the World, P.O. Box 11510, Aspen, Colo. 81612; call (303) 925-8181.
For information on the U.S. Virgin Islands, write: 1270 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020; call (212) 582-4520.
For information on the British Virgin Islands, contact the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, 370 Lexington Ave., Room 511, New York, N.Y. 10017; call (212) 696-0400, or the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board, P.O. Box 134, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands; call (809) 494-3134.