Men at sea On their ultimate vacation, six friends explore the islands and reefs of the Caribbean aboard a luxury catamaran.

October 05, 1997|By Alan Lester | Alan Lester,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The epiphany arrived for me without fanfare somewhere around midnight the second day. Here I was, on my back, hands under my head, looking up at the night sky over the British Virgin Islands. The Milky Way clouds stood out almost as clearly as the stars and galaxies around it. A shooting star punctuated the scene every few minutes.

Two things made this scene stand out from any other vacation. First, I was with my five closest "guy" friends, all of them similarly laid back at the moment, each of us with a Cuban cigar in hand and some of us with a glass of choice Cabernet. Second, our conversation was accented by the gentle rocking of the 51-foot catamaran we had rented, now at anchor off Virgin Gorda, a to-die-for tropical beach.

And therein was the epiphany. This was no mere vacation. This was the ultimate, the Platinum Plus, the mother of all vacations. Except that mothers, of course, would not have been allowed. Nor daughters, nor wives, nor sisters. We even fired the woman chef who came with the boat.

This was a guy vacation -- 51 feet of pure testosterone.

Single-sex vacations are gaining in popularity, as friends seek to unwind from the pressures of everyday life without adding the stresses associated with more intimate romantic attachments. Women have been traveling together for decades, sharing adventurous experiences while banding together for safety reasons. Only recently have all-male vacations begun to catch on in popularity.

The simple things

The six of us, ages 45 to 52 and friends for more than a decade, planned this vacation for months. We had rented the catamaran, complete with captain, from the Catamaran Co., one of the many charter companies serving the British and American Virgin Islands. Our plan included leaving all work behind (except for my trip notes, of course), limiting ourselves to one suitcase each (we figured we could jump in the water if we needed to wash off a sweaty T-shirt), and bringing good music, mostly supplied by Randi, who is an accomplished musician and jazz pianist. Bill had sent the chef a list of dietary preferences weeks before, so she could provision the galley for us.

When we arrived in St. Thomas, we took a taxi to the ferry, which would get us to Tortola, the hub and largest of the British Virgin Islands. While the rest of us transferred our baggage to the ferry, one of our group, the owner of a multimillion-dollar international business in the Washington area, negotiated with the driver. That is the simplest explanation I can think of for why the $24 taxi fare cost us exactly $50. But, hey, I don't negotiate international business deals every day, so what do I know? Anyway, the point is that the taxi transfer from airport to ferry should be $4 a person, including baggage. Caveat emptor.

The ferry itself is an interesting experience, as tourists share space with locals bringing all manner of goods from St. Thomas. The ferry winds between islands with rolling, green hills and white sand beaches. Going through customs is an informal affair.

As we disembarked on Tortola, Captain Ron was there to ferry us by dinghy directly to Stars and Stripes, previously owned by America's Cup yachtsman Dennis Conner and now in the tourist trade. The first rule of the boat was "no shoes," which we gladly abided by for the rest of the week.

Once on board, Cathy, our supposed-to-be chef, briefed us on the provisions she had stocked for us, how to use the galley and where to find critical items tucked here and there in cupboards and under seat cushions. Since our plans forced her to find short-term room and board on the island, we had agreed to pay her a stipend for the week. She left to spend the week hanging around local beaches with friends. Someone has to do the tough jobs.

So, there we were, six guys scarred and wired from months of figuratively swimming with sharks, now ready to face the real ones lurking in the crystal clear waters (we didn't see even one). Once our gear was stowed, we immediately set sail, the perfect afternoon weather buoying our moods. Lathered with sunscreen, must on the water under tropical skies, we hit the deck to take in the wind and salt air.

Unwinding begins

By sunset, we reached Jost Van Dyke, a small island west of Tortola with remote white sand beaches, where the spectacular red sunset set the tone for the evening. Working together, our group somehow pulled off a dinner of tuna with shrimp and scallops, sauteed with garlic and herbs, over a bed of wild rice. Fresh multigrain bread, steamed asparagus and a choice of two elegant wines rounded out the main course.

On deck, Randi, an amateur astronomer, briefed us on the night sky, which appeared so close and bright we all felt suitably humbled. As the boat gently rocked to the rhythm of the waves, we divided the cabins. Four of us slept inside, and two of us slept beneath an awning on deck, the gentle, cool breezes lulling us to sleep.

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