An Ocean of Calm

Caribbean: Taking the children sailing in the Virgin Islands is a blissful time out, a way to learn the ropes of seamanship and family togetherness

September 19, 1999|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Blackbeard and his fellow pirates were lured to the tropical paradise that's now the British Virgin Islands for the same reasons we were: Hidden coves, calm waters and 50 islands within sight of each other, most ringed with pristine, white-sand beaches.

Unlike the pirates, we weren't looking for a cave to stash pieces of eight, though I wish we could have found some of their treasure which, legend has it, is still hidden there. We came to sail the easily navigated, clear, blue waters that draw yachters and divers from around the world, increasingly these days with their children aboard.

Wherever we dropped anchor, we snorkeled, hunted for snails and dug in the sand on tiny island beaches with fellow boating families.

"We're spending a lot more time together on the boat than we would at a big resort with kids' activities," observes Joan Williams, a Virginia working mom of two who was anchored nearby.

That certainly was the case for our gang of five -- Matt, then 13, Reggie, 11, Melanie, 6, my husband, Andy, and me. Between two jobs, two schools, piano lessons, soccer, swim meets and religious school, among other things, we hadn't spent so much concentrated time together in months. Frankly, we were all surprised exactly how much we enjoyed it -- even with a few tiffs along the way.

More families, especially with older grade schoolers and teen-agers, are finding sailing offers a vacation equation that really works: A lot of water plus a little adventure equals plenty of fun and family bonding.

"You get those moments you don't get at home when the kids lie on your stomach and talk to you. Out on a sailboat, you're not competing with the TV," explains Chris Riser, a science teacher who likes sailing with his family on historic Maine windjammers. "The kids don't even fight. It's very peaceful out on the water, away from everyday life."

There's an added plus for baby boomers: While sailing doesn't require the stamina other sports might, it's plenty active. "We're not good at going somewhere and sitting in the sun," explains Alison De Lavis, who lives in Connecticut and opted for a weeklong Offshore Sailing School family course in Florida. "Sailing gave the week some focus."

The number of families exploring this vacation option is growing every year, says Rick Franke from the Annapolis Sailing School, in business since 1959.

The Sunsail charter company, in fact, has opened an Antigua resort based on that premise, with a full-scale children's program for infants to teens as well as sailing for everyone. The Florida-based Offshore Sailing School, the largest in the industry, also is expanding its family offerings.

"When the family gets on a boat, everyone can contribute," says Franke. "They just don't have to listen to Dad. These parents see sailing as the beginning of a lifestyle."

A family experience

"Sailing is the vehicle, but the ultimate purpose is the fabulous relationship with your kid. That happens from working together to learn a new skill," explains longtime Outward Bound sailing trip leader Susan St. John.

In some cases, one of the parents loves to sail and wants to pass on that skill and tradition to the rest of the family. Often, it's the kids who spur their parents' interest. The De Lavis kids, for example, had first learned to sail at camp so their parents opted for a program in which the kids could enhance their skills in junior classes at the same time their parents learned with other adults. Said Alison De Lavis, "This trip we were all talking the same language and that doesn't often happen on vacation."

That's not to say every moment on board will be that perfect warm and fuzzy time we're all seeking on vacation with kids. It never is, no matter where you go. They'll still fight and whine and complain that they're bored -- even on a gleaming boat in paradise.

That said, I'd do it again in an instant. We came home from our sailing trip refreshed and renewed with memories that I think will last forever.

Here's a diary of our four-night adventure at sea in the gleaming white, 50-foot boat named Winnepesaukee (after a New Hampshire lake) we'd chartered from Moorings, the largest yacht broker in the Caribbean.

Friday

Captain John meets us at the small Tortola airport and immediately whisks us and our piles of luggage in a dinghy to our boat anchored just off shore. As soon as we board, I realize how badly I've overpacked. The cabins on our boat are tiny, just 8 feet by 5 feet: The bathrooms (there are hose showers) are the size of a small closet, with barely room to turn around! Melanie thinks it's funny you have to count to 15 every time you flush!

The kids like the novelty of built-in everything, and the always-available drink cooler, snacks and cookies, and the chance to hoist sails, take the wheel or tool around in the dinghy.

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