I couldn’t help thinking our trip was doomed.
We arrived in the British Virgin Islands after 10 grueling hours of travel to searing heat and dead still air. The steady cooling tradewinds, the whole reason we had come here to spend a week on a sailboat, were mysteriously absent.
Once inside the un-airconditioned airport, we retrieved our duffel bag and found it sopping wet.
A taxi dropped us at the dock where our 40-foot sailboat awaited. For the next eight days, it was to be home to the six of us — me; my husband, Todd; his two grown sons; our 4-year-old daughter and my mother. The cabin was cramped and sweltering.
My mother quickly retreated to a nearby hotel. I opened the wet duffel and discovered that the two boxes of couscous that I had thrown in as a sort of emergency meal had split open. Most of our clothes were damp and covered in partially cooked pasta.
Todd and I caught a shuttle to the grocery store to buy our provisions, and discovered that cost to feed six people for a week was beyond our wildest dreams. A bag of tortilla chips was $7. One single-serve cup of yogurt was nearly $2.
About an hour into our stressful shopping trip, I dropped a can of Diet Coke, and it exploded all over both of us. We left the store at 10 p.m., covered in soda, $250 poorer and with about half the food we had planned to buy.
We came back hoping to decompress with a cocktail, but the bar at the dock was closed.
We set sail the next morning and, in under half an hour, our daughter was showing signs of seasickness. She has been sailing since she was six weeks old, and has never gotten sick before. But she turned gradually grayer until finally she vomited piteously onto the cockpit floor.
And then, when we arrived in Cane Garden Bay, our anchorage for the night, there was the blood-curdling shark sighting. My stepson was about halfway to shore when he saw a gray fish, longer than him and sporting a pointy dorsal fin, sliding through the clear blue water within an arm’s reach. He returned to the boat in a state of near-hyperventilation.
Maybe my relatives back home had been right. Maybe this trip was a dangerous folly.
The next day the rains came. The relentless gray skies and still air gave no hope of a change in the weather. As we crouched under a tarp outside a snack stand, the locals told us the rain was to continue for the next three days — most of our trip. Everywhere we went that day, I asked another person about the weather, hoping for a different forecast. The answer was always the same.
That day, I wrote off the whole trip as a disaster. An expensive, much-anticipated disaster.
But we sailed on, through one rainstorm after another, our clothes perpetually damp. The sun began to peek out between downpours. And while the islands’ signature easterly tradewinds were absent, a southerly breeze came up to fill our sails.
In the days that followed, we drank Painkillers, the national cocktail of the BVI, on the beach at Marina Cay. We ate fresh fish at the iconic Foxy’s Tamarind Grill on Jost Van Dyke and lobster on the beach at Anegada.
We marveled at trees heavy with ripe tamarind and, sadly, not-quite-ripe mangoes and bananas. We snorkeled the coral reefs of Loblolly Bay, and spotted sea turtles dining on the grassy ocean bottom.
We waded into rocky seaside caverns at the Baths, one of the world’s true natural wonders. We hiked the hills of Virgin Gorda to peek at pristine coves, even as another rainshower left us sloshing in our shoes.
Every time the tropical heat felt unbearable, a breeze cooled our sweaty skin or a cloud moved over the sun or a another blessed deluge fell from the sky. We (well, most of us) threw our fear of sharks to the wind and, each afternoon, jumped off the stern into the cool water of the anchorage.
We were wet and sunburned, dirty and salt-brined, sleep deprived from stuffy nights on sandy sheets. And yet we were alive and thriving under the Caribbean sun. We were alive without air conditioning or yogurt or showers. We had swum with sharks and barracudas, slept without the security of solid ground, endured heat and thunderstorms and biting gnats — and we were alive.
We spend so much of our lives focused on our vulnerabilities, protecting ourselves from the unknown, worrying and planning and trying to stave off discomfort. We buy our insurance policies and security systems. We stockpile our money and stuff our pantries. We stay inside behind locked doors. We believe the world is dangerous and that caution will keep us safe.
But in the British Virgin Islands, a collection of rocky mountains thrust up out of the sea, an incantation seems to echo off the hillsides: Life is strong and abundant. Life is beautiful. Live while you have the chance.
The water glows blue-green, lapping at massive boulders and white palm-studded beaches. Spiky greenery, heavy with fruit, covers the mountainsides. Hermit crabs cluster under trees. Chickens, goats and sometimes stray cattle roam the streets. Crabs and snails haunt the shorelines. The sea bottom harbors another universe of coral, its otherworldly landscape teeming with striped and spotted and iridescent fish.
On our last night, we anchored at Norman Island and went off in search of our final Painkillers. We climbed aboard the Willy T, a raucous bar and restaurant on a boat. From the upper deck, we saw several large gray fish swimming around the dinghy dock, identical to the fish my stepson had seen on the first day out.
We asked some experienced vacationers at the bar whether they were sharks. They told us the fish were merely tarpons, which feed on plants and crabs, not people.
That night, parrots flew through the treetops and stars twinkled in a cloudless sky. The tradewinds finally returned, and we fell asleep as they whistled through the cabin like the breath of life.