TORTOLA, British Virgin Islands -- Later today, we will sail from Bitter End to Marina Cay. But now, at 7 a.m., it is quiet and I am alone on deck while my shipmates sleep below. The sun is warm. The only sounds are those of the water gently lapping at the boat and the occasional pelican, plunging into the water, diving for breakfast.
How is this possible, that a landlubber like me is crewing on a sailing ship in the British Virgin Islands? How, indeed.
Six Boston-area women -- mothers and grandmothers -- are the crew of the 45-foot sloop Free Spirit. Toby Langerman, Diane Becker, Rhoda Goodwin, Susan Kaplan, Sondra Shick, and me. We are all in our 60s and are on board for a week of instructional sailing under the tutelage of the estimable Captain Carol Morley, 59. More than six months ago, my friend Toby and I heard of Womanship. We were intrigued: a sailing school just for women, of any age and whatever skills. Of the latter, I had none.
My little knowledge of a vessel was all at fault. . . . There is not so hopeless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor's life.
''Two Years Before the Mast"RICHARD HENRY DANA, 1840
We spoke to someone who had sailed before with Womanship. We had questions, mainly about whether it would it work for people like us with little or no experience.
''Absolutely," was the reply. Some women came to improve their skills, others to develop them, still others for the personal growth experience. I was definitely in the last category.
The boat held seven, including the skipper. We put together a crew of friends and acquaintances.
Diane once owned a small sailboat and knew something about sailing. Susan is a scuba diver but had never sailed. Sondrawas as inexperienced as I but as eager. Rhoda, who loves sailing, is the most experienced of us all.
We scheduled a ''get-acquainted" dinner a few months before the trip. We seemed a congenial group. Talk ranged from sailing to families to work. Diane is a social worker, Susan works for public television, Sondra is a retired lawyer, Rhoda is a psychologist, Toby is an antiques dealer, I am a writer.
Day 1: SundayWinds are blowing up a bit, but it is warm on Tortola, about 85, when, dragging our backpacks and duffels, we arrive at the marina at Soper's Hole to meet our boat and our captain.
. . . many masters are obligated to sail without knowing anything of their crews until they get out to sea.
Captain Carol is barefoot as she welcomes us aboard with a grin. Short hair, trim body, fit and fine like her boat, Free Spirit.
We get the tour. Three cabins, three heads (bathrooms). Sleeping quarters are tight but adequate. I will learn to sidle into the bunk I share with Diane without kicking her or bumping my head on the low ceiling.
The head. Ah, now that's interesting. No holding tank for the toilet, so you have to pump. First, turn switch from right to left. Pump three times. After taking care of business, pump 15 times. Turn switch back to the right. Pump three more times so there is no standing water in the toilet.
To shower? Take the hand spray at the sink and shower off. There is a drain in the floor. Lots of things on a boat do double duty to make efficient use of limited space. In addition to the Womanship motto of ''Nobody yells," there are also no complaints. A few raised eyebrows, maybe.
After a lunch of sandwiches on paper plates, we get underway -- though not by sail. It being too windy and the waters too choppy, we power out, heading south for Norman Island. Sitting on deck, we wear our hooded rain slickers, shields against the squalls that blow up.
We had on oil-cloth suits . . . and had nothing to do but . . . let it pour down upon us. There are no umbrellas and no sheds to go under at sea.
Did you know that ginger snaps are good for a queasy stomach? They are a staple on board.
I had now got my sea legs on, and was beginning to enter upon the regular duties of a sea life."
We have our first lesson: how to coil the ropes (called ''lines" on a boat). Twist and turn and make them fast. Then stow them under the deck seats. We also learn how to take off the mainsail cover. There is a daily chore list and we will scan it each morning.
Tonight, it is Rhoda and Sondra's turn to cook. Carol grills red snapper out on deck; Rhoda and Sondra make salad, potatoes, and broccoli. Dinner and conversation are very good. We learn that Carol has four children and 10 grandchildren. She owns Free Spirit and sails the islands through the winter, making her home in Tortola. In spring, she also sails for Womanship but on another boat in the Greek Isles. She lived a long time in the United States but was born in Britain. Hence, tea time is one of the daily rituals on board.
Bedtime comes and none too soon. Everyone is tired. The dim overhead lights are not adequate for reading so Diane uses a flashlight and I have a reading light that attaches to my book, Richard Henry Dana's 1840 classic, ''Two Years Before the Mast." Carol's night-light is the best. Fashioned on the idea of a miner's lamp, it is a headband with a battery-run light in the center, on her forehead. I want one.
Day 2: Monday
When Monday comes, [sailors] . . . prepare for 6 days of labour.
Our course today is north to Trellis Bay at the east end of Tortola. With Carol guiding us, we measure and plot the course in nautical miles. If we go at 5 knots, the journey should take about two hours. If we have to tack because of the wind, it will be double that. We have to tack.
We sail for about five hours through wind and rain squalls and hopeful patches of blue sky. We count it a good day.
It is Toby and Susan's turn to make dinner. Good-humored protestations from each of them: ''But I don't cook!" and ''I haven't cooked in 20 years!" They cook. We have chicken, fish, rice, salad, and French bread. Really good.
No desserts all week, unless you count a box of Oreos. And I don't.
Day 3: TuesdayToday we have shore leave at the Spanish Town marina on Virgin Gorda. The big treat is real showers at the marina. Hair dryers emerge for the first and only time in the week. Carol had prophesied, ''The first thing to go on board is makeup. Next, bras." So far, she's right about the makeup.
Dinner is at the Rock Cafe where we sit outdoors amid large boulders and enjoy our red snapper and grouper.
Day 4: WednesdayToday we will sail to Bitter End at the east end of Virgin Gorda. It is a spectacularly beautiful day. Before we leave port, however, we have chores. Toby and Susan are our navigators today. Carol checks the weather channel on the radio. We head topside. We unloose the lines tethering us to the dock and haul them on board.
The captain . . . gave orders for unmooring ship, and we made sail, dropping slowly down with the tide and light wind.
''Be sure the sail isn't luffing," Carol calls. That's a new word, part of the nautical lingo we are learning. To luff means the sail flaps because we are sailing too close to the wind. And there's ''tacking." We've been doing a lot of that, which means we zigzag, change sailing direction to take advantage of the wind in front of us. When the wind is behind us, we ''jibe." Rarely do we make straight for our destination. As Susan says, ''The closer we get, the farther we are."
Day 5: ThursdayWe are finding that we are a pretty good crew: cooperative and reliable. If Carol says, ''I need two people up at the bow to grab the rope from the buoy," that's what she gets.
Rhoda and Susan are on deck, practicing tying knots. Square knots seem to be going well. Sondra is at the helm as we head for port on Marina Cay near Scrub Island.
A spectacular afternoon begins with a brief shower, followed by a brilliant rainbow. Carol says she knows a great spot for snorkeling. We anchor at a reef off Great Dog and immerse ourselves in what always seems to me a secret, underwater world, silent and beautiful.
There are brain coral and fan coral gently swaying back and forth; angel fish, yellowtail snapper, and needle fish dart in and out of coral crevasses, swimming unconcerned and inches from us.
Day 6: FridayRaindrops fall on my head at 6:45 in the morning. I reach up and close the hatch. Carol is already up and as I wonder aloud if it's going to be a rainy day, she says, ''It'll stop in two minutes." It does.
After breakfast, we make ready to set sail. Haul the anchor. Raise the mainsail. Pull the lines and wrap them around the winch. Sondra is at the helm as we make our way from Marina Cay to Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke.
We sailed leisurely down the coast before a light fair wind, keeping the land well aboard. . . .
A perfect day. Taking turns at the wheel, we laugh at how in the space of one short week we really feel like sailors. I have learned a few things about sailing as well as a few things about cooperative effort. In other words, we are doing OK, me and my mates.
We anchor at Great Harbour, a pretty harbor fringed by a white sandy beach. We are going to have a night on the town.
Carol says we'll be going to dinner at Foxy's, a famous West Indian barbecue joint. And yes, there is a Foxy. Taking the dinghy into the dock, we hear Calypso music. Foxy is there, dancing up a storm.
Ribs and chicken and mahimahi are set out on the beach. All the boat people are here -- like us, sort of. Everyone is friendly. The young man in line behind our group introduces himself, saying he is on the boat moored next to ours.
''You know," he says," I was really surprised to see only ladies running the boat." Ladies? Ouch.
But that isn't as bad as the man who has clearly had an early start on the cocktail hour. ''Where are your husbands?" he says. ''You girls are in charge of the boat?"
More amused than offended, we tell him exactly who is ''in charge of the boat": six women and their captain. He salutes.
Day 7: SaturdayLast day. We sleep later than usual and then hear the breakfast call from Carol. We need to be back by noon, at Soper's Hole. So we pack up our gear and make ready to get underway.
Sondra and Diane are at the winches ready to raise the sail. Susan and I go up on deck to remove the ties from the mainsail and start pulling on the lines. As we do, I hear a clink. Looking down, we see a bolt, a cylinder about the size of my index finger.
''What is this little thing," I ask, holding it up for Carol to see.
''Everybody stop!," she orders. ''Natalie! Susan! Down into the cockpit, right now!"
Our captain goes into action. As Susan and I head into the cockpit, Carol goes topside to assess the situation. My shipmates and I watch intently as she works alone and quickly, lashing down the sail.
She joins us in the cockpit and explains. It seems that ''little thing" holds the boom in place. Without it, Carol says, we were in danger of either losing the boom or having it swing out of control and possibly hit and injure one or both of us.
Well -- that was a scene to witness and ponder. We may all be in the same boat, but, thank heavens, our skipper is in charge.
Sailing is now out of the question. We will motor into port and Carol will get that ''little thing" repaired. She has a new crew coming in tomorrow.
. . . we had a fine wind, and everything was bright and cheerful.
Natalie Rothstein is a freelance writer in Brookline.