The Young Couple and the Sea

A Snorkeler's Paradise
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 21 2009 7:04 AM

The Young Couple and the Sea

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Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. His first book, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, will be published in April 2010.

The catamaran is the station wagon of recreational sailing. Wide and boxy. Perfect for families. At times kludgy to maneuver.

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The monohull snob looks down his sunburned nose at the catamaran sailor. Monohulls heel over thrillingly at high speeds, while cats—at least the sleep-aboard ones not designed for performance racing—forever flatten their two feet firmly to the surface.

(If one of the hulls of our cat ever lifts clean out of the water in a gale, things are not well, and those girlish screams you hear will be mine. The next step is for the boat to "turtle," which means it's flipped over with its mast pointing straight at the ocean floor. This is a posture not recommended even for actual turtles.)

No boat can sail directly into the wind, but a monohull can sail at a much closer angle to the wind than a catamaran can. To nonsensically analogize: Imagine you're in a sailboat that's floating at home plate on a baseball field, and the wind is blowing at you from the pitcher's mound. In a monohull, you can sail toward either first base or third base. In a cat, you can sail toward the hot dog vendors behind the grandstands on either the first base or third base side. This means the monohull will win every time if the goal is to get to the centerfield fence. If, however, the goal is to buy a hot dog, you might be more comfy making your way there in a cat.

The cat's boxy design offers palatial living spaces. Ours has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, laid out as a master suite in each hull. Bridging the two hulls is a large area for the galley (meaning kitchen, for you landlubbers) and the salon (meaning, in this case, a banquette).

Perhaps the best feature of any cat is its "trampoline." This is a patch of mesh at the front of the boat that's stretched taut between the hulls, creating a square hammock about the size of two pingpong tables. It's the perfect spot to lie down and suntan. Or read a book. Or watch the stars. Or—if you're daring—you can use the tramp to bounce skyward, and then tuck into a cannonball dive off the bow.

Our plush, modern cat has an embarrassing array of labor-saving devices. The "lazy jacks" corral the mainsail, so we can drop it down with a flick of the wrist and not worry that it will flop onto the deck or fall into the ocean. The jib (the smaller sail at the front of the boat) doesn't need to be raised or lowered at all—it automatically furls itself into a tight scroll when we want it to go away. We also have a GPS, a depth sensor, 24-hour weather radio …

These last items would surely have come in handy on the RMS Rhone. On Oct. 29, 1867, the 310-foot steamship—which transported mail, passengers, and cargo back and forth across the Atlantic—was sitting at anchor in the British Virgin Islands, very close to where our little catamaran is moored right now. The Rhone's barometer had dropped that morning, but the captain decided there was no cause for concern. And … cue furious hurricane. Long story short, the ship crashed up on some rocks, broke apart, and sunk to the bottom, leaving 150 dead and six survivors.

We are very unlikely, aboard our cat, to be caught unaware by a surprise hurricane. For one thing, the Coast Guard would warn us far in advance on our VHF radio, which we monitor throughout the day. We could also click on Rebecca's BlackBerry to read any number of weather Web sites, including animated radar maps. Finally, the charter company provided us a cell phone, told us to leave the ringer on, and promised they'd call us at the very first sign of a serious storm.

Luckily, the weather this week has been mild, with only occasional squalls. On this sunny morning, we begin our day by sailing to the site of the Rhone's wreck. When we get there, we tie our boat to one of the national-park mooring balls, throw on our swimsuits and snorkel gear, and hop off the cat's stern into the warm water. Directly below us is a clear view of the Rhone's cracked-open hull and its 15-foot-wide propeller, still resting on the rocky seabed 130 years later. The quiet stillness here is disturbed only by our fin-kicks and by a flock of parrotfish wiggling in and out of the ship's exposed wooden ribs.

One of the many fantastic things about living aboard a sailboat in the tropics is that your backyard is a snorkeling paradise. The wreck of the Rhone, for instance, is considered one of the best dive sites in the Caribbean, and basically it's only accessible by boat. Even when we're moored in a bay with no spectacular attractions, we can always strap on a mask, breathe through a J-tube, and peruse a silent vista of turquoise water, white sand, and Technicolor fishies. Beats having a lawn.

We leave behind the ghostly Rhone and sail farther along the string of islands ringing Tortola. At Virgin Gorda—so named by Columbus, who thought the island's profile resembled a prostrate, pot-bellied woman—we moor in a sound so stunningly beautiful that I can't fathom why anyone, having found it, would ever leave. There are lush green hills on all sides. Crystal-clear water. Powdery beaches. I notice a 4-foot barracuda swimming past our hull.

We decide to lower the dinghy and go out exploring. When we motor beyond the mouth of the sound and edge too close to the shore of a nearby private island, two security guards very suddenly appear on its beach. They watch us intently from the saddles of their all-terrain vehicles until we've moved safely by. (The next island over is actually owned by Richard Branson. We don't dare approach anywhere near it. I swear at this distance I can make out some sort of sea cave carved into its cliffs—no doubt a Dr. No-type lair designed to house a fleet of luxury submarines, or a death ray.)

We eventually haul the dinghy up on a deserted beach that's owned by no one. We bury the anchor in the sand and then walk the length of the long, white crescent. It's idyllic. If I had a desalinization machine, some fishing tackle, and maybe a lime tree for vitamin C, I think I'd be OK with living on this spot for the rest of my life.

Walking back to the dinghy, I step into the brush at the back of the beach to take a leak. I'm midstream when I'm startled by the sight of two glowing eyes and the sound of a strange, angular groan. It's a goat lying on his stomach in the shade. He's far too lazy to rise to his feet, so he just appraises me as I relieve myself, occasionally flicking his ears at a fly.

We motor back into the sound and tie up at a pier next to a lonely beach bar. We're the only patrons. The bartender (who we gather is the bar's owner) blends us a round of scrumptious piña coladas. A dreadlocked younger man (who we gather is her son) sweeps the floor, crooning along to the loping reggae on the speakers. Later he pauses, broom against shoulder, to light up a spliff he takes from his pocket, and the smell of the smoke wafting over me is heavenly.