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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Navigating through the Virgin Islands

Betty Firth
Posted 6/24/20

The ocean wind was 25 to 30 knots steady with gusts 5 or 10 knots higher. The waves were probably only three feet but seemed like unscalable mountains and treacherous crevasses. I was accidentally …

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Navigating through the Virgin Islands


The ocean wind was 25 to 30 knots steady with gusts 5 or 10 knots higher. The waves were probably only three feet but seemed like unscalable mountains and treacherous crevasses. I was accidentally sailing in the open ocean outside the protected inner waters of the archipelago of the Virgin Islands with a completely inexperienced crew who were all seasick except for one guy. I was in charge, terrified that I wouldn’t be able to navigate through the narrow passageway between islands to get back to calmer waters. As you know if you’ve ever sailed, you can’t turn a sailboat like a motorboat, you can’t sail straight into the wind, and you can’t sail parallel to steep waves if you want to stay upright. If you keep a boat square to the waves in a following sea, meaning the waves are coming toward the boat from behind, and the waves are moving faster than the boat, they will break over the stern, pouring into the boat. If you do that often enough with big enough waves, the cockpit will fill with water. If you have any unsealed openings to the cabin below, the water will pour in, which isn’t the best strategy for keeping afloat.
I had been eager to sign on as skipper of one of the five 44-foot boats on this Caribbean adventure organized through a singles group in the Twin Cities. I had learned to sail on Lake Superior years earlier with one of the other skippers, who was an engineer and an experienced, responsible, level-headed, and patient sailor. He was the only skipper I’ve ever met who brought 60 pounds of his own tools, which combined with his creative problem-solving, enabled him to fix balky engines or non-functioning stoves. On one sail, when the engine quit, he discovered a belt had broken, and made a replacement out of pantyhose from his kit bag, and we were on our way. But I was on my own when it came to figuring out how to get through the passageway that would lead us back into safety. I was also loath to get on the radio and broadcast my dilemma, losing all skipper credibility on the second day of the sail.
We were under full sail, which had been set for the milder conditions inside the passageway, and this meant there was a lot of cloth up there catching wind. One crew member had done a lot of fishing, so he was comfortable with boats and motors, knew his knots, and was a good navigator. Unfortunately, he was also a chauvinist and hated having a female skipper, but he was stuck with me. He bragged about the divorce party he threw, serving his guests roadkill. He quickly understood how to use the winches to haul in or let out the fullness of the sails, as needed, but there was no way I was going to try to talk him through reefing the mainsail to reduce the size while standing on a heaving deck. Two people who knew what they were doing could have accomplished it, but I was stuck with neophytes.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. We had been told that the organizers would try to have a gender balance when they assigned people to boats, but that would not supersede having experienced crew on every boat. Best laid plans, right? We had a pre-trip gathering with slides and videos so everyone could learn a little bit about the Virgin Islands, sailing, and each other. It was explained to everyone that they would not be passengers, but would get to learn to sail as part of a working crew. I met my crew for the first time. One couple had a lot of experience, but shortly after that meeting, the guy had a heart attack and both of them dropped out. Last minute recruiting unearthed a woman who seduced a total stranger into signing up with her, and neither had a clue about sailing.
You might be asking how we ended up out in the ocean in the first place. Leaving our first night’s anchorage in a bay on one of the islands, I turned left instead of right, and no one on board knew enough to question me. I realized my mistake immediately, but once in the passageway between islands, there was no turning back.
Fortunately, one of the men on board was passionate about learning to sail. He had actually already purchased a boat in Florida and taken a basic sailing classroom course. He signed up for this trip for on-the-water experience so he could sail his boat back to Minnesota. He was a natural born sailor, 100 percent nice guy and soaked up everything I could teach him. He wanted to get as much time at the wheel as he could, so was invaluable in freeing me up to do other things, but he eventually succumbed to seasickness, too.
The week was filled with drama. The seductress fell for a skipper on another boat, her partner was miserable, the macho roadkill guy turned out to be whiny, and the sixth crew member was a timid woman afraid to do anything. Any group I had ever sailed with as skipper or crew had developed some level of “crewness” within one or two days, eager to help and learn, supporting each other, enjoying cooking and eating together, and having great conversations as we swapped life stories. Not so this crew, showing no interest in cooking or sharing meals until I reminded them we would be anchored on uninhabited islands some nights with no restaurants or grocery stores.
I have long said if you want to test the mettle of a relationship, go sailing together for a few days. Those who enjoy camping and canoeing trips would attest to the same thing, but I think you up the ante when you can’t get off the boat, with an element of danger thrown in just to add some spice.
Our culture has an ingrained myth or meme of rugged individualism, do or die, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. (Have you ever tried to visualize that move?) What gets shorter shrift is learning and understanding how to be an integral part of a larger tribe, community, or global population, to recognize that the common good must be considered, if only for reasons of survival. Environmental degradation and the COVID pandemic has made many of us finally realize how interdependent we really are on the Good Ship Terra Firma, and that we’d better learn how to cooperate and sail. The murders of George Floyd and many others have ignited mutiny by those who have been shortchanged for so long and their allies, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Will we pull together or capsize or go down in flames?
And the Virgin Island trip? I sailed safely into calmer waters before night descended, more human drama played out, and to their loss, the crew never coalesced, but I had fun exploring the islands in spite of them and ended up dating one of the other skippers. And I swore I’d figure out how to vet future crews for self-absorption in the future.


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