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Caribbean Idyll

Charter the Ocean Kestrel and you get a skipper to sail you anywhere, a girl Friday to bring you rum punch and a chef to feed your fantasies.

Sunset in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. Author: J.B. Sharp. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunset in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. Author: J.B. Sharp. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I am writing this on the boat because if I wait until I get home, I may not be able to capture the sense of tranquil pleasure that reigns here. There’s been no rain, but at the moment, a rainbow hovers just out of reach, ribboned over the sea. It looks so solid you’d expect it to cast a shadow. We’re anchored in a small bay at Great Dog Island, across the channel from Virgin Gorda, and it’s easy to imagine that we are the only people in the world. No one lives on Great Dog Island; it’s all sandy beach and banks of wind-stunted trees. The only way to reach it is by boat, and no one else seems to have thought of coming today. This is bliss.

We set out from the harbor early this morning because the first light was so beautiful that none of us wanted to miss it. A good wind came up, and we stayed under full sail until we arrived here. The sea is calm now, with little patches of froth at the tops of the gentle waves. Ocean Kestrel, the ship, sits deep and moves through the ocean as though the water were thick, like a spoon going through butter. I like the mild noises of this boat: the stiff sound of wind in the four sails, the hiss that the prow makes as it cuts through the sea. There is a motor, but unlike many sailing yachts, the Kestrel resorts to it only when the wind has gone flat, or when it blows across the narrow entrance to a harbor. It’s a good-size vessel; at 72 feet, it’s a graceful craft, long and sleek. The skipper, Geoff Parsons, built it himself, every piece of it, a project that he calculates took him 27,000 hours between 1984 and 1990. You can sense the love and care that have gone into every detail–no shipyard boat could ever feel quite like this.

Ocean Kestrel, a charter boat with a crew of three, sleeps as many as eight paying passengers, though six is the ideal number. Above, there is a vast deck with cushions for sunbathing and a lovely aft dining area. Below, the fittings are elegant, but the space is constrained, as is usual on sailing yachts (you would not want to be on board during a long spell of rain). We’re in the Virgin Islands for a week, but the boat plies its way from Puerto Rico down to the Grenadines. If you have a month to spare, you can do the whole archipelago; the Kestrel will go anywhere in the Caribbean, for any number of days.

A few people are swimming just now. In more athletic moments, we windsurf, water-ski or snorkel, using the ship’s equipment. I was swimming earlier, and now my hair is salty in the sun. Stella Monaghan, Ocean Kestrel‘s girl Friday, has just brought me a glass of her fresh rum punch, which is tangy with ginger and sweet with guava. Monaghan does the drinks and pretty much every other unclaimed task here, and she has a knack for appearing by your side just when you want something and making herself invisible when you are otherwise engaged. The chef, Alison Tolley, is cooking below, in a galley that’s big for a boat but small for anything else, chopping on surfaces that keel 45 degrees back and forth as the ship tacks, and using a stove that is pinioned to remain true to gravity. Tolley told me earlier that because smells permeate the boat, she tries to do anything with fish while people are ashore and to bake just before they come back. Right now, she’s making banana bread and shortbread cookies, and it’s hard not to go below to raid the oven.

Tolley grew up in Canberra–a landlocked city between Sydney and Melbourne–and describes her food as distinctly Australian. She uses ingredients bought locally and prepares them as soon as possible; her cooking involves no stocks or long-simmered stews. The only slow recipes are marinades: Tolley’s trademark chicken and beet brochettes are full of the flavor of cumin and honey, with a trace of mustard. Yesterday, we had shrimp that she’d soaked in a mixture of cilantro, ginger and garlic–they needed only a flash on the grill to turn pink. Tolley’s food is not simply good for “boat food,” but is truly delicious in its own right. Her cooking style is perfect for these long, casual afternoons, refreshing and sumptuous as a dip in the sea.

Though it’s true one could swim out to the beaches of the islands, I prefer not to. During the days of this trip, I’m taking a holiday from land itself, living my life on and in the water, lulled endlessly by the slow rhythms of the sea.