The Voyage of the Tick

In Which our Author Relates some Incidents of Travel Aboard a Sailing Yacht in the Windward Islands

By John Britton


Part One – Getting Started


It’s 10:30 p.m., and I’ve hoisted myself up onto the concrete base of a sign marking a shuttle stop in the outer reaches of a Denver International Airport long-term parking lot. The airport is a surprisingly different, and much quieter, facility at this time of night. There are no shuttle vans in sight, so I pound on the metal sign, creating a satisfying thunder, so as to attract attention to the shuttle schedule inadequacy. My wife Deb, from below, questions this tactic on several grounds. In any case, within five minutes or so we are on the shuttle, with some muttering from the driver about “shift changes”. Deb and I thus begin our vacation.


At the United ticket counter, we check two of our four bags, with the woman behind the counter saying “I think I know how to check your luggage through to St. Vincent.”. St. Vincent and the Grenadines is our destination, and if you have no idea where that is, join the crowd. St. Vincent and the Grenadines is an actual country made up of a chain of small islands located within the Windward Islands, which are part of the Lesser Antilles. That may not help you much, and the problem is that if you look at a map big enough to give you an idea of where the Grenadines are relative to where you are, then you can’t actually see the islands because they are too small.


We meet up with my sister Louise, and her husband David, in the San Juan airport. Coming in via Miami later than us, they have just enough time to down some strong hot coffee before we hustle aboard a small turbo-prop plane for the final leg to St. Vincent. The smell of bug spray on board (which I instantly recognize, having grown up in Florida), and the small bags of fried plantain chips we receive as our snack are the first real indications that we are indeed traveling to a foreign country. Hoorah!


We fly into Kingstown airport, skimming above deep blue waves, and land on a small runway some inches higher than those waves, cut into the side of the lush, mountainous island that is St. Vincent. It’s 5:00 p.m., 3 flights and about 15 hours after journey commencement. While still on the plane, there is an announcement that “two pieces of luggage may not have made it to St. Vincent”. I look at Deb and ask her how much underwear she has packed in her carry-on. I, of course, have packed none in mine, there not being room what with the mask and snorkel, self-inflating ThermaRest™ back pillow, inflatable neck pillows, guide books, bottles of sunscreen, bug repellant, sunburn lotion, seasick pills, aspirins, antacid tablets, electronic book, digital camera, compass, binoculars, two-way radios, EternaLight™ LED flashlight, spare batteries, battery charger, etc.


Inside the concrete block terminal building our lost luggage fears are realized; and, suffering in the heat and humidity, we fill out forms and talk to officials for longer than seems necessary before we are able escape the airport. We accomplish this in a minivan taxi, with driver Harold, sent to pick us up by Louise and David’s friends, Mike and Toni. Mike and Toni, the other two of our six-member team, have organized this venture, and arrived the day before. For about twenty minutes we taxi through a few winding miles on narrow roads, glimpsing, through the trees and colorful houses, the Caribbean Sea suffused with a gorgeous sunset.


Sunset at the Blue Lagoon


We arrive at the Blue Lagoon with the darkness, march down to the docks and behold our vessel: The Aquatik. We at first pronounce it Aqua-teek, and then Aqua-tick, but as time passes, she becomes simply “The Tick”. She is reasonably sleek - 46 feet of fiberglass, plywood, aluminum and teak. We pile our stuff aboard, have a drink, and set out in search of dinner. Harold’s recommendation is Slick’s, just up the road, and a good recommendation it is. We are the only customers (something we will become used to - we are vacationing in the off-season), and it seems like the first night on the job for the shy and diffident waitress; but, our dinners of Callaloo soup (made from the greens of the Elephant Ear plant), Creole conch, grilled red snapper and curry goat are excellent. Over time, we learn that all waitresses, throughout the islands, are shy and slow and that we are their first customers. We also learn that all meals are excellent!


Our delayed luggage forces us to stay two nights, instead of one, at the mooring in Blue Lagoon, giving us more time the next day for provisioning and for a “shakedown cruise”. The short cruise indeed shakes out some problems - the showstopper being the fact that the sail won’t go up the mast. We return to harbor using the supplied engine. Sunsail, the charter company renting us the boat, is at first inclined to think we are simply whiny landlubbers, but then grudgingly concedes there is a real problem and fixes it. Taking this as an omen, we decide that the adjustable wrench and two Phillips-head screwdrivers that make up the toolbox contents under-represent the solutions to the possible range of problems that may be encountered at sea. (Not that I, personally, know anything about such things. Both Deb and I actually are whiny landlubbers, and this is our first sailing trip – we are depending on the expertise of the others to provide us with an enjoyable, or at least survivable, vacation. Even though I regularly tout the two physical education credits I received in sailing (on a small pond in Florida during college twenty years ago), I don’t really claim to know any more about sailing than what I can recall from the recent Horatio Hornblower mini-series on A&E.) In any case, we request a slot-head screwdriver and pliers, both needle-nose and standard, from Sunsail. The request is met (minus the regular pliers), but once again, grudgingly. Both the screwdriver and pliers are to prove their desirability in the days ahead. For one thing, we need the needle-nose pliers to operate the dinghy (small, attached boat) engine choke, having broken it off and lost it in the harbor waters during a minor collision with another boat on our way out of the mooring on the shakedown cruise.


I shall now describe The Tick in more detail. Above, there is a cockpit area sunken into the deck with a steering wheel, bench seating and a foldout appetizer and cocktail table. Over the cockpit flaps a bimini (awning) for all-important shade. Scattered about the rest of the deck are cleats, winches, masts, sails, pulleys and cutlasses to stub ones toes upon, many having lines (ropes) attached so as to trip one. Below deck there are 3 berths (bedroom suites), each with its own head (poop-deck); and there is a main cabin (great-room) containing the galley (kitchen), navigation desk (navigation desk) and swaywoofer (dining area). There is a smell coming from each of the heads, not unlike that from a Greyhound bus restroom, which we are assured by Sunsail will “clear out soon after we are underway”. (Funnily enough, the smell never clears out.) The berths are on the small side, with just enough room for an oddly shaped bed, a closet the size of an ice-chest turned on end and enough floor-space to house one and one half pairs of flip-flops. I find that to get into bed without disturbing Deb (after a midnight visit to the poop-deck), I must crawl in head first toward the stern (rear), and then circle back around on hands and knees, somewhat like a dog trying to get comfortable. During the frequent squalls (rainstorms) we encounter, we are forced to close the hatches (doors in the ceiling) and ports (windows) that provide life-giving air to the areas below deck. During those periods, below-deck comes to be affectionately called “the stinking hell-hole in the belly of the Tick”.



The Blue Lagoon Marina


Part Two – Sailing to Mustique


Finally, we’re off! After motoring out of the harbor, the main sail is hoisted, the jib is unfurled and we bound across the waves. Turning off the engine results in a sort of silence, but we still bound across the waves, proving that we actually are, in conjunction with The Tick, sailing. The water is an incredible indigo, causing Deb to scrutinize it both with and without her sunglasses to prove to herself that the color is real. We see one or two other boats in the distance; few enough so as to avert any potential “sea rage”. I take a turn at the helm and witness how wind, wave and current can cause a 46 foot, 21,000 pound sailboat to wiggle about and not always go where you prefer. There are a number of islands looming on the horizon, yet Mike, an experienced navigator, is able to easily choose the correct one, and occasionally gives me a course correction to ensure our arrival.


Britannia Bay, Mustique


Our first Grenadine island destination is Mustique, about a three-hour sail in the brisk wind. On approach, we proceed directly to Britannia Bay, the only reasonable harbor for a night’s stay. We moor The Tick some 50 yards offshore. Shore, in this case, is a white sandy beach, lapped by crystal clear turquoise waves, containing a few dozen multi-colored fishing boats, a couple of shops and Basil’s Bar. We motor ashore in The Ticklet, our dinghy (a small semi-inflatable boat with a fractious engine), and explore for a bit. I admire the colorful boats pulled up on the sands, and once again, muse over the apparent fear that North Americans have of bright color schemes. Think of what could be done with all those putty and mushroom-colored homes that are spreading like a murky fungus across the hills of Colorado!


A gift shop on Mustique


Allegedly, the beaches and hills of Mustique support the vacation homes of the Rich and Famous, none of whom are sighted among the twenty or so people we see on our afternoon visit here. We do see some grandiose houses on the hilltops, though, and the Tommy Pullmyfinger merchandise in the shops is priced appropriately for the Rich, if not the Famous. One house, perched high above, classical Greek in appearance, is, I am sure, Mick Jagger’s house and/or a bikini catalog photo-shoot site. It is extremely hot in the sun, so we linger in the shops that have air-conditioning, purchase a few provisions, and retire to Basil’s Bar for a drink. I have a delicious ginger-brew with vodka and then snap this photo:

Basil’s Bar, Mustique


We return to The Tick for our first dinner on board ship, having eaten at restaurants the previous two nights. Alas, the quantity of kerosene provided with the boat is insufficient to start the charcoal grill on deck, so the chicken breasts that Mike and Toni intend to prepare for us must be cooked below deck. The liberal dose of Jamaican Jerk Seasoning Mike has applied to the meat, probably fine for grilling, turns into a noxious, choking, searing gas in the tiny galley kitchen. Those involved in cooking must make frequent trips above deck, and even we who sit above sipping drinks begin to cough and cry a bit. While waiting for our meal, we listen to the radio and groove to a calypso tune with the catchy refrain, “Don’t Eat and Lie Down”. It refers to the advice given the singer by his brother, a track coach, concerning the dangers of sleeping soon after eating a large meal. Evidently, besides getting fat, one may contract “bang-gut” resulting in “whoosh – in the bed”. We love the song, and will quote from it for the rest of the trip, if not for the rest or our lives. (If anyone can track down the artist and/or CD name, I here offer a $5.00 reward.)


Becoming nervous about the warning in the Sailors Guide to the Windward Islands stating that the anchorage in Britannia Bay is “rather rolly”, we observe that most boats are at the other end of the bay, so we up-anchor and move to join them. This proves to be of no help, and we all spend a semi-miserable night rolling about in our berths. (I contend that if the berths were built to allow one to sleep perpendicular with the keel (underwater fin), rather than parallel to it, such conditions would not cause one to roll into one’s berth-mate.) Are there also one or more sudden squalls during the night, causing all to leap and stumble about, closing and battening hatches and ports against the rain (and thus adding heat and a stifling closeness to the rolling)? I cannot now recall for sure which nights the squalls came, but the next morning, Deb and I are assured by the rest that living aboard a sailboat is “not usually like this”. I have just started reading Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum. Set in the 1890s, Capt. Slocum is sailing under somewhat more primitive conditions that we (barrels of salted herring as provisions, no “Don’t Eat and Lie Down”, etc.), so Deb and I suspend judgment of The Tick as a vacation home. Instead, we delight in the beautiful surroundings and set sail for the island of Dr. Mayreau (ha ha, it’s actually just called Mayreau, the correct pronunciation of which is to afford us many minutes of amusement).


Stay tuned for Part Three…