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Sailing the Caribbean, the Frugal Way
TIME: 10:08AM Monday November 16,2009

CONSIDERING that none of us newbies had any idea what we were doing, the voyage south from St. Lucia was going well. At 10:30 a.m., amid gray but not ominous skies, the S.V. Illusion — the 75-foot, two-masted schooner on which I and two others were novice sailors — had weighed anchor off the coast of Vieux Fort, a sleepy city at the island’s southern tip, and steered into deeper waters. The sea was mild, with five-foot swells rocking us just enough to make walking a conscious effort, and when Norman Garnett, the Illusion’s 61-year-old English captain, gave the order, we scrambled to pull, feed, winch and cleat a series of ropes that unfurled our three sails, which caught and tightened in the wind. We were sailing!

At first, we cruised along without a care. The sun revealed itself, we applied SPF 30 and we fetched paperback novels to read on deck. A pod of pilot whales surfaced off the port bow, then vanished, heading west. This was, it seemed, a cinch, a few minutes of complicated labor in exchange for untold hours of relaxation. But midway, we began to notice something odd. We were tilting to starboard. Severely. The thickening swells, in fact, were almost touching the worn wooden rail that arced around the ship. Was this normal? The wind was picking up, droplets of rain coming down. Was this safe?

“All right, kids!” shouted Norman, popping up providentially from below. “We’re going to bring the staysail in!”

Frantically, we reversed the morning’s procedures. As the squall whipped us, we loosed one coil from the staysail winch and fed out the line as Norman pulled in the other end, and soon the staysail was safely away. The Illusion righted herself, and we glided on toward St. Vincent and the Grenadines, our next port of call, both shaken and invigorated by the danger and the drama, the chaos and the education, the teamwork and the hard-won, elemental pleasure of harnessing the wind.

“That’s what I’m paying for!” Steve Hill, a 45-year-old from north London, announced that evening, once we’d moored in Wallilabou Bay, a tiny inlet on the volcanic island of St. Vincent.

We were not, however, paying much. Our berths aboard the Illusion cost us each $55 a day, a sum that covered breakfast, dinner, basic instruction in sailing, plus mooring and customs fees — pretty much everything except lunch, beer and off-shore excursions. And beyond those tangibles, we were getting access to the world of yachties, those fortunate souls who drift on the wind from port to port, stopping for snorkeling, drinks and tale telling at sparsely inhabited tropical islands where ferries and prop planes rarely land. I’d always craved that sense of freedom, but with sailing classes in New York City generally starting near $500 and yacht charters in the thousands of dollars, this Frugal Traveler despaired of ever attaining it.

Then I discovered And And And,,, and any number of similar Web sites that link up sailors (both amateurs and professionals) with boat owners and captains. The jobs range from basic deckhand duties to skilled work, like engineers and cooks, and span the globe, from the Caribbean and the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

With no experience, however, I had to look past the paid gigs to the unpaid ones. Many of these posts seemed to be written by late-middle-aged guys seeking female companionship (fair enough: solo sailing is lonely), but I also found a Bahamas-bound couple with teenagers seeking someone to help cook and clean. Not for me, perhaps, but for the right person, it’s a free tropical holiday.

At several of these sites, I saw ads for the S.V. Illusion and followed links to the boat’s Web site. Built in Rio de Janeiro in 1976, the Illusion had spent years as a treasure boat, ferrying divers in search of sunken colonial-era wrecks (it helped discover the Atocha, a $450 million haul of gold and silver), before Norman, a native of Liverpool, England, bought it in 2003. Since then, he’d been plying the waters between Trinidad and St. Martin, taking on up to eight crew members for as little as two weeks or as long as three months, and for just enough money to break even. No experience necessary: this was the ship for me.

I e-mailed Norman suggesting tentative dates for a 16-day sail in early October; he wrote back asking for a $100 deposit via Western Union. I complied, but to be sure this wasn’t a scam, I contacted Misty Tosh, a TV producer from California who’d blogged about her stay on the Illusion. Don’t worry, she told me by phone, you’ll learn to sail, maybe swim with sea turtles and have a crazy time.

Good crazy or bad crazy?

“Good crazy,” Misty said.

Three weeks later, I was deep into good crazy, courtesy primarily of Norman, the captain. With his Popeye-like forearms, grin that glinted gold and freckled skin that concealed deeper layers of pale white and bright pink — like a sunburned snow leopard — he looked the part of a weather-beaten sailor with hundreds of thousands of sea miles under his belt. But this was only his latest incarnation, he told me, having previously been a bodybuilder, a lawyer, the chairman of a television production company, a mercenary in Africa and a manufacturer of amphetamines (for which he said he served time in prison).

Uniting these multiple identities was his caustic Liverpudlian sense of humor. His delightfully twisted outlook allowed only extremes. Everything was either the best (“Oh, they have the best steaks in the Caribbean — the best!” he growled about one island) or the worst, the ugliest, the most bloody awful. His temper was sharp (he’s the captain, so his word was law) but you couldn’t take his rebukes personally. Once, a rope I was pulling in got trapped and stuck, and Norman yanked it from my hands, yelling at me for failing to pay attention. I could’ve sulked, but 10 minutes later he was grinning again, and so was I.

Still, the other novice crew — Steve Hill, tall and easygoing, and Francesca Fantacci, a 50-something Ottawa architect — and I were glad to have Alison Hill around. A redheaded 39-year-old hairstylist from London, Alison had joined the ship back in May 2008 and fallen in love not only with the lifestyle but also with Norman himself. Now she was first mate, head chef and, as his girlfriend, the honey to Norman’s vinegar, a patient soul who acted as a buffer, literally showing us the ropes on the Illusion.

It was Alison who taught us to put up the blue canvas awning under which we’d lounge and read, shielded from the sun. It was she who showed me to my cabin, a tight, mahogany-lined nook near the bow with cabinets for my gear (and life jacket), a narrow bed and a hatch to bring in some air. She instructed us in the use of the pump-action toilet and taught us to haul seawater in a bucket to wash dishes, a daily chore that reminded us that this adventure was, as Norman repeated almost daily, “not an ’oliday!”

But though it wasn’t an ’oliday, it was often pure joy. Sailing days would start early, with coffee, cereal and toast with pineapple jam downed hurriedly, though never fast enough for Norman, who’d berate us for idling. “Sheets out!” he’d yell, and we’d scramble barefoot onto the deck to uncoil the sheets — that’s ropes to you nonsailors — thread them through pulleys, seal them with figure-eight knots and half-hitch them to cleats. Then we’d pull up the anchor, start the motor and chug out to sea. At first, Alison took the helm, but when I reminded Norman I wanted to learn to sail, he put me there instead, telling me to stick my head out of the pilot-house hatch and use my toes to steer.

Soon I was plotting courses from island to island, using the ship’s library of sailing manuals as reference. If putting a novice at the helm sounds sketchy, don’t worry. Obviously, Norman was overseeing everything, but the eastern Caribbean is a fairly easy place to sail. The wind comes from the east, and since journeys tend to be north-south, you sail on a beam reach, perpendicular to the breeze, one of the simplest tacks you can take.

Sheets out, course plotted, autopilot engaged, we’d put up the sails and, if the wind was strong enough, kill the engines. Then we’d drift on for an hour or four, reading and sunbathing, chatting and taking pictures, pulling out the headsail when the wind picked up and rolling it back in when the wind died. This was freedom.

As we sailed south to ever-more-obscure towns and ever-smaller islands, we settled into a rhythm. In the morning, Norman would take us all ashore so he and Alison could run errands (food, fuel, laundry, banking, e-mail), and at 5 p.m. he’d be waiting at the dock to return us to the Illusion for dinner. (While it wasn’t the Caribbean-inflected gourmet seafood I was hoping for, Alison and Norman’s cooking was tasty and hearty nonetheless, particularly the weekly Sunday roast, with crispy potatoes, sweet onions, caramelized carrots and thick gravy.) In between, we crew did whatever we wanted.

At first, in St. Lucia, we simply adjusted to the climate, trekking through Vieux Fort — a sleepy town of ramshackle concrete buildings and older wooden ones whose intricately carved lintels reminded me of Tamil homes in India — to the Anse de Sables beach where kids rode horses into the warm water and the nearby Coastline Beach Bar served subzero Piton lager and spicy fried kingfish (16 East Caribbean dollars, or about $6 at a fixed rate of 2.67 E.C. dollars to $1).

By the time we arrived in St. Vincent, we were energized to explore the island, particularly since Wallilabou Bay had only two businesses — the Wallilabou Anchorage, a tidy restaurant-slash-customs point, and the Pirate’s Retreat, an amazing, semi-improvised bar run by a former New York City cabdriver named Tony — and just one claim to fame: decaying sets where “Pirates of the Caribbean” was filmed. So we squeezed into a minibus (along with 18 other people) for an hourlong roller-coaster ride (4 E.C. dollars) up, down and around the island’s plentiful curves to Kingstown, the capital, where we admired the colonial architecture and watched locals play checkers and dominos. Another day, we hired Speedy, a dreadlocked friend of Norman’s, to guide Steve and me up the 3,864-foot Soufrière volcano, a challenging hike that led through a lava chute whose floor was littered with sweet, passionfruitlike bell apples, then up past illicit marijuana plantations to the windswept, smoking crater. (We paid Speedy 120 E.C. dollars, and 80 for a taxi.)

As the islands shrank, so did our options. In Bequia, seven square miles of steep hills and pristine beaches that Norman called the Grenadines’ “yachtie central,” we snorkeled at Princess Margaret Beach and caught a Sunday soccer match at Port Elizabeth’s stadium. We grabbed lunch at the Green Boley, an open-air bar where the conch roti — curried gastropod and potatoes wrapped in flatbread — was the best I’ve ever had (15 E.C. dollars), and at Maria’s French Terrace, an airy second-floor restaurant with free Wi-Fi where the slablike fish sandwich (a slab of tuna the day I had it) cost 22 E.C. dollars.

On even smaller Union Island, which had a charmingly touristy main drag, Steve and I just played pool at the spic-and-span Anchorage Yacht Club and ate great fried fish and salad (25 E.C. dollars for each of us, including beer) at Olivia’s Family Restaurant. And on Mayreau Island, a boomerang-shaped dot with a population of 300, more snorkeling, more sunbathing and more aimless wandering, which led us up a hill where we found the fine old stone Catholic church, with its wood-beamed interior, stained-glass windows and stellar views of the Tobago Cays, a prime diving and snorkeling zone.

And, of course, there were the bars, which we’d hit first in the afternoon and then, if we had the energy, after dinner. But though we consumed an awful lot of beer, rum, gin, whiskey and (Norman’s favorite) Grand Marnier, the bars were only secondarily about drinking. Their primary purpose was for meeting old friends and making new ones.

Up at Bequia’s hilltop Salty Dog, where a steady breeze cooled us almost as much as the frosty Heinekens, we argued with the Trinidadian manager, Nigel, about what makes a great hot pepper sauce. And down at homey, casual New York Sports Bar, Steve and I met Michael Guenther, a Mario Batali look-alike from Germany who’d sold his software company and used the profits to sail first the Mediterranean and now the Caribbean, and Roxanne, a charming, mysterious girl famous throughout the Grenadines, who claimed friendship with everyone from yachties to Tony and Cherie Blair.

On Union Island, we followed Andy Tittle, a local cook, to the super-hip, down-and-dirty Stress Out Hideaway and laughed at his impression of Roxanne. And halfway up the hill on Mayreau was Dennis’s Hideaway, a Malibuesque compound with a bar-restaurant (seafood pasta — wow!), guesthouse, swimming pool and, of course, Dennis Forde himself, who at 48 years old has at least 100 years’ worth of stories to tell, like about how he became the first black member of a Newcastle pub’s social club decades ago, and about dancing in Bequia with a cousin he’d never met before — the legendary Roxanne.

Typically, these nights would end weirdly. If Norman hadn’t come out, Steve and I would have to find our own way back to the Illusion, whether by hired speedboat or half-sunken, one-oared wooden dinghy (20 to 50 E.C. dollars). And even when Norman was there, things would get strange, like the night in Bequia when we happened upon a pair of locals singing a hypnotic version of the country-and-western duet “Seven Spanish Angels,” one singing the Willie Nelson part in a dead-serious bass, the other rapping Ray Charles’s lines and thumping the rhythm on a plastic telephone box. Then Tango, a gaunt Bequian with bizarre fashion sense (he once wore a DVD on his forehead) whom Norman often hires for odd jobs, appeared out of nowhere and started yelling at the musicians, so Norman yelled at Tango, and then a helmeted bicyclist rolled in and yelled at Tango, and then the police drove up, and then. ...

And then, eventually, I’d be back on the Illusion, and in all likelihood my cabin would be too hot, so I’d drag my sheets and pillow up on deck and stare at the stars, pinpoints of ultimate clarity, banded by the faint cloud of the Milky Way, and let the waves and the wind rock me to sleep.

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