I’m told I learned to swim before I could walk. My dad tossed toddler me like a pebble into Missouri’s Table Rock Lake, and I apparently took to the water as if I had fins. My family had a modest lake house in the Ozarks where I learned to water ski as a child. We’d take our small boat out fishing or tie up in a cove to jump off the rugged bluffs. It wasn’t anything fancy, but we were boat people — the sort of folks who establish their own onboard etiquette, converse about wake zones and host cocktail hour on the dock.
I’m now a New Yorker living in a high-rise apartment, where my husband and I are lulled to sleep by a soundtrack of honking taxis and ambulance sirens. I’m no longer among my family of boat people, but my job as a travel writer allows me to occasionally trade in the concrete jungle for the waves: surfing in Hawaii, swimming with sharks, paddling with a dog on a standup paddleboard. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to 50+ countries, but the best experience to date was two weeks spent on a boat.
First, let me be transparent: I’m borderline vain. I religiously highlight my hair, get pricked with Botox, laser my body, tattoo my eyebrows and have an embarrassing amount of shoes. Sure, I grew up as a boat person, but I traded in my deck shoes for wedges long ago, and I admit I felt trepidation about such an adventure. Oh, and did I mention this was our captain’s maiden voyage?
One of our close friends had spent his free time obtaining his ASA 104 captain’s license, clocking hours out of Jersey City. A lover of sports, booze and good times, he was the ideal candidate for a sailor with a mouth to match; his wild side was rivaled only by his deeply analytical nature. So of course we signed up to be guinea pigs on his first solo sail.
Our group of seven friends and strangers in our thirties arrived in St. Lucia for what felt like a Real World reunion at sea. Our home for the trip? Carto Wines, a 43-foot Beneteau Oceanis monohull cruiser with three cabins and three heads (shop talk: three bedrooms, three toilets), a dining table, a gas stove/oven, a fridge and a sink. There was no Wi-Fi and no air conditioning — no problem, right?
The journey officially kicked off at La Soufrière volcano, where we covered our bodies in mud and soaked in the hot waters. This felt somewhat ceremonious, as if we were washing away our everyday lives, and offered a hint of what was to come: Adventures aren’t always pretty, but they’re often exhilarating.
The next morning, we debriefed on what would be our biggest sail. It was during this time that we settled into our roles: preparing group meals, whipping up cocktail hours, creating the proper playlists and, of course, handling onboard safety. The last of which would prove clutch during the nine-hour sail to Bequia: Our steering wheel chain broke, forcing us to use the emergency tiller to direct the boat. If this weren’t concerning enough, we were also battling a squall; at one point, I looked up to see our sail cresting the water’s edge. But our trusty captain “steered” (I use the term loosely given the circumstances) us to safety, and we arrived with time to sip an ice-cold Hairoun beer on the beach.
Many of our stops were reachable only by boat, providing adventures that were unique and intimate — and sometimes a bit strange. In the Tobago Cays, I snorkeled among colorful fish, sleek stingrays and graceful sea turtles. (The moment would have been perfect for Instagram, but I’d long forgotten about social media.) On Jamesby, we climbed a cacti-dotted bluff that revealed impossibly blue waters below. In Carriacou, we held a makeshift standup paddleboard yoga class. There was Happy Island, a tiny plop of sand with nothing more than a dive beach bar; then Mayreau, where we concluded our evening in the wee hours belting out “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” alongside the reggae bar owner, who had a serious penchant for Celine Dion.
By week two, I had ditched my makeup, shoes of any sort and the boat bedroom, which had become beyond stuffy. Instead, I slept out on the bow under a blanket of stars and bathed in the ocean waters. Sunburnt and salty, I had found my sea legs — and I had officially returned to my boat people roots.
On our last day, we swam to the depths of Grenada’s Molinere Bay. Artist and environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture park here in 2006, home to 70+ works, like the notable “Vicissitudes.” The ring of life-size figures, cast from local children, is linked through held hands — a hauntingly beautiful image evoking a sense of strength and stability.
At one point in the trip, I took a mental picture: Against the backdrop of a setting sun, wet swimsuits and towels hung from the boat railing. My husband was making burgers on the small grill, the smell of dinner mingling with salt and sunscreen. There were no horns or sirens, no smartphones or laptops. It seemed we had discovered the key to happiness: life on the bow of a boat.
Upon returning to land and to reality, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror (something I’d not done for two weeks), and the image shocked me. My hair resembled a bird’s nest, my skin was wrinkled from the sun and my nails looked as if I’d gone rock climbing barefoot. But I felt glorious. Much like that cleansing volcanic mud bath, it was as if I had peeled away a layer to reveal something — or someone — new. To me, boat people are the sort who believe that experiences, not material objects, are what make one content. And while I won’t be abandoning my high heels again any time soon, I couldn’t agree more.