An Ocean of Calm; Caribbean: Taking the children sailing in the Virgin Islands is a blissful time out, a way to learn the ropes of seamanship and family togetherness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Blackbeard and his fellow pirates were lured to the tropical paradise that's now the British Virgin Islands for the same reasons we were: Hidden coves, calm waters and 50 islands within sight of each other, most ringed with pristine, white-sand beaches.

Unlike the pirates, we weren't looking for a cave to stash pieces of eight, though I wish we could have found some of their treasure which, legend has it, is still hidden there. We came to sail the easily navigated, clear, blue waters that draw yachters and divers from around the world, increasingly these days with their children aboard.

Wherever we dropped anchor, we snorkeled, hunted for snails and dug in the sand on tiny island beaches with fellow boating families.

"We're spending a lot more time together on the boat than we would at a big resort with kids' activities," observes Joan Williams, a Virginia working mom of two who was anchored nearby.

That certainly was the case for our gang of five -- Matt, then 13, Reggie, 11, Melanie, 6, my husband, Andy, and me. Between two jobs, two schools, piano lessons, soccer, swim meets and religious school, among other things, we hadn't spent so much concentrated time together in months. Frankly, we were all surprised exactly how much we enjoyed it -- even with a few tiffs along the way.

More families, especially with older grade schoolers and teen-agers, are finding sailing offers a vacation equation that really works: A lot of water plus a little adventure equals plenty of fun and family bonding.

"You get those moments you don't get at home when the kids lie on your stomach and talk to you. Out on a sailboat, you're not competing with the TV," explains Chris Riser, a science teacher who likes sailing with his family on historic Maine windjammers. "The kids don't even fight. It's very peaceful out on the water, away from everyday life."

There's an added plus for baby boomers: While sailing doesn't require the stamina other sports might, it's plenty active. "We're not good at going somewhere and sitting in the sun," explains Alison De Lavis, who lives in Connecticut and opted for a weeklong Offshore Sailing School family course in Florida. "Sailing gave the week some focus."

The number of families exploring this vacation option is growing every year, says Rick Franke from the Annapolis Sailing School, in business since 1959.

The Sunsail charter company, in fact, has opened an Antigua resort based on that premise, with a full-scale children's program for infants to teens as well as sailing for everyone. The Florida-based Offshore Sailing School, the largest in the industry, also is expanding its family offerings.

"When the family gets on a boat, everyone can contribute," says Franke. "They just don't have to listen to Dad. These parents see sailing as the beginning of a lifestyle."

A family experience

"Sailing is the vehicle, but the ultimate purpose is the fabulous relationship with your kid. That happens from working together to learn a new skill," explains longtime Outward Bound sailing trip leader Susan St. John.

In some cases, one of the parents loves to sail and wants to pass on that skill and tradition to the rest of the family. Often, it's the kids who spur their parents' interest. The De Lavis kids, for example, had first learned to sail at camp so their parents opted for a program in which the kids could enhance their skills in junior classes at the same time their parents learned with other adults. Said Alison De Lavis, "This trip we were all talking the same language and that doesn't often happen on vacation."

That's not to say every moment on board will be that perfect warm and fuzzy time we're all seeking on vacation with kids. It never is, no matter where you go. They'll still fight and whine and complain that they're bored -- even on a gleaming boat in paradise.

That said, I'd do it again in an instant. We came home from our sailing trip refreshed and renewed with memories that I think will last forever.

Here's a diary of our four-night adventure at sea in the gleaming white, 50-foot boat named Winnepesaukee (after a New Hampshire lake) we'd chartered from Moorings, the largest yacht broker in the Caribbean.

Friday

Captain John meets us at the small Tortola airport and immediately whisks us and our piles of luggage in a dinghy to our boat anchored just off shore. As soon as we board, I realize how badly I've overpacked. The cabins on our boat are tiny, just 8 feet by 5 feet: The bathrooms (there are hose showers) are the size of a small closet, with barely room to turn around! Melanie thinks it's funny you have to count to 15 every time you flush!

The kids like the novelty of built-in everything, and the always-available drink cooler, snacks and cookies, and the chance to hoist sails, take the wheel or tool around in the dinghy.

I like not having to worry about getting anyone anywhere or cooking a meal. Matt and Reggie are accomplished sailors but we're not. That's why we opted for a crewed yacht. Fifty-three-year-old John Ringeis, an accountant, and his 39-year-old wife, Lynn, a caterer, had forsaken San Francisco for life aboard this charter boat.

They're ready to set sail as soon as we settle in. First stop: Great Harbour on Peter Island, one of the British Virgin Islands' most picturesque islands and home to a posh resort. (Virgin tropical drinks cost $6.50 each, I discover too late!)

Matt and Reggie are thrilled they can simply jump off the boat to snorkel. We spy all varieties of red, blue and purple fish. Melanie prefers playing with her mask and fins at the beach 200 yards away.

We're served dinner and drinks under the stars.

No one is the least bit seasick! Melanie is lulled asleep by the gently rocking boat before we've finished dinner.

Saturday

Matt and Andy are picked up early by Underwater Safaris to scuba dive. Melanie, Reggie and I opt for a morning on the beach. This is my idea of a Caribbean island -- crystal blue water, white sand beach, thatched umbrellas and a beach bar. We're on a mission to find someone who can braid the girls' hair. No luck, but we spend a happy, lazy morning in the sun. (We have slathered ourselves in waterproof sunscreen first, of course.)

When the guys return, we gobble English muffin pizzas, then sail 90 minutes to Cooper Island, where we'll anchor for the night.

There are about 20 boats of various sizes and shapes anchored nearby. An unexpected plus to this trip is the chance to get a close-up view of the distinctive sailing culture here.

We head over in the yellow kayak to the Cooper Island Beach Club, the tiny hotel and beach with its dive shop. Morgana Edmund, who works at the shop, will plait Reggie's entire head in braids for $40. Reggie is thrilled and sits patiently for nearly 2 hours to get the job done.

Melanie doesn't have that kind of patience. She opts for just a couple of braids and spends the rest of her time on the beach with other children she's met from nearby boats.

We return to the yacht for dinner -- pasta with sun dried tomatoes. It's good but the kids don't eat much. I wish I'd made sure there would be plenty of child-friendly fare on board. The brownies she baked for desert were a big hit. We're in bed by 9:30. So much for after-dinner Travel Scrabble.

Sunday

Matt and Andy are off diving again, this time at the British Virgin Islands' most famous dive site, the wreckage of the HMS Rhone, which sank in 1867. While they dive, we return to Cooper Island, where Reggie gets a hair-braiding lesson when Melanie decides she's "got to have" a few more plaits.

I'm struck again by how little it takes to amuse the kids here -- sun, beach, friendly people and a snorkel and mask.

Next stop: The Baths, where huge boulders just offshore form caves, grottos and small pools made for exploring. We sail 6 miles (90 minutes) to the islands' top tourist attraction. Luckily, we've avoided cruise ship day and have the place pretty much to ourselves. We wind through the caves to a deserted beach so spectacular it belongs in a movie. Reggie and I swim the half-mile back.

Uh oh. Melanie is following big brother Matt up to the top of some boulders. Not safe for my barefoot 6-year-old, I decide, but Melanie won't listen. To a child of the Disney generation, it's hard to understand that natural attractions can be dangerous, unlike those at a theme park. Melanie is not happy to have a time-out on the beach, but I hope she's learned that lesson today.

There's no wind, so we motor five miles over to Marina Cay, our home for the night. The trip takes about an hour, and we laze on board, stretched out on the front of the boat.

We go ashore for happy hour, sipping our drinks overlooking the sea, reminiscing about our Caribbean honeymoon 15 years before. We'd talked then, as honeymoon couples do, about the children we'd have. We love being face-to-face with how lucky we've been in those years. The kids love the old stories.

Monday

Before the kids are awake, Andy and I slip off the boat to snorkel. We feel so free -- no organized snorkel trip, just a half-hour in the warm water eyeing spectacular sea life.

This morning we sail 12 miles to White Bay, about two hours. The point, we're learning, isn't just getting somewhere, but the fun along the way.

There's a bar on the beach called the Soggy Dollar, so named because people often swim up to the bar from their boats. Matt and Andy go off snorkeling -- they find a sea turtle! -- but Melanie has another agenda.

"Come on, Mom, let's play pirate and slave!" I'm the slave. We're joined by other parents and kids -- French and British as well as American. We meet other boating families everywhere we anchor.

We overnight about a half-mile around the cove to Great Harbour, famous for Foxy's bar and raucous New Year's Eve parties. Too many mosquitoes, the kids decide. It's the low point of our trip. Everyone is tired and crabby. Matt pushes Reggie in the water and the tears flow.

By dinner, I'm glad everyone has rallied for our final night at sea. We feast on grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and baby carrots (a winner with the kids) and listen to Nat King Cole CDs.

The stars are bright: We're just a speck in the ocean. Everything -- especially work -- seems far away.

I don't want to pack tomorrow. I want to sail off into the sunset.

An ideal day

8 a.m.: Jump in the water for a fast before-breakfast snorkel and swim.

9 a.m.: Dry out in the sun over eggs and tropical fruit. The kids gobble cereal and milk.

10 a.m.: Let the kids take the dinghy or the kayak over to the nearest beach or a place such as Norman Island, where there are awesome caves to explore. Mom and Dad get a break, though Mom is probably watching the kids through the binoculars.

11 a.m.: Get under way. The kids can help raise the anchor, hoist the sails and drive the boat! Sail a couple of hours to another island cove. One good bet: Sandy Cay, a tiny island near Jost Van Dyke.

1 p.m.: Anchor and look for other sailing kids on the beach. Get out the beach toys and snorkels. Time for a shell hunt.

4 p.m.: Take the boat over to Jost Van Dyke or Cane Garden Bay to spend the night. Get out the blender for the tropical drinks while the kids cool out and sort their shells .

7 p.m.: Dinner on board or take the dinghy to shore for a casual sand-in-your-toes meal at a place such as Foxy's on Jost Van Dyle (the barbecue is a winner).

When you go

The best deal: The best time for families to go is low season, mid-April until mid-December, when prices drop significantly. There are better airfare deals then, too. Many here call early summer Family Season. Hurricane season technically starts in June but yachters say avoid late August and September. Thanksgiving is a good bet, too. Experienced sailors can opt for a "Bare boat," which you sail and provision yourself.

Rates for Moorings charters in the British Virgin Islands start at roughly $320 a day for a family of four, including provisions, in the summer through the end of October, slightly more till just before Christmas. A skipper costs $100 a day and a cook $90. (Next time, I'd opt for the skipper but not the cook.) Ask about discounts for kids on crewed yachts.

Information: Call the Moorings at 800-535-7289 or go online at www.moorings.com.

Options: You could also opt for a charter with a skipper who's got his family on board. Sail around the Greek islands, Belize, the Galapagos or elsewhere with the kids. California-based Ocean Voyages has been arranging such charters for 20 years. Some of the boats are a great bet for family reunions. Costs start at $100 a person a day. Call 800-299-4444 or go to www.oceanvoyages.com.

What to ask: Before you leave home, talk to the charter company -- even to the crew directly, if they're available -- about your kids' likes and dislikes. Make sure to specify if you want certain foods, drinks or snacks on board. Will the kids only eat "plain" pasta? Have they got a favorite cereal?

Sketch out an itinerary that suits your gang's vacation rhythm: Do you want more beach time or sailing time? Does the boat have kayaks or other water "toys" on board?

What to pack: You'll only need a couple of T-shirts, quick-dry shorts, hats, bathing suits, sandals and sneakers. Bring a pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt, but leave the fancy resort wear at home. There's not that much space to stow gear on a boat.

Don't forget: Cards, Scrabble, other favorite games perfect for twilight on deck, also, art supplies for kids' projects.

Plenty of books for everyone, including pirate stories and one on undersea life.

Favorite CDs, beach toys, a net bag for shells and snorkel gear for everyone. It's cheaper to bring it along and you'll want to have it handy. A waterproof card with pictures and names of fish is also a good bet.

Journals and disposable cameras for each child so they can chronicle their sailing adventure.

If You Want A Hands-On Sailing Vacation

There have never been so many choices, from learn-to-sail courses to old-fashioned windjammers where you can help the crew or laze on deck as much as you like. You can:

* Teach the whole family to sail while staying at South Seas Resort or Hawks Key Resort in Florida with the Offshore Sailing School, the largest in the business. A separate course for kids as young as 7 is offered at South Seas Resort on Captiva Island. For a six-day, five-night family package, rates start at $2,000 for on-water and classroom lessons, sailing and accommodations. The kids sail when the adults sail. Call 800-221-4326 or see www.offshore-sailing.com

* Test your mettle sailing and rock climbing along with your teen on a parent-teen Outward Bound sailing trip to Hurricane Island, Maine, next summer. Groups are small. Eight-day courses are $895 a person and offered in late June and August. Call 800-341-1744 or go to www.outwardbound.com.

* Customize a family package at the Annapolis Sailing School in Annapolis for a weekend or week. There are classes for kids as young as 5. Weekend courses for a family of four start at $875 and run until the end of October, then start again in April. A seven-night package, including hotel and the chance to try out your new skills as part of a flotilla in the Chesapeake Bay, costs $3,555 for a family of four. Call 800-638-9192 or see www.usboat.com/annapway.

* Take the baby and sail all you want at SunSail's Colona Club in Antigua, where there's supervised day care for infants and toddlers as well as organized programs -- including sailing lessons -- for older children and parents. Weeklong inclusive packages, including kids' activities and sailing for everyone, start at $2,8OO for a family of four. You can also arrange a charter through SunSail or combine a charter with a stay at the resort. Call 800-327-2276 or visit www.sunsail.com.

* The luxe Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands boasts a 100-plus fleet and offers inclusive family weeks, including the junior sailing program (for kids 6 and up) for about $5,600. Ask about family deals. There are extra kids' and teen sailing programs Thanksgiving week. Call 800-872-2392 or see www.beyc.com.

* Check out the fall colors aboard a Maine Windjammer Association historic tall ship, most designated national landmarks. Trips go through mid-October and start again in May. Some trips are geared for children as young as 5, complete with lobster bakes and plenty of time to explore tidal pools. Three-day trips start at $350 a person. The Schooner Isaac H. Evans welcomes kids 8 and older on every trip. Call 800-807-WIND or www.midcoast.com/sailmwa.

* Play pirate for a week on a family Windjammer Barefoot Cruise on six-day tall ship trips in Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. Trips start at $875. Kids must be 6 to sail and can go at half-price with two parents. In summer, one child sails free with two parents or gets half off with one parent. Call 800-327-2601 or go to www.windjammer.com.

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