A Ship-Shaped Vacation

Blackbeard and his fellow pirates were lured to this tropical paradise for the same reasons we were: hidden coves, calm waters and about 50 islands within sight of each other, most ringed with pristine white sand beaches.

We came to sail the easily navigated, clear blue waters that draw yachting fans and divers from around the world.

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," said Joan Williams, a Virginia working mother of two who was anchored nearby.

So did our gang of five: Matt, 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 by how much we enjoyed it--even with a few tiffs along the way.

Here's a diary of our four-night adventure at sea on the gleaming 50-foot boat named Winnipesaukee (about $3,200 for a family) that we'd chartered from the Moorings (telephone [800] 437-7880) the largest yacht broker in the Caribbean.

Friday: Capt. John Ringeis meets us at the small Tortola airport and immediately whisks us and our piles of luggage in a dinghy to our boat anchored just offshore. As soon as we board, I realize how badly I've over-packed. As it turns out, we barely get out of bathing suits and T-shirts.

The cabins on our boat are tiny, just 8 feet by 5 feet. The bathrooms (which have hose showers) are the size of small closets, with barely room to turn around.

The kids like the novelty of built-in everything, 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 Andy and I are not. That's why we opted for a crewed yacht. Ringeis, 53, an accountant, and his wife, Lynn, a caterer, had forsaken San Francisco the year before 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 BVI's most picturesque islands and home to a posh resort.

Matt and Reggie are thrilled that 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.

That night, 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, 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 lazy morning in the sun.

When the guys return, we lunch on 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. We head over in the 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.

Sunday: Matt and Andy are off diving again, this time at the BVI's 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.

Next stop: The Baths, where huge boulders just offshore form caves, grottoes and small pools made for exploring. We sail six miles (90 minutes) to the BVI's 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 that it belongs in a movie. Reggie and I swim the half a mile back.

Monday: Before the kids are awake, Andy and I decide to snorkel. We feel so free, just jumping off the boat on a whim. This morning we sail 12 miles to White Bay. The point isn't just getting somewhere--it's how much fun you have getting there.

We overnight about half a mile around the cove at Great Harbour, famous for Foxy's bar and raucous New Year's Eve parties.

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

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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