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SAILOR'S CHOICE <br> SAMPLING THE YACHTING EXPERIENCE WITH A CREW OF STRANGERS

Imagine spending a week at sea with six strangers.

No, not as a contestant on the latest survival-of-the-strangest game show. On vacation.

It was how my husband and I spent ours. With strangers. Aboard a yacht that sails the Windward Islands of the eastern Caribbean.

Allow me to explain.

Those chilly, slushy early days of spring got us thinking about a water-based tropical vacation. We already knew what we didn't want to do: a cruise, where being on the ocean takes a backseat to most everything else.

Or a bareboat charter, in which you assume total responsibility in renting a boat worth more than the average Western New York home. While we really like sailing, we're really not sailors.

That left a crewed charter: paying someone else to sail, cook and even tend bar. It was with those two words -- crewed charter -- that I began an Internet search that led to what's known as a "stateroom vacation."

For just under $1,400 per person (excluding airfare, trip insurance and hotel stays the night before and after the sail), we booked a cabin with private, phone booth-sized bath aboard a 50-foot yacht. Included were meals, a nightly cocktail hour, wine with dinner, munchies and unlimited access to a trunk-sized cooler stocked with sodas and beer.

For location, we chose the Windwards. It would be my second sailing vacation in that area; the first, a bareboat charter, organized by a friend who provided a crew and provisions, was in 1991.

The comma-shaped chain of volcanic islands reach toward South America and often are spared direct hits during hurricane season. But because a hurricane can wreak havoc with air travel to the entire region, we didn't want to book later than June.

A poem I came across repeatedly during my research describes the hurricane season this way:

June too soon

July stand by

August come it must

September remember

October all over

Booking the trip on less than three months' notice was sheer luck.

Remember, it already was late March. Though June falls within the low season for yachting, several travel agents I spoke with insisted a June booking was out of the question. How about next June, they suggested.

Then a Florida yacht charter consultant, SailAway, found a reservation lacking a deposit with the Moorings, a charter company with bases in several ports on the globe. The holders of that reservation were given one chance to pay up or drop out. They dropped out.

There still was a price to pay for booking late. The bulk rate fare on American Airlines, offered through the Moorings, was $478 per person -- but no longer available. Plus flying out of Buffalo presented at least a three-leg route consuming roughly 12 hours.

A late booking on the same plane would have cost $1,048.80 per person.

Turning again to the Internet, I found a 5 1/2 -hour, non-stop Air Canada flight from Toronto to St. Lucia, with the return route of Grenada to Barbados to Toronto. At $665 per person, it was worth it.

We booked our airfare by calling Air Canada directly.

Arriving in St. Lucia on a Saturday, the question loomed: Who are these people we'll be sailing with the next week?

Meticulous in soliciting our preferences in food, drink and vacation activities, the Moorings didn't brief us about our fellow passengers or crew. We figured people who share our appreciation of sailing, at the very least, couldn't be all bad.

Fortunately, we were right.

We rode from hotel to marina the next morning with Mike, a retired New York City cop, and his wife Amy, a former needs analyst. The couple, who now live in south Florida, had sailed up from Grenada the previous week and also booked the return trip.

Joining us at the Moorings base at Marigot Bay were Marcus, a scientific instruments salesman, and his wife Loretta, a caterer. The couple, from Dublin, Ireland, was on a month's holiday in the Caribbean, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

Our crew was captain Mick and first mate/cook Charlotte, a husband-and-wife team from England. They made the career switch from publicans to professional sailors five years ago, Charlotte explained, spending three years in the Greek Isles and the last two in the Caribbean.

And the yacht was "Saga Boy," an island term for a gigolo -- a man with stories to tell, Mick informed us. The story on Saga Boy's owner is that he's a Trinidad native who made his fortune in computers and now lives in England.

Our piece of Saga Boy for the week was a stateroom. That's an overstatement.

A foreward cabin, the bunk was a wedge roughly two-thirds the size of a full mattress. The square yard or so of floor space meant only one of us at a time could get dressed. Air conditioning? That's what open hatches and good anchorages provide.

We set out early the next afternoon on a trip that ultimately took us to Mount Hartman Bay, Grenada. Roughly 136 miles as the crow flies, but Mick said our circuitous route covered more than 200 miles.

"The itinerary . . . is not set in stone," we were told by SailAway. That raised hopes of bypassing certain islands and spending more time at others.

Wrong. We had no voice in where we anchored or for how long.

St. Vincent, Bequia, Mustique, Tobago Cays, Mayreau, Petit St. Vincent, Union Island, Carriacou and, finally, Grenada. Our first anchorage was between the Pitons, a pair of 2,500-foot peaks on St. Lucia where the smell of sulfur still lingers from a volcano dormant thousands of years.

Strong winds keeping us at a steady 8 and 9 knots, Saga Boy often surfed swells that glinted like molten lead in the sunshine. Enjoying the ride from the bow, hanging on for life, the spray soaked to the skin and left a crust of salt on sunglass lenses.

The ride was just as enjoyable in the cockpit. We all cheered as we hit 10.2 knots on the roller coaster-like ride between Mustique and the Tobago Cays.

Our fear of the unknown -- namely, our fellow passengers -- was unfounded.

It was a well-traveled, adventurous and fun-loving group. We had animated conversations about issues that make headlines worldwide, and shared stories of other trips.

We also shared new adventures.

All six of us donned flippers and masks to snorkel the rocky shore of Union Island's Chatham Bay, where the water was absolutely busy with grunts -- scales flicking against skin as humans and fish swam together. We also saw lobsters, neon-bright tropical fish, and even a moray eel and a loggerhead turtle.

Somewhat disappointing was snorkeling in the Tobago Cays (pronounced keys). Tropical storms appear to have taken a toll on the seascape -- less colorful coral and fewer fish, but still thriving are the monstrous brain corals with their intricate designs.

The cays also are known for boat boys -- the ultimate home-shopping network.

Traveling in small boats, locals from nearby Union Island motor alongside yachts to take orders for food and other supplies, or sell touristy trinkets -- T-shirts, jewelry and carvings.

Boat boys are not unique to the cays, however. They also visited our anchorages off St. Lucia and Bequia.

We spent a night off Petit St. Vincent, a private 113-acre island/resort where high season prices top $900 a night in the secluded cottages. Actors Denzel Washington and Michael J. Fox have slept there, according to an employee who gave four of us a tour aboard a golf cart.

The island is a popular anchorage for yachties, and the bar -- with memorable frozen mango daiquiries -- is open to visitors.

Despite the number of islands we visited, it was a relaxed pace aboard Saga Boy. No television, telephones, newspapers or computers -- only the local radio report as Mick listened to the BBC each morning.

Because of our proximity to the equator, day and night were of roughly equal duration. We often were awake and in the cockpit by 7 a.m., sipping that first cup of coffee or tea. As the crew prepared for the morning's sail, we swam or updated travel journals. Anchoring for lunch, there was time for another swim or snorkel.

Outside of two dinners, we didn't spend much time ashore -- just what we wanted. There was a kidney-jarring ride in the back of a pickup truck to visit a turtle sanctuary on Bequia, and a dinghy ride ashore to Salt Whistle Bay in Mayreau, where we explored the thin slice of the island that forms a perfect crescent-shaped beach.

The anchor was dropped for the night by late afternoon; time for yet another swim or relaxing with a Piton, a Grenada-brewed beer. Cocktail hour began about 6 p.m., and dinner was served about an hour later.

Tired from the fresh air and sated by gourmet meals prepared by Charlotte, it was difficult to stay awake much past 10 p.m. -- when I ordinarily still would be on the job.

Bunk size notwithstanding, a sailboat is the ultimate waterbed. Even as a midnight squall sent the wind howling through Saga Boy and her rigging, we slept like babies.