Fathers and Daughters
On a charter vacation in the British Virgin Islands with his daughter, two god-daughters, and his best pals, the author discovers that on a trip to paradise with a gaggle of young girls, time can absolutely stand still . . . or move faster than ever
So right before the trip, I purchase a
brand-new Red Sox cap--a white cotton one 'cause I know it's going to
be hot in the islands--and as a lifelong fan of the Boston Nine, I
reckoned it was time to replace my ratty old blue one after the Sox
finally "reversed the curse" and won the World Series the previous fall. You never know when and where the opportunity to yank the chain of a Yankees fan might present itself, right?
Now we're sitting in Trellis Bay, near Tortola in the British Virgin
Islands, on our Moorings 4700 catamaran. I've just strolled back from
the airport at Beef Island to meet the incoming flight of my old friend
PK and his daughter, Helene. While I met the plane, another pal, who
goes by the nickname Furbio, waited back on the boat with my daughter,
Maggie, and his two daughters, Molly and Lauren. And yes, the trip did
have a pre-conceived theme: After many years of idle chatter, we three
dads were finally taking our rapidly growing "little girls" for a
As PK and Helene sort out their cabin in the forward port stateroom of our big cat, Saturday Knight, the rest of us slip over the side for a refreshing swim. Soon enough, everyone's in the drink.
We all come back aboard, and everyone's taking turns using the
freshwater shower off the aft deck. Maggie pulls off her red bathing
suit from beneath the towel wrapped around her and gives it a carefree
toss before disappearing below to change.
A while later, we're
all lounging around, getting the grill and the dogs and the burgers
ready, when it occurs to me that I should be wearing my Sox cap. As I
might've mentioned, you just never know who could be hanging out on the
next boat over.
So I'm hunting everywhere for the cap and no
one knows where it's gone to and I'm starting to wonder--egad!--if it
might've blown overboard, when it finally appears. Under Maggie's red
bathing suit. Maggie's brand-new, soaking-wet, red bathing suit!
My crisp white cap is now, well, damp pink, but I pull it on anyway.
And later on I take it off and look at it. And as the evening unfolds I
look at it quite a bit. And every time I do, I think of my beautiful
little girl, and the pink hat starts to grow on me. I mean, really,
really grow on me. By the way, isn't beer great?
before bed, I kiss my already snoozing daughter on the cheek and put
the hat up on a shelf--the very same hat that just a few hours earlier
I'd been planning to give a good scrub with hot, soapy water--and I go
to sleep. As slumber comes, it occurs to me that I'm never going to
wash that pink hat. Like, ever.
From the very moment I learned
that fatherhood was on my horizon, I wanted a daughter. My dad and I
had ultimately weathered the slings and arrows of some outrageous
father/son misfortunes--at times the outcome was seriously in
doubt--but I'd had a good, hard look at that movie and was terrified by
the thought of a sequel. Plus, I know precisely what happens to boys,
and when. To paraphrase the comedian Paul Reiser, I went to high school
Not that I didn't realize that raising a daughter
would have its own tests, but all in all, I preferred my chances with
the fairer sex. After all, my very own sister always seemed to be
Daddy's Girl, even as he and I were at each other's throats. Would it
be asking too much to have the same sort of relationship they shared?
There were, of course, early trials and tribulations. I was on a
magazine assignment in New Zealand when I got the news that, back home
in Rhode Island at the tender age of 3, Maggie had plunged some 15 feet
from the balcony of a health club, of all places. But she never lost
consciousness and had a pithy comment to the ambulance attendants after
they'd strapped her to the gurney for the ride to the hospital: "I'm
stuck." She recovered fully and apparently inherited her dad's hard
She hated loud noises--thunder, fireworks, roaring surf,
the sunset report of a yacht-club cannon--which were all things I
loved. She adored stuff--snakes, spiders, all the
creepy-crawlies--which gave me the willies. But from her earliest days
we undoubtedly shared a passion for several of the most important
things: reading, music, the water. Especially the water. By 7 she could
swim nearly the length of a regulation pool--underwater. She was so
oversensitive to some things I could scream, so compassionate in other
ways I could weep. I guess it goes without saying, but I'll say it
anyway: I love her so.
Then there were my pals, PK and Furbio,
as good a set of friends as a fellow could ask for. We'd all been born
in Newport Hospital a few months apart when Ike was still running the
big show, been constants in one another's lives for decades on end,
stood up for one another at marriages, and been right there with an
open ear and a shoulder to lean on when parents set forth to the great
beyond. PK was Maggie's godfather; his daughter, Helene, and Furbio's
youngest, Lauren, were both mine.
I had a long history with
these lads, and for years and years we'd been talking about chartering
a sailboat and taking a spin together through the B.V.I. And that's all
it had been: talk. Then, somehow, all the planets in our different
daily universes fell into alignment--the i's of school vacations were
dotted, the t's of work commitments were crossed--and suddenly we were
in Trellis Bay last spring with a freezer full of food, a chart spread
out on the saloon table, and a week's worth of plans to be made. We
were finally going sailing after all.
At 7, my Maggie was the
youngest aboard. Helene, 10, and a terror on the lacrosse fields back
home in Baltimore, was just enough older to think Maggie was at times
goofy, and just enough more mature to be her good buddy anyway.
Fourteen-year-old Lauren was happiest listening to musicals on her
portable DVD player, but she was a pacesetter when the activities
turned aquatic. At 16, Furbio's oldest daughter, Molly, was the elder
of the tribe in many ways: Her wry observations soared over the heads
of the other girls about 99 percent of the time. And if Maggie grows up
to be half the water-woman Molly is, I'll be very happy.
first stop, naturally, was The Baths at Virgin Gorda. We ferried the
girls in as far as the dinghy mooring on one of those days when the
rollers were breaking on the beachfront and, when swimming ashore, you
had to time your approach between the wave sets to avoid getting
crunched at the last moment. I actually only learned this after
Maggie's successful, if spluttering landing. She never would've tried
it had the other girls not been over the side the moment we picked up
the mooring--in other words, before I could say anything--and it set
the tone for nearly all the adventures that would follow. The very last
thing my daughter was going to be was left behind.
wandered The Baths a few times over the years, but it was all so very
different with a bunch of kids who'd never been there before, whose joy
and energy over all this new terrain was contagious, and this, too,
would become a recurrent theme for the voyage. If you want to view
something familiar through a fresh set of eyes, do not hesitate to
bring a few fresh sets of eyes.
That night we anchored in
Gorda Sound for another round of swimming and a barbecue, and next
morning we hopped ashore for a tour of the Bitter End Yacht Club, a
discovery for the girls that was on a par with Columbus' of the New
World. Luckily, since the next stop was the parched island of Anegada,
I had a quick look at the water tanks before we shoved off, and
promptly topped them off while I still had the chance. Do you have any
idea how much fresh water four young ladies can consume in the space of
48 hours? Neither did I. For some reason, my lecture on the benefits of
saltwater bathing was met with silence.
In Anegada, we ran
into my old pal Bob Grieser, the marine photographer, who was there on
assignment for another sailing magazine. Included in Bobby's wide
repertoire of skills is his remarkable ability to imitate a barking
hound, and thus the nickname Photo Dog was bestowed upon him. If a
voyage can have a mascot, he became ours, for the girls, especially
Maggie, adored him. He joined us for the ride out to Loblolly Beach and
an epic snorkel on the reefs--the new experiences just kept coming and
coming--and when we returned to the harbor, he made chums of the local
fishermen and did his best to get the girls to pose for a picture with
a big, live Anegada lobster. Only brave Helene had the nerve, though
they all made extremely short work of one after its brief detour to the
Our little trip was flying by, but it was starting to get really good, and it would get better still.
One wishes he could say the vacation was a success on absolutely all
counts, that the girls took to sailing like the fish they resembled
once they splashed the water, but that would be pushing it. For them,
the sailing was simply the means to reach a new island: Maggie
generally hit the trampoline or the settee and zonked out for every
passage; the other girls retreated to books and iPods or joined my
daughter for a nap. But I made some serious inroads with the guys,
neither of whom had sailed much before. By trip's end, Furbio was
envisioning the day he retires as a firefighter to move aboard a
catamaran, and PK, though not exactly bitten by the sailing bug, is now
in the market for a cabin cruiser. Not bad, if I do say so myself.
But the longish sail from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke was one of my
highlights, mainly because it gave me the chance to reflect on the trip
so far. I was actually glad to see Maggie curled up and snoozing; her
mother would've been scandalized by the hours she was keeping, and she
clearly needed the rest. But her days (and nights) had been filled with
swimming and laughter and camaraderie. She may have been the junior
member of the sisterhood, and as such she spent equal amounts of energy
learning from the others and seeking their approval. But in return she
was granted generous helpings of time and patience and friendship. It
was a wonderful thing to watch.
Yes, we could've taken the
kids to Disneyland or on a ski trip, but what's better than a 24/7
sailboat excursion in the Caribbean, where the best lessons learned are
the intangible ones--what it takes to be a good shipmate, to be
considerate of others while living in a small space, to conserve water
and energy and be immersed in nature and the outdoors? What other venue
could give you what you get--what you earn--by being on a small boat
for a real voyage?
As we dodged one squall after another on
the sail to Jost, I realized our week together would ultimately become
one seamless memory--all of us together, frozen in time, healthy and
tan and very happy--like an image from a favorite old photograph. Who
knows what the future will hold, what these little girls will
eventually become, what grand adventures are waiting out there for
them? At that moment, I couldn't have cared less. We were all together
on a boat cleaving purposefully through the blue Caribbean sea.
Whatever happens, I realized in a sappy moment for which I have no
excuses or apologies, we'll always have these islands.
I'm sure you can guess what happened to the pink cap. By week's end,
the sweat and brine had conspired to erase the reddish tint almost
completely, and it looked just about brand-new. Like our little trip,
now coming to an end, Maggie's pink present simply wasn't meant to last
After Jost, we pulled into The Bight at Norman
Island, where the piercing sound of a yelping mutt signaled a final
drive-by visit from the beloved Photo Dog and where the girls had a
quick, unfortunate glimpse of the antics atop the lewd, infamous Willie
T's, which led to a round of questions that were simply impossible to
answer and fingers' crossed that the moms would never hear about this
singular lapse of judgment.
Finally, we got up real early on
our last full day and made our way over to The Indians--the B.V.I.'s
signature outcropping of rock and sea life, one of the great snorkeling
spots in the Caribbean--where we scored the best mooring around and set
up for a long morning and afternoon of water sports.
Maggie and I were in the water with masks and snorkels and making for
the nearby reef. She insisted on leading and took right off, and I had
to do some serious booking to keep up. I was a pretty proud papa, I
must say, when something happened that will remain with me for a long
I could see she was heading for simple trouble, a fringe
of coral with no pass and small, breaking wavelets, where there was no
option but to turn around. It was no big deal, really, but she had a
moment of panic and started babbling away, her eyes very wide, though
it was impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of her distress since
she refused to take the snorkel out of her mouth.
"Rrrrrrrmmmmmmmrrrrr," she said. In any event, I waved for her to
follow me in the opposite direction, and she dutifully collected
herself and obeyed.
As we worked our way into deeper water,
she sidled up alongside and grabbed my hand, and she held on as we
calmly resumed our way back to the boat, now enjoying the play of light
on the reef and the schools of small, colorful fishes.
much later, on the flight home actually, that it dawned on me that the
entire little escapade encapsulated so many transitions one deals with
as a parent: trust, discovery, discomfort, fear, support, recovery,
And the final little moment, just before we
reached the boat, gave me a clear look at the coming attraction that
all fathers of young daughters will someday inevitably face. As we
approached the swim ladder to climb back aboard, she gave my fingers
one last, tough, lovely squeeze. Then she let go and was gone.