My friend Maile and I both married men who love the sea. They do not love the sea more than they love us, but then again they’d rather not be asked to choose. Maile and I prefer hotels. I have a terrible fondness for shade and beds that don’t move. When I go for a walk, I usually want to go farther than ten feet. Maile just gets seasick.
And so the husbands conspired to design a sailing trip that would prove to us that a good time can be had by all on the water. It is a plot worthy of Doris Day and Rock Hudson: Two sailing husbands cook up a plan to turn their land-loving wives into a couple of old salts. It has romantic comedy written all over it.
The four of us met up in the British Virgin Islands in the season of calm seas and endless sunshine. Our boat was called the Aurora, a 67-foot sloop the husbands had decided on after months of poring over choices on the Internet. (Ah, the Internet. It fans the hearts of sailors the way the sea itself once did.) We dragged our duffel bags full of swimwear and sunscreen and paperback novels down to the dock, where we met Rich and Sam Malone, the husband-and-wife captain-and-cook team. They radiated warmth and welcome despite the fact that we were two hours late and had already eaten lunch. “Eaten?” Sam said.
“Did you make lunch? ” Maile asked.
“I’m so sorry, ” I said brightly. “Whatever it was, just give it to us for dinner. ”
Let’s stop the movie here. Imagine you are living in an apartment that is 67 feet long and, at its most ambitious point, 17 feet wide. Four people you’ve never laid eyes on show up with a not insignificant amount of luggage to stay with you for seven days and seven nights, and none of you will leave the apartment for the entire week. To get off on the right foot, you cook a beautiful meal for your mystery guests, and they, in turn, blow it off (albeit unwittingly). Instead of drowning the ungrateful wretches like a sackful of blind kittens, you simply smile. There were smiles all around. We settled in while Rich started the engine and cast off. My husband (a doctor) doled out Maile’s first dose of his special seasickness cocktail before a wave had a chance to break across the bow.
After our first day’s sail, there was a mooring near something that could be called either an enormous rock or a tiny island. We took a swim and then mastered the vacuum toilets and a shower that begged you to take the quickest rinse of your life. We reappeared on deck in dry shirts and began to play the first round of getting-to-know-you with our hosts. Sam is a pretty Scottish blonde; Rich a handsomely sunbaked Englishman. After eight years of sailing together, they had recently married. It had been a surprise proposal. We, the guests, in turn threw down our own stories about when and why we had made the leap to marriage. Sam kept up her part of the conversation from the galley, where she was working away. There’s an unwritten rule on these charters: no grazing from the cupboards; no poking around in the icebox. Sam would have ultimate authority in her four feet of workspace, just as Rich would have authority as captain of the boat. We could all agree that was fair.
Dinner first night should have been our tip-off to what was coming, but I think we all suspected that Sam was simply playing her best hand. Up the five steep galley stairs came the little coconut crab cake appetizers, crunchy and featherlight, followed by an orzo and lobster salad that I mistook for dinner. Imagine my surprise when dinner showed up, a gratin of some mysterious island tuber with grilled asparagus and a little piece of chutney-glazed snapper. We had requested a menu heavily weighted toward fish and we got what we asked for. Actually, we got more than we asked for. We got a passion-fruit crème brûlée with boat-made biscotti, too. The husbands now remembered that the website for this particular boat had blood-sworn testimonials about the brilliance of the food. It was true. It was also a little weird to think that one of the best meals I’d ever eaten had been made on a swinging propane stove the size of an overnight bag.
Moreover, it had been made not by a professional chef but by a sometime Christmas-tree designer. Except that when Sam got the job designing Christmas trees for large British corporations, she didn’t know how to do that either. “It sounded like fun,” she said. “I was sure I could figure it out.” Living on a sailboat with Rich sounded like fun, too, and so she figured out how to cook. She told me this after breakfast, which had consisted of little sailboats assembled out of fresh fruit and pumpkin-cranberry muffins baked at the crack of dawn. I hung over a bookcase to both stay out of the galley and still talk to her. She was kneading a deep yellow piecrust on a counter that was a single piece of tile. We were sailing again, but the precipitous rocking had no effect on Sam’s ability to press the dough into six individual tart tins. I counted four tiny cabinets. Who has individual tart tins on a boat? “Sam Malone,” she said, still reveling in the pleasure of her new name.