It was to be a fine example of, to use military lingo, "embedded journalism" but, like so many military plans, it soon went astray. Two couples who regularly bareboat charter had decided to splurge on a crewed yacht to celebrate one of those turning-point birthdays, and we were to join them on their first crewed charter as observers. The yacht chosen was Sexsea Lady, an 80-foot Hatteras that was completely refurbished to better than new, and the location would be the Bahamas.
The bad news came when the couples had to cancel because of a family illness. The good news was that we now had the yacht to ourselves. Tee-hee.
It would be hard to find a better yacht than Sexsea Lady on which to explore the Bahamas, because she is comfortably luxurious and the crew is competent and charming. Priced at a rate that is not too far above what you might pay for a much smaller bareboat motoryacht, she is a perfect choice for anyone dipping their toes into the world of crewed charters.
Sexsea Lady is a vintage Hatteras with that distinctive Jack Hargrave sheer line that makes her a timeless classic. Originally built as Lauderdale Lady for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, she had an interior that can best be described as Vegas Sixties-all mauve and pink and Formica. I am happy to report that is no more.
Her current owner, in a deep-pockets refit, removed every trace of her gaudy décor and replaced it with a muted Tommy Bahama look that is at once comfortable and elegant. The tacky mirrored bulkheads of the master suite became teak and fabric, and the saloon was softened with loose chairs and couches that beg for a good sprawl with a trashy novel.
But stylish as the refit may be, the real selling point for Sexsea Lady is her crew. Captain Michael Nesbitt, along with his wife, Trini, and chef Frans Otto, are the sort of crew who seem like old friends 10 minutes after you meet them. That isn't to say that they don't understand the "Upstairs/Downstairs concept of guest/crew separation, but their cheerful competence and can-do attitude is ever present. Glance sideways at a glass that is half-empty, and it is suddenly topped off. Leave your cabin for a few moments, and the towels have been replaced and the pillows fluffed. Hang a wet T-shirt in the shower and it's washed, dried and neatly folded.
We joined Sexsea Lady in Nassau and were greeted with an Island Bloody Mary (spicy and made with rum), as well as a tray of sliced fruit. Each afternoon that followed, Trini would surprise us with a new frozen concoction, but our favorite quickly became the yacht's own Sexsea Lady (see sidebar).
Our charter destination was Harbour Island at the northern tip of Eleuthera, which is reachable in one day from Nassau, but we were in no hurry and planned to anchor out the first night. Besides, the morning of our departure brought a solid 25 knots out of the south, so we decided not to push too hard.
It was here that Nesbitt's competence became evident, because, rather than simply setting a rhumb-line course, he took Sexsea Lady on a gently curving route that kept us tucked into the lee of the many little islets along the way. He didn't know whether his guests might have queasy tummies, and his course choice would have made a world of difference to anyone who was affected by the lumpy seas.
Nesbitt's thoughtfulness made it so smooth (Sexsea Lady's stabilizers also keep her rock steady) that Frans served lunch en route, and it was a prelude for meals to come. A whole lobster tail was presented on a bed of tossed romaine and accented with crumbled bleu cheese, bacon and a zesty mustard vinaigrette. Washed down with a lovely Pinot Grigio, it made the saloon sofa very inviting for an afternoon nap.
We tucked into the protected harbor at Royal Island for the first night, with the ruins of a once proud mansion peeking through the overgrowth. The afternoon was leisurely, as crenellated castles of clouds with slanting rain squalls grew and passed, and we enjoyed our first frosty Sexsea Lady along with hors d'oeuvres of kielbasa sausage sautéed with garlic and onions, served with green olives stuffed with chipotle chili.
Sexsea Lady has a full array of water toys, including a PWC and Robalo tender, but our choice was simply to relax in the cool saloon. With the clouds turning pink at dusk, dinner was served on the afterdeck, which may be opened or enclosed. Chef Frans is South African and we enjoyed a juicy beefsteak, young asparagus in Parmesan cheese, and roasted potatoes. We also discovered that South Africans like something sweet on their plates, which, in this case, were sautéed apricots. Unlike many charter yachts on which the chefs are so dedicated to some nouvelle fusion cuisine that the helpings are sized for parakeets, Frans provides hearty meals for appetites whetted by salt air.
The next day, we cruised into Spanish Wells to pick up our pilot for the big adventure of the region: running the treacherous Devil's Backbone into Harbour Island. Our pilot would be A-1 Broadshad, a lifetime resident of Spanish Wells who gave us a spin around the village in his golf cart. A-1 is an irrepressible character of undetermined age with an endless supply of jokes and patter. He is also a fishing guide and real estate agent (his card states Read My Lips No Fish No Pay!). His pride in Spanish Wells, where treasure galleons once filled water casks, is well deserved, and the town is absolutely pristine, with brightly painted cottages and a fishing industry that uses a fleet of what A-1 calls "coon-ass boats from Louisiana.
The next leg of our charter took us through the Devil's Backbone, a maze of reefs, coral heads, and shoals that have claimed the unwary and the foolish for years. A-1 seemed to pay scant attention as he conned our 6-foot draft seemingly within inches of breaking surf, while keeping up a running monologue of where Winston Churchill had stayed, where Al Gore once owned an island, and where a locomotive fell off a barge to become a dive destination.
Once safely through the Backbone, we tucked into the Harbour Island Club marina, choosing it over Valentine's Marina, the party atmosphere of which is often noisier. We had breakfasted on freshly baked croissants and a divine omelet, while lunch was ham and grilled onion sandwiches on soft slices of Spanish Wells bread that A-1 had brought with him.
Captain Mike had thoughtfully arranged to have a golf cart waiting for us at the marina, so we took the afternoon to explore what appears on charts as Dunmore Town, but which locals call Briland, a slurred contraction of Harbour Island.
Harbour Island is a charming antidote to the tourist-trap of Nassau, with a few shops along the waterfront on Bay Street selling straw goods and shells, winding lanes lined by colorful homes covered with bright bougainvillea, and a long beach of pinkish sand.
We gave Frans the evening off and dined at the Rock House restaurant in town, with our foursome sampling superb grouper, pork and beef. Insider tip: you need reservations, and be sure you insist on a table overlooking the water or they'll try to tuck you into an airless corner against the wall.
The next day brought the high point of the entire charter, as Nesbitt and his team loaded up the Robalo and we sped off for a picnic on a deserted beach. This wasn't any sand-on-the-blanket picnic, though, because the Sexsea Lady crew brought table, chairs, barbecue and cooler laden with icy drinks. We dined on grilled chicken with a mustard glaze, shrimp and veggie kebabs, and freshly made coleslaw.
SEXSEA LADY RECIPE
In a blender, add equal amounts of pineapple juice, orange juice, apricot or peach nectar, and rum. Add ice and blend to slush, serve in a hurricane glass and garnish with a fresh peach slice. Have several.
Mom always said don't swim on a full stomach, but the offshore coral heads were way too inviting, and we spent the afternoon floating face down over brilliant reefs and some of the largest angelfish I've ever seen in this part of the world.
As if challenged by our dining ashore, Frans finished our day with a sunset meal of tender medallions of pork, baked sweet potatoes with honey glaze (that South African sweet tooth!) and stuffed Portobello mushrooms to die for-served on the afterdeck. We spent a quiet evening aboard after strolling the docks to check out the catches on nearby sportfishermen, took leisurely hot showers (the master suite also has a tub), and drifted off into angelfish dreams.
Our last day dawned hot, humid and calm, with A-1 once again tiptoeing us through the reefs before zipping back in his skiff to Spanish Wells. On a sea as smooth as molten metal, we slid easily back toward Nassau, past throngs on the day-tripper beaches and sunburned tourists on speedboats. Cosseted in the cool quiet of Sexsea Lady, it seemed only minutes before we were in our slip at the Nassau Harbour Club.
As the Chalk's seaplane lifted off the water for our return trip to Florida, I caught a glimpse of Sexsea Lady and marveled at the sheer delight of our charter. Glancing across at my wife, I knew that she was thinking the same, and I also knew that our decompression from the elegant comfort and gracious service of Sexsea Lady wasn't going to be a pretty sight.
Contact: The Marine Group; (954) 463-4300; www.marinegroup.com, or any charter broker. Sexsea Lady charters for $16,500 per week, plus expenses.