What Island Life Was Really Like

Kate Byars | August 18, 2016

This story is a continuation of “Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island”.

After leaving the corporate world, the first six weeks of life in the BVIs were idyllic. The days were long and sunny and I felt a million miles away from my previous life rushing around on airplanes and in boardrooms. It was as if I had gone on vacation and every clock in the universe had simply stopped.

I treasured the gift of time. No deadlines. No time constraints. Whatever didn’t get done today was easily pushed to tomorrow. My skin was golden brown. My smile was eight miles wide. I was completely in love with my new life.

Until I wasn’t.

After an initial apprenticeship with a dive shop in Tortola, I was offered a full-time job with another dive shop located on Virgin Gorda. This meant I would now be leading dives and driving a boat. I had no experience with either.

My future husband and I were in charge of a satellite dive shop on Marina Cay. We commuted each day from Virgin Gorda; exactly a 17-minute trip. Our job was to take divers on two dives each morning, return at lunch to reload the boat, and do another dive in the afternoon.

Not bad for a day’s work, eh?

Marina Cay BVI Doci

There was only one problem. I was terrified of driving the boat. And quite often, I had to drive the boat on my own while entertaining dive guests. All by myself I had to approach a mooring ball, slow the boat, grab the boat hook, run to the bow and snatch the mooring line before my boat ran over the line and entangled the prop. I had to navigate high winds as I motored precariously in between yachts sleeping in a mooring field. Worst of all, I had to learn how to raft up to other boats while simultaneously imploring its occupants to “PLEASE DEPLOY YOUR BOAT FENDERS!” over the radio.

It was madness.

I lived in the British Virgin Islands long before a captain’s license was required. My only experience driving a boat was on-the-job training. Not that captain’s training would have helped. The Marina Cay dockmaster, who was aptly named “Big Shot” for his size and generous good humor, told me: “Kathleen, do you want to know how to drive a boat?” Increasingly petrified, I cried “Yes, Big Shot, yes I do!” “Only drive as fast as you are willing to hit something,” he laughed heartily. My heart sank in disillusion.

What I had failed to anticipate prior to choosing this new life was how scary it would be to start anew.

My inexperience was obvious.

One night I nearly killed myself during a storm. Scott and I had dropped guests off at Peter Island late in the afternoon. A gale wind hit the Sir Francis Drake Channel and we were caught with no place to run for cover. Completely clueless, we drove the boat parallel to the waves, changing course only between breaks so as not to hit the storm head-on. As we zigzagged our way across the channel the boat began taking on water as it sloshed up over our open transom. I frantically pumped the bilge as the stern of the boat sank lower and lower under the weight of water. Suddenly Scott screamed at me that we had a line in the water. If the line snagged our prop, we would be rendered helpless and blown into the nearby rocks. Without grabbing a life vest, I navigated the narrow boat gunnel, holding the rails for dear life. Cold, sharp waves whipped my bare skin. I made it to the bow and began hauling in our bow line inch by inch, grasping the rails each time a wave hit. My arms were on fire. My legs began to buckle. I was terrified I would go overboard, yet equally terrified we would foul the prop. After what seemed like hours, I managed to secure the line. Two hours later, we reached Virgin Gorda – a trip that should have taken less than 40 minutes. As we docked our boat it occurred to me that I might have drowned. An inexperienced blunder indeed.

They say the only thing on Virgin Gorda louder than a crowing rooster was Kate. I began crying myself to sleep every night. I don’t mean I shed a few tears on my pillow. I mean loud, anguished sobs that reverberated the air of my windowless neighborhood.

Virgin Gorda BVI Cottage

I was in over my head and I wanted to go home. No amount of reason could calm me. The dawn of each new day meant I had to drive that boat. I prayed the night would never end.

Of course, there was an upside, too. The work was quite physical and no matter how many cheeseburgers, chipotle french fries and economy size chocolate bars I ate, I still looked emaciated. Best diet ever.

On days we didn’t have guests, I would paddle my kayak across the bay to Scrub Island and rock climb among the hermit crabs and seagulls.

And I dove the same reefs over and over again until I soon recognized each fish by its markings and tiny scars. How wild is that? Becoming a daily spectator in the underwater realm was truly priceless.

I also got to teach people how to SCUBA dive. Watching a new diver light up the first time you uncover a brittle starfish or point out an obscure nudibranch is gratifying. I made a difference in these divers’ lives and for that I’m forever grateful.

Five months into my one-year contract, I stopped crying. Partly because I was gaining confidence with the boat. Partly because my future husband was going insane listening to me whine. But mostly because I began to realize what all the fuss was about.

I was putting a tremendous amount of value in what I did instead of who I was .

Rationally, we all know that it’s not what we accomplish in life that is important, it’s who you are as a person that matters. Yet, so much of what we strive for – and are rewarded for – in life is what we do.

Think about it. We get gold stars for perfect schoolwork. We get into top colleges based on test scores. We earn promotions and paychecks based on performance.

I was a top-performing marketing executive. And leaving a world where you are performing well to live in a world where you aren’t is an emotional whallop.

Once I began to realize how much value I had put into the accomplishments of my former life, I was able to validate those feelings and gain perspective. This self-awareness was incredibly liberating. I began to embrace myself for who I was and not simply what I was capable of.

Rather than look at my former life with a mixture of envy and disdain, I began to see what I loved about my former life, parse out the parts I didn’t enjoy, and incorporate what I liked into my future.

Despite my desire to leave my former life behind, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of new and innovative ways to merchandise our tiny dive shop. Part of my job was managing a tiny 4-foot by 6-foot section of retail space inside Pussers Marina Cay. I minimized the number of low-margin do-rags and increased the number of high-margin dive masks. I made space for women’s pink and purple tank tops and made certain I restocked apparel every day so no one would walk away without finding their size. I turned that tiny dive shop into a joyous little cornucopia of touristy tchotchkes and delivered record-breaking sales month after month.

In the process, I learned that I’m a marketer at heart. To me, marketing is simply matching a customer’s need with the right business that can provide the product or service to best meet that need. I love helping companies learn how to brand themselves so that customers will choose their brand: it’s a win win where everyone gets their needs met. In the islands, I wasn’t selling cheesy tank tops and dive tees – I was helping tourists access simple mementos of a great vacation and blissful time in life.

Kathleen Byars Drives a Dive Boat for Dive BVI

After months of anxiety about driving the boat, I finally began navigating the BVI waters with ease. To my chagrin, I would soon be training my replacement as Scott and I had our sights set on a new locale: Thailand!

However, in December 2004 the third largest earthquake in recorded history devastated Thailand’s coast, killing 230,000 people. The dive industry was destroyed and we were left with nowhere to go.

Should I try to find a new island gig or head back to the States and resume my corporate career? Not ready to let go of my newfound life, I did what every normal, level-headed adventurer would do.

I became a cave diver.

Please join me for the third, and final article, where I’ll share how I finally found balance and carved out a brand-new life built on my own terms.

Part III of the story: How I Went from Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you?  I welcome you to subscribe to my Sunday morning email. Each week I share personal stories of blazing trails in business and in life.

It’s my passion to create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

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