ON THE ROAD

On the tiny island of Bequia, Daffodil Harris started a business, doing laundry by hand for vacationing boaters. Today her multidivision company has 23 employees

On the sixth day of my first sailing trip around the Grenadines, in the southern Caribbean, I met Daffodil Harris. It was the summer of 1990, and she was running a little laundry business out of a small open boat, going from yacht to yacht like an aquatic Avon Lady, picking up lumpy bundles of soggy clothes and bringing everything back the next morning, all clean and fluffed. Her territory was Admiralty Bay, on the western side of Bequia (BECK-kwee), a seven-square-mile island that, thanks to a 1762 treaty, became part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Each week, lots of sailboats and even a few white cruise ships glide into the bay like swans, cutting through water so blue it's almost fluorescent. Sailors love Bequia for its unspoiled out-of-the-wayness and slow pace, and also for its services. If you have time, you can have sails mended or inboard motors tuned, or get something refinished with marine varnish or modern polyurethanes. There are no discos or casinos, but you can rent motorbikes, buy tokens for real onshore showers, send faxes (pretty good for a place that didn't get electricity until 1969 and phones until a year later), and load up on limes and mangoes from the open-air Rastafarian market in town.

Bequia is still kind of a secret. It does not teem with tourists in Bermuda shorts, but there are a few hotels and restaurants and a couple of tiny markets that stock fishing tackle and fresh-baked gingerbread and French baguettes. And it is the only place in the world where I've found teensy bottles of an odd cedary-smelling embrocation called Shiling Oil; rub in a drop to get rid of "headache, giddiness, muscle pain, and itch."

An hour or so after we dropped anchor in Admiralty Bay, we noticed somebody going from boat to boat in an inflatable dinghy outfitted with an overachieving outboard and a bright yellow sign that said "Bequia Water Taxi" on one side and "Daffodil Laundry" on the other. We waved it over, and when the dinghy maneuvered up to our starboard side in the seafaring equivalent of parallel parking, its expert pilot turned out to be Daffodil herself. I should mention that it's not unusual in the Caribbean for vendors to pounce on a new boat in exactly this way, but here's the thing about Daffodil Harris: Not only was she exquisitely polite, but she had a VHF radio -- the load-bearing wall of ship-to-shore communication -- permanently mounted in her little boat. That's how we knew that Harris wasn't another opportunist orbiting the harbor; she was serious. You could call her on channel 67, and she'd head out to your boat. She asked if we'd like our clothes washed, dried, folded, and delivered by the next morning, and I swear I almost cried at the thought of finally getting to wear spanking-clean clothes again.

When I went back to Grenada a year ago for a friend's beach wedding, I thought I'd go on up to Bequia and see how Harris was faring. It was her 33rd birthday, and she was spending it by prepping for the high tourist season that kicks off in mid-December and goes through May. Dock boys in bright yellow T-shirts with "Daffodil's Marine Service" on the pocket were spiffing up dinghies, inspecting outboards, and taking apart and reassembling washing machines. The place was hopping.

I wasn't in the least surprised to find that Harris was still in business; it was the scale of her business that got me. The laundress of the sea, who had once been a soloist serving a specialty subniche, was now running a multidivision company that in addition to diesel sold water and ice from its own desalinization plant, making deliveries to visiting boats by single-hand tenders, vessels that look like minibarges. Daffodil's Marine Service rented moorings and dinghies, repaired sails, fixed just about anything electrical or mechanical, and operated a grocery and a Chinese restaurant (which delivered takeout to boats). Oh, and Harris still did laundry -- actually, 8 of her 23 employees handled that job -- using five commercial washers and three dryers in double shifts.

Today Harris pays her "sales force" -- everybody except the laundry manager -- on straight commission, per pound of laundry, or as a percentage of sales (for the diesel, ice, and water). "This is a laid-back place," she says of Bequia, with typical Bequian understatement. "Employment goes up and down with the season. But everyone's done better with the incentive, and they've stayed with me."

Born and raised on the island (population: 5,000), Harris started Bequia's first freshwater laundry business in the late 1980s, when she was a struggling single mother of two little boys. In those early days, she used to make her rounds in a "Bequia boat" (one of the little two-bow handmade wooden vessels that are Bequia's trademark). Harris's best customers turned out to be a retired businessman from northern California and his wife, Bob and Marjorie Law, who lived with their dog, Salty, on their trimaran, Pistachio. Although the Laws had the luxury of their own on-board washing machine, they preferred to give the business to Harris every week. "She did such a great job, and she had this terrific work ethic," Bob Law says. "Daffodil was actually taking laundry ashore and doing it all by hand."