January here in the Caribbean has been dominated largely by the weather. Where we had expected force fives, the forecast and actual winds have been solidly in the region of force six to seven, with big seas on the Atlantic side of the islands and channels between them. We have also experienced some quite torrential rain and are now designing and making a water-catcher so as to be able to replenish our tank from the skies. As has happened in so many other areas we have visited, the locals tell us that this is not usual for this time of year. Obviously something is going on. Having said all this, for most of our time we have enjoyed hot sunshine and enjoyed a good month’s cruising.
We started the month/year/millenium in Barbados and loved our time there. The island is poor and scruffy, but exceptionally friendly, laid back and welcoming. Its beaches are everything you could expect of the Caribbean – white sand, turquoise seas and palm trees. We spent a day travelling around the island on local buses, finding the interior far more exotic and lush than we had first appreciated. The east coast of the island, which takes the full force of the Atlantic is wild and dramatic. Outside the capital of Bridgetown, settlements are quite basic – making full use of corrugated iron - we found it quite disturbing to see rows of shanty town dwellings right across the road from huge opulent beach hotel complexes and would have felt decidedly uncomfortable staying there. Despite this glaring gulf between the tourist-haves and local-have-nots, we perceived no resentment and our welcome seemed genuine.
The Carlisle Bay anchorage was very special. All the yachts there had just arrived from their Atlantic crossing and there was a heady atmosphere of achievement and community. One of the last boats to arrive in was Vagabond on New Year’s Day. The only downside to the place was a tendency for swell in the anchorage – a little uncomfortable in itself – but more to the point, causing significant surf on the beach. Our expertise at landing the dinghy in these conditions is pretty hopeless, and departing is just as bad. After several dunkings, our technique still leaves a great deal to be desired. Nevertheless, despite such inconveniences, we have made the momentous decision while in Barbados, to make this a full circumnavigation, rather than the one year Atlantic circuit we had provisionally planned. Are we mad?
Our plan on leaving Barbados was to make passage straight to Antigua, 270 miles north north west, where we would deal with a couple of jobs and modifications to the boat, before starting our cruising southwards through the West Indies towards Trinidad in time for Carnival. The forecast on our departure was not great – the usual force six to seven from the east north east with big seas. However, being tough Atlantic sailors by now, we thought we could hack it. Wrong. After a full day and night of very strong winds and high seas pushing us to our limit, the wind strengthened and went further north. Rather than continue the battering for another 24 hours and, more importantly being forced to accept that we would not be able to maintain sufficient easting to avoid rocks off the coast of Guadaloupe, we reluctantly made the decision to divert to Martinique. Windward sailing came as quite a shock after 2,000 miles downwind. The wind later dropped and went back east, but too late to revert to Plan A.
Forced into Martinique – what a fate! Our initial landfall was at midnight, off the little town of St. Pierre in the north of the island. The day dawned to reveal a new and exotic landscape of steep volcanic mountainsides dripping with lush vegetation. We moved south down the west coast to the capital Fort-de-France - sophisticated and affluent – all very different to the easy-going and friendly scruffiness of Barbados. One of the highlights of Fort-de-France was a visit to the cathedral - made entirely of iron – faintly reminiscent of a Victorian railway station. We just happened to be there as a wedding was getting under way. A torrential downpour outside heightened the intensely romantic atmosphere inside as the couple made their vows – all in French of course. The cacophony of church bells and organ music reverberating through the building was spine-tingling. We knew pitifully little of the history of the French Caribbean islands – but the resulting ambience is entirely different to the former British colonies – somehow heavier, richer and more intense - Josephine Bonaparte was born on a sugar plantation in Martinique. On a more prosaic level, we were vastly impressed by the food supplies available in the French-style supermarkets – having been deprived for some months of decent French wine and cheese!
After a several days in Martinique visiting different parts of the island, and waiting for the worst of the winds to die down a little, we moved northwards to Dominica. The weather in the lee of the islands was benign, but revealed its true boisterous colours as we crossed the 26 mile channel between the islands. We were greeted on our arrival at the capital, Roseau, by two Ronnies! Boat boys routinely venture miles out to sea to meet yachts approaching Dominica, touting for business - mooring buoys, island tours, boat cleaning, etc. We had sailed to Dominica in company with an American yacht which, arriving ahead of us, had been approached by boat boy Ronnie and started negotiations. They had radioed back advising us to deal only with Ronnie. However as we approached two fast skiffs raced towards us - both apparently carrying ‘Ronnie’!
Dominica came as quite a culture shock after Martinique. It is a very beautiful but poverty stricken island. Apparently 80% of it is still in its virgin state – steep slopes of inpenetrable rain forest - uncultivatable presumably? Who knows – Martinique with apparently not very dissimilar conditions has acres of productive banana, pineapple and sugar-cane plantations. Here however the lime industry, we were told, has had its day, and now bananas are in trouble – and there are no beaches to attract mass tourism. Roseau, entirely undeveloped, is extremely picturesque – original wooden creole buildings – now crumbling away – a myriad of tiny businesses - chickens in the streets. The links to its pre-British history of French domination is very evident, as exemplified by the universal use of the creole language. We made a couple of tours into the interior of the island – into the tropical rain forest, and up a jungle-lined river. The evidence of Hurricane Lenny which struck this part of the Caribbean last October was terrible to see. The one beach which Dominica once had has been destroyed, together with many waterfront buildings, jetties and docks. However, they have their independence. We were there just before their general election amid feverish political activity. We felt almost homesick to see British Labour party posters up everywhere – apparently Tony Blair is a mate of the leader of the Dominica Labour party, and had handed over all the spare posters left over from the last British election!
Next to Guadeloupe, via the Iles des Saintes, a group of tiny islands to the south of the main island. Sparklingly clean and European, it was a very sanitised Caribbean in comparison with Dominica. However, we loved Pointe-a-Pitre, the main town of Guadeloupe, which is exactly how you would imagine a combination of France and the Caribbean to be. More stocking up on French goodies and more tropical rain forests and waterfalls. Guadeloupe, with one flat and one mountainous ‘wing’, is blessed with fabulous untamed natural beauty, plus beaches and apparently thriving industry. The contrast between the French islands – still constitutionally part of France, and the former British colonies is very perplexing. Better to be affluent but dependent, or poor and independent?
We left Guadeloupe via the Riviere Salee, which runs between the two butterfly wings of the island – a mangrove lined and rather bug-infested waterway, with two road bridges which are opened only once a day - at 5 am. Quite an adventure – the river and passage out through reefs into the open sea required some very tricky navigation – but we only went aground once! The forty mile stretch northwards to Antigua was the best sail we have had for ages. In a beam reach of force five in reasonable seas we averaged seven knots under full sail. We are not sure yet what to make of Antigua. We are now anchored in the fabulous setting of English Harbour, 100 yards off a classic Caribbean beach and just off Nelson’s Dockyard steeped in British history and architecture. We have not so far found the locals to be particularly friendly, but then the snotty crews of the many superyachts based here are not impressive either. We’ll be here for a couple of weeks at least, so will reserve judgement until we have seen more of the island.