This has been a ‘domestic’ month, with the focus on family visitors and boat jobs – although we have still managed to move on another 323 miles, making a total of around 6,000 since leaving Bristol.
We spent almost three weeks in Antigua – longer than we have been anywhere else so far, and it came to seem like home. English Harbour, where we were anchored is indeed very English – familiar and nostaglic. Nelson’s Dockyard, deep into the bay is the best preserved colonial dockyard in the Caribbean, with a series of stone and brick buildings in varying stages of ruin and restoration, dating from the eighteenth century – the boat house and sail loft, the old copper and lumber store, officers’quarters and so on. The peaceful and romantic atmosphere is almost more English than England - Bucklers Hard with palm trees. However, after making several forays out of this enclave into the real Antigua, it was immediately obvious that we were in a foreign country after all – judging by the incomprehensibility of the accent – not to mention the unfamiliar cuisine. We lunched one day on ‘rotis’ and ‘buss-up shuts’ – a very delicious stew of chicken, or lambi (conch) meat, wrapped up in doughy pancake. We made a couple of trips to the capital St John’s – half an hour away, by bus – a hair-raising experience as the private enterprise minibuses all race each other to be first at the next bus-stop to bag all the waiting passengers! We hired a car one day for a round island trip – glad that it was not our car being shaken to bits by a road system made up almost entirely of pot holes. The island is more like Barbados than the other islands we have visited – no very spectacular scenery - poor, loud and lively – and rather less welcoming. St John’s is a scruffy harbour town - basic but colourful and vibrant – apart from one very snazzily restored section of designer shops and restaurants – a snare for the passengers of cruise ships which arrive on a daily basis. We spent a day watching cricket – a match between the Leewards and Jamaica, catching a sprinkling of the West Indian team in action. The crowd was thin but colourful and animated, and extraordinarily vocal – constantly heckling the players. It would have been great to have understood what they were shouting! The sight of these wild looking rastas ardently focussed on the game was, to us, quite incongruous, given the rather different image of the game at home. Another Antigua highlight was the weekly sunset barbecue, with steel and reggae bands up on Shirley Heights, commanding a world-ranking view across the deeply indented coastline of English and Falmouth Harbours, the islands of Guadeloupe to the south and Monserrat and Redonda to the west. Our last night in Antigua was St Valentine’s, which we celebrated by dining at ‘The Admiral’s Inn’ at the Dockyard – a dreamily romantic setting. We were serenaded by a live reggae band whose potentially rather forbidding appearance was incongruously softened by the presence of the drummer’s little boy falling asleep on the chair next to him!
We are on a steep learning curve when it comes to boat ownership. The constant demands of boat maintenance are tending to consume more of our time than we had imagined would be the case - lest anyone think we are having too much fun! Although it sometimes feels overwhelming, we have not – so far – touch wood – suffered any major breakdown affecting the operation or seaworthiness of the boat. While in Antigua we visited the boat which had been dismasted and lost its engine crossing the Atlantic in December, which put things in perspective for us. Still, we had plenty to do with no serious ‘pit-stop’ since Santa Cruz in November. Antigua has a reputation as a major yachting centre in these parts, and indeed every conceivable service and expertise is available – but at an unfortunately unaffordable price, aimed more at the superyachting market than us. Our three major tasks were to ‘shrink’ the fridge, review our power consumption and production and repair the masthead instruments. The fridge is enormous, insuficiently insulated and consumes more power than we can produce. However, we were advised that it would be uneconomical to do much about this here, so we’ll just have to live with it. It cost quite a lot to find that out! I should say that things have never been so dire that we haven’t managed to keep the beer chilled! Unfortunately not much doing either with an investigation of our power supply. About three hours of expensive professional investigation failed to reveal anything wrong with the battery charging system and so we are still somewhat in the dark – though not literally. Finally the masthead instruments - the wind instruments have never worked, the anchor light went out in Spain and the tri-colour two days before Barbados. After much investigation, it transpired that the cables in the mast had been damaged by work done in Plymouth over a year ago, when the rigger had, we finally realised, inadvertently have drilled a neat row of holes into them, and have been gradually corroding ever since. Tricky, but Chris is working on it and we now have wind instruments.
The great highlights of the month have been visits from both daughters. We have found it far more difficult than we had anticipated to arrange for visits to Perdika. It is almost impossible to guarantee arrival in a particular place at a particular time. However Kate, with husband Richard and Ollie (just 3) were with us for a week in Antigua. They are definitely not sailors and so we used the boat as a holiday cottage, anchored as we were off our idyllic beach in English Harbour. Ollie took to the boat brilliantly and, after some trepidation, learned to swim. Having ‘mastered’ that, he has now decided the next thing is to learn to fly! We shared most of our exploration of Antigua with them – as well as plenty of beach time - and were mightily relieved that by the end of their week, with us neither Ollie nor Kate, who is 6 months pregnant, had suffered any mishap transferring in or out of the dinghy – although there were moments! It was fabulous having them with us and miserable waving them off to the airport – in the capable hands of ‘Stingray’ the taxi driver. Sarah came out to join us in Grenada two weeks later staggering under a massive weight of new charts for our ongoing voyage and various bits and pieces for the boat. She is more of a sailor and will be with us for our next leg – a 90 mile overnighter – to Trinidad.
Most of this month’s mileage consisted of a great leap south from Antigua to Bequia – 250 miles, bypassing the islands we had already visited in January. Having operational wind instruments made this quite a frightening experience as we realised that we have been consistently under-estimating wind strengths all along. The Caribbean – at this time of year at least – is a very windy place indeed. Our voyage, all on a beam reach, alternated between almost too peaceful conditions in the lee of the islands (even up to 15 miles off), and screaming force 6-7s with big swells in the channels between them. The
passage was quite notable for its lack of maritime activity – no fishing, no yachts – all we saw were cruise ships aimlessly idling around at night, killing time between ports.
We spent the next ten days or so cruising the Grenadines – a group of small islands south of St Vincent. We had not even heard of most of these – Bequia, Mayreau, Union, Carriacou and others. The most famous of the group is Mustique, which we did not visit. These are stunningly beautiful, tiny and hilly islands with reefy coastlines and white palm-fringed beaches. The area is surprisingly unspoilt by tourism and the locals are especially friendly and ready to chat. The most northerly, Bequia, is a haven for yachts – about a hundred of them in the enormous, rather windswept Admiralty Bay. We traversed the island on food, noting the spill-over from Mustique of super-rich holiday homes set in secluded luxuriant grounds – and the curious combination of cows grazing under the palm trees of a coconut plantation. Wonder how many get hit by falling coconuts! Mayreau is a one-off little gem – a tiny island where the main street wends its way up hill past such eccentric establishments as ‘Robert Righteous and de Youths’ bar! Another highlight was Carriacou, a relatively ‘large’ island of some three by seven miles. The seafront of the capital, Hillsborough is another scene of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Lenny, battered almost to smithereens. We took a bus across the island to the village of Windward, which is home to a great tradition of boat building and racing. We wandered along the beach poking our way through the mangroves, passing great heaps of conch shells, discovering some of these boats, large slim racing dinghies – including the current champion. An old timer told us how they design and build these boats - mostly by trial and error, lengthening or shortening them to find the best performance. Back on the road higher up, passing picturesquely faded clapperboard houses with chickens rooting around, and with stunning views of the other islands a few miles away in the turquoise sea, it seemed to us a very special place.
The jewel of the Grenadines must be the Tobago Cays – a breathtakingly beautiful area of reefs and tiny desert islands - calling for very precise navigation indeed. We arrived just as a passing squall created total white-out! It moved off quickly, revealing the fabulous shades of sparkling turquoise water. The only downside was that we were not exactly the only people there – it was teeming with yachts and catamarans from various charter bases, and local skiffs screaming around with great powerful engines selling everything from shell necklaces to food.
We have now reached Grenada which is probably the most developed and affluent island we have yet visited. We visited the capital St George’s today, and Sarah and I will be off for a dive tomorrow morning on one of the numerous reefs around the island – but we won’t have time to see much more. The wind which has howled around our ears for the whole time we have been in the Caribbean has dropped to almost nothing over the last few days, but we are hoping to have enough to get us to Trinidad tomorrow night.