This has been our most hectic yet month – sailing, socialising and sight-seeing all at full stretch. Exhausting and sometimes stressful, but above all exhilarating.
The month started with the 90 mile passage from Grenada to Trinidad, which turned out to be somewhat more stressful than the average overnighter we might have wished for – especially with Sarah aboard. We set off from Prickly Bay at about 6 pm into very light airs and had just made it through the crowded anchorage, when the engine made a few unhappy noises before puttering into silence – and refused to restart. We made the snap decision to press on anyway, under sail - at which point the wind obligingly picked up, giving us a good fast passage, although Sarah denied absolutely that it could be described as ‘comfortable’! We arrived off the north coast of Trinidad after dawn – a beautiful densely forested mountainous coastline. The entry to our anchorage in Chagaramas Bay, just west of the capital Port of Spain, required us to pass between the islands lying in a chain westwards towards Venezuela. The channels between these are rather alarmingly known as the ‘Mouths of the Dragon’! A clue to their potential ferocity? We chose the shortest and widest, which luckily for us also gave the best wind direction. We gave the engine another go and it started up nicely – only to give out again, just as we passed the point of no return between the two islands - possibly our hairiest moment to date. However, we managed to sail, excruciatingly slowly, between the ominously unforgiving looking rocks some 200 yards to each side of us. Chris bled the engine – he holds the world speed record for this operation by now – and it started up again – and we were through.
We arrived in Trinidad just before the start of Carnival. We hadn’t quite appreciated the enormity and complexity of this event - there is actually a series of weekly seminars on Carnival for cruising yachts in the six weeks beforehand! Luckily for us, we had friends among the boats already there to bring us instantly up to speed and, despite the stresses of our overnight voyage, we were off on that first night to our first event. This was a visit to a ‘panyard’. These are where the big steel bands hold their rehearsal sessions, open to the public. It was a sensational experience. We were immediately impressed by the sheer scale of the band – over a hundred players of all races, ages and sex. The sound was spine-tingling, as they were put through their paces by an extremely exacting musicologist, brought in during the last few days before the competition finals to bring the band up to performance peak. The complexity of the musical arrangement was astonishing, as was the proficiency of the players, one of whom we heard is a professional musician from London who returns to Trinidad every year for six weeks to participate in the carnival competition.
Carnival is really two separate but interconnecting events. The first is rather like an Eisteddford, with competions in all manner of music making – steel bands of several different types and sizes, calypso, extempo calypso (where two performers extemporise alternately in response to each other in a biting repartee), soca (a modern spin-off from calypso with an aggressively pounding beat), and various others. The finals of these take place just before Carnival – which we were in time to see. The other event is Carnival itself, when the whole of Trinidad takes to the street on the two days before Lent in a series of riotously costumed events. This also has a competitive aspect, with judging of the best ‘Mas’ (masquerade) band and road march (musical accompaniment). Preparations for the big day – Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday – take many months, with each band having its headquarters – ‘Mas Camp’ where costumes are designed and made up by the huge membership team. Each ‘Mas’ band includes at least one King and Queen – in indescribably fantastic costumes measuring around twenty five feet in every direction, hauled or strutted around by single performer, as the centrepiece of their band. These Kings and Queens also have their competion judged, the weekend before Carnival.
Carnival was a truly astounding, amazing and exhausting experience – far more tiring than any equivalent period of time during our Atlantic crossing! On our second night in Trinidad, we watched the semi-finals of the Kings and Queens competition – 16 of each parading across the special Carnival arena over a period of several hours. The next night was ‘Panorama’ – the finals of the steel (in Trinidad called ‘pan’) band competition – a thrilling event – each band processing up into the arena in turn, trundled along on their special trailers and surrounded by their adoring fans – the sound, though hideously distorted from our position, was electrifying. We got to sleep after that event at about 3 am – in plenty of time to wave goodbye to Sarah, whose journey home started at 5 am! Things then got even more hectic as Carnival proper started with ‘Jour Ouvert’ (the day’s opening) starting at 2 am the following morning. We participated in this event which involved being covered in mud and body paint and parading around the streets of Port of Spain for five hours, to the accompaniment of a steel band, which never stopped playing in all that time. I can’t believe we did that - totally bizarre – it originates from the days when the slaves would ape the white people’s posh pre-Lenten masquerades. The following mid-night, our friends Trudy and Geoff arrived to stay for a week – just in time for ‘Mardi Gras’ , the main day of Carnival, when the parade of all its components takes place around the streets of Port of Spain. This was simply too stupendously over the top to begin to describe. The winning mas band was ‘Legends’ – a troupe of over 3,000 people of all shapes and sizes, parading in section after section in differently coloured combinations of elaborate but skimpy belly dancer style outfits, accompanied at intervals by giant ghetto blasters – gigantic hifi systems on trailers - pounding out the frenzied and insistent rhythms of soca at an excrutiating decibel level. And so much more – all of it endearingly good natured – and artlessly unprofessional or choreographed – just exuberant people jigging around, and chatting to friends encountered along the way. We stayed the pace for several hours in one of the many specially constructed viewing stands, before wandering off around the streets soaking up the ebullient and chaotic atmosphere. Pancake Day will never quite seem adequate after such an experience!
We absolutely loved Trinidad. Quite apart from Carnival, it is a wonderful self-confident, flourishing and dynamic place – by far the most developed of the Caribbean islands we have visited. The cultural and ethnic diversity is remarkably wide – stemming from the complex heritage of Trinidad, involving Spanish, French, British, African, Indian and Chinese influences. We loved the cuisine - our favourite local snack was
‘bake and shark’ – a deep fried roll filled with shark (surprisingly delicate) and all sorts of salad. The island is far more beautiful scenically than we had anticipated – basically part of the South American jungle – separated at its closest point by a mere 12 kilometres from Venezuela. We hired a car for a couple of days to explore the northern coast and centre of the island, discovering dense dripping tropical rain forest full of screeching birdlife, butterflies and exotic flowers, palm-fringed beaches on a rocky coastline, and a Hindu temple. We visited a couple of nature reserves, in one of which – the Caroni Swamp – we observed a large cayman, tree snakes, herons and – most spectacularly - thousands of scarlet ibis returning at dusk to roost.
Trinidad is a great place for yachts – there are supplies and every sort of service you could want in Chagaramas Bay – and a ‘can do’ attitude. There is even a ‘programme’ everyday on the VHF for cruisers, with slots for weather, social events and requests for information on parts and services, bartering of equipment and anything else.
After Carnival we suffered something of a downturn. We were both struck down (perhaps not surprisingly after such a rigorous timetable!) by ‘Carnival Flu’ and also a loss of confidence about our future plans. The pressures seemed enormous – we hadn’t achieved as much boat maintenance as we’d hoped in Antigua, more had subsequently gone wrong and it all just seemed too much. We toyed seriously with the idea of slowing the pace and returning home from Panama for a few months before continuing on next year. Mulling all this over during an extra week, quietly getting on with the jobs, gradually it all started coming together we began to feel better. The turning point was getting the masthead lights working again – tricky but rewarding. Chris also had to get his head round the engine again – reminiscent of Padstow – this time though with the great support of Geoff, who is an engineer. Meantime I varnished most of the woodwork. A new log was ordered which we hope will be waiting for us in Panama. Lots of other smaller problems were fixed, everything began to seem possible again – and so off we set to the west. The die is cast!
The Venezuelan coast has enormous cruising potential. It seemed incredibly exotic to us just to be there. However, after our extra time in Trinidad, we didn’t really have time to do it justice, just doing our best to sample a variety of its highlights. The mainland coast consists of mountainous virgin jungle coming right down to the sea – the differing hues of green enlivened by the bright orange flowers of the immortelle tree. Our first stop was off Punta Pargo, in a bay encircled by impenetrable jungle with a tiny very rudimentary village – little makeshift huts, no electricity and apparently no land access, all activity focussed on fishing. The people – obviously of Indian origin - were very friendly when we went ashore. We were given a couple of fish, in return for which we handed over beer, coke and rubbing ointment! Next we headed for the island of Margarita 100 miles to the west and 20 miles off the mainland. This is a duty free territory and holiday resort and somewhat lacking in charm. Our main purpose there was to stock up at cheap prices, but we also took the opportunity to have a look at the island’s interior, finding it strange to be back in an area of Spanish influence – language, food, music, architecture – after our months in the British and French West Indies. Then another 100 miles west, to Cayo Herrandura (Horseshoe Cay) - a tiny reefy islet off the larger uninhabited island of Tortuga - white sand and birds and not much else apart from a fishing camp. Large numbers of fishing boats at anchor seemed to be acting as ‘mother ships’ for smaller boats, which would set off from them and arrive back laden down with fish. On shore was a group of shacks – bases for fishermen to keep stocks of fuel, mend their nets, etc. It was all quite fascinating and picturesque – and would have been much more so had it not rained nearly the whole time we were there. Unfortunately, due to lack of wind we had to motor the whole of the Venezuelan coast. This at least gave the engine a chance to show its paces and all is now well.
Now, another 220 miles westwards, we are in Curacao, one of the Netherlands Antilles 35 or so miles off the Venezuelan coast. This is something of a nostalgia trip for Chris who was last here in 1958 as a boy, emmigrating to New Zealand. His memories are understandably a tad hazy, and we are still in search of a walkway he recalls, over a reef with lots of tropical fish. The capital – Willemstad – is utterly different to anywhere else we’ve been. The architecture is predominantly eighteenth century classic Dutch, vibrantly painted in Caribbean colours and in immaculate condition. It is extremely picturesque – although unfortunately heaving with tourists from cruise ships. The official language is Dutch, but the locals speak a language called Papiamentu – a mixture of Spanish, Portugese and Dutch with a smattering of African dialects. Chris is trying to learn it!
We are now waiting for a weather window before proceeding through a notoriously treacherous stretch of water westwards. Unfortunately, just as we had given up on wind this month, the Trades have picked up again at full force, so we are biding our time.