Written 22 July, 1993
There is a distinct gap between illusion and reality. The illusion of sailing in the Caribbean is a clean and orderly boat, with all sails up while underway, lean bronzed men behind the wheel and bikinied women lounging on the decks while moving thru smooth waters on their way to a chic marina and a candle-lit dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. The reality is closer to a cluttered boat (fuel jugs, dinghy, anchors, etc. strapped on deck), with only half of its sails up (since the winds are blowing 20-25 miles per hour), the autopilot steering and the skipper hiding from the sun to avoid skin cancer, with his mate huddled in the cockpit because waves keep splashing across the decks in the 8' seas. Dinner will be macaroni and cheese in a crowded anchorage among other boats similarly outfitted. But it still beats driving on the Washington beltway at rush hour, and we're still having a blast.
The last 'chapter' ended as we were biding our time to leave the Virgin Islands and head 'down island' to the storybook islands of the West Indies. On the 29th of March we decided the wind was light enough and so we left St John's in the USVI for St Martin. It was so light in fact that we motored the whole way (about 80 miles) and managed to run out of fuel a few miles from the island. This was only a temporary setback since we had a jerry can which we used to finish the trip. We arrived at St Martin the afternoon of the 30th, and after waiting for a drawbridge to open, anchored in Simpson Bay Lagoon, a very protected lagoon covering 12 square miles which had 100-200 boats anchored and moored about it, plus several marinas and a yacht club. The island is about 10 miles long and 8 wide, and is a typical political compromise: the French and the Dutch argued over it and finally agreed to split it in 1648, and it has survived as split colonies ever since. It is a beautiful island (you'll see these words used again later), with white beaches, good roads, luxurious resorts, scanty (or missing) bathing suits, and a few casinos. The 2 sides of the island are quite different: the Dutch side uses English in most cases, has good boat services, good bus service, and is relatively free of pilfering. The French side has outstanding bread and wine, uses French with occasional English, disavows the use of bikini tops on its beaches, and in the case of Orient beach, clothing is optional (translation: nothing is worn). We felt obliged to go native, and apply sunscreen to areas not often exposed. One of our side trips was to an anchorage on the North (French) side near the town of Grande Case. This was a delightful village with a supply of good restaurants, and a lot of fun beach activities on the weekend. One scene we watched for an hour or so involved 3 local sailboats which went out for an afternoon of racing. They were relatively unstable with large sails thus carried several sandbags to move around as ballast as they tacked. At one point, one of them gybed, filled up with water, and was apparently dragged to the bottom by the bags of sand. It must have been in pretty deep water since it took several boats and a lot of people an hour or 2 to un-trap it and get it back to the surface where they then towed it back to shore.
We have met a lot of interesting people along the way, and one of the more fascinating was John Smith, a Vietnam War vet who dropped out in '69, and has been cruising the Caribbean on engineless sailboats ever since. He has written a couple of local books, picks up enough jobs to keep him going, and generally enjoys life and a couple of brews. We had a couple of enjoyable evenings chatting with him.
We spent a couple of very uncomfortable nights at anchor in the harbor of Philipsburg at the South end of St Martin. Uncomfortable in this case translates to meaning that we almost had to tie ourselves into our bunks at night to keep from being rolled out. On the 21st of April we motored the 14 miles South to the island of St Barthelemy (or St Barts for short).
St Barts was another beautiful island, with many nice beaches, the cleanest and most comfortable harbor area we had seen so far, and very French but enough English was spoken to allow us to get by.. We anchored about 1/2 mile from the main harbor, and paid a few dollars for the privilege, although it was well spent since they use it to maintain the harbor area and keep it in top shape. We rented a Moke (small jeep-like vehicle with a lawnmower-like engine) which got us around the small island and, begrudgingly, up all of its hills. We came away convinced that this was really a delightful little island, and deserved to be visited again. On the 23rd, we decided it was time to move on, and set sail for Antigua. In this case, the wind gods were not in our favor (we were being blown West of our goal), and after about 24 hours of making 2-3 knots towards Antigua, we decided to divert to Montserrat. The day we checked in we had to go to Plymouth, the capital of Monserrat. There, we anchored in a very roly location for a couple of hours. The experience in landing the dinghy was a high-water mark for excitement. Their dock had been destroyed during Hugo, and in its place was a half-submerged barge, full of rust and slippery seaweed with rollers breaking on it about 2-3 feet high. After negotiating this tricky landing, it turned out the barge was not connected to land, but rather we had a 3 foot gap to leap - Indiana Jones would have been proud of us. Check-in with the officials went OK until they asked us if we had a weapon. The affirmative answer resulted in sending an offical (the most junior one of course) on a wet dinghy ride back out to the boat with me to put a little seal on it. After becoming legal visitors, we moved the boat to Old Road Bay, and the next day rented a car and toured the island. The big event in recent times for Monserrat was Hugo, which destroyed 25% of the homes and made 50% of the population homeless. The island is pretty, and was settled by Scots and Irish, so their influence is evident by lots of shamrocks on signs, and well-manicured fields on the windward side of the island. People were very friendly everywhere. There was an important recording studio on the island (pre-Hugo) where the likes of Rolling Stones, Dire Straites, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and many others recorded. unfortunately for the island, when the studio was destroyed, the owners took the money and invested it elsewhere, so financially the island is weak today. Nevertheless, we were glad we had the opportunity to visit it. The officials had the opportunity to visit us again to check that the little seal was still in place, and we left at midnight on April 28th for Antigua.
FLASHBACK: A last minute purchase before leaving Annapolis last October was a Sony camcorder as a gift from Judi to Bob to memorialize the trip. A small splash of water on it about 1/2 hour from Beaufort, North Carolina succeeded in ruining it so that none of the trip to the Virgin Islands was captured on tape. One of our first actions in the VI was to negotiate its return to the seller (Circuit City) so that it could be repaired. After 'waiting for parts' for 2 months, they finally agreed to send a new unit which had been returned, and this arrived a couple of days before we left the VI. We spent the better part of a day parked in the UPS office dealing with customs to convince them that no duty was due on the unit, and after trading facsimiles between the US, UPS, and VI customs we finally got it free of the bureaucracy. Upon leaving the VI we found out why it had been returned: it didn't work. So, upon arrival in St Martin, we called Circuit City again, and returned this one with a promise that they could send us a replacement when we settled down in an island for a while.
We arrived in Antigua during "Race Week" just as about 200+ boats were massing for the start of a race to the West end of the island - a very impressive sight since they ranged from 30 to 80 feet in length, with all kinds of colorful sails and crew shirts. We spent a month in Antigua, and became very comfortable there. English was the native tongue, happy hours were cheap, busses were cheaper, telephones to the US were accessible (although not cheap), and all in all it was a fun place. We finally mastered the rudiments of cricket and we came away, if not enthusiasts, at least understanding the sport. We anchored in Falmouth Harbor, a very protected harbor on the South side of the island which had probably 75 boats while we were there, and must have held 300+ while the Race Week boats were all in. Next to the harbor were some restaurants, supply stores, and tourist attractions, and a short walk away was English Harbor. These 2 harbors were established by the British during 17th or 18th centuries, and were used for storing and repairing ships. Nelson's Dockyard is the area around English Harbor where they worked on their ships, and it has been restored as an attractive inn, shops and restaurants. The BIG event on Sunday afternoons is to attend the 'jump-up' at Shirley Heights. the Heights is a fort and look-out left over from the 18th century, and it has a great view of the sea and most of the island. The 'jump-up' is a loud, bustling steel band performance where rum punch flows like water and barbeque is eaten by the ton. Taxis must live for Sunday since hundreds of people seem to come each week, and the only reasonable way to get there is by taxi.
We rented a car for a day and roamed about the entire island. They still have about 100 stone towers which used to have windmills on them from the sugar plantation days. Two of them are at a place called Betty's Hope, where they are being restored and another one is at Harmony Hall, a delightful small resort and restaurant at the end of a dismal road. We met Tim and Waureen on "Marionette" and
Richard and Arlet on "Solitaire" which have been very enjoyable friends, and we have spent time with them on other islands since then. All in all, Antigua was a fun island. It has somewhat of a dirty 'Third world' feeling about it, but people are generally friendly, yachting services are good, and snorkeling is fair. The final (for the moment) chapter on the Sony camcorder is that as soon as we arrived in Antigua, we called Circuit City and requested they send it to us via a courier company, and they said "sure". A week later we checked status since it had not arrived, and they said "Oh, we didn't say it was in stock, we'll send it soon" The next week they said "We have it, we'll send it right away". The next week they said "We sent it, but we used air mail rather than a courier service, they promised it would get there in a week". The next week they said "Oh, it hasn't arrived, maybe we should just give you your money back?". Fortunately, it arrived 1 day before the deadline we had established for ourselves, and we left Antigua on May 28th with our camcorder safely nestled in a waterproof housing.
We had an uneventful motor trip from Antigua to Guadeloupe, and anchored in Des Haies, a charming, little town at the North end of the island. We dusted off some rusty high school French since that is the language of choice, had a good fish dinner and moved on after 2 nights since it was a weekend, and we were unable to find any car rental places where we were. Other cruisers had recommended stopping at
Pigeon Island, the Jacques Cousteau underwater national park, (about halfway down the island of Guadeloupe). The snorkeling was fairly good, but the waves and wind were so strong it was not enjoyable at all. We spent 3 nights anchored nearby, and used it as base of operations to rent a car, tour the island, get $$, and buy provisions and cheap French wine. We rented a car with Menno, Valerie, and Charlotte from "Eira" and had a great time touring the island, which was magnificent (one has to continuously look for new adjectives as you move from island to island). The center of the island is covered in a tropical rain forest with waterfalls, parks, flowering trees, and huge stands of bamboo. We hiked up to a pair of falls, one 100' high with cool refreshing water and a large pool at the bottom, the other hot and steamy where the water obviously passed close to the Earth's magma. We drove past banana plantations which covered entire mountain sides and must have been in the 100's of acres, and then drove along the sea where we could see the neighboring islands 20 miles away. The next day we drove up to a mountain top near the volcano which erupted most recently in 1976, and we could smell the sulfur and could feel the warmth of the mountain by putting our hand close to the surface. Guadeloupe was a special island, and we would like to have been able to spend several weeks there.
Although the language is in fact French, we were able to get around and make ourselves understood. The road system was excellent. All of the islands so far had either mediocre roads (the Virgin Islands) or terrible ones (most of the British islands), so this introduction to French investment in their islands was refreshing. Our last evening there was the low point. We returned the rental car just after sundown (to the local car rental, T shirt, and video rental store). As we arrived at the store, the skies opened up, and it started pouring. The lady at the shop agreed to close the shop (video rentals were slow I guess) and drive us back to where our dinghy was tied up. There we found that the 'surf was up', so we had to wade the dinghy through the surf (and rain) waist deep to get the outboard started. Then we had to tie up at the local dock long enough to on-load 2 cans of diesel fuel and our groceries (interrupting a pair of locals who were trying to fish in the rain). Finally we made a run to the boat, anchored in 3 foot waves 1/4 mile away. All in all, it was a rotten evening, but Guadeloupe deserves to be revisited.
On June 2d, we left Pigeon Island and sailed South to Ile de Saintes, legally part of Guadeloupe but apparently an entity of its own. They are 3 small (1 to 2 miles) islands, and we explored the largest of them on a scooter in about 2 hours. The highlight of this was Fort Napoleon, a 17th century fort on a high hill in a well restored condition. It is complete with moat (I have no idea where they could get water to fill it since the island is really dry), a drawbridge, thick walls, gun emplacements, etc. It had several exhibits of paintings, sea battles, and fish skeletons plus lots of bright flowers. Again, the French islands appear to be well supported by their mother country. There were a number of interesting restaurants, and Judi had an introduction to 'chatrou', which she belatedly discovered was octopus. The anchorage was peaceful and we left Ile de Saintes on June 4th with a very favorable impression of French islands so far.
The next island on the path South was Dominica, another independent country with roots as a British colony. We moored in front of the Coconut Beach Hotel and spent 4 days there. Yachting in not common in Dominica; it is a relatively poor island with no natural harbors and thus virtually no pleasure boats are owned by islanders. Passing yachts only stay a few days because there are only 3 or 4 anchorages, and these are exposed to the elements. One of the employees at the hotel gave us a ride to town to check in, and was available to bring us back so that saved a lot of walking. The next day we went on a tour of the "Indian River", which is a 1/2 mile section of a bayou-like creek with a small jungle bar at the end with brain-numbing rum drinks. Our ride was on a small skiff powered by the oars of "Adventure Eric" (all of the 'tour guides' have quaint names like that so that tourists will remember them, plus there were several Erics). He was an interesting young man (23) with what turned out to be a common outlook: he had 3 children, by several women, wanted a total of 7, was not married and thought he might get married when he reached 30 or so. With that attitude one might wonder why Dominica's population had decreased 10% in that last decade; lack of job opportunities appears to be the reason. The next day we went on a tour of the island with Tony Charles. The country is basically agricultural but hilly, so the plantations of bananas and coconuts are planted vertically rather than horizontally as on Guadeloupe. We visited the main tourist attractions: Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls. They were nice, but less impressive than those on Guadeloupe. Overall, the infrastructure of Dominica; roads, services for tourists, food supplies, etc. are not nearly as developed as the islands we had been on up until now. The hotel where we moored was an exception. The owner (Chris) has made an effort to cater to visiting cruisers by supplying the moorings (free), having a convenient happy hour, he controls the boat boys so that don't pester you aggressively like they do near the town of Portsmouth, and provides phone, fax, and laundry service.
On June 8th we set sail for Martinique. Since we went from an anchorage at the North of Dominica to the Southern half of Martinique, it turned out to be a long day, and we were happy to drop anchor in Anse L'Anne, across the harbor from Fort d'France. We took the ferry to Fort d'France the next day and checked into the island and then walked around the town. It was the most cosmopolitan city we had been in in quite a while. It comes complete with Burger King, KFC, and other trappings of modern society. We settled for fresh French baguettes with toppings for lunch and they were great. We rented a car with another couple and explored the highlights of the island. We went to St. Pierre a coastal town and Mt Pelee, a currently dormant volcano at the North end of the island. In 1902 Mt Pelee began rumbling while St Pierre was the capital of Martinique. The mayor was so intent on avoiding panic that he hired experts to tell the population that there was no danger, and that evacuation was not necessary. When Pelee erupted the cloud of gases and ash killed 30,000 people in St Pierre in less than a minute and destroyed the city. Reputedly the only survivor was a prisoner in the city jail protected by the thick jail walls. He went on to fame and fortune (?) as an exhibit in the Barnum and Bailey circus as the sole survivor. The countryside is very pretty and lush since Martinique gets lots of water. Much of the island is fairly flat, so there is a lot of agriculture, particularly bananas. Again, the French have done an outstanding job with the roads as they were wide, smooth, and in excellent shape. We explored one waterfall where we had to wade chest-deep thru the creek to get to the falls, and finally ended the day with dinner at the town of St. Anne in the South part of the island.
On the 12th we sailed to St Lucia, and anchored at Rodney Bay. This was like HOMECOMING. The anchorage was full of boats which we had met over the previous several months. It turns out that island and facilities are very easy to get used to, and so people had tended to bunch up in St Lucia. In fact there is a protected anchorage at Rodney Bay (we stayed outside on the beach for a few days) which could be considered protection from tropical storms, so people felt comfortable here. We checked in at the same time as a multitude of French racers who had sailed over from Martinique which resulted in a lot of pushing and shoving, and a few snide remarks.
The island is fairly prosperous and we took the bus towards the capital (Castries) and stopped at a MALL. This was the first mall we had seen since the US Virgin Islands, and although small by US standards, it almost induced a buying frenzy. Fortunately, we controlled ourselves and only bought some prescription sunglasses for Judi (the current ones had recently subcumbed to abuse and they promised 24 hour turnaround) and groceries. Castries was a typical West Indian town, very busy, lots of vegetables and goods for sale on the sidewalk, and a few people hawking goods to the few tourists to the island. We took a tour of the island with 4 other people with a guide named Winston. The main attractions on the island are close to each other on the Southwest coast of the island, unfortunately the car has to virtually circle the island since the direct road is closed for construction, and appears that it will be that way for the next few years. Thus we spent 7+ hours in the van. The island has volcanic origins (like most of the West Indies) and so the attractions were related to this. We visited a hot spring which had been found and turned into a spa in Napoleon's time for the French soldiers. We stopped at a couple of bubbling pools which were pools of water where hot sulfur gases vented from deep in the earth creating a very barren landscape. Finally we drove by the Pitons, a pair of high, steep mountains which rise straight from the ocean to 2000' above sea level, and are impressive indeed.
One evening we invited Richard and Arlet for dinner on board. They made the evening very special by bring a fine bottle of 1970 Chateau La Fleur Pipeau, Sainte Emilion Grand Cru. It was the smoothest bottle of wine we have ever tasted. It turns out that when Richard began sailing last year (from Switzerland) he brought the best of his wine collection along, and we were delighted to share a small part of his fine collection.
On the 22d, we motored to Marigot, another harbor on St Lucia South of Castries. This was a delightful little harbor, so well protected from the sea that you can't see inside from the ocean and it is rumored that Admiral Nelson hide his fleet in there from the French by tying palm fronds to the masts. All in all, we liked St Lucia and wouldn't have minded spending a little more time there; prices were good, anchorage was secure, and services were available. But the approaching hurricane season encouraged us to move on.
The next day we moved South again, this time to Bequia. The country of St Vincent consists the island of St Vincent and a group of about 10 islands called the Grenadines, of which Bequia is the northernmost island. We bypassed St Vincent since we had heard too many unpleasant stories about aggressive boat-boys who bumped up against your boat, and would not take no for an answer to their offers to sell bananas, 'T' shirts, jewlry, and the like. In retrospect, this fear seems exaggerated, and we should have stopped. Anyway, Bequia is a lovely little island, which has been a sea-faring and whaling island for generations. It has some of the most artistic and hardworking people we have run across in the West Indies, and the first with handicrafts which were unique to the island. Their batik (cloth, shirts, dresses, etc.) was the best we have seen, and they produced model sailboats which were beautiful (I succumbed and bought one). We spent a week there, and managed to walk to most of the places on the island, and to watch the beginning of their Carnival, which drew most of the small population of the island to town. We liked the island and the people, and would definitely like to come back at some point.
On June 30th, we headed off to Mustique, a private island with expensive homes. Many of the cruisers (at this time we were traveling in loose formation with about 20 boats) chose to bypass Mustique since it required about 5 hours of sailing into the wind, but it was worth it! This island must be where they take most of the picture-book shots of the Caribbean. The island is clean, all of the common areas are planted with grass and mown faithfully (using real lawnmowers rather than goats, which is the custom elsewhere), the roads are in good repair, and the houses are fabulous - a real testimony to what money will buy. The island was bought by a British developer in the late 60's, and after giving a 10 acre lot to Princess Margaret, proceeded to carve it up into vacation sites for the rich and famous. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Rachel Welsh, and the Princess are among those which have homes there which range from $500K to several milllion. There are only about 70 homes on the island at the moment, and about 32 can be rented, including Mick's which can sleep 8 and goes for a mere $6K/week including cook, gardener and a couple of cars. If anyone is interested, drop them a line, you can buy a lot in the Southern half from $200k to $1.5M and rub elbows with all kinds of rich people. We rented a small vehicle with Richard and Arlet on "Solitaire" and had a great tour. It included making the 'mistake' of driving into a driveway which was not labeled as Private, and taking a peek at the house on the highest part of the island - a fabulous mansion with a view of the entire world through large glass windows across the reflecting pool in he middle of his courtyard. We understand it belongs to a Texas businessman (don't know if he owned a Savings and Loan or not, but we think there are a few of those around the area).
On July 2d we headed from Mustique to Canouan, a small, dry island to the South. This is in stark contrast to Mustique, it is poor, mostly subsistence fishing and farming with a very small dependance on tourism. It has a couple of hundred inhabitants, a couple of vehicles, and only a couple of roads. We walked through the main town on the island, hiked through a deserted beach, and were able to view the Tobago Cays from a hilltop, which made us want to leave for the Cays immediately. The people we met were very nice, and one fellow volunteered to catch us a couple of lobsters for a nominal price. We agreed, and later found out that lobsters were out of season and we could have gotten into big trouble; but they were good. The next day we left for Tobago Cays.
Tobago Cays is the place where they take all of the other postcard pictures of the Caribbean. They consist of 4 small islands (largest being perhaps 1/2 mile long) surrounded on the East side with a horseshoe-shaped reef. Boats either anchor between the islands, or on the lee side of the reef (the 'lee side' being the side which is downwind from the reef so that the reef blocks the waves, thus the water is fairly calm even though you can feel the effects of the wind). Since we were anchored so that we faced the reef (all underwater), it makes it seem like we were anchored in the middle of the ocean with nothing between us and Africa, 2500 miles to the East. The water is crystal clear, and the snorkeling was absolutely the best we have seen on the trip. You could see 50-100' underwater, and there were schools of colorful fish, large pieces of coral of all shapes and colors, and other interesting denizens like sharks (we saw a couple) and morey eels (only by rumor). For underwater beauty, this area as far as we are concerned is the highlight of the Caribbean. On the evening of the 4th of July, we gathered with about 15 other boat crews, and had a big pot luck dinner and bonfire, culminated by firing off a bunch of expired flares and singing the Star Spangled Banner. A good evening was had by all.
On the 6th we moved on to Mayreau. This is another small island, with an interesting mixture of people. At one end is a high-priced resort with nice restaurant, bar, and beach facing a little bay where the cruising boats anchor. The middle of the island consists of a small village (which we reached over a muddy trail) where subsistence-level fishing and farming are evident, intermixed with a couple of tourist-oriented rum shops. The other end of the island has another resort. There is some good snorkeling and diving around the island, so it appears to be in the transition between traditional ways of making a living and tourism. On the 7th, we motored around to Clifton Harbor on Union island where we had to check out of St Vincent and the Grenadines. We explored it briefly, and found people again to be friendly. A lot of charter groups fly into Union to pick up and leave boats, so there is a busy airport and a plan to build a big marina.
The next day was a busy one. We left Union in the morning, and motored over to Palm Island, a short mile away. This is a small, private island with a resort and a lot of palm trees created by John Caldwell in the 60's. He wrote a book ("Desperate Voyage") about sailing singlehanded to Australia after WWII, and then cruised around with his wife until they found this island, which they bought and settled. The resort is nice, although not luxurious, and relatively expensive. We walked around the island (a 1 hour proposition) and then hopped back on board for a motor-sail to Carriocou. We initially dropped anchor (twice since it did not hold the first time) in Hillsborough Bay to check in. The officials here were reputed to have been nasty to previous cruisers, and although they were aloof and extorted a small amount ($3) by making us buy their forms, we made it through OK. We then moved around to the South end of the island, Tyrell Bay where we again practiced anchoring twice. This was another delightful anchorage, on a cute and relatively unspoiled island. We walked several miles and found abandoned plantation houses as well as lots of goats and vistas of neighboring islands. There is a lot of boat building on Carriacou, and we got to watch a little of what goes into their boats. They build them right on the beach (so they can easily slide it into the water). The one which was being started as we were there was going to be 44' long, and he said it would be done in 3-4 months. They use white cedar (actually a type of oak) for the frame, and rather than
spending a lot of time cutting and fitting lumber to make curved surfaces, they find tree trunks with the curved shapes they want, and then trim them slightly to fit - very clever. After a day of shopping and exploring, we decided to move onto Grenada.
As an aside, when we move from one anchorage to another the drill goes something like:
On the 12th, on one of the best sailing days so far, we set out for Grenada. We pulled into Prickly Bay after 7 hours of great sailing. We had lots of company since about 10-15 boats pulled out of Carriacou the same morning, and all appeared to be racing to the same harbor. Grenada has turned out to be a wonderful surprise. It is beautiful, with more flowers, song birds, nice homes and anchorages than we expected. We will reserve the details for the next newsletter so that we can get this one in the mail, but so far it looks great.
All in all, the last couple of months have been a real adventure. We were a little sorry that we had not headed onto Panama and the Pacific this year, but the variety in the West Indies has been great, and we would have missed it. We have also gained some cruising experience, from anchoring to water conservation, and so it has not been a waste at all. We have met many, many wonderful people, both among the cruisers as well as on shore, and have gained a significant appreciation for the geography and history of the West Indies and its people.
We are always glad to hear from any of you, so drop us a line and let us know what is happening back home (we did hear that Clinton was elected president).
Love to all,