November 29, 1997
Engish Harbour, Antigua
Tonight 'Pirate Jenny' swings gently on her anchor under a brilliant canopy of stars. The glassy surface of the water reflects perfectly the night sky above; the surrounding hills providing a velvety black division between these two infinite heavens. In stark contrast the booming sounds of a live reggae band at the local waterside bar fills the air. In English Harbour, this is only one of many contrasts. This almost land-locked natural harbour has been the 'Yachting Centre' of the Caribbean for over 400 years! Where once the tall ships of the English navy were docked to undergo repairs and maintenance the current fleet of multi-million dollar charter yachts is now tied preparing for the upcoming season. Along side are the historic buildings of 'Nelson's Dockyard' that still house the chandlers, sail makers, riggers and provisioners as they have since the early 1600's.
Sailing into history
Even before the first European visitors to Antigua the Caribe Indians used English Harbour as a safe haven in storms and an excellent place to build their sea going canoes. The harbour is entered from the southwest protected by high buffs and reefs to windward. It immediately snakes through a double dogleg and then ends in two large lagoons. Even in strong winds there is hardly a ripple on the water inside the harbour. Since the English navy first discovered it those many years ago it was used as a refuge in the hurricane season and year round for the delicate task of careening the great ships to clean and re-caulk their hulls. From the ancient anchor chains lying on the harbour bottom to the many stone and iron structures on the land around us we are indeed surrounded by history.
Before I tell you more about our visit to Antigua let me fill you in on our travels since my last letter. After almost four months in Trinidad during this year's (non-) hurricane season it is good to be sailing once again. As we motored away from 'our spot' at TTYA I was sure we would leave a permanent dent in the surface of the water. After taking on fuel and water we motored the short distance to Scotland bay, cleaned the bottom of it's latest crop of barnacles, then double checked everything in preparation for our early morning departure to Grenada. We lifted anchor at 4:00 am and in company with our friends Claudio and Valeria aboard their beautiful 45 foot sloop 'Carpe Diem', slowly worked our way through the boca once again heading north.
Our passage to St. George's was like a breath of fresh air. Dipping and soaring in the wind and waves, 'Pirate Jenny' and her captain shook off their cob webs and felt alive once more. Evelyn, having spent the summer on dry land, was feeling a little seasick and did not show quite the same enthusiasm. We enjoyed a fresh breeze of 20 to 25 knots and a bit large (12 to 15 foot) but comfortable seas. The boat seemed at play as we dodged numerous rain squalls during the 12 hour passage. After a lively day of sunshine and copious amounts of salt spray, we welcomed the heavy rain shower that finally caught us, rinsing boat and crew, as we motored the last mile into the anchorage.
The next week brought rather unsettled weather, wet and squally. We stayed at anchor and spent our time re-visiting some now, old familiar haunts. Each passing rain shower filled our tanks to overflowing. Finally, the weather began to improve and we were anxious to be on our way. We sailed from St. George's to Sand Island off Carricou, to the Tobago Keys and then to Bequia. Each of these anchorages a favourite from our travels last winter.
Sunset on Admiralty Bay, Bequia
This early in the winter there are far fewer boats and where at times last winter we had to squeeze into crowed bays now, we were often just 'Carpe Diem' and ourselves. After a day's rest in Bequia we again made a 4:00 am departure and headed directly to Marigot Bay, St. Lucia. The channel between St. Vincent and St. Lucia has a bad reputation and can be a miserable, wet, lumpy 25 miles. On this passage we had flat seas and almost no wind! We always have to motor in the lee of the islands but can usually expect a good sail on the passages in between. After a slow, frustrating hour we gave up and motored the rest of the way to Marigot Bay. The next morning we motored the short distance to Rodney Bay where we again took an extra day to revisit Castries.
Our next passage was the short hop to St. Anne, Martinique. Though this can be a very long 16 miles in a north east wind we again had to motor with very light winds. We dropped anchor in one of our favourite spots, in front of the Club Med. We spent a week here, swimming, snorkeling and just relaxing in the warm sun and enjoying the somewhat cooler, breezy nights. On the Sunday afternoon we found that we had front row seats for a regatta of traditional Caribbean sailing canoes. The canoe's have no weighted keel and to counter balance the large square sail the crew must hike out on long poles hanging their weight over the water. In gusty conditions this is a very delicate balancing act and the crew is in constant motion scrambling out on the poles with each gust and back into the canoe as the wind abates
Caribbean sailing canoe regatta, St. Anne, Martinique
Our week stretched to 10 days as we again had to send the outboard motor for repair. Another early morning start and we were on our way to Dominica. We motored the length of Martinique and found a good easterly wind as we approached the northern tip of the island. As we passed under towering Mount Pelee we stopped the engine and raised our sails for the 25 mile passage to the southern tip of Dominica. We stopped for the night at the anchorage in front of the Castaways Resort about midway along the island. Our next day's sail took us past Iles des Saintes and our turn around point of last spring to Pigeon Island on the west coast of Guadeloupe. Pigeon Island is part of the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Park. The area has very clear waters and a vibrant coral reef. The reef has several hot water vents where water flows from underground pools heated by deep volcanic action. The park is one of the most popular destinations for Suba diving in the Caribbean.
With one last hop to go on our 'sprint' north we left Pigeon Island at first light and motored to the northern tip of Guadeloupe. The passage to Antigua is about 41 miles and took us to within 20 miles of the east coast of the island of Monseratt. The sky was clear and we hoped that we might be able to see some evidence of the recent volcanic activity on the island. Though there are constant warnings that the volcano is due for a cataclysmic eruption at any time, Soufrere mountain has been quiet for the last five weeks. The morning passed and we slid comfortably through the water on a beam reach with 12 to 15 knots of wind. Monseratt emerged from the haze on the horizon but as the heat of the day increased, clouds completely enveloped the upper half of the island. We could see very little detail of the island itself and no indication at all, of the volcano. Still, as we sailed past I found myself humming a familiar Jimmy Buffett song "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know where I'm a goin to go when the volcano blows".
Monseratt's volcano is an interesting novelty for those of us passing by but for those who called the island home it is a terrible tragedy. Most of the island is now uninhabitable. The capital city, Portsmouth, is almost completely buried in ash and lava. Those few residents who remain on the island have been pushed to the northern most section and are still in constant danger should a major eruption occur. Current reports indicate that there will be no change to the situation in the near future and that it could be as long as one hundred years before the islands will once again be habitable. I was not, of course, able to take pictures myself but have included the following three photos taken recently by Kevin West, a local news photographer.
Soufere Mountain during an eruption
Lava flows on the western side of the volcano
Ash covered village at the base of the mountain
After a fairly quick 450 mile trek we looked forward to slowing down a bit and exploring a new island. This last week we have been anchored in English Harbour in the smaller lagoon known as Tank Bay. On shore around us is the restored dockyard. These thick stone walled building have taken on new life providing both a tourist attraction and a new working dockyard. In the old blacksmith shop a modern rigging shop is now located. The Officers quarters is now a small hotel. The old bakery is still a bakery, turning out warm bread and baked goods that fill the air with an irresistible smell that entices hungry tummies as I'm quite sure it did to sailors of old. There are sail makers, ships chandlers, yacht dealers, shops and restaurants all providing temptations to separate a sailor from his soverans.
Along the dock, beside the modern water and power pedestals are the upturned barrels of old cannons imbedded in the ground that still serve as bollards. The large capstans used to careen Nelson's fleet for bottom work seem to patiently await the arrival of the next brigantine. The stone walls of dock are lined with sleek new sailing vessels with crews busy varnishing, polishing and taking on provisions in preparation for upcoming charters. New and old are intertwined in the age old tasks of a working dockyard.
The officers quarters in 'Nelson's Dockyard'
Capstans at dockside
A view of the anchorage
Remaining pillars from the old sail loft (note the dingy 'drive through' for pickup and delivery)
Such a valuable resource as the dockyard had to be protected from both pirates and those French scoundrels just 40 miles to the south. The dockyard entrance is flanked by two fortifications and a lookout on the high bluffs to the east known as Shirley Heights. We walked the long winding road to the lookout and were rewarded with not only a breathtaking view of English harbour but also beautiful panoramas of the surrounding seas and island landscape. Certainly no sailing ship could approach the harbour unannounced. It was interesting to note that a tourist and information centre on the site of one of the forts was funded by the Canadian government.
View of English Harbour and Falmouth Bay from Shirley Heights
We took the local bus into St. John, the capital city of Antigua and spent a day exploring the shops and local market. The city was unremarkable aside from the obvious focus on tourism. The waterfront area where cruise ships disgorge their passengers is very modern with all manner of 'duty free' shops, restaurants at every turn and endless lines of taxis. Antigua generally appears more affluent then many of its' neighbours to the south; newer cars, nicer homes and far less visible poverty. Keeps those rich American tourists coming .nice tee shirts only $20 .come see, doesn't cost nothing to look .taxi?
We did not have the opportunity to see much of the rest of the island. With visitors arriving through the winter we now must divide our time between the rest of the leeward islands. However, a look at the chart and cruising guide shows that one could probably spend a month cruising around the island. A large coral reef protects the north and most of the east sides of the island and provides for numerous well protected anchorages amongst the many small bays and inlets. Most of these bays have clear waters, white sand beaches and are lined with hotels, resorts and well burned vacationers. Some, however, are off the small uninhabited islands on the reef and promise a quiet, secluded spot to enjoy Antigua's natural beauty.
I am sure that by now most of our family and friends are thinking of Christmas. This will be our second Christmas away from home. Palm trees and garland do not seem quite as strange a combination this year but being so far away really underlines the fact that what makes this season special is not found in the trimmings but amoungst the family and friends we share it with. This year we plan to be in Sint Maarten to share Christmas with some cruising friends. Evelyn and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and hope that the season is filled with warmth and joy. We will be thinking of you.
Seasons Greetings and warmest wishes to all