CARIBBEAN: APRIL TO JUNE 2006
On April 1st we were invited by Richard and Dawn (who we'd met up with after not seeing them for five years, the previous time we were in Jolly Harbour) to crew a local yacht race for them on their boat SKI4. Unfortunately only two other boats came to the start line and eventually the wind died and the race was stopped - we were well in the lead at the time! We had forgotten how much hard work is involved in sailing a pure racing machine. Mike was in charge of adjusting the main luff using a Cunningham, adjusting the main outhaul and winching the jib sheets tight. On top of that he also looked after the mainsheet and the main is a huge fully battened sail. When the apparent wind got up to fifteen knots she became a real handful but we were screaming along at over eight knots having a lot of fun. We came away quite tired but really buzzing. We left the marina on April 3rd and parked for the night in the bay outside. Barbuda
At 07.30 the next day we left for the thirty five mile sail north to Barbuda, arriving around 14.30. It was great sailing with the wind just forward of the beam at twelve to fifteen knots. We had rain squalls in front and behind us but we got lucky and the rain missed us although we did get some gusty winds from the clouds. Barbuda is an extraordinary island that not many people have heard of and even fewer have been to - the airport is tiny and it is too far from Antigua for many day-boat trips. It is one of only three large coral islands in the Eastern Caribbean, the highest point being one hundred and twenty five feet. The island doesn't come into sight until about five miles out and the coral reefs start even further out! It is also surrounded by shallow water stretching out for miles and you can see the pale blue water colour reflected on the clouds long before you can see the island. If you are beginning to think this might be a remote island paradise you wouldn't be far out. The beaches are awesome and have little or no development. For example, we parked off the west coast which is an unbroken eleven mile long beach with nothing on it, except they are building a small hotel half way along (the next major hurricane to hit Barbuda is likely to destroy it, so the hotel is nothing to worry about). The sand on the beach is like talcum powder (your feet sink three or four inches into it) and it is tinged pink from the ground-up Conch shells. Our pilot book describes it as follows: "since it is seldom visited and uncommercial, no glossy brochures describe it as the best beach in the Caribbean, but it probably is". When the British gave Antigua and Barbuda independence they railroaded Barbuda to link with Antigua and the Barbudans are not happy about it. The island is about half the size of Antigua but has a population of only 1,600. All the inhabitants are descendents of slaves who were given the island by the Codrington family and unusually all the land is owned by the community (not individuals or corporations). Needless to say Antiguan politicians and developers want to get hold of the beach real estate and bring Barbuda into the 21st Century but they are thwarted by the community ownership. To quote the pilot book again "Barbudians see no benefit to changing their traditional lifestyle for one of being dressed up and employed to wait on tourists, in exchange for the dubious benefits of better roads, more cars and Kentucky Fried Chicken". Amen to that. This has led to some interesting confrontations. On one occasion the Antiguan Government allowed a huge hotel project to begin. Mobile construction offices were erected. The Barbudan people wanted to keep the land as a park. They allegedly went en-masse to the project one night and shoved the offices over the sand cliff and into the sea. The area remains a park. The Barbudans are softly spoken, friendly, charming and self-sufficient people, living a simple life based on farming and fishing, untainted by politicians or tourists and long may they continue to do so and be so. At the north end of the island is a Frigate bird colony, the largest (15,000 birds) in the Caribbean and rivalling those in the Galapagos islands. We got a local boat to take us up there, with Ken and Judith from Badger's Sett. Because they are not harrassed you can get within a few feet of the birds and we saw the adults feeding chicks that were about four or five months old. The birds mainly feed on flying fish (a very fast moving target) and they don't acquire the hunting skills until they are about eighteen months old. Thus last year's chicks were still at the colony being fed by their parents. It was a great morning out. When parked on the west coast the eastern 'horizon' is four hundred yards away, consisting of a sand beach with scrub on top curving all the way to the real horizon. The west horizon is about five miles away, all sea and no land. We're not quite sure why but this gives an optical illusion that you can see the curvature of the Earth, it's very strange. For two days we had a Grey Triggerfish under the boat. Our fish guide describes it as: "having powerful jaws and sharp teeth that enable it to eat invertebrates", as Mike was about to find out. He was sitting on the edge of the dinghy, putting on his flippers preparing to go under the boat to clean the prop, when the Triggerfish came up and bit him! Mike reckoned it nearly tore his leg off but since I could only see blood on his toe I think he was exaggerating. Anyway, prop cleaning was delayed until we moved on. We left Barbuda on Monday 10th April and had a fantastic sail back to Antigua. We beam reached in twelve to fifteen knots, increasing fifteen to twenty knots, on what was a beautiful day. Antigua again
We put into Jolly Harbour Marina again and immediately got a pleasant surprise. One of the boats we crossed the Atlantic with was New Horizons, with Pete and Sara on board. While we stopped in St Lucia they kept going and going and going, completing a thirty thousand mile circumnavigation in less than two years. Even though they are half our age that was a truly punishing schedule and there they were in Jolly Harbour. Needless to say the beer came out. We then went into maintenance mode again, lots of clothes washing, replace the mainsheet, change the generator oil and filter etc but we also managed trips to the beach and swimming pool. On Saturday 15th April we left Jolly Harbour (on the west coast) heading for Green Island (on the east coast). Unusually the wind had gone round to the south and we motored until abreast English Harbour, where the angle changed, and sailed the rest of the way. Instead of parking behind Green Island we parked behind a four mile reef - with only the reef between us and Africa. After lazing about, swimming and snorkelling for three days we left heading back west to Falmouth Harbour, the winds were still flukey so it was a slow sail on a beautiful day. One day the winds went round to the south west and we were directly in the firing line of the Montserrat volcano, which is still seeping lava and throwing out huge amounts of ash, which covered the boat (the volcano has subsequently erupted again). Our time in Falmouth was great fun mainly because we knew a lot of boats there (including Adrian on Lalize who we hadn't seen for over a year) and Antigua Classics Week was about to start. One evening between 17.30 and 19.30 a 'dinghy drift' was organised. This consists of positioning the twenty participating dinghies at the upwind end of the harbour, loosely tying them together and then drifting downwind. Everybody brings a plate of hors d'oeuvres and the plates are passed round, also everybody brings their own drinks - no alcohol of course, oh no! The raft of dinghies was huge at about 70 feet long and 30 feet wide. You can probably imagine how everything degenerated and given some of the antics it was remarkable that nobody fell in the water. Also remarkable was that given the size of the raft and the number of boats anchored only one adjustment had to be made to our drift to avoid a parked boat! The following lunchtime I organised a 'pot luck' on the beach attended by twenty five people from eleven boats. It was so hot that after lunch most people spent the afternoon in the water. A wedding was also held on the beach while we were there and the couple asked us to supply two witnesses! Jim and Michells from Wind Machine duly performed the task. We moved round to English Harbour on April 25th to get a good anchoring slot before all the boats arrived for Sailing Week (we had been asked by Dan, who runs LateSail if we would like to race with him). The LateSail boat duly arrived from St Martin on the 28th with a crew of ten, two of whom we knew well (Dan and his Dad Jo), two we had met briefly before and six we didn't know - they turned out to be a great bunch of lads, although not many of them had sailed much. The 28th was also the day of the Mount Gay Red Hat Party and it sets the tone for the week. Mount Gay red baseball caps are given away at the party if you have obtained a ticket and they are something of a status symbol in yachting circles. From 18.00 to 20.00 all drinks are free (and very strong), there is never any trouble and people generally start falling over from 21.00 onwards (as I said, it sets the tone for the week, downhill all the way). No names but: that night one of the LateSail lads got into a water taxi to go back to the boat and promptly fell out the other side; on another night a certain person ran through a restaurant, past the bar, across the dance floor and dived through a small window beneath a big TV screen. Fortunately the restaurant was over water. The racing was a bit disappointing because of the light airs, but we did have a seriously good laugh with the lads. The last race was delayed due to lack of wind and when we did start we were approaching the line doing about one knot. God Save The Quuen was playing at full volume on the cockpit speakers and our bowman did a backward somersault off the bows, much to the amusement of the other boats and the committee boat. After Sailing Week social events returned to normal including drinks/meal with Geoff and Jo on Sutton Hoo, Rick and Lucy on Flying Cloud and Jason and Kirsty on Ciao (poor little Rosie had a bad ear infection). In the meantime we were waiting for wind to start heading south and we waited and waited - apparently it was the longest period of light airs in living memory. To Guadeloupe and St Lucia
Eventually we got fed up waiting and left in a light south easterly breeze, heading for Deshaies, Guadeloupe about forty two miles away - where we waited another two days. During this period we visited the Botanical Gardens whch are a mile away from the anchorage and we decided to walk there. Big mistake, although it's only a mile it's up a thirty degree (or more) gradient in blazing sunshine and we nearly turned back. We're glad we didn't because the Gardens were fantastic, highlights being the Banyan tree, a Kapok tree, a big variety of Heliconias and many stunning Orchids. It's a shame we forgot to take a camera because we also fed a flock of beautiful multi-coloured parakeets, each of us had a dozen birds on our heads, arms, shoulders and hands, it looked very funny. The Gardens were funded by an EU grant, so we did our best to keep an eye on how some of our tax payments were spent. While we were in Deshaies we met briefly with Roy and Sue on Vindomar, who we first met in Plymouth (UK) and last saw in the Canaries. We finally got the winds we wanted on Sunday 14th of May and we left at 06.30 to sail one hundred and forty miles overnight to St Lucia. The trip was the normal mix of motor down the islands and sail between them and it was totally uneventful (we like it that way). We had the best sailing after dawn on the 15th when we cleared the south coast of Martinique. The 15 to 20 knot wind backed enough to ease the sheets and we blasted the last fifteen miles, arriving in Rodney Bay Marina about 13.00. The stop in St Lucia was planned as another pit-stop and, in particular, to buy spares and anti-fouling that may not be available in Venezuela. When we arrived we spotted A Capella, Willow, Merlin and Kobbe, the latter two boats we hadn't seen for six months or more. Vindomar, also came in during our week-long stay and we had a chance to catch up on their trip up and down the east coast of the US. On May 23rd we left the marina and anchored out in the bay, to clean the prop and prepare for the passage to Union Island. Union Island, Tobago Cays and Carriacou
We left Rodney Bay at 12.00 on the 24th with a forecast of fifteen to twenty knots from the East, a perfect wind. But, of course, it doesn't work like that and we got less than ten knots until we were about seven miles from Union. The trip was uneventful, with no moon and the most beautiful cloud-free starlit night that gave sufficient light for a phosphorescent wake. Venus was so bright that it shone a line of light across the water, something we've not seen before. We arrived at Union Island at 08.50 on the 25th having sailed about ninety miles. We stayed a couple of days, meeting up briefly with A Capella and Wind Machine, before moving to Tobago Cays for some downtime. Vindomar departed just as we arrived but, by chance, we ended up anchoring close to Rico and Jackson on Apparition. Rico and Jackson are well-travelled, larger than life Texans (well, not originally but they lived there a long time!)and great fun to be with. One highlight was a game of boules on the beach which we girls won (please feel free to remind Mike of this, as often as you like). Initially we stayed in Tobago Cays for five days, then we went back to Union to restock the boat with fresh produce and have a meal with Apparition. We then went back to the Cays for another five days. During this period the wind began to howl and we were getting thirty knot squalls - the noise in the rigging gets really wearing. It also put a stop to the snorkelling, but only after Mike had seen his second shark, of a variety that bites people. It was a five to six foot long Reef shark and they were swimming head-on towards each other. The shark turned and reversed course, Mike went after it but they are so quick he lost it. A second game of boules was played - this time the prize was the USA - I'm afraid we lost. Just before we left Ken and Judith on Badger's Sett arrived and we had a great evening onboard with them and Apparition. We had intended to stay in the Cays a few more days but the wind was bugging us and the first serious tropical wave was forecast, so we decided to go back to Union, clear out, and head further south. On June 9th we left Union to spend the night between Petit St Vincent and Petit Martinique, having stopped at the fuel dock on PM, where fuel is very good value. Badger's Sett were also there and the next day we sailed in company to Hillsborough, Carriacou, to clear into Grenada and Carriacou. Since we didn't have our dinghy engine on Ken very kindly gave me a lift to Customs and Immigration. The same afternoon we again sailed in company to Tyrell Bay, the main anchorage on Carriacou. We stayed in Tyrell Bay for three days and decided to move south again the day before the arrival of a strong tropical wave. Grenada
Grenada wasn't originally on our itinerary, we intended to sail direct to Venezuela from Union Island. However Grenada has a good chandler and good supermarket, both of which we needed. We sailed down on the 12th, leaving at 06.30 arriving lunchtime. The following day we filled the water tanks as the wave came through bringing tons of rain, but we were far enough south to avoid the strong winds (that hit Carriacou northwards). The Grenada Yacht Club was showing the World Cup Games and we watched the England/Trinidad game, supporting Trinidad of course. Also a meeting was held with all the yachts heading to Venezuela to discuss timing, plans and any security issues. On Thursday June 15th we received a good forecast for the trip to Venezuela and left Grenada at 17.00 on the 16th for a ninety mile overnight sail to Los Testigos in company with two Dutch boats, Jo-Ann and Orion. Venezuela - Los Testigos
The trip was uneventful, just a beautiful starry night and a huge oil tanker that crossed our bows a mile ahead. After dawn we had over a dozen dolphins riding our bow wave for fifteen minutes. We also saw a flock of frigate birds attacking a brown booby attempting to get it to regurgitate its food. The attacks were really vicious with the frigate birds swooping down every time the booby tried to fly from the water and pushing it back again. Initially we thought they were trying to kill it. We arrived in Los Testigos at 11.00. Los Testigos are a small group of islands about forty miles off the Venezuelan coast. Only two of the islands are inhabited, one has about twenty four houses along the beach, the other about a dozen. Electricity is only available from 18.00 to 21.30 when they switch on a generator. The islanders are all fishermen and no supply boats call - they have to go to the mainland, in their open Pirogues, for everything. There is a small school on the island and we took some notepads and pencils along for the kids. The school only opened fifteen years ago so many of the adults are illiterate. The islands are not an official port of entry but there is a coastguard station there and yachts are required to register with them, to obtain a three day permit. It was here that we met the most charming official that we have ever had the pleasure to deal with, who welcomed us warmly and talked enthusiastically about Venezuela. One of the islands has a small reataurant (no menu, just eat what the owner cooks - fish). One of the Dutch boats had kids aboard and they asked for soft drinks and water. The owner said they had run out of water and soft drinks, they only had beer at 30 UK pence per bottle - Mike thought he was in heaven, but it was going to get better. When we booked the restaurant the owner told us that there would be cock fighting in the afternoon, to celebrate Father's Day - most appropriate. We watched two of the fights but it's all rather gruesome so we left early. On the third day we received a bad weather forecast for the following day (when we were due to leave under the terms of our permit). Under international marine law countries are obliged to offer shelter to boats if there is inclement weather and we went to see the coastguard to explain the situation and ask for a one day extension, which was granted without question. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Testigos and were sad to leave on the 21st. Venezuela - Margarita
We left at 05.30 (in company with the Dutch boats again) for a fifty mile day sail to the island of Margarita - it was somethig of a novelty to sail in daylight. Margarita is a big tourist (mainly Venezuelan), duty free island and like much of South America is viewed as bandit country - there are muggings, armed robberies and theft from boats (seven dinghy engines were stolen one night just before we got there). This is hardly surprising because according to the government's own figures more that sixty per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. An interesting fact given that Venezuela is the world's fourth largest oil producer - just don't ask where the money goes. Obviously we take precautions: we lock and chain everything at night; we watch our backs; we don't carry much money and split it between us; if we carry anything of value it's in an old shopping bag; we don't wear watches or jewellery; I wear scruffy clothes, Mike dresses as usual. Basically it's little different from living in London. The other thing we do is take taxis to most places, at two UK pounds for a thirty minute trip they are excellent value. We got into one taxi that was brand new but had plastic covering where the rear window was. I asked the driver what had happened. He pointed out where the bullet had scoured the rear headlining, gone through the sun visor and embedded in the metal above the windscreen. Apparently the car was parked and the police were chasing a robber, it was a police bullet. Needless to say the big island bureaucrats are a whole different ballgame from the out-islands. They are slow, indifferent and charge for both international clearance and local (state) clearance. Although we believe the law states they shouldn't charge local clearance it's not a good idea to argue with them. The good news though is the prices. For example beer is 28 UK pence per can, you can buy five cans of beer for the price of one and a half litres of bottled water!. Therefore Mike reckoned he would save money by cleaning his teeth in beer. I had to stop him, cleaning your teeth ten times a day is somewhat excessive. Overall we rather liked Margarita, the shops and supermarkets were as good or better than anything in the UK. We never felt threatened, indeed everybody we met was very friendly. Interestingly we met a number of European cruisers who arrived in Margarita, liked the place and bought property to live there. For anyone heading this way, one point to note is that very few Venezuelans speak English but if you can speak Spanish they absolutely love to chat. Venezuela - Coche and Bahia Redonda, Puerto La Cruz
We wanted to sail directly from Margarita to Puerto La Cruz but that meant a night passage for us and the pilot book warns of fishing nets in the area. Therefore we decided to knock off fifteen miles by sailing to Coche, an island favoured by wind surfers i.e. it's always windy. We left Margarita on June 28th and parked off Coche for one night but didn't go ashore. That night there was a good fireworks display on shore. We got up at 04.30 on the 29th to leave at 05.30 and the fireworks started again - we couldn't believe it and we subsequently found out it was 'fisherman's day'. Once we had watched the fireworks we set off for Puerto La Cruz, fifty seven miles in a failing wind (in company with Orion). Our arrival, eleven hours later, was something of a momentous occasion - the first time either of us has set foot on mainland South America, whats more in an area well known to sailors - the Spanish Main. We got the rum bottle out. We are now the furthest West and the furthest South we have been, just over ten degrees, or six hundred miles, from the Equator. The marina is fairly windless so it is mind numbingly hot during the day but we had bought an air conditioning unit second hand in Trinidad and we got it going the day after we arrived. Bliss! We will stay here for hurricane season (no hurricane has ever hit this coast) and our first impressions are it's a nice place to be. We've already spotted some birds that we don't recognise and living close-by the boat are a number of iguanas, ranging from two to four feet long (very sweet). Prices in the marina restaurant (and marina restaurants are usually expensive) have been six UK pounds for lunch and eleven UK pounds for dinner - that's for two people including drinks!! Needless to say we have a big job list for the boat, mainly maintenance and improvements, but we hope to travel inland - the Andes and the Orinocco River aren't far away. Some Americans and weather
We get lots of amusement listening (on MF/HF radio) to some Americans asking a weather forecaster for "weather windows". When we arrived in the Caribbean we assumed that the Americans here were experienced sailors and only after talking to some of them did we realise many of them day-sail down the US coast and through the Bahamas etc - it surprised us that it's possible for them to get here with just two overnight passages. This seems to have led some of them to having a high degree of paranoia about the weather and they don't seem to like sailing in more than fifteen knots of wind or four to five foot seas. We've heard boats ask for a "weather window" to cross from Martinique to St Lucia and from Puerto Rico to Vieques, both roughly twenty mile trips. We even heard one boat, Islander, ask for a "window" to go from Norman Island up to Marina Cay, fifteen miles in sheltered water in the BVI's. Mike can usually be heard shouting "look out the (expletive deleted) window", but it does keep us entertained. By the way, Islander very nearly rammed us (we had to take extreme avoiding action) when we were in the BVI, maybe that says it all. Odds and ends
- Every few weeks we get a reminder of the power of the sun. We use plastic cable ties to fix lighting and aerial wires to the rails and they fracture and fall off. It took us a while to work out what was going on - UV damage! Every time it happens it makes us stop and think, if the sun can do that to cable ties... - We mentioned that the Barbudans are self sufficient, living off the land and sea, and it's a shame people don't pay attention to their ways. Barbudians catch lobsters all year but never take a female with eggs, the punishment is prison. Other islands prohibit the sale of all lobsters during the so-called breeding season, May to September, and prohibit the sale of females with eggs at any time, with steep fines. Barbuda has an abundance of lobsters, the other islands don't. - When cruising, things can creep up on you without you really noticing what is happening and one thing that changes is your name. Dirt dwellers use christian names and surnames to identify people, cruisers use christian names and boat names. Thus we are known as "the Kelly's Eyes" and when introduced to another cruiser I automatically say "hello, I'm Jane, Kelly's Eye". I don't think we've heard a surname used since we left the UK. - When we were passing St Martin on passage to Antigua, Mike was on watch at night keeping an eye on a cruise ship. The ship suddenly did a ninety degree turn, turning into wind and towards land. Mike thought it was odd and wondered if they had a problem. A few minutes later, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a rocket go up - given the ship's strange manoeuvre his immediate thought was 'distress flare'. It wasn't, it was the beginning of a fireworks display. We thought it was illegal to fire any form of rocket at sea other than a distress flare, does anybody know if that is correct please? - When we were in the Virgin Islands a charter boat went up on a reef in Anegada. A number of boats went to help them (including Water Music) and for some reason somebody called the Puerto Rico Coastguard. One of the rescuing boats (mistakenly) said to the coastguard that the people on the boat on the reef had taken to their dinghy. The coastguard's first response was..."are they wearing lifejackets?" Health and Safety at it's finest. - Societies here are still male dominated, thus if I ask for the bill in a restaurant it will always be given to Mike. The male domination leads to some highly amusing incidents when we clear Customs and Immigration, if I sign the paperwork as Captain. Responses can range from a wry smile, to one male officer who said (about Mike) "what does he do then?" When I said "he's my muscle" the officer nearly fell off his chair. On another occasion a lady officer said "are you the Captain?", when I said "yes", she said "good". - The shopping rule is 'if you see it, buy it' as if you wait the item may have been sold or it won't be available on the next island you go to. This applies to boat parts and food. One example was finding Heinz Baked Beans in Grenada after arriving from Trinidad last November. Baked Beans were available in Trinidad, but not that brand. We bought four cans when we saw them, with the thought that we could go back the next day and get more. The next day the shelf was bare. We're not obsessive about buying brands or foods we're used to from the UK but we've found that it's nice to have a few items we like when we can get them. Marmite for me I'm afraid! You become alert to where you can buy certain things. For example Heinz Tomato soup is ONLY obtainable in Antigua. You also learn that some things don't do well in heat. Various mustards are to be found, mainly American, but sometimes we see Coleman's English. Believe us when we say that it doesn't travel well. Powdered yes, made up in a jar, no. A number of goods are exported to the Caribbean from the UK. It's worth checking the Use By dates though as they are normally not far away. Waitrose products are stocked in some big supermarkets in St Lucia, an eclectic mix of cereals, mixed fruit, juices, tinned fruit and own label soups. In Trinidad last year we revelled in the appearance of Walker's Crisps for a few weeks. Couldn't help but notice they were all promotional packs with the promotions end date around September or October - I wonder if maybe too many had been produced....... The season's end
Since we left Trinidad in November 2005 we have sailed roughly one thousand four hundred and twenty miles, equivalent to three times over Biscay or half a transatlantic, visiting eight countries. I think I've mentioned before that experienced cruisers always say that the first year is the worst and we certainly enjoyed the second year more than the first. It is difficult to be certain why that was but there were at least four things that made a difference:
- we are more selective about where we go because we have a much clearer idea of places we like, specifically islands with good shopping and restaurants or the exact opposite, uninhabited pretty anchorages such as Green Island and Tobago Cays. We don't like the islands where it is difficult to provision and the food is rubbish.
- we feel more relaxed about the boat (Mike in paticular). Having repaired or replaced most things on the boat we are pretty confident now about handling breakages as they occur.
- we know more people and it's always fun when we bump into them.
- we've changed the balance between marina time and anchor time. Originally we spent most time at anchor, we have added a bit more marina time giving us easy access to restaurants and chandlers, plus it's easier to work on the boat. We are often asked where we are going next (the cruisers' anthem should be Chris Rea's song Blue Café that includes the line "where have you been, where are going to"). I can say we are not heading through the canal and into the Pacific, we don't fancy either the Cape of Good Hope (weather) or the Red Sea (political instability and pirates). But where we do go we haven't decided, it's on the agenda for discussion while we are in Venezuela.