, Kelly's Eye
 
CARIBBEAN: JANUARY TO MARCH 2006
 

Atlantic rowing record
Twenty six rowing boats set off from the Canaries, in November, to cross the Atlantic to Antigua. We happened to be in English Harbour when the first boat arrived on January 8th, the crew of four took forty days and broke the previous record. As they crossed the line a single-handed lady rower was only seven hundred miles from the Canaries with over two thousand miles still to go!

Clearly anybody who chooses to row across the Atlantic is a six legged, four armed, two-headed mad person but to our surprise the four lads looked fit and well and rather...normal - check out the picture section. There was a good crowd to welcome them in, including many of their relatives and the Antigua Tourist Board.

It was quite a moving occasion and Mike was wandering around muttering "madness, total and utter (expletive deleted) madness" - he should know.

Antigua
We stayed in Green Island, generally lazing about, until Saturday 7th January, when we went back to Falmouth Harbour to pick up the watermaker membrane. Mike fitted the membrane and did some other maintenance work but the wind was building to 25 knots and the anchorage was becoming seriously rolly - there were people surfing in the entrance to the bay, about two hundred yards from where we were parked!

We finally got fed up with the rolling and moved to Jolly Harbour on the west coast on the 12th. We went into the marina because we wanted a safe place to leave the boat, first so that Mike could visit the dentist (a crown had come off) and second to visit the Venezuelan embassy. We also had three weeks worth of clothes washing to do! The embassy visit was to obtain visas and it became a bit of a saga.

The embassy is located north of the capital St John's and to reach it involves a bus ride into the main bus station where we changed buses. Antiguan buses are very cheap but they aren't well marked and they don't run to any particular schedule, when they think they have enough passengers they go.

We rang the embassy in advance and asked what paperwork they required (passports and photographs, then go back in twenty four hours to collect the stamped passports). However, when we arrived they said a new law had been implemented that day and we needed to provide evidence of our financial status with the name and address of the bank on the document. We tried to explain that as a cruising yacht we don't receive bank statements - a total waste of breath when dealing with a minor bureaucrat. So we left having achieved nothing.

We went back on Monday 16th with some financial material taken from the Internet and we were told we had to pay the visa fee into a bank in St John's and return in two days time - the trip time that day was five hours. One thing that amused us though is that the President of Venezuela is a communist, he is allied to Fidel Castro and can't stand President Bush or America in general - so what did we have to pay our visa fee in...yes, US Dollars. Eventually we got it all done and now have our visas.

We were intending to leave Antigua, for an overnight sail to St Martin, early in the week commencing the 16th but the visa nonsense delayed us, by which time the weather turned with winds of twenty five to thirty knots, gusting forty in squalls and seas to fourteen feet. Note for non-sailors: on ocean passages we have to take whatever weather comes along and we've sailed in those conditions a number of times. The boat can handle it easily but pleasant it is not (it is at those wind speeds and wave heights that cooking and sleeping become near impossible). Therefore if we're not in a hurry we just hang around, the best conditions for our boat being fifteen to twenty knots which gives us good boat speed and a reasonably comfortable ride.

It was the longest period of bad weather we've had since we've been in the Caribbean and we knew from listening to the HF radio nets that no boats were on the move up or down the whole length of the island chain. We were lucky to be in Jolly Harbour because it is well protected, has one of the best supermarkets in the Caribbean plus three very good restaurants (and some less good).

We had a very pleasant surprise when we bumped into some old sailing friends, Richard and Dawn. They have a boat in Turkey and a villa and boat in Jolly Harbour. The boat in Jolly is a forty two footer, brand new but built with classic lines, her name is SKI 4 (Spend the Kid's Inheritance!). We spent a great evening at their villa catching up on the five years since we last saw them.

The weather finally turned and we cleared out and left the pontoon just before noon on January 25th. There is a truism in sailing that if it can go wrong it will - as we left, it did. There was a nasty cross wind of about twenty knots and we thought the best way to get out of the berth was to run a line over to a mooring post on the opposite pontoon. This worked well until Mike came to untie the line from the post and a loop of line fell off the back of the boat and immediately got wrapped round the propellor. We killed the engine and drifted back across to our pontoon where we managed to get a line to another mooring post but we were lying beam on to the bows of another boat. I called the dockmaster to give us a hand fending off while we cleared the rope from the prop. That took about forty five minutes and involved untwisting rope and then Mike diving under the boat to cut the rope free from the prop. We have a serrated knife that is fearsomely sharp for just that purpose and it was extremely effective (hot knife through butter, to quote Mike).

Once we cleared the rope, we checked for damage and water ingress (no problems), then motored out of the marina to anchor off for a few hours to kill time before setting off for St Martin, ninety two miles away. We left around 15.15 and set the mizzen and genoa in fifteen knots of wind coming about ten degrees off the stern. There was still a fair amount of swell and slop left over from the strong winds so the ride was very rolly but we had a pleasant sail averaging around five knots until the wind began to die when we were level with St Barts and we were down to three knots (we weren't in a hurry, so we kept sailing).

We saw two cruise ships, a big ship with the wrong lights and a tug and barge during the night, otherwise it was uneventful. In fact it was a beautiful night with no moon and the sky full of stars, with the Southern Cross making a spectacular sight hanging in the southern sky. By coincidence we arrived in Simpson's Bay around 11.15, just as the bridge opened to let boats into the lagoon - so we went straight in and anchored.

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten
Almost immediately after getting our anchor down Jim and Michelle from Wind Machine came over to see us. We hadn't seen them since August when they went to Venezuela and the ABC islands, so we had a great evening getting briefed on Venezuela. They were in fine form considering their boat was on the hard for repairs, after hitting something on passage from the ABC's to Puerto Rico. Their boat had a long gouge down the side, just above the water line but below it when heeled. They were lucky they didn't sink and it does demonstrate how vulnerable fibreglass boats can be (no bias there then!).

St Martin is half French and half Dutch, it is the most developed island we have visited since the Canaries and thus was somewhat overwhelming - noise, traffic, major super yacht facilities etc. Within a couple of days we could tell we were in 'Europe' when the nanny state appeared. The Dutch side of the island held elections on January 27th and the sale of all alcohol was banned for the day. Naturally you could walk (or dinghy) to the French side and drink all day before voting. All the politicians succeeded in doing was ruining the restaurant and bar trade on the Dutch side, so hopefully the idiots were voted out.

The primary reason for going to St Martin was the duty free shopping, in particular we needed to replace a lot of spare parts for the boat. We were last in St Martin many years ago and didn't really enjoy it, so we weren't expecting much. However as a cruising boat we saw it from a wholly different perspective and we enjoyed the island's facilities very much.

Mike was in his element in the anchorage because we were parked just off the end of the airport runway - he was doing his normal trick of naming the type of plane by just listening to the engine noise. Then we heard about a beach bar at the other end of the runway and a little outing was organised with Steve and Maria from Aspen and David and Deborah from Water Music.

The Sunset Beach Bar is an amazing place that has turned noisy air traffic into an attraction, they even feed the airport tower's radio traffic into the bar and have a list up of when the big jets are due to arrive. Just to digress for a moment, they also offer free drinks to topless ladies, of which there were two, and the four of them were huge - the chaps, who obviously had to spend much time studying them in order to draw a conclusion, thought they were implants. I must also mention our waitress, a well endowed young lady in a bikini, only smaller.

There are big signs up at the end of the runway saying: "Danger - Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death". They really shouldn't put up signs like that because to people like Mike it's an invitation to check it out - so he did.

The first thing to do is to stand on the beach as the big jets come in, they scream overhead less than thirty feet above you but it seems as though they are going to hit you and it's difficult not to duck. There then follows a blast of air that will knock you over if you don't brace yourself. The next thing to do (and very few people do it) is to stand by the perimeter fence when one of the big jets takes off, I'll let Mike explain what it's like. "When the engines are idling the air is hot and you can hold on to the fence with one hand. Once the plane powers up you need to hold on with both hands or you will be knocked over by a huge blast of very hot air that lasts for about five seconds. I was hoping that the blast would allow me to lift my feet and fly horizontally from the fence but it wasn't that strong, so it was a bit disappointing. The only downside is that you get severly sand blasted by all the dirt kicked up and if you want to see what is going on you have to wear sunglasses. On balance, standing on the beach under the landings is awesome and more fun than the takeoffs".

So there you have Mike's tip for today: if you happen to be hanging on to a mesh fence with a big jet closeby, wear sunglasses. Surely there must be somebody out there who wants to take him off my hands?

Another good crack is to watch the boats entering and leaving the lagoon via the narrow entrance which has a lifting bridge. Some of the mega-yachts (power and sail) have only a couple of inches clearance on each side and it is heart-stopping to watch them. The St Martin Yacht Club bar is the perfect site for viewing proceedings, it is located right by the entrance and has a happy hour during bridge opening times late afternoon!

One thing to say about St Martin is that a lot of the businesses are run by by yotties who arrived in the sixties and seventies and never left. Thus the place is laid back in the nice sense with most bars playing sixties and seventies music and an overall atmosphere that encourages fun. Originally we were only going to stay in St Martin for about four days but the fun atmosphere, combined with some prolonged bad weather (on one occasion we didn't leave the boat for two days), plus meeting with some good friends (and a great dominoes session), delayed us. One disappointment was the promised showing, live, of the England v Wales 6 Nations match, but on turning up at the venue all we got was a minor football match. Ah well. We eventually got away on February 7th, after staying for two weeks, headed for the Virgin Islands about eighty four miles away.

The British Virgin Islands
We left at 16.30 for another night sail. The first part of the trip was like ocean sailing, absolutely nothing in sight. Then about half way we were surrounded by other vessels, going in all directions. However there was no drama, just less wind than forecast and a slow rolly sail in a sloppy eight foot sea. We arrived at Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda around 13.00 to clear in.

When approaching the Virgin Islands the first island you see is Virgin Gorda and its outline is similar to a reclining pregnant woman. Christopher Columbus discovered the islands and he noticed the 'pregnant woman' and recorded it in his log - he then proceeded to name the islands the Virgin Islands, what were these early explorers smoking?

We stayed two nights in the marina (more boat jobs), then headed up to Gorda Sound at the northern end of the island. The islands are spread out East/West and surround an area of water called Drake's Channel. The water in Drake's Channel is invariably fairly smooth with a good sailing breeze and we had a brilliant sail upwind on a beautiul day.

When we arrived in Gorda Sound we met up with Ken and Judith on Badgers Sett (who we met in Trinidad), Pete and Anne on Muskrat (who we hadn't met before but we had had much email and HF radio contact with them) and Mike and Pippa on Never Look Back (we were their ARC finish line boat). Muskrat kindly invited us all over for sunset drinks. This was followed by supper the following day on Badgers Sett and an afternoon dominoes session and drinks on Kelly's Eye the day after that - it's a tough life sometimes.

On February 14th we sailed back offwind to Marina Cay, a small island surrounded by a crescent shaped coral reef and turquoise coloured water, truly beautiful. On the 16th we sailed crosswind to Cooper Island, which has the archetypal Caribbean palm fringed sand beach. Although only a six mile sail the snatchblock for one of the genoa sheets broke and the sheet jammed (good job that didn't happen at night in a blow!). Mike sorted it out but managed to do his back in at the same time. We did however manage to get some snorkeling in the next day, the highlight was a young Green turtle (about half adult size) that was feeding in amongst the coral. It was really unusual because adults normally feed in grass on a sand bottom. We also had a huge Barracuda hovering under the boat, which rather put me off swimming.

By Saturday 18th we were running out of fresh food and needed to do some laundry, so we sailed over to Fat Hog's Bay on the main island Tortola. We also needed to replace the snatchblock and were lucky to get a free ride into the capital, Road Town, the only place we could get one and we stopped for lunch there. I'll spare you the shopping and laundry details. That evening we were sitting in the cockpit when a Brown Booby - a reasonably sized sea bird - came and perched on the bows. We were torn between 'Ah look, I wonder if he's there to get better view of his prey' and 'I hope it's not another bird looking for a last resting place'. The next morning we decided that he'd either had a whole flock of his mates over for the evening or he'd eaten something that definitely badly disagreed with him. The entire bow area of the boat - deck, anchor, pulpit, stanchions, even the bottom of the genoa was covered in Brown Booby guano (not the word we used on discovering the mess!). Isn't wildlife wonderful?

On the 19th we sailed about ten miles to Benares Bay on the north coast of Norman Island. This was to be a two night stop but the bay was beautiful with clear blue water and excellent snorkelling - Mike even saw a Spotted Drum, an amazing black and white fish. We ended up staying five nights! Also in the bay were Badgers Sett so there were a number of get-togethers.

We sailed another six miles on the 24th to Sopers Hole on the west end of Tortola to restock and, in particular, to meet old friends Tony and Joanna who live in the BVI. We last saw Tony in the Canaries when he was delivering a yacht across the Atlantic for Sunsail. It was a great evening and particularly interesting to hear about island life, the economy and politics.

Saturday the 25th and it was off to Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, five miles away, a great upwind sail in fifteen knots of wind. You may recall that the first picture in our pictures section is of Kelly's Eye in a new berth at Burnham, parked next to a boat called Jost Van Dyke, we wondered if it was an omen. We really wanted to take our own boat there and we finally made it. The reason for the visit was Foxy's Tamarind Beach Bar. In the sailing community there are a number of world famous places and Foxy's is one, stay long enough at any sailing centre and you will see one of Foxy's T-shirts. He is, of course, famous for his parties - during the day the trippers come and at night the yachties take over, it's not usually too wild but it's always great fun.

The other thing to do in Jost Van Dyke is to take the dinghy round to White Bay (you can anchor there but it's rolly). There is a beautiful white sand beach, fringed with palms and it's the home of the Soggy Dollar Bar who developed the Pussers Painkiller, a special blend of orange juice, pineapple juice, coconut milk and Pussers Rum with a fresh nutmeg topping. No, honestly, we're not having fun out here.

The US Virgin Islands
We cleared out of Jost Van Dyke and the BVI on Tuesday 28th of February and sailed over to Cruz Bay St John, USVI - the twelfth country we have visited since leaving the UK. We picked up a buoy in Caneel Bay because there was no anchoring space in Cruz Bay and went in by dinghy to clear customs and immigration.

The customs and immigration formalities were remarkably pleasant (we've always had bad experiences in America) and then we came to the Homeland Security rules. We were asked if we had tinned meats or fresh fruit aboard, of course as a cruising boat we carry a lot of provisions. Once we admitted we had we were told that we couldn't take any rubbish ashore and it mustn't cross out lifelines. Since they had just signed us in for six months that could have proved interesting. However, isn't it comforting to know that the USA considers an empty can of Marks and Spencers steak a threat to homeland security - don't tell Bin Laden he'll get all sorts of ideas.

The same day we went over to Crown Bay, St Thomas, for reprovisioning and another trip to the chandler. We stayed there two days doing what we had to and then moved, the place was full of cruise ships, commercial ships and a noisy dredger that worked all day, we couldn't wait to get out but there were things we had to fix on the boat and we wanted to be near a chandler when we did them. However there was a great pub/restaurant ashore and the island is another throwback to the sixties and seventies, with a lot of people who have dropped out and just work enough to get by. On a shopping trip we saw a big green iguana that appeared from nowhere by the side of the road and seemed as shocked as I was.

On March 3rd we motorsailed upwind to Christmas Cove on St James island. This place turned out to be another beautiful bay with crystal clear water and we stayed three days. The only downside being the ferry wash as they went by. Into the bay came Water Music, Chimera (first met in the Canaries, last seen in Antigua) and Starship Annie who we hadn't met before but we have a lot of common friends - the social life was good. David and Deborah (Water Music) presented me with two magnetic stickers saying 'Don't go there', that they had spotted in St Croix. Apparently they immediately thought of me - I wonder how many times they had heard me saying that phrase (and to whom dear reader!)? As with everything on a boat, you try and find more than one use for things so now we have a sign to hold up when boats anchor too close!

The highlights of the stay were seeing three Southern Stingrays under the boat and Mike found his first shark. Mike has always wanted to swim with sharks and has been looking for them ever since we started sailing twenty one years ago, he even asks locals where they might be and goes off to look for them. The most extraordinary time was when we were in Malaysia and there were twenty odd people snorkelling. Somebody shouted that they had seen a shark and everybody rushed back to the boat and climbed on - you've never seen people move so fast. Mike happened to be on the boat and shouted "where?", as they pointed he dived in to go to look for it. Anyway he's really pleased now and was going on about it for days, even though it was a very docile Nurse shark.

On Monday 6th we left Christmas Cove and stopped briefly in Red Hook on the east side of St Thomas to restock and buy diesel and petrol. Then we crossed over to the island of St John and picked up a mooring in Leinster Bay, on the north side. St John is mainly national park land, is thus unspoiled and anchoring isn't allowed (to protect the coral). Leinster is a beautiful bay with a small sand beach where you can see wild donkeys (a very unusual palomino colour) and mongooses (mongeese?), there is nothing ashore except the ruins of an old sugar mill and rum distillery, the view from the old sugar mill is spectacular. On the wall of the tiny prison at the sugar mill is a drawing of a house that was visible from the cell but is now a ruin - it's a very moving thing to see, wondering who the slave was and wondering what his punishment was.

We had surprise visits from Starship Annie, the US flagged Starboard Home who we last saw in Trinidad and were waiting to jump off to the Turks and Caicos islands, and finally Simon and Hilda on Calisto who we haven't seen since Lanzarote. Even now it still amazes us when we meet up with boats that we last saw thousands of miles away - it's great fun and makes up for all the goodbyes we have to make as boats head off in different directions.

Back to the BVI
Eventually we had to leave Leinster Bay and on the 13th we went round to Cruz Bay to clear out and then spent the night in Francis Bay before going over to West End on Tortola to clear into the BVI again. We stayed one night in West End and reprovisioned the boat ready for more time away from any facilities.

We had been so enchanted by Benares Bay on Norman Island that we went back and spent another two nights there. There was nothing to do except snorkel the reefs and watch the Pelicans fishing. In fact there was a bit of a problem with the snorkelling because a huge shoal of tiny fish had arrived and there were so many of them that you could barely see the reefs, but the Pelicans were in heaven. The Pelicans have various fishing techniques including: a wings back no-lift dive from thirty feet; fall off a rock on the shore with beak open; fly low and fast and crash land with beak open. But one evening we had a very special treat when the Red Arrows With Beaks turned up, namely the Pelican Formation Fishing Team. The Team consisted of five Pelicans flying a perfect line astern, spaced three feet apart. They would fly along the edge of the water at twelve feet and when the leader decided the place was right he would go into a no-lift dive. He was immediately followed by the other four Pelicans, it all happened so fast that the five Pelicans seemed to hit the water at the same time. It was a truly remarkable display of formation flying, so much so that Mike got over-excited and was behaving like a small kid again. No change there then.

We couldn't stay longer in Benares because our time in the BVI was limited and we wanted to meet up with Water Music and position the boat for the best sailing angle to Antigua when a good weather slot arrived. On the 17th we sailed some thirty miles upwind (nine tacks!) to Gorda Sound, dolphins came up to the boat but they didn't stop to play. When we arrived we found not just Water Music but also Sogne di Mare who had just arrived from St Martin, we hadn't seen them since Trinidad. This led to some excellent social events including a St Patrick's Day meal on Water Music (everyone had to wear something green) and a game of dominoes at the Bitter End Yacht Club. We hung around Gorda Sound and by Monday 20th March the weather turned favourable for the trip to Antigua. In fact there is no such thing as favourable weather because it's upwind and up-current all the way, so it's better to have lighter winds than heavy air. To keep the boat positioned as far east as possible we took a taxi to Spanish Town (instead of taking the boat) to clear out. We don't normally take taxis because of the cost but there were no buses. As it turned out the taxi ride was worth the money just for the views across the Virgins and all the reef areas round Virgin Gorda. Truly spectacular.

We left Gorda Sound at 07.15 on the 21st and waved goodbye to Water Music who were heading up to the USA for the hurricane season (we may never see them again, very sad), with one hundred and sixty five miles to go. Sad also to say farewell to the Virgins. We felt we'd had bit of a holiday - short, fun sailing, beautiful clear water and lots of snorkelling. The islands aren't cruiser friendly as they're expensive and full of charter boats and in some places you can't anchor and have to pay for a buoy, but we had had a great time there. The exit route was between the reefs off Virgin Gorda and the reefs off Necker Island, with the sun in our eyes we went very cautiously. Initially the wind angle allowed us to motor sail with some sail up which increases our speed considerably. But then the wind veered to the SSE, straight on the nose. We picked up the lights of St Martin about 02.00 and just kept plugging away through the following day and into the next night. At night we saw a few yachts and cruise ships but the whole trip was uneventful. At one stage we got fed up with the engine noise and started sailing, but with light winds and a strong current after two tacks we were back where we started, so we gave that up as a bad idea.

The only highlight of the trip was Mike caught a big bull Dorado. It took him twenty five minutes to bring it to the boat and then he could hardly lift it on board. Unfortunatley we didn't have our fridge running at the time and it was far too big for us to eat, so we put him back.

Antigua
The lights of Antigua finally came into view around 23.00 on the 23rd and we broke our normal rule of not approaching land at night. As an old sailing friend said "the best aid to navigation is having been there before" and since we knew the area quite well we headed straight into the bay outside Jolly Harbour. It was then we hit the reef. Not really, only kidding. In fact it wasn't quite as straightforward as we expected because only one of the channel markers was lit, the others weren't working. The (unlit) red outer marker was a positive danger because it is a big structure dug into the seabed, but we picked it up on radar and with Mike on the bows we managed to avoid it.

The anchor went down at 03.30 on the 23rd and we had a couple of drinks and fell into bed exhausted. But there is no peace for the wicked and we were up again at 07.00 and entered Jolly Harbour to go to the fuel dock, then took a berth in the marina, then cleared customs and immigration. We were still very, very tired so we did little that day except nap in the afternoon, eat ashore, then fall into bed, where we basically just passed out.

Jolly Harbour was another main pit-stop for us: clean the boat inside and out (particularly to get rid of the salt); visit dentist; get liferaft serviced; do a few weeks worth of laundry; restock the boat; touch up some small rust spots; climb the mizzen mast to replace the deck light; inventory and sort out the food cupboards etc. Hard work and the temperature was getting hotter by the day. However, there is a big swimming pool and excellent beach and we tried to avoid working in the heat of the mid-afternoon - it was payback time for the mainly lazy time we had in the Virgins.

Also in Jolly Harbour were Muskrat, Badger's Sett, Starship Annie and Never Look Back who we got together with briefly before they left for Falmouth Harbour.

That's it for another quarter. We'll be here in Antigua/Barbuda until after Antigua Classics and Antigua Sailing Week then continue heading south.