Antigua Classic Week, fish with nasty big teeth & breaching whales

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Thu 23 Apr 2009 21:23
We very reluctantly raised the anchor and headed out of English Harbour bound for Sint Maarten (I will get the spelling correct one day!), a distance of 100 or so miles to the northwest. Our last day had been spent walking to Pidgeon Beach in Falmouth Harbour - a walk of approx 1 mile in the tropical heat undertaken naturally in the middle of the day. We also snapped this picture of a pelican resting between dives before starting our walk.
Pelican contemplating its next fishy morsel
Pidgeon Beach - Falmouth Harbour
Leaving English Harbour at this time gave us the chance to look at the fantastic variety of classic yachts that were  participating in the regatta outside Falmouth and English Harbours. The previous evening after an interesting meal ashore, more of which later, we walked round to Falmouth Harbour where we were rewarded with the whole marina being full of classic boats (built before the war or has to be a faithful replica built in the spirit of the original design). These were some of the prettiest and most spectacular sailing craft to be seen anywhere in the world at this time including two J Class yachts - Valsheda and Ranger. Looking at these boats close up brought lumps to the throat and tears to the eyes of many of the spectators taking the opportunity to walk round the dockside. Probably also a tear to the eyes of the owners footing the bill to have the boats taken mainly from Europe across the Atlantic to be at the event! We had witnessed many years ago the rusting hulk of Valsheda lying off Camper & Nicholsons Marina at Gosport her owner having run out of money to undertake any further restoration. For anyone appreciative of beautiful yachts this was a Mecca.  Meanwhile the paid crews of the yachts were merrily getting stuck into the free Mount Gay rum that was on offer at the pre-regatta party which was in full swing next to the yacht club. It was sobering to know that just one sail for a J Class would probably be worth more than our entire humble catamaran!
The meal ashore was interesting on account that we had originally intended to visit a meal shack just outside Nelson's Dockyard called "Grace before Meals" which we had last been to over 13 years previous and had been looking forward to revisiting. It had been shut over Easter and had since re-opened. However, she had been cleaned out of her Conch Rotis (large crawly thing that lives in the shell you put to your ears to hear the sea) by the hungry yacht crews in Falmouth Harbour prior to their party.  We were pointed in the direction of a typical Antiguan local wooden house up in the residential area behind the harbour where our arrival for a meal took the lady of the house almost as much by surprise as we ourselves were that it was actually a working restaurant - there was just one local man eating inside who shouted through to the kitchen that there were customers.  We weren't so sure, but decided to give it a go on our last night and actually had a very nice meal of Conch with rice and sweet potatoes.  For starters, cinnamon flavoured garlic bread and a plain green salad were on offer. Beneath the tables mosquito coils gave off their usual vapours and at various times cars drew up outside with the occupant popping inside the kitchen and departing with something wrapped in a bag!  But the proprietor/cook was very attentive and calmly extracted the 40 odd dollars for the "Caribbean Taste Experience" as it was advertised on the board outside. At least we will never forget our last night in Antigua.
As we negotiated our way through the racing fleet out in the bay we could make out Ranger and Valsheda sparring with each other making a fantastic spectacle along with all of the other classic yachts both large and small. Threading through them wasn't easy as being involved in a race they were liable to change direction and head straight for you at any moment, so we kept both engines on and kept the sails stowed so as to give good visibility forward.  We had enjoyed the yachts the previous evening but getting hit by one would have been embarrassing - especially a famous one!
Once we had cleared the end of Antigua we laid a course for Sint Maarten which is an island smaller than Jersey that is shared between Holland and France. We were heading for the Dutch sector which used to be duty free (now 3% tax) where there are some good chandleries. We were also advised that food was cheaper here than in the BVI's which was the next stop after Sint Maarten.
Valsheda preparing to race
Some of the classic yachts off Falmouth Harbour
Valsheda racing to windward
Naturally once it was safe to do so, out went the fishing lures as we were dying for some decent fish. In fact dying in the tropics from eating fish is actually possible due to Ciguatera poisoning which small reef fish carry but are not affected by. From those fish it passes up through the food chain to the top predator  around reefs - the Barracuda - an mean ugly looking fish with a mouth full of big teeth to match. I can attack humans if you are wearing anything shiny in the water which it might mistake for a small fish - obviously not a well educated species! Well, we managed to hook ourselves a couple of Barracudas, one about a foot long which skip had already headed, tailed and gutted before we had an almighty strike on the rod.  After one hell of a fight and use of our gaff we managed to heave  the second one onboard.  A contest of strength then developed between first Phil and the ugly beast and then Nikki whilst Phil went off to do something else. Three good bonks with the winch handle on its incredibly hard head only served to upset it even more and once again the aft deck resembled Sweeney Todd's cellar. Blood everywhere. Eventually the fight was over and the beast - approx 1 metre long was silenced.  At that point Nikki positively identified the fish as a Barracuda and we reluctantly decided we couldn't chance eating the fish for fear of becoming poisoned. So some very lucky shark or other Barracuda perhaps was gifted the results of our labours as we gave up fishing for the day.
Barracuda arriving on the aft deck
Teeth not to be messed with
We faired better the next morning - although the fish - a metre long Wahoo didn't, on two counts - one, it took our squid lure in one giant greedy bite, rendering the lure completely uneseable in the future and two, because as it was on the hand line with no ratchet to tell us a fish had taken the lure I hadn't noticed we had the fish on the line for a some while. So the rest of his shoal and possibly something more sinister and nasty decided they would get a piece of the action as it was being hauled along through the water, the result being that by the time we landed the Wahoo it was rather less than a metre long.  In fact it was minus its tail and a fair portion forward of that part of it's anatomy. Whilst we were rather surprised to land 3/4 of a fish at least it had long finished putting up a struggle and was actually dead! So we were spared the colossal struggle endured with the Barracuda. This fish or what was left of it was beautiful eating with 2 meals off the Ajaya barbecue (6 large steaks each !!) and a Thai curry for the 3rd night (just in case it was past its best). If all this fishy blood and gore sounds cruel you only have to witness the daily fight for life amongst the fish population out in the oceans or on the reefs to realise that the sea environment is a 'dog eat dog' / 'devil take the hind most' world - I hope not to come back as a fish in the next world. A Blue Whale will suit me fine.
The tail-less Wahoo - unlike the baracuda was safe eating!
We don't eat the tails anyway!
Having packed the rods and lines away as we approached Sint Maarten we were suddenly rewarded - if that's the right word, to a very large Sei Whale breaching only 200 yards from the boat. Now studying breaching whales is the stuff of Cousteau or Attenborough on their large steel boats which would just give the whale a bad headache should it breach in the wrong place. It could easily wreck our cruising plans should we be in the wrong place when it came up again!  The whale leapt almost clear of the water and landed on its back with its pectoral fins wide apart causing a huge splash, only to disappear for a few minutes before breaching once more fully clear of the water,  this time to our relief slightly further away from us. The whale then slowly swam with its back arched before diving again with us both hopingor should that be praying that he had the sense to be looking upwards when he made any more tidal wave/bombing antics. Whilst we were fascinated to witness the spectacle we were very relieved to see it move onwards out of our vicinity. It had been a very interesting 24 hours!
Our arrival in Sint Maarten was on schedule although we had to endure a few days in a very rolly anchorage next to an international airport. We almost knew the daily timetable of incoming and outbound flights after a few days anchored underneath the flight path. Getting ashore from the anchorage meant a very wet dinghy ride in force 4-5 winds into the large lagoon accessed through a narrow lifting bridge where so many superyachts are berthed when not in use.
Large private motoryacht entering the lagoon in Sint Maarten through the lifting bridge
We topped up with food and some chandlery - a cruising pit stop I guess you could say before preparing to move onwards to the BVI's some 85 miles away to the west where we hoped to spend 2 weeks cruising and catching up with post etc.