31 January - Union Island Blues
Chatham Bay is on the west side of Union Island and famously inaccessible by land. In recent years, a road has been built around the top of the hill overlooking the bay and if you have a 4WD vehicle there is a rough track down to the water’s edge where gentlemen with names like Seckie, Shark Attack, Pleasure and a couple of other local entrepreneurs have set up beach bars to cater for the yachties who come for the tranquillity and the beauty of the beach and anchorage.
Chatham Bay anchorage – a piece of paradise
We needed to complete our Customs and Immigration formalities for entering the Grenadines, so the first day was dedicated to a walk over the island to Clifton, where such activities take place. As I was lifting the outboard motor off the bracket on the back of Escapade and lowering it into the rubber boat, so I felt a muscle in my back go. I did not let go of the engine, but by the time it was secure and I was back onboard, I was in some discomfort. Julie drove the boat in to the beach where we were met by a local man who introduced himself as ‘Da Hiker Guy’. He offered to look after the boat whilst we walked to Clifton and in return we did a deal to go for a hike with him around the bay the following morning (back muscles permitting) to examine the flora and fauna and learn something of the history of the island. He showed us a short cut through the forest up to the road and we set off.
Green Thumb – Caribbean style!
It was a steep climb up to the road, but not impossible and half an hour later we stood at the top of the hill, looking down towards Clifton and back towards Carriacou and Grenada. The breeze was a tonic and the downhill stroll towards a beer looked very inviting. The road passed through the village of Ashton and along the foreshore by Frigate Island and the remains of a failed marina development. We came across a class of school children, immaculately behaved and quite articulate, who had been down to the marina to look at the sea life and see how nature was rapidly reclaiming man’s folly. In town, we completed the formalities, did some shopping, bought a local SIM Card and had that beer. Then we found a bus to take us back to Chatham Bay.
Shopping for anything here is a colourful affair
He dropped us some way short of the beach and we picked our way back down the ‘short cut’, as I tried not to break a box of eggs whilst keeping the back straight. We needed another beer on arrival and decided that the last thing I needed was another trek the following morning. Alex, Da Hiker Guy, had gone home though. We left messages with a couple of the locals and returned to the boat. I assumed the horizontal position and stayed there for 36 hours.
Walking towards Clifton
The following morning, I was dozing and Julie was doing something below when we heard a shout. On deck, there was nobody obvious, but when the shout came again, Julie looked over the side and found Alex Da Hiker Guy swimming alongside us. In the hierarchy of boatboys and beach bar operatives, he must be quite far down the pecking order as most of them have a boat of some sort. He climbed into the rubber dinghy and Julie had a chat. He had got the message delaying the trek (fortunately) but clearly wanted something for his troubles. A fee of 50% of the trek price now and the balance if and when my back recovered sufficiently to undertake said trek seemed reasonable. Then he asked for breakfast and promptly had two helpings of Julie’s precious bran flakes. She mentioned that we were heading towards Mustique for the Blues festival and asked if he had ever been there.
‘I’ve gone past it’, he said.
‘Oh,’ thought Julie, imagining some sailing delivery trip or some fishing expedition, ‘in a boat’?
‘No, in an aeroplane. I was part of my school’s ‘Spelling Bee’ team and we went to St Vincent for a competition’.
He swam ashore. Humbling stuff. He was probably our age. That trip to St Vincent (some 30 miles) was the furthest he’d ever been from Ashton. I imagined him in that column of bright, sparky school children we had seen the previous day and reflected on how opportunity favours some of us, but not others. Note to self: never turn down an opportunity…
On Sunday, my back had recovered sufficiently for us to venture ashore to the ‘Chatham Bay Resort’, a rather upmarket beach bar at the far end of the bay with a wifi system and a swimming pool. Clearly a much bigger investment than the other establishments, this boasts landscaped gardens, plastic banana leaves instead of tiles, and looks like a small, exclusive, upmarket beach resort in paradise. It has three double rooms in separate chalets built - for some unexplained reason - behind the beach bar so that the occupier doesn’t quite get that uninterrupted view of the palms, the beach and the ocean that he thought he should get when he booked it. It was fairly quiet. A superyacht had disgorged the owner/charter party onto the beach where they had set up their champagne picnic and there seemed to be a couple of resort guests – a chap who looked like a washed-out ageing rock star with a big plastic surgery budget and a trophy girlfriend, and a rather irritating New York businessman harassing the dozy bar staff with his trophy Afro-Asian boyfriend in tow. Not really my scene… We had an underwhelming, overpriced and painfully slow lunch, cleared some emails, paid a couple of bills and went for a walk on the beautiful beach. We walked past the ‘traditional’ beach bars, altogether more chilled, ramshackle and – when you look closely – surrounded by rubbish and stagnant water. Note to self: don’t look too closely.
The Chatham Bay Resort looks idyllic…
That night it rained, heavily. Our new tent did the job though, despite the wind which howled, working itself up into a frenzy and accelerating down the hill and across the water. Each time it did, the boat shook, the bimini rattled and eventually at about 0200 I got up to do a set of rounds. I decided to take down the side panels on the bimini to reduce the windage and as I called for Julie to come and help (the wind was gusting to 35 knots) I saw that the rubber boat was floating upside down with our beautiful new outboard motor immersed. Julie demonstrated a new-found Anglo-Saxon fluency whilst I jumped up and down. The wind helped us to right the boat fairly easily – I can only assume that one of those gusts had coincided with a trough in the waves and lifted the bow of the dinghy up and flipped it over. An expensive reminder of why we never tow the rubber boat with the engine on.
So on Monday morning, instead of heading north towards Mustique, we rigged a block and tackle (pulley arrangement) on the end of the boom and hoisted the outboard engine onboard Escapade. We hastily motored round to Clifton to find an outboard engineer to flush out the motor and rescue it from impending disaster. Our friendly boatboy Buddha helped us onto a buoy, sold us some of his sister’s morale-restoring banana cake and half an hour later a chap appeared in a dinghy to take the outboard away. I rested my back and we waited. Two hour later, he returned, having flushed out all the salt water, changed the oil and fuel, cleaned up all the electrics and generally performed a small miracle. It went first pull and he charged £75. I remembered my expensive clash with Fairweather Marine in Fareham with gritted teeth.
Buddha dressed for the weather. I never did ask him why his boat was named ‘Joint Warfare Interoperability Demonstration’!
It was still blowing a gale, with regular heavy showers though, so we decided to remain at Clifton for another day and see if the weather improved. We found an excellent waterfront bar with good wifi and even better chocolate icecream and bought a yellowfin tuna from Buddha which should give us 6 – 8 meals. We watched a yacht go aground on the reef in the harbour as he left his buoy in a squall; the boatboys rallied to his aid and he got off without too much drama – I remembered the last time we were here before Christmas and watching a floating greenhouse try to alter the same reef. Staying put seemed like the right choice.
Boatboy helping a charter boat
The next day the sun came out and the wind dropped. The kite surfers were out in force and in the evening we took the rubber boat across to ‘Happy Island’ where there is a bar on a rock, to watch the surfers doing jumps and tricks just in front of us. One of them is a local lad from Union Island, nicknamed ‘Butter’. The bar was raising money to help him improve his skills and compete for the Grenadines in international competitions. He seemed pretty good to me, accelerating towards us and jumping clear of the water just a couple of feet from where we sat. Hugely impressive, except for the tendency to fill our dinghy with water each time he did it. His party trick is to take a beer off one of the spectators whilst jumping. Julie duly obliged and bought two beers, one for him, the other for me. In he came at some amazing speed, stopped just short of the wall, rose spectacularly into the air, took the beer that Julie was holding out… and dropped it! What a waste of beer! Of course, I then had to give up my beer so that he could have another go. The second attempt was far more successful.
‘Butter’ takes a beer in mid-air
Mind my boat!
Now that’s just showing off!
Union Island – the home of kitesurfing in the Caribbean. I wonder why!
Most of the other drinkers were North American. A boatboy came and tried to sell a yellowfin tuna. We knew what sort of price he should be asking, having bought plenty of it in Grenada and earlier in our visit. I was surprised by how aggressively mercenary the Americans were at bargaining with him. They seemed quite naïve about the fish itself and clearly had no idea how to fillet or cook it. They never reached a deal, despite asking him to pose for photos with the fish and as he was leaving, called out to him that if he failed to sell it, he should come and find them on their boat and they would take it off him. I hope he told them where to get off…
Fisherman at sunset