Carriacou, Turtles, Whales, Pirates of Caribbean and the Pitons

Andy Gibb
Mon 6 Feb 2012 19:40

Intrepid is moored at 13:49.18N 61:04.00W between the Pitons in St Lucia, a full moon silhouettes Petit Piton in silver as it rises 2480 feet directly out of the sea, like a Caribbean pyramid. You get a better view from a yacht than from the nearby Hilton. I barbecued dorado fillets caught 4 hours before on the sail from St Vincent to St Lucia.

Several friends have been disappointed by Caribbean grey skies, rain and strong winds. Indeed Caribbean weather is not 100% holiday perfect, even in December to May (the dry season). During these months the NE trade winds created by the Corriolis effect (earth's rotation at 10 degrees north and south) blow at a steady 25 mph. These brought prosperity to traders. But they also arrive at the Caribbean having blown over 1000 miles of Atlantic Ocean so unsurprisingly bring clouds and rain (just like UK but from a different direction and warmer). Temperatures are 24C at night 30C in the day. If they are supplemented by the southern ends of Cold Fronts trailing below Low pressure heading from the USA across the Atlantic to batter UK, the Caribbean winds and squalls are heavier. There is also sun, but precipitation is about 30%, and wind is guaranteed. If booking a Caribbean holiday you have been warned!

You also get a few surprises. When we anchored in Scotland Bay in Trinidad before setting out for Grenada, we settled down for a relatively early night under the stars. Until a piercing scream rent the air. From inside Intrepid. Bats were flying inside the sleeping cabins and one had fluttered past Pam, pandemonium in the dark as everyone tried to find out what had happened, then tried to find the bats then tried to find the bananas that we figured were the attraction and put them in the fridge, then tried to get rid of the bats. Which we sort of accomplished but next morning we found 2 overlooked bananas half eaten with bat teeth marks. So that's why Bacardi has the bat as its brand mark!

The Caribbean is a string of islands running initially north and slightly east from Trinidad; Grenada is 80 miles north, and is mainly famous for being 'invaded' by Ronald Reagan when it looked as though a left wing government might remain in power. Even today Grenada sells water and fuel in US gallons. From a sailing point of view, the whole of the west, north and east coast of Grenada are inhospitable steep to, but the south coast is a treasure trove of deep protected bays which cut the trade winds and squalls down to comfortable breezes and flat seas. We stayed in Hog Island Bay which has a truly bare feet bar in Rogers Ramshackle Bar, the only drinks are beer or rum and Ting (a grapefruit drink), the only floor, sand, the only roof palm fronds (or stars). No roads, the only way to get to Rogers is by boat. Local Grenadians from the nearest village Woburn sometimes come to cook fish and Lambi stew (Lambi is conch, the large pink shelled mollusc that tastes like slightly tough lobster), and the local gang leader has therefore pronounced the yachties out of bounds for theft, so when 6 dinghies were stolen in one night last year, they were returned before the owners even knew they had been stolen.

We sailed Intrepid round to Clarke's Court Bay, 200 metres direct but property developers are poised, and there is now a bridge connecting Hogs Island to the mainland, so we had to sail 4 miles round vicious reefs with an all sorts collection of buoys of varying colours to Clarke's Court Marina. There, we bought fresh steaks from Whisper Cove where a professional butcher from Montreal has emigrated, and built a special chiller. Clark's Court marina is like a marine USA trailer park, and held a potluck BBQ and karaoke evening which Intrepid contrived to transform into an English pub singalong, but by then we had topped up our batteries and water tanks, and next day set off north along the west coast of Grenada.

The weather forecast was awful, but it was equally bad for the next 4 days and Pam and John had to fly out of Bequia on Sunday. There were only 3 yachts going north into a stiff NE wind, but dozens coming south, mainly Moorings or Sunsail charter yachts trying to make their flights home. There is an active underwater volcano just north of Grenada, on the direct path and most yachts go west round it, but we ducked east then north just before London Bridge Rocks through the narrow gap between the Sisters rocks and Isle de Ronde to take advantage of the shelter from the increasingly frequent NE squalls which gusted to 40 knots and didn't reduce much below 30 knots, and finally made it into sheltered Tyrell Bay in Carriacou 2 hours before the next yacht, then bought local live lobster from Thomas for our BBQ. We kept Leroy in the fridge until then, which alarmed Pam as she reached in for milk, and a tentacle waved at her.

Carriacou has a population of 10000, 6 primary schools and 2 secondary schools, in an island about 5 miles by 4 miles, the name means 'island surrounded by reefs'. Its gloriously laid back, technically part of Grenada but already lobbying for local government. Uncle Polo took us to see descendants of Scottish shipbuilders who still create wooden 35 feet long sailing boats that were originally for fishing but which now compete for (and win) classic races in Antigua. We chatted to one builder, the keel is green heart oak from Guyana, the rest local wood chosen for its shape so the boat is created from the natural curves, rather than the wood being steamed or shaped. We bought local fruit and veg, and chatted to Patti who was born in UK but brought her daughter back to Carriacou to be with her grandparents, because schooling and child upbringing is better in the Caribbean than UK.

Next day we took a mooring ball just off Sandy Island, which just appears above the sea, a pristine white sand beach precariously protected by dead coral thrown up on the seaward side by a hurricane. We were the only ones on the ¼ mile beach, and the sun shone, but we had to go to a new country - St Vincent and the Grenadines, (SVG), so sailed north to Union Island which has an idyllic or terrifying harbour protected from the waves by exquisite turquoise reefs and from the wind not at all. Water taxis vie to be the first to 'get' you, we were unfortunate enough to have 3 fast local boats competing round us, yelling and arguing, not something you want when entering a tricky harbour already crowded with charter yachts.

In the end Angelo the quietest of the 3 gained us, so he took us into town (about 500 inhabitants) where Jennifer (who we remembered from our previous visit in 2004), cooked us a Caribbean dinner of shark, lambi, plantain and exotic spices. SVG includes Mustique but the main island was for quite some time antagonistic to visitors, and many of the small islands which survive on tourists resent being governed by a large island 40 miles away. Lucita who is 80 and intends to be 100 was virulent in her criticism of SVG, and lauded the 'best in the world' local cooking, local ingredients and laid back way of life on Union. She said there are very few health problems in Union, because the way of life is so healthy. Many big houses have been built by ex Union islanders who emigrated to UK or USA and have now returned to spend their pensions on their native island.

While we were there the local ferry from St Vincent arrived, much battered, and more like a floating supermarket delivery lorry, the inside an Alladin's cave of crates, full and empty beer bottles, cement blocks, construction lorries, and anything and everything anyone had ordered from the main island. It takes all night to unload, then next day it returns to St Vincent via Canouan and Bequia. Best not to anchor anywhere near its route into harbour, it does not take prisoners.

You need to clear immigration into SVG in order to be able to fly out (Pam and John), and to visit Tobago Cays, a genuinely world famous marine park (which has nothing to do with Tobago the island). There are always 50 or so yachts there, jostling for safe anchorage which does not damage the coral, and 3 small - medium cruise liners. There is little or no protection from the wind, so its rolly, but horseshoe reef provides some protection from the sea, and is the real attraction, although hurricanes do significant damage to coral reefs, and some coral is dead. You dinghy over to the reef, and snorkel from the dinghy.

Snorkelling in 30-35mph winds with waves to match and strong currents can be tricky. But we found 5 turtles grazing lazily just off the beach, most 1 metre long, and one smaller. They graze on seagrass delicacies, then every minute or so come to the surface to breathe, then down for more food. We followed one for 20 minutes, admiring the turtleshell markings.

Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here, Johny Depp was 'marooned' (with dozens of cameramen and extras) just 100 metres from where we were anchored, and many other locations can be recognised within SVG. I think Jonny would have enjoyed it here.

Schedules are always a problem. We had to leave on Friday to enable Pam and John to catch their flight back to UK. So which was the worst forecast that week? Friday of course. Gale force winds from dead ahead. But other yachts also had a schedule and there were about 5 yachts heading north as we left. 3 motored the whole way, rolly, smelly and distinctly unintrepid. Intrepid and a 55ft 2 master sailed, and we were perfectly matched, there was seldom more than 50 metres between us, and we both entered Bequia's Port Elizabeth 30 miles away upwind within 5 minutes of each other. The winds were as bad as or worse than the forecast, steady 35mph winds, gusting to 40mph and more, kicking up nasty very steep waves. Intrepid averaged 7-8 knots under heavily reefed sails which was good in the conditions. But we were all salt-caked when we finally arrived.

Bequia is a lovely island, 4 miles by 5, almost all tourists come by yacht, and the harbour is crowded with about 50 yachts (but that's still only about 200 visitors). An American whaling ship was badly damaged by a hurricane about 200 years ago, and just made it into the southern part of Bequia, where the local French Scottish and Caribbean inhabitants helped to repair the ship. While they were doing this several hump back whales were sighted just offshore, and a scratch whaling party was assembled to bring in a few whales. This continues to this day, small 24 feet boats with 6 men, oars and a sail, a man in the front with a 16 foot long harpoon. They aim to get close enough for the harpoonist to have a reasonable chance to kill the whale with a strike to the heart, but either way before anything else some poor bloke has to sew the whales mouth shut as otherwise it gulps in water and sinks in impenetrable depths. Lubin's uncle was injured when the sewing wasn't done fast enough and the whale went down dragging the boat with it still attached until finally someone managed to cut the rope. The International Whaling Commission allows 4 whales to be killed in this traditional way/year, last year they got 2, one 40 foot, the other 55 feet. The season is from February to April so we may see something when we return on our way south. Apparently the whole of Bequia stops when a whale is sighted and boats set out. Tiny bits of whale meat are served to families and tourists until it runs out, it tastes (I gather) like slightly fishy beef steak.

Pam and John had to leave us here, they were a lovely sailing crew, who enjoyed and helped a lot with the tough upwind sailing, which can be hard work, and were good company.

Bequia has wonderful diving. I went with Dive Bequia, and saw a huge variety of coral, often fluorescing, masses of fish, a family of lobsters, a crab that must have been 1 metre across (hidden in a crevasse) and 5 barracuda. The continuing wind meant that we were in the bay, where the water is calm(ish), so the trip to the dive sites was only a few minutes. Nicky walked around most of the island while I was diving (I said its not big). And I discovered Jurgen at Wallace &Co, who painstakingly renovated my Penn Fishing Reels (which were originally brought out to us in the Pacific years ago by Dennis and Elaine). Many fish later, they deserved a bit of pampering and retuning!

Our Raymarine GPS developed an intermittent fault during the sail from Bequia, but we have 4 spare GPS's so with a bit of creativity we took our position from one GPS and transposed it to the Raymarine charts, and ordered a replacement from St Lucia, so I think (?) that's OK. Its seldom plain sailing!

Walilabu Bay on St Vincent main island is famous as THE main set for all 3 of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Disney (who made the films) took most of the bay and created or added to existing buildings with fibre glass exteriors, bales, coffins, and all it takes to make a pirate lair. There are the detailed plans for each individual shot, and photos of all the stars. The film sets only have fronts, so the Walilabu Anchorage Restaurant has added rear walls to make a semi museum, and you eat in the bar recognisable from the movies. About 10 yachts and catamarans are anchored with a rope to the shore or to derelict sugar export jetties, with 10 or so boat boys (varying from aged 10 to 60) vying for business. A French catamaran (one of many) with 9 people on board came along and tried to save £3 by tying themselves to the shore, but made such a mess that in the end they had to pay the boat boys to help them while the fruit and vegetable sellers sat in their boats laughing.

We took the bus (packed minibus) into the capital Kingstown and wandered round the busy port city, which hasn't changed much from the 18th century, then went to the calm Botanical Gardens, oldest in the Western Hemisphere (est 1765) and twinned with Kew. There is a breadfruit tree grown from a cutting from the original tree brought by Captain Bligh of the Bounty. Also masses of shrubs and trees from round the world, taken from visiting ships. The wealth of the Caribbean at the time was of course plantations so the owners were keen to explore anything growing that might have commercial value. St Vincent is actually the main source in the world for arrowroot, (thickening sauces etc). Otherwise its volcanic, steep and its other main crop is marijuana, so you have to be careful if you climb Mount Soufriere the active volcano in the north, as there have been a few nasty robberies.