That's it

Tue 21 Jan 2014 18:04
17:03.9N 61.53.0W

It is inevitable that I am writing this blog with very mixed emotions.
Indeed, the last few days have had more than their share of emotions - most
of them positive, but also a strange sadness that for three out of the four
of us, the trip is now over.

The latter part of our last night sail was different to anything we had
experienced since Carpe Diem was sailing towards the Spanish Coast back in
September. Having left Dominica behind us, we could eventually make out the
lights ashore on Basse Terre on Guadeloupe. We also spotted a number of
lights identifying outlying reefs, several of which we had to snake our way
through. Sailing, in the dark, between two islands barely 3 miles apart
seemed bizarrely claustrophobic and the only way I could deal with it was to
go and have a lie-down after my watch! I awoke three and half hours of deep
sleep later to be greeted by the southern coast of Antigua rising from the
ocean. Despite having made landfall at Martinique, seeing the coast, the
mountains and outlying rocks of English Harbour and knowing that we had
reached our destination was quite something. Antigua immediately surprised
us as the landscape was different to that of Martinique. Although also
mountainous, it is a much lower island than the others and it is also unlike
many other islands ringed by countless bays, small rocky outcrops and reefs.
As I discovered later on, its inland vegetation is also more varied - part
'rainforest', but also wide expanses of agricultural land of sorts.

And there were boats! We had seen two yachts off the coast of Martinique,
both appearing to be heading towards St Lucia, but the coast of Antigua was
positively teeming with other yachts of every shape and size. Although it
did not quite resemble the Solent on a sunny Saturday in August, it
nevertheless felt reassuringly normal. We kept clear of Cades Reef and
started heading northwards towards Jolly Harbour. The coast along this part
of Antigua was the stuff of dreams. Long, unspoilt beaches, framed by
coconuts, occasional hotels and bungalows discreetly nestling behind in some
parts, lush rolling hills stretching away in the distance.

The entrance to Jolly Harbour is stunning. Pass the reefs and beaches at its
entrance and you enter a lagoon with several small inlets spreading out,
some leading to mangrove swamps, others dotted with little villas, all of
which have a pontoon with a boat instead of a garden. First stop, the
Customs Dock, as always with our yellow flag raised. Formalities were
tedious and protracted, having to explain not only who we were, who had come
from where and would be leaving when and how (it is surprisingly
bureaucratically difficult to arrive somewhere by boat and say that you are
leaving by another means of transport - in my case, plane). Other questions
included number of cigars on board (less than when we set out), amount of
liqueur (more than when we departed, thanks to some excellent rum purchased
on Martinique) and whether we had any pets (cue jokes about flying fish -
not something that the official found as amusing as we did).

Also on shore were Papi and Stephan's wives, complete with a bottle of very
chilled Champagne. Reunion. Not many words needed to be uttered between

Shortly after the soul-sapping immigration experience and the much more
happy family welcome, we were met by the harbourmaster - a man so positive
in attitude and friendly that we couldn't help but return his grin with big
smiles. We came to learn later on that a sunny disposition is something that
all Antiguans seem to have in common! He led us into the inner reaches of
Jolly Harbour where we moored, stern-to, between a similarly-sized American
yacht and a Hallberg Rassy of unknown origins. And took in our
surroundings: a harbour 'resort' with offices, yacht service companies, bars
and restaurants.

We had arrived. 3,100nm travelled since the Canary Islands. And 4,600nm
since leaving Antibes.

Our landfall ritual was quickly re-established. In my case a telephone call
home. All of us together found the nearest open bar - the Crow's Nest (many
names derive either from pirate legends, English nautical supremacy or boat
parts). Cue bottles of beer. And a burger. We hired a car and the other four
departed to the hotel where the ladies had been staying to have a shower.
Rather than queue for a single shower there, and in order to enjoy a little
bit of quiet, reflective time myself, I stayed on board and showered at the
marina. This shower felt almost as good as that on Martinique.

The evening found us all gathered in the delightful Coco Bay Resort where
the Mojitos (complete with basil instead of mint leaves) and beer flowed in
equal quantities and which were followed by an exquisite meal which would
have the most hardened food critic salivating: an Antiguan chef, trained in
Switzerland produced four courses of such delicate and delicious cuisine as
is hard to come by normally, let alone after three weeks living off Corned
Beef Bolognese!

Yesterday, I took myself off around the Island by myself. Out of the marina,
hang a right and keep going until you hit Fig Drive. So-called, because fig
is apparently the Antiguan word for banana... Not sure whether someone was
having a laugh at my expense or not, but certainly as you drive higher and
higher into the hills, open space is replaced with dense jungle and yes,
banana trees. Everywhere. And every so often you happen across a small stall
by the side of the road where women were selling bananas. And sugar apples,
monkey apples, pineapples and peanuts. Villages along the route varied, with
many consisting of ramshackle huts - often made of nothing more than what
appeared to be salvaged driftwood with corrugated iron roofs. There was
almost always a clapped out pick up in the front garden, sometimes acting as
one end of a makeshift washing line, other times as an stake to which to tie
goats or cattle. Other villages, however, featured more substantial
properties of painted brick and wooden roofs - perhaps a sign of a growing
economic prosperity. Most houses, though, however they were built, were
painted in bright colours and had small, but well tended gardens. Antiguans
seem not only a happy bunch, but also proud. I took in some obvious and
inevitable tourist destinations: the Nelson Interpretation Centre, where I
was given an audio-visual tour of the island's history since the Stone Age
and the first Arawak settlers, continuing through Christopher Columbus, who
wrote about, but didn't stop here, and the battle for supremacy over the
newly-established trading routes just before and after the American war of
Independence. Although the influx of slaves featured in the presentation, I
am sure that the more gruesome parts of the island's history were glossed
over, but the message was clear: the national flag of Antigua and Barbuda,
devised after its full independence from the UK in the late sixties, depicts
a sun rising over the horizon and is a symbol of a bright future. This is a
really welcoming, happy and positive place. I long to return, although
perhaps not by boat! I also had a wander around Falmouth Harbour and Nelsons
Dockyard, sipping the occasional beer and taking in the atmosphere before
heading back to Jolly Harbour and my last night aboard Carpe Diem.

In a little over six hours' time I will be heading to the airport to catch a
flight home. I can't wait to see Caroline, Matilda, Flora and Otto. I
apologise in advance for returning with a steel drum, but I simply felt
compelled. The reason for this desire for Caribbean musical instruments is
not only the usual tourist urge to acquire a naff gift which seems like such
a good idea at the time, but also goes back to our first evening on the
island and the steel drum band we heard in the hotel and the local radio
station's choice of music. A selection of tunes from the sixties to now have
all been interpreted on a steel drum: Daft Punk, Dave Brubeck and even Yazz.
Simply inspired and brilliant.

As I return to the UK, I have asked myself how to respond to the
well-meaning and entirely realistic questions: well, how was it Philip? And
in truth, I am not quite sure. Or rather, I am sure, but I have not yet been
able to describe this succinctly in any coherent fashion.

The last time I was away from home for a month (crumbs, anything over two
weeks) was after I left school almost 20 years ago! There were many concerns
before we left, both from the crew and those we left behind. There were
certainly tears of sadness as we left, and tears of joy as we arrived. There
were a few tears during the crossing, occasional drama but also a huge
amount of belly-aching laughter. The crossing itself was strangely
uneventful, easy almost. Even the relentless watch rotation was simply a
fact of life and something we all coped without problems. I had a wonderful
time. The four of us have shared an experience and formed a bond between us
that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We had a great deal of
fun. My desire for blue water sailing is - for the time being at least -

We have tried to share this trip from a very personal point of view in this
blog, where others I had read before our departure often focussed on purely
technical matters, or a rundown of daily life. There are nevertheless
certain things that only we know about and understand. Some things which are
not on camera. Some may be noted in our personal diaries. Others not. As is
so often the case, much has been left unspoken, but mainly because not
everything needs to be said.

My father will be staying on for a few more weeks, pottering around the boat
and Antigua. In April he will start the final two legs of the circuit:
Antigua - Azores and Azores-Hamble. That is a more physically challenging
journey and slightly longer. I am not sure I could muster the enthusiasm for
it quite yet, but would if I could take the family (oh, and we were free of
any work and financial commitments!).

We had some t-shirts printed. They say 'Carpe Diem Atlantic Circuit
2013/14'. Someone has to finish the job.