Another new Country - St Kitts

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Fri 21 Jan 2011 03:43
17:17/565N 62:43.459W Thursday night, Bassetiere, St Kitts

Kali concluded the exit formalities for Statia while Andrea and I had our breakfast this morning. Before we could actually leave, we had to retrieve the kedge anchor so Kali set off in the tender again and we soon had that back onboard and stowed away ready for the next time. Then we could haul in our main anchor and head off towards St Kitts.

We were able to get the sails up straight away, initially with the main and the genoa but soon the wind veered and we got overpressed. I was struggling to hold Saxon Blue on coarse as we developed loads of weather helm so we furled away a bit of main but that didn't seem to help. As soon as we replaced the genoa with the jib, the weather helm disappeared completely and we were beating comfortably along at about 8 knots. We soon cleared the southern tip of Statia and headed across the 7 mile straight which separates it from St Kitts.

The two islands initially looked similar as they both have volcanoes with rainforest filled craters in them. As we got closer, though, we could see that St Kitts has gentle, fertile slopes leading up to the central mountains whereas Statia looks pretty arid. As we neared the island, the wind got really fluky, first accelerating, then dying away completely so we started to motor and took the opportunity to put the watermaker on and charge the batteries.

Soon after passing the northern point of St Kitts, we could see an isolated mini-mountain by the coast and we recognised this as the site of Brimstone Hill Fortress which we'd read about in the guide book. It's the only World Heritage Site in the Caribbean so we were interested to see what all the fuss was about. As we drew level with the hill, we could see that most of the sides and top had been carved away into a series of level areas with battlements around them. It looked like a Victorian version of Bamburgh Castle, stuck on a rock and dominating the surrounding countryside. There's nowhere to land around the fort so we continued South towards Bassetiere, the Capital city past a coast lined with small villages and the occasional brick chimney from an abandoned sugar factory.

As we got to Bassetiere, we could see a huge cruise ship docked, the Norwegian Dawn. I'm sure we've seen her before, possibly at Halifax and then in New York. Before we got to her, we turned in towards the town beach and dropped our anchor so that we could decide what to do. We could stay at anchor where we were or we could go into the small marina that was built as part of the reclamation works to create the cruise ship terminal. Kali and I wet off in the tender to reconnoitre the marina as I didn't want any nasty surprises. The guys were really friendly and offered us one of the few remaining slips. It was alongside a short pier with a pile set off it. With the wind blowing us off, it looked ideal and we'd just need to get a midships line onto the pile on the way in to be under control.

With that, we headed back out to Saxon Blue and had our lunch before deciding that we'd like at least one night in the marina so we could easily explore the town. We quickly hauled the tender back onboard and got going as there were suddenly a bunch of other boats heading our way. One Sunsail boat beat us to it but he was heading further into the marina so we slotted straight into our berth behind him and ahead of a huge charter catamaran. The maneuver went perfectly so that gave me some confidence back. We're bow in which means our electric cable won't reach but we get a bit more privacy from the people on the dock.

Almost as soon as we'd tied up, Kali got chatting to the marina guy and he introduced us to his friend, Junior, who's a kind of taxi driver come tour operator. He explained that there are another three cruise ships due in tomorrow so, if we wanted to see anything, we'd better get on with it straight away. We negotiated a price for him to take us to Brimstone Hill Fort and wherever else we wanted to go for the afternoon and then Andrea and I got our gear together and finished getting Saxon Blue sorted out. About 15 minutes later, we headed up to Junior's minibus to find him deep in conversation with a large family of what turned out to be French people. There was a bit of confusion as they thought they had him to themselves and so did we. He'd obviously over-sold himself but was going to pass us onto a friend of his after we'd had a tour of the town. We though it was all a bit of a giggle and clearly part of what goes on but the French were so grumpy about it and didn't want to let us into the bus, occupying all the seats with random children. We just got in next to Junior and set off.

The town was chaos. Cars going everywhere so that it took us a while to realise that they were actually driving on the left. We stopped outside and ATM and I dashed in to get my 400 dollars daily allowance, only to be told by the machine that I could have East Caribbean Dollars instead so I had to do a quick conversion and got some of them instead. They're called dollars but they've got HM Queen Elizabeth on them and they're used in the Commonwealth countries of the West Indies. There are about 5 to the Pound so I now have more currencies than I want in my wallet.

Anyway, after the ATM, we got shown the Police Station, Prison, Social Security Office and Cemetary - so all the really good bits, then. Then it was time for us to swap vans into a natty green one driven by Dell who even had functioning air-con. We set off towards the fort though the villages which we'd seen from the boat earlier. The whole place is totally ramshackle. Dell pointed out the latest government funded Low Income houses and they were considerably nicer than the surrounding ones. The road was terrible, full of pot-holes which Dell avoided with a skill which could only come from constant practice. Every so often the road is crossed by a deep gulley to allow the flood waters to escape and these present another hazard to traffic. We stopped at a roadside shack so that he could pick up some food and drink. Next to is was an old tree festooned with empty bottles. The Rum Tree, he explained. What was it for, I asked. To show how much rum they can drink. Obvious, really.

Soon after that, it was time to turn off to the fort. The road up was narrow and full of hairpin bends. Dell made constant use of his horn which was a Dukes of Hazzard special. We paid for entry and an audio tour and he continued up to the parade ground almost at the top of the hill. We got all Andrea's filming stuff out and went to watch the orientation DVD. The fort was built by the British to protect their interests in St Kitts. Originally, the island was colonised by the British and French simultaneously and was divided between them but clearly that was never going to work. They maintained their peaceful co-existence just long enough to summarily massacre the previous inhabitants, then set to fighting between themselves. The British built the first fort on Brimstone Hill to protect their Fort Charles on the coast but they didn't do a good enough job so a French force of 8000 was able to dislodge the British one of only 1000. Soon after, though, the entire island was ceeded to the British in a treaty so the Royal Engineers returned and strengthened the defences.

The result is incredible. To gain the summit of the hill, attackers would need to take a series of Bastions, each a fort in its own right. They each had their own system to gather rainwater and store it in underground cisterns so they could withstand a siege. The final defence, the Citadel, is a then state of the art artillery fort with a moat, killing zones all around and a battery of cannon which dominated the island for miles. As with all the Victorian forts that we've seen, the quality of the masonry is fantastic and the whole place gained the nickname of the "Gibralter of the Caribbean" thanks to its impressive and presumably impregnable character. We did some Janeway filming, despite the heat and I enjoyed listening to my audio tour narrated by a lady with a wonderful West Indian accent. On the way out, we even saw some monkeys, imported from Africa along with the slaves who built the fort and the whole island economy.

On the way back to Saxon Blue, we talked to Dell some more about the island. The economy was almost destroyed about 5 years ago when the sugar industry was closed down by the government as uneconomic. Sugar had sustained the island almost since it was colonised and was the reason for the importation of the slaves from Africa. The sugar cane fields are all still there but they're untended and the cane grows wild with nobody cutting it. They've tried to diversify into education, with a medical college and even a veterinary school but the main industry now is tourism and the taxi-drivers at least are happy to see the ships arrive.

It's amazing to think that this was the first Caribbean outpost for both the British and the French who went on to found all their subsequent island colonies from this base. The money here came from agriculture so that meant slaves. For two and a half centuries, the sugar made the British wealthy and then it collapsed. From what I've seen, the money and the people who owned it then pulled out and left the descendants of the slaves behind. I've not seen one white face that wasn't on a tourist and we felt a bit weird being driven about in a vehicle which, on other days, is a public bus. People, all black, hailed us as we drove along and were left standing by the roadside. Today the bus has white people onboard so you'll just have to wait.

Dell dropped us back at the marina and we left soon afterwards to find somewhere for dinner. Although Kali left before us, we all ended up in the same restaurant in the town square and had a great meal of local seafood. I particularly enjoyed my Conch soup so I'll be eating more of them, I'm sure. While we were chatting afterwards, a terrific rainstorm hit the town but stopped as quickly as it started so we were able to return to Saxon Blue in the dry. We're suffering now from an infestation of mosquitoes, the first time we've had such a problem so that'll teach us to stay out at anchor where we'd be cool and bug-free but rolly. Hey ho, you pays your money and makes your choice.


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