The Caribbean

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Thu 5 Aug 2004 11:14

To bring you up to date on what I’ve been up to, as I think you know I left Cape Town in mid February and sailed single handed some 5 ½ thousand miles to Antigua non stop.   It took me forty three days, a bloody long time!  Anyway I made it without going any crazier than I was (am?).

I wanted to make it to Antigua for the Classic Regatta and I ended up staying there for the Race Week as well, almost six weeks.  I have to admit to being a little disappointed with the Classic Regatta and the Race Week.  While the boats were all very flash and beautiful I didn’t really fit in with the crowd, never have been much of a socialite.  The other highlights of Antigua was a day at a test match in St Johns and obtaining my open water diving ticket.  Not being an avid cricket fan the day at the cricket was not terribly exciting, especially as Australia was not playing, but being in the crowd and watching the antics between the locals and the barmy army was fun.  And the diving course I had decided to treat myself to as a birthday present and a reward for achieving my goal of sailing non-stop across the Atlantic, I enjoyed immensely.

From Antigua I went to St Maarten where, after a bit of messing around, I picked up a friend I had made in Cape Town, a Canadian woman named Danni, and her boyfriend Kenn.  It took a while to connect up with them but they eventually made it.

I can’t say much about St Maarten, because I don’t have anything particularly nice to say about the joint.  The island is split into two countries, the north side is French and the south, the bit I was in, is supposedly Dutch, but it may as well have been an ugly bit of America, a Californian bit I suspect.  Just a  main road, 4x4s and Harleys seeming to go endlessly in circles, shops and American style bars everywhere, no parks or attempts at public spaces and beautification.  I believe it survives on its duty free status, ‘nuff said.

While in St Maarten, in addition to my guests, I managed to sign on a new crew member who now seems pretty well permanent.  One night as Danni, Kenn and I were heading back to the dinghy after a few beers at the local yacht club we heard a kitten crying.  Unable to ignore it we found the thing wet and bedraggled in the rain, trapped in the lift bridge that lies across the entrance into the lagoon, in a section of piping on the roadside.  Of course we had to take him back on board and clean him up.  That was back in May and now he runs the joint.  While I am not enamoured with cats in general I am going to try and keep him, despite the fact that he wants to claw and bite me at regular intervals.  I am hoping he will be a good ship’s cat.  Obviously he will limit what I can do but cats are a lot easier to manage on boats than dogs, they don’t need as much attention and are very easy to house train.

Danni had planned an extensive itinerary which was very ambitious.  She had done a lot of research back in Canada, I had given her a free reign but said I wanted to be in Trinidad by early July as this is when the hurricane season starts and Trinidad is considered to be out of the hurricane belt.  That gave us about six weeks from when they joined and as it is less than 600 miles I thought it was a reasonable limitation.  Well first of all we headed north, a mere 11 miles to the independent state of Anguilla to catch up with some friends of hers.  Danni’s friends were Rastafarians so I experienced a bit of an introduction into Rasta culture which, while Rastafarians are all very friendly, I found a little confusing.  An interesting place we visited was a bar run by a popular reggae musician in the Caribbean, Banky Banks.  His bar sprawls in several different directions all at once and is constructed amongst other things out of a lot of boats. 

From Anguilla we headed south to Saba, a nice day sail of 39 miles.  Saba is part of the Dutch Antilles and is a beautiful island.  It’s not much more than a rock rising out of the Caribbean basin and the anchorage is off the steep rugged west coast providing shelter from the prevailing easterlies that blow all year round through the Caribbean.  The swell on the other hand can be awful, apparently, as the island is only two miles from one end to the other, though for our short stay of two days we had a good time of it.  We picked up a mooring buoy in the evening and the next day I went ashore to explore.  I beached the dinghy on a rocky beach in Ladders Bay and then climbed the Ladder, a series of steps that scale the near vertical cliffs.  This used to be the only port of entry and everything was lugged up these short steep steps by human effort – there’s over a thousand of them and though I didn’t personally check this figure I have absolutely no doubt that it is true.  Nowadays the main harbour is Fort Bay to the south which, after the steps, I splurged and caught a taxi to in order to clear in.

The Sabans are clearly a hardy bunch, the steps were hand hewn from stone and the road along which I was now travelling took 15 years to build.  The story goes that they brought an engineer out to survey the territory and he said the road couldn’t be built.  This was not the answer the Sabans wished to hear so they sent a local back to the mother land who learnt to build roads, and when he came back he supervised the construction.  Some say it was the road that shouldn’t have been built but the bit between Bottom (the town at the TOP of the cliff at Ladders Bay) and Fort Bay wasn’t too bad apart from a few interesting hairpin bends.   At Fort Bay I booked a dive for the next day.   My impression was that this would have to be the tidiest place on earth.  The Dutch style cottages are all small, one storied, and timber framed with a stone foundation.  The doors and windows follow a strict style, they are voluntarily painted to the same colour scheme and they are all in excellent condition.  Set amongst the abundant tropical vegetation the overall scene looked like something out of a fairy tale.

The next day I dived on a pinnacle to 130 feet, supposedly one of the best dives in the Caribbean while Kenn, an architect, hiked around the island inspecting the architecture, and Danni remained on board feeling out of sorts.

Next stop, Statia, 28 miles away, another beautiful Dutch island with a fascinating history.  The islands of the Caribbean having been scrapped over by the major European powers ever since Columbus makes trying to fit all the pieces of history together beyond my ken, but Statia’s claim to fame was the Governor unwittingly returning the salute from a visiting American merchant ship in 1776, thereby recognizing America’s recently declared independence.  Well the Poms didn’t take too kindly to this and it in turn led to war between England and Holland and England invading Statia.  There’s a plaque in the township of Oranjestad donated by the USA congratulating Statia as being the first foreign power to recognise their independence.  What a silly species we are.

The highlight of Statia, apart from some very interesting ruins, was a hike to the nearby Quill, an extinct volcano crater 1,970 feet above sea level.   We hiked down into the crater over some nasty scree into dense rainforest.  The crater is only eight hundred yards across and almost a perfect circle.  Unfortunately Danni managed to get stung by a wasp which caused her hand to swell up like a balloon.  She also broke out into hives, probably from standing under a poisonous tree.  So this rather put a dampener on the day’s activities.

One day was enough in Statia and next morning we were aweigh and off to Nevus, a ten hour sail.  Nevus was initially named ‘Nuestra Senora del las Nieves” (Our Lady of the Snows) by Columbus but fortunately someone decided such a small island couldn’t possibly accommodate such a long name on any reasonably scaled chart.  Danni’s check off list required us to visit some natural hot springs here.  These were at one time very famous and the ruins of an old hotel was probably the most fascinating feature of the island.  It used to be popular in the 1700’s and the ruins are in surprisingly good condition.   The original bath houses were little private affairs in dingy rooms, now disused and dank, and have been superseded by small swimming pool style public baths.  Locals are not abashed to strip naked and wash themselves in the natural stream that runs adjacent the manmade pools, but this was a bit much for me, I chose to remain in swimming togs in the much cleaner pool.

Kenn had to sign off here as he had to get back to Canada to pursue a project he was working on.  Meanwhile Danni and I decided to backtrack a little to St Kitts (or St Christopher, take your pick) of which Nevis is a part, i.e. they are an independent twin island state.  St Kitts became the first British Caribbean colony in 1623 and in unique piece of cooperation between competing French and English settlers, they joined forces and massacred the indigenous Carib population of 2000 souls, then, once the indigenous population were out of the way, they went back to fighting amongst themselves for the next 150 years, until the 1783 Treaty of Versailles.  This massacre took place in a canyon aptly named Bloody Canyon, and it was this landmark which we had missed on Danni’s list.  We had to anchor in an unprotected bay but conditions were good,.  We negotiated a rocky beach to get ashore, then hitchhiked a short distance along the highway.  It turned out the driver who picked us up was a local police chief who took us to a see a guide who could lead us to our goal.  We certainly needed the guide for this was not exactly on the tourist trail, but it was well worth the effort.  The unique feature of the canyon, small as they were, were the petroglyphs carved by the Caribs before they were wiped out.  Most of the canyon walls are of soft stone and I was surprised that they were still visible. 

The guide turned out to be as interesting as the petroglyphs.  He was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the history of the canyon even though he had only returned from the USA 12 months previously, having spent some 20 years there care of the United States Government in a Federal penitentiary.  Apparently as a young man he was in Florida as an athlete and was wrongly convicted of a robbery on the basis of a line-up identification.  I do not know whether the story is true but will say it seems too incredible to be total fabrication.  He did not appear bitter about it, just frustrated at his present lack of opportunity for work.  He was also very philosophical about the history of his island.  As a descendant of African slavery he held the attitude history is just that, namely history, and we must all just get on with life here and now and make the most of it.  We were grateful for his efforts and his interesting story, and paid him a small remuneration from our minor means.

From Bloody Point we went to the main port of Basseterre where we cleared out of St Kitts, then sailed to White Bay five miles away where we snorkeled and hiked.

From St Kitts a 28 mile sail brought us to Montserrat.  Montserrat has an active volcano which erupted in 1996 with a pyrotechnic flow which destroyed the port of Plymouth.  Then in 1997 the volcano’s wall collapsed and caused further devastation with ash flows burying much of the city.  It was still considered hazardous but we were allowed to visit the ruins of Plymouth during daylight hours so we sailed down to Foxes Bay where we anchored just north of the exclusion zone.  That evening I walked around the beach area.  Having a rather active imagination I always find walking around ruins fascinating, imagining people’s lives from long ago, putting our own fragile and uncertain existence into perspective, but I had not come this close to such a recent disaster before.  I walked into an abandoned modern ‘well to do’ middle class three bedroom house, most of the furniture had been removed but items of clothing, books and assorted bric-a-brac littered the floor and everything was coated in a heavy layer of fine ash.  Coincidentally I found some plastic place mats which were somebody’s souvenir from Canada.  They were of no value and I took a couple back for Danni, thinking it would be ironic if this little memento of the disaster would make its way back to Canada.  Unfortunately another very minor disaster was to preclude this eventuality.

The next day we set off in earnest for our main quarry, the ruined city.  We stopped off at a house where someone was working and met an interesting bloke who was trying to get his abode back in order, hoping one day to be able to move back in.  His name was George, he was originally from Montserrat but had moved to England many years ago, married, had children, divorced, than retired back to Montserrat.  He now rented somewhere on the northern side of the island, still lush and green and unaffected by the calamity.  It seems more than a coincidence that his ex-wife also has a house not very far from his.   A large box stood in his hallway containing a ride on lawnmower he had brought out from England, but his lawns were now buried under two feet of ash.  Alone at 65, the material results of his life’s work largely in ruins, his life goes on.  We had a good chat.

We eventually made it to Portsmouth, or what was left of it.  The scene is amazing.  Much of the city is buried with roofs emerging from the arid landscape.  Boulders the size of houses were strewn down the slope, fine brown-grey dirt covered everything with channels slashed through from subsequent downpours.  Sulfuric fumes wafted down the still smoking mountainside.  Not everything was buried, though the road we were walking along came to an abrupt halt, buried and cut through.  I walked into what was once a hardware store, found a tricycle which I rode out to Danni, saying I had found us some new transport.  But the real find was a huge pile of books.  All were covered in the fine ash but were in good condition.  I wiped the ash away and found some very interesting titles, a collection of Nietzsche’s writings, Frankl's “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a Deepak Chopra book, several Ernest Hemmingway novels, and many others.  I was hard pressed wiping the heavy layer of ash, sorting through them and trying to decide what to rescue.  From there we headed downhill and ended up in what used to be a museum, and before this an old windmill.  I went up to the third story and found several hundred National Geograhics strewn around the floor.  I picked several at random and added them to the heavy load in my backpack.  It was now time to return to the boat.  An amazing day!

From Montserrat we sailed 40 miles to Guadaloupe.  We anchored in Deshais Bay to clear-in but, now in French territory, the French authorities are pretty lay back when it comes to these sorts of formalities.  On the two occasions I tried to clear-in the only person I found in the Bureau de Douarde was the cleaning lady.  So we gave up on this and on the next day continued on to Pigeon Island, a marine park founded by Jacques Cousteau.  He claimed at the time that it was about the best diving in the world.  Well, it is acknowledged that this was a long time ago, and I am sure many better sites have since been discovered, but of course the snorkeling was still excellent.  We had picked up a mooring buoy in the park late in the afternoon and managed to fit in a snorkel around the smaller of the two islands with plenty of daylight left.   The next day we awoke to the sounds of French voices and a boat bumping alongside.  People were fishing with nets.  I can only assume they were outside the park boundaries, if so they certainly must have been cutting the limits awfully close.  Or perhaps they considered themselves traditional fishermen.  They certainly didn’t look very traditional.  However they were soon gone and we had a leisurely start to the day with a typical Danni breakfast feast.  We followed this with a snorkel, this time Danni coaxing me to swim around the bigger island, followed by a French wine and cheese lunch and we concluded the day with an afternoon sail to anchor off Basse-Terre in the evening. 

That evening, ashore in a bar that called itself a yacht club, we met a lovely man named Patrick.  He was originally from Scotland, moved to France to teach English in his twenties, and now worked as a teacher in Guadaloupe.  We were very lucky to meet him.  He could speak excellent English and was a wonderful host.  All his friends were charming, and he looked after us so well, showing us the many wonderful sights; waterfalls, rivers, rainforest, hot springs and excellent restaurants, and interesting people; it was difficult for us to leave after only a week, but it was now late June and I was starting to feel the pressure of needing to move further south out of the hurricane belt.  So, on Tuesday 22 June, we weighed anchor and made a short night sail down to a group of small islands, the Isle Des Saintes.

Here, the next day, a short walk brought us to an out of the way little restaurant run by a real character.  He was an old man now but when he was much younger he had moved to Africa to try his hand at a coffee plantation.  This had not worked out so he built himself a boat 300 miles inland.  When finished he moved it to the coast, paying for the haulage by displaying it to villages on the way, most of whom had never seen a boat before.  He then sailed it to the Caribbean where he eventually settled.  He played us some great blues, his own recordings and demonstrated how to use a large funnel to give a pretty mean trumpet rendition.  He couldn’t speak a word of English but fortunately some younger people there interpreted for us.

Next stop was Portsmouth in Dominica, where Kenn having sorted his affairs in Canada, found the time to rejoin us.  I have to admit though from here I was starting to feel the need for a bit of time alone.  So Kenn and Danni went off camping for a few days while I spent the time reading and doing a few boat chores.  I also hiked the Cabrit's National Park which was very interesting, but my main objective was to find a hiking stick a cruising friend had left there.  It took me a while but I found the stick and was rewarded with a beautiful little humming bird dancing around my head.

I am not sure what it was but the dynamics seemed to change a bit with Kenn’s return and the atmosphere started to become increasingly tense.  I think I was starting to feel a bit used up with all the activities and basically needed my boat back.  But we pressed on.  From Portsmouth we sailed to the south end of the island to Roseau.  The highlight here was snorkelling off a beach called Champagne.   The reason for the name is that volcanic gases escape through the rocks and bubble just like streams of bubbles in a glass of champagne.

From Dominica we went to Martinique, spent a day there to buy in some more good cheap French wine, then made our first overnight sail to St Vincent.  We spent two days at anchor just south of Kingstown.  I can’t recall why we went there, however we did do the laundry and we visited a large cemetery while we were waiting.  You can certainly get a fascinating glimpse of the struggle for life from cemetery headstones, looking at the age and relationships of the various names and dates inscribed on the headstones, and the social hierarchy of society from their ornateness or simplicity, or non-existence.

After St Vincent we sailed ten miles to Bequia Island.  As we were leaving Kingstown I looked behind us and saw a wall of white water, solid driving rain – a white squall!  Hurriedly I put in two reefs and furled the headsail, just in time as about 40 knots of wind and rain lashed us.  All very dramatic but it soon passed, no great waves like in the movie, and we were soon back under full sail.  In Bequia Danni had the opportunity to learn to dive at a good price as it was off season, and I was offered very cheap diving rates as an incentive for me to stay in Bequia longer, which I agreed to.  Danni was a natural in the water but came down with a head cold and despite staying for eight days unfortunately was unable to complete the course.  From Bequia we sailed to Mustique.  Mustique is a luxury resort island where mansions are available for rent for the super rich and famous at incredible prices.  On most of the island there is hardly a blade of grass out of place.  The bar on the beach where we were anchored claimed to be one of the best in the world, but a beer there was super expensive, the service was snobbish, and they had only one brand of beer in tiny bottles; so I would rate it as the worst bar I have ever been to, and over the years I’ve been to some dumps.  For anyone interested in these things the best bar in the world is the Gove Yacht Club.  I’d be interested to hear of a better one, maybe I’ll do a world survey.

In Bequia the impeller in my trusty little two horsepower Yamaha outboard failed, so we decided to head back to Bequia to see if it could be repaired there.  On the way back things were a little tense between Danni and me, I criticized her over something, a little harshly I will admit, but it was clear that it was time for us to go our separate ways.  So once back at anchor in Bequia Kenn and Danni moved ashore to camp on the beach, I repaired the outboard, signed them off the boat, and two days later felt relieved to be once more single handing, now heading for Union Island.  I stayed here for three days meeting up with a lovely Dutch family, Meinco and Rickje and their three children.  We had made friends with each other in our travels around the islands.  I went for a dive with Meinco using his gear which made a nice change from diving in a large group, though he swam very fast compared to the leisurely pace of the dive groups I had swum with thus far.  An interesting feature of Clifton Harbour where I was anchored was a very small island that a man had built up from the reef upon which he runs a bar and restaurant.  He’s another interesting character looking for ways to expand his business, literally.  He reckons he’s reached the limit of growth of his little kingdom, so he’s thinking of making more islands.  Empire builder!

From Union Island I went on to Grenada, stopping at a small island, Isle de Ronde for a night, as I was going to get to Grenada after dark which I prefer not to if I can help it.  I anchored in the Lagoon, St George’s Harbour on Tuesday 27 July.  It was pleasant in Grenada.  I made friends with a nice young French couple, the anchorage was quiet, and it was only a day sail from Trinidad; so I stayed for eight days and completed some repairs to the topsides which had been damaged while picking up water back in Martinique.

I had another cruising friend I had made while in South Africa in Trinidad.  I had heard some unpleasant stories about Trinidad but I didn’t want to miss Laurie.  Also I knew my Dutch friends would be there and it is officially out of the hurricane belt.  It was time to move on.  A slow overnight sail with a variety of conditions, including about two knots of current against me much of the time, saw me get into Chaguaramas much later than I had planned, but I still made it in plenty of time to clear in with customs and then motor around to the opposite side of the peninsular to a bay which seems to have no name, but was recommended to me as being much quieter and more pleasant than the port anchorage.  So here I am anchored off the Trinidad Tobago Sailing Association Club.  I am progressing some much overdue maintenance.  The fridge has died again with a bad leak.   I had it looked at yesterday and the mechanic advised that it was beyond economical repair and recommended I replace the system.  Well I don’t have the money for that, so for now I think I’ll just rip the old system out.  I have gone without it now for over a month, and while I miss it, it clearly is not a critical piece of equipment.  If I want a cold beer I just go ashore, always a good opportunity to socialize, which I’ve been doing a little too much of lately.  On the positive side I don’t have to run the engine everyday and I look at it as an opportunity to simplify my life even further.  The next step will be a bloody monastery if I keep this up.

Overall my impression of the Caribbean was better than I expected.  Most of the people were friendly, it was not as commercial or as expensive as I thought it would be, though we were sailing in the off season and it was a credit to Danni as she had planned to avoid these sorts of places.  But now I am feeling a bit fed up with all this island hopping and am looking forward to a nice long sail again, though maybe not 43 days by myself, not for a while anyway.  From here I think I will probably tag along with Laurie for a while.  A small fleet is sailing for Venezuela at the end of the month.  Venezuela is not the safest place in the world, so sailing in convoy makes a lot of sense, and my old boat will be the least attractive target amongst a group of much juicier prizes.


A poem for my navy friends:

Channel Firing

That night your great guns, unawares
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgement-day

And sat upright.  While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the alter crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled.  Till God called, ‘No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

‘All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder.  Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christes sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

‘That this is not the judgement-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening …

‘Ha, ha.  It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).’

So down we lay again.  ‘I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,’
Said one, ‘then when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!’

And many a skeleton shook his head.
’Instead of preaching forty year,’
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
’I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.’

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
as far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

                            THOMAS HARDY