Our Caribbean Arrival


caribbean-arrival-largeOur goal when we set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean aboard our Southerly 42 sailboat from the Canary Islands was to arrive in the Caribbean island of Antigua in time for the legendary Sunday night jump-up atop Shirley Heights. We almost made it.

Easily within our target after two weeks at sea, we lost the so-called reliable trade winds 800 miles off the coast of Antigua due to a flukey combination of weather systems to the north; for the next several days we drifted slowly toward our desired destination. We had fuel but wanted to conserve what was left for our final approach or an emergency.

We’d had a good voyage. The trade winds had been steady and warm for most of the way. Our new boat, Distant Shores, had performed like a charm charging along wing and wing, day after day. And with the variable draft keel down to 9 feet depth, the boat had given us exceptionally comfortable motion during the whole downwind voyage. On top of this, our crew, British cruising friends Wayne and Angie Attwood of Plymouth, England, were a delight to sail with, and now, happy and healthy, we were all looking forward to concluding the passage with a rousing Caribbean party in celebration before Wayne and Angie flew back to winter in England.

Awaiting our arrival at the Admiral’s Inn in English Harbour, were our next guests, Bill and Camille Bohnhardt, from Mississauga, Ontario. As Bill and Camille danced the night away hoping we’d soon be joining them at the Sunday, January 13th Shirley Heights Jump-up, they searched the horizon with their binoculars and continuously hailed “Distant Shores” on their VHF handheld radio.

Meanwhile the four of us could see the lights of the island ahead in the darkness but by the time we’d willed our way into the harbour in the light winds the clock had struck twelve and it was 0145 in the wee hours of Monday morning before we were tied up to the quay. We’d missed the party but were joyous in our own celebration as we at last set our feet on solid ground after 18 days at sea. Wayne and Angie were celebrating the completion of their first transatlantic passage and we were celebrating our fourth. Glowing with contentment and champagne, everyone slept soundly that night.

Awaking the next morning, we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were really there and not in a time-travel dreamland. Nelson’s Dockyard Marina is run by National Parks Antigua and is an authentically restored Georgian period dockyard – the only working Georgian dockyard in the world. Looking at our surroundings in our post-passage daze, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see Nelson and his officers come striding over to welcome us to the Caribbean. When we’d made landfall we’d raised our yellow “Q” flag (for quarantine) on the starboard halyard to indicate our wish to clear in; Paul set off with our ship’s papers and passports to visit the Customs, Immigration, and Port Authorities. After clearing in to the twin island state of Antigua and Barbuda, we lowered the “Q” flag and replaced it with the Antigua and Barbuda courtesy flag.

Despite the old world setting, almost everything is available at Nelson’s Dockyard that today’s sailor arriving from the sea could possibly need – a sailmaker, chandlery, boat yard, fuel dock, an inn, a bank, a wonderful bakery, restaurants, showers and laundry service. There’s a local straw market too. And for the truly modern sailor – an electronics store, internet cafe, cell phone service, ATM, gift shops and boutiques. The only thing we found missing was a really good grocery store within walking distance. But with taxis and buses readily available at the front gate, it’s just a short hop over to Falmouth Harbour, the mega-yacht basin, where there are excellent stores for restocking your supplies after a long voyage.

Bill and Camille were relieved to see that we had arrived safely and we were delighted to learn that they had been scouting out the best local restaurants while awaiting our arrival. The Admiral’s Inn where they were staying in the Dockyard rated highly on their list and together we dined on delicious local meat and seafood dishes while recounting tales of our voyage. Wayne and Angie were so enchanted by Antigua with its friendly people and warm tropical sunshine that they decided to stay on another couple of weeks and see some of the Caribbean with us. Everyone was thrilled. Paul and I took this as a real compliment since Wayne and Angie had been with us for the last month and most of that time had been at sea.

It didn’t take long to move Bill and Camille’s duffle bags on board. Wayne and Angie kindly moved into the 3rd cabin that has 2 bunk beds, so that Bill and Camille could have the double guest cabin in the bow. Paul and I sleep in the aft cabin. The table in the saloon of our new Southerly 42 also drops down to form another double bed so we have plenty of room aboard the boat for guests. This is such a treat for us since our old Classic 37 boat, Two-Step, was really just a 2-person boat so we rarely got the opportunity to have guests aboard for a voyage.

Bill and Camille were interested in building some overnight/offshore sailing experience and the next leg of our voyage which would be from Antigua to the British Virgin Islands would include a few such passages. Along the way, we’d be making stops at the island of Barbuda and then St. Martin/St. Maarten from where Wayne and Angie would be flying home. But first we wanted to get a taste of the beautiful anchorages Antigua had to offer.

Although Nelson’s Dockyard is a great spot, it can get hot and stuffy in the confines of English Harbour, so we soon headed out for a short but brisk sail in the now-restored trade winds. Sailing close-hauled along the southeast side of the island we got to demonstrate the benefits of the boat’s self-tacking jib which works great to windward, a point of sail we hadn’t had to deal with for the last several weeks.

Nonsuch Bay was the anchorage of choice our first night off the dock and we weren’t disappointed. “Distant Shores” has a variable-draft keel so draws only 2 feet, 10 inches, with the keel up so we were anxious to get the experience of anchoring in a shallow tropical bay. Our old boat drew 6 feet so we were used to being somewhat restricted in the places we could go. Now the world was our oyster! We motored through the crowd of boats which were anchored in deep water at West Bay off Green Island to our own private expanse of shallow swimming-pool blue water with a golden sand bottom where we anchored in less than 6 feet of water and took our first swim in the Caribbean.

We dove off Distant Shores’ stern platform, enjoying a freshwater deck shower afterwards. There are also 2 other showers down below in the 2 heads and, even with 6 people aboard, conserving water is not a problem with our Schenker watermaker that was nicely installed by Paul and Wayne in the Canary Islands. This new boat is built for people that love swimming and diving! Paul is already planning to install a dive compressor for next winter’s cruise, one of the reasons we had the Mastervolt Whisper 3.5 kilowatt generator installed on this boat. We’re at an age where we want the freedom to enjoy our toys!

Since our guests were up for more sailing, we headed up-island the next morning, to the rarely visited remote island of Barbuda, 27 miles north of Antigua, starting the day piloting through the reefs at the north end of the anchorage. Keeping the sun behind us for best visibility and wearing polarized sunglasses to cut the glare so that we could see into the water, we posted Wayne at the bow and Bill and me amidships to watch for coralheads. Paul was at the helm while Angie, who is great at working our Raymarine chartplotter, called the course changes. Camille enjoyed working with Angie and learning more about electronic navigation.

We felt such a sense of teamwork and accomplishment when we arrived safely at Gravenor Bay on the uninhabited south coast of Barbuda where there was terrific snorkelling in the crystal clear waters. Along with the abundant schools of colourful reef fish, Paul discovered a nurse shark in a cave and had fun filming him. Wayne and Angie are both certified divers and Wayne helped introduce Bill to snorkelling. Bill caught on fast, quickly developing his finning technique; as expected, it became a favourite pastime for him for the rest of the two weeks he and Camille spent with us.

We spent a couple of days at anchor in this remote anchorage, beachcombing, snorkelling and basking in the warm sunshine. If you do want to go to town from here you can hail a local taxi on the VHF radio and they will drive down to the beach to meet you. But we chose to sail along the maginificent west coast of Barbuda with its gleaming white sand beaches and anchor off Codrington, the main village on Barbuda. Unlike most of the leeward islands of the Caribbean that are volcanic and mountainous, Barbuda is a low-lying limestone island, originally a coral reef that has been raised above the sea. Throughout history it has been a dangerous hazard to shipping and there are many submerged wrecks lying offshore.

At Coderington, we wanted to take the dinghy ashore to clear out of the nation of Antigua & Barbuda before our passage to St. Martin. This proved to be a rather exciting venture. The surf was very strong and the group suffered a couple of dunkings in the process but we managed to keep the ship’s papers dry. Then we had to walk across a sand bar and hire a water taxi, one of the local wooden launches, to cross the lagoon over to the town in the middle of the island that we organized via VHF radio.

It was Friday afternoon and the weekend “jump up” had already begun so it took a while to locate the officials. The village was just a small collection of wooden cottages and the music was blaring as we searched for the officers, but our water taxi driver took care of us and went right to their homes in the little settlement and we got the clearing papers we required. As the sun was setting we repeated the process in reverse with water taxi, beach hike, and surf-jumping in the dinghy to get back to the boat.

But the day wasn’t over. We had a perfect weather window for the 90-mile passage to the island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. (Half of this island is owned by the French and the other half is owned by the Dutch). As the moon rose, we piloted our way carefully out to sea and began night watches: Wayne and Angie on for 3 hours, Paul and Bill on for the next 3, Camille and I were assigned the sunrise watch. As the scant lights of Barbuda faded behind us, we poled out the genoa and had a perky broad-to-downwind sail on starboard tack through the warm night. Camille, who had never done a night passage before, was so happy and excited as we stood watch together witnessing the night turn into day. It was such a pleasure to see Camille’s delight and sense of achievement doing this passage, not to mention her eagerness now to do the next passage – on to the British Virgin Islands in a few days.

Soon the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten rose into view from the sea, green and mountainous. That’s the great thing about Caribbean island hopping. You don’t have to travel far to begin a whole new adventure in a new land. In the next issue we’ll continue our story as we explore this unique cruising destination and discover places rarely visited in the ever-popular British Virgin Islands.

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