Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the Way to St. Martin: Antigua and Barbuda

After our unfriendly episode in Jolly Harbour, checking into Antigua in its capital St. John’s was a more pleasant, albeit slow and slightly inconvenient matter. We dealt with customs and immigration near the cruise ship dock and then had to take the dinghy to the “big ships wharf” to deal with Port Authority and pay EC $50 (US$20) for a cruising permit. This fee used to be EC$ 30 (US$ 12) last year. The town itself has nothing special to offer. Even the 2400 cruise ship passengers avoided it and planned other activities. A visit to the church seemed to be worthwhile, but the nice looking building was under construction, so access was prohibited.

Our plan was to stay in St. John’s harbor for a couple of days to work online -as always- and then move around the corner to the north shore for some peace and quiet over the weekend. Unfortunately, because of an over-presence of an Antigua company’s strong and inaccessible WiFi signals (present wherever you go on the island but luckily not as strong everywhere), Mark and I couldn’t connect to any of the weaker signals because of the interference. Quite an annoying experience if you rely on internet for urgent business matters. The result was that we had to hunt for another bay with decent WiFi, which we found in Deep Bay.

Deep Bay is a beautiful and relatively calm anchorage with a nice beach and pretty surroundings. A wreck in the bay offers good snorkeling, but because of the heavy trade winds this time of the year, the water was cloudy and the visibility non-existent. A walk to the ruins of fort Barrington offers a nice view of the ocean, the lagoon, St. John’s Harbour and the hilly shores. We enjoyed spending some days there and liked the view out of our office. The only “disturbances” came in the form of loaded day charter catamarans and a pirate ship full of cheery cruise ship tourists, multiple times a day.

Two hours of motoring into strong head winds brought us in between the reefs and the northern shore of Antigua to Long Island with attractive Jumby Beach. Palm trees line the sand, but the many man-built structures really assure you that you are anchored off a fancy resort. After one night, we decided to check out the only settlement in the area: the town of Parham. We explored the local fishing village and unexpectedly found a decent supermarket. The beer was cheap and Mark and I joined a bunch of locals outside the store to sit, drink, watch and be part of the scene.

It was Friday night and we hadn’t eaten out for ages, so we decided to try out Sugar Apple Alley, the big attraction in town. Only, we were the only customers. We started with drinks and saw the humongous speakers arrive. “Aha, they must be planning quite the party” we thought. After another hour, people stopped by to take out food and that was that. We ordered our meals and got served by very friendly employees. When it was obvious that nothing more would be going on, we left the place and dinghied back to Irie, anchored all by herself near the mangroves.

Our next stop was Great Bird Island, part of the “outer islands’ in the North Sound. You have to dodge a few reefs to get there, but it is so worthwhile. Little green islands linger everywhere and the water is clear and pretty. Not a lot of sailboats venture out here, so it is quiet and peaceful. A little bit of swell does make it in, but the anchorage is comfortable enough. And, you can always move towards one of the other, more protected islands, if the light is good to see the reefs.

Great Bird Island is a joy to explore. There is a path to the top with a grand view (if the sun is behind you; better in the morning) and two remote beaches. The snorkeling is OK on the reefs, which are mostly damaged. During the weekend, and possibly other days as well, local boats bring in hordes of tourists between 10am and 4pm. Luckily when you’re there on your own vessel, you can visit whenever you want. This is a nice place to be for a while, but, unfortunately for us, a weekend is only two days and we had to get back to work.

The hunt for internet started again and we tried to anchor in a few places, unsuccessfully, before returning to Deep Bay by afternoon, all frustrated and annoyed to have wasted another half a day. Communicating with Taiwan (where it is twelve hours later) was out of the question now. We wonder more and more whether we will be able to keep this lifestyle up. Running a business professionally and the way we want and cruising seem to be an impossible combination.

When the wind subsided a bit and the sea state improved, it was time for Irie and her crew to make the fun crossing to Barbuda, one of our most favorite places in the Caribbean. We were flying along at 7 knots, with one reef in, getting splashed multiple times by higher waves. No luck fishing again. On the contrary, we lost one hook from one lure and our last decent lure. I guess they do bite; we just don’t seem to be able to catch ‘em! With food, supplies and water running low, we will reach St. Martin in no time. But, in the meantime, we will work in our office with the nicest view of them all! And, try to do some fun stuff as well, this weekend…

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Marie-Galante and Onwards

Marie-Galante was a nice and refreshing stop on our way north. After giving it a pass a couple of times before, the weather approved our stay this time. Mark and I rented a scooter for a day and explored this flat and rural French speaking island. We left from St. Louis (where Irie was anchored) up the west coast and stopped at a couple beautiful and quiet beaches. Traffic was very light and we took it easy, gazing at the farm land scenes and sugarcane fields.

At the northern end of the island, we had a look at a big sink hole and some scenic rock faces. We continued inland and made a brief stop at the renovated wind mill Moulin de Bézard. We had seen several of the hundreds of ruined wind mills before, but this one was in tip-top shape. Before noon, we managed to explore the grounds of Marie-Galante’s most famous rum distillery, Distillerie Bellevue. There trademark white rum, rhum agricole, is 59° alcohol. Of course we had to try a sample! The tastings are free and they also have a variety of flavored rums.

In Capesterre, a small supermarket offered the cheapest lunch option (bread and salami), devoured at a gorgeous beach where we watched some kite surfers “take off”. We considered a swim, but, believe it or not, the water is too cold for us to get in. It is winter after all! Via a side stop at an interesting old slave plantation, the coastal road brought us to the capital Grand Bourg, where we got lucky to find the customs office open and finally checked in (and out of) Guadeloupe. The hospital perched on top of a hill was supposed to offer great views, but we were a bit disappointed. Our fun and interesting island tour stopped where and how it began, in St. Louis. I’m keeping it a bit short here, because I am planning to write an article about our experience on the island… :-)

Marie-Galante is a quiet place with many wonderful beaches and we had a hard time not having Darwin with us. The climate this winter is also perfect for dogs and humans. Today Darwin would have turned 10 years old and we miss hem more than ever. He would have had a great time on and off Irie this cruising season!

After waiting a week for a weather window of lighter (around 15 knots) winds, we left for Deshaies, on the northwest side of Guadeloupe. A lack of wind in the channel called for three hours of motoring, but we tried our best at sailing up the coast of the “big island”. After a bad night of sleep with funky winds in this deep bay, we continued on to Antigua.

Jolly Harbour, without a dog this time, was still a hassle and a negative experience. This is the only place in the Eastern Caribbean that we know of, where you have to bring your boat to the customs dock. We arrived in the harbor close to closing time and didn’t want to take the chance to stumble upon a full dock (there is only space for one boat) and having to circle forever or having to turn back because it was 4 pm, so we took our dinghy. A rude woman snapped at us to bring our boat. When we asked why, she got offensive, indicated that this was normal procedure in all the islands and threatened us with fines and sentence to prison for disobeying a customs officer. When we turned back to our boat, another sailboat pulled up the dock. Purely out of principle, we were not going to bring Irie over the next day or deal with the big and power trip attitude of the woman, so we checked into Antigua’s capital St. John’s were people were much friendlier!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hopping North

A very enjoyable afternoon and evening with our land-based friends Sally and Tom, concluded our stay in Bequia in the beginning of the New Year. About an hour before we left the harbor, a big oil slick traveled through our area, staining Irie’s (and others) hull, all four sides of it, leaving a blackish mess behind. It wasn’t even four weeks after we worked so hard to make her bottom clean, pretty and presentable! Now, we have to do it again, in the water and it will take more than soap and a sponge… An experience not in favor of our already mixed feelings about Admiralty Bay.

A short, slow but nice sail brought Irie to new-to-us Keartons Bay in St. Vincent. It is a pretty, quiet and small bay where the boat boys are friendly enough and anchoring - without lines to shore - is possible for a couple of boats. It was pretty rolly, but we needed a better jump off point for our next, long sail to St. Lucia. After motoring our way up the Vincentian coast, we were ready for a great, brisk sail across the channel. As always, the sight of the Pitons was majestic, but no dolphins this time. Once we hit the shores of St. Lucia, we motored for a bit, but then managed to sail the rest of it, adding an hour and 5 miles to the trip because - being set off course - we had to tack back into Rodney Bay, well before dark.

The weather window to go north (less strong winds with an eastern-southeastern component instead of northeastern) lasted a few days, so after a day of shopping, catching up on internet work and a bit of rest, we left early in the morning for Fort-de-France in Martinique, a fast sail five hours away. The main reason for a stop here is a store called Leader Price. This is where cruisers stock their boats with French goodies like cheese, salami, pâté, smoked salmon, snacks and wine at affordable prices…

The following morning was, yet again, a very early one. From the moment we could “see”, which is around 6 am this time of the year, we motored our home out of the bay and raised the sails. Going north along Martinique’s coast was a patient and time consuming endeavor that we had to give up the last 6 miles. We couldn’t afford losing too much time and motored the last bit, before gaining speed again in the channel between Martinique and Dominica. We were trying to cover 65 miles in 12 hours of daylight. An impossible feat totally under sail, because the wind dies along the land. From the moment we approached Dominica’s capital Roseau, it was time to start the engines again. The rest of the way, we were busy adjusting the sails to motor sail or sail in the most efficient way. When the sun set behind the horizon we finished our long day in comfortable and familiar Prince Rupert Bay (Portsmouth). Loud music onshore made for a sleepless night.

By now, our natural clock made the use of an alarm unnecessary to get going early. Taking advantage of the eastern winds, we reached Marie-Galante in Guadeloupe before lunch, setting a new record high speed of 8.8 knots. Sure, we’ve done 10 knots, but that was either because of current or of riding on top of a breaking wave… Choppy, high seas made for a wet and salty ride, but we were happy to finely arrive at a new place. Time for some island exploring, once again!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bequia over Christmas and New Year

To be back in the water after three months in different houses on land and over a week in a dirty, wet and hot boat yard, felt wonderful. This is where Irie belongs and Mark and I as well. As long as the seas are manageable and the anchorages comfortable! We barely spent a week in Prickly Bay on the south coast of Grenada, before moving on. We needed that time to get the last preparations done so Irie would be “sail ready” again. We also had to catch up with our friends Sim and Rosie on Alianna and make Christmas plans…

According to plan, we made our way north, stayed a couple of nights in Carriacou and continued on with a full day of great sailing, until we reached the small island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a few days before Christmas. The most popular spot to anchor in Admiralty Bay is off pretty Princess Margaret Beach, where we dropped the hook in crystal clear water. Not too close to the beach, since there is no need for that anymore without Darwin. And, were we glad we didn’t! After two days in the anchorage, the waves started building and an enormous swell rolled into our part of the bay, starting to break pretty far out. All the boats were lifted ten feet higher than “normally”, up to a point it became a very scary and dangerous situation...

When 5 pm came around, it was really time to move! There was only one problem: right in front of us, another catamaran was anchored above our anchor, so we couldn’t pick it up. And, nobody was home to move the boat forward. A stressful moment, that required a solution before the sun went down. After waiting around for a little while, we decided to let go of our chain (with a float attached) and leave our main anchor behind, hoping it would still be there to pick up when the conditions settled down. That done, we started heading out, climbing over the massive waves, only to see our neighbors return… Back we went, dealing with the anchor and picking it up in an awful swell, urging the boat owners to nudge their boat a bit forward. I was at the helm, needing to get close to the other boat, where the anchor was, and, at the same time, trying not to get smashed on to it by the towering waves. Mark and I were a great team and we managed to get out of this hairy situation without damage or hurt, but our nerves needed a little while to settle down again!

Irie found a nice, cozy spot in a calmer part of the bay and Christmas came around. Sim and Rosie brought English style dishes, while we offered the American version of a Christmas dinner. Our friend Dave from Tatia had taken care of the hand made decorations, which took him days to produce. The atmosphere was festive and all five of us had a wonderful time. After the appetizers of freshly made pâté and Devil’s Eggs, we moved on to the buffet of roasted chicken, pot roasted beef, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, two kinds of gravy, cranberry sauce and home made stuffing. By the time we had stuffed ourselves, there was no room for dessert (assortment of Belgian chocolate)!

The week between Christmas and New Year was a combination of chores, internet work, celebrating Rosie’s birthday and some quiet time. One afternoon, our friends Tom and Angie surprised us with a visit. They had just arrived from the Canary Islands (Spain), after being 25 days at sea and hadn’t even been ashore yet! Another reason to just stay put until early January! New Year’s Eve was a bit less decadent food wise and also took place on Irie. All our friends brought an appetizer - or two - to share and we were accompanied by Tom and Angie as well. After dinner, we planned to go to shore to party, having saved some money by not eating out.

From the moment all of us were settled in the cockpit with a plate full of food, however, it started pouring! We moved inside and stayed there until midnight. At exactly 12 am, the rain took a break and we watched some spectacular fireworks (yes, we were all impressed; Bequia is a small Caribbean island after all) from Irie’s deck. Then, the drinking continued, people started making accessories out of paper, with a paper boat race as a result and - unlike previous years where we barely made midnight – at 3 am, Mark and I went to bed! Happy 2011 to you all!