Sunday, 12 April 2015

An Unplanned Excursion to Auckland ….. Jan–Mar 2015

28 December 2014 – 28  March 2015: The Lagoon, St Maarten – 18.01N 63.05W

P1100207This Was Plan A

When we left St Barts at the end of December the plan was to spend  couple of weeks in St Maarten where we hoped to be able to have repairs done to our hydraulics, repairs also to our brand new freezer, buy some new necessary boat parts, replace broken 240v appliances and fill the lockers with all the essential French goodies and wine available.  Then with a much depleted bank balance but with a ship shape Balvenie,  we planned to set sail west, revisiting a few favourite spots and discovering more hidden gems: destination the Panama Canal sometime in March, then into the Pacific.  

So we slipped into the never ending list of boat jobs, chaos inside the boat became the norm as projects were undertaken.

P1110213  P1110215

But it wasn't all work and no play, one weekend with about 30 other mad cruisers we joined in the very aptly named “Hike from Hell” which involved 2 minibuses full of unsuspecting boat bound sailors looking to stretch their legs on one of St Maartens hiking trails.  The main problem was that there actually wasn’t a trail to start with, and that was before Hurricane Gonzalo hit.  Now the invisible trail was littered with fallen trees the size of small cars for us to climb over along with dense wild tropical vegetation and exceptionally prickly cactus plants.  It was a nightmare but I’ll be a really good sport and say it was a fun day out and great to have some exercise!!!    


All It Takes is a Phone Call

Then one morning when things were starting to come together and we could almost see the end of “The List” I got a call from my sister Denise to say Mum had been taken into hospital and had undergone major surgery.  We considered many options and decided that I would fly home for a month, we would move Balvenie from Simpson Bay into the lagoon anchorage and Mark would stay onboard and continue on with that never ending “To Do List”.  P1160219Flights were booked, bags packed and I was on my way, a 5 hour hop on JetBlue to New York where temperatures were below freezing, a night to recharge batteries then 2 United Airlines flights across the USA, a terminal change in Los Angeles and straight onto Air New Zealand 12 hours down to Auckland.  Denise was there to collect me and it was off to hospital to see Mum: elapsed time 54 hours – I was home!


My time during the next month was occupied at the hospital, Mum had three major operations to get her back together again, and then there were still complications.  My planned month flew by with Mum still in hospital so Mark arranged a mooring for Balvenie in St Maarten and embarked on the same journey home I had undertaken weeks before, he got the bonus of snow in New York though!!! P2280243

Summer in Auckland – Perfect

With us both home and Mum  starting to make some progress forward there was time for a few more social activities.

The Volvo Round the World Race boats arrived,  we were there to cheer them in - the first 3 boats were within a few minutes of each other after 3 weeks at sea from China, amazing.  We watched the inshore racing, enjoyed the festivities at Viaduct Harbour during their stay and then farewelled them when they left for the Southern Ocean and and on to Cape Horn.


The World Cup Cricket was on too, and although we didn’t get to any of the live games the country was abuzz with support for the Black Caps who did us proud and made it to the finals in Australia, against Australia. IMG_0426 Mum was very unhappy that the hospital did not have satellite TV for her to watch the games but we did our best and she got snippets for an hour or two on Denise’s iPad to watch the Black Caps make their way through.P2280254  

Escape from Auckland Hospital

Finally, nearly 9 weeks after being admitted Mum was discharged and returned to her apartment. IMG_0516 She wasn’t quite all back together, and the visits to doctors and specialists kept happening regularly but she was pleased to be home at last and very happy to be alive! 

We took her down to the Viaduct Harbour one evening so she could enjoy feeling normal again, even the police warden let me drive through the traffic cones so we could deliver her right to the restaurant door.  It was a bonus when we bumped into fellow cruisers Stu and Steph off Matador (boat in Guatemala) and we all shared a fun evening out. IMG_0442

We had more evenings with Steph and Stu at their lovely home in Titirangi, where they are spending their summer renovating – a big job!  We caught up there with more cruiser friends off Tuatara and Musketelle, both of whom have completed their travels (for now)  and sailed their boats home to Auckland.

We had bar-b-ques, dinners and lunches with friends and squeezed as much into our time as we could, (this included heaps of sailing/racing for Mark!!!).  Meanwhile Mums health improved daily and we started planning our departure.

P3240273 P3240275

Mum was called back to the hospital for final surgery to hopefully fix the “medical misadventure” that had happened in her first operation.  So on the morning of our departure we were back in the familiar surroundings of Auckland Hospital, the surgery was a success and I said my farewells while Mum was back in a hospital bed.  Not what I had hoped for, but by the time we were back in St Maarten on Balvenie, Mum was home again – almost as good as new.

So That Was Revised Plan A ….. Now For Plan B


Sunday, 11 January 2015

St Barts – The Caribbean's French Riviera ….. Dec 2014

19 – 28 Dec 2014:  Gustavia to Isle Fourche, St Barts – 17 57N 62 54W PC270160
Downwind – Not a Good ReintroductionPC220107
We ended up staying in Low Bay on Barbuda an extra day due to the weather.  When we awoke to the alarm we heard the pitter patter of raindrops - the skies had opened and the water tanks were filling up nicely, there wasn’t much wind for sailing so after a quick predawn board meeting we rolled over and went back to sleep!  The bonus was that we got to have another farewell dinner with the Ruffians, they hadn’t fancied leaving in the rain either.
Next morning it was another predawn start, skies were clear, a light breeze was due to build and it was time to start heading Balvenies bow west.  We waved goodbye to Ruffian who were heading down the chain, motored out through the reef and raised the main.  We were finally sailing off downwind, the moment we had been waiting for. PC200089 For well over a year now we have had the wind in front of the beam, often we have been hard on the wind but now we could ease the sheets completely and float off downwind.    But that of course is in the ideal world, not in the one we sail in.
Firstly there wasn’t enough wind to sail so we motored the first 2 hours.  Then once we cleared Barbuda we experienced a very messy and sloppy sea state, along came the wind and things were ok for a while, then came the squalls which we were unable to avoid so we hastily put 2 reefs in the main, then the wind died after the squalls so we wallowed with not enough sail … and that was the pattern for the day.  11 hours and 64 miles later we pulled into the very busy harbour of Gustavia on St Barts, not a great days sailing but not a beating!

Playground of the Very Rich & Famous
2014 St Barts

It seems the 100 odd miles between Anguilla to the north and Antigua to the south is the playground in the Caribbean for all the superyachts, both sail and motor.PC200093  St Barts is very French, rather small, cute, exclusive and expensive and is draws these vessels like a magnet.  For those that like to be seen, well this is THE place to be seen in the Caribbean.  For us mere mortals, well we took the hint that we didn’t look the part when we were looking in the window of an expensive watch store and the shutters came down over the windows!
But we were not deterred and spent 3 nights in the busy anchorage watching the constant stream of superyachts pass by.  We even ventured underwater and did a snorkelling excursion to the nearby small islands.   A circumnavigation of the smaller island was one of the more rewarding snorkels we have had this year, clear water and an interesting  variety of coral and fish.  I wonder how many of the superyacht guests take the time to look at these natural gems, and not just the ones in the glitzy jewellers.  
Two Miles Away but a World Apart
We moved just a couple of miles around into delightful Colombier Bay, only the very cheeky superyachts dared to squeeze in, a few charter boats came and went and the rest of us were long term cruisers, it was great to hook back in and enjoy social activities organised.    Access to this remote bay is either by boat or about a 15 minutes walk along a well worn but rocky track, then another 10 minutes to a tiny hamlet consisting of a car hire depot, minimarket (with fresh baguettes) and cafe with espresso machine and wifi.  Great reason to get our daily exercise.
Happy hours were a time when everyone that wanted to gathered on the beach and told tales of their latest woes, adventures or misadventures, shared knowledge on anything from supermarkets to stern glands, but primarily just gathered and enjoyed like minded cruisers company and watched the sun slip away for another day.
We Wish You A Merry Christmas

Christmas morning started slowly with Mulled Wine abroad Irish yacht Karma, a tradition of theirs that they kindly invited us to share.  Then mid afternoon Australian Mark from Sealife joined us for a Roast Chicken with all the trimmings, followed by some very alcoholic chocolate brownies, not quite Christmas pudding but there were no complaints.  Santa failed to notice I had removed a dorade so he could gain easy access so there were no presents under our midget christmas tree.


PC2701753 More Miles Up The Road

We moved on to the next small island of Isle Fourche for a night.  It was entirely different to St Barts, dry and barren with hardly any vegetation.  It is privately owned but there are no dwellings at all ashore, visitors are welcome to explore so we launched the dinghy, timed the surf and successfully landed on the stony beach. 

We spent a couple of hours hiking around, scrambling up rocks to get to the best view points and watching the stream of superyachts heading towards St Barts for New Years Eve.


St Barts had been an enjoyable stop, the 3 anchorages were all quite different and watching all the superyachts and seeing their expensive array of toys had been fun.  We decided to move on to St Maarten even though St Barts is the IN place for New Years Eve jetsetters, maybe just a little out of our league and price range though.

It was just a short sail with the headsail downwind across to St Maarten and we eased into the shallow bay of Philipsburg on the Dutch side late afternoon.  4 huge cruise ships were lined up along the dock, small boats ferried the 1000’s of passengers back onboard from their day in St Maarten.

The ships provided us happy hour entertainment as one after the other set sail at dusk, colourful lights blazing, a new destination for them at dawn. 

Now Time for Serious Boat Maintenance   


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Barbuda – All Beaches & Birds ….. Dec 2014

13 – 19 Dec 2014:  Cocoa Point to Low Bay, Barbuda – 17 39N 61 51WPC130010


Race On

We spent most of our 30 mile sail from Jumby Bay, Antigua to Cocoa Point, Barbuda trying to run down Ruffian who had slipped away before us.  Then as we got closer we realized the boat we were chasing wasn’t them at all, it was friends of theirs on Flight Plan.  We had taken a shorter route through a reef cut and didn’t realize we were in front of them and they had been trying to catch us!!  Need I add that they are front a racing background too!!

First the Marketing Board Version!

As we anchored, a truly beautiful vista filled the horizon, this was definitely the destination avid sun lovers who search out remote paradises would yearn for.PC130009 
Commercialism is heavily controlled on Barbuda, all the inhabitants collectively own the island and have the final say on what is built and how many tourists visit.  This has caused some problems over the years with the government in Antigua giving building rights to developers without consulting the locals so the people of Barbuda basically demolished works daily to hinder progress, good for them, they have kept their island how they want it.
There are two exclusive resorts, one is just south of the anchorage at Cocoa Point, cruisers are not welcome to visit but that is fair enough, PC130013those looking for peace and solitude pay thousands of dollars to stay here (it was a favourite of Princess Diana), the motley grotty yachty  fraternity might just lower the tone of the place if we all rocked up for happy hour!!  Although we may have added some much needed life, there were just 3 couples staying while we were there and we talked to two of them on the beach,  they were enjoying the remoteness, peace and warmth, a welcome break unwinding from hectic lives in New York.  They marvelled at our lifestyle, amazed that we had spent 11 years onboard Balvenie exploring the world, while they struggled to snatch a couple of weeks vacation each year.  They certainly have more money, but who is the richer?
A Double Dunking

We are always keen to get off Balvenie, explore ashore and get exercise but when Iain on Ruffian suggested a day long hike around the bottom of the island, including a picnic lunch and snorkel we agreed with a degree of apprehension.PC140023  Firstly there wasn’t a cloud to be seen, or a tree even for any sort of shade, and there was just a zephyr of breeze  – only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, where were the mad dogs?
Then there was the small matter of the surf, the lovely long sandy beach had a few small rollers pounding on the shore, they looked relatively harmless but as we had found out the previous evening when gathering for happy hour some of those rollers came with a right little kick, slap and for Mark & I, a triple somersault, flip and dunking.  PC140014
We packed everything in our drybag “just in case” and set off ashore, biding our time watching the waves then making our break for dry land – hmm, need more practice,  who’d of thought after the hundreds of beach landings we have done we would have two dunkings in a row (actually I got out sort of ok but skipper went flying again!!), having salty bottoms was not such a good start to the walk.
Not Featured in the Brochure

So off we went with the Ruffian’s and Flight Plans, Iain forgot the map but I doubt it would have made much difference as this was definitely “offroad”.
Early highlights included smelly salt ponds,  slippery mud underfoot, piles of glass bottles dumped under thorny shrubs, the total disappearance of the track, trekking over hot sand dunes and then at last we saw the south eastern coast, the surf crashing on the reef, the surf still crashing over the reef and into the lagoon area, and onto the beach – and then we saw and smelt the beach! 
PC140019 PC140024 
The beach was covered in seaweed as far as we could see, and in pockets it floated on the seas surface over 50m deep.  This Sargasso seaweed is becoming an ongoing problem on many of the Caribbean islands, especially in the past 3 years, the more articles we have read about it, the more opinions learned professionals havePC140034One thing is certain, it just keeps on coming, takes quite some time to decompose, smells awful and looks dreadful – and it keeps getting caught on our fishing lines!  In addition to the seaweed there was also a large amount of plastic litter all along the beach, a common problem we have seen on the windward side of many islands all around the world.
 So any thoughts of snorkelling along this coast were quickly cancelled & instead a shady spot was sought for lunch, no success there either, best we could do was a relatively seaweed free zone in the blazing sun.
We found a dune buggy track which made the walk back to the dinghies much shorterPC150081 - 6 hot, sweaty, thirsty and tired little cruisers returned to their respective boats after a full days walking tour of the parts of Barbuda way less visited! 
 Snorkelling – Take 2
Next day was another full excursion, Vince and his dad Ralph kindly offered to take Flight Plan around to the sheltered reef area on the southern coast, Flight Plan is a catamaran and only draws 3 feet, therefore she can go to all sorts of places out of our reach.
So another picnic lunch was packed, snorkels & masks retrieved and we were off.  We had a super day out with two snorkelling stops along the way, for the remoteness we thought it may have been better but it was ok, some good soft corals but only a few fish.
Frigate Bird Spotting

Barbuda has the largest frigate bird sanctuary in the Caribbean, thousands of these magnificent birds migrate between here and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific (I wonder if we will recognise any when we get there!)PC170017
We motored in glassy seas up the west coast 11 miles north to Low Bay and anchored off another stunning beach.  We had moved up here so we could organise a tour into the very shallow lagoon to visit the frigate bird colony. 
There was more apprehension aboard Balvenie as we saw the waves crashing on the beach, but luckily it wasn’t to be 3 in a row and we successfully made it ashore all dry! 
The Lighthouse Bay Resort kindly organised a water taxi to come and take us the 4 miles up the lagoon to view the birds, it was a fast and wet trip but we were lucky to visit during the mating season. PC170021 The male birds perch in the mangroves and inflate their bright red chests, hoping to outdo their competition and catch the eye of some cutie flying overhead looking for a new partner.
The male also drums a tune to make himself even more attractive and once mated the pair sing duets – or so the brochure says!!  There is no denying it was a spectacular sight and the cacophony of solos and duets was overwhelming. 
On our return through the mangroves we chanced by a fisherman hauling in his net, the juvenile frigate birds were stealing the catch before he could get it aboard. 
Codrington – Somewhat Untouristy
The water taxi dropped us in Barbuda’s only town, Codrington, so we could have a quick look around and do our outwards clearance.  The Customs Office was a ramshackle affair, a rusted chickenwire fence fringed the plot, long grass and weeds were overgrown in the garden, a closed sign hung from the door.  PC170046Skipper wasn’t deterred by the sense of permanent closure and knocked on the door, a bloodshot eyed dishevelled chap opened then immediately closed the door again.  While we were deciphering what this meant an adjacent door opened and Skipper was ushered into a room full of overflowing cardboard boxes and our check out was processed!!
The condition of the customs house set the scene for most of the dwellings we saw, little care appeared to be taken, and only a handful of houses showed any sign of love or pride by their owners.  But the people we met and spoke to were very helpful and seemed happy, they have the opportunity to exploit their island and increase their wealth but maybe they are just happy enough the way it is now.

PC170049 PC170051
Back to the Tourist EditionPC170011
We had thoughts of dusting off our best clothes and enjoying sundowners at the resort but when Vince was charged USD10 for a small bottle of water we decided happy hour on Balvenie would be just as good, plus we wouldn’t have to risk another dunking.

It was time for a final farewell to the Ruffians who were now heading south, we had had loads of fun with them and maybe one day they will sail into Auckland and we will meet up again.

                             So Barbuda – Beautiful Beaches & Lively Landings!!