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!!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Another Week in Antigua ….. Dec 2014

08 –13 Dec 2014: Middle Reef to Jumby Bay, Antigua – 17 09N 61 45W
Solitude & SquallsPC090088
We left English Harbour with clear skies and we motored in glassy waters around the southwest coast of Antigua, our planned destination was Jolly Harbour as we wanted to meet up again with Harmony before they moved on north, and English friends on Ruffian before they headed south. 
But as we passed Middle Reef we were enticed in to this offshore protected anchorage for the night. We had high hopes for the snorkelling, there were a couple of day tour boats anchored and we waited until they left, then jumped off Balvenie and swam over to where they had snorkelled.PC090093  A mediocre underwater display awaited us but our expectations are high, so we enjoyed the exercise instead. 
During the afternoon the handful of other yachts left,  the sun slipped behind Montserrat and overnight we had only the moon for company.  Next morning we watched as lines of squalls marched across from the east at regular intervals, would we miss them? – no we wouldn’t.  For a couple of hours the skies opened, Balvenie was once again sparkly clean, water tanks were filled, spare water jugs topped up and buckets overflowed with soaking laundry …. then we sat and waited for sunny weather before we exited through the reef.PC100097
Rendezvous with Ruffin
We bypassed Jolly Harbour and met up with Ruffian a little further north at Deep Bay.  We had not seen them since Puerto Rico in March so we had lots to catch up on.  We moved on together next morning, when we left the bay the surf breaking on the adjacent beach was quite spectacular – a timely reminder that more sheltered waters should be sought as a building swell was forecast.
We had a leisurely sail under headsail around the top of Antigua, the water was fairly flat, protected by an outer broken reef that shelters the coast.  We turned down the north eastern corner inside more reefs, through shallows and down marked channels whose markers had mysteriously disappeared.  Ruffian was our forward scout, offering to play bumper boat for us – checking the depths along the way.  We ended the day surrounded by mangroves in the large sheltered harbour of Parham.PC110114  
Our Unsolicited Sightseeing Tour
We had found a slice of Antigua that escapes attention from the cruise ships and superyachts.  Local fishermen sat amongst hurricane wrecked boats on the dock, children played in the middle of the empty road, the local historic church was unlocked and the one store appeared to supply the neighbourhood with everything you could imagine (as long as it came in a tin or packet) including a street front grill with bar-b-qued sweetcorn, the only vegetable in sight.
PC110115Next morning we took the bus into St John, Antigua’s bustling capital.  With 3 cruise ships on the dock it wasn’t a good time to be walking around looking like a tourist.  The hordes of touts took quite some convincing that were really didn’t need to do the half day boat tour to all of Antigua's finest secluded bays!!  
We took in the sights on offer, did a run to the produce market and ended our successful morning out with a trip to the supermarket.  While waiting on the bus to depart (no particular departure time) the driver got talking to Mark about cricket, a subject passionate to both of them.
On our return journey the driver detoured from his route to show us the new Sir I. Vivien Richards Cricket Stadium.  Not only did he detour, but he got security to open the barrier to let the bus in to the grounds, then drove to the bronze statue of Sir Viv, and stopped so Mark could read the plague and have his photo taken!!!    The regular passengers didn’t seem to enjoy the detour as much as us, but our driver looked filled with pride as he showed off their fine new stadium.
Back Out to the Boonies
With Balvenie & Ruffian fully stocked with fruit & veg, and light winds forecast it was time to explore more of the east coast inside the reef.  We ventured out to Great Bird Island and made it ashore for a morning walk before all those tourists on their “half day boat tour to all of Antigua's finest secluded bays”  came whizzing at speed across the lagoon.  Those that didn’t head for the beach donned snorkels, masks and noodles and hit the water.  We found the snorkelling disappointing again, the poor water clarity made for murky depths. PC120001PC120003
PC120008Our last stop on Antigua was a night at Jumby Bay, a beautiful sandy beach, azure water and an expensive resort complex ashore.  We admired it from afar and reflected on our time in Antigua.  The variety of anchorages had surprised and impressed us, we had been very lucky with our weather as it meant we had the opportunity to discover all of Antigua’s  delights.  We had met new friends and reconnected with existing ones - all up we had had a great time.
Now We Are Bound for Barbuda