Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Cruising in the Caribbean - Auriga takes a holiday!


16 days out at sea on the passage from Brazil, all we really wanted was some fresh food and ice cream. After wandering Barbados' capital, Bridgetown we didn't find either. Heading back to Auriga (moored off the most touristy beach, and the biggest bar strip) what we stumbled upon turned out to be much better.

At Dees with Tony

Most bars on Carlisle beach are huge commercial affairs that charge a (high!) set price for the meal and to see the “local” show. Avoiding these, but nonetheless driven by desire for drinks we walked into a tatty looking local bar nestled amongst the tourist traps.
We were greeted by the garrulous Tony: “What'll it be? Beer? rum. I'll get you guys rum. Want to sit on your own? Nah, join the local crowd. Pull up a chair, I'll introduce you”

So bottle of rum in hand (what type of self respecting bar would serve rum with a mixer in a glass when you could just give the customers the bottle and be done with it?) we got to know the Dee's regulars, and most of our time in Barbados was all based around the bar as our bouncing off point for exploring the island.
Bottom Bay

Barbados is not a great place for exploring by yacht. In order to protect the coral, a permit is required to stay in all but one anchorage, and even then most areas are of limits. Anyway, after 16 days we were happy to visit the island by bus, exploring the towns and beaches our friends recommended. Particularly beautiful was the beach and cave at Bottom bay, but we also enjoyed Bathsheba amongst others. Alongside the local food - “legendary” fishcakes, dolphin curry (not an actual dolphin, a jumping fish, the mahi mahi) and lamb roti's it was a great break from the sea.


One colourful member of the local community was Kevin, the Canadian expat. Granted, he was keen on the local strong lager and his stories became more wild with each bottle, and with each retelling. He was also incredibly sweet and took us all around Bridgetown finding us the best shops and bargains for absolutely everything we wanted. On Easter he took us to the Oisins fish festival, a local music festival that is better than the name implies.

Sadly midway through our stay the pump for our dingy was stolen from the beach. One of those unfortunate things, as it was the only time we brought it to the beach. Further I am fairly sure we saw it being stolen. We felt the dingy was safe, as it was kindly put into the local lifeguard station by the friendly lifeguards after we failed to come back for it before sunset as they suggested. After having the dingy itself stolen in Rio, having no pump feels even more stupid, as you have the darned boat, but no way to use it.

Later on there was a very curious set of events when the kayak was stored in a locked shed. Collecting the kayak from the shed we believed the paddles stolen, and were seriously cursing our luck by this point. They coincidently reappeared and the guy who “located” them was given a tip for his effort. The circumstances were fishy, and I don't want to accuse, but Giulia and I came up with a variety of hypotheses for how they came to be lost in the first place.

In the end, after a week spent in the Dee's community the party began to get a little to much for us. On our last night we witnessed every “law” on the sign being broken in quick succession. As the crowd became lewder by the minute a couple of drunks decided to take it as insult that we weren't buying their drinks. As a fight began to develop around our kayak a policeman drinking at the bar helped us slip away to the beach and into the darkness back to Auriga.

Dees Laws

I had a great time in Barbados. It was unique, and by turning up at Dee's surely different to what we would have found by sticking to the posher bars, and I am glad to have seen the island this way rather than arriving by cruise ship or staying in one of the many many big hotels. On the other hand, I think in the end we had stayed long enough and a big plus for sailing is the ability to up anchor and move on when you feel the time is right.

What is also missing from the above is the numerous acts of kindness that Bajans demonstrated, exemplified by the guy at Bottom Bay beach who not only gave us directions to the bus stop, but then carried on talking for half an hour about all his favourite stops, drawing us an increasingly intricate map on the sand.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

With only a month of our itinerary allocated to the Caribbean – an area covering upwards of 1,000,000 square miles – and every suggestion of either friends or guide books sounding wonderful we had to be a bit selective. We couldn't see everywhere and had to decide where to focus our exploration. Giulia (after a little pre-trip reading) suggested the Grenadines – an archipelago of tiny islands at the South end of the West Indies chain. It turned out to be a sailing paradise of lagoons and rum interspersed by fast sailing in the brisk trades. Compared with our time in Brazil adventure was at a minimum, but we had an awesome time, and consider this the “holiday” from Auriga's year of travels.

Auriga at Saltwhistle bay (see below)

We started at Tyrell bay, Cariocou* where, after the theft of our pump in Barbados our first problem was getting ashore with no dingy. No problem to swim ashore (although swimming 2 months of dirty laundry ashore was a challenge we were putting off for later) but turning up at customs we were immediately berated by the lady for turning up without foreign currency, who directed us to take our dingy across the bay to the cash point. We were saved by the kindness of two other cruisers who lent us the cash, took us back to Auriga in their dingy and even lent us a pump to blow ours up. Thus starts the hunt for a new pump, all the while required to keep the big blue baby pumped up, either lashed on deck or shoved in the cabin, rendering the heads unusable.

Big blue baby fills Auriga...

While the chandlery was having a pump shipped from the mainland we went exploring, stopping at sandy island and paradise beach, each appropriately named. At sandy island we met Fabri, a friend of Giulia's and captain of Cape Arrow, a 100ft superyacht. I'm not sure what he thought of little Auriga in comparison to his usual home. It was interesting to hear about life on such a big boat, although a shame we couldn't come on board and have a look around. That said, understandable that charter guests paying their (very!) large multitude of thousands for a holiday don't want the unwashed likes of us poking around.

Cape Arrow at a distance

Of course, the pump didn't arrive at the chandlery on the ferry, so we moved on to Union Island. We stayed long enough to establish the chandlery there didn't have a pump and pick up some postcards before moving Northwards to Mayreaux. Giulia and I were getting good at the Caribbean island hopping routine. The wind is always strong so we have the small sails ready in advance. We set out, put up the sails and blast an hour upwind getting soaked for an hour before arrival. On the chart the numerous rocks and reefs look horrifying but in reality the charts and pilot books are good and entrances are easy. In the clear blue waters the rocks show up at a distance. After arrival we jump in the sea to cool off while everything dries out in the sun in about half an hour. The picturesque Saltwhistle bay, where we stopped on Mayreaux, was no exception and after time for a swim and chilling out in the hammock we headed ashore for rum punch at the aptly named: “The Last Bar Before The Jungle”. This is the type of place people come to the Caribbean for: a bright blue lagoon and perfect chilled out atmosphere. 

Last Bar Before the Jungle

Rum Punch :)

Behind Mayreaux lie the semicricular reef and isolated rocks of Tobago Cays, a wildlife reserve. A bit crowded with yachts but a beautiful spot nonetheless. After swimming around with an eagle ray we decided on a rare extravagance and joined the delicious beach BBQ of fresh caught fish, bartering a lift onshore in the bar owners boat into the price of the fish. 

Tobago Cays

Next stop North was Admiralty bay, Bequia (3 chandleries, only one stocked dingy pumps and had sold the last one the day before). The Island is stunning, and we took a tour to a turtle sanctuary. Did anyone spot we are getting quite keen on our shelled friends after all the time spent swimming about with them? We loved the atmosphere in the bay, full of cute bars that cater to the yachting community (you can call up food, ice, drinks or a laundry service by VHF). 

Boat club at Bequia

Our time at anchor in Bequia was also one of the more social stops. There is a daily cruisers VHF network, were people share stories of their trips, ask for advice or offer up items to swap in the “treasures of the bilge” section. We made several friends via the network, including the excentric host, local bar lady Sheryl who, when we visited after chatting on the radio insisted we try all the varied and strange local fruits she had grown. We began to understand from friends we made how it is some sailors reach the Caribbean and never go any further, in spite of what the rest of the world has to offer. The dive centre was a further friendly stop, mostly for their parrot Charlie who got a daily cuddle! They were extremely helpful, and after Giulia went diving they let her borrow the equipment to take back to Auriga and do some underwater maintenance.

Final stop was St Vincent, the big island of the group. Picking Wallilabou bay where they shot several scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a small museum about the filming. The selection of exhibits is underwealming such as a piece of wood they claim is a mast Jack Sparrow once climbed, and a fibreglass coffin that appeared in the background somewhere or other. The mooring in the bay is weird, and they insist on taking £3 to row a seemingly unnecessary line ashore from the yacht, even on a perfectly good mooring buoy. 

St Vincent

Wanting to give back after finding the sailing community so friendly, when two guys on passage turned up at night, who just wanted a meal from the restaurant (they set off with no food!) we let them moor up alongside Auriga. “We are just stopping an hour for dinner” turned into staying overnight and waking us up to leave at 5am the next day. When they asked me to boil them some water for coffee (also they had no gas...) the limit of cruiser kindness was reached and they were told (through a veil of fake British politeness) it was time to kindly disappear now.

St. Vincent itself is rugged and beautiful, and greener than the other islands. A trip around the perilous cliff top routes at breakneck speeds by bus was a fun, if terrifying, way to see the island. In general throughout our journey we travelled everywhere by tiny local bus, often a van used as a combo taxi/bus. A guy with a minibus travels about taking fares and dropping off anyone going in a roughly similar direction. You can be crammed in a little tight. At one point Giulia was stuck with 4 others on a bench suitable for 3 people. Her relief when one guy was finally offloaded was short lived as a 200kg guy was told there was was space on her row. The atmosphere on these buses is an experience itself. Music is usually loud. Drivers talking on phones is usual, as is them is watching TV. Bus drivers can also be unofficial postmen and take detours to hand out all sorts of packages, you get the feeling containing illegal contents. Further, every bus is usually doled up a bit. I'd love to see a bus in the UK with big alloys and pictures of joints on the walls.

Finally deflating the kayak we had a great passage to Antigua. The chain of Caribbean islands each cast a large wind shadow, so we blasted across the straights between them, slowing down to a drift behind the islands. Even including the drifting we still made such good time we bought ourselves a spare day. Deciding to take an unscheduled stop in Deshaies, Guadeloupe we stocked up on croissant and baguette before playing with parrots in the botanical gardens.

Completing our passage we moored in Jolly harbour, Antigua. A large marina village complex and not a pretty spot, but so worthwhile just for the first warm freshwater shower in nearly 8 weeks!

*Cariocou is actually part of Grenada, but is nestled amongst the islands of The Grenadines


Antigua was the final part of our Caribbean tour and we were looking forward to it as we were joined by fellow CUYC sailor Chris Hawkesford. As well as being good company he is also a part of both myself and Giulia being here, as he carried out a significant amount of our training as an instructor with CUYC while we were still learning to sail.

After picking up Chris we started with a night in Deep Bay, snorkelling on a wreck which sank early last century after smoke began pouring from the ship. Instead of being given assistance they were shooed away as potentially dangerous, and sank in the bay!

On day two, to give Chris a chance to see how Auriga sails we trekked across to Barbuda under spinnaker, Chris picking up a healthy dose of sun (read: sunburn) while outside having fun helming. That we were fine is a reminder of how long Giulia and I have spent under the tropical sun. Barbuda is much more sparsely populated than other similar sized islands and has avoided big tourist developments. The locals passionately want to keep it that way and they and have a history of sabotaging hotel developments when hurricanes don't do the work for them. Possibly part of the reason is that there is no private land ownership, all the land of the island is collectively owned by the inhabitants.

All the pilot books say of Barbuda: “experienced reef navigators only”. Being unsure how you ever become experienced without trying we started out with the long beach anchorage. Closing the island inside the breaking shoals we managed to avoid the rocks and sandbanks – generally shifting and poorly charted – with Giulia on the bow peering through the water. Not the most challenging anchorage, but the visibility in the water was poor, so we decided we did enough for our “Experienced Reef Pilot, level 1”.

Matt and Chris with George

The next day we located guide and minor celebrity (on the cover of the most popular yachtsman's guide to the Caribbean) George to take us to the frigate bird sanctuary. Curious seabirds, they can't land on water and George has even seen one that accidentally hit the water being lifted to safety by two friends.

Frigate bird chicks

On day two in Barbuda we motor sailed to Coco point getting irritated with the weeds which kept clogging the prop and killing our speed. We slowed down so much we ended up trying our second reef piloting at night. Enough for ERP, level 2! Boom!

After a sunset stop back on the mainland the next day (read: time for rum...) at 5 islands bay we headed around the island the next morning to the famous Nelson's dockyard, named after Nelson (from the big column) when he was posted there to enforce some tedious trade rules early in his career.

The historic waterfront has been well restored and, along with the chance for drinks and a fantastic view from the Shirley heights lookout the port would make a nice stop at any time of year, but we managed to arrive during the Antigua week race series.

Shirley Heights

We sailed into the harbour past the finish line of the days racing watching boats great and small race past. Some very fast, including a foiling catamaran and some very slow. Mostly the slow were those who had managed to get their spinnakers tangled around their masts. In the evening there was a large party for the racers, which was to pricey for us to enter. After lots of very good cocktails at a beautiful bar we found enough extra courage, as well as a route from the bar waterfront that allowed us to creep into the party from the sea, hiding amongst the restored historic sail loft and ended up somehow on stage. Oops.
Drinks after a tough day!

Swearing the next day to keep rum consumption to a minimum we just about managed the 2 mile sail to nearby Indian creek. A very secluded anchorage up a curving ravine and the site of Eric Clapton's mansion. Remarkably, given I have been on Auriga for 9 months we had my first beach BBQ of the trip accompanied (since it was Chris's last night) by way to much rum. Ahem. Where did that litre bottle we just bought disappear to? Must have fallen overboard or something...

All in all a great conclusion to our Caribbean tour. Some quite good sailing, but in the end we took it easy. Who really wants to add 6 hours to their passage choosing an anchorage that is upwind when the downwind one is just as nice?

Giulia and I had a further 5 days hard work in Antigua to prepare Auriga for the upcoming passages back across the Atlantic, so it was good to have a really nice break before the hard work began!

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