|9 April, 2004
Months in the Caribbean,
Wow! We've been here 2 months already - doesn't time fly!
After the Atlantic crossing we spent the first two weeks recovering and getting some repairs done in English Harbour, Antigua. Our sails had taken a bit of a battering and the water maker had packed up during the crossing so these were priority items, plus a myriad of small items that needed attending to. Antigua has a very efficient system regarding repairs, etc.; everyone listens to and communicates on the VHF! So you just call on Channel 68 and discuss requirements, etc. on another channel. It's easy and free. Also weather, parties, happenings, etc. are communicated this way. You can also check who is in harbour as well.
When we arrived we anchored next to a Catamaran from Hamble called Milliways. Heather and David had been there for two/three months after their crossing, getting some repairs to fuel tanks done which needed some bits flown out from the UK. They were on a world cruise and were a lovely couple. They introduced us to the joys of the Antigua and Barbuda Royal Navy Tot Club. This is a philanthropic club open to anyone (well they accepted us!!!). That carried out social activities and "good works" in and around English Harbour, charitable giving for schools and local groups, clearing paths and maintaining monuments, etc. Their main aim is to meet every night at 6pm and carry on the Royal Navy tradition of toasting the Queen with a tot of rum. The group has bulk-buying status at the meeting place (a local bar called "Life") so we get all drinks at a very favourable rate. Most of the members are yachties and live "off island" as it's called. Sundays are "keep fit" days and involves a bit of work; for the two Sundays that we were there Keith helped paint a monument to the Devon and Dorset Regiment that was stationed there in the 18th century.
Above our anchorage off Galleons Beach, (a holiday resort on a palm fringed white beach with turquoise (warm) water etc. - sounds yuck doesn't it!) is a place called Shirley Heights. Named after one of Christine's ancestors (her family name) so a trip up there was a must -especially as every Sunday night they have steel bands, barbecues, Esc, there and is very popular. The views are tremendous overlooking the island and watching the sun go down.
The weather is a lot different than we expected. Although generally warm (30 deg C.) there is usually a cooling breeze and often short-lived rain showers (well that's what keep the islands tropical .).
During our two week stay, we met lots of people and continued the party spirit culminating with a barbecue on Poco Andante (we finally got the BBQ going).
We decided that we would spend the hurricane season (June-November) on the East Coast of America and discovered that we needed a multi-entry Visa. We contacted the US consulate in Antigua on Channel 68, and arranged to meet at the beach bar for info this could only happen here!!! Anyway the upshot was that these were only issued in Barbados. The flights from Antigua to Barbados would have cost us at least US$410 - so we decided to sail down (250 miles in the wrong direction!). First 24 hours were pretty grim - wind on the nose, lumpy seas and driving rain - ended up motoring a lot of that time. But then it calmed down a bit and we had a lovely sail. In Barbados the Customs & Immigration is set up for cruise ships and they insist that yachts come into the cruise ship terminal, tie up and clear in! So there we were tucked under this huge harbour wall with only the top of our mast sticking up above it, trying to tie up! Luckily a guy offered to catch a line and tied us up so Keith could clamber up with the other lines. Our rigging was close to the mooring warps from one of the cruise ships! However, we duly got cleared in and moved around to a lovely bay with clear turquoise water and white sandy beaches. Spent 5 days enjoying a normal holiday - took our books to the beach and swam, read, lazed, snorkelled, (There were two sunken wrecks just off the beach teaming with fish etc. Even saw a turtle grazing!) Visited the Mount Gay Rum distillery as well. We had a great time in Barbados as the people were incredibly friendly and happy. We finally got our visas and sailed the next day heading north to Martinique (about 110 miles away). Got stuck there for 3 days waiting for good weather but enjoyed ourselves meeting two other yachts at anchor; a Scottish couple who were going to be heading south and a US couple who had sailed the world for 5 years and were on their way home to US. Lots of socialising and swapping information.... Then 150 miles back to Antigua. Wind on the beam so a brisk sail but not too bad. In the lee of the islands there would be almost no wind (so we motored), then 20-25 knot winds with gusts up to 30knots between the islands. But most passages are only about 25 miles, so not too bad. We spent most of the time with 2 reefs in the main and let in or out the mainsheet according to the wind strength. Mind you, at one stage we had 2 reefs in the main, a reef in the gib and we were still doing 8 knots through the water and up to 30 degrees heel!
The sailing here is great as long as you don't want
to go East! Most of the sailing is on a reach in 15-20kts with calm-ish
seas and no tide. Everyone anchors and there are lots of those. The only
problem is that each island has its own sovereignty so you need to check
in and out of Customs at each island.
We had decided that St Thomas would be our "port of entry" into the US. We had become so accustomed to the friendly officials in the other Caribbean islands that the brusque attitude of the US officials took us by surprise. We felt really unwelcome and, with mountains of paperwork required, started to think that our decision to cruise the East Coast of US this summer may not be a good one. However we were eventually let in - with lots of warnings! Our anchorage was just off the cruise terminals and watching the cruise ships arrive, sometimes four at a time, was good fun. We also rediscovered the joys of "real" supermarkets with cheap and plentiful produce - so we celebrated with a large American steak and chips (sorry, "fries") while watching the floating pizza restaurant and floating bar tour the harbour!
We had our first fouled anchor in this harbour; an Austrian boat had picked up a local mooring and one morning a local yachtsman knocked on our hull to warn us that this boat had dragged the mooring and was now very close to us - with no one onboard. He had been trying to raise the authorities with no joy. Eventually the owners returned and, with no comment or apology, slipped the mooring and headed off out of harbour - leaving a mess behind. The mooring swung back and ended up around our anchor chain. Luckily our windlass was man enough to lift the sinker and a quick flip with our newly-repaired boat hook set us free. However, the sinker took our boat hook with it! After re-anchoring Keith donned snorkel gear and managed to retrieve the said boat hook from the bottom of the harbour! (One great advantage of sailing in warm clear water is that you can check your anchor easily - and bits and pieces can easily be rescued.)
We then left for our first "day sail" in 4 months to Culebra an island off Puerto Rico (chosen to be our port of entry into PR). We had got our 6 month visa for the US in St Thomas and now needed our 12-month Cruising Permit. They wouldn't issue on of these in St. Thomas! After the short hop from St Thomas, a good anchorage met us at Culebra. The Customs man was based at the airport and the short walk there was very refreshing. The Customs man was helpful and very friendly. He had organised his office with one wall displaying examples of the seven forms - and laid out the blank ones below them for completion.
With Cruising Permit in hand we went to the Dinghy
Dock (the local haunt for cruisers) for happy hour and met up with a group
of Americans who gave us lots of advice concerning our trip north. After
a few days here we headed for Fajardo (on mainland Puerto Rico) to meet
our first visitors since we left the UK. They flew into San Juan, the
capital of Puerto Rico, and took a taxi to Puerto Del Rey Marina on the
east coast. We'd checked into the marina figuring it was easier for them
to embark there - and for us to fill up with fuel and water for their
holiday. We had planned a trip around the Spanish Virgin Islands, with
short day sails and lots of time in unspoiled picturesque anchorages.
Our first stop was Vieques, a small island about 25 miles SE of the mainland.
This island has been used as a US military base and firing range over
the years and was only given up a year or so ago. At a place called Ensenada
Sun Bay we anchored in a beautiful bay lined with a white sandy beach
fringed with palm trees. We were the only boat there on the first night!
Idyllic and picture-postcard
Ashore there was a small town called Esperanza where we managed to buy some bread. The seaside was home to the usual collection of beach bars and souvenir shops - and the local museum offered about 6 computer terminals for internet access! Really sensible and a great surprise in the middle of nowhere! The main means of transport is horses and many of them graze freely on the island. This area of the Caribbean is also home and the nesting ground of sea turtles. Many of these were spotted swimming along, with signs of their nesting sites on the beach. Paul tried his first coconut picked up from the beach (not appreciated, I think)!
Pat asked one of the dive companies in Esperanza where they took their daily expeditions and they told her Isla de Chiva - a reef off the island, so we sailed there and dropped anchor for a couple of hours while everyone went exploring. There were giant elkhorn corals, stingrays, moray eels and some hungry looking barracudas! So, after lunch, we sailed east again to our next stop, Bahia Salinas Del Sur, a deserted bay with a tricky entrance through a coral reef. The bay used to be used by the military as a bombing target and the beach is littered with unexploded shells! We swam and snorkelled off the reef and enjoyed colourful fan coral, brain coral and the usual small but colourful reef fish. We even came across an unexploded torpedo stuck in at 45 degrees complete with tail fin and propeller! More scary than sharks!
After a night or two there we set off for Culebrita, a small island about 10 miles north west of Vieques. Our pilot said there was a fantastic safe anchorage on the SW corner of the island - but so small that there was room for only about 2 boats. When we arrived it was certainly fantastic (clear turquoise blue water) - but there was already one yacht there. We carefully picked our way through the reef to the small anchorage "hole". The other yacht gave up trying to get his anchor to hold - and after several attempts we decided to follow suit! So it was back out through the reef and about 1 mile across a channel to the larger island of Culebra. We negotiated the entrance to that anchorage OK and eventually picked up a mooring inside the sheltered lagoon. Snorkelling there was interesting but the bottom was covered with turtle grass so the water wasn't as clear.
Early next morning (before breakfast!) we returned to Culebrita and were pleased to discover we were first there and had the anchorage to ourselves. It was well worth it! The water was glorious - warm, clear, turquoise and just like the postcards! Our tourist information mentioned a natural "Jacuzzi" pool on the north end of the islet so we followed the path over there. There was a lovely lagoon (but with surf breaking across the reef entrance) and on one side huge breaking Atlantic seas and on the other a sheltered natural pool formed by boulders. After watching for a while we all decided to go for it and scrambled into the pool. The water "fizzed" as the breaking waves filtered through to the pool, just like a Jacuzzi! Unfortunately at one point a couple of freak large waves came right over into the pool and tumbled us over the rocks and we all ended up with scratches and bruises - so sudden and rather frightening for about 10-15 seconds! So it was back to the yacht for some TLC and iodine! But a wonderful memory of that beautiful anchorage.
Our next stop was back to the larger island of Culebra where we anchored just off the main town. Civilization! We were able to enjoy drinks and dinner at "The Dinghy Dock", the local yachtie beach bar. Mind you, we also had a night of tremendous tropical rain - the RIB collected about 4-5" of water in about 4 hours! So we had to bail out before getting back to the yacht.
After a few days on Culebra we sailed back to Fajardo through more glorious turquoise blue waters and anchored just off the town. It was agreed we would hire a car and explore El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the US, followed by San Juan, the historic capital of Puerto Rico. The rain forest was spectacular - full of the sounds of tree frogs and birds, and with colourful flowers and green ferns and trees.
We had been told by lots of US people that Old San Juan was interesting, but weren't too sure how it would compare with some of the wonderful cities of Europe. But it wasn't disappointing - the narrow hilly streets are cobbled with blue bricks which were brought onto the island as ballast in the early sailing ships! The architecture is very "Spanish" with balconies and courtyards. The old fortress was worth the tour - well preserved and with spectacular views over the city and the harbour.
Pat and Paul then flew to New York after spending a week or so with us on Poco Andante. We really enjoyed having them - so we hope they had a good time They have promised to do a write up of their time with us which we can post to our website!
We then explored a bit more of mainland Puerto Rico - visiting the Bacardi factory (as a tribute to one of Keith's former jobs!). The tour was very "plastic" and marketing-oriented - but did include 2 free drinks! We bought ourselves 2 Bacardi rum punch tumblers in which to enjoy the many drinks we've been indulging in Then it was off to the Arecibo Radio Telescope/Observatory in the heart of Puerto Rico. The geology inland was fascinating - lumpy hills (akin to parts of New Zealand) called Kaarst. Limestone outbreaks with some huge underground caverns which are also a tourist destination. The Radio Telescope is the largest in the world and is fascinating. An amazing feat of engineering - with a 700-ton receiver suspended over the huge aluminium dish, and all aligned to within 0.1mm. The visitor centre was informative and included a film of "a day in the life of " featuring the scientists, engineers, cleaners, cooks, maintenance staff, etc. We really enjoyed our visit there.
Since then we spent a week at anchor off Fajardo, catching up on cleaning, laundry, etc., and ferrying 76 gallons of water (by jerry can) by RIB to replenish our water tanks! We've now returned to the island of Culebra and anchored in yet another lagoon (currently crowded due to the Easter holidays!) to prepare for our next journey.
After lots of deliberation, we have finally decided to get to USA by doing a long direct sail north from here to Bermuda and then Maine. The ocean voyage will probably take 10 days to Bermuda followed by about 6 days to Maine. Weather for the trip is probably better later in April than earlier, so we've come back to Culebra to make sure both the boat and we are ready for another ocean voyage. By doing the trip now we should reach NE USA in May and then have until end of May 2005 to get back to the southern end of the Caribbean via East Coast of USA. (That's the rough plan, anyway ).