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Published: March 22nd 2013
We arrived after a gentle sail from Guadeloupe in Falmouth Harbour with the wind dropping fast. It has been a strange few days for wind. The Caribbean Sea is flat calm and the wind is starting to come around to the west and lighten – the opposite of what you would expect at this time of year. The rain that falls on our first morning in Antigua deposits ash from Montserrat’s volcano. We anchored in Falmouth Harbour, a wide and well protected bay that I remember well from 20-odd years ago. It has changed greatly. The bay now has 3 marinas in it and quite possibly the largest collection of superyachts anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Palma, Mallorca. Adorning these massive boats are helicopters and even a mini-submarine in the style of Tin Tin – quite incredible. A collection of J-Class yachts are alongside. These are the pre-war America’s cup yachts and modern replicas such as Endeavour, Rainbow and Lionheart. This is boat-porn on a massive scale. It makes us feel decidedly from the poor end of town!
English Harbour, and the location of Nelson’s Dockyard is, is also transformed, but this
time the formerly buoyant and bouncing social scene is gone and the stern-to moored beautiful boats are absent. The Copper and Lumber pub is still there but the drunken boat-niggers (of which I was one 21 years ago) are long-gone. It is quaintly touristy, expensive and decidedly empty.
Sally and Richard are staying in a small hotel on the small peninsular above English Harbour. We have not seen Sally since just before leaving the Canary Islands, just prior to our trans-Atlantic and Richard not since leaving Corsica. It is lovely to see them wandering through Nelson’s Dockyard.
We have a fabulous dinner together with Sally and Richard plus the Blues in a great fish restaurant, called Trappas. We have tuna cerviche and wahoo sashimi and even the kids have fish and chips (tilapia). Much better than burger / nuggets and chips.
Lisa and the kids are keen to look around Nelson’s dockyard and I need to clear in and work out what has happened to the holding tank which is emitting a foul odour. I wonder what I would rather do...? The holding tank sits in the forepeak. I had de-calcified the pipes in Bequia and re-plumbed
the two way valve for the forward heads. Unfortunately we have been over-filling (unintentionally) the holding tank and it has been weeping into the forepeak – hence the small colony of flies that has been gradually building aboard. Only once I removed the woodwork around the holding tank do I make this delightful realisation. It must be entirely cleaned out. The forepeak is emptied of all our cruising gear and I can get to grips with the holding tank – I can’t describe how awful this job is – and finally what a relief it is to clear up the problem. By this time most of the marine life in Falmouth Harbour is floating belly up in a trail of Windsor Soup and the bay has become a no-swimming area!
Cameron has really come out of his shell. He spots some American kids on a catamaran called Orion. Within short order he has swum across (at least one tidal cycle after the grand poisoning of Falmouth Harbour, as outlined above) and a few moments later he is blatting around the anchorage in a donut behind their rib. Cameron is quick to make friends and has a real confidence that
he did not have before we left. He has really developed, through necessity, the ability to build relationships and will happily chatter with adults and children alike on all manner of subjects – good chap.
Antigua’s water is wonderfully turquoise and the different depths of water around the island and its reefs make coloured rings and bands which make for stunning photos and scenery. Unfortunately the fine sediment in the water makes snorkelling not so memorable as it takes on a murky suspension rather than the clear waters of Dominica or the Tobago Cays. Nonetheless the pilgrimage to Shirley Heights, overlooking Falmouth and English Harbours, is well worth the trip. The low winds of the last ten days have made the sea eerily calm and the sunset is spectacular, with the accompaniment of a steel-band, a cliché but an amazing one.
After 2 days we decide to head around to Green Island and Nonsuch Bay. On the way we spot whales. The lack of waves enable us to see the blow holes of the whales spewing water into the air and on closer inspection we see their dorsal fins – unfortunately they are too far for photographs but
unmistakeable. Nonsuch Bay sits at the southern end of Antigua and would otherwise be exposed to the prevailing easterly winds but the calm forecast means that we can get in behind the reefs and watch as outside long swells crash over the reefs while we sit in calm water.
We run into Mad Fish, whom we haven’t seen since Grenada. Russell comes across to take the kids ashore to play with their boys while we sort ourselves out and soon we are enjoying sun-downers on a Green Island beach. Sad to say but aside from the obvious beauty of Nonsuch Bay there is little to keep us here. The snorkelling is poor as much of the coral is dead and there are few fish to spot. We also seem to be rushing through our limited supplies of water, which will need rapid replenishment.
Richard, Tim and I sit down one evening and go through the RYA fishing book (borrowed from Maloo and not returned – sorry Mark and Karline!x). We need to do better to augment an otherwise battery-farmed chicken diet and the new-found love of fish needs to be resourced! We make up some lures and are
determined to catch something on the way to Jolly Harbour. We pass close to Mad Fish on the way out and then out go the lines – trailing behind the boat between 15 and 30 metres from the boat. We get little interest until we cross the reef into Jolly Harbour. After a short fight we pull in a very lame barracuda – just short of an arm’s length. Unfortunately the ciguatera is a real threat in the northern Caribbean. Ciguatera is a poison found within reef fish, barracuda and other predators build up the concentration of this poison in their system, and are unable to break it down. By the time a barracuda gets longer than the length of a man’s arm it is deemed potentially dangerous. We land it all the same, just as a shark is seen under the boat making a play for the easy meal of a fish handicapped on by being firmly attached to a line – we are a little too quick for Bruce and the fish is ours (we subsequently catch another barracuda on the way from Antigua to Barbuda and try to release it without it dying but it bobs on
the surface and will probably not recover – it is a shame). We marinade it and decide to chance our arm on it – by virtue of the fact that you are reading this, we survive!
Jolly Harbour is a daunting place to enter in that it is just deep enough for us to crawl in with the engine just ticking over. We need to sit in the centre of the channel but are heartened by the fact that Progression lives here and she draws the same as us. The Blues are comfortably able to push ahead of us and Tim tracks down Chris and Maggie to take them up on their very kind offer of a place alongside their lovely home and Progression in the private part of Jolly Harbour. The pontoon’s cleats will not handle all three boats hanging from it so we wrap chains around the legs of the reinforced concrete supports and hang from those.
It is lovely to see Chris and Maggie again. They are extremely welcoming and lay on wifi, water and endless hospitality. Maggie and Chris know Antigua really well – and Maggie becomes the ad hoc Tourist Information Centre with
recommendations on where to eat, which beaches to go to and where best to hire a car. Without her we’d have lost a great deal of time. She’s a lifesaver. Both Chris and Maggie come to our barbeque on our second night in Jolly Harbour. It is a great (and very long) night of drinks and chat with lots of fun. The whiskey makes a showing too – which always ensures a long night. The following morning – slightly tired and emotional we emerge to pull down the new Fabiola drinks’ flag (or incoming-hangover flag) which was beautifully made by Tim’s Mum, Sheila (thanks again – it’s a beauty) from Cameron’s design of two dolphins holding a cocktail glass and is raised up the signal halyard when it is time for sundowners.
We also hire a car in Antigua and travel the north western coast, visiting beautiful beaches. No sooner do we pull into stunning Deep Bay to enjoy a deserted beach with no one other than the Blues do we hear and see two Wadadli (the Carib name for Antigua) Catamarans disgorge 50 holiday makers apiece onto our beach! Within very short order the fattest Americans are waddling
as fast as their flabby legs and rum-punch-holding piggy arms will allow them past us to ruin the view. It is a little sad. Luckily their visit is short-lived and they are called back aboard on the sound of a klaxon and off they steam back out of the bay.
On Maggie’s recommendation we go to a different beach and find Jackie O’s for lunch. It’s a great setting and superb and reasonably priced food. The kids eat quickly and are free to play on the beach within sight of us. Samuel leads the girls like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn while Cameron plays with Maui, the Tibetan terrier – leaving the grownups to enjoy themselves. We enjoy a great afternoon where even the skipper of Fabiola is allowed a brief rest in a hammock on beach (for a short at least before I am joined by the lovely Mia for cuddles). The kids play wonderfully.
The following day we leave, via the fuel berth, for Barbuda. Despite the concerns of many in Jolly Harbour, we have a gentle sail to Barbuda which remains invisible (due to its very low-lying nature) until we are
very close. We pick our way through the coral channels up to the stunning, white-sand fringed, Cocoa Point. Ashore is what I imagine a Pacific atoll looks like; on the tip of Cocoa Point coconut palms disguise an exquisite looking set of beach villas and then it opens up to a low sandbar with the sound of breakers pounding onto it. There is only one other boat there. Initially I am not sure that we are in the right place as normally a place as beautiful as this is would be mobbed with charter boats (more to come on this point).
Getting ashore is tricky – the waves need to be timed and the run in executed perfectly; needless to say ours is not quite. With 6 alighting from a slightly swamped dinghy we stagger ashore in a Robin Crusoe-esque style and feel the most amazing sand beneath our feet. It is entirely understandable why Princess Diana brought her children here to avoid the paparazzi for several years – and the beach is named after her. The sand in Barbuda is exported all around the world. Too bad that the revenue from this seems to have been lost on
its way back to the islands as there is little sign of worthwhile and lasting investment.
Our taxi driver come guide explains that Barbuda’s 1500 people did not want independence from Britain in the 1950 and 1960s and was dragged that way by Antigua, who became its ruling power. There are numerous obvious problems that plague the inhabitants; they could not own land on Barbuda as it was not deemed theirs and until this dispute could be rectified only a few years ago no one would invest and Britain was not interested in its drawdown from Empire. Scrappy dwellings cluster around the centre of Codrington and the one road running in and out of it. The local administration employs 90% of the workforce here, which must rival Greece for its inefficiency! Separate offices for the port authority, customs and immigration are spread through the town each with a union worker with their stamp and minimal authority. On a busy week they process 15 boats – that’s all. Do they want more from their lives; the answer is a resounding “no”. They have security where everyone knows everyone – there are only about 6 surnames on the island, a legacy
of Barbuda’s slaving past, fascinating in itself.
Shortly after the British occupied the islands, following Columbus’ second journey of discovery, it became a slaving centre where the best Caribbean slaves were produced and traded, by the Codrington family. If the rumours are true it was a carefully-run slave breeding colony exporting the biggest and strongest slaves throughout. Codrington was not the worst slaver as it appears that a relatively free rein was shown in Barbuda and the fact that Codrington’s name has been retained for the town, lagoon, bay and 60ft heights (or general malaise) is testament to that.
Nowadays the islanders, like Dominica and others along the Caribbean have courted a rogues gallery of supporters; university scholarships from Cuba, a desalination plant from Venezuela, a community centre from the Chinese (with a distinctly Chinese appearance) and a Japanese fishing port (it is no surprise that this last building in sited on an island where we have seen the most whale activity). No one else is interested in the island and what options does local government have. It is an unenviable position that they find themselves in. Despite having the most amazing 12-mile beach (and we’ve
seen a few in the last 8 months) and being only 25 miles from Antigua with two airfields they have only 2 of 5 tourist hotels open and most of the beach bars are deserted. No land ownership means no one is committed to development – it is unbearably tragic.
Despite all the difficulties the people are lovely. They wave, stop in the street to talk to passers-by and, on the Sunday morning we go through town, are packed into the town’s two churches with joy, happiness and a lot of jubilant singing. A bumper sticker I see on an empty house pretty much sums it up - “Don’t worry, something is going to happen to you.” Barbuda is sat waiting...
We visit the frigate bird colony on the lagoon. Frigate birds have no predators and they seem to be doing well. Nesting on low bushes in the centre of the lagoon, they are well-protected. A strong smell of guan is everywhere as the newly hatched juveniles are calling out for food, mothers work to feed them and the last unlucky males puff out their red chests to attract a mate, but the season is over so the
speccy, ginger step-children will go unloved this year. The males who were luckier are off “liming” – which basically means that since their post-coital excitement they have upped and left to swoop and soar over the other Caribbean islands on an all-boys trip. There is a lot to be said for liming!
Uncle Roddy's is a restaurant that has been recommended to us. Roddy used to work at the resort that Diana frequented. He sells lobster meals, only at lunchtime as we would otherwise be on the menu for the lethal squadrons of sandflies that would devour us at dusk. It’s a great meal, not fancy but excellent fish and local vegetables and rice – extra lobster that he caught that morning are also given to us as they would otherwise have gone to waste (this happens all the time in Salcombe – not!). We mention a lobster pot that we have seen in the nearby bay which seems unattended with not buoy to mark it. He says that it has probably broken free and that we should take advantage of this unexpected windfall. The next afternoon Tim and I take Cameron round to the same bay. I manage
to find what is obviously a cached keep rather than a pot and, under intensifying scrutiny from the beach we leave it be, but on the way back to the boat I spot a lobster on the bottom making its way to a coral bommie. Complete in Tim’s fetching gardening gloves I scoop it unsuspecting off the bottom and we throw it into the bucket – Tim and Freddie’s lobster tea (initially I thought it was a large crayfish but it is apparently a “slipper lobster”) is reportedly delicious!
On the last day we are in Barbuda we start to hear of an influx of 160+ Russians for a beach party. Information is scant but during that afternoon they arrive in force in about 40 charter boats, led in by a local guide in his dory by the half-dozen. Our anchorage in transformed into a seething mass of incompetent Russian loud-mouths and their molls. The men are obese and the women are overly-glamorous and doubtless very high maintenance. Sunsail and other charter companies are less concerned by their social habits and are simply finding new markets – too bad that this market is now encamped far too close to
us. I watch and shout to get attention from one as it drags its anchor and passes very close to Open Blue. Visions of our collision in Union Island are at the forefront of my mind. The following morning we make a fast exit. The Russians have spent the evening drinking rum and vodka on the beach with a local band and their boat-handling skills will not have improved. As we gently wend our way through the narrow, shallow channel between coral bommies on the out of Cocoa Point one charter boat is close on our heels – 15-feet close on our heels until I very loudly offer them sex and travel in what is a relatively easily well-known colloquial British expression. It seems to work and they back off and let us alone.
Barbuda could be so utterly amazing – it needs wealthy private investors to re-establish the hotels and above all market the island as place to see. Even the breeching humpback whale off Codrington Shoals passes nonchalantly by.
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