Friday 8 March 2013

Antigua and Barbuda

Barbuda is a flat line on the horizon, its highest point only 125 feet above sea level. The island is 30 miles north of Antigua, strewn with 200 shipwrecks which have foundered on its reef-infested waters. We pick a waypoint off the west coast and then turn east towards Cocoa Point, the sun behind us so that we can make out the reefs which lurk just below the surface, betrayed by patches of green and brown. Paul and Consuelo are on the bow, Fatty is at the chart plotter and we communicate by handheld VHF radio, using eyeball navigation and the echo sounder to feel our way into the anchorage.

Ahead of us is a 15 mile sweep of pinky-white beach, with maybe two or three white rooftops dropped in along the mangroves and only two yachts that we can see in this huge bay. Anchoring in 4 metres of creamy-blue water, the chain churns up the pasty white sand and a turtle surfaces next to us, gasping for air, its head held comically high before its raises its flippers and disappears below the surface with a swirl.

We watch the sun set on a cloudless western horizon, our bows pointing into the easterly wind which flows off the beach, our stern facing west towards St Kitts and Nevis which lie to the West. So as not to miss the drama of sunset we hurriedly prepare Dark and Stormy sun-downers; a mix of dark rum, freshly squeezed lime and ginger ale and sit in the cockpit watching the sky, lit pink by the setting sun. As dusk settles the clouds lose their crimson glow and darken into grew shadows which slip away into the night.

When we flew back to Antigua from the UK last Saturday with Paul and Consuelo, we provisioned at the amazing supermarket in Jolly Harbour and then sailed the few miles up the coast to Deep Bay where we anchored for the night. The west coast of Antigua is shallow and sandy, giving the water a lovely light blue hue, but visibility under the surface is poor as the swell churns up the sand and mixes it into a milky blue soup. After a night on board we set sail for Barbuda 25 miles to the North. Unlike the boisterous conditions that we have become accustomed to, there is a gentle breeze, the water is flat and we have a glorious sail across the channel at a leisurely 6 knots. We decide to stay in Barbuda for a few days and settle in to our beautiful anchorage.

We wake early as we are not yet accustomed to the time difference and swim the two hundred metres to the beach. Of all the beaches that we have been to, Fatty and I decide that this is the finest. It is hard to describe why this beach is so special. Perhaps it is the creamy pink sand, soft and silky underfoot, which turns to a creamy paste as the waves wash up the beach banking the sand into terraces. Or maybe that despite being only 25 miles from the busy island of Antigua there is not a soul in sight as far as the eye can see. The other two yachts have left the anchorage and we are now completely alone in this wild and beautiful setting. We find a flat section of beach where Fatty leads us in a Pilates class, with Paul and I grunting and groaning to keep up with her supple movements. We swim back to Juno and have a massive breakfast, feeling that we have deserved every mouthful. The rest of the day is a lazy one, reading books and swimming off the boat, while I squeeze into my wet suit and scuba gear and spend a happy hour scrubbing the underside of the hull. Due largely to the constant warm water, the marine growth here is much more aggressive than in the Mediterranean and it is hard work scraping away barnacles and shells which have attached themselves to the metal sections of the propeller, shaft and P bracket where the specialist antifoul was not properly applied in Palma. With the worst bits done I decide to resurface and finish the job another day.

We have booked dinner tonight at Uncle Roddy's restaurant. At 5.30 we dinghy to the beach, and drag the tender high up on the sand where I run a long line over the beach and into the mangrove beyond where I tie up to some roots. As arranged earlier by telephone, we walk along the beach to the wind sock by the air strip where we are greeted by Roddy in a pickup truck. Fatty sits in the cab to interrogate him while Paul, Consuelo and I ride shotgun sitting on a plank in the open truck. We drive for about fifteen minutes along a rough track of red sand that runs parallel to the beach, with small scrub trees and mangroves swamps inland. While this is a beautiful place to anchor for a few days it is a hard uncompromising terrain for its inhabitants with few trees, little water and no sign of vegetation. Roddy pulls up on the beach outside a small house with a veranda where tables and chairs are laid. While our host prepares the lobster on his barbecue we walk down to the beach with our drinks watching another marvellous sunset. It is a muggy, still evening with hardly a ripple on the sea and the silence is broken only by the occasional fish jumping in the shallows and the gulp of turtles surfacing for air.

Over dinner Roddy tells us about the nearby K Club, once a very fashionable and exclusive resort, but now unused for the past ten years and fallen into disrepair. Apparently it was a thriving business attended regularly by Princess Diana and other celebrities, but after her death the Italian owner closed the hotel and it hasn't been used since, depriving the island of a much needed source of income. Roddy is an engaging man with a wise and gentle manner. He was born in Barbuda and then worked in Toronto for several years before returning to his homeland. He confides to Fatty that he has eight children, one wife and seven partners. He tells us that Barbuda used to be run as a slave farm, matching the strongest and most attractive slaves and letting them breed to produce perfect offspring to meet the rapacious needs of the growing French and British empires. This sounds barbaric by modern day standards but Roddy shrugs and says that at least the Barbudan slaves lived an easy and happy existence compared to the hard labour that was imposed on the neighbouring islands.

We wake this morning to an angry sky with large black menacing clouds gathering on the northern horizon. Undeterred we swim again to our favourite beach, conduct our Pilates class, now that we are experts, and swim back for breakfast. Today we have booked a guide to take us to the Frigate bird sanctuary; however as the pre-arranged time approaches the clouds are growing darker and I am unhappy leaving the boat unattended with so many reefs all around us so I stay on board while the others meet up with George, their guide. As we try and land on the beach  a huge wave breaks under us and fills the tender with water, soaking everyone in the process. We manage to empty the dinghy then Paul and I return to Juno to get dry clothes and towels. It rains continuously all day and when they return, soaked to the skin four hours later, they bring me a fish from George to use as bait as my artificial lures aren't yielding results. They have had a fun day despite the rain, seeing the male Frigate birds puffing up their brightly crimson chest feathers rather fruitlessly as the mating season has long passed. Due to their huge wingspan, once these birds fall in the water they cannot take off again and George rescues a bird and helps it into the air.  We also clear out at the customs and immigration offices which are run from small houses in the village of Codrington.


I lash together a rig made of a huge double hook to which I attach strips of fish from Roddy's bait fish and a heavy weight to sink it to the Ocean floor. It is still raining as I sit in the cockpit watching the rod in its holder, not very hopeful of success. Suddenly the rod tip bends sharply and urgently, the reel buzzes as line is stripped against the brake and I rush across the deck striking as I lift the rod from its holder. I can tell it's a strong fish as it dives again, taking more line but eventually we bring it to the surface and Paul scoops it out of the sea in the landing net. It is a beautiful animal, weighing around 2 kilos and we think it's a snapper. I gut and scale the fish and as I sit in the cockpit writing tins blog fatty has the fish in the oven for supper and Consuelo is reading us extracts from Doyles guide about St Barths, our destination tomorrow.

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