Friday 21 February 2020

Jolly Harbour

On the hillside, not far from the waters edge, a dilapidated building of unpainted concrete blocks clings onto the rocks, covered with a rusty brown corrugated iron roof. From the single small window hangs a broken black shutter, a plastic rubbish bin lies on its side outside the wooden door. Around the smallholding runs a sagging wire fence, a man in ripped shorts and a dirty white t-shirt sits on the ground, engrossed in his handiwork, while a goat chews at the scrub growing on the stony surface.  Just a few metres away, the rock turns to creamy white sand, palm trees lean towards the soft surf that caresses the beach. The buildings are of bleached oak, chiffon curtains billow in the light morning breeze, white sunbeds, arranged with military precision under white parasols, await the guests who are breakfasting under ceiling fans in the nearby dining room. The contrast is stark. We are anchored in Carlisle Bay, home to the eponymous resort, one of Antigua’s most luxurious hotels where rooms cost seven hundred dollars for a single night, excluding breakfast.
The air in the bay is still; the sun rises above the hills with only the occasional gust that swoops down, ruffling the surface of the water. We prepare to leave the bay and head to Jolly Harbour, on the west coast of Antigua where we can clear customs and prepare for our departure to St Barths. Before leaving, our standard drill is to put on our Sena headsets, the greatest innovation that I have seen on a cruising boat for years. In the past, when anchoring, I would call out instructions to Caroline but she shows no sign of having heard me, so I shout louder, at which point she looks back at me with irritation, thinking that I am raising my voice in anger, whereas in fact I am simply trying to make myself heard over the sound of the wind, the windlass and the distance between me and the foredeck.  This tetchy form of communication creates a general feeling of ill will and by the time we have settled in the anchorage we are often thoroughly fed up with the process, and each other, for no good reason.  Using our new lightweight headsets, worn comfortably over the ears with an integrated microphone, we can chat quietly to each other without raising our voices, whatever the conditions, and the effect is miraculous. Our anchoring has improved significantly, as we can discuss where we should drop, how much scope we need, and it even allows us to admire the view and share our observations. Hoisting and dropping the mainsail has become a cinch as I can be up on the bimini roof, checking the reefing lines and Caroline can make the final adjustments from the cockpit.

“Anchor is up, you are clear to go”. Anyone who knows Caroline, also knows that her voice has a certain pitch that can penetrate steel walls, but today she is speaking sotto voce, almost whispering in my ear, using our magic headsets. Our course to Jolly Harbour takes us inside Middle Reef through a channel only a few hundred metres wide so we are leaving at mid morning when the sun is high in the sky, showing up the colours of the water and the green shadows of the reef line. However as we motor out of the bay I glance behind me and instead of the calm scene from moments earlier, a huge black cloud appears above the wooded hilltops, growing larger and more menacing by the second, blotting out the blue sky and casting a dark shadow over the bay.

Anchored just outside the bay is Maltese Falcon, a huge modern square-rigger, originally built for Tom Perkins of Kleiner Perkins fame, and now killing time, waiting at anchor for her next charter guests.  As the black clouds descend over the hills, rain starts to fall in white sheets, cascading in slow motion towards the surface of the sea and then as it hits the water the surface foams from the impact and the wind whips up the waves, sending white horses scudding across the bay. Maltese Falcon is behind us and catches the full force of the squall first, her three huge masts almost bowled over by the wind, her two hundred tons offering little resistance to the forces of nature.  I call to Caroline, this time at full volume, without headsets, warning her of the impending storm and we race to find our waterproofs and close the saloon doors. Hera is doing 6 knots of boat speed under bare poles, the bimini acting as a downwind sail, and we are flying along, inside the reef, the land and the reef entirely obscured by the heavy rainfall, the radar depicting the squall on our screen as a mass of red, directly overhead.  I am navigating with just our chart plotter, but the force of the rain on the touch-screen causes it to move unpredictably, leaving me just the compass to steer our course, and I make a mental note to find out how to switch off the touch screen in these conditions and use the joystick.

As with all squalls, it eventually passes overhead, continuing its headlong dash across the oceans until its energy is spent and it turns into a benign cloud formation that drifts over the horizon.  Rounding the point, we motor up the coast towards Jolly Harbour, over three miles of shallow water, just a few metres deep with white sand below, a turquoise carpet sliding by under our hull. 

We anchor in the bay and take our dinghy up the channel through the narrow entrance that opens out into a large natural harbour, completely encircled by private houses, each with their own wooden dock where yachts and powerboats are tethered. At the head of the harbour is a marina, a customs office and a number of shops and restaurants. It sounds idyllic but it has a rather dingy feel, made worse by the large casino at centre stage, closed when we were last here in 2013 and now covered with moss and lichen, the windows boarded up, exuding an air of dilapidation and decay. Nearby is the marina bar, a circular arrangement with chairs arranged over a wooden decking, paint peeling and looking very run down in the afternoon rain; adjoining is a kitchenette with a menu scrawled on a white board, the chef sitting at a plastic table eating listlessly from a plastic plate with little enthusiasm.  We take our seats at the bar and order drinks rather doubtfully, thinking that we will soon return to the more cheerful surroundings of the anchorage. 

However like many first impressions we are mistaken.  It is happy hour and a number of locals congregate at the bar, the falling light camouflaging the imperfections of the bar and its occupants. Renita, the jovial bar maid, scans the bar ensuring no-one is left without a drink and some light-hearted banter.   We ask her if she can recommend somewhere good to eat and she nods towards the kitchen: “its good, and great value”.  In the Caribbean, great value often means poor quality but undeterred and encouraged by her enthusiasm we order fish and chips. “Is it Mahi Mahi?” we enquire.  “It’s fish” the chef replies, so we set our expectations low and wait.  The conversation around the bar is wide-ranging: two single women travellers are being regaled by a silver haired rouĂ©, who is working his way methodically through the contents of the beer fridge.  A glamorous couple from England are exchanging stories with a local sailor; she, working her fingers through her blond hair while downing glasses of sparkling wine, her partner exchanging sailing yarns with the local, matching him, tale for tale.

Supper arrives. The fish is fried, the chips are hot, the salad is dressed and the tartar sauce is homemade. Nothing remarkable but perfectly cooked and it is delicious, one of the best meals we have had in the islands and definitely the cheapest. As darkness falls the conversation around the bar becomes more animated, the stories more amusing and unlikely, the sense of community more welcoming, even to itinerant visitors like us.   We settle our bill with a handful of dollars and motor back to Hera through the darkness, our dinghy flying over the still water of the lagoon, under the light of an enormous full moon.  We have encountered beautiful settings around the world in our travels but often the best experiences come from our interactions with like-minded, genuine people who seem content and at ease, despite the simplicity of their surroundings.  Tomorrow we will finally leave Antigua. The forecast is for twenty knots of wind, just aft of the beam, great conditions for a fast passage across the 73 miles to St Barths and the prospect of new experiences.


  1. Yay! So where were these magic headsets when we were crossing the ocean, I ask...

  2. They were with Santa at the North Pole.