At 7AM on Monday morning, Cutter Loose slips free from her mooring in Portsmouth, Dominica. Taking advantage of a good weather window, the tentative itinerary is to continue to sail north with a two-day hop to Antigua. Our destination today is the town of Deshaies, located 52 miles from Portsmouth on the northwest side of the Butterfly Island of Guadeloupe.
The morning sky is clear and the winds are light as Cutter Loose departs Prince Rupert Bay and makes sail in the shadow of the Cabrits, a promontory perched at the northern entrance to the Bay. It has become our normal procedure to proceed cautiously with only a small amount of mainsail exposed when sailing clear of the lee of an island. The wind can be perfectly calm one minute and blowing 25 knots the next when crossing a cut between islands.
Twenty miles into today’s journey, our course takes us past the archipelago of Iles des Saintes, a popular cruising destination just south of Guadeloupe. A wind farm has been developed on the southwestern coast of Terre D’en Bas, the westernmost island of the Saintes. Since there is no shortage of wind in the Caribbean, it would seem logical that wind-generated power would be an ideal method of achieving energy independence. Yet wind farms are extremely rare in the Eastern Caribbean.
The wind can be frustratingly fluky in the lee of islands. Today, however, we manage to keep the sails pulling all the way to Deshaies. With the yellow flag on the starboard spreader, Cutter Loose is anchored in the outermost section of the harbor, well-positioned for a quick getaway come morning. An early start will enable us to cover the 42 miles to English Harbor, Antigua well before the arrival of a forecasted weather disturbance on Tuesday night.
Tuesday, 2/18 turns out to be an interesting study in contrasts. At daybreak, there is dead calm in the harbor at Deshaies. The skies are ominously gray, but there is barely a ripple on the water as Cutter Loose enters the open water for the 42 mile sail to Antigua. For the first few hours underway, we are motor sailing towards our destination in less than eight knots of wind and only a slight swell from the northeast.
This is a unique phenomenon to us. During our entire time in the Caribbean, we have never experienced such calm conditions in the open passes between islands. By mid-morning, moderate easterly winds fill our sails. With only twenty miles to our destination, anticipation of an early afternoon arrival in English Harbor tempts us to expose even more sail area.
At midday, increasing cloud cover to the east signals an abrupt change in the weather. Larger swells and occasional wind gusts in the magnitude of 20 to 25 knots send a clear message to reduce sail. A light shower passes quickly, but heavier rain is visible on the horizon. We are now racing to Antigua in an effort to arrive before the approaching weather system. With ten miles to go, the island is clearly visible…so close, but yet so far. It becomes clear that we are destined to lose this race. The leading squall line arrives suddenly, packing a powerful punch with instant 30 knot gusts and 8 foot frothy swells. To make matters even more interesting, a wind against current scenario unfolds as we turn our bow to the east on final approach to the entrance channel. After two hours of being agitated in nature’s washing machine, Cutter Loose rests safely at anchor in the protection of English Harbor on the south coast of Antigua.
Our visit to English Harbor is brief and largely oriented to Customs clearance, laundry, Internet access and Pat’s appointment at the hairdresser. Shiny, 100 foot plus sailing yachts have already begun to gather at Nelson’s Dockyard Marina in anticipation of Antigua Race Week in April. This is a delightful harbor to visit, especially in the early morning and evening hours when day visitors have returned to their cruise ship in St. Johns.
The grounds of the National Park are especially interesting. Interpretive signage explains the prior use of these historic buildings during the 18th century when Admiral Nelson was in charge of keeping the Caribbean safe and conducive for British trade. Having accomplished our tasks, the anchor is up on Thursday morning 2/20 for the easy 12 mile downwind run to Jolly Harbor on the west coast of Antigua.
The effects of the weather disturbance that passed through Antigua earlier this week are still being felt on Thursday. Wind speeds in excess of 20 knots and 6 to 8 foot waves are churning the seas. Since the wind and sea are astern today, Cutter Loose makes good time transiting Goat Head Channel and rounding Pelican Island before turning north on the west coast of Antigua towards Jolly Harbor. In fact, today’s steady wind provides the energy to complete our water making session while anchored in Jolly’s outer harbor.
The outer harbor at Jolly is an outstanding setting, with plenty of breeze to ventilate the cabin, several nearby white sand beaches, brilliant aquamarine-colored water for swimming right from the boat and a front row view of the sun setting on a seemingly endless expanse of water. One of our favorite activities at anchor is to relax in the cockpit at night, gazing at constellations and watching for vessels underway in the distance. The ship’s light pattern, direction and speed of movement enable us to determine the type of vessel and guess at its destination.
Cutter Loose is anchored about 100 yards from D Boat, an anchored cargo ship that has apparently been converted to an entertainment center in the anchorage. At first, the massive inflatable sliding board mounted on the port side of the ship gives the appearance of an amusement park for children. A shuttle transports visitors back and forth from the dock in Jolly Harbor to the anchored amusement ship. In the evening, however, we learn that this playground ship is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At 8 PM, chest-thumping, hip hop music erupts from the ship and continues to blare loudly until 3 AM. The penetrating bass from the powerful sound system on this ship can be felt throughout the anchorage. Perhaps it is a reflection of our age, but it is disappointing that such a pristine setting is ruined by a floating discothèque. Tomorrow, we will move Cutter Loose to a mooring in the inner harbor of Jolly where we are guaranteed a good night’s rest.
Ashore, Jolly Harbor is a 30-year-old vacation community built around a marina and a commercial center that includes a defunct casino. Modest waterfront townhomes, each with their own private dock surround the inner harbor. Hotels, low rise condos and restaurants front on a semi-circular white sand beach just a few minutes’ walk from the marina. The grocery store here in Jolly Harbor is quite good by Caribbean standards. It has an ample supply of pickled snout for those mid-afternoon snacks in the cockpit.
We take this opportunity to stock up on provisions in anticipation of spending some time in Guadeloupe and Les Saintes during the coming week. Some of the townhomes have not aged well and the commercial complex has several vacant storefronts. However, with access to beaches, a good grocery store and restaurants, Jolly Harbor’s amenities are a popular draw for cruising sailors.
In light of the elevated wind and sea conditions that are expected to persist in Antigua for the next few days, we decide to take the fast ferry from St. John’s for a day trip to Barbuda on Friday, 2/21. Because it is low-lying and offers no natural harbors, Barbuda can be visited by private boats only in settled weather.
After a 20 minute taxi ride from Jolly Harbor to St. John’s, the ferry departs on time at 9 AM. Constructed in 1977, this vintage catamaran ferry covers the 25 miles to Barbuda in about two hours. Winds today are from the northeast in the 20 to 25 knot range with six to eight foot seas. This places the swell on the starboard bow of the ferry, which makes for a very bumpy ride. Within 30 minutes of departure, about half of the 25 or so passengers are ill and barfing into little orange plastic bags distributed by the crew. Thereafter, the infirmed passengers curl up in the nooks and crannies of the ferry where they remain motionless for the duration of the journey. From time to time, the crew checks on the victims to make sure they are still breathing. Our motion preparedness training aboard Cutter Loose has apparently served us well. We feel no ill effects from today’s journey.
Levi John, our tour guide and taxi driver, meets us at the rudimentary River Landing dock where the Barbuda Express will remain until its return trip to St. John’s, Antigua at 4 PM this afternoon. First, Levi explains the sorted history of Barbuda, including its founders, Christopher and John Codrington, who leased the island in 1685 from the British crown and imported slave labor to manage their livestock and root vegetable gardens. According to Levi, the Codringtons failed in their agricultural endeavors. They resorted instead to the export of slaves and salvaging shipwrecks on the reef-strewn Atlantic coast of Barbuda. It is clear that the Barbudans do not hold the Codrington family in high regard.
About 1500 people live on the island of Barbuda, nearly all of which are descendants of slaves imported by the Codrington family. Once emancipated, the slaves remained on the island and to this day, they live in a communal manner. Land is owned by the community, not individuals. A Barbudan may select the land of his or her choice on which to build a home. The home cannot be sold to outsiders, only to persons of Barbudan heritage. This permits Barbudans to maintain control of their island. While there are a two boutique hotels and three guest houses here, most of the land remains undeveloped. Barbuda remains a small isolated island with endless expanses of white-silk beaches. Apparently, most Barbudans prefer to keep it this way.
Levi transports us to Two Foot Bay on the Atlantic Coast. Here, giant waves crash violently on the reef and carve huge indentations or “caves” into the rock walls, some of which contain Arawak petroglyphs.
Next, it is on to one of the island’s primary attractions…the frigate bird colony located at the north end of the Codrington Lagoon National Park. We are transported to this site by motorized pirogue and our guide, George Jeffrey.
Over 5,000 of these birds nest in the mangrove trees along the water’s edge. The density of birds and the level of activity in this area of the lagoon is incredible. There are hundreds of birds aloft, swooping down into the mangroves before accelerating back into the sky. On any single branch, there may be as many as a dozen frigates. It is a very noisy and chaotic place. Only the Galapagos has a frigate bird colony larger than that of Barbuda.
During the mating season, the male birds puff out their bright red chests to let the females know that they are back in town. The all-black females select a male partner by roosting alongside. White-headed immature frigates of as-yet undetermined gender are perched on the mangrove trees as well. It is all one big happy frigate menagerie.
These highly maneuverable fighter pilots of the sky dive steeply to within an inch of the water’s surface, pulling sharply out of their dive and snatching their prey with a graceful skimming maneuver. Their long beaks touch the water for a fraction of a second before ascending with their catch. These amazing birds migrate thousands of miles. Aboard Cutter Loose, we have observed frigates hundreds of miles offshore.
Back on land, Levi provides a tour of Codrington Village before moving on to a picnic shelter at Pink Beach where our tour group of 12 participants is served a lunch of grilled barracuda and lobster. The pink cast of this beach is imparted by tiny fragments of pink shells washed ashore by the waves. This magnificent beach stretches for eleven miles with nary a person in sight other than a lone horseman.
After a walk along the beach, it is time to return to the ferry dock for the two hour return trip to St. John’s, Antigua, then on to Jolly Harbor via taxi. This has been a most rewarding travel experience to one of the least visited islands in the Caribbean. Although it has been a long day, we have thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Barbuda.
At 80 days and counting, we have now reached the midpoint of our 2014 Eastern Caribbean cruise. Antigua and Barbuda are the northernmost destination of this year’s journey. Fortunately, the weather picture here in the Leeward Islands is gradually improving. On Monday, 2/24, we will begin a slow return south towards Grenada.