Antigua: A Journey, Not a Destination
For pure sailing pleasure, Antigua and her islands are hard to match, with more cozy anchorages and steadier winds than many other West Indian offerings.
Every April, venerable windships gather in Falmouth and English harbors for the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, which is followed late in the month by the Antigua Sailing Week races. In December, the annual Antigua Charter Yacht Show also takes place in these two bodies of water, which explains why they steal all the glory, pushing out of the limelight the miles of protected waters around Antigua that are tailor-made for gunkholing.
And lest you forget, the country's name is Antigua and Barbuda; the latter offers splendid cruising and a number of lovely anchorages on its west and south sides. And don't ignore Redonda, Antigua's out-island, for this small, bold outcropping 30 miles to the southeast has some surprises in store, as my wife, Nancy, and I discovered while cruising around these waters in 2005 on Sea Angel, the 88-foot Sparkman & Stephens aluminum ketch we were captain and mate aboard at the time.
English Harbour became the place for yachties to hang out not long after Commander V.E.B. Nicholson, his wife, and their two sons, Desmond and Rodney, sailed there from England in 1949 and gave birth to the Caribbean charter business with their schooner Mollihawk. A short hike up from Fort Berkley Point and west along the spine of the hills reveals that Falmouth Harbour, an eighth of a mile overland from English Harbour, is becoming a major yachting center in its own right. Once the figurative backwater of Nelson's Dockyard, this bay now has three large marinas, the Antigua Yacht Club, and a boatyard, plus a row of yacht services with some of the world's best marine technicians. To find out exactly how this all happened, you'd have to talk to local legend and developer Hugh Bailey, who's also been passionate about introducing the sport and recreation of sailing to many young Antiguans.
Hugh began sailing at 15 as a deckhand on the 110-foot charter schooner Freelance; he then joined the 100-foot brigantine Caribee under the aegis of Antigua's boating and weather (English Harbour Radio) guru, Jol Byerley. In 1962, when Hugh was 19 years old, he became the captain of Sagittarius, another classic. A year later, he began construction of the Catamaran Club, the first hotel and marina in Falmouth Bay. In 1975, he bought Freelance and dedicated the months outside the charter season to teaching sailing.
In 1976, when Freelance sailed in OpSail 76, the bicentennial Tall Ships gathering in Manhattan, the crew included 14 Antiguan cadets. A broken prop shaft nearly sank her, but after repairs in Bermuda, the schooner led the Tall Ship parade down New York Harbor. Hugh Bailey's dedication to his country was recognized with the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal and the title, Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Now, during the busy winter season, he splits time between the Catamaran Club and Falmouth Harbour Marina, in which he's a major partner. A break from work comes when he races, quite successfully, Hugo-B, a Beneteau First 456.
Bailey began the trend of investing in Antiguan beach properties, and was, of course, followed by others, many of whom were yacht owners and charterboat guests. Now, pricey hotels loom over some spectacular shores of Antigua, but plenty of anchorages still exist around the island where charterers and world-weary cruisers can find peace.
Search for Serenity
Having eaten out and danced late into the night in English Harbour, we focused on finding some of these remote and pristine places. We decided Green Island, at the mouth of Nonsuch Bay on Antigua's east shore, would qualify, and we pointed Sea Angel eastward. Soon, we were climbing over the long Atlantic swells that sweep by the Pillars of Hercules guarding English Harbour, beginning a nine-mile beat that ended when we eased the sheets for a fast reach across York Bank. Halfway in, we sailed through a streaming cloud of yellow butterflies heading to Green Island. A piece of advice: Use your eyesight to safely clear the reef edges. Our CD of digitized charts was 300 yards in error, putting the boat icon square on the reef off Harman Point.
Atlantic swells crested and exploded at the outer edges of the barrier reef, which protects the anchorage over a mixture of coral and sand. Off the bow, the low forest of flowering and fragrant brush belonged to us alone all morning, until the first guests arrived in a boat from the Mill Reef Yacht Club, which owns Green Island. We weighed anchor. A moderate swell and light wind cooperated for the exit through serpentine Spithead Channel, the midday sun pinpointing scattered reefs. In the narrowing waterway, breakers growled to port and starboard, natural nav aids that imposed a precise-steering ethic. A needlefish the size of a barracuda leaped out of the water and tail-walked ahead.
With this benign weather, the island of Barbuda was much on our minds. The course west of Pilaster Reef, off the southern end of the island, was an easy, 30-mile beam reach. To keep the westing sun behind us on the way to Spanish Point, the southernmost tip, we steered west of Cocoa Point before turning east toward a choice of anchorages. Weaving between patches of coral, I periodically glanced at the chart plotter, which indicated shoals more or less correctly. However, after anchoring in 10 feet of water in the lee of the outer reef, it placed our boat ashore in the bushes. Forewarned is forearmed.
From the sea, Barbuda looked like a pancake rimmed by endless beaches. The east coast, limestone bluffs and soft sands, stretched away from Spanish Point. To cool off, we swam and snorkeled on coral patches, dark areas that dotted the shallow turquoise sea offshore. Besides ours, no human footprints marked the sand, though two resorts exist at the south end of the island. One of these, Coco Point Lodge, is so exclusive we whimsically thought there might not be anyone there. And banish K-Mart from your mind when calling for reservations at the K-Club: Their lunches begin at $85 a plate.
Our next destination was an anchorage on the island's west side, from which we made a beeline for huge, highly visible coral reefs. After swimming over the living coral around Spanish Point, it was shocking to find dead reefs, smothered by sands stirred up by the Category 4 westerly winds of 1999's Hurricane Lenny. So back to the beach we went, and to land without swamping. We hit the shore on the run and dragged the dinghy high and dry, out of reach of the surge. Codrington village shimmered across mile-wide Codrington Lagoon, and though we tried, we couldn't reach the north end of this pink-sand strand: It's seven miles long.
On the south shore, Boat Harbour, three miles east of Palmetto Point, gave us a safe place to leave the dinghy, and a man on a local boat lying at the wharf offered us a ride into Codrington. While sipping cold drinks in his home, we learned our host was Sir Eric Burton, a local businessman now retired from Antiguan politics. He owns a bar, a disco, and a grocery in the center of the village. Sir Eric's pride and joy, a booming lobster fishery, employs local divers who harvest the crustaceans from open boats.
Oddly, the nesting patterns of one avian species have brought more work opportunities for local men-and not by killing them or stealing their eggs. By the small dock overlooking the lagoon, several boatmen waited to take ecotourists, usually day-trippers flown in from Antigua, to the magnificent frigate-bird rookery. There live an estimated 5,000 birds who've become accustomed to humans, quite like the birds in the Galapágos Islands, a few thousand miles away in another ocean.
This was at the end of December, toward the end of their mating season, and only a few males still had the red, fender-size throat pouches inflated under their beaks. Some precocious chicks had already broken out of their eggs and were astonished at the sight of the green mangrove world around them. Still fluffy-white, they hardly resembled the ominously black adults that roam the tropical skies, hooked beaks
at the ready.
On the way back, we said good-bye to Sir Eric, secretly hoping for a lift to our dinghy, which was graciously offered. As if he hadn't done enough for us already, as we shook hands on the wharf, he handed us a package of lobsters, cooked and ready to eat.
The reach back to Antigua in a stiff trade wind was very pleasant; the 60- to 80-foot-deep bank joining the islands tames the high Atlantic swells. The seas got even smoother as we entered Boon Channel, protected by a long barrier of offshore reefs running west to east along Antigua's north shore. I changed the plotter to track from a CD of USDMA charts and enjoyed the dead-on accuracy. The boys from the U.S. Air Force base on Antigua obviously had the area charted for security reasons.
Great Bird Island, near the western end of the reef, is a wildlife sanctuary. Ashore, rough trails at the edge of precipitous cliffs offered unlimited views of the Atlantic to the east. As we hiked along, clouds of yellow butterflies rose from their evening roosts. To the north and west, shallow waters stretched in a full palette of blues interrupted by dark patches of coral reef. When we turned southward, even more reefs and islets spread out before us.
The island has two pocket-size beaches, upon which a boatload of guests from Long Island's posh Jumby Bay Resort suddenly descended. While they spread out their picnic lunches, we made a dinghy escape to Guiana Island, less than a mile to the south. An old overgrown dirt track, graced by a pair of curious horned deer, led to an abandoned early-18th-century plantation house.
A channel through a maze of reefs farther south opened into deep Mercers Creek Bay, first revealing the pretty village of Seatons, then Keeves Landing. At the latter spot, a solid, old Caribbean house on a limestone bluff overlooked an archipelago of islets with deep channels leading out into the ocean. Below it, a Cherubini ketch lay at a stone dock, at her owner's beck and call, evoking not a little twinge of envy in the author. Nearby, uninhabited Pelican Island had no-trespassing signs on every corner.
After a day's stop in St. John's, on Antigua's west side, to restock, we spent the night in Deep Bay, where the wreck of Andes, a three-masted bark that burned and sank in 1905, lay smack in the middle of the approach. It's now a snorkeling hotspot where clouds of juvenile fish follow human aliens. Fort Barrington rises on the hill above, a reminder of Horatio Nelson's time here in the 1780s. Falling somewhat short of perpetuating the centuries-old spell, that evening, Jolly Roger, a "pirate ship" from St. John's, brought revelers to the bay-a very good reason for a dependable anchor light.
Five Island Harbour, just south of St. John's, offered choice anchorages in which to hide from whatever swell direction prevails outside. Here, we found our own beach landing backed by a salt-pan lagoon with an abandoned windmill tower to explore and a view of green peaks-ancient parasitic cones from a volcanic past. In the evening, cows arrived on the beach at Hermitage Bay, on the south shore across from us. Not far from there, Bakers Cellar, isolated from the rest of the island by a red headland, hid the most unspoiled beach we'd yet seen on this cruise.
As we sailed south, then east, to close our circle, we passed Jolly Harbour, a huge complex of marinas, boatyards, restaurants, and shops. Three miles down the coast, past Pelican Island, Goat Head Channel leads east by Middle and Cades reefs, marked by cresting breakers on the south perimeter.
Joe the Basil Man's Advice
A row of bays and hotels appears for those who seek stimulating liquids and Calypso music. Pretty, large waves sweep by famous Rendezvous Beach, just west of Falmouth. Quite remote, it's an occasional hangout for megayacht crews on their days off. They reach it on their fast yacht tenders, but we chose to take the road less traveled: Joe the Basil Man-Falmouth native, yacht cooks' friend, and provider of herbs-gave us directions for getting there on foot.
After turning left from the Catamaran Club, we went past the old church, turned shoreward, and walked through farmland rich with papayas, mangoes, and climbing peas. We turned toward the stables, then left and up, up, up, and we soon discovered that not all of Antigua is a goat-ridden desert. Having survived some steep ascents, we descended through a damp virgin forest. Finches flitted by, doves cooed, and rare white-crowned pigeons raced across the open path. After about 45 minutes, the vegetation became drier, the blue sea shimmered through the gaps between trees, and the crescent of Rendezvous Beach opened up ahead.
And then, just as we were thinking we might have overdosed on gunkholing, we ran 30 miles west from Falmouth, with a 15- to 20-knot trade wind, into the lee of Redonda, not sure what to expect. It was quiet enough for us to anchor in 45 feet of water about midway along the west shore. A rock heap nearly 1,000 feet high loomed over our boat, and there was no beach-not even a stony shelf-to set foot on. Brown boobies wheeled overhead, and tropicbirds coasted back and forth, towing their long, whiplike tails.
Undeterred by the inaccessibility of the land, we went underwater instead. As we scuba-dived toward the shore, the dark-sand bottom changed into a jumble of rocks with outcroppings of very healthy coral, which was home to a barracuda, a moray eel, a turtle, a variety of snappers, and some spotted flounders. Then, suddenly, as we closed the shore, milky-white layers invaded the crystal-clear water, leading us to believe that, because Redonda rises from a large shallow bank, the island must be subject to some strange currents.
The afternoon sun warmly lit the islet, seabirds-mere dots against the bulk of the island-flashed like white butterflies on a backdrop of red, brown, and orange granite. Calling at Redonda was the icing on the cake of our Antigua and Barbuda cruise. For us, the uncertainty of anchoring made the visit all the more tantalizing, and the island could boast its own brand of beauty. And how many people can say they've scuba-dived at Redonda?
For pure sailing pleasure, Antigua and her islands are hard to match. Antigua alone must have more cozy bays than any other West Indian island, and the winds around Antigua and Barbuda are unparalleled. All over the Windwards and the Leewards, cruising and charter boats typically experience full blasts of trade winds in the channels dividing the islands, then dead calms in the lee of the high mountains-a feast-or-famine situation. Around Antigua, however, the winds blow freely over flat waters behind reefs and islets, unfolding a seemingly endless succession of sensuous daysails to one secluded anchorage after another.
Tom and Nancy Zydler are captain and mate on the 94-foot Whale Song. After a sojourn in the northern reaches of the Amazon, where they spotted pink river dolphins (botos) and "really great" birds, they headed south toward Antarctica.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE FOR ANTIGUE AND BARBUDA
Cruising guides and aids: These include A Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands by Stephen J. Pavlidis ($27; 2006; Seaworthy Publications, www.seaworthy.com); The 2006-2007 Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands by Chris Doyle and Nancy Scott ($30; 2005; Cruising Guide Publications, www.cruisingguides.com); Caribbean Compass, "The Caribbean's Monthly Look at Sea and Shore" (www.caribbeancompass.com); and A Cruising Guide to the Caribbean by William Stone and Anne M. Hayes ($40; not currently in print, but still available).
Cruising permits, customs/immigration: Boats must first obtain a valid cruising permit in Antigua. Clear in at English Harbour (C&I: 268-460-1397) while the boat stays at anchor there or in Falmouth. In Jolly Harbour (C&I: 268-462-7929, 268-462-7932), you must tie up at the customs dock. Clearing out from St. John's is easy at Heritage Quay (C&I: 268-462-6403) and at Deepwater Harbour (C&I: 268-462-0814), as it is from Barbuda. If you enter in Barbuda, at Codrington (C&I: 268-460-0085, 268-460-0354), you'll have to redo your paperwork in Antigua. The VHF channel for these ports is 16.
Dockage: In English Harbour, there's Antigua Slipway (VHF channels 12 and 68; 268-460-1056, www.antiguaslipway.com and e-mail email@example.com) and Nelson's Dockyard (268-460-1146, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.). In Jolly Harbour, there's Jolly Harbour Marina (VHF Channel 68, 268-462-6042, www.jhmarina.com and e-mail email@example.com).
Port authorities: On Antigua, contact English Harbour (268-460-0085), Jolly Harbour (268-462-7931), or Deepwater Harbour (268-462-0050 and 268-462-0051). On Barbuda, contact Codrington (268-462-2239).
Duty-free fuel: To qualify, boats must buy a minimum of 250 gallons-after paying a $50 customs broker fee.
Charter companies: Chartering companies include Nicholson Yacht Charters and Services (268-460-1530 or, in the U.S., 305-433-533; www.nicholson-charters.com or www.nicholson
yachts.com and e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), Horizon Yacht Charters (866-439-1089 and 268-562 4725, www.horizonyachtcharters.com and e-mail email@example.com), and Sunsail Club Colonna (866-236-1924, www.sunsail.com/clubs).