We couldn’t wait to get back. Part of my vagabond youth was spent in Antigua in the mid-1990s, and a slightly more mature me has returned several times since then with my much better half, Caroline. After a long, cold winter up north, returning to the simple rhythm of a tropical charter-sail, snorkel, sleep, repeat-is always a salve for our flagging spirits.
Up until now, our underwater exploits on charters have always been confined to snorkeling, but this trip was different. The plan was to find a charter package that would allow Caroline and me to finally try diving, and Al and Jackie at the Horizon Yacht Charter base in Jolly Harbour, Antigua, had exactly the Dive and Sail package we were looking for. Instead of racing out of the marina within minutes of arrival as we usually do, we eased into the trip with our friends, Ally Theismann and Bob Cole, by enjoying a lazy first dinner out because the next day, Caroline and I were going to school-scuba school-in the marina pool.
Since we’d never been diving before, we chose the Introduction to Diving course offered by Indigo Divers. The partnership between Indigo and Horizon made it easy for us (the companies’ offices are just down the hall from each other in Jolly Harbour), and Jackie made every arrangement. All we had to do was meet Indigo’s dive master at the pool at 0830 the following morning.
The half-day introductory course and dive didn’t certify us as divers, but it allowed us to get a taste of diving without having to spend the many hours and days in the classroom that are necessary for certification. We learned the basics in the pool, and then we were dropping backward off the stern of the dive boat and exploring a reef 30 feet down like members of Steve Zissou’s team of frogmen on the Belafonte in that quirky Bill Murray movie. (See “Diving on a Charter,” page 41.) Since Caroline and I have done so much snorkeling in the past, breathing underwater, clearing our masks, and equalizing the pressure in our ears were pretty easy skills for us to acquire. It was fun finally to be underwater with Bob and Ally, who are both experienced divers. They couldn’t believe that we’ve chartered in tons of places with excellent diving without ever actually experiencing the weightless, otherworldly awesomeness that breathing underwater makes possible. Well, we have now, and I recommend an introductory program for anyone thinking of combining a learn-to-dive course with a bareboat charter. Since we both liked it so much and want to get certified so we’ll be able to dive whenever and wherever we end up sailing next time, we’re going to do our poolwork and coursework at home, then do our open-water certification dives during our next warm-water charter.
The diving was cool, but it didn’t change the fact that we were still raring to get off the dock when we returned to our boat, a Bavaria 40. With our ears still feeling a bit funky-both of us have more to learn about the all-important skill of pressurizing while diving-we nosed the boat out of the slip and made a beeline for the peace, quiet, and cooling breezes of Hermitage Bay, just around the corner from the marina. The anchor went down, and a chorus of “Ahhhs” off the back of the boat soon followed. Steaks on the grill and stars in the sky put the cherry on top of a doggone good day.
No story about chartering in Antigua is complete without some discussion of our next destinations, Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the oft-repeated platitudes about these hallowed harbors where the charter industry was born. When we arrived, Antigua Sailing Week was just ramping up, in spite of the infamous Icelandic ash cloud that put a crimp in the travel plans of some Brits and Euros making the annual Antigua pilgrimage. Adding to the show, some big, luscious classic yachts, left over from their annual on-the-water extravaganza held the week before, were still in attendance. Shirley Heights still has a steel drum-and-rum fest on Sunday night, and the café and bar at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina in Falmouth is still the Ellis Island of the Caribbean: Everybody who’s anybody passes through there. But we’d come all this way to pull the plug, not swim in the social scene, no matter how cool, or fascinating, or stimulating it proved be. After we did a quick top-up of ice and miscellaneous must-have provisions, the requisite final email check, and spent an eerily windless night on the hook, we put Falmouth in the rearview mirror.
That’s right, windless. The rising moon, well on its way to becoming full later in the week, shone over an almost glassy harbor. The trade-wind machine had temporarily shut down (no doubt due to the ash cloud that seemed to be the cause of all that was problematic that week), and the forecast called for more of the same for the next couple of days.
This lack of wind was weird, but why complain? The uncharacteristic lull provided an easy opportunity for us to go someplace nearby that we hadn’t already visited. Caroline and I had chartered in Antigua before. In fact, when my dreams of sailing adventure collided with what I perceived as an ill-timed need to grow up, I spent an entire winter marooned in English Harbour in the early 1990s. But that’s a story for another story. The bottom line is this: Green Island is a short but usually stiff upwind slog from Falmouth. But getting there would be a bash-free piece of cake in the forecasted zephyrs. We ended up motoring the last couple of miles in. It would’ve taken us all day to get there if we hadn’t. But boy, the water sure was blue when we arrived.
“Last one in’s a rotten egg!” I shouted. I guess the growing-up part is still a work in progress.
Now we’re talking. Digging in well to the left of all the boats anchored behind the reef gave us our own little piece of the postcard. No, I really mean that: I remembered seeing the same scene that we were smack-dab in the middle of on a postcard at the airport when I was on my way back home in the aforementioned early 1990s. I thought to myself at the time, “I lived here for six months, and I never even made it to Green Island. How lame.”
The anchorage off Green Island is lots of things-protected by a reef and open to the cooling easterly trades (OK, when they blow), one of the gems on any Antigua cruising itinerary, and quintessentially Caribbean-but it’s not lame. We were all glad to be there, maybe me just a little bit more than the others, but we’d be off for even greener pastures on the following morning.
The truth is, Antigua-and our next stop, Barbuda, roughly 35 miles to the north-are special places for Caroline and me. We discovered Barbuda after a particularly raucous passage on a previous charter and simply fell in love with the place. We knew what was waiting for us over there in the same way that Bob and Ally knew what we’d experience during our introduction to diving. We knew it’s a fantastic, special place; we just needed to run the engine to get there. And I’m not enough of a purist to sail at a snail’s pace when the engine and Otto the autopilot can get us to where we want to be in good time.
“There it is!” said Caroline. She’s got amazing eyesight and was the first to catch a glimpse, about seven miles out, of the ultra-low-lying island off our starboard bow. Soon familiar landmarks-Spanish Point, then Coco Point, and finally Palmetto Point, on Barbuda’s south coast-came into view. With a smile on my face, I announced, “It’s so good to be back,” and that was even before we’d glided past the six-mile stretch of pink-white beach along Barbuda’s western shore, then snugged up tight in the northernmost point of the Low Bay anchorage.
There was a little speck of a boat about two miles up the beach, but it hardly interrupted the solitude and wild peacefulness of the place. The color of the water in the midday sun was almost intoxicating. The pink-sand beach has the texture and consistency of flour or confectioners’ sugar, and one must sprawl out upon it to fully appreciate it. And then things got even better.
Instead of cooking up yet another delicious meal on the cockpit grill, we’d heard that the whole “town” of Codrington-it’s the only “town” on the island, and “town” is a bit of an overstatement worthy of quotation marks-turns out for barbecue. This was the local scene I’d been waiting for. Sitting on a limestone boulder in front of Codrington’s little market, we ate like kings and queens and were treated like family. We even ran into people we knew. Pastor Moses had presided over our wedding, which took place at the only hotel on the south side of the island several years before. However, we’d never seen him preach in his own church, until the following morning.
Pastor Moses not only preached. He taught Sunday school, and he gave thanks for the ceiling fans that had only just been installed the night before. “Man, it’s pretty hot with the fans!” I whispered to Caroline, with sweat dripping into my eye. “How long do you think they’d gone without them?” Not two seconds later, Pastor Moses was beaming and looking at us.
“Remember that wedding I’ve talked about?” he said to the congregation in his booming and yet soothing voice. “I’m so happy to see Bill and Caroline here. Come up to the front!” he said waving and smiling.
Now, we’re not really churchgoers, so this took us a bit by surprise. But I’ve seen The Blues Brothers, and I do remember good things happening when Jake and Elwood had their fateful moment with the Reverend Cleophus James up on the altar at the Triple Rock Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago. So we held hands and walked up to the front of this tiny little Caribbean church and stood in front of about 30 smiling faces.
“We are so happy you’re here, and we want to welcome you,” he said.
And then one of the ladies in the front row got up and set about engulfing us in the biggest, warmest, most sincere hugs you’ll ever see.
“Welcome and God bless you,” she said in a wonderful Caribbean lilt. “We’re glad that you are here.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “We’re so grateful to be here.” There really wasn’t anything more to say. The love was bouncing off the walls of the tiny church with the brand-new ceiling fans. All we did was try to return the hugs of all of the members of Pastor Moses’ congregation with as much love, warmth, and sincerity as they showered on us.
It’s not too often that yuppie charterers from cold, damp, and dark Boston get transported to great depths-OK, 30-foot depths-and great spiritual heights while cruising crossroads from the past and visiting isolated, silky-soft, pink-sand beaches, but it sure happened to us that week.
And I’m so grateful that it did.
Bill Springer, CW’s senior editor and director of the Boat of the Year program, now realizes that there was a reason he spent part of his wayward youth in the Leeward Islands.