Caribbean Leeward Islands: Antigua to Guadeloupe.

We arrived in Antigua on Saturday the 11th January 2020. This was the weather the day before our landfall:

Another squall approaching, as we get close to Jolly Harbour, Antigua.

And this was the weather the day after our landfall:

On the beach at Jolly Harbour.

Tied up in the Jolly Harbour marina next to the Leopard “New Beginnings” from Cape Town.

The Leeward islands.

Antigua and Barbuda is a state in the West Indies consisting of the two main islands of Antigua and Barbuda and a number of smaller islands including the uninhabited Redonda Island. Barbuda is approximately 30 nm north of Antigua The majority of the English speaking population of 95,000 live on Antigua.

Map of Antigua.

Hurricane Irma – the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history – ploughed over the top of Antigua and Barbuda in early September 2017. The Category 5 storm had sustained wind speeds of at least 300 km/h and gusts over 325 km/h. Barbuda was virtually destroyed and the entire population was evacuated, however, most of the residents have now returned and the island is slowly rebuilding. The Islands are renowned for magnificent white sandy beaches coral reefs and the colonies of Frigate birds which are slowly returning to the island of Barbuda

Now, to quote from A Cruising Guide to the Lesser Antilles Vol. II. The Leeward Islands:

“Antigua is a very special place for cruising yachtsmen. While each island in the Caribbean has something special, Antigua is a right of passage for cruising boats. When you come to Antigua on a cruising boat and clear in, it is like walking through a dream. The island is full of inlets that have sheltered bays and wonderful beaches. It was Admiral Nelson’s base and the home of a variety of pirates”.  I wouldn’t be waxing that lyrical, but I should add, the famous Antigua Week Regatta in April, when sailors from around the world arrive, to compete in various classes, from classic wooden boats to the latest designs.

A concise history of Antigua and Barbuda.

For us it was like heaven, purely to be on land again, in a beautiful harbour and an island of very friendly people, mostly descendants of the West African slave trade, brought here to work on the sugar plantations. There are churches of every denomination, every kilometre along the roads, but from discussions with the taxi bus drivers, cricket is the real religion. Their national hero is Sir Vivian Richards, but they can also recite Bradman and Tendulkar’s batting averages with authority.

Viv Richards celebrated at the entrance to the museum.

Having caught up with sleep on Saturday and Sunday, we were invited to go to the Sunday night “Jump Up” steel band and reggae night at Shirley Heights restaurant. This turned into quite a party with cheap “Dark and Stormy” rum cocktails and beers, with BBQ ribs, spicy chicken and salads. The steel band was amazing with about 40 members working hard at their craft, followed by a reggae band, fronted by a dynamic female vocalist. Leon, our taxi driver got us safely back to Jolly Harbour.

The steel drum band.

The ladies on stage, dancing with the reggae vocalist.

On the Monday we caught a bus into St John’s to explore the town and buy Digicel SIM cards and have lunch at Hemingway’s restaurant. The bus driver on the way back to Jolly Harbour, had aspirations to follow in Michael Schumacher’s footsteps.

The premier’s statue in St John’s.

This nondescript church in St John’s was pumping out gospel music at full blast.

This pirate has suffered a few setbacks.

The evening turned into quite a p1ssup at  the Crow’s Nest restaurant with Jack, Jan, Robbie and Bev from the US. The following day a bus took us to English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard –  a World Heritage Site, beautifully maintained.

Annie, Michelle, Jan and Bev at sundowners.

Annie at Nelson’s Dockyard.

Our guide – the locals have the most creative hairstyles.

These 4 UK rowers had just arrived at Nelson’s Dockyard after their 3,000 nm row from the Canaries.

On the 16th, after five days in Antigua we sailed 32 nm to Barbuda, north of Antigua, where we anchored in Cocoa Bay with its beautiful white sandy beaches. The following day it was a nine mile hop to Low Bay where hurricane Irma had washed away about 700 metres of the sand spit between the ocean and Codrington lagoon, giving access to the island’s only village, Codrington. We crossed the lagoon to spend some money in town and stimulate their economy, which suffers from a lack of tourists.

Barbuda map.

Michelle’s laundry day at Cocoa Bay.

Most of the 2,000 odd population has returned to the island since the hurricane, but the re-building process is slow. We met Neil, a lobster fisherman at the harbour, who said they were disappointed with efforts of the central government in Antigua. He offered to take us to the pub, some distance from the harbour, to meet some locals, in exchange for a beer. One beer led to a few more.

Neil the lobster fisherman and a Rasta friend at the pub.

The following day, Saturday the 18th January at 07:30, we set sail for St Bart’s, 61 nm to the North west, where we anchored at 4:30 pm in the channel off Gustavia. Gustavia, the capital, was named after King Gustav of Sweden. The island’s actual name is St Barthelemy. Sweden sold St. Barts to the French in 1878. The Island can best be described as a Jewel of France, whose strong but invisible police presence discourages so much as a criminal thought.

St Bart’s map.

There is no question that this is one of the most upscale islands in the Caribbean. Infrastructure, zoning requirements for development, marketing and so many other factors, keep this place as neat and well run as any you will ever visit. It is a scene right out of a movie. While the island is clearly French with an overtone of rich, there is a very strong sense of its Swedish origin. If you look carefully you will see traces, for example all the streets have Swedish and French names.

St Bart’s street.

Quaint little shop.

Shell Beach, St Bart’s.

St Bart’s main street.

After three days of exploring Gustavia and its surrounds, during which Michelle hiked around the island, we motored to the Bay of Colombier north west of Gustavia, to pick up a mooring in the marine reserve. This afforded us the opportunity to hike the trail along the North coast to the Bay of St Jean. This trail has an amazing variety of cacti growing along the way, with tortoises ambling unperturbed on the path –  much like the huge turtles swimming in Colombier Bay.

Colombier Bay – Esprit on the right. St Martin on the horizon.

The coastal walk to St Jean.

Annie and a tortoise.

St Jean.

Esprit at sunset at Colombier from Michelle’s SUP.

A relaxed, but short sail of 15 nm on the 23rd January brought us to the island of St Martin/Sint Maarten. The island is divided across the middle. The northern part is French, the southern part Dutch. There is a story, unsupported by historical fact, that the French and Dutch were so civilised that, rather than fight over the island, they had a Frenchman armed with a bottle of wine walk down from the North and a Dutchman equipped with a flask of gin, walk up from the South. Where they met became the boundary, and the French ended with a bit more, because the gin was stronger than the wine!

St Maarten/ Martin.

You can freely pass from one part to the other without having to worry about passport control – the whole island is one duty free shopping area. We anchored in Simpson Bay on the Dutch side and dinghied in to pay for a seven day anchorage in the sheltered lagoon, as well as going through the drawbridge giving access to the lagoon. Every type of  marine service is available in Simpson Bay lagoon and we took the opportunity to stock up with fuel and oil filters, oil and other parts. I also taught Michelle how to do the oil change and filter replacements to earn her keep for the future.

Entering the lagoon.

Michelle doing maintenance work on the mast.

Our neighbour on the lagoon.

Annie supporting the informal sector.

Michelle had to catch a flight from the Princess Juliana airport, located on the spit between the lagoon and the sea. This airport provides a lot of entertainment for tourists, with planes coming in to land and a nuisance for yachts in the lagoon, with planes barely missing their masts on take off. See video below:

A close up.

We took a bus trip to Phillipsburg the capital on the Dutch side, for a walk about and a lunch that was most enjoyable.

Phillipsburg courthouse.

Phillipsburg street.

Our lunch venue.

We had a farewell dinner for Michelle at Lagoonies before her departure on the 28th January. She was flying back to Sydney via Fort Lauderdale and LA, to start her new job with the UN in Papua New Guinea, after orientation and training in Melbourne. She had been positioning herself for this posting for the last six months. We wish her well and are grateful for her crewing with us on the Atlantic crossing.

Dinner at Lagoonies.

After leaving the lagoon on the 30th, we sailed north to Marigot Bay on the French side. This is a beautiful anchorage, sheltered, with clear water. 

Beautiful beaches.

We saw some big motor yachts on the French Riviera, but they pale against some of the monster cruising boats of the Americans in these waters.

Too big to get into St Maarten’s lagoon.

I may not be as big, but look at my helicopter. (My boss has to get there fast and then take it slow)

Marigot harbour.

We explored the French side and met some other yachties at anchor before deciding to head south to St Kitts and Nevis on the 4th of February.

Jan and Jane from Canada having us for drinks on their Jeanneau SO469. 

We decided to give Anguila to the north a miss, because like most yachties, we find the cruising tax of USD 100/day a bit much. Our other idea of sailing to the British Virgin Islands to the north west, was also dropped, after numerous warnings from other cruisers that the BVI’s were charter boat central, with all its hazards. The plan is to work our way slowly south to Trinidad.

The winds in the Mediterranean can be either very little or too much, but here in the Caribbean, the easterly trade wind blows constantly at this time of the year. A pleasant 16 – 18 knot easterly, allowed us a leisurely 52 nm sail at an average SOG of 6 knots to the North west corner of St Kitts (contraction from St Cristopher), to anchor off Sandy Point town. We passed Saba Island and St Eustatius (contraction is Statia), as these islands are steep to, with limited anchorages.

North west corner of St Kitts – St Eustatius on the horizon.

St Kitts map.

St. Kitts and Nevis are part of the same two-island country. Largely ex sugar plantation islands, they reached their peak at the height of the sugar trade, an enormously profitable commerce that at the time, was central to the economy of the British Empire. Basseterre is the capital of St. Kitts. The small sister island of St. Kitts, Nevis, resembles her larger sister in most ways. The capital, Charlestown, is located on the lee side of the island at Gallows Bay.

After a sleepless night due to the swell at anchor, we sailed to Basseterre the next morning and anchored in the bay next to some cruise ships for a cup of coffee. The town looked a bit busy with cruise liner passengers, so after an hour we continued south, to anchor in Frigate Bay – quite pretty with crystal clear water. Overnight the wind picked up to 25 knots, gusting 35. Looking at the weather forecast the following morning, we realised the strong gusts were going to be around until Monday.

Cruise liners in Basseterre.

Frigate Bay.

So, we motored south to the sheltered White House Bay anchorage, to chill out for a few days and do some walks in beautiful green hilly surrounds. Annie made sure we got our exercise, close to the point of me collapsing. Our first evening was spent at the old salt works on the beach, now named Salt Plage, taking in the sunset and enjoying a lovely meal and wine.

The deck at Salt Plage restaurant.

Sunset – looking out to Esprit from our perch.

Two days later we sailed the short crossing to Nevis to anchor at beautiful Pinney’s Beach where after a walk, we ended up at a beach bar with a lively crowd of sailors enjoying drinks while listening to a talented steel drum player.

Nevis Map.

Pinney’s Beach with Nevis peak in the background covered in clouds.

Talented youngster.

Jack, the diminutive, friendly and hilarious barlady.

Happy patrons.

The next day at 10 am, we set of for Montserrat, 33 nm to the south. The wind picked up to a 25 knot south easterly, so we ended up west of Montserrat, having to motor back to Little Bay for 2 hours and adding 5 miles to the distance. Montserrat’s first European settlers were Irish Catholics fleeing persecution in the 17 th century. It is weird that Montserrat, a British colony, celebrates St. Patrick’s Day as a public holiday, not just for a day, but for a week.

Montserrat map – volcanic exclusion marked in red.

In 1995, the population was around 11,000 people, when the Soufriere Hills volcano first erupted. Major eruptions in 1997 led to the evacuation and eventual destruction of the capital, Plymouth. There followed an exodus of people. Then in 2010, the biggest ever eruption occurred and Soufriere is still smoking to this day. It is not easy living with a volcano and as a result the population has shrunk to 2,500 people and tourism has taken a huge hit.

One of the very few well maintained bars in Little Bay.

Montserrat is therefore bypassed by many cruising sailors. The general consensus is that it is not worth the time to make a stop given that more than half the island is off limits due to the volcano. In addition, Montserrat does not have any really protected deep bays that can serve as good anchorages. We spent two days here, but was disappointed in the state of disrepair of the island.

Sailing past the volcano – note the lava streams and the active white steam vent at the top left of Soufriere.

We had a robust and fast 40 nm sail from Montserrat to Guadeloupe, where we anchored on the north west side of the island in the bay at Deshaies, in a howling 30 knot southeaster. The wind persisted for the next 24 hours forcing us to stay on board, relax and read. Guadeloupe is a large island relative to the size of the other islands in the Lesser Antilles chain.

It is a French Island in the shape of a butterfly. It has a lovely vibe, on which we will report in our next post. Until then, cheers!