The Azores

We made it into the tiny port of Lajes, island of Flores, late on the Sunday afternoon, 20th May. The port was very quiet, it being Sunday evening. So was the village up the hill, and it took us some time to find a bar open. They were not serving food, but we had a beer and bought a loaf of bread (which was immediately set upon by the ravenous crew). We retired to the boat for another dinner out of cans, and slept.

IMG_3926_Flores_LajesIn Lajes harbour, Flores, with Shearwater nesting cliffs above

IMG_3929_Flores_WhaleboatsWhaleboats in Lajes

In the morning S tried the shower in the ‘ facilities’ – which was strong & cold. R & J decided to stay un-showered until Horta.  The harbour office was closed, but at 10:00 the Policia Maritima came on board and checked our papers. They said the harbourmaster would be there next day.

R tried to book a taxi-tour but was told ‘ tomorrow’, so we walked into the town looking for a supermarket. We couldn’t find one, so kept walking, admiring the many flowers along the verges and the flowers and vegetables being lovingly tended in many gardens. At Fazenda we waited outside a mini- market – but it didn’t open. We visited a small caldera, saw cows, a graveyard & walled gardens before stopping at the sports & social club for lunch (beers and a generous lunch all for under €20!).

IMG_3937_Flores_cowCows and gardens in Flores

We walked on, down into a steep gorge with river, abandoned watermill & beautiful variety of trees  – and up the other side, and next village. After questioning a couple of locals, it seemed that the next town (Santa Cruz) was over 12km away, so eventually we turned back to port. After a very long walk in search of supplies, R & S went off to check out the local supermarket – thus confirming both its location & the fact it was a bank holiday!

IMG_3950_Flores_GorgeLuxuriant trees in the gorge

That evening after a dinner of cheese-on-toast, R&J lurked at the end of the pier & recorded the shearwaters’ cries in the darkness, as they returned to their nests on the cliff opposite. We had been greeted by scores of shearwaters flying around us as we neared Flores.

 

Tues 22nd May

Flores is well-named, an island of flowers with well-tended gardens and small fields. The local people were friendly and proud of their island (featuring the most westerly council in Europe!). Regrettably, we needed to move on, as there were just 2 days of favourable wind before easterlies set in again. R visited the harbourmaster to check out and pay our dues, which were very reasonable, then we walked up the hill again to the supermarket, now open at last! We stocked up with whatever local fruit & veg we could find, and fresh cod. At 11:00 we motored out of the port, raised sail and headed for Horta, 124 miles to the East. The weather continued fine with a variable southerly, mostly around 12k, and we made good progress, sailing at 5-5.5k. Several shearwaters were diving round the boat.

Flores_FlowersFlowers from the Azores

One yacht had left ahead of us and soon disappeared from view, and a container ship passed us, heading NE. At about 5pm, a group of 5-6 dolphins, including 2 young ones, briefly swam and leaped behind the boat. Ambition II sailed on all night at 5-6k with light to moderate SW wind. A couple of ships passed in late evening – one distant and one 2-3nm off.

After a breakfast of porridge, the wind began to slacken as we approached Faial, a group of about 10-12 dolphins swimming & pirouetting around the boat. We could see the remains of the last volcanic eruption in 1958 protruding from the West coast of the island as we sailed past. We were met by a police RIB before the mini caldera just west of Horta, who asked where we had come from & were going.

We looked into the caldera on the way past, then motored into Horta harbour and tied up to the reception quay. After checking in (harbourmaster, immigration & customs), which was straightforward as they already had our details from Flores, we were allocated a berth inside the same quay, rafted alongside a German yacht – who were none too happy to have a rusty steel boat alongside! Up the hill we found the supermarcado, stocked up our provisions, and called at Peter’s bar on the way back in the drizzle. The harbour facilities are OK, if distant, and at last we could indulge in daily hot showers!

IMG_4121_Horta_CalderaCaldeira Inferno, a volcanic cone flooded by the sea

 IMG_4086_horta_PetersPeter’s bar, Horta

Family events at home meant R & J might need to stay on in the Azores for a while, or even fly home. S needed to get back to the UK, so booked a flight on the following Monday. In the meantime, we explored Horta and dined out at Peter’s bar. Horta has charming period buildings and is largely free of tourist overkill – we even struggled to find ice -creams near the beach!

The harbour walls and paved quays at Horta are famous for their painted record of visiting boats (now much copied at other ports). We found “Arabel” and “Travelling Star”: friends’ boats that had visited over a decade earlier, with the paint flaking, so decided to re-paint them with “Ambition II” alongside. We found masonry paint in a nearby shop, supplemented with some from the boat, and applied our somewhat modest signwriting skills.

IMG_4097_Horta_quayThe decorated quay where we were moored

IMG_4152_Horta_GrafittiArtistsGrafitti artists?

R visited Mid-Atlantic Yacht Services and ordered a spare steering cable, and asked for a technician to check the screen freezing issue on our Raymarine plotter. On Friday we removed the starboard steering cable and fitted the replacement (original spare). Now both cables were in nearly-new condition. Other maintenance tasks done in Horta included:

  • Replace split pin on boom swivel
  • Get spare wind vane steering cord
  • Spot painting for rust & white paint
  • Check windvane pins & bolts
  • Routine engine checks
  • Grease shaft bearing and steering
  • Check condition of sails
  • Check sealing on hatches (replace rivets on fore hatch catch).
  • Grease toilet plunger

 

The marine electrics guy from MAYS came aboard to check the chart plotter, and agreed to raise a case with Raymarine support, as he had seen several similar software issues with touchscreen instruments. Another software upgrade did not fix the issue, and Raymarine support were unable to provide a fix, so we had to go on with our old Seiwa plotter.

IMG_4115_Horta_OldHarbourWildflowers above the old harbour

IMG_4138_Horta_CalderaPathSteep path up to a church on the caldera rim

Our walks included the impressive Caldera to the S of Horta, its rim breached by the sea. Wild flowers cover the hillside overlooking the town and the old whaling harbour beside the town beach, which was covered with people, apparently oblivious that they were swimming in the mid -Atlantic. We also found an arboretum park on the north side of town. The market building was under renovation so the traders were scattered elsewhere, but we were able to buy fresh local produce from various benches and cabins, and found an excellent beef butcher in the back streets. We did a canned food audit and made up our stock from the supermarcado.

IMG_4177_Horta_ArboretumIn the arboretum

IMG_4061_Horta_SupermarketViewView from the supermarket

IMG_4082_Horta_ShipsPico seen from Peter’s Bar, at dawn

The bay of Horta faces the island of Pico with its spectacular (largely inactive) volcano peak. The view early in the morning is particularly splendid, the sun rising behind the cloud-wreathed cone. For Thursday 31st May, we booked a trip to Pico (at the information kiosk by the castle). We had to catch the 7:30am ferry across the strait, then had a 4-hour taxi tour around the western part of the island, past striking lava flows on the north coast, up to one of the lower crater lakes, and down to the old port of Lajes in the south. We then had a guided tour of Gruta des Torres lava tube, an enthusiastic and informative exploration of these underground formations, followed by wine tasting at the cooperative in Magdelena.

IMG_4217_Pico_VinesVinyards on the north coast of Pico

IMG_4258_Pico_Lajes_SlideApproaches to Lajes, the old whaling harbour on south Pico

IMG_4264_Pico_CaveEntranceDescent into the lava tube

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExploring the lava tubes

IMG_4286_Pico_FerrySalvageSalvaging the ferry, wrecked entering Magdelena in a winter storm

As it turned out, we were able to set off for the UK sooner than expected, and the weekend weather looked favourable. So on Friday 1st June, we got our laundry done, stocked up on fresh produce, and took the boat round to the fuel berth. Everything was a bit frantic because the ARC were in port, (also heading out next day). We paid for our berth and checked out, impressed how easy and efficient it was after the Caribbean!

IMG_4288_Horta_FireStationThe fire station, Horta

 

Atlantic crossing to the Azores

We set off on 29th April from St Martins for Horta in the Azores.  If one could sail a direct course, this would be a little over 2,100 miles, but in practice the easterly winds force a dog-leg to the north, until the westerlies are found. Our course would take us over 2,400 miles to reach Horta.

IMG_3818_XA2_WindwardWindward passage

For the first week Ambition II was sailing hard on the wind, making progress to the north and a little east when conditions allowed. At first the seas were lumpy and uncomfortable, with subsequent loss of appetite (and on occasion, loss of breakfast)! Bunks were abandoned for makeshift beds on the floor, or with a lee-cloth adaption of the sofa on the downhill side.  Winds were ENE to ESE often around 20 knots.

Ten days into the voyage we were getting more light southerly winds, and later westerlies. We were able to get spot forecasts using the Inreach satellite messages, and JW sent us a general synopsis every few days. This helped us to navigate north of the high pressure area, to benefit from the westerlies.

Messages sent using the Inreach tracker also kept us in touch with family, and we received some sad news in this way during the voyage.

IMG_3825_XA2_SofaBedMakeshift sofa-bed with lee-cloth to stop you falling under the table

We started out with a good stock of tinned and dry food, supplemented by plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. A big pork casserole was cooked and stored in an airtight container in the fridge. Bread was soon gone, to be replaced occasionally by cooking flat-bread or pancakes. We had at least some fresh fruit for over 2 weeks, with apples and grapefruit lasting well; root vegetables almost all the way, and we made yogurt to go with fresh or tinned fruit. The French supermarkets had supplied an interesting variety of tinned meals, though we were on occasion reduced to corned beef hash! To celebrate having less than 1000 miles to go on 12th May, we soaked a Waitrose Xmas pudding in brandy!

 

IMG_3822_XA2_FruitNet1

IMG_3824_XA2_FruitNet2

Fruit nets

We saw more traffic than on our previous passage from Cape Verde, 14 ships and 4 yachts, of which 8 were close enough to be of potential concern. The yachts all passed us by on more or less the same route – always larger and faster boats! The freighters and tankers that came within our horizon were most likely on some route between the USA and southern Europe. One interesting vessel turned out to be a Chinese tuna fisherman, laying out a long-line with AIS beacons every few miles, clearly seen on our plotter.

IMG_3835_XA2_Yacht1

IMG_3899_XA2_Yacht2Distant yacht passing by

IMG_3867_XA2_LongLineChinese tuna long-line with AIS beacons every 8 miles or so

The days and weeks pass slowly at sea, and often the boat sails herself with little attention for days on end, perhaps with only an occasional adjustment to the steering or to the amount of sail set. Meals punctuated the day, along with many cups of tea/coffee, and when conversation flagged we would read ebooks or any printed matter that came to hand. J had a good stock of puzzles to complete. One day we got out the sextant and practised sun-shots without stunning success – however it tuned out we only had last year’s astronomical tables so could not make any use of observations!

IMG_3846Trying out the sextant

A variety of birds were seen, some coming close to the boat (no doubt hoping for fish). There were red-billed tropic birds as well as the white-tailed tropic bird pictured below which came very close to the boat.

IMG_3841_XA2_Bird2

IMG_3839_XA2__Bird1White-tailed tropic bird investigates our AIS antenna

There were many shearwater (Great and Cory’s), especially as we approached the Azores where the Cory’s were nesting. Another occasional visitor was probably a Great Skua. We also saw a petrel, probably a Bulwer’s petrel, flying low over the sea.

IMG_3857_XA2_Bird3Great Skua?

One patch of Sargasso weed revealed this tiny green crab, living in the fronds. Further north there was less of this weed, but still occasional fragments were seen, probably making their way around the great Atlantic gyre, to grow into more mats in the trade belt.

IMG_3855_XA2_SargassoCrabCrab found in sargasso weed

IMG_3865_XA2_SunriseAnother fine sunrise

On 11th May during J’s watch at about midnight, the steering locked up. It turned out that a cable had broken! All hands were roused and we immediately set up the emergency tiller (a chunky steel contraption that fits on top of the rudder post). This held the rudder dead ahead whilst the Hydrovane steered the boat under sail. In the morning, spare steering cables were found and the broken one removed (the cables link the steering wheel to the quadrant on the rudder post). This was not a simple operation but fortunately the sea was relatively calm and the new cable was in place by lunch-time.

IMG_3868_XA2_EmergencySteeringEmergency tiller

IMG_3878_XA2_SteeringCableRemoving the broken steering cable from under the binnacle

In 33 degrees north, we began to see patches of jellyfish, the sort with inflatable sails that propel them along. In one patch on 19th May, SN spotted a large brown loggerhead turtle (probably feeding on the jellyfish).

IMG_3884_XA2_SailingJellySailing jellyfish

Our first dolphin sighting was on 13th May when a group of about 10 spotted dolphins came jumping around us. After that we saw them most days, though the sightings nearer the Azores were a different type, dark with a white belly. They were mostly under the water so not easy to photograph.

IMG_3898_XA2_Dolphin1Spotted type dolphin

IMG_3906_XA2_Dolphin2IMG_3908_XA2_Dolphin3More dolphins

The weather was sometimes cloudy but mostly dry, and often sunny and pleasant. We only had 4 days with rain showers. As we reached more northerly latitudes, the temperature dropped until we needed warm clothes (including slippers for the skipper), especially at night. The nights grew shorter though, so night-watches were easier. We had started out with a full moon that shone throughout the night, but it waned, and we saw an hour less of it each night, until the nights became fully dark. To compensate, when the sky was clear we saw several shooting stars and a fine spread of constellations. Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury were all seen.

IMG_3910_XA2_WetWorkA wet job on the foredeck

IMG_3905._XA2_JandRWarmer clothes for cooler waters

As we approached the Azores, we began to get forecasts of northerly and easterly winds, which would be a Bad Thing. We decided to head for the nearer island of Flores (J&R had a secret desire to go there anyway). On 20th May the northerlies hit hard during the night. So we had to reef down quickly. For a while we could not make a course to Flores, but later in the morning the wind veered a bit so we could motor-sail towards the island, now less than 30 miles away. As we approached, flocks of Cory’s Shearwater were flying around us – later in the darkness we heard their eerie cries as they flew in to their nests on the cliffs above the harbour. By 5:30pm we were safely moored to a pontoon in the harbour.

IMG_3911_XA2_LandHoLand! The island of Flores

IMG_3915_XA2_Flores_ShearwatersShearwaters off Flores

IMG_4045_XA2_AtlanticSlippersAtlantic in slippers (off Faial)

Anguilla and St Martins

Anguilla

From Saba we set off for Anguilla in rain, but it soon cleared as we left the spectacular heights of Saba island astern. It was a lovely sail to Anguilla, some 30 miles distant, with a steady 15 knots of wind slightly forward of the beam. Rounding the islet of Anguillita, we motored up the SW side of Anguilla, past low cliffs and beautiful tourist beaches, to anchor in Road bay.

IMG_3712_ANG_BeachThe beach in Road Bay

During the evening it became apparent that the toilet tank drain was blocked – it was full to the brim with consequences that are best left to the imagination. Next morning we rigged a spare electric  pump and hose, then went some miles out to sea. A colourful stream gushed over the side until the tank was empty and salt water flushed through to clear the blockage! Back in the bay we had a much-needed swim, then went ashore to the long beach. R had to face the ordeal of customs and immigration, then joined the others at Roy’s bar which was serving Fish & Chips and had useable wifi for Whatsapp chats with home.

IMG_3681_ANG_BarAt Roy’s bar

We walked up the road beside the salt pond behind the beach and up the escarpment, and eventually found a supermarket where we filled a rucksack and more. Walking back, we completed our circumnavigation of the salt pond which had several wading birds, including one Yellow-legs, and a few ducks.

Road Bay Salt Pond

 

We had three more days in Road Bay, swimming and walking along the shore. We explored the ships wrecked on the West side of the bay and found extensive beds of fossil coral in the cliffs.

IMG_3706_ANG_ShipwreckWreck of a ship in Road Bay

IMG_3708_ANG_FossilCoralFresh shells and fossil coral in Road Bay

The hurricane had brought ruin to most properties in the bay, yet above on the surrounding escarpment stand many substantial modern houses, clearly built of hurricane-proof concrete and glass.

IMG_3715_ANG_IrmaDamageOne of many beachside houses damaged by Hurricane Irma

IMG_3725_ANG_BeachSignNo toking?

The nearby dock was very busy unloading containers from local cargo vessels, including one substantial ship which was skilfully turned on its anchor to present the stern to the end of the jetty. As well as basic imports such as food and consumer goods, a lot of building materials were coming ashore, some no doubt to repair the hurricane damage but also we think to support extensive new tourist developments on the island.

IMG_3753_ANG_FreighterA large shallow-draft freighter docks in Road Bay

Several visits were paid to Roy’s bar, which takes care over the quality of its service and ingredients, with entertainment provided by the local lizards and on one occasion by live music. Another evening we ate at Johno’s further along the beach. Most evenings the Elvis bar at the far end had music of varying quality and taste, but loud enough to hear from the boat!

IMG_3720_ANG_SunsetAnother fine sunset

IMG_3736_ANG_LizardAtRoysBarLizard at Roy’s bar

We only saw this small part of Anguilla, but Road bay seemed a pleasant and safe anchorage, if a little run down and lacking in facilities especially after Irma. From the scale of imported goods, and the size of properties along the coast, there is apparently a good deal of private money on the island. We wanted to spend our last day visiting one of the offshore cays, but the required permit from Customs was $75 US which was more than we had (and no ATM near). After queueing for almost an hour, R checked out and we headed out of the bay and West about to the Dutch side of St Martins, some 10 miles to the South.

 

St Martins

The main purpose for our visit to St Martins was to prepare the boat and provision for the voyage to the Azores, which we expected to take 3 weeks. So on the way there, we made a list wich included items such as:

  • Grease steering cables
  • Complete 250-hour engine service
  • Check standing rigging (including top of mast)
  • Sew up torn seam in mainsail cover
  • Practise setting spinnaker poles
  • Re-stow sail locker to include inflatable dinghy
  • Clean and paint rust spots
  • Fit speed log paddle
  • Visit supermarkets to stock up on food for 3 weeks plus
  • Fill fresh water tanks
  • Repair or replace main electric autohelm control (recently failed)
  • Repair main plotter (screen freezes frequently)

Passing south of the airport runway (where big planes famously come in low over the beach), we arrived in Simpsons Bay at 4:30pm and anchored with other boats near the bridge into the lagoon, which was scheduled to open at 5pm. However the time came, and it did not open. We called up on VHF and the keeper claimed he saw no boats waiting! So we had to stay in the bay overnight, on a rolly anchorage. R went under the bridge in the dinghy to find us a marina berth for the next day, and booked us for a week alongside the concrete quay at Lagoon Marina.

IMG_3800_StM_SimpsonsBayBridgeSimpsons Bay bridge opening (lagoon side)

Customs were out early in their boat next morning, and two yachts near us were boarded. But they left us alone and we caught the 8:30am bridge opening, and proceeded round Snoopy Island to our berth at Lagoon Marina. Moored in the lagoon, and scattered on its shores, are the hulks of many yachts and fishing boats that were smashed or sunk by Hurricane Irma. Some have been raised and patched up enough to float, but lie covered in mud at their moorings. Many of the marinas had their pontoons destroyed, including some substantial concrete superyacht quays. Around the shores, the buildings show extensive damage too. The local people that we met were proud of how beautiful their island had been before the hurricane struck and distraught at the damage it caused.

IMG_3771_StM_LagonWrecksBoats wrecked by the hurricane in the lagoon

R took the dinghy back to the bridge to check in with Customs and Immigration, then paid a visit to the Marine Electronics company next to the marina, and was put in touch with an engineer. After a few emails, Frederic visited a couple of days later and effectively fixed the plotter screen issue by installing the latest Raymarine Lighthouse software, and resetting the unit. He confirmed our diagnosis that the autopilot control head was broken, and went looking for a second-hand replacement. He later returned with a set of autopilot components which we bought for a reasonable price, so we now had a working system with a good stock of spares.

Meanwhile SN checked out nearby Budget Marine, a big warehouse chandlery which would prove useful. We also used Island Water World chandlery. A quick visit by dinghy to the Market Garden supermarket, near the bridge, replenished our immediate food supplies.

At sunset we convened for a drink at Lagoonies bar, just by our pontoon. We had just missed Happy Hour (rum punch $2), but did not make the same mistake again!

IMG_3790_StM_A2atLagoonMarinaLagoon Marina and the handy Lagoonies bar

One day SN hired a car and we set off to the French town of Marigot to the Super U supermarket, taking a drive around the lagoon along the way. St Martins is half French and half Dutch, the smallest island in the world to be divided into two countries. There are no border controls, and how the separate economies work was a mystery to us. The French side uses Euros and the Dutch side officially has its own Guilder currency, but effectively the US dollar is used here.

After bringing our haul of tins and other preserved goods back to the boat and enjoying a lunch of French bread with pâte, we drove to a Carrefour supermarket on the Dutch side, and loaded up again, with fresh fruit and vegetables, a large pack of beef, another 24-pack of Carib beer, preserved sausages, cheeses and more. From the road back we had a fine view over the lagoon, then back in time for Happy Hour!

IMG_3781_StM_LagoonViewView over the lagoon

IMG_3787_StM_StatueStatue with amazing flares

One by one the tasks on our list were ticked off, with parts obtainable from the well-stocked local stores. The pack of beef was cooked up and poured hot into a sterilised sealable container, cooled and stored in the fridge. This would keep vacuum sealed for a week. A pack of frozen chicken was added for cooking over the first few days.

On our drive, J had spotted a curry house, so one night after a drink at Lagoonies we dinghied across to the bridge and walked towards the airport. We found the place (Maya) and they served a very good selection of food and freshly pressed drinks with a home-cooked flavour and atmosphere.

So on Sunday 29th April we were ready to go. R had checked out the day before, and all was stowed and lashed for the ocean crossing. We called up the bridge keeper to be sure he knew we’d be coming through, and at 4pm it lifted for us to exit the lagoon.

St Eustacia and Saba

We sailed north along St Kitts on Monday the 16th April with a 15 knot south -easterly breeze, enjoying the views of Gunpowder Fort and the attractive peaks which run E – W along the island. Our track north from St Kitts took us past two Dutch islands, first St Eustacia (Stacia) where we spent a night rolling in the anchorage below the capital, Oranjestad, and then mountainous Saba.

IMG_3597_EUST_FromSouthSt Eustacia from the South

Stacia has a history of lucrative trading and has attracted the interest of warring factions from time to time, with Admiral Rodney causing considerable damage. The Anglo – Dutch disputes along with occasional earthquakes and tsunami has left most of the lower town in ruins. Regrettably one of the commodities traded was slaves, and a great many captives were brought here and sold to plantation-owners up and down the Caribbean.  The steep Bay Path climbs the cliff to the upper town, said to be the route from the ships to the slave pens and markets above. When we visited it was fenced off, no doubt because of the crumbling cliffs.

IMG_3602_Eust_HarbourStacia’s modern harbour

Today the island specialises in oil, with huge tanks and refineries tucked into a valley to the north of Stacia. Huge offshore moorings and pipelines take the oil ashore and provide a bunkering service to ships. The harbour was quite busy and working vessels were moving about well into the evening. There is a concrete dinghy dock inside the harbour and a bar above which is open long hours – we ate substantial American -style ribs there and used the wifi in the evening.

IMG_3605_EUST_ExcavationAn excavation in progress

IMG_3609_EUST_RuinsOnShore_1Ruins in Lower Town, Oranjestad

IMG_3614_EUST_RuinsOnShore_2More ruins – with a view of Ambition II

IMG_3631_EUST_RuinsOnShore_3A view along the shore, oil terminal in the distance

Stacia has an active Red-Billed Tropicbird colony. We could hear the birds calling from the anchorage and there were usually several tropicbirds wheeling around the cliff to the left in the picture above. In addition to the ubiquitous chickens, there were well -kempt goats foraging in the churchyard and along the shore, and also a small herd of cows grazing the coast.

 

IMG_3627_EUST_SlaveRoadBay path

The upper town is now very neat with cobbled streets and small well-kept houses in the Dutch style– although quite a few houses are abandoned and in ruins. We explored the town and stocked up at the supermarket – two storeys with ‘department store’ above. We also found a bakery selling fresh bread in the evening, which was very welcome. Renovation work is being carried out on the fort and some other historic sites. We were unable to return to Upper Town to take photos in the morning because we had to wait for Immigration (aka the police). A Customs RIB called at Ambition II while we were ashore and advised SN that they would like to return and search the boat. Fortunately, we had to set off for Saba before they returned.

IMG_3604_EUST_GoatsOnShoreGoats grazing amongst the ruins

Steering carefully between the oil jetty and ship moorings, we motored on towards Saba. The wind picked up from the SE and there was a bit of sea running by the time we approached the island and called up the harbourmaster on the VHF. We were told to go on to the West side of the island and look for moorings with yellow and blue buoys. This we did, but then wondered how we could check in to Customs, back at the harbour.

IMG_3648_Saba_HarbourSaba harbour and the road to Bottom

There was nothing for it but to tackle The Ladder, a formidable set of 800 steps that climbs steeply from the shore, then up through dry forest to the town of Bottom. Having ascended this between several pauses for recovery, R & SN found the island’s taxi and school bus driver, Gloria, who took us down to the harbour to see Customs. This road is one of the many ‘impossible’ feats undertaken by the islanders. It was apparently built entirely by hand, starting in the 1960s and taking 20 years. Previously the only access to the island was up the Ladder. Their next feat was to build an airport which is one of the world’s most spectacular!

IMG_3653_Saba_ladderThe Ladder

IMG_3654_Saba_mooringsOur mooring seen from part way up the ladder

IMG_3655_Saba_ladder2Don’t look down…

IMG_3664_Saba_snakeSnakes and Ladders?

IMG_3660_Saba_bungalowsBungalows in Bottom

The houses are uniformly white with red roofs and green paintwork – everywhere neat and tidy. R and SN only had time to visit one of the two main villages during our brief calm weather -window to visit Saba. J eschewed the vertiginous paths and roads, staying on Ambition II to watch the Red-Billed Tropicbirds patrolling the cliffs. Saba and Stacia together host the largest breeding populations of these majestic birds in the Caribbean, although there is currently concern that nesting success is under threat from rats and feral cats.

 

IMG_3657_Saba_church… and the Church

R and SN had missed immigration by 5 minutes on Tuesday afternoon, so the next morning R had to return by rubber dinghy to the harbour. This was a challenging 1.5 nautical miles in a SE swell with white horses to add to the excitement – a large RIB is recommended for visits to Saba!

The wind had sent occasional gusts round the mountain and down on to our secure mooring. It was due to gradually increase, so we only stayed one night in Saba, but it was well worth the effort. Before we left, J and R dinghied to Well’s Bay to swim and look at the fish among the boulders and grey volcanic sand on the bottom. There is an occasional sandy landing place here for the steep road up to Bottom (yet another ‘impossible’ road used by the villagers) but the summer beach was not yet in evidence.

Cloud blanketed the mountain above and the rain came in to give us a good send off. We motored out past Diamond Rock and picked up a good 15-20 knot wind to take us towards our last 2 islands: Anguilla for a relaxing beach stay and St Martin to prepare for our voyage to the Azores.

 

IMG_3670_Saba_DiamondRockDiamond rock

 

Nevis and St Kitts, and a new crew member

On Monday 9th April we filled our water and fuel tanks at Antigua Slipways, then sailed to Guadeloupe, where we had arranged to meet a sailing friend from home, SN. It was dark by the time we anchored at Deshais, and with phone troubles we were on the point of setting off in the dinghy to look for SN ashore, when he appeared having hitched a ride in another sailor’s dinghy. Soon after this our anchor dragged, and we had to set it again.

IMG_3475_GDL_DeshaiesAnchorageThe crowded anchorage at Deshaies

Next morning we went ashore and found a customs terminal (in a souvenir shop), and officially added SN to the crew of Ambition II. We planned to cruise together for the rest of April, then sail back to the UK via the Azores. We celebrated with lunch at a shoreside restaurant in the pleasant little town.

That night, the wind was coming in big gusts through the anchorage. At two in the morning R looked out to see a dinghy going slowly backwards between us and a neighbouring boat, followed by a large catamaran! The neighbours were also awake, and we all shouted to alert the catamaran crew.  They started to motor forward and re-anchor, but to make matters worse their dinghy rope caught in one of their propellers. The cat fell away towards us and collided with our bowsprit – no damage to Ambition II but a nasty hole in the catamaran. SN used our largest fender to let them bounce off our side without further damage. By this time the neighbour had hopped into his dinghy and was aboard the cat, and helped them to anchor, not far behind us. Unable to sleep J stood anchor watch until dawn! The catamaran swung a little on its anchor but stayed a consistent distance behind us.

On Wednesday afternoon, the wind abated enough for us to go ashore for supplies, and at 10:30 that evening we set off for an overnight sail to our next island destination, Nevis. First though, we were to discover that the anchor of the catamaran behind us was in fact hooked around our own anchor chain! We had difficulty waking them again, despite shouting and hooting loudly, but eventually their captain appeared, so we could unhook their anchor and leave.

IMG_3483_GDL_Deshaies_CatOnOurAnchorCatamaran with anchor hooked round our chain

It was a rolling, uncomfortable sail through the night, with a quartering wind and a good deal of swell from the previous day’s winds. But in the early hours the sea moderated and we made good progress. As planned, we were passing to the West of Monserrat as dawn broke behind the volcano, highlighting the plume of steam and ash. Much of the island is still out of bounds since the last eruption buried the main town, and the magma chamber below continues to grow at the rate of a cubic metre every 7 seconds! Although a few miles offshore, we could smell the sulphur in the air.

 

IMG_3486_Mont1Passing north Monserrat at dawn

IMG_3491_Mont2Discharge from the volcano, south Montserrat

A few miles to the north, we passed the high island of Redonda. Usually uninhabited, this rock has a strange history of absentee kings.

IMG_3496_RedondaThe Kingdom of Redonda

We arrived off the port of Charlestown on the island of Nevis in the afternoon, and went ashore to check in. Charlestown has several attractive old buildings which have a hurricane resistant stone lower floor and ornate upper floors. We were charged a shocking amount for the limited facilities available, and were unable to draw cash from the antiquated ATM at the local bank. However, we did find a mooring off the very nice beach and went ashore in the nesting dinghy for a rum punch.

IMG_3501_NevisNevis

IMG_3503_Nevis_CharlestownCharlestown

On Friday (the 13th) it was time to repair the inflatable dinghy, whose transom was falling apart. Most of the attachments had fallen off after the glue failed in the Caribbean sun. Luckily, we carry a selection of two-pack glues for PVC and rubber, and the repair was successful.

IMG_3507_Nevis_DinghyRepairOops – time to repair the dinghy

In the afternoon we walked inland from the beach, and found a trail leading through one of the old plantations, the long-since overgrown Pinney estate.  Some attempts have been made to open the ruined buildings to the public, and we later learned that this was a notorious place in the history of slavery.

IMG_3518_Nevis_BaobabSN and Baobab tree

IMG_3529_Nevis_BakehouseRemains of bakehouse at Pinney estate house

Back at the Sunshine Bar on the beach, we indulged in a good meal as the sun set in its usual glorious way over the western sea.

IMG_3511_Nevis_JRSN with R on the beach at Nevis, St Kitts in the background

IMG_3516_Nevis_RSJ & R on the beach at Nevis

Sailing north, we crossed the narrow strait between Nevis and St Kitts, and headed for Whitehouse Bay, surely the nicest anchorage in that island.  We anchored off the Salt Beach Bar and landed the dinghy at their jetty. Ashore is a large natural salt pond, which along with the surrounding rolling hillsides is under development as a marina village (Christophe Harbour). Only billionaires could consider taking a berth in the marina, most of which are sold freehold for 7-figure sums, with the annual charges alone into 5 figures. At the east side, the salt pond comes near to the windward side of the island where waves come into a deep sandy cove – unfortunately bringing in heaps of the Sargasso weed to rot on the beach.

IMG_3562_StKitts_MarinaSuperyacht berths in Christophe harbour

IMG_3568_StKitts_SaltBeachBarThe Salt Beach Bar in Whitehouse Bay

On Sunday evening a very good Latin-American band played at the beach bar, where we dined well. Yet again the sunset lit up the anchorage and surrounding hills, and as darkness fell the lights of St Kitts spread in a long curve around the bay.

IMG_3571_StKitts_WhitehouseBayWhitehouse Bay anchorage

On Monday morning we motored along the coast to Basseterre where we had to check out from St Kitts. There was a lot of swell in the anchorage outside the harbour, so SN stayed on anchor watch while J&R rowed ashore.  Customs and Immigration processes were as inefficient and annoying as ever, another frustrating two hours. But eventually we got away and set sail northward for the Dutch islands…

IMG_3577_StKitts_CheckoutRowing in to check out of St Kitts

Antigua and Barbuda

Heading north from Guadeloupe, our first stop was English Harbour to inquire after our friend SN. At the slipway we discovered he had sailed for Guadeloupe the previous week, so our paths had not crossed as we had hoped. Out again past the Pillars of Hercules, we sailed on round the shoal-strewn SW coast of Antigua to Jolly Harbour, anchoring in very shallow water as night fell.

IMG_3316_Antigua_PillarsOfHerculesPillars of Hercules, English Harbour

Next morning, 27th March, we were about to set off for the Customs quay in the dinghy, when another dinghy approached. It was A & S of Fortino, first met in Madeira and last seen in Rodney Bay, St Lucia. They had been anchored nearby and recognised Ambition II in the morning. So, after checking in we got together for a drink, and decided to cruise in company to Barbuda. We stocked up with provisions at the Epicurean supermarket, and next day moved north to anchor in Deep Bay (after finding Dickenson Bay too uncomfortable in the NE swell).

IMG_3317_Antigua_OffJollyHbrCaribbean colours, off Jolly Harbour

IMG_3321_Antigua_JollyDawnDawn off Jolly Harbour

IMG_3346_AntiguaOffStJohnsSailing off St John’s

Deep Bay has a lovely beach with a fort above it, a salt lake behind it and a typically Antiguan mix of encroaching property development alongside a currently abandoned hotel. We were glad to follow Fortino in, since there is a wreck in the middle of the bay of a freighter full of pitch that caught fire in 1905 and was (understandably) refused entry to St John’s. There is only one short rusty column visible above the surface: it was a relief when we could see we had passed it safely.

During our 3 days in Deep bay, we saw turtles and the occasional dolphin. The winds increased at first, producing a swell that prevented us leaving the boat for a time and led us to re-anchor in a more sheltered location near the fort (and further from the rocks that J had been keeping a wary eye on).

On Friday the 30th March, the weather was calm enough for R & J to pack the Bromptons into the dinghy and cycle into St John’s, to visit the maket and attempt to buy a local SIM card. The route involved small hills on local roads. At one point, R noticed two figures clad in white standing in the sea while a congregation sang hymns on the shore. However, it was only after he had tried several shops that R realised this was a special Friday and our purchases would be limited to basics from market stalls and the odd supermarket that was open on Bank Holidays…

 

IMG_3362_Antigua_DeepBayFortIn the fort above Deep Bay

IMG_3363_Antigua_DeepBayFromFortView from the fort over Deep Bay

It was not until Saturday 31st that the weather abated sufficiently, and we were able to motor-sail gently north for Barbuda. Arriving in the afternoon off the West coast, we carefully followed the contours with the echo-sounder, knowing that the sands would have been shifted by hurricane Irma. We anchored by one of the new breaches to the lagoon and launched the rubber dinghy. R and A went ashore on the steep – to beach to explore but were swamped by waves on landing. The breach was clearly too shallow and wave-swept to cross in the dinghy. And they had a struggle to launch in the surf. Thankfully the outboard started despite the soaking!

IMG_3382_Barbuda_LighthouseBayLighthouse Bay resort (remains of)

In the morning both boats moved north along the beach to Low Bay, opposite the ruins of the once-exclusive Lighthouse Bay resort. Here there was another breach, and local boats were seen coming through from the lagoon. However, there was still too much surf for us to try it in the dinghy. We had an enjoyable, sociable time swimming in the clear water, watching the spotted eagle rays swim near the boats and sharing drinks and meals with S and A.

Fortino’s crew had decided to stay in the Caribbean for another season, so they needed to press on south to find a safe place to lay up (south of the hurricane tracks). They sailed early on 2nd April and we waved them off. The surf had gone down so we decided to try for the lagoon. The breach proved easy to navigate in the dinghy and we headed across the lagoon for the town of Codrington, about a mile away.

IMG_3391_BarbudaDevastationFirst sights of Codrington

IMG_3392_Barbuda_FoodAidTentWe were aware from news reports that there had been controversy over the reconstruction priorities of the Antiguan government and legal action over the status of Barbuda’s land ownership, which up until now has been restricted to native Barbudans. Sadly the hurricane disaster has been used as an excuse to allow foreign investors to take a stake in the island.

On arrival, we were met by a scene of devastation. Most buildings were damaged, many beyond repair. Trees and boats had been blown around and still lay scattered and broken. Two aid agency tents had been erected but although children were playing by the shore, few people were around. It seemed that many of the evacuated population had not returned. The people we met were notably polite and friendly; a close-knit community. We found a shop open and enquired about trips to the frigate bird colony at the north of the island, the Caribbean’s largest nesting site for these birds. We were put in touch with Patrick, a local guide who said he could take us. After waiting some time at the quay, the taxi driver John Levy told us that Patrick could not make it, but he arranged for us to join another boat with 4 other visitors (saving us quite a bit as the fare was shared @ US $14 each).

The fishing skiff sped us across the lagoon and through shallow channels amongst the mangroves to the frigate bird nest site. The mangroves were badly damaged by the hurricane, all the top half of greenery gone. The surviving birds had flown away but returned to nest in the bare and broken branches at the waters edge. The adults present included only a few adult males still showing their striking red breeding pouches. There was a range of young birds from fluffy white chicks to dark recently fledged juveniles with lighter patches. We were able to get quite close in the skiff without causing any disturbance, a rare sight indeed.

IMG_3403_Barbuda_FrigateColony1The frigate bird colony

IMG_3416_Barbuda_FrigateColony2Back on the quay at Codrington, a boat was loaded with a writhing mass of lobsters in a net, plus a few large fish. They were heading across to Antigua with this little cargo, a long way in such a small skiff. The locals lay piles of sticks in the lagoon to entice and later entrap the lobsters.

IMG_3428_Barbuda_lobsterBoatLobster boat

After a walk around the town, where chickens and wild donkeys picked amongst the ruins, we motored back across the lagoon and out through the breach to Ambition II. Later we took another walk on the sandbar, famous for its pink sand with a scattering of coloured shells. The sunset as always was stunning.

IMG_3431_Barbuda_housesHouses in Codrington

Next day we sailed back to Antigua and headed for Falmouth harbour to meet more friends from the trip south last year, G & A aboard Alisea. After a long tack past the western shoals, we arrived at dusk and anchored near their boat. Later we all convened at the Pizza house to catch up on our cross-Atlantic experiences. We were joined by the welcoming swiss crew of catamaran Mariella, and all agreed to head for Green Island for a few days.

First, we had to get provisions, and leave a propane cylinder to be refilled. We spent several hours in a yachting services shop trying to get a Digicel data SIM card, which never did work. After a second night in Falmouth we all sailed East, tacking into a strong headwind round Antigua to Green Island. On the way we saw a whale blow and a dorsal fin emerge as it dived (probably a pilot whale).  The anchorage next to Green Island is open to the Atlantic but protected by the submerged reef. This is an exquisite location with acres of protected space for water sports, although care and good visibility is required when entering or leaving. Buoys have been laid with long chains to take boats up to 60 feet, and we each picked a buoy (nobody came to collect any fees). The water is turquoise over sand and sea-grass, and the reef can be approached in a dinghy for snorkelling.

IMG_3452_Antigua_GreenIsland_AliseaAlisea at Green Island

Mariella’s crew had caught a good-sized fish on the way, so we all retired to the beach with BBQ equipment from Alisea, potatoes (kartoffel) and salad, and plenty of wine. Three nights running we barbecued fish or marinaded chicken as the sun set, and talked into the evening, returning to the anchorage in our dinghies somewhat erratically in the darkness.

IMG_3456_Antigua_GreenIslandBBQWatching the sunset on Green Island

There was more living coral on this reef than we have previously seen, including some of the stag-horn type, and more variety of creatures generally. But even here the majority is bleached, and swaths of reef appear to have been shattered by storms. We also swam next to Bird Island where we found a living conch shell with beautiful colours.

On Sunday 8th April after our swim and a farewell cup of tea aboard Alisea, we sailed back to Falmouth with fond memories of our time in Antigua and Barbuda. Next morning, we retrieved our propane cylinder, stocked up provisions from Covent Garden supermarket and checked out at Customs again. We were bound for Guadeloupe to pick up our friend SN, who was to join the crew of Ambition II.

IMG_3455_Antigua_GreenIslandHermitCrabRock-climbing hermit crab

Guadeloupe Islands

After clearing the north of Dominica, we had a steady SE wind for the crossing to Marie Galante, our first stop in the Guadeloupe island group. Rain passed over the island as we approached, but cleared before we came in to the NW coast, past the prominent sugar loading gantry, to anchor in the wide bay near the sleepy port of St Louis. Ashore, we found a café with wifi, and had a beer plus a cheap pork, lentil and rice meal (the quality matched the price).

IMG_3133_GDL_MG_AnseCanotAnse Canot, Marie Galante

In the morning we found the bus stop and waited hopefully (there being no timetable) and eventually got a cheap ride to the capital, Grand Bourg. The road passed fields of sugar cane and in one of them an ox cart was being loaded. There were also tractors and trailers taking cane to the seasonal sugar factory. On arrival we set off to the customs office, which took some finding upstairs behind an unmarked door at the back of an anonymous building opposite the harbour. Checking in was straightforward after filling in the usual lengthy paper form, and with no fees. Before seeking out the return bus, we had another coffee + wifi experience, found a small supermarket (there are no big ones), and walked round the small produce market.

IMG_3126_GDL_MG_BikesByDinghyBikes on the dinghy dock, St Louis

Next day the folding bikes were ferried ashore and we cycled NE to the next bay, Anse Canot, chained our bikes up in the car park, then walked around the coral limestone headland to Anse de Viex Fort. We made steady rather than fast progress due to J’s preference for walking on hills. At one point, R was overtaken by a pick -up truck and was astonished to see two huge bullocks watching him serenely from the back! The beaches along the coast were beautiful with white sand and turquoise water, fringed with coral limestone cliffs or quiet woods. The dry woods above were full of hermit crabs and black termite mounds. Along the shore road were signs to look out for turtles crossing!

IMG_3141_GDL_MG_WoodlandPathDry woodland on coral limestone, north of Anse Canot

IMG_3146_GDL_MG_HermitCrabOne of the smaller hermit crabs

IMG_3158_GDL_MG_TurtleSignTurtle sign on the coast road

In the next bay a river, no longer flowing in the dry season, comes out on the beach. Upstream it forms a long wide pool surrounded by mangrove and swamp forest. A board-walk has been installed to give walkers access to the river shore. There are electric powered paddle boats available for hire to explore the river.

IMG_3170_GDL_MG_MangoveRiverPlantsMangrove and other swamp plants

Another day we cycled SW along the coast road for a few miles then inland to visit the Poisson rum distillery. We were free to wander round the ancient crushing, brewing and distilling equipment, then taste the rum samples from white Rhum Agricole (2 months old) to various stages of Rhum Vieux (aged in bourbon barrels). After 6 years or more, the harsh raw alcohol taste has mellowed, but the price goes up a lot too! We opted for a bottle of 59% Rhum Agricole for making punch. The distillery is the destination for local farms bringing the cane loaded on ox-carts.

IMG_3181_GDL_MG_SugarCaneTrailerAn ox cart loaded with cane

IMG_3192_GDL_MG_RumStillDistillation tower

IMG_3202_GDL_MG_BullockCartBullocks in action

IMG_3196_GDL_MG_SugarCaneHarvesterA more modern cane harvester

On Friday 23rd we motor-sailed downwind to the group of islands known as Les Saintes. There are lots of visitor moorings off the town (Bourg des Saintes) but all were occupied, so we anchored in 12m out towards the Sugar Loaf hill. It was a choppy dinghy ride over half a mile to town, with extra wash from the frequent ferries. Ashore we found ice cream and wifi in a café overlooking the quay, then a small supermarket (we later found the rather better Carrefour).

IMG_3211_GDL_SaintsApproaching Les Saintes from Marie Galante

Back in town next morning we found a customs terminal at the Multiservice shop, nice and easy.   checked out of Guadeloupe a day in advance, as they would be closed on Sunday. Then we walked up the steep hill to the Fort Napoleon with its great views of the islands and museum of random historical artefacts and artwork. We were overtaken on the road by other tourists in electric golf buggies and on scooters but we had more time to admire the views over the archipelago.

IMG_3249_GDL_Saints_ViewFromFortView over the anchorage from Fort Napoleon

Later we dinghied across to Ilet a Cabrit which has a small beach anchorage, where we swam over the rocks with some nice corals and fish, including a huge shoal (tens of thousands) of translucent fish. Ashore the hurricane had made the woods impassable except for the goats and chickens.

IMG_3254_GDL_Saints_FeralChickensFeral chickens and cat on Ilot a Cabrit

On Sunday we hoisted the main and sailed along the west coast of Guadeloupe, passing a picturesque lighthouse at the SW corner, huge quarries, the town of Basse Terre with its large fort above. Then on past pale green fields, possibly sugar cane, with a distillery in the town below. Towering in the background, the volcano La Souffriere which last erupted in the 1970’s.

IMG_3287_GDL_LighthouseLighthouse on SW Guadeloupe

IMG_3289_GDL_VolcanoVolcano La Souffriere

We passed between Pigeon Island and the shore, a favourite spot with divers visiting the Marine Park inspired by Jacques Cousteau, and passed sand-coloured cliffs apparently riddled with holes. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the bay of Deshaies and anchored amongst other boats in 10m.  A nearby English boat owner expressed concern that we might be too close, as the wind changes a good deal here. R tried to raise the anchor but it was snagged on something very solid, so we had to leave it like that overnight.

IMG_3307_GDL_PigeonIslandPigeon Island

The English boat left early on Monday morning, and some others also, leaving more room for manoeuvre. R pulled the anchor up tight and dived, to find a large chain wrapped round the anchor – presumably an old heavy mooring. We made up a chain loop on an old halyard and dropped it down our anchor chain, then let 25m or so of chain out while J reversed (R keeping the old halyard slack). We drove forward while taking in the halyard, making it fast when roughly over the fouled anchor, hoping it would snatch the anchor free. It worked! J motored out into deep water where R recovered the gear. We raised the main and sailed for Antigua, the wind ENE 15 knots, making good progress with 2 reefs in main and both headsails.

IMG_3279_GDL_RainRain over Guadeloupe (which fortunately missed us!)