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.
Pillars 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).
Caribbean colours, off Jolly Harbour
Dawn off Jolly Harbour
Sailing 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…
In the fort above Deep Bay
View 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!
Lighthouse 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.
First sights of Codrington
We 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.
The frigate bird colony
Back 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.
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.
Houses 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.
Alisea 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.
Watching 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.
Rock-climbing hermit crab