Whales and Sunsets

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a country that consists of thirty-two islands. Scattered over an area of 150 square miles, these islands range from rocks with barely a space for anchoring to the main island of St. Vincent. Only nine of the islands are inhabited, and the rest are a charming combination of impassable, and secret paradise. I spend about a month exploring and sailing these waters. If I was going to go back to any one area of the Caribbean, this would be it.

Tobago Cays group of islands, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Photo courtesy of barefoot offshore sailing school

The sail from St. Lucia to Bequia (one of the larger Grenadines) took about twelve hours. Bequia is a beautiful little island with a small town, and miles of tree-lined roads. My arrival happened to coincide with Emancipation Day. Most of the little shops were closed, but luckily some of my cruising friends I’d met in Dominica were in the harbor. We walked around the town and ended up at a hidden bar that was full of celebration. Four large tables lay underneath a concrete awning. A small wooden bar counter crouched in the furthest recesses of the shade. It was impossible to not make friends.

Shortly after we sat down at on of the tables, we were joined by a lady and two of her friends. They were drinking a clear liquid out of a small bottle labeled Sunset. I watched as one of the newcomers carefully poured a shot into his beer, swirling it expertly. The lady noticed me staring, and smiled.

Sunset Rum

“You ever try Sunset?”, she asked.

I shook my head

“Well girl, you gotta have Sunset if you come to the Grenadines! It’s made right here in St. Vincent. 90 proof. Don’t drink it straight”, she added conspiratorially. ” We mix it with beer or water. Here, have a taste girl”.

She motioned to one of her friends and he slid over a brimming shot glass. I tentatively tipped it into my beer, and swirled. A small sip. Six eyes watching for my reaction. I smiled.

“It’s delicious!”, I lied

One of the many friendly beach bars of Bequia

Everyone laughed and introduced themselves. The rest of my friends wanted to try some, and the bottle was passed around merrily. The woman introduced herself as Gladys and her friends as Kingston and Mav. Gladys told us that she was born and raised in Bequia. She showed us photos of her house where she lived with her husband. It was painted bright pink and had a large garden tangling around the front walkway. They grew vegetables and sugar cane behind the house, and flowers in the front.

Gladys seemed to know everyone on the island. We plied her with questions about where to get canvass work done, the location of the best chandleries, and which stores were suitable for provisioning. She happily answered each question, pleased to be able to present her island to appreciative visitors.

We eventually made our goodbyes, and headed back to our waiting dinghies. On the return trip, we passed a bar where the stools were made out of whale vertebrae. Giant rib bones creaked from the ceiling, and the sign had a fat whale painted on it. Curious as to how a bar came to be filled with whale bones, we did some quick smartphone research. As it turns out, whaling is still legal in Bequia.

Whaling Boats in Bequia.
Photo courtesy of 3telus.net

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, whale meat was a staple food in Bequia. Whaling was introduced to the island in the 1870’s, when a Scottish mariner began whaling operations in the area. Today, the islanders are allowed to catch two or three humpbacks per year. They remain one of only a few populations in the world that are allowed to take whales.

It seemed odd that a Caribbean island could have taken a tradition from the arctic and incorporated it their warm colorful lives. I’ve always thought of whaling as a way for people to get food in areas where extreme cold makes it impossible to grow crops or raise livestock. Set against a backdrop of lush fruit trees and stray goats, I wondered at the relevancy of this outdated practice.

Frisbee on Palm Island with sailor friends

I stayed in Bequia for a happy week, but the other islands of the Grenadines were calling. There are a bunch of tiny islands that are only good for anchoring in certain wind conditions. Because of this, most people skip them completely. The idea of a totally deserted anchorage is very appealing to me. In the crowded Caribbean, it’s often hard to find breathing room, let alone a private paradise.

I said my goodbyes to Bequia (and my good riddance to Sunset rum), and set off for my next tiny island adventure.

Is This the Right Bus? How About Now?

Guadeloupe is a large butterfly-shaped island full of french people, and cheese. Just south of the mainland lie Les Saintes. They are a series of small, beautiful islands only accessible by boat. One of the islands, Terre de Haut, allows you to clear in, and I made my way there first. There was some sort of extended lunch break going on when I arrived at the office, so I sat down on a bench outside with my book to wait. Presently, a ferrety man slouched up to me and sat down on the other end of the bench. He introduced himself in french, and I happily indicated that I couldn’t understand him. Unfortunately, he spoke english as well. He began the conversation by kindly suggesting that I shouldn’t get any more tattoos because they’re not ladylike. I made a ladylike grunt, and told him that I actually had forgotten, but I didn’t speak English either. The Ferret ignored this comment and asked if I needed a guide for the island. Luckily at that moment the building re-opened, and I curtseyed my way out.

Harbor in Terre de Haut

With the exception of my gentleman friend, I found Les Saintes to be charming and handsome. There were more cats than people (always a good sign), and I didn’t have to walk more than five minutes from any point on the island to arrive at an ice cream parlor. After a few happy days, I made my way to the big island of Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe has an excellent bus system. It does not, however, have any sort of online schedule or list of bus routes. The tourist office ladies confirmed that there’s no printed schedule either, but that the busses will stop anywhere for you as long as you flag them down. Further south in the Caribbean, this system works really well. Instead of big busses, there are minivans with the names of their major destinations on a card in the front window. In Guadeloupe, each large city-bus had a very informative number and nothing else.

House in Les Saintes

I memorized the name of the town I was aiming for and the phrase: “are you go here?” Stationing myself by an official-looking palm tree, I waited for my first victim. After several minutes, an orange bus trundled down the road and I flagged it down. Stepping aboard, I asked the driver my question. He couldn’t understand the name of the town I was trying to pronounce, so I whipped out my phone and pointed to the map. The driver pulled a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket and squinted at the tiny screen.

“No”

Chicken Alley

He opened the doors, and I stepped back out. Another bus passed, and I played the same charade. Then, a third. Just when I was about to give up, I found my magical orange chariot: 22B. I crossed my fingers that I had pronounced the name of the town correctly, and sat back to see where I would end up. Miraculously, I arrived where I had intended. At the end of the day, there was a brief moment of panic when I forgot which bus line to ride home. But I was good at bus roulette at that point. I only went through two busse before I found the right one. Progress. That’s all I ask for.

Although Guadeloupe is beautiful and friendly, I started to feel lonely after a week. The language barrier made it almost impossible to make friends, and I was developing an unhealthy dependence on baguettes. It was time to clear out and move on. The clearance process in the French islands is the most relaxed of any other country I’ve been to. Usually there’s a computer at the back of the local marine hardware store. You filll out an online form, and bring it to the front desk. The hardware cashier stamps it, and sometimes even checks your passport. At Les Saintes I had cleared in at an internet cafe. Assuming the procedure would be the same in the town where I was clearing out, I didn’t bother smartening up. I had to take a bus into the next town, and was planning on spending the day hiking around. Since I only have three nice shirts, I try to save them for special occasions.

Storm Clouds over Guadeloupe

Checking the map, I saw that customs was located inside a town-sized marina. Paved paths snaked around ornamental trees and perfectly manicured grass. Everyone was wearing polo shirts and seemed to be in a hurry. I looked down at my flip flops, which I had recently repaired with 5200 caulk and seine twine. Thank god I’d fixed them! It would be so embarrassing if people noticed my shoes were falling apart.

At the end of an elegant path stood a round building called the Captainery. I paused to take a sip of water and wipe the sweat off my face before entering. There was a sign on the door in English and French that read: Formal Clothing Only. This was probably a mistranslation of the classic: no shirt, no shoes, no service. I pushed open the door and was dazzled by a shiny floor and giant counter. Oh good. If I stood close to the counter, no one would notice the glue line around the bottom of my flip flops. One of the coiffed secretaries pushed over a stack of papers, and pointed to a little desk across the room. I sat down. As I reached into my bag for a pen, I noticed that the floor was wet. I lifted my bag up, thinking I’d set it in a puddle. Ha! They call themselves fancy, but their floor leaks! A steady dripping now splashed from my bag into the puddle. I looked behind me and noticed a line of water from the counter to my chair. Then I looked in my bag and noticed the now empty water bottle. I’ve never filled out a form faster. Sloshing back over to the counter, I pushed my damp papers across to the secretary. My pack remained hidden under the mercifully imposing counter. I smiled my best smile, and tried to act like I wasn’t leaking water all over the spotless Captainery. The sweet sound of an official stamp filled my ears, and I scuttled out before anyone changed their mind. Once outside the door, I turned my bag upside down, and a little waterfall gently flowed out onto the perfectly manicured lawn.

My favorite anchorage in Guadeloupe

Paradise, Loose Pants, and Party Crashing

The secretary pointed at a corridor to her right. “First door on your left is customs”, she said. I had just arrived in to St. John’s Antigua and was preparing to clear in to the country. I thanked her and made my way to a door that was slightly ajar. Through the crack in the door, I saw a woman in a blue uniform with her head on a desk, snoring lightly. I knocked, then took a step back to give her time to compose herself. After a “come in” wafted through the crack, I pushed the door open and entered. The woman, who introduced herself as Sage, was sitting up and blinking. She motioned me to sit in front of her desk, and pushed over a stack of forms. As I started filling them out, I saw Sage stand up to fetch something from the other side of the room. Amusingly, she had unbuttoned and unbelted her tight pants while she was sleeping. Completely unfazed, Sage held them together with one hand while she walked across the room to grab a stamp. Not bothering to rebutton, she returned to her chair. Her composure was so impressive that I was convinced this was a normal routine for her.
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Antigua customs officials turned out to be just as friendly as all the other Carribbean countries I’d visited. Sage was a motherly woman, concerned about my well-being and sanity for sailing alone. She gave me her number and said she wanted to put me up for the night in her house. She couldn’t envision that I was getting good rest on the Geck. I thanked her profusely but explained that my boat was my home, and I didn’t want to leave her for the night. I also wasn’t happy with the place I’d anchored and was planning on leaving once I was cleared in. We bid farewell, and I returned to Gecko.
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The next three nights I spend in Five Islands Bay, halfway down the western side of Antigua. Five islands is a magical location. It’s a huge bay, surrounded by green hills. Most of the land around the bay is national park, so there were almost no houses in sight. Right in the middle of the bay is an island called Maiden Island. I anchored in the lee of Maiden, and didn’t see another person come within a mile of my boat for the next three days. The water was clear and beautiful, the air sweet, and the nights full of bright stars. I set up the sailing rig on my dinghy and explored the shallow head of the bay. It was lined with deserted white sand beaches and tangly luscious undergrowth. I had finally found paradise.
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I ran out of freshies on day four. Since I don’t have refrigeration, it’s hard to keep fresh vegetables for very long, and I hadn’t provisioned for more than a few days anyway. I also needed to top up my water tanks and make a hardware store run. It was time for civilization.
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Jolly Harbor is just around the corner, and the perfect place to resupply. I arrived early in the morning and completed my errands by the afternoon. Like a hopeless addict, I upped anchor and returned to Five Islands for the night, telling myself that I had to leave for good the next morning. My plan was to sail to Falmouth, which is located on the southern side of Antigua. However, I hadn’t factored in the strong headwinds, and after a full day of sailing, and two hours spent trying to get around the southwestern corner of the island, I gave up and headed in to Carlisle Bay.
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Carlisle is a tiny bay with a little beach resort and not much else. I wasn’t crazy about the location, but it would be a fine place to stop for the night. I had just finished putting away my sails for the evening when two kayaks approached my boat. They were paddled by three jolly British vacationers. We chatted and I invited them onto my boat It turns out that they were three of one hundred and fifty pharmaceutical reps who were on a work retreat. They informed me that this was their last night and they were having a big party at the resort to celebrate. “It’s an open bar. You should sneak in”. I didn’t need to be told twice.
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That night, as the sun set, I heard the beginnings of the party. There was a live band, and the colorful lights twinkled all the way out to my boat. I heard what sounded like speeches and clapping. When the chatter was replaced by music, I decided to make my move. Easing into my dinghy, I rowed silently towards the beach and tied up on a small dock at the far right. Once my feet touched the sand, I straightened up confidently, and strode down the beach. The key to sneaking is looking like you belong. As the dance floor came into view, I paused and scanned for the friends I’d met earlier. Perhaps they weren’t there. Should I just go back to my boat? Suddenly a flamingo shirt caught my eye and I spied three familiar faces by the bar. My friends loudly introduced me around as the American on the boat, and quickly realized that my initial caution was unnecessary. Everyone was friendly, and nobody seemed to care that I was crashing their party. They were a lively bunch, and the rum flowed freely. Literally. Their company was going to need a crane to pick up the tab we must have left behind. We danced and chatted until the wee hours of the morning when we all parted ways. I waved to my friends as they retired to their hotel rooms. As I got back into my dinghy and rowed home, I decided Carlisle Bay wasn’t so bad afterall.
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