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.

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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Croissants and Wine

The anchorage in St. Martin smelled like cigarettes and cologne. I arrived with the sunset, running into the anchorage at 6 knots on a stiff breeze. I wanted to drop the hook before the sun set, and right as I finished coiling the last line, darkness closed in. I was anchored in Marigot Bay, which is one of the main ports of entry into the St. Martin.

Marigot Bay

The next morning, Q-flag fluttering from the spreaders, I rowed into the dock to go clear in. Clearing in could be accomplished somewhere called Island Waterworld. This sounded hilariously like knock-off of Disneyworld, and I pictured my passport being stamped by a weird French Snow White. Disappointingly, Island Waterworld turned out to be a marine hardware store. There was a computer in the back where mariners were to put in their boat and passport information. When the little printer above the computer spit out the completed form, the hardware store clerk stamped and initialed it. I was cleared in!

The long row in to shore

Marigot Bay is a large, crowded anchorage. I dropped hook at the very outer edge of the field of boats. This meant that I had over a half-mile row to get in to shore, but it was worth it for the breeze and the privacy. A huge sense of relief settled upon me on arrival. I had finally finished the worst of the easting, and I was getting further away from the more developed North Caribbean. The distinct French flavor of St. Martin was exciting. The cheese and pastries were amazing, the wine was cheap and delicious.

View from the fort

I made friends with a young woman who had boat-hitchiked across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands. She was currently working on a big yacht to save money so that she could keep sailing around the Caribbean. Paula showed me around Marigot and introduced me to her giant friend group. Because of this, I stayed in St. Martin almost a week longer than I had originally anticipated. The pressing need to push quickly through the islands was fading. I was finally relaxing into the salty stupor of an untethered sailor.

Paula and the captain of her yacht

Finally, there was no putting off departure any longer. I bid farewell to my friends and set sail for Antigua. The sail took two days and a night and was the best passage I’ve had to date. A soft breeze filled my headsail, and the gentle waves swelled demurely under Gecko. There was no headlong crashing into breakers, no rail in the water. Instead, the shy stars poked their heads out on a cool night breeze as the smooth black water slipped under my keel.

While underway, I figured out how to rig up a sunshade using my old (and super cool) Whinnie the Pooh blanket. Lying in the shade in the cockpit, listening to Harry Potter on audio book, and watching the sun twinkling on the waves, I melted into a happy puddle of bliss. Perhaps this was the mass appeal of sailing, I mused. It certainly was relaxing.

The afternoon slunk in on day two, just as I saw Antigua raise her shoulders out of the sea. Realizing I wasn’t going to make it in before the customs office closed, I changed course slightly. Next to the capitol city of St. John’s lies a small anchorage. Spending the night in the busy commercial port held no appeal. Instead, Geck nosed her way into Deep Water Bay and I dropped the hook for the night. I’d deal with civilization tomorrow.

 

Life’s a Dance

 

 

I wanted my first step on land to be a wobbly lurch, as though I needed to prove to myself that I was ‘really a sailor’. Instead, I skipped nimbly off my dinghy, and made a disappointingly graceful entrance back into life on solid land. This didn’t last long. Since I hadn’t looked up information on clearing in and out of Puerto Rico from the mainland US, I walked to the customs office to let them know I’d arrived. Customs in Culebra is located in a little office in the tiny airport, about a fifteen minute walk out of town. A blast of cold air met my face as I walked in, and I found myself sitting across from a middle-aged woman with a cheery smile.

“Where did you come from?” I told her I’d sailed directly down from North Carolina. “So why are you here?” I thought this was an odd question, but started talking about how beautiful I’d heard Culebra was. Was it suspicious that I’d come to this tiny island? But no, the question was directed at my presence in the customs office. Since I was coming from the mainland, I didn’t actually have to clear in. Ah. Well, live and learn, I suppose. Instead of being mad that I’d wasted her time, the woman behind the counter began to tell me all the things I should see and do while I was in the area. She wrote me a list of grocery stores, and told me that since it was Easter weekend, there would be parties for the next few days, and lots of live music.
“It’s Easter?”
“Yes, that’s why there are so many people here. Our population increases five times this weekend. Normally this is a peaceful oasis.”
I wasn’t sure if I was glad or disappointed that I’d ended up in Culebra during a non-oasis weekend. This was a holiday weekend second only to New Years. I decided to be glad, since I didn’t really have a choice anyway.

Colorful murals in Culebra

The first night, I told myself the party wasn’t going anywhere, and went to bed at eight. I got a glorious ten hours of sleep, and woke up feeling more functionally human than I had in days. I had met a lovely South African charter boat captain the day I got in, and that morning he took me and another boat in to do laundry. My whole vberth was completely salt-water soaked, and all my winter blankets had been festering in their own stew for over a week. I’ve never been so excited to do laundry in my life.

Laundry Day!

That night, I ventured out for my first brush with civilization in two weeks. I started at the Dinghy Dock Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. There was a live Bomba band playing, and people were dancing to the music: three musicians and five drums, their hands flying and their eyes gleaming. I bought a drink and decided to join the dancers. Having never danced to music like that before, I watched the dancers for a while, to mimic their movement. Then I joined the pack, trying to blend in, until one of the girls bumped into me. She apologized in Spanish and I responded in English.
“You’re a gringa!?”, she said. “You dance like you’re from Puerto Rico!” She and her friends adopted my for the night, and told me that Bomba, even though originating in Africa, is the traditional dance and music style of Puerto Rico. They instructed me on different dance steps, and insisted on paying for my drinks. After they moved on to the next bar, I lingered behind and chatted with the band after they wrapped up their set. Two of the men in the band were born and raised on Culebra, and to me they seemed to be the very spirit of the island. They spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no Spanish, but we sang songs back and forth to each other, and danced around in parodied intensity. The third band member had spend a fair amount of time in the States, and he acted as translator. We went out on the town, and it seemed that everyone knew those three. It was the best introduction I could have asked for to the island. I didn’t get back to my boat until almost five the next morning, and I sank into bed exhausted but radiant.

A local reminder from the hurricane

Back in the States, I remember hearing about how hard Puerto Rico was hit by the last hurricane, but it wasn’t until I started talking to locals that I realized the lasting extent of the damage. Although the hurricane hit in September of 2017, Culebra had just gotten power back from the mainland two months before I arrived. That meant that the whole island had been running on generators for well over a year! Almost all the coral in the surrounding waters is dead, because their sewage treatment plant wasn’t fully functional under reduced power. The ensuing pollution killed almost all the coral around the island. People are working to get a grant to try to bring the local coral population back to life, but in the meantime it’s a sad reminder of a situation that could have been avoided with more help from the mainland.

I dove on Geck to check her underbelly. Everything looked great, but the bottom paint is already starting to chip off

Despite the lack of funds for cleaning up and restoring their island, the locals and visitors who call Culebra home have done an amazing job of using what resources they have to keep their island beautiful. Their hearts all lie with their island, and I could tell that everyone gave more than just their time to bring their land back to life.

Fueling up!

After five days in Culebra, I sailed over to a gorgeous bay in St. John’s. Ditliff Bay is part of the larger Rendezvous Bay, and besides a few houses it’s very private. It’s also the last anchorage before the national park, where you have to pay to stay on a mooring. I noticed that one or two boats would come to anchor for the day, but I was the only one who stayed past late afternoon. This meant I had sunset and sunrise to myself. The water was amazingly clear, and the snorkeling was a five-minute swim from my boat. After the busy Culebra harbor, it was amazing to have a tranquil little bay all to myself.

Gorgeous sunset in Rendezvous Bay

In Coral Bay on St. John’s, I met an amazing community of local boaties; everyone here is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I went sailing with some new friends, and we anchored by a little floating taco restaurant where you call in your order and they deliver your food to you by Zodiac. Having friends to talk with while sailing is such a nice change for me. I laughed at myself as we sailed out of the bay. I’d been so worried while I was coming in about hitting reefs around the edges of the channel, but we sailed right up to either side without a problem. Local knowledge is better than any chart. As we sailed back into the bay, I realized that I’d finally found my community of sailors. And I’m only just getting started!

Sailing around Coral Bay with new friends

PS- check out my YouTube channel for more of my daily life! Videos are slightly behind the blog, but that just makes it more exciting!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnJ3QXRI-whcqJBrW-z_htw