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

Optimist Family

“Wagwan?”

I turned my head to see a man walking out of the sailing school and down towards the dock where I was hefting a load of groceries back to my dinghy. My favorite place to tie up in Falmouth was the pier right next to the local sailing academy because it was sheltered from big boat traffic and out of the way. Antiguan dialect is strong and beautiful and I pieced more of it together every day. The man looked at me enquiringly. I repeated the word in my head a few times: wagwan… wagwan.. Oh! What’s going on!
“Not much”, I replied. “How are you?” Luckily I had guessed right and we started chatting about sailing and boats. He introduced himself as Rhone and told me that he was one of the instructors at the sailing school.

“I’m super jealous” I said, eyeing the zippy little lasers scooting around on the wind. “I so miss dinghy sailing.”
“Want to come out? I can take you tomorrow after work.”

I hastily agreed, and we made plans to meet at the dinghy dock the next afternoon. Thus started a great friendship between myself and about six or seven of the sailors associated with the academy. I hung out in the chase boat with them while they trained the little Optimist sailors in racing. They took me wakeboarding in the evenings. I hung around with the little boys and watched the fishermen casting nets for bait. The instructors let me sail the lasers and drive the case boat. It was like having a little island family.

An air of excitement hung around the sailing school, and after a few days I discovered why. The whole sailing dinghy crowd in Falmouth was getting ready for Opti Worlds, which they were hosting at the beginning of July. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Optis are tiny pram-shaped boats that are perfect for kids up to the age of fifteen. They’re great for beginner sailors because they can be capsized and righted easily, and bashed into each other without sustaining too much damage. What I didn’t know was that Optis are a world-class dinghy. The world competition this year includes sailors from more that fourty different countries, and takes place over a mile offshore. These must be some pretty gnarly kids, I thought.

Optimists Sailing
Photo from sailingdata.com

My new friends invited me to stay and volunteer to help run the races, but I had to keep moving. Hurricane season is approaching, and there are still a bunch of islands I want to work my way through. It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Falmouth and my sailing family, and headed back to sea.

 

The passage to Martinique took two days and two nights. I was skipping Guadeloupe and Dominica to head right for Martinique to do some boat repairs. I planned on looping back up to explore at least Dominica before I headed south again. Since the islands are so close together, I don’t really see a problem with doing them out of order.

The first night of the passage was squally and dark, and I was up and down constantly to drop my headsail for each burst of wind. Between squalls, the wind was a friendly 10-15 knots, and I had my big headsail up. The short bursts of wind that came with the squalls would have easily overpowered my large genoa, so I made a routine of running forward and dropping it before each gust hit. The squalls were usually accompanied by about 10 minutes of fierce downpour before the whole thing blew away and the night was mine again. Seeing squalls on a moonless night is tricky. By the time I felt the boat starting to significantly heel over, it was too late, so I had to be extra vigilant. It was imperative that I spot each squall before it hit me, but I was also trying to get some sleep. I woke up every 20 minutes to scan the horizon, and started noticing that where the squalls lay, the black night was slightly blacker than anywhere else. It was mostly overcast, so I couldn’t use lack of stars for a guide. Once a squall was spotted lurking upwind, the fun part began. I didn’t want to reduce sail too soon, or I’d be bobbing around uselessly- sometimes for up to half an hour. If I waited too long, I’d get a thorough soaking, and wrestling down the genoa would be about ten times harder. The key was to wait until the first tendrils of the squall wrapped their little fingers around the sails and tapped Gecko over a hair. Then I’d spring up and rush about, dropping the headsail, checking the course, and running below for cover.

This made for an aerobic night, and by morning I was exhausted. The sailing was beautiful all day, but with the night came more tricks of the wind. Right about midnight, I was rounding the north coast of Martinique when the wind completely died. I knew about the wind shadows to the west of the islands, and had accordingly kept to the east on my sail down. Unfortunately, my destination was halfway down the west coast of Martinique. I was only a few miles offshore, and totally exhausted. I secured the sails, and tried to catch some sleep while Gecko bobbed around in circles. However, I was too nervous to sleep for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Being so close to shore without knowing the currents had me worried that I’d get pushed up onto the rocks. When the sun rose, I fired up the old engine, and motored on.

Three miles out from Fort-de-France, a huge squall overtook me. For two hours, I was bombarded by whiteout rain, and swirly winds which made it almost impossible to make forward way. Finally, wet and cold, I dropped hook in the Fort-de-France anchorage. It was Ascension day, and the whole island was closed for the holiday. Since I couldn’t clear in, I made a cup of tea and laid down for a delicious nap.

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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Oriental and Away

My last two weeks run to Oriental were blissful compared to the cold windy slog I made from Maine to Virginia. I ducked into the intracoastal waterway after Portsmouth and motored through the Dismal Swamp. In order to make it between two of the locks at either end, I had to crank up Geck’s little engine to 5 knots, the fastest it’s ever gone.

My first lock! It was pouring rain, but I enjoyed every minute of it!

This was the absolute slowest I could go between the locks and make the next timed opening. To accomplish it, I had Geck’s 10-horse at full throttle. Funny smells wafted out of the cabin as all the carbon burned out of the twists in the engine piping. Luckily there was no wind or current against me, and I obsessively checked engine temp and the sea strainer to make sure I wasn’t going to overheat. I barely made the second lock, and then breathed a sigh in relief as a throttled back to a happy 3.5 knots.

First sunny day in the intracoastal. I’m down to only one layer of clothing!

I sailed down the Alligator river and anchored at one of the bends in the bottom that night. When I arrived well after dark, I saw the anchor lights of at least 10 other boats scattered throughout the two large bends that served as a protected anchorage. I had finally caught up with a fleet! The next morning I woke up with the sun and left before anyone else. Since there was no wind and I was motoring again, I was slowly passed by every boat within the first few hours. They all waved cheerily, and I felt as though I was really getting somewhere (except for the part where everyone else was getting there faster. Wherever THERE was).

Dewey mornings south of Alligator River

I actually allowed myself to take a weather day in Belhaven (it was raining). I was ahead of schedule at that point, and I realized that I didn’t have to stand in the pouring rain all day if I didn’t want to. So I stayed below and made cookies, only venturing out for a walk during a lull in the weather. I even went for a swim in the disgusting brown water when the sun came out later.

Downwind run to make an anchorage before dark. Spoiler: I made it two hours after dark

After spending two nights in Belhaven, I sailed an easy 30-mile day and ended up anchored out in a small deserted bay halfway to Oriental. That night was the first time it was warm enough to sit in the cockpit and watch the sun set. I brought out a book and my down jacket, and felt an immense happiness settle over me. The night was whisper calm with a full moon. The water was glowing in the starlight, and I did a crazy moon dance around the deck, whooping and singing loudly at the empty night. At least I think it was empty. If anyone was trying to sleep near Bonner Bay on November 20th, I’m accepting tips for the show.

My first sunset in the cockpit of the trip

I arrived in Oriental on Novermber 21st, the day before Thanksgiving. My initial plan was to make my way into Whittaker Creek, where I would eventually be leaving my boat for the winter. However, I ran aground a couple of times in the channel so I gave up and went around to anchor by the bridge. I later found out that you have to stick close enough to the reds that you can high-five each one as you pass it. If it’s still looking sketchy, you can go outside them. And if you still can’t get in, wait for the wind direction to change and it’ll blow more water into the creek.

Almost to Oriental and finally not wearing pants

I spend a lovely Thanksgiving in Oriental with some old family friends, and then successfully (this time) made my way into a slip at Whittaker Creek Marina. Nine days after arriving in Oriental, I said goodbye to Gecko and got on a plane to fly back down to work. While it wasn’t the most relaxing sail, I had pushed Gecko hard and fast and made it from Maine to Oriental in 25 days. The only times I used my engine were for stretches of the intracoastal, and the occasional push if the wind died. The average wind speed I experienced was 20-25 knots, with temperatures averaging in the high thirties. Leaving the Geck to return to work was much harder than I’d anticipated. I had another work list of projects that had to be completed before I left for the Caribbean, but I hadn’t had time to start any before I took off. I patted Gecko on her stupid leaky bow and told her that I’d be back soon.

Back in Punta Arenas in the canopy of a tree

 

 

 

 

Provisioning for the Cold

I’m almost ready to head south! Unless the weather drastically changes, my plan is to leave Pemaquid Harbor on Tuesday, October 30th. The forecast calls for 20-25 knots from the northwest, so I should be able to make it to the Cape Cod Canal in about 24 hours. Without stopping,  I’ll head straight down to Cape May and then up the Delaware and down the Chesapeake. I have no heat on board, so the incentive to make miles before I run out of clean long-johns is higher than usual.

The average temperature for my trip will be low 40’s in the day, and high to mid 30’s by night (hopefully)

This past week, I’ve been provisioning my boat, filling my tanks, and doing some last minute modifications. I switched out my old 7-foot length of anchor chain for 50 feet of new chain, plus about 70 feet of rode. I know that having anchor chain means more weight forward, but I also like to sleep at night when I’m on the hook, so I decided it was worth it.

A peek at some of my dried food provisions

Last week, my dad and I went for a sail and tested out my new Monitor windvane. It was sustained 25 knot winds gusting to 30, and not only did Gecko handle the wind beautifully, but the windvane worked better than I ever would have expected. All those hours of cursing the stupid thing while I tried to install it melted away when I saw it handling gusts and lifts with nothing but a grim steely glint.

Tomorrow I’m going to buy all my perishables, get my affairs in order (do laundry), and look over my charts one last time. I’m looking forward to that feeling that comes right after raising the sails; when all the hurrying and planning of the past weeks melts into the immediate “now” of being underway.

Gorgeous fall days justify the chilly temperatures