Antigua to St Lucia
27th January to 10th February
(by Johnny, unedited by his father – who thinks this post may show lots of imagination, and is happily unfettered by too many facts)
M (Dad) has kindly/lazily invited me to pen his next blog post. So… to the delight of my lungs, I had finally organised two weeks of escape from the grey particulate rich atmosphere of dreary London and had decided to have a couple of weeks onboard Henrietta. My flight out to Antigua was full of heady anticipation and a little trepidation as I’m a nervous flyer. I aussaged my terror with as many complimentary tiny wines as I could get my little hands on and found myself spending a pleasantly tipsy hour and a half queuing through immigration. I managed not to accidentally tick the ‘Yes’ box on the declaration asking if I had any ammunition or illegal drugs on me: a tip for any aspiring drug or arms smugglers (doutless the wiley people at Antigua’s Customs office catch hundereds of villains a year using this foolproof method of inquiry). I was united with Dad and Anna and we got a taxi back to the boat.
Now most of my knowledge of the Caribbean comes from ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise and poorly recollected memories of watching ‘Roots’ for Year 9 history lessons. Thusly I imagined a great sweeping archipelago of small idyllic islands inhabited by primitive but peaceful tribes slowly being exterminated through susceptibility to Western disease. I imagined great tall masted ships riding the trade winds, full of drunk people many of whom didn’t want to be there. Diverse and richly historied towns with names like Tortuga and English Harbour, where you could find every petty crook and criminal this side of Saigon. Sailors carrying guns to fend off pirates, navy types using words like ‘tosh’ to describe things like nonsense and of course lots and lots of rum. It was exactly as I had imagined.
The first of the so called leeward islands in my short tour was Antigua. It takes its name from the word ‘antique’ meaning ‘someone else’s old crap that you were gullible enough to buy’. Don’t be put off by the name, it’s actually alright, though like many developing economies it seems like a lot of people have been left out. Next to the relative affluence of the marina at Jolly Harbour, with its luxury yachts and well-heeled leisure class, the austerity of the surrounding villages is abrupt. It seems the Antiguan government has chosen to focus on attracting a smaller number of the exceptionally wealthy rather than the mere holidaying middleclasses. As such, there are almost no high-rise pack-em-in apartment complexes, but plenty of rustic looking thatched beachfront huts that can be yours for a mere $2000 US a night.
We began my stay with a sail out to ‘Great Bird Island’ about two miles off the coast of the Antiguan mainland. It’s totally uninhabited save for a mother and daughter who arrive each morning to sell fruit and beer to the occasional visitors. I am intrigued by how places get their names, but I also can’t really be bothered to find out. This leaves me with only pure fabrication to satiate my thirst for answers. I imagine Great Bird Island gets its name because it was once home to vast numbers of birds, millions I would suspect. Now however the name seems a little insincere. ‘Some Birds Occasionally Island’ would lack the draw for tourists though. We do spot a few birds, Frigatebirds, tropicbirds, a seahawk skims by briefly and a friendly turtle pops up for breath. According to a sign on the beach the BBC sponsors the island. It’s good to see our colonial influence is still strong. We hike up onto the whale-spine back of the island, facing out east across 3000 miles or so of unbroken Atlantic ocean and feeling the strength of the trade winds. I watch a Frigatebird balanced perfectly on the updraft where the wind hits the cliff. I watch it playing the air like a skilled pianist and I think a bit about evolution and how amazing it is and then I see that someone has dumped a load of old beer cans and taken a crap and I feel a bit sad.
We get a bit hemmed in at Bird Island due to the weather; entering and exiting the area requires navigating between dozens of coral reefs and atolls. With most of the chart data having been surveyed well over a hundered years ago using lead weighted lines by men with names like Forester and Barnaby who probably had scurvy, it becomes critically important to be able to see into the water. After a couple of false starts and an extra night there, we finally exit and head on to Falmouth Harbour.
Entering Falmouth Harbour we cut across some sort of mega-yacht race. 120 foot long pleasure palaces sizzle past. Crewed by dozens of smartly uniformed young shiny people scurrying about raising sails and pulling halliards by day and raising champagne and pulling each other by night. Falmouth Harbour is the first port of call for many boats coming from Europe and seems to attract the most outrageously ostentatious yachts in the world. These are the kinds of yachts that have smaller yachts inside and room for helicopters to land and have sauna rooms and swimming pools and gyms inside. Their owners, inbetween the hard work of gagging down pound upon pound of air freighted fresh caviar flown in by private jet, like to go diamond shopping and invent and then participate in sports that get them ‘back in touch with nature’. Examples include paddling around on long boards like Hawaiean fishermen and using water powered jet packs so they can feel like Bond villains. In short they’ve managed to design lifestyles that cannot be satirized because they’re just too absurd already.
It’s to the point where if you found out some of the local volcanoes had been hollowed out to make room for a super laser so they could evaporate the moon to celebrate one of their childrens ‘sweet-sixteens’ your brain would probably just go ‘yeah, that sounds about right’.
I’m being a bit unfair, undoubtedly the leisured classes create jobs and return much of their wealth to the economies of places. Without them we couldn’t have jobs like ‘dog massage therapist’ or ‘food-wine matcher’ or people who pretend to be celebrities at parties. And what would we do with all the vol-aux-vins?
At this point you’re probably thinking I’m a bit down on the Caribbean, and in some respects you’re right. Fortunately the next port of call is Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe has remained a part of France and it seems to have had a significant impact. Independence sounds like a lovely romantic idea- relinquishing the shackles of imperialism and so forth, but the reality seems to be more complex. Without a doubt Guadeloupe has benefitted enormously from remaining a French department. We land in Deshaies on the north west of the island and are immediately struck by how civilised everything seems. The great municipal charm of France is alive and well- Boule courts and a public library, a clean little school, a relative absence of obvious christianity and even a Spar! There is Heineken and proper cheese and the old women have that shrivelled walnutty sort of beauty that comes from an elegant refusal to relinquish their youth and get fat. The postcards have plenty of nudity but it’s in a sort of rennaisance-sideboob tasteful way. They drive on the right and smoke like it’s going out of fashion (which it is). There seems to be far less of the extreme wealth divide of Antigua and you could well be in a little town in Southern France.
On the second day, I visit the amazing Jardin Boutanique a twenty minute walk up a nearby hill. Speaking no french I quickly realise I have failed to note the correct direction to walk around the gardens, but press on inspite. Vive le contraflow! There are preserved an amazing array of flora and fauna from throughout the tropics. From enormous cacti and the almost artificial looking travellers palm with its perfectly symmetrical fronds to several species of hummingbird that zip around precisely on their nectar vectors. There is a small aviary where you can watch people feeding Parakeets and getting shat on. They provide you with an I-pad that gives you a virtual tour, but I accidentally hibernate mine, try a few different pin numbers and get locked out. I spend much of my time sitting and watching people; young lovers pretending to have an interest in botany and old lovers pretending to still have an interest in each other. A coach load of wrinklies appears and off they totter. Everyone has to have a picture under the boughs of a magnificent Banyan tree that looks out across the bay and I have a think about how many hundereds of thousands of the same photo there are. A different smiling face under the gentle shadow of that big old celebritree. I get that funny warm feeling about how we’re all just swanning about doing a bunch of stuff until we die. Which is nice.
To be honest the best part of this trip for me has been the chance to just spend time with my Dad, we don’t see much of each other these days, but I think we get on better than ever. No pressure to talk but the conversation spins out into the evenings easily enough. During the days there’s a quiet uncluttered sort of busyness. Constant checks, little repairs here and there, returning things to their place. Making ready to sail, not to mention the sailing itself. There are the little dramas that add some spice- a snarled anchor or a moderate gale. Little puzzles to be solved and a general sort of confidence that comes from being self reliant. I think he’s really onto something with this trip. Once you realise you just can’t even begin to visit everywhere in a human life, you become more peaceful about the whole thing and let go of always wanting to be somewhere else.
(Johnny left from St Lucia yesterday, Anna having left a week earlier. With time running out before his flight home, we’d had a 24-hour sail south from Les Saintes – an invigourating/tiring trip with winds between islands of over 30 knots, and all over the place downwind of Dominica and Martinique. I’m in Rodney Bay marina, my first marina this side of the Atlantic – first shower too – but such places need a bigger budget than mine – and different temperament too, so once Adrian arrives later today, we’ll be off.)