Sometime before dawn this morning a snare drum roll of rain beat out a tattoo on the coach roof of our Gibsea 42′, chartered from Sunsail in Sint Maarten. Thunder growled through the night. Rain cascaded from black cumulus clouds swirling over a cacti-studded ridge. A medley of line squalls passed overhead, each ending as soon as it began.
But now, shortly after dawn, the clouds and the rain have passed in brisk easterlies and the sun has begun to peek over the bluffs that shelter Road Bay, an anchorage we share with a few other boats: an old tanker, two or three mega yachts, and four or five other charter sailboats.
Now the waves whisper against the hull, now the boat rocks gently. I pour my first coffee of the day and go topside to inspect the wonder of a place that Chris Doyle, in his Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands, called “one of the most pleasant anchorages in the northern Leewards”.
We are anchored at Anguilla.
Once topside, sipping my coffee in the cockpit, basting in the sun sparkling across turquoise wavelets, I find myself agreeing with Doyle in no uncertain terms.
Palmettos and palms shelter a crescent beach of brown sugar sand. A little white beach house with a red roof huddles at the foot of cliffs etched by wind and waves, decorated by scrub and cactus. The cliffs themselves are two hundred feet high but they seem higher from our perspective at sea level. Just past this little cottage a rusted tanker has washed up onshore. Further west are gorgeous little beaches you can only get to by water, lapped by gentle waves.
My only company is a pelican who soars and wheels in front of the cliffs. Every once in a while he plummets to the water with a giant splash and emerges, grinning, with a fish in his bill. He is fine company indeed.
A neighbouring boat weighs anchor and heads for points west, clearing Sand Island. An elderly woman appears on the beach, striding back and forth from end to end, stopping every once in a while to stretch. A dog barks. A rooster crows. Then a whole congregation of fowl joins in.
And the sun grows higher in the sky, shimmering and undulating and reflected on sapphire waves. Prickly Pear Cays and Dog Island laze off in the distance, soft green humps on the horizon.
For a while I consider doing something about breakfast, for a while I think about maybe tidying topside. Instead I go for a second coffee and take in the charms of Road Bay.
The motto of this island nation is “Feeling is Believing.” Right now I’m feeling pretty fine indeed–if not downright soporific.
And proud of the perspicacity of my float plan.
Having cleared an ominous white line of surf guarding the eastern reaches of Sint Maarten mid-morning yesterday, we were faced with a decision.
A surreal formation of rocks gouging the southern horizon tried to convince us to head for Philipsburg and its shopping, casinos and nightlife. A misty blue veiled voluptuary – St. Barth’s – beckoned in the east.
But we were going to anchor in Anguilla.
And the elements rewarded us in no uncertain terms.
“Winds are forecast twenty to twenty-five knots for the next few days,” says Sebastian, our Sunsail chart briefer. “Northeast blow.”
We’ve shipped experienced cruisers Jerry and Clare Gorman for this trip, and their expertise and the extra hands prove their worth almost immediately. The course up Sint Maarten’s east coast is challenging. Stark but beautiful hills form a lee shore. Ten-foot beam waves conspire to ground us on shoals that lurk outside deceptively pretty white beaches.
Clearing St. Martin and cutting inside of Tintamarre, we have to decide whether to circumnavigate Anguilla by passing between the islands’s northeast tip and Scrub Island or whether to pick up the considerable winds on a broad reach and surf the waves west through the Anguilla Passage.
Jerry and I peruse the charts, Doyle and the conditions. “It’s a really neat little channel but it can be tricky,” he says. He and Clare came through this channel last time they sailed here. “Actually saw a few porpoises coming through, which was kind of neat.” Then he taps the chart on the table and shakes his head. “But there are plenty of shoals out there too.”
When I notice one name attached to Scrub Island–“Deadman’s Cay”–I make my decision, instructing my wife Sharon to turn the boat hard to port even as Gerry and I ease the sheets for a broad reach.
The boat is as happy with our decision as the crew.
We surf on big but friendly waves through a gorgeous aquamarine passage, whitecaps dancing on waves that send the boat prancing west like a yearling in April, past the red roofs of Grand Case, past the green mountains and multi-coloured shops at Marigot, beneath the shadow of an old French fort perched atop a cliff.
Two gybes and we round a tiny island called Anguillita and head northeast.
Now the waves explode over the bow, sending white spray over the bimini, now a procession of orange cliffs glides past our starboard beam, sheltering beautiful little beaches with sand as white as sugar but as fine as talcum powder, all beside alabaster resorts topped by gleaming domes, villas and resorts sporting terracotta tile roofs. Meanwhile, off the port beam, mega yachts share these waters, a steady stately stream of wealth and elegance. We are traversing the nautical equivalent of Rodeo Drive.
Once at anchor in Road Bay we become the latest wave of invaders, joining the likes of Captain Kidd who made landfall here because he was convinced there was buried treasure here, of French attackers during the seventeenth century, of a St. Kitt’s police force who were determined to put these upstarts in their place, of a battalion of British soldiers who launched one ill-advised attack because they’d heard that Mafia had taken over the island, of a bevy of movie stars and celebrities that reads like the guest list at the Oscars.
Once ashore we understand the appeal. According to Doyle Anguilla “has a wonderful sense of peace and the people are outstandingly friendly and honest.” Anguilla also boasts enough great restaurants that you could go ashore here for a week and never once fire up the Force 10.
Dinner that first night takes place along a narrow isthmus called Sandy Ground. The beach marks one border while a salt pond, home to an impressive collection of egrets, marks the other side of this spit.
In the middle, in a charming little village, are a number of restaurants. We dinghy ashore and lash our steed to a dinghy dock beside a place called Johnno’s. Though it’s quiet tonight it has as reputation as one of the best reggae bars in this part of the Caribbean.
We stroll down the street and pull up at Barrel Stay on the Beach. Clare and Gerry have eaten here before and have fond memories – at one time this establishment was known for serving the best fish soup in the Caribbean.
It’s a pretty place right on the water – our table is on a little patio at the edge of the sand. Palmettos decorate the patio, great logs support cathedral ceilings where icicle lights dangle. “Uma Thurman was in this week,” confides our waitress.
We constantly find this blend of island friendliness and great cuisine wherever we go on Anguilla. Consider Scilly Cay, where a fellow named “Gorgeous” serves up downright fatal rum punches, grilled chicken and lobster and great stories. He takes us to the windward side of this tiny island and points at a helipad. “Lots of celebrities fly in from their mega yachts and do lunch,” he says. Then he grins at me and I realize why his name is “Gorgeous” though his words belie the smile. “Unfortunately if I tell you who, I will have to kill you.”
One aspect of local life that I find particularly endearing is the love of boating and sailing that is so ubiquitous here.
At Cove Beach, one of the few safe anchorages on the south side of the island, you can get spectacular views of St Martin’s mountains by day and a scintillating light show by night.
Late one afternoon we soak up some rays here and watch a couple of young Anguillan guys carrying perfect models of Anguillan race boats, sloop-rigged, full-keeled. These models are three or four feet long.
They set the sails on their respective vessels, launch them in the water and race along the beach in pursuit. The boats, heeled over and dancing across whitecaps, seem to be racing for St. Martin–and you wonder whether they’ll get them back. But each time the boats land safely inside the pier protecting this bay, two guys turn them around and point them for the beach yet again. On one leg of this rotating race the winds have pushed a bit harder and the additional leeway makes it seem like these boats aren’t going to stop until they make landfall at Marigot. These guys are roaring down the end of the pier. One dives into the water and starts swimming for his vessel.
Just then an old fisherman in an orange and green wooden boat kicks his sputtering engine into reverse and blocks the route of both boats. He lifts each one up, turns it so it heads back to shore, then waves.
It is a fabulous feeling to know that this is the sole item on your to-do list for the rest of the afternoon: watching two young Anguillans race their sloops in a twenty-five-knot breeze.
Feeling is believing.
“We raced models in the pond,” says Sir Emile Gumbs, a tall lean gentleman with wavy silver hair. He points from the balcony of his wooden plantation house to the salt pond that marks the other side of Sandy Ground. “That began my love affair with the sea.”
Sir Emile has won races on traditional Anguillan race boats countless times throughout the years, full keels boats that have booms “that are too long with sails cut too high,” he says with a chuckle. “But you manage to plod along.”
This passion for sailing would be the perfect metaphor for the island even if this gentleman were a mere fisherman.
But this kindred spirit who watches so wistfully as we board the dinghy and cast off from the dock at Road Bay was actually the chief minister for Anguilla for ten years.
Feeling is believing.
And a brisk ten-mile passage from Road Bay to Prickly Pear Cays has us feeling downright affectionate.
We drop the hook in a little cove on the south side of the more easterly of two little islands. Brown etched rock, coral and limestone, guards sapphire waters. Prickly pear cacti and patches of glowing white sand decorate this side of the island, while the other side is populated only by two little buildings that stand in as restaurants when the cruise ships come through, an alabaster arc free of footprints but for ours, hard by turquoise waters inside a reef that we share only with one cat, a powerboat, a whole congregation of parrotfish, and two or three manta rays Gerry and I discover when we go snorkeling.
But first we do lunch, the boat swinging lazily at hook.
Clare, the day’s designated galley crew, serves up smoked oysters and cheeses–provolone, boursa and Gouda. We sip a Bella Sera Merlot and soak up the rays of the sun.
The gentle sloping outline of Anguilla beckons from across aquamarine waters, the blue-smoke mountains of St. Martin hover like mirages.
“This is what it’s all about,” says Clare, refilling our crystal glasses in the cockpit of ‘Notos’. “How do you ever beat this?”
No one sees fit to answer – or maybe we just haven’t got around to it yet. For we are picnicking in paradise and feeling just fine.
For we are anchored at Anguilla.