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Antigua 1By Mark Stevens


English Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda. 


Just before the weekly party at Shirley HeightsSunsail staffer Chris Donahue conducts our chart briefing inthe cockpit of our chartered Jeanneau 41, lashed stern-to on a cobblestone pier where two Royal Navy officers once fought a fatal duel, hard by Sunsail’s base office housed in a stone building, circa 1795.

Briefing done, we can dance the night away high above the Caribbean Sea, nosh on the world’s best jerk chicken and imbibe all the rum punch we want and still get up next morning to cast off, to make for the open waters awaiting just outside English Harbour.

Antigua 4The sun’s barely cleared the cactus-studded slopes of Shirley Heights when we start the engine and let go the lines.It gilds the waters in gold as we maneuver “Blue Voyage” into the bay, steering around other boats, some anchored, some on mooring balls. It pinpoints the cedar shake roof of the Galley Bar, a popular local watering hole, like a theatre spotlight.

We clear the harbour opening, gliding past an eighteenth-century fort to our starboard, the ramparts of a Royal Army base frowning down from a hundred metres to our port side and now the sun sparkles on whitecaps racing for our transom, indigo waters a vivid contrast to emerald hills strollingacross Antigua’s south coast. We steer a westerly course, trimming for a broad reach, cutting inside Cades Reef, passing an elegant beach resort we’ll visit later in the week, rounding a tiny island and cutting in off Turner’s Beach, snow-white sand and the best conch fritters on Antigua, green hills off the starboard beam.

Antigua 7Now we trim sails, slicing flat heaven-painted waters dead ahead with nary another boat, nary any hazard or impediment to our north-pointing passage (though Sunsail staffer Chris Donahue’s pointed out a couple of spots on this coast where we have to be careful), winds roaring down mountain slopes and rushing for our sails like friendly dogs.

It’s winter back home in Canada. Not here.

In his Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands Chris Doyle suggests that Antigua and her shy sister Barbuda boast a greater scope and variety of anchorages than any other Leeward Islands destination.

He’s not wrong, I think, but he might be missing the point. It’s all about the sailing.

It’s thirty degrees Celsius, the winds are steady at fifteen knots and we’re breaking eight once we set the sails for a beam reach.

A beam reach for paradise.

Antigua 2I let mythoughts wander as “Blue Voyage” races north. I further reflect on Doyle and this whole question.

Anchorages or passages?

We pass Ffryes Beach and Jolly Beach, glowing sand fronting neon waters. We safely skirt Ffryes Shoal.

It’s getting downright metaphysical, this issue: ying and yang.

Then we drop sails and pull into Deep Bay for the night. Wavelets nuzzle the boat as the sun nose-dives toward the horizon like a hungry pelican, setting the skies on fire, a spectacle we watch from the cockpit, nursing cocktails made from English Harbour Rum.

Next day we dinghy ashore to a beach withsand like brown sugar, rainbow-dyed wraps flapping and flogging on a clothesline beside a vendor’s hut. A couple running an excursion tour for cruise passengers invites us to share in jerk chicken and rum punchthen wescramble up a trail through scrub forest, climbing to the heights where the ruins of Fort Barrington squat implacably, where – on this clear day – we can see forever, where we bond with sure-footed goats on the lips of precipitous cliffs, while turquoise waters nuzzle the rocks far below, morphing to teal farther out, cobalt in the farthest distance.

Antigua 3Maybe Doyle’s right, I think, there above Deep Bay: St. John’s reclines in the distance, the resorts of Dickenson Bay with their kaleidoscopebroken up by bursts of green foliage line the shore, the white triangle and characteristic red-wrapped forestay of another Sunsail boat makes for points north.

We weigh anchor and come out of the lee of Fort Barrington. White spindrift marbles the water in the opening off St. John’s like the fat in a prime steak, wind skipping across the water like a kid throwing stones, boat heeled, coursing forward in fifteen steady knots, eight knots VMG, happy as a filly on the first day of spring.

One point for “passages”.

Antigua 6Then we get to Great Bird Island. Another perfect sunset, a tall treed island in North Sound, night falling and Antigua’s distant lights shimmering, “Blue Voyage”rotating on the hook gentle as a maple key in a mud puddle. We share the anchorage with only one other boat.

As the sun dies in the west, toasted by that evening’s libation, my wife, Sharon and our friends, Ed and Kim North, seem to be leaning toward Doyle’s “anchorage theory.”

I’m ready to be convinced.For two days and nights we stay right here.

There is great snorkeling just off one tiny island lying south of Great Bird, a beach there that, once the daily cruise excursions leave, is populated by the four of us and a pleasant local lady selling souvenirs, hot dogs and cold Wadadli beers. When her husband picks her up in a big wooden outboard the island belongs to us.

Antigua 9

Next morning my wife and I hit the beach on the far side early. A weathered picnic table squatsbeside the water, the only sign of humanity we can see in any direction.Ed and Kim have commandeered the other side of the island.
At some point that afternoon, after dinghying out and doing some snorkeling, Ed and I head back to the south beach. Ed looks out at our Sunsail boat, he looks back at me.

“Might have to move,” he says solemnly.

“Why?” I say, wondering if we’re dragging, if he sees something I’m missing.

He takes a swallow of Wadadli and grins. “Way too beautiful here.”

So maybe Doyle’s right.

Antigua 8Next day we head west through Boon Passage. We catch a mooring ball in Jolly Harbour, do dinner ashore, stock up on provisions at an air-conditioned supermarket.Tomorrow we’ll drop the hook off Carlisle Bay Resort with its rainforest backdrop and snorkel off a rocky beach at the base of a towering cliff. The day after that we do lunch in a quirky purple beachside called “Bumpkins” before that last close reach romp back into English Harbour.

But right now we’ve got following seas. Rolling waves that rush under the transom of “Blue Voyage”, sending her forward, on a broad reach, cavorting overthe blue waters of Boon Passage like a teenaged dolphin.

Now we clear St. John’s harbour, now we turn south, winds race toward our beam from the slopes of those omnipresent green hills, promontories a procession of nobles marching into the distance, turning blue-green, grey like campfire smoke.

And now we have flat waters and fifteen knots steady.

I yell to Ed, who’s trimming sheets, who’s enjoying both the views and the romp.

Doyle (and Sunsail staffer, Chris Donahue, for that matter) knows a lot about the appeals of Antigua and Barbuda, I’ll give him that. So maybe it’s a tie.

Or maybe not.

“Trim for a beam reach,” I yell over the hum of the wind in the rigging.I pause for dramatic effect.

“A beam reach for paradise!”

 

 

FLOAT PLAN

• Sunsail maintains a fleet of monohulls from 41’ to 51’ as well as Sunsail 444 catamarans out of their Antigua base in Nelson’s Dockyard – perfect spot to explore and hang out at the beginning or end of your charter. Options range from bareboat to skippered to partly skippered – book a captain for a day or two until you’ve got your sea legs. www.sunsail.com

• For more information on this little piece of paradise log on to www.visitantiguabarbuda.com.