Pirates of the Caribbean – St Lucia to Panama
Well, here we are – about half way home. It’s a real milestone for us and I’m leaving the Caribbean, and the first half of our adventure, with mixed feelings. We’ve now sailed nearly 9000 nautical miles (around 16,000km) and I have feelings of nostalgia, some sadness that we are leaving this part of the world, excitement for where we are heading, and also, a sense of achievement. That early route map I did when we randomly decided to sail from Finland to New Zealand is starting to feel pretty real!
On reflection, when we picked Our beautiful Swan 54, Coco, up in Jakobstad Finland last September to start this adventure, I thought I knew enough about sailing to get by. Now that we’ve been sailing for 6 months; sure I feel more confident, I’ve gotten to know the yacht really well and the two of us are pretty comfortable sailing her by ourselves. It’s been a challenge and a massive learning curve to get to this point. But the real arse about getting to this place in my sailing journey, is that all I’ve really learnt, is that I simply don’t know enough! I’m okay with this – it’s a good realisation. I think it’s important to be humble when it comes to the ocean, and to treat that big blue mass of water with incredible respect.
So how has the Caribbean been for us? A bloody awesome part of our adventure! We went into this leg without any real expectations. You need to understand that living in New Zealand, we don’t really give the Caribbean a second thought. It’s just a difficult place for us to get to; and we have amazing islands in the South Pacific. So we, unlike our fellow northern hemisphere planet dweller’s, don’t actually give the Caribbean the time of day. So going there, sailing an unknown area, without knowing what to expect, was fantastic. And we were pleasantly surprised! Our trip planning was epic – look on the chart in the morning and with surprise “oh is that where blar blar island is, let’s go there”. Terribly unstructured I know, but the wind was always good, the sailing was epic so what could possibly go wrong!
The difference we found in the Caribbean that really made this part of the world stand out for us was the people. Many of them have been through a lot (like hurricane Irma – devastating), many of them don’t have much; they don’t own alot – but they were warm, welcoming, sharing and accepting. And they have music, its everywhere – it’s part of their life. And that sound, mixed with their laughter and smiles, will stay with us forever. Sure, there are places that are little dangerous; but when people have nothing that happens. No country is immune from this. However – the people of the Caribbean are so relaxed, they are open to other cultures and religions, they welcome others to visit or live in their part of the world. They are proud, happy, and they will always give you the time of day. There are many countries in the world that could learn from them – my own one included.
This update is a summary of the last few months wandering aimlessly around these beautiful islands, meeting great people (pretending I’m Rasta, bro), and the interests of full disclosure, the only reason I really came to the Caribbean was to immerse myself in a quest to find the best rum punch in the world! So rather than use a lot of words, I’m going to let my photos do the talking. First though, here’s a map of our travels through the Caribbean for all those from the bottom half of the world who don’t know where places like Cariacou, Bequia, Dominica or Saba actually are…
First Stop – St Lucia
After crossing the finish line for the ARC at 07:50 hrs on December 18, completing our Atlantic crossing in 18 days, the first thing that was handed to me just as we berthed at Rodney Bay Marina, was my very first ever Caribbean rum punch. I was in love. The rum punch became a bit of a project for me, and on that particular day, it steadied my wobbly sea legs unaccustomed to a steady surface after weeks at sea.
This was our first real taste of the Caribbean, and a change of gears for us. Our crew who had helped us get Coco from Finland and across the Atlantic, left us and we were alone with our beautiful yacht. It was a little daunting – but it was time. We needed to own this journey.
From Rodney Bay we headed south towards The Grenadines, stopping at Soufriere on the way down the coast of St Lucia. Soufriere is an awesome town – very local and colourful, a warm welcome and great moorings. We hired a guide and climbed the Petite Piton. A climb is an understatement – Jesus, we were pulling ourselves up rock faces with ropes to make the top! Worth it though, the view was stunning. This mountain is so significant, they named a beer after it. If only I could achieve that level of recognition in my own life…
St Vincent & The Grenadines
The next Island south; St Vincent and we stopped for the night at Wallilabou Bay. St Vincent is a little rough around the edges in some places and Wallilabou Bay does have a somewhat tarnished reputation – a year or so ago a yacht was boarded in the night by some local thugs and unfortunately a sailor lost his life. The locals have been working hard to clean the place up, so it appears to be more settled now. We met Tony, the local pirate who runs a beach-bar (it’s pretty basic but very cool) and he grows all his own food (and his own tobacco) and unquestionably, makes the best rum punch in St Vincent!
Bequia was the next island south where we spent a few days at Admiralty Bay. Admiralty Bay is well set up for yachts with great little bars and restaurants scattered around the bay and good supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables. We’ve fallen in love with the local avocados and the sweet potatoes. The Whale Boner Café was a highlight (great rum punch – what a surprise), we had 3 very nice dives with Dive Bequia and generally rate this place!
Oh Mustique – what a wee jewel in the crown you are. But I need to be clear – this is not your typical Caribbean Island. It’s mostly owned (privately) by the rich and famous so much of the islands is off limits. But it brings good money for the locals so the standard of living was relatively high. Not really our cup-of-tea in terms of a genuine experience, but there was one thing that made this island stand out – Basil’s Bar. This has to truly be on of the best beach / over water bars I’ve ever seen. Jimmie the bar guy made epic punch. The local beer form 32 Islands Brewery was excellent and Mc Jagger was a regular at the bar. What more can I say? (He didn’t recognise me, how rude)
Next hop south was to Canouan and Glossy Bay Marina. It was a pretty flash marina with great facilities but nearly empty. I’m not sure if it’s a rich guys personal project or they are money laundering. Either could be possible.
We hired a 4WD wagon and did a tour of the island. We felt like the locals had been given a raw deal. Two thirds of the island had been gated off for a couple of fancy pants resorts that were supposedly going to bring work and money to the island. We didn’t see the upside for the locals, I mean really – they had a small village in the middle of the island with shit roads and bad housing. However, we did seen more private jets flying in and out of this place than Aspen has on a busy day in the winter. Greedy fucking property developers (more on this later).
Mayreau – awesome. We picked up a mooring in Salt Whistle Bay. While it was packed with yachties, the bay was a pretty beautiful bay. White sand beaches all around with cool local beach bars (in the sand) selling BBQ grilled lobster, and whaddayaknow, great rum punch!
On our way down to Carriacou we went through the Tobago Cays to have a look. This place is pretty famous – beautiful little islands with your quintessential palms trees and white sand. But man, it was crowded – and blowing 25 kts NE with little shelter so bailed out and sailed to Carriacou. After picking up a mooring at Tyrrel Bay, we grabbed a local dude to drive us around the island. Very local, genuine and great people. We spent some time on Sandy Island (small sandbank just off the coast) and then on to one of the local rum bars. PJ’s is the smallest, and one of the oldest, rum bars on the island; right by the beach serving a local rum called Jack Iron with his own special punch blend. The Jack Iron was 70% alc – yes that’s a rum punch. His other speciality was fried chicken strips – I think he kept them fresh in the yard behind the bar waiting for the next order… The diving in this area is pretty special so we finished the year off with two amazing dives at a world famous site called the sisters – beautiful.
Alas but it was time to start heading north out of the Grenadines so we up anchored and headed for Martinique. The sailing north was perfect for us. The wind was always from the NE at 15 – 25 kts which Coco loves so we flew along, never really falling below 9 kts SOG. Beautiful.
Arriving at the gorgeous little bay of Grande Anse late in the afternoon, we went to drop the anchor and nothing. Dead as a dead thing. The windlass failed – no anchor – shit. We were lucky, we managed to get a berth just before dark at a marina in Rade De Fort de France (not easy late in the day and our French is bloody rusty). I managed to track down a local guy who was a windless specialist to fix it the following day while we had a look around. The leak we had in the forepeak locker was the culprit. The inside of the electric motor was completely rusted. He managed to get it working just enough to last us until Antigua where we eventually had it replaced. This was our first real taste of the French owned Caribbean Islands. Interesting.
Dominica & Guadeloupe
Hello Dominica! This was on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Our first stop was at Roseau (the main town) to check in. A bit of a whoops here with a wee immigration issue, I seem to have lost the check-out papers from St Lucia, and no check-in at Martinique because of the issue with the windlass (we never had a chance to do customs and immigration formalities). However after a fair bit of groveling and 3 visits later, we managed to get the appropriate paperwork. Good lesson learnt! (do the bloody paperwork Alex…).
In Roseau we discovered the local “bush rum”. It’s a locally brewed rum (freaking rocket fuel really) and they then infuse it with local herbs and spices. It’s bloody strong and quite interesting! And yes, they do one with hooch. Did I try it? Well… I”l take the 5th on that one.
We had an amazing day hiking up into the mountains near Roseau to the boiling lake – a volcanic vent that I’m sure you could cook up a feast in. The forest was still showing some hurricane damage and slowly recovering. The local rum bars in town (yes, serving said bush rum) were very local, great food and great fun.
The Dominicans are awesome people and very welcoming, but still suffering from a slow rebuild after Hurricane Irma. Some of the stories were horrific – like the guy being chased down the road in the middle of the night by a flying 40-foot container. They are recovering, slowly. From Roseau we headed to the north of the island to Prince Rupert Bay – a really chilled spot (liming as the locals call it). A quick trip in a small boat up Indian River to a rum bar hidden in the jungle (awesome punch – you’re surprised I know) and a really nice dive where I spotted my first ever frog fish! We fell in love with Dominica and her people.
On our sail north to Antigua we stopped in at Guadeloupe at Cousteau Reserve on Pigeon Island. Jacques Cousteau filmed a doco here many years ago and named it one of the top diving sites in the world so its been protected for years and the diving is beautiful. We spent the afternoon mooching around under the water and loved it. Well worth a stop if you and coming through.
Antigua & Barbuda
Our primary reason for stopping in Antigua was to give Coco some love after 6 months and 8000nm at sea. We booked in with Stan & his team at Antigua Rigging. The rig was tuned, all the sheets and halyards upgraded and strengthened, sail testing, service for the genset & main engine, windlass replaced, hull cleaned etc etc etc. Four weeks later we finally managed to set sail again! We can’t thank the guys at Antigua Rigging enough. They were awesome. Stan’s words “chaff and slap are your enemy’s” will stay with me forever. Thanks guys.
Next stop Barbuda – also on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Awesome, undeveloped, real, fantastic people, the most amazing beaches ever. But sad – the devastation from Hurricane Irma was incredible. The 285km/h winds hit this place like bomb and everyone was evacuated to Antigua. Life is slowly returning to normal although more than half the houses are still uninhabitable, – and the island has an eerie feel about it.
However, life goes with cool local street-side bars, we watched the local triathlon with beach BBQ’s serving lobster and fried jerk pork, and its home to the world’s largest Frigate Bird sanctuary (quite the attraction I can assure you!). We had lunch at a beautiful Robinson Crusoe eco resort called Barbuda Belle that is well worth a visit (only accessible by boat).
Cocoa Point was the highlight. The most amazing anchorage with beautiful white sand beaches and its remote. Wow is all I can say. Go here, its so worth it. We were blown away. Now I don’t want to delve too much into local politics, but there are some things going on in Barbuda that just aren’t cool. Firstly – Barbuda is governed by Antigua but they have their own local council of elders. Barbuda has no land ownership – it’s all community based, and they are very proud and fiercely protective of this. Enter the property developer who has somehow cut a deal with the Antiguan government to build a massive resort and golf course at Coco Point (without a doubt, the most beautiful part of the island).
Said property developer is selling the resort sections for up to US$10m each to the rich and famous. They have sales events where they fly prospective buyers in from around the world and party with them for 3 days. They have also made the entire beach above the high tide mark private – fundamentally closing the beach to the public. It’s important to understand that buying land in Barbuda is impossible because its owned by the community and you can only lease it at best. You get the picture. Greed, corruption and fucking property developers. Enough said.
Nevis, Saba & St Martin
Nevis – again on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Cool island, the best beach bars, really welcoming and relaxed locals. A few too many English seem to have made Nevis their home but I can see why! We were sitting next to John Cleese at the Sunshine Bar (larger than life in his old age, literally!) while testing the rum punch and their other rum based drink invention, the “Killer Bee”. I don’t think that requires any further explanation.
On the sail across from Barbuda to Nevis we saw 3 pods of whales – they migrate south down the coast of the island. We hired scooters and did a circuit of the island for the day (after obtaining our drivers licenses for Nevis – will be very useful to me in the future I’m sure….). Inland there is lush tropical forest, lovely beaches fringe the island. The main town, Charlestown, was quaint and they have persevered the history well. I could easily spend some time here.
The Dutch owned island of Saba was only a few hours sail north. Renowned for its diving and incredibly clear water the island isn’t that big and rises straight up from the Caribbean Sea 870 metres to the top of Mt Scenery where the lush jungle clads the rocky mountain. Stunning views from the top. Our anchorage at Wells Bay below the cliffs was beautiful. We loved the name of the town at the south of the island – simply called “The Bottom”. Love it. We had three epic dives and really enjoyed our time here.
By this stage in our trip we’ve realized that the islands we like the most, are the ones that are less developed and more real, not owned by the French, and aren’t crowed with other yachts. So a stop in St Martin wasn’t at the top of our priority list however the watermaker has packed up again! After two days stuck in the Simpson Bay Marina we discover that the main membrane is buggered. As it turns out while we were in Antigua, we’ve managed to suck oil into it and yes, its trashed (damn the environmental thief who dumped oil in the bay at Falmouth Harbour). Parts ordered to be shipped to Panama, we are now on water rationing for our 1000nm sail from the BVI’s to Panama! We spent the last night on the French side of the Island anchored off Friars Bay. An interesting spot because of the huge Iguana population, and the cute little French restaurant on the beach (no rum punch – seriously, the French have no class).
British Virgin Islands
Leaving St Martin at 5am for the 80nm sail to the BVI’s, we expected an awesome downwind sail. Nothing, nada, no wind and 33 degrees c. So we motored all the way. A hot day! Our first stop was Virgin Gorda and we found a nice anchorage at Long Bay just north of Spanish Town. We had really high expectations of the BVI’s having heard wonderful things about the cruising here. So with great excitement, the next morning we sailed down to Spanish Town to clear customs and immigration. A little disjointed but success in the end. The big deal on Virgin Gorda is “The Baths”. A collection of large boulders forming some natural salt water swimming pools. Sounded pretty cool – except for the 100 odd yachts, the bus loads of tourists, and the tacky gift shop and restaurant. Hmmmm… So that was the start of our disappointment.
The BVI’s are full of charter cats that rush off their moorings early every morning to ensure they are first at the next place; racing through the anchorage at full speed to pick up a buoy. They were dangerous! We became very sick of their behaviour and avoided them where possible. So we spent a few days around Tortola at Cane Garden Bay, Jost Van Dyke, at Great Harbour (great local bars), and finally Norman Island at Soldier Bay, which to be fair was a bit more remote and not crowded – refreshing change! So overall, I think if you were in the BVI’s when it was a bit quieter it would be okay – but there are other islands that are more beautiful and down to earth – and less idiots on chartered catamarans.
The San Blas Islands – Panama
It took us 6 days to sail the 1000nm from the BVI’s to the San Blas Islands in Panama. It was a reasonably straight forward sail, the last few days we had a big swell building behind us and 25kts plus of wind. We stayed at least 100nm off the coast of Venezuela to avoid the political turmoil there and the drug runners from Columbia…. This was our first big solo ocean sail so while we set off a little nervous, we settled in pretty quickly and really enjoyed our time alone in the middle of the ocean.
Arriving in the San Blas Islands blew our minds. We arrived at the Coco Bandero Cay mid afternoon with eyes wide and jaws dropping. Just downright beautiful. Hundreds of small unpopulated palm tree covered, white sand fringed islands with only a handful of yachts. The local Guna Indians still paddle around in dugout canoes fishing by hand and are very protective of their environment. They are friendly and welcoming – and willing to share their beautiful part of the world. My admiration of them only got stronger when I found out they had banned charter yachts from their Islands!
We were lucky enough to meet a local guy called “Nester” and he took us to his village in his dugout canoe where we spent the afternoon having a couple of beers with him, we met his family, then he took us for a sailing lesson in his canoe. This dude had won the village sailing comp for the last 5 years in a row so he was a damn fine mariner! I’ve uploaded a wee vid of his sailing to YouTube
Our time in San Blas was too short – from here we sailed up to Colon (with an overnight stop in Puerto Bello) to Shelter Bay on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal to get Coco ready for the transit through the canal. So did I find the best rum punch in the world? I think that’s a work in progress… I’ll keep you updated!