Many sailors have said to us, ”When you get to Antigua – you must anchor in English Harbour”. We followed their advice and haven’t been disappointed – it is a “must” to visit this harbor and Nelson’s Dockyard Marina, now a historic maritime monument.
English Harbour’s history begins in 1671, when the harbor was already in use as a “hurricane hole”. The harbor is on the southern coast of Antigua in a narrow bay surrounded by mangrove. Ships could anchor here well-protected from the trade winds and should a hurricane come along, they could tie up to the mangroves, whose long and deep roots are capable of withstanding even a category 5 hurricane.
The actual building of this beautiful harbor began in 1745, when the English navy decided this little bay was ideal for a fortification and placed centrally in the Caribbean. Lying in the center of the eastern Caribbean where it could control the entire chain of islands – it became the British navy’s most important base. Besides being an ideal “hurricane hole”, it was easily fortified and defendable due to the narrow inlet that is surrounded by high cliffs. If by some chance enemy ships managed to get through Fort Berkeley’s cannon fire (Fort Berkeley is on the cliff above the inlet) then they were be caught by the thick chain the English stretched across the inlet. Once caught by the chain, the enemy ships were easily sunk by cannon fire or boarded and captured.
The “S” shape of the bay offered protection from enemy ships and hurricanes and the sand beaches allowed ships to be easily careened when their hulls needed cleaning or repairs. In those days there was no way to lift the ships as we do today, so the ship was careened. The ships was simply sailed as close into shore as possible where the water was shallow and by fastening thick hawsers to the opposite side of the ship and then around 3 capstans, it was possible to tilt the ship completely over, exposing one side of the bottom. Now that side could be cleaned and repaired. The ship was then turned and it was the same procedure on the other side. The picture below shows the capstans – these would be manned by 3 sailors to a bar and there are 12 bars on a capstan – so 36 men per capstan. The sailors would turn the capstan while a fiddler sat on the middle playing tune to inspire the men to greater efforts. In the meantime, the officers were quartered in the “Officers Quarters Building”. The men slept on the ground. I have to admit that it is easier to haul Capri and clean her bottom with a small sander – even though I cursed the work back when we did it in Copenhagen.
English Harbour also has the advantage that ships leaving it, caught the trade winds immediately – as soon as they cleared the inlet. The harbour and service buildings were finished 44 years later in 1789 and have been restored to their former glory. Today the buildings are used for sail lofts, marine stores, restaurants, hotels, cafes and a bakery. Many boats come here to anchor up or be taken on land during the hurricane season. Just as in Nelsons day, boats anchoring for hurricane protect sail carefully in as close as they can to the shore, put out 2 stern anchors and tie many lines from the bow to the mangroves. They also put out every fender they have just in case the neighboring boats should drag into them. We met two Danish boats that had been on land here at English Harbour during hurricane Irma without sustaining any damage – incredible!
The 19 of March we approach English Harbour at 7 a.m. after having sailed 93 nm from St. Bart. It was a quiet sail, no wind, 1 meter swell so we sailed the entire distance on the engine. This time I can enjoy the sail since I’m not seasick and don’t have a hangover (oh those painkillers!). I enjoy the quiet on the ocean the starry, starry sky so much that I give carsten 5.5 hours of sleep. Do I get a thank you for this? Uh no – the skipper is crabby because he hasn’t slept very well – the seabunk was too hot and he forgot he had installed a fan there just for this reason. He finally remembered after tossing and sweating for 4 hours. He did apologize to me later when I got up after 2 hours of sleep.
We pass under the guns of Fort Berkeley at the entrance to the bay and start hunting for a suitable place to drop the hook.
The bay itself is truly charming with the old marina and the restored buildings on one side and a tempting beach on the other.
But there are too many other boats. We sail through the anchorage several times looking for a spot and finally drop the hook in a tight spot where we think we can be without too many problems – but the neighboring boats tells us that it isn’t good. The shifting wind and turning tides will push us into the neighboring boats. I’m of the opinion that since he was here first, he knows best and we should respect his opinion – so we pulled up the hook and, with regret, realized that there was no space for us in English Harbour. But just around the point lies Falmouth Harbour. Both islets share the same narrow isthmus so the walk form the Falmouth dinghy dock to English harbor is only about 10 minutes. Falmouth is a much bigger bay and there is plenty of room for Capri here. There is also a breeze here and most important – no mosquitos. Falmouth has a good dinghy dock and lots of service possibilities, but is nowhere near as charming as English Harbour. Btu that isn’t a problem – our maxi-taxi’s (feet) need the exercise so we walk over to English Harbour.
It is Wednesday and we’ve rented a car to drive around the island. It happens to be election day on Antigua and the roadsides are plastered with election posters. The labour party apparently has lots more money than the other parties, since it is there posters that we see everywhere. But this also has a simple explanation. Labour has been in power for ages and when they decide to call an election, they send a huge order for election posters out to printing shops on the other islands. That way the opposition doesn’t get word that they are planning to call for an election. When the posters are finished being printed and the have arrived on Antigua, Labour calls for a snap election and starts putting up campaign posters. In the meantime, the opposition is scrambling around trying to get posters printed.
As our diving instructor noted dryly, “No surprises this around either”. Labour won quite handily. Driving around, we can see that the government hasn’t bankrupted the treasury on building or maintaining the roads, nor on setting up roadsigns. The roads are filled with enormous potholes and we can only hope that the shock absorbers can stand the constant pounding. We’re surprised that there isn’t more damage from Irma – especially because many of the houses are made of wood and poorly maintained. That also has an explanation. We’ve noted that many of the houses are built on stilts and we thought that that was because it was cheaper to build in stilts than to lay a foundation. But our diving instructor tells us that this is due to the hurricanes. “Antigua is the island in the Caribbean that gets hit by the most hurricanes, so we are used to them. As long as they are only cat 1 or 2, it is just a storm as far as we are concerned. Cat 3 or higher and we begin to get worried, board up the windows etc. The cat 1 and 2 hurricanes rarely damage our houses because we know how to build so the hurricane winds pass both above and below the house – that is the reason for the stilts.”
We start our car journey with a trip through Antigua’s rainforest, where we stop at Elina’s, who earns her living selling pineapples, marmalade, and juice in her little roadside kiosk in the middle of the rainforest. Her pineapples cost 5 dollars US which is much too expensive, so we buy some mango, pineapple and guava marmelades. Elinas 87 year old mother sits in the shade and follows our conversation and her good friend with dreadlocks in his beard sits and peels beans for dinner.
I ask Elina where the pineapple farm is because I’ve always wanted to see how these grow. Elina says, “Come with me and I’ll show you my pineapples.” She gives us the grand tour of her little farm, pineapples, mangos, avocados, guava, banana and plantain.
She tells us that it is 2 years ago that her husband died of lung cancer. She lives here with her mother whom she supports. Her son lives in the house next door and her daughter further away. I enjoy being invited in by the local population and getting a peek at how they live their daily lives. Elina ends the tour by giving us some freshly carved pineapple “on the house”.
Elina tells us that we should go up the road next to her house and take the trail up the mountain for a fantastic view out over the rainforest, which we do.
After the rainforest, we drive further north on the island to St. John, Antigua’s Capital, where we see 2 giant cruise ships lying in the harbor. The cruise guest fill the streets, especially Market Street in downtown St. John. There are, though, a number of the locals also shopping in the stalls, so apparently it isn’t a pure tourist trap.
Most of the houses we have seen so far are simple wooden houses, poorly maintained. The few well-maintained houses are painted in the beautiful Caribbean colors. Antigua is a true tourist destination and the islands is visited by many cruising sailors and cruise ships. This normally means that a lot of money is poured into the local economy. The weather here is wonderful, of course, but still we find most of the housing to be poor. Tourism should be creating lots of jobs and thereby raising the living standard of the population, as for example has happened on Bequia. Troels Kloevedal, the Danish sailor and writer and a strong opinion about this, as he notes in his book “all my mornings”.
“I’ve never enjoyed the Caribbean because there lies a blanket of oppression over the islands. For one thing, the Caribbean is one long bar. There are lots of tourists, but the locals gain nothing from it. You can barely see the islands because of the cruise ships lying at anchor outside the capitals. You can already buy anything you desire on board – so why spend any money on land, except perhaps to by an ice cream cone? The many luxury resorts are closed to ordinary people and owned by foreign equity funds that don’t do anything for the local economy. All the money is taken out of the islands and the only things left for the locals is a job as chambermaid, waiter, bartender or driver. The population is deeply dissatisfied with the direction the islands are developing in and the slave history is just under the surface.”
Later in the day and further north of St. John, we pass a enclave of expensive villas. And I agree with you here, Troels, in these villas, the only locals are the chambermaids and the gardeners. But these are still jobs and these jobs wouldn’t have existed if the equity funds or private investors hadn’t brought investment to the island. These investments are necessary to entice the tourists to come visit. On Antigua, just like the rest of the Caribbean islands, tourism is the number 1 contributor to the GNP.
The massive devastation caused by Irma has threatened the stream of tourists because it is not possible to continue the high standard of service demanded by the tourists. The islands are in desperate need of a capital injection so they can rebuild and regain the lost tourism. On most of the islands, it isn’t the local government that is doing anything and certainly the Brits, Dutch and French governments haven’t opened their purse strings. Perhaps, Troels, those equity funds and other foreign investors are the answer and should be welcomed.
The gods of weather not only decide when we can sail, they also decide when we can visit the volcano islands that are here. When we sailed from St. Marteen, I really wanted to visit Saba. It is known for its beautiful nature and landscapes. It is also one of the more secluded islands, because it is difficult to approach or anchor there. We couldn’t do it either because the winds were in the north northeast and so were the swells. That combination made it uncomfortable, if not to dangerous, to anchor up on the coast of Saba. The waters there are 40 meters deeps and you have to lie on a mooring buoy – but it would have been “rock and roll” all day and night and it would have been difficult to launch or land the dinghy.
As we leave Antigua, the weather gods decide not to smile on us again. We were hoping to visit Monserrat, only 25 nm from here and the only active volcano in the Caribbean, but again we are foiled by winds from the north and 2 meter high swells – so anchoring there is again difficult and getting to shore well-nigh impossible. From our anchorage on Antigua we can see the smoke coming from the volcanos cone. As it runs down the sides of the mountain it looks like a glacier. The last time it erupted was in 2010 and we were hoping to see Monserrat’s ”Pompei”, the major town on the islands was buried in ash and lava in 2010. Shit. But we have to sail onwards and we can’t wait for better weather to see the islands.
We have discussed to no end if we should sail the 60nm out to Barbuda, that became world famous when it was totally evacuated during hurricane Irma. The hurricane destroyed everything on the islands and it is now a deserted island. You are allowed to sail out to the island and can go ashore, but you are not allowed to wander around the island, because the authorities do not want people looting or gathering souvenirs. Barbuda was known for its colony of Frigate birds, the largest colony in the world with about 600 couples. Apparently there are only about half left, but these birds usually survive hurricanes as they can remain in the air “forever”. Everyone is hoping they sought refuge on nearby islands and will return. We have seen several of these birds high above Capri with their 6 foot wingspans – Marvelous. Mating time for these birds is August- September when the males puff up their red throats to attract the females. We will be in the Pacific so perhaps we’ll see this out there.
Only 5 nm outside of our bay there are many hump-backed whales at the moment. One of our neighboring boats, a Danish boat, got the surprise of their lives when they went fishing. They were reeling in their catch when a hump-back whale surfaced with a jump only 80 meters from their boat. Fascinating sight – but no without danger. The skipper was shocked. None of the crew managed to take a picture. We certainly want to see some of these huge whales when we sail tomorrow, but preferably at a distance.
At the moment we are waiting for our propane bottles to be filled and the weather to open so we can sail onto Panama. That trip will take a week or so and we intend to stay far away from Venezuela, because of pirates, and far off the infamous isthmus between Venezuela and Columbia, known for its extremely heavy seas and unpredictable winds. But sailing to Colon, we’ll visit the San Blas islands and meet the Kuna Indians. We expect to transit the canal sometime in the beginning of May.
I’m working on a new master sailing plan for Capri and should be finished soon.
Right now I sitting in Capri’s cockpit with a glass of cool white wine enjoying my last sundown on Antigua. Eric Clapton is playing quietly on our stereo. I wonder if he is home in his mansion on the hill above English Harbour and enjoying a “sundowner” on his terrace?