Greetings from the Leeward Isles
31 May 2013 | Nevis
Greetings from the Leeward Islands,
We’re now about a month before Mary Ann comes out of the water for hurricane season when we’ll spend about four months doing land-based travelling in the American West. So far this season things have been more settled than last year. The strong northerly component of the trade winds didn’t turn the run north from Grenada into a bash. We spent a few weeks in the Grenadines but then rushed along to Dominica, the first island which was new to us both. From there we’ve spent several weeks in Guadeloupe, a French province. The Jacque Cousteau Marine Park had some of the best reef fish snorkeling we’ve seen and our dolphin experience in the north of Guadeloupe was an extraordinary treat. As citizens of the EU we perused the Guadeloupe estate agents (real estate offices) thinking maybe when we can’t sail the open seas that it would be a nice place to settle. Top notch health care and first world goods and services make the French Islands appealing. We were particularly enamoured with a quiet fishing village on the north coast of Guadeloupe. But we’re hoping not to give up the vagabond life for at least a decade.
Antigua has been a treat, its hard to believe that being posted here in Nelson’s time was considered major hardship (then again we aren’t expected to dress in heavy wool jackets with powdered wigs, etc.) We began our stint in Falmouth Harbour, adjacent to English Harbour, where Nelson was commander shortly before Trafalgar. It’s the only Georgian dockyards in the world still working and atmosphere is colonial with a twist of lime. One of the highlights in Antigua was crewing on one of the classic yachts which come for the annual regatta (about 70% parade and 30% race.) The old wooden schooners and ketches, lovingly restored are a fabulous sight out competing in the Caribbean Sea. We sailed with Gaucho, a fabulous wooden ketch built in Argentina, the first large private yacht ever built there. She’s been a love affair for her owners, John and Ronnie, for over 25 years who ply her up and down the Caribbean.
Unlike most of the islands further south Antigua has a number of lovely anchorages on the eastern shore where you anchor behind fringing reef. About 80% of the coral in the Eastern Caribbean was killed off in two very serious beaching events (ocean waters were too hot) in 2005 and 2010 and more often than not you see algae-covered dead coral. However, near Bird Island in Antigua we saw evidence of a slow come back of the beautiful Elk Horn corals. Brain corals tend to be more resistant to the overheating but most of the Stag Horn and Elk Horn has died off. Doubtlessly this has grossly impacted biodiversity on the reefs but many reef fish species remain plentiful. Presumably the South Pacific has faired better than the Caribbean with a steady but less precipitous decline in coral populations and we hope to get back there whilst that is still the case.
We sailed with my old friend Scott to Barbuda, about 40 miles north of Antigua, a unique island lacking mountains and having only about 1100 people on 60 square miles. There are only two very pricey hotels and a few guest houses, so there are almost no tourists. Thousands of frigate birds, the largest of the sea birds, nest there in the mangroves. One of the beaches is 14 miles long and rarely has a single visitor. We got to do some lovely snorkeling and visited a large sink hole where you looked down onto the tops of large coconut palms.
Recently we’ve went to Monserrat, famous for its volcanic eruptions. The bottom half of the island is an exclusion zone covered in ash and debris. From the Volcano observation centre you can see the caldera with active fumaroles. The film we saw of the pyroclastic flows was fascinating, awe inspiring and a bit terrifying. Although the volcano was not as deadly as island’s biggest hurricane, Hugo, in terms of deaths, the impact has perhaps been greater. Currently only about 20% of the population who lived here prior to the eruptions remain. The capital city, Plymouth, is covered with volcanic debris up to 60 feet deep but the northern half of the island is lush and green. We found a brilliant restaurant for our anniversary dinner with walls of thick philodendron, looking onto a beautiful western sky where fresh king fish and all the extras was about the price of fish and chips in Britain. Oh and the rum punch was much better.
Our final destination before returning to Antigua is Nevis and St Kitts. Nevis is an island consisting of one large volcanic cone -- it’s round with the contour of a sombrero. The remnants of the sugar plantations have made lovely hotels and estates. The best known is the Montpelier estate, where Lord Nelson married Fanny Nesbit, his Nevesian wife. An american has developed a stunning bontanical and sculpture gardens there and it has hosted British royalty including Princess Di. We got an American history lesson about the US’s first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Born on Nevis out of wedlock, orphaned at age 12, he becomes Washington’s aide de camp and was a key driver in penning the US constitution. He co-authored the Federalist Papers, which are credited with swinging support to ratify the constitution. Before age 50 he died in a duel with the Arron Burr, who came within a hair’s breadth of beating Jefferson in the 4th presidential race.
Life is not all idyllic in the Caribbean as evidenced by Julia needing to have both a dental implant and a root canal. Rains are getting a bit more frequent and there are even spurts when the trade winds fizzle out for a couple days. Murphy continues to hone his crab hunting skills and refuses to behave like a 70 year old in dog years. Many boats are now heading south for the hurricane season and we’re getting more anchorages to ourselves. In a couple of weeks we’ll be putting Mary Ann to be “bed” for her summer hibernation and starting to think of snow capped peaks, geysers and grizzly bears.
John, Julia and Murphy the Crabmeister