For Aussies, the Caribbean is a region of mystic and allure. Endless palm-lined, white sand beaches; impossibly turquoise waters; rum cocktails served from rustic beach bars; dreadlocked Rastafarians; reggae music and portraits of Bob Marley; all set to a steel-drum band soundtrack neatly captures the postcard vision for this beckoning holiday hot-spot half way across the world. Where our backyard is Asia and the Pacific, the Caribbean has long existed as a playground for neighbouring North America.
Since arriving late February, we’ve checked through immigration with nine different Eastern Caribbean countries (Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Barts, Anguilla, St. Maarten and the British Virgin Islands) in the same time we’d typically explore just one country in the Mediterranean. These small nations comprise only an island or three – some no more than a few dozen square kilometres and population around 10,000.
Whilst some cruisers happily occupy years in the Caribbean, our itinerary requires covering a little more distance so we are constantly on the move. After our late Atlantic crossing we’ve reduced time to explore and with the impending arrival of hurricane season in June, soon we must turnaround and head south again. So we’ve every opportunity to revisit our favourite islands and drop anchor on those we’ve missed.
An exciting new cruising ground presents a different environment and sailing culture with which to adapt.
For the sailor, one of the Caribbean’s best attributes is the constant and reliable easterly trade winds. Early explorers from Europe and millions of others before us harnessed the same breeze that carried us across the Atlantic Ocean. You can set your watch to it. It makes for an exhilarating sail between islands – but perhaps a little too exhilarating for non-sailor guests who experienced several hours sailing in 25 – 35 knot winds on the beam and accompanying swell!
As a family we learned to sail finally my darling in the Mediterranean. The enclosed sea was glorious and captivating, but with its reputation as the “Motor-terranean” the winds were often too weak, too strong or on the nose. It was a fickle and frustrating region to sail (we were most often motoring) and were constantly watching the weather or choosing an anchorage with hope the forecast was accurate. In those first two years cruising the Mediterranean my sleep was regularly broken checking we hadn’t moved in the night or swung toward the rocks. To say the weather frequently brought me anxiety and sleepless nights is an understatement.
Here in the Caribbean it could not be more different. Sure we continue to monitor the weather regularly but it’ll always blow from a general easterly direction and the lee side of most islands protect from swell and wind, providing various comfortable anchorages. I’ve not slept more soundly in my life.
On the downside, it’s stopping us from travelling further west towards Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cuba or northwest to Bahamas. Otherwise it’d be a weeklong slog beating into the wind when we need to turn around and head back east and south along the string of islands forming the West Indies. That and we simply don’t have enough time before hurricanes start brewing and our insurance company insist we be out of the area.
This side of the Atlantic, almost everyone speaks English! Sure it lacks the romance of various beautiful languages of Europe, but it makes communication with locals a breeze and sign language or Pictionary no longer a requirement when ordering boat parts or asking for directions. The British once controlled much of the West Indies; other islands by the French and Dutch. The primary languages are English and French; the second is a local mix with African phrases – Creole.
The original Arawak and Caribs from South America inhabited the archipelago when Columbus first arrived in 1492, yet were brutally killed-off by the various European colonists of each island. Today’s dark-skinned West Indian natives are descendant of African slaves. Between the 1500s and late 1800s its estimated a staggering 10,000 million Africans were brought to the Americas as part of an Atlantic slave trade; incarcerated to sugar cane plantations, rum industries, agricultural labour and other services.
On some islands the divide between locals and tourists, rich and poor is stark; and the welcome not always warm. I can wholly sympathise given the ‘wealthy yachties’ that breeze through or the insensitivities of some cruise ship passengers (of course a generalisation and not representative of all) that flood into these humble communities on a regular basis.
Winter is technically dry season in the Caribbean, yet rain showers are an everyday occurrence. In the Eastern Mediterranean we once went three months without a single drop of rain. Here squalls blow in from the Atlantic multiple times daily. Forgiven rain bursts are sporadic, short-lived and (if you are prepared with washing in, hatches closed etc.) very welcome and refreshing. Mother Nature gifting us free boat wash downs and plentiful rainbows!
Living back in a tropical environment evokes memories of growing up in North Queensland. When, during wet season, the landscape was bursting with every shade of green, lush foliage, banana tree plantations, sugar cane fields and harvesters, palms, poinciana and frangipani trees, hibiscus flowers and bougainvillea, mangroves, bugs and birds, searing sun, steamy humidity and sprawling colonial homes with wide, breezy verandas.
Particularly around the fertile islands of Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe we frequented rustic green produce markets selling local pineapples, bananas, mangoes, passionfruit, avocadoes, cucumbers, crisp and buttery lettuce, coconuts and limes; alongside interesting native produce such as sugar apples, soursop, breadfruit, christophene and dasheen.
It’s catamaran city in the Caribbean! In Europe we were in the minority; here we are just another two hulls afloat. Perhaps it’s that catamarans are the boat of choice for charterers (and ageing fleet are sold off cheap to live aboard sailors chasing their dreams) or shallow depths in places like the Bahamas are better suited to shallow drafts of a catamaran.
Oh the SCUBA diving… It’s safe to say we’re no longer in the ‘dead Med’. Here marine life thrives in the warm, tropical ocean and water clarity is often limitless. We’ve dived amongst green sea turtles, reef sharks, dolphins, moray eels, lobsters, spotted eagle rays, stingrays, great barracuda, pelagic schools, conch shells, corals, sponges and all manner of brilliantly coloured fish such as blue tangs, squirrel fish, parrot fish, fairy basslets, bluehead wrasse, black durgons, lion fish, trumpet fish, queen angel fish and spotted drums.
We’ve dived on shipwrecks including multiple wrecks from Martinique’s 1902 volcanic eruption at St. Pierre and the haunting broken steel hull of 310-foot RMS Rhone that sunk during a 1867 hurricane in the British Virgin Islands, losing almost 300 passengers and crew.
The Caribbean yachtie community is a social bunch! Escaping the northern winter chill, we’re surrounded by a substantial live aboard population from the US and Canada. In popular anchorages yachts sit on VHF channel 68; hailing each other to organise happy hours, ladies who lunch, market trips, laundry trips, excursions, sun downers and dinghy drifts.
We travelled solo for majority of two summers in the Mediterranean, where we were lucky to get so much as a wave from the German or bonjour from the French-flagged boats. On this side of the Atlantic, happy hour rum cocktails at beach bars are an everyday occurrence and we’ve enjoyed the regular company of buddy boats Symphony (the previous owners of FMD), as well as Penny Lane, Neptune II and AnnaCam, whom we first met last summer in Spain and Gibraltar.
Not to mention the steady stream of wonderful visitors who’ve been lured to the Caribbean to sail with us.
Dominica – pronounced Dom-in-EEKA and not to be confused with Dominican Republic – was exceptional and high on our list of favourite islands.
It’s said if Christopher Columbus returned to the Caribbean today, Dominica is the only island he’d recognise. Due to its volcanic origins, a lack of white sandy beaches has deterred mass tourism found elsewhere in the region. The island’s wild and spectacular rainforest, challenging hikes, 365 rivers (one for every day of the year), superb diving, gushing waterfalls and the world’s second largest boiling lake combine to offer an eco-tourist’s dream destination. Nine volcanos define Dominica’s dramatic topography; its lush mountainous landscape attracting frequent rain showers that are followed by perfectly formed rainbows.
First panoramas of Dominica at Roseau anchorage.Hiking one half of twin Trafalgar Falls with our intrepid Atlantic comrades Doug and William; plus Anna, Pete and young Sam of Penny Lane. One waterfall is fed from a mineral-rich boiling lake, resulting in a mix of natural hot and cold pools in the rocks below.
Dreadlocked Rastafarians with wide, friendly smiles lived simply along the coast in colourful wood and corrugated iron shacks. Reggae music pulsated from oversized stereo speakers in the gritty villages and locals sold home grown vegetables from the street corner. Notably, Dominica was also the poorest country we’ve visited by boat. Some villages were shanty-like and broken down cars and trucks were dumped everywhere, overgrown with vines. Local men could often be seen walking along the roadside intimidatingly carrying machetes. Though used to cut thick foliage and crops, sadly machete attacks on cruisers in the Caribbean is not unheard of. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my heart skipped a beat when Mum and I first met a knife-wielding man on the roadside.
The yachtie community is well accommodated in northern Prince Rupert Bay where local rastas have amalgamated forces to create PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services). Providing guided island tours, nightly security patrols, water and provisioning deliveries, repairs, transfers, a dinghy dock and clubhouse with a welcoming weekly BBQ and rum punch social night. The hospitality was unexpected and so far the best organised we’ve encountered in the West Indies. From everything we’ve heard, the nearby island of St. Lucia could learn plenty from the men of PAYS.
It was in Dominica we changed over guests. Bidding farewell to amazing duo Doug and William who’d been with us for two months – including an epic journey across the Atlantic Ocean – along with their beautiful wife and Mum Michelle who’d joined us on arrival to Martinique.
Flying by 24-seat prop plane into Dominica’s tiny airport from snow-locked Nova Scotia, Canada, was Mike’s dearest Mum and Dad – Eva and Jack. They could not have been transplanted to a more authentic Caribbean setting and we hope they enjoyed delving into one of the most spectacular, dense rainforests they’re ever likely to visit.
Dominica was also a major filming location for Pirates of the Caribbean II. Our Indian River tour guide had transported camera equipment and crew into the depths of the forest to film at Calypso’s shack. Calypso’s original hut can still be visited amongst the mangroves.
Dominica made an early impact. After drifting through somewhat overrun holiday playgrounds like St. Maarten and Antigua, my mind has often wandered back to visions of Dominica’s wild jungles, hidden waterfalls and rustic rhythm. We are thrilled to return in early June (with visiting brother Stew and his gorgeous girls) to catch the test cricket match when Australia plays the West Indies at Roseau’s simple 12,000-seat stadium.
Sailing a beam reach north brought us to the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe, including the delightful archipelago of Les Saintes. Its main town of Terra d’ Haut was quaint and colourful as if plucked straight out of Europe.
Guadeloupe’s butterfly-shaped main island is rainforest clad and surrounded by superb diving including protected Jacque Cousteau Marine Park at Pigeon Island. Our visit to Guadeloupe was short and we didn’t venture past the coast, though we’ll return and explore deeper when moving south in June.
Gaining political independence as recently as 1981, Antigua is one of the few British-owned islands to maintain close ties with the motherland. Its valuable, deep harbours were utilised by the British Navy from 1745 amid colonial battles for island ownership. Falmouth Bay and English Harbour hold historical significance and intrigue for the sentimental sailor. Today lined with luxury super-sized sailing yachts, for more than a century (Lord) Nelson’s Dockyard serviced and protected the large naval fleet. Its restored buildings once operated as sail lofts, blacksmith workshops, copper and lumber stores, engineering shops and officer’s and admiral’s quarters.
These days Antigua is a British holiday hotspot and Shirley Heights’ BBQ, steel band and rum punch Sunday session is legendary. With plentiful white sandy beaches, it was from here north that classic aqua-blue Caribbean waters became our daily backdrop.
Beach time and cocktails with the van de Riets before their departure. Antigua is also a major Caribbean airport hub and the awesome guests continued to come and go. Just as Eva was finding her sea legs, we bid a sad farewell to Mike’s parents (who were welcomed home to Canada by a three-day snow storm).
With Chad and Sarah on board we followed the trade winds, sun and powder-soft beaches north… including the glittering shores of St. Barts.
Check back soon for our visit to St. Maarten and idyllic Anguilla!