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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter – Part 1, The Lessor Antilles.

First Published in the BCA Currents Magazine Nov. 18, 2018

Published in Sail World Online Magazine Nov 18, 2018

For the past 3 winters we have been sailing Oh!, a 40’ Leopard catamaran throughout the eastern Caribbean. The cruising area we get to enjoy on each of these voyages has ranged from Grenada all the way to Beaufort, North Carolina. Over the past 3 seasons I have learned to look at the areas we sail in as three separate cruising grounds. The three areas are the Lessor Antilles, the BVI, and the Turks and Caicos / Bahamas. Each has distinct characteristics; sailing conditions, cultures, geology, geography, flora and fauna. In many ways, what shaped much of the human history on these islands comes down to, “How high are the islands and how shallow and protected are the seas around them?” These physical characteristics played a huge roll in in their history and today create three very different cruising experiences.

We really enjoy the Lessor Antilles and are returning to them again this year for the fourth time after we cross the Atlantic in December to complete out “2018 Atlantic Circuit”. Our year started out in Beaufort N.C. with a passage direct to Antigua. We then cruised as far south as St. Lucia before returning via the Lessor Antilles, BVI and Bahamas to Beaufort. From Beaufort we then crossed the Atlantic via Bermuda, to the Azores, and Madeira Islands. In November and early December we will cruise the Canary Islands before setting out on our longest passage yet, another Trans-Atlantic in the trade winds back to the Lessor Antilles. Over the next two months we will write 9 articles in this series – three from our winters in the Caribbean, one on each of the Atlantic Ocean passages, three from the Azores summer, and one on our Madeira / Canary Islands fall. You can see many pictures, with captions at our Instagram site: sv_oh or at our website and blog at www.cloudstocoral.com. We hope you enjoy them!

 

The middle group of islands in the Lessor Antilles. Some trails just end…what more can we say! A view looking south over the beautiful bay of Anse D’Arlets. Beautiful Star fish and corals at Jacques Cousteau World Marine Park, Guadeloupe.

The Lessor Antilles are a chain of islands stretching from Trinidad in the south to Anguilla in the north. Geologically in their current state, there are three distinct types of Islands in the chain. Low limestone and carbonates dominated Islands with those beautiful white sand beaches, Older Volcanic Islands that have been highly eroded and are quite dry with limited beaches which are mostly quartz sands and gravel, and finally the tall most recent Volcanic Islands with steep mountains, cliffs and lush tropical rainforests but few or very little in the way for beaches… but so much more in every other way. For our cruising this year, we spent most of time exploring the later group.

The islands that touch the clouds are Grenada, St. Vincent, NW Martinique, Dominica, Western Guadeloupe (Base Terre), Monserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts and Saba. They are rich tropical islands with everything from rainforests and high volcanic peaks to lush rich soils and an abundance of locally grown produce. The higher the island is, the richer its biodiversity. It is not uncommon to find mango and banana just growing wild or beautiful bird of paradise, wild ginger, orchids, and bougainvillea covered walls and hedges everywhere, often with many types of hummingbirds enjoying their nectar. Spices and a wide range of local produce are found in all the markets. The bright flowers and multi-colored homes and businesses provide a beautiful contrast to the many shades of lush green and blue waters of the Caribbean. Sea birds, Terns, Brown Pelicans and Frigate birds as well as numerous song birds grace the islands. It is the abundance of clean pure fresh water that these high islands capture from the clouds all

year round, that makes them so lush and wonderful to explore. There is a direct relation between island height and monthly rainfall. It is unmistakable when visiting these islands verses the others in the Lessor Antilles and it is backed up by the rainfall statistics recorded over several centuries. Fresh water brings life for plants birds and animals which also enriches the islands for humans. Add to this beauty a European influenced cultural history going back 526 years since they were first discovered by Columbus and further yet from the settlement of indigenous peoples and there is plenty to explore and experience. You can explore this rich history through hiking, rum distillery tours, renovated forts, the old town centers, churches, museums, books and so much more. From the initial roots of colonizing North America and the Jamestown Settlers, through colonial wars, land swaps, pirates, slave trade, plantations and the more recent boom in tourism, there is no shortage of fascinating history and local lore to discover. Not a lot is known about the pre-Columbian inhabitants, but the Caribs and Arawak peoples occupied these islands for centuries as well.

 

Flowers are everywhere on Martinique from the sea to the clouds. It is a very lush and beautiful island.

The next layer down the “Elevation Scale” are the much dryer islands of Barbados, S.E. Martinique, Marie Gallant, Eastern Guadeloupe (Haute Terre), Antigua, St. Bart and St. Martin; as well as numerous small islands in the Grenadines, Les Saints, etc. These Islands are clearly dryer and the lack of abundant year round fresh water is very noticeable. Desert plants like cactus and prickly pear abound. The older age and eroded former peaks of these islands has a side benefit though; beautiful beaches, coral reefs and a gentler coastline more suited to the typical magazine style resorts and modern development, if you are looking to escape nature.

 

A school of French Grunt Fish swim around the reef at Anse D’Arlets, Martinique. Friendly turtle at Iles de la Petite Terre, Guadeloupe. Beauty below the surface at Jacque Cousteau World marine reserve at Guadeloupe.

The final layer down the “Elevation Scale”, are the low lying Islands of the Grenadines, Barbuda, Anguilla and Anagada in the BVI. With only a few tens of meters of elevation, these Islands are best known for their coral sand beaches, and dry climates. Often the only natural fresh water comes from the passing of a squall that lasts just a few minutes during the winter season.

Shallow waters around Barbuda reflect the clean sand bottom only 2.5 meters below. The tranquility of Ten Pound Bay is hard to beat; only one yacht can fit in this incredible bay at a time. The Beach on Barbuda Island that was one of Princess Diana’s favorites. Green Island is a fabulous place to get away, with quiet beaches, anchorages and even great kite surfing.

The beaches on these lower older islands can be truly spectacular, with powdery soft sand and crystal clear warm aqua marine waters to swim in. On some of the islands like Barbuda and some of the fringing islands of Antigua you will have the beach all to yourself. The hurricanes from 2017 devastated infrastructure on Barbuda and heavily damaged Dominica, St. Martin and the BVI. However beaches are resilient and return much quicker than the surrounding buildings. Despite the destruction, we found the natural beauty was still there and waiting to be enjoyed. The benefit for us was that we often had it to ourselves and the people, especially on Dominica went out of their way to welcome us and thank us for visiting their Island.

Roadside market on Martinique had a great selection of local fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruit at Habitation Céron, on Martinique. Starfruit growing at the Distillerie Longueteau on Guadeloupe. The Market at Roseau on Dominica was overflowing with fruit and vegetables and very friendly vendors.

The French Islands are particularly easy to enjoy. Clearance and customs are straight forward – just fill in a computer based clearance form and pay the small fee of 3-5 euros. These computers are often in a restaurant, chandlery, tourist office, or private service company, which in itself is so friendly and welcoming. On most of these French Islands you never even see an immigration or customs officer. Marie Gallant was the notable exception where the check in is more of an inconvenience for the officers since they are not yet on the French computer system. After the quick and simple clearance there are café’s, markets, well stocked grocery stores to explore with reasonable prices and a wide variety of European and domestic foods and wines to fill the galley. It is all great. The Islands are clean and, well… French, but you don’t need to speak French to have a great experience, everyone is welcome. This adds another dimension to the flavour of these islands – as well as the great baking!

Mardi Gras parade at St. Pierre on Martinique. Fort Napoleon at the Ile de Saints. The Museum of Slaves at Guadeloupe is an incredible building. The Habitation Clement distillery on Martinique has a beautiful art park and excellent tasting room; well worth a visit.

Sailing in the Lessor Antilles is quite different from the other areas we have visited each year. The conditions are more “robust”. Once the trade winds settle in, they are pretty consistent and bring with them frequent squalls which can really pack a punch. A typical day will have sunny skies with scattered clouds and the occasional big squall. Winds are typically 15-25 kts everyday out of the East and NE with some SE winds. The seas can be anything from glass calm when a high pressure system settles in, which is fairly rare, (I have only seen it two or three times in three seasons) to up to 3-3.5m rolling Atlantic ocean swell. The swell is typically 1.5 -2 m each day, so it is lively sailing. As one of our guests from the B.C. west coast said last March, “I wouldn’t even think of going out in these conditions on the Strait of Georgia”. But then, neither would I. Down in the islands though, the waves have large periods so they are more like big rollers with wind driven chop on top. Put in a second reef with six or more wraps on the genoa and enjoy the ride. The sailing can be fantastic and it is usually in brilliant warm sunshine. Just keep an eye out for the squalls. They move fast in the trade winds and can pack 45 knot winds and torrential rain as they quickly pass by.

Meeting and interacting with the cruising community is our favorite evening past time. Invite a crew from a neighboring yacht to share some wine and cheese or a breakfast coffee and croissant and it is amazing the conversations and friendships that develop. We are looking forward to returning to the Lessor Antilles and welcoming old friends and new guests on Oh! again this year to share our adventure and the cruising lifestyle.

The rugged  eastern lee shore of Guadeloupe is beautiful. Massive leaf of the Philodendron Maxima on Guadeloupe hides Diane. The steep slopes of Mt. Pele on Martinique. The twin falls of the Chutes du Cabet that can be seen from the sea and encouraged Columbus to land on Guadeloupe to refresh his water supplies.

To be cont’d in “Postcards from Our 2018 Atlantic Circuit: Caribbean Winter – Part 2, Monserrat, Saba and the British Virgin Islands (BVI)”

Cheers from Oh!

 

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