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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter – Part 2, Monserrat, Saba and the British Virgin Islands (BVI)

First Published in Bluewater Currents Magazine Dec 2018

Also published in Sail-World Cruising Dec. 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 Caribbean areas we sail in as three separate and distinct cruising grounds. In this second of nine articles we are blending two of those areas, The Northern Lessor Antilles, or Leeward Islands; and the BVI because they make a great group to compare. They are also a wonderful area to combine short passages with distinctly different cruising areas, all within a short time frame.

As I write this article we are currently completing our “2018 Atlantic Circuit” and are in the Madeira Islands to welcome aboard some friends and guests from Alberta who are joining us to sail and tour the Madeira’s, as well as make the 4 day passage to the Canary Islands. We plan to spend all of November and part of December touring the Canary Islands and possibly the Cape Verde Islands as well. Then, we will select a time for making our longest passage yet, another Trans-Atlantic, this time in the trade winds back to the Lessor Antilles. You can see many pictures complete with captions at our Instagram site: sv_oh.  You can also visit us at our website and blog at www.cloudstocoral.com, or better yet in person on Oh!. We hope you enjoy them!

The Leeward Islands missing the Virgin Islands to the west. Coffee and Pastries in Windwardside, Saba. What a beautiful island with great treats! A Land Tortoise  about 20 inches long on Ilet Pinel, French St. Martin.

Monserrat and Saba are two of the “islands that touch the clouds” and as a result are high volcanic peaks and rugged terrain with many steep cliffs and few anchorages. The two islands physically share a lot in common despite very different political histories and Monserrat’s more recent geological history. Monserrat is an active volcano and on a clear day you can usually see a plume from the volcanic vents high on its peak drifting off to the west. The island was recently one of the beautiful lush and vibrant Islands that this area is so well known for, but much like Martinique did in 1902 with the eruption of Mt. Pele that destroyed St. Pierre, Monserrat suffered a devastating eruption in 1995 that destroyed its beautiful Georgian era capital of Plymouth. Overnight it transformed Monserrat from a Caribbean gem, to an often overlooked and bypassed, off the beaten track “renewing gem” – which makes it all the more interesting. About 2/3 of the Island is now restricted from visiting due to ongoing volcanic activity and the potential for more. The capital city of Plymouth was buried much like Pompeii, although unlike St. Pierre in Martinique, most people evacuated prior to the eruption that buried their city. Today visitors can go to the fringes of the restricted area to see the buried town and many of the homes and outlying resorts that were abandoned. It is a very sobering tour to try and put yourself in their shoes. One day you would have had a home, business, and a life in a beautiful garden island – and the next day it is gone. But even worse, unlike a hurricane where as difficult as it is and disruptive to lives and communities as hurricanes are, there was no opportunity to rebuild your life as it was on Monserrat, you have to completely restart somewhere else, and that is what many did. Between 1995 and 2000, 2/3 of the island’s population left and the population declined to just 1200 people at one point. Today 5000 people call Monserrat home and the Islands is rebuilding its economy and building its Eco-tourism opportunities.

The southwest side of Montserrat where the former capital of Plymouth lies buried under ash and debris from the 1995 eruption. Creative recycling and fun art Caribbean style. Hiking the Cassava Nature Trail on Montserrat.  If you visit Montserrat, plan to spend at least a few hours relaxing over lunch and enjoying the memorabilia at the Hill Top Café.

What we encountered were vibrant, friendly people that accept the restrictions on their lives that the volcano has imposed, yet also learned how to rebuild their community and businesses around the volcano. If you enjoy hiking, nature as well as the geology and geographic wonders to be found, Monserrat has a lot to offer. One of our favorite spots was the Hilltop Café. It was like walking into a history of the music of my youth. The walls are lined with memorabilia from George Martin’s recording studio that was once a popular spot for many of the great bands and solo recording artists of the 70’s and 80’s. Within walking distance of the café is the starting point for many of the wonderful hiking trails that now lace the island. Eco tourism is growing and there are many places to explore and discover. Our time on Monserrat was short due to the weather. As with most of the “islands that touch the clouds”, there are very few good anchorages and harbours. The waters off Monserrat drop off quickly and what few areas there are to anchor are typically small and can only accommodate a few yachts at time in fair weather. There are no good bays or harbours to anchor in that provide shelter from any north or west winds; or any swell from those directions. As a result, we only had a short window to enjoy this beautiful Island. We hope to return again next season to continue our exploration and enjoy even more of what Monserrat has to offer.

Looking down the steps of the ladder at the view of Ladder Bay and Wells Bay, Saba. It is hard to imagine the human labour and determination that went into to building “The Ladder” hundreds of years ago. It is a very special hike in a spectacular setting. 

Saba, like Monserrat, is an island that can only be visited by yacht when there is fair and settled weather. Anchoring, although done by a few, is really not safe and there is only a very small strip at the base of the cliffs of Wells Bay where anchoring is even possible. Which leads to a question, “Why was Saba ever settled so early on and how did the original inhabitants ever manage to survive?” The answer lies in the luck of the draw for survivors of an English ship wreck in 1632 and the tenacity, determination and creativity of the settlers that followed. They came from England, Ireland, France, Scotland and the Netherlands. All well known for being able to transform harsh landscapes and built communities against formidable natural odds. Plus due to its topography and height, Saba had reliable fresh water and good soil at the mid elevations for growing food. When you first approach Saba it rises from the sea like a towering fortress. Sheer cliffs defy any easy routes up to the lush green areas above the cliffs. The top is often cloaked in the dense cloud that creates the Elfinforest and Rainforest areas that reach to the summit of 887m (2911ft) Mt. Scenery. The lush greenery of the island and tall peak that would ensure fresh water must have been a very powerful draw for the early settlers who faced significant hardships to access the island and isolation due to the challenging topography of Saba. Alternatively, that same topography offered some protection from invading countries and pirates who probably looked at this island with no natural harbour, surrounded by sheer cliffs as something not worth fighting over. As such, Saba has enjoyed a long and relatively peaceful history.

The big surprise for us was the magic of Saba. The island is beautiful. It is very clean, has excellent food stores at very reasonable prices, a well-developed ecotourism industry and many shops, restaurants and cafes. They are found in a several small communities with colorful names like the Bottom, Hell’s Gate, The Windward Side and St. John’s. In a play on languages the “Bottom” in Dutch is a bowl, which is what the village of “The Bottom” lies in; a mountain bowl. However it is not at the bottom and is actually high up on the island some 250m or 800 feet above sea level; and until recently could only be reached by climbing 800 steps up from sea level! Today that is not so much of a challenge thanks to the incredible road network on the island. However, not so long ago everything was carried on a person’s back up “The Ladder”, a series of 800 steps leading down the steep cliffs to the cobble and boulder strewn shore of Ladder Bay. Ladder Bay was the only access point and was where everything arrived, was transferred to small row boats, then off loaded again by hand across the surf and onto the large cobble stone beach to where it was packed up the steps of “The Ladder” on someone’s back to “The Bottom”.

Did I mention tenacity, determination and creativity? Nothing seems to illustrate that more clearly than hiking the Ladder and reflecting upon the hundreds of years of settled history during which this was the only access to this remarkable island for its incredible inhabitants. If you would like to get even more stair climbing practice you can also hike up the 1064 steps to the top of Mt. Scenery for some truly spectacular vistas. Oh!… and yes, we did both hikes and we relived every step for the next few days! The real question in my mind is “Why would people pack concrete on their backs all the way up the mountain to build those steps in the first place”? I think Sir Edmund Hillary’s response to the question of why he climbed Mountains might provide the answer. Because it is was there! More likely it was because they knew it would become a great draw for tourists  some day.

If you can’t visit by yacht, a short flight from Antigua, San Juan or St. Martin will get you there in comfort and a taxi will drive you through both Lower and Upper Hell’s Gate to one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean – just don’t expect to see a white sand beach to stretch out on. But if you like something a little different, pristine and a mecca for hiking and scuba diving, with an intriguing history to explore, excellent accommodations and some nice restaurants, Saba has it all. We will definitely return to visit Saba again this winter if the weather gods are kind!

The British Virgin Islands have a lot in common with the islands of Antigua, Anguilla and St. Martin; but in a more compact grouping. They are lower and dryer than Montserrat and Saba, but have numerous beaches, secluded bays and many wonderful anchorages with great snorkelling opportunities in the clear warm waters.

In stark contrast to Monserrat and Saba, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) are a sailor’s paradise that attracts cruising sailboats from all over the world. Within a few days of arriving we had already met 5 yachts with interesting crews from Ontario, Quebec, France, New Zealand, Argentina, and…even Edmonton! Yep… we had such a great time with these other cruisers that once again we had to extend our stay. A planned two day anchor in Deadman Bay off Peter Island became 9 nights of “cruising lifestyle” bliss. We stayed so long, we over stayed our stated cruising permit departure declaration by 3 days. That got us a very stern warning from the unfriendly customs lady that we were in the BVI’s illegally and they could seize our boat. Fortunately, they didn’t need any more boats to have to deal with thanks to last year’s hurricanes!

Our extended stay at Peter Island started with Canadian night, all four boats were from Canada and we go to meet them all. The next day, a very interesting red boat with a French flag rounded the point. It was a steel hull hard chine design, with a pop up companion way lookout, and strong construction that is out of place in the BVI’s. It had that look that just shouts, “This boat has been to some really interesting places!”. I speak just enough French to make a garbled conversation, so… as soon as they had anchored; I paddled over on my ocean going SUP to say, “Bonjour! Je suis Rod. Comment ca va?” To which an attractive young woman popped her head out of the companion way and in a very clear Kiwi accent said, “Oh!, hello there”, and that was the beginning of our friendship with Yoann and Rhianna. Yoann had solo sailed his boat “Saturnin” from France to Ushuaia, Argentina 10 years ago and then fell in love with the wild beauty of the area. He was now returning to France after nine years guiding commercial and private expeditions around the area and to the Antarctic! Rhianna had responded to a crew search to help him sail back to France and the two made a great couple. We just had to get to know them better… and we did! Over the next six months our paths would cross again in Bermuda, and the Azores islands of Flores, Faial, Sao Jorge and finally Terceira Island where we finally parted in separate directions; Oh! going south and eventually west, Saturnin staying for a refit and possibly back to France, or maybe onward…we will see. We have enjoyed many get exchanges over wine and cheese, dinners, and breakfasts with our adventurous friends from Saturnin.

Meeting Yoann and Rhianna was a special gift for me as I have an opportunity from another chance meeting a year ago to sail around Cape Horn in December 2019. Yoann and I spent many hours talking about his 9 years there. When asked what Ushuaia and sailing around the horn is like? …Yoann would answer in a very direct manner, “Completely the opposite to here, in every possible way!” Diane, who was enjoying a cold glass of wine while basking in the warm sun, then looked at me and asked, “Why on earth would you want to leave this, to sail there?” I must admit, she does have a point. But then…it Cape Horn!

We also spent 4 days enjoying several dinners and breakfasts with Donna and Larry from Edmonton. They have an Admiral catamaran that is similar in size and design to Oh! which they are restoring as part of their retirement dreams. They are a wonderful couple that are getting set to embrace the cruising lifestyle this coming season. We are looking forward to meeting them again in the Caribbean later this winter and have kept in touch with them. If there was one benefit to the hurricanes, it was that the anchorages were not as crowded with charter boats as in past years and the we could enjoy the BVI’s like they were several decades ago.

Our new friends on Saturnin Rhianna and Yoann. A stingray’s fluid motion is so beautiful to watch. Paddle boarding at Peter Island, letting our toes sink in the sand, and the secluded bay at Fallen Jerusalem.

There is no mystery as to why these islands are known as the charter boat capital of the world and well deserved. Semi-dry, relatively low islands in comparison to the “Islands that touch the clouds”, the BVI’s are older and more rounded due to erosion over the millennia. They have many beautiful bays with white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and abundant and still flourishing coral and marine life. Think of them as a very compressed version of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands; but with warm water, hot sun and consistent trade winds to sail in and you would have a pretty good local analogy. The sailing distances between the islands are short 2-6 hours, much shorter than between the islands that make up the Lessor Antilles and you can see just about every island (except Anegada) from the middle of Sir Francis Drake Channel that runs southwest to northeast through the BVI’s. There is very little tidal range and the shallower waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel, surrounded by the many islands subdue the worst of the Atlantic swell. So the BVI’s are a kinder gentler area to sail than the Lesser Antilles. The kind of place to go if some of your group are uneasy about open ocean sailing but still adventurous enough to want to sail in the Caribbean. With short passages between the many bays, beaches, resorts and marinas; the BVI’s are perfect for short stay vacations of a week or more, where charter groups want to sail each day, but still have ample time to enjoy the shore based attractions and warm waters.

There is an abundance of beautiful bays to anchor in, wrecks to snorkel or dive to, caves and reefs to explore, and many beach side bars, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops to explore if that is your interest. In short, the BVI’s are a vacation paradise and it shows in the literally hundreds of charter sail and power boats that call these waters home. One afternoon we counted 92 boats within visual range plying the waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel, and this was a slow year!

Yes, there was a lot of destruction in 2017 from the hurricanes and during our 12 day stay in March we witnessed hundreds of private and charter yachts damaged beyond belief. The Islands are rebuilding but it will take a long time, and everything moves slower in the Caribbean. Whole bays such as Soper’s Hole that was once a picture perfect post card gem were completely destroyed; and Soper’s was once considered a hurricane hole. The Bitter End on Virgin Gorda looks like a junk yard with the once tranquil and inviting hillside resort now little more than a pile of match sticks and bent metal. Amazingly most of the mirrored back walls of the individual huts survived intact which makes for a strange setting. Saba Rock, that was a poplar small islet bar and restaurant in North Sound opposite the Bitter end looks like it was transplanted to a war zone in the Middle East with nothing but the concrete shell remaining. For us, the sight of this scale of damage was a very good wake-up call to the destructive powers of nature that we have to content with while voyaging. The sights and memories of the destruction in Dominica and the BVI’s were never far from our minds this year as we monitored the paths of hurricane Chris while in Bermuda last June and hurricanes Helene and Leslie, that have been swirling around the Azores this fall.

Snorkelling the caves at Norman Island, another BVI sunset. Cooper Island is an inviting spot for a cold drink or lunch.

However, if all you are looking for is a beach, the bars, restaurants and resorts for a vacation, there are plenty of those all over the world. If you are looking for a spectacular place to sail with good access to provisions and some incredible experiences and memories to treasure, then the BVI’s are still just as spectacular as ever and the hurricanes have not altered that aspect of these beautiful islands.

We plan to spend several months in the BVI’s again this winter during February and March. Our desire is to explore the less touristy bays away from the charter boat hangouts, as well as visit St. John Island in the USVI before moving west to the Spanish Virgin Islands and north to the Bahamas. For us, the best dining experiences are still dinner in the cockpit with good friends and guests as we enjoy yet another of those incredible Caribbean sunsets.

To be cont’d in “Postcards from Our 2018 Atlantic Circuit: Caribbean Winter – Part 3 The Bahamas”

Cheers, from Oh!

About the author: Rod Morris

SV Oh! 2006 Robertson and Caine Leopard 40’ Catamaran

Website: www.cloudstocoral.com

 

Biography

Rod has been sailing Oh! throughout the eastern Caribbean for the past three seasons offering people the chance to ”Sample the Cruising Lifestyle” and is currently in the Azores preparing to sail back to the Caribbean via the Madeira, Canary and Cape Verde Islands. He has enjoyed 8 Caribbean passages and 2 Atlantic Passages (most recently solo) over the past 10 years. You can follow their travels on Instagram at sv_oh , or find out how you can join them through their website: www.cloudstocoral.com. Rod is a Professional Geologist, Glider Pilot and RYA Yacht Master (Offshore) and an online member of the BWC for 3 years. Diane is a Nurse Educator who loves to travel, explore and be outdoors. They can be reached at info@cloudstocoral.com

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