The Grenadines: A Tropical Playground

I’ve earned the right to hate everything about the Grenadines. Having paid $1000 for PCR tests and a two week quarantine to get into the country, we’d just cleared in when a volcanic eruption covered the islands in a thick layer of toxic ash. Things were just starting to normalise when a tree branch fell with the accuracy of a well-aimed lance and pierced my foot, fracturing my bone in the process. As I was starting to regain mobility, a series of minor medical issues sent me to the local clinic where a life-threatening condition was misdiagnosed. While the personal disasters were mounting, neither natural catastrophe nor medial calamity were enough to send me barreling for home. Given the rap sheet, I’d say that says something about the country. 

When you’ve been cruising for an extended amount of time, it is easy to see how countries may start to blend into each other. But they never do. Given the proximity of islands throughout the Caribbean, it is easy to assume one sandy cay is the same as the next. But they aren’t. The Grenadines are a perfect example of this. The 32 windward islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) are spread across 60 miles within the Southern Caribbean Sea and are geographically close yet geologically distinct from each other. From black volcanic shores to white sand beaches, from dense tropical rain forest to aired scrubland, from colourful fishing villages to empty bays and high-end luxury services to spartan local fare, the options are limitless. If you want it, the Grenadines has it.

And we wanted all of it. John and I arrived in the Caribbean in early 2021 and spent our time sailing throughout the Lesser Antilles, searching for an area where we could island hop without having to go through expensive PCR tests and lengthy quarantine periods every time we wanted to move islands. We knew that the Grenadines provided cruising grounds that offered this, and we made our way towards the island group in early April. We made a quick dash for Bequia as soon as we had completed our two week quarantine in Saint Vincent. While I knew we were leaving the main island unexplored, the call for a relaxed island vibe and the beat of steel drums far outweighed the tourist activities of St. Vincent. After all, not much moves mountains and St. Vincent was all tall peaks and deep-cut valleys. Hiking waterfalls and the rim of a crater would wait until the steel drums were starting to rattle their own tune inside my brain. 

But some mountains do move — particularly exploding ones. One week out of quarantine and La Soufrière, the youngest and largest volcano in the country, erupted after 40 years of laying dormant. The plume rose 26,000ft into the air and then slowly descended down on us, settling a thick layer of ash onto every surface throughout every corner of the Grenadines. All who could move, moved as quickly as they could. We pulled up anchor though a thick haze of ash and sailed south in a compact line of fleeing vessels. The Tobago Cays lay in the southern end of the island chain and we settled in there to wait out the fallout with a dozen other boats. It took a few days for the wind to shift and blow the ash away, and when it did we got our first glimpse of the glorious Grenadines. After a false start, we were ready to do what cruisers do best: Relax and party — each in equal measure.

Tobago Cays and the Lesser Isles

Fortunately, we were in the perfect place for it. The Tobago Cays consist of five uninhabited islands in the southern Grenadines surrounded by an expansive reef system on the outside and a  crystal clear, white sand lagoon on the inside. Green turtles and sting rays slowly swim past and under the boat while colourful fish swiftly pace along the nearby outlying reef, creating an aquatic wonderland. When we were ready to dry out, we wandered ashore in search of large iguana and small land turtles on our hike up the hilltop for stunning views of the tropical beauty that lay below. Late afternoons invariably turned social as cruisers gathered under the palm trees to tell a few tales over a few cold beers. We shared potluck meals and built bonfires, and occasionally we wandered across the island to enjoy a local barbecue where the daily catch of fish or lobster would be cooking on the open grill, the only service provided in the Cays. Our days were exactly what Caribbean cruising was supposed to be: Long, slow and lazy. Had it not been for my desire to see the rest of islands, we would have spent all of our time in the Tobago Cays exactly as Captain Sparrow had in the Pirates of the Caribbean, sacked out in the shade of a palm tree with a belly full of rum. 

After a few weeks of paradise, however, it was time to move on and see the rest of the Grenadines. While there are a few dozen islands within the group, the majority of cruising destinations are focused on the nine inhabited islands and a few of their surrounding islets. Each island has its own unique character and to experience the nuances of each was rewarding. Union provided a prime spot for kitesurfing where days were dominated by wind-sport activity. Mayreau offered my favourite anchorage where Atea sat a boat-length from the white sand, palm-lined shore. Canouan brought a touch of opulence, where we dined in a luxury restaurant built for the affluent and sat seaside sipping colourful fruit-wedged cocktails from the open-air bar. 

Our focus changed as we shifted from island to island, depending on those small nuances. Either we were racing in the wind on top of the water, or we were eye-balling fish as they swam along the reef, or we were rolling around in the gentle surf. Regardless of the island or the bay, our days were filled with a soft breeze and warm, clear water. We were travelling with a few other cruisers at the time, so our salt-filled days invariably ended in beer-filled nights. If we weren’t on the beach raising our glass to the setting sun, we were gathered in a cockpit toasting to our good fortune. A succession of days slowly turned into run-on weeks which developed into a set pattern as life  continued on in pretty much the same fashion as it has in the Tobago Cays. The names of the bays changed, but the experience remained the same: Beach, siesta, drink. It was time to find somewhere that would add some diversity to our days, and Bequia was just that place. 

Bequia: The Cruisers Mecca

We were finally in Bequia, the cruisers Mecca of the Grenadines, and back to our original starting point. Well out of high-season and not long since the recent volcanic eruption, only a few cruisers had returned to Admiralty Bay. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, but a few were working hard to keep the regulars returning. The Marina Bar had Thursday barbecue specials, Jack’s restaurant had Friday night happy hour and Daffodils had Sunday potluck. Many of the tourist attractions were down to reduced hours or open by appointment only. While services were minimised, the atmosphere was great and we were able to experience a quieter, more local scene than the charged atmosphere of high season. We were travelling in company with three other boats and pretty soon we had established our own collective routine: Beach yoga and a dip in the ocean in the morning, a dive or inland hike in the afternoon and sundowners on the beach or happy hour rum punch in the bar in the evenings. 

We would plan different excursions to break the routine, visiting a salt-farm, a fruit plantation, a pottery shop, a heritage museum and a turtle sanctuary. We ordered specialty cocktails at a floating bar and ate lavish meals over extended lunches in upmarket restaurants. We explored the windward bays and hung out with the locals, learning how to crack a coconut with a rock, roast it in the fire after salting it in seawater. We ate salt-fish cooked over the heat of a fire while learning how to carve designs in seeds with a stick. We walked through local villages where the bones of humpback whale were discarded on the side of the road and we climbed up the mountainside for fantastic outlooks over the sea. Life in Bequia was full of options and opportunities, if you made the effort to seek it out. It was a different kind of paradise from the sleepy islands that stretch south beyond it, but it was rich and rewarding all the same. 

After two months living an idyllic carefree lifestyle, however, we were feeling that our existence was falling into a set pattern again. The itch had returned and we were ready to dust the fine, white sand off our backsides and put some intrepid into our travels. Saint Vincent hadn’t appealed to us when we first arrived in the Grenadines as we were looking to insert ourselves into that picture-perfect postcard, the one with a slanting palm tree casting its shadow over still, clear water. But we needed a change of scene, and that scene was glaring down at us from 4,000 feet.

Saint Vincent: The Heart of the Grenadines

We were curious to see the aftermath of the volcanic eruption and sailed to the far north of the island where the damage from the volcano was visible. Pyroclastic flows had devastated the northern part of the island, reshaping the landscape as it carved a path of destruction to the sea. Acres of felled trees were left blackened and charred, rivers were redirected and new valleys were carved out by the flows. Houses lay flattened by the weight of the ash deposited on rooftops, entire crops were wiped out and 16,000 people had been evacuated from the red zone, leaving villages scarred and deserted. Anyone within the “red zone” was on their own. We visited villages where active settlements had turned into ghost towns and only a small handful of determined residents had refused to leave. We were in one of these towns when heavy rains created a flash flood that drowned the houses and streets in a torrent of ash-filled mud. Regardless of hardship, the people were hospitable and welcoming. It was humbling to experience such warmth from people who had suffered through so much.  

But there is more to Saint Vincent than hardship and destruction. The island has its own unique beauty with high mountain peaks and thick verdant forest, jagged boulders overhanging shear cliffs that rise up from the black sand shores. We had been travelling in company prior to our departure for Saint Vincent, so to be on our own in this rugged land was a welcome change. We found our “new favourite” in a tiny one-boat cove, where we stern-tied Atea and made her fast to the rocks on either side and enjoyed the serene solitude of our private sanctuary. Our over-night stop turned into a succession of days filled with cliff-diving, rock climbing, bush walks and beach bonfires. We sat in pitch-black bat caves, hiked steep mountain tracks and found rock art hidden in the bush. We watched the blinking light of fireflies at dusk and the mysterious flashing light of jellyfish at night. We’d left the party in Bequia in search of something different, and we found it in our very first stop in Saint Vincent. 

But there was so much more coming our way. As we slowly made our way north, the beauty of the island slowly unraveled before us: I wanted to hunt for first-century petroglyphs and wander through age-old ruins, and we found them. I wanted to walk through dense rainforest to stand under raging waterfalls, and we stood there. I wanted to jump off tall cliffs into the clear water below, and we jumped. I wanted the thrill of swimming through the total darkness inside deep fissures in the rock, and the adrenaline pumped. I wanted to sit with the seamen and hear to their stories, and we listened. We’d come up to St. Vincent in search of something different, and different was unfolding by the day.

I had a certain expectation of what Saint Vincent would be like, but nothing prepared me for the gruesome sight of a whale hunt. I knew whaling was legal in the Grenadines, but I didn’t believe it to be true when we were told “black fish” had been caught that day. True to word, four pilot whales were towed in by longboats in the evening. It was both horrifying and fascinating to witness. While every fibre of my being opposes whaling of any form, we travel to open our eyes to new experiences. We were invited to join in as they skinned and butchered the animal on the beach in the morning and watched as they boiled the fat to extract oil and cut the meat into slices to lay on drying racks. We even tasted the fried skin and accepted the whale teeth that were offered to us.

My misfortune may have earned me the right to hate the Grenadines, but my experiences have given me nothing but the feeling of great fortune. Everything about it is fabulous: The cultural diversity, the geographic proximity, the scenic beauty. Each island has its own unique character, and that diversity means you can choose to relax in its pristine beauty or dig deep into its rugged underbelly. I wanted peaceful solitude and I got it. I wanted to rub shoulders with the locals in a dusty bar and I got to. I wanted decadence and I indulged in it. I wanted social with fellow cruisers and we created it. I wanted intrepid and I found it. How could I have known that a small group of islands could offer so much in so many different ways?

The Blessed Isles: More than Just a Stop Over

Sailing across an ocean is often seen as a mariners biggest achievement. With 4,000 miles between America and Europe, the distance across the Atlantic means a four-week transit across a temperamental ocean. It is for this reason that a small collection of mid-Atlantic islands earned the name, “The Blessed Isles.” Officially called Macaronesia, these four island groups — the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde — have played a central role in trans-Atlantic trade since boats first started long-distance voyages. Located west of Portugal, Spain and the north-African coast in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, they continue to offer a mid-passage respite for modern-day mariners keen for short break in route between the two continents.

The four island groups are often thought of as relatively similar. All are volcanic in origin with a number of the islands still active (as illustrated by the recent eruption of Cumbre Vieja in Las Palmas, Canaries in September this year) Their isolation from the mainland has allowed endemic species of animal and fauna to flourish, and their exposure to strong trade-winds means a harsh environment during the northern winter. Knowing we would cut our transatlantic passage by adding a mid-Atlantic stop, we used the Canaries as a break point: A week transit from Europe to the Canaries and then a three-week sail to the Caribbean.

The Canaries is an autonomous region of Spain and consists of 13 islands. Given the geographic  similarity between the islands within Macaronesia, I was expecting an extension of Madeira and the Azores; I couldn’t have been more misinformed. I am unsure where I’ve seen such diversity within an island group. Each of the thirteen islands has its own unique environment with a fascinating cultural heritage that is still evident today. To see one island is certainly not to have seen the other.

Tenerife Cave Dwellings: The original settlers of the Canaries were the Guanches who arrived from African in the first or second century. They settled in caves across the islands, concentrated in Tenerife. What was fascinating to me about this history is that people are still living in these cave dwellings to this day. Excursions throughout the countryside revealed numerous dwellings spread across the island; drying laundry splayed out on lines, dogs lounging outside cave entrances, chairs perched aside a rock wall, chickens living in their coops: All scattered evidence of human habitation. We found isolated valleys where large communities were dispersed across a mountainside, with small footpaths winding their way up the mountainside. I became fascinated by this current cave culture, still alive and vibrant. I’ve travelled to many countries where old cave dwellings are protected as Unesco Heritage Sites, but this is the first time I’ve seen established communities in remote cave dwellings. It became my preoccupation to drive aimlessly throughout the island, trying to find as many cave dwellings as I could discover — a surprisingly easy feat given the number of cave-dwellers spread out throughout the Canaries.

Lanzarote Volcanic Vineyards: Both the Azores and the Canaries have developed a unique form of viticulture in one of the most inhospitable regions. It is impossible to imagine that someone can grow anything but the most rugged crop in the rocky, volcanic soil. Grape vines are the last thing I would expect to crisscross the region. However, ingenious vintners have done just that — they have created an environment where grapes not only grow, but thrive. This form of deep-root horticulture called “erarenado” is unique to Lanzarote. Small semi-circular walls, called “zoco,” are made from black lava stones and protect a single vine, providing a barrier against the strong trade winds. It is a very labour intensive form of cultivation as each crater holds a single vine, making hand-picked grapes the only option for harvesting. Wine-tasting was the last thing I expected on our mid-Atlantic stop; not only was it delicious, it was also historically fascinating.

Lava Tubes and Subterranean Tunnels: Lava tubes and deep volcanic caverns riddle the Canary Islands. A number of the islands, such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife, have extensive pyroclastic fields and a number display dramatic volcanic cones with impressive craters, such as Teide on Tenerife and Cumbre Vieja on La Palma. Given the range of erosional stages of each of the seven volcanic islands, each island offers a very unique perspective. This means you can hike the top of a volcanic rim that is covered in deep foliage (Gran Canaria), walk through volcanic moonscapes (Los Lobos), wander deep inside massive caverns (Lanzarote) and follow lava tubes deep inside (Tenerife). Given the different stages of each of the islands, you can see both the devastation and the beauty that they bring: As one explodes, another holds a breathtaking amphitheatre and a species of blind crab that is endemic to the island. While the local inhabitants continue to deal with the aftermath of Cumbre Vieja’s violent explosion on La Palma, Cueva de los Verdes in Lanzarote holds concerts for an audience of 500 in its expansive cavern and provides sanctuary to an endemic species of miniature blind albino cave crabs in its deep-turquoise underground freshwater lagoon.

Underwater Sculpture Garden: Equally unique to the Canaries is Europe’s first underwater sculpture garden, a collection of 12 installations laid down by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor to raise social and environmental awareness. “Museo Atlantico” was made public in 2017 and holds 300 life-sized human figures all performing everyday tasks: a couple holding hands, a man sitting on a swing, fishermen in their boats, someone taking a “selfie.” Four years on and the sculptures are starting provide a decent false reef and the effect is impressive… and rather eerie. A dive on the site will remain a very unique experience and is not to be missed on a trip through Lanzarote.

Many sailors use the largest of the Canary Islands, Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, solely for provisioning and boat preparation prior to a transatlantic passage. However, to bypass the islands that surround the main island is to miss out on some interesting and diverse islands and should be considered a highlight destination in the Eastern Atlantic. Each of the islands we visited on our sail through the island group was a continuous series of unfolding surprises. The villages all hold their own quaint small-town European character and each island offers an experience drastically different than its neighbour: From the bustle of Gran Canaries largest city, Las Palmas, to the quiet cave-dwellers of its outer communities; from from the enormous sand-dunes of Fuertaventura’s Parque Natural de las Dunas to the barren volcanic cone of Los Lobos to the lush laurel forest of Los Tilos de Moya in Gran Canaria; from sea to inland lake to crater rim to underground tunnels; from camel back to mountaintop to mid-city cafes. There is a diversity in the Canaries that makes a “hop” through in route from American to Europe a must-see destination in itself.

Love Portugal

Everyone has always said of Portugal, “I love Portugal,” and I was sure I would too, just as I love all the places I travel. But I’ve just spent the last two months traveling across the country and along her shores and now I say “love” just like everyone else does, with emphasis: “I absolutely loooove Portugal!” 

Covid has a little to blame – and thank – for our extended time in the country. It was our original plan to sail down Europe’s western Atlantic coastline after visiting England by yacht. The thought of sailing Atea up the Hamble River had a nostalgic draw as it was John’s childhood stomping ground, but our two month lockdown in South Africa forced us to cross off that walk down memory lane. Our enjoyment of the Azores also ticked weeks off our calendar and so we also drew a line through France. Spain was seeing a spike in reported Covid cases and was starting to implement restrictions but Portugal had a long bout of low numbers and their doors were starting to open. Spain was crossed off our travel plan along with the UK and France, so we shifted the line on our chart to Portugal. An exciting destination, given everybody love’s Portugal.

We started in Porto, home of port and a fitting first port of call. We pulled into the marina in Lexios after a week at sea and enjoyed the facilities — cold beer, hot showers, electricity and a marine shop. The the marina was situated along a long beautiful beach with a large walking promenade and we spent our initial days in the cold surf and sipping sangria. After a short respite of rest and relaxation, my travel radar started blaring and it was time to get our hiking shoes on. We started locally, taking the bus into Porto’s historic centre and wandering tight winding alleys that lead to quaint street-side cafes. We visited old port houses and sampled ruby, tawny, pink, and white port and wandered through castles and cathedrals steeped in the history of the region. If there ever was a beautiful old town, Porto is it. It has charm and beauty, age and history, old immersed in the new, all in working order. The river that runs through the city is linked by four bridges, allowing easy access from town to suburb. The food is superb, the wine even better, and the people warm and friendly. Given the recent change in covid restrictions, locals were enjoying more freedom and tourists were resuming inbound flights. Masks were required on entrance into a building, but as soon as you found your seat you were free to take it off and there was no restriction to groups gathering outside; as such, the parks were full of silent lovers and friendly banter and we were free to roam the streets at all hours of night.  

While Porto was a highlight, we were in-country to explore and we wanted to experience inland as well as the coast. We rented a car to get further afield; as I signed the rental agreement I asked the woman what her favourite part of the country was and she favoured north — so we scrapped our plans and followed her suggestion to the regional park that borders Portugal and Spain, pulling off on small detours as we went. It was the right call. The north of Portugal is far less developed than the south and the collection of small towns are quaint, quiet and picturesque; curious faces followed us as we passed and my own face was as equally enchanted by the sight of the black-clad women, dressed head-to-foot in the traditional woollen clothing of the region. We pulled off to explore the remains of forts that were scattered around the countryside, open to wander freely and empty of a single other soul. It was amazing to be free to explore important historical sites left to blend into the natural surroundings. We pulled off at natural springs and jumped off rocks into the icy water with locals who where taking time off from the heat. 

We also explored the popular Douro Valley, home of the countries oldest and most renown port houses. The stretch of land along the river was a beautiful and lush, with scattered vineyards and quaint villages along its edges. The Douro Valley is well known and a popular destination, and under normal conditions advance bookings at the vineyards were required. Given the impact of Covid, however, we were fortunate to be able to explore in relaxed isolation areas that tend towards hordes of tourists. Without an agenda, we pulled into vineyards along the way and sample the regions liquid richness. Our bilges are now stored with a variety of very fine port, corked reminders of our time in this beautiful part of the world. 

The end of our stay in Porto marked the beginning of our social life in Portugal. Days before departure I learned that Sue, my previous boss at Noonsite, lived two hours away from us in Spain, and she offered to come meet us with her family; we met in person for the first time and the connection between all of us was immediate, turning a working relationship into a special friendship. We also bumped into an interesting American couple who were achieving a six-year low budget extended travel lifestyle, and we invited them to join us on a cruise down the coast. Rhonda and Ryan stayed for a week, entreated us to their amazing bartending skills and engaged us with stories of their vagabond experiences. We sailed together 150 miles from Porto to Cascais on the central west coast, introducing them to the magic of phosphorescence-encased dolphin at night that resembled glowing torpedoes that showered millions of miniature shooting stars when they broke the surface of the water.  

As we saw them off we welcomed Margot and her partner Rory. It had been fifteen years since our days working together as dive masters in Mozambique and as many years since we’d last seen each other; reconnecting with Margot was a last-minute opportunity to reunite and the fifteen years could have been fifteen weeks — time hadn’t altered the person or the bond. We also had the opportunity to visit them at their farm in Alentejo, where Braca got to shoot a gun, Ayla caught wild doves, I got lessons in home-made yoghurt, and we caught, killed, and butchered our meals straight off the farm. 

At the same time, we also met Fiona and Iain on SV Ruffian and bonded over an unexpected mini-cyclone that hit Lisbon with 50-knot winds. They became our travelling partners for the rest of our time in Portugal as we sailed, explored, ate, and drank our way in union down the Portuguese coast. Iain and I started a regular run club, a relief for my unexercised body and Fiona and I tried to commit ourselves to beach yoga with semi-success. They were far more organised and did their research in advance (as apposed to our lazy efforts), and thanks them we were entreated to a full schedule of events and maximised our time in every town we pulled into.

Eventually, we made it to Portimao on the southern Algarve coast where John and the kids flew out on a quick trip to the UK to visit family. I stayed behind to care for the boat and our two cats, thinking I would settle into a quiet week on my own. As Portugal was proving to be for us, however, it was a week of continuous social activity and varied daytime excursions as I explored nearby towns, cultural sites, and the famous Benjali caves. The Portimao Marina was full of friendly, sociable yachties and thanks in particular to a resident couple in the marina, Leah and Ricardo, it was quick to feel like home. I had to schedule in my down time just to grab a quiet moment onboard my empty boat. But it was as I chose it, and days turned into weeks as we filled our time in the busy hubhub on Portugals south coast. 

As it always is, time to move comes much sooner than desired. The beautiful summer season was starting to turn to autumn, and the weather would soon become unpredictable. As the Covid situation in the Caribbean was still unclear, may cruisers who intended on sailing west turned east towards the Mediterranean. I’d always expected that I would be drawn in myself, however our summer on the outskirts was enough for me to turn my back on this popular destination. As odd as it sounds, for I absolutely loved our time in Portugal, the experience was enough to curb my interest in cruising the Med. I’ve always been interested in travelling to places I’ve not been to before and to have as many different experiences as I can gather on my trips abroad. I’d always said I would enjoy a season in the Mediterranean as it would be a very different kind of cruising than we were used to, but after our time in Portugal I’m ready to move on. I know this will be refuted by others who have travelled through and highly rate it, but for me Europe isn’t the place for a cruising boat. I want to be in Europe, not alongside it. I can get the same experiences by car, train, bus, bike, camper van, tennis shoe as I can by boat, so I’ll save cruising for places I can’t get to otherwise. I will use Atea as a mode of transport to take me to places I cannot otherwise access: isolated islands, remote fishing communities, inaccessible reefs, and the big blue yonder. Europe will call me back one day with a rucksack on my back and a Eurorail pass in my pocket. For now I sail away from the marinas and the malls and the motorways and head for shores where I can set both my anchor and my feet in the sand and be a cruiser in the true sense of the word.

Arrival on West Coast Panama

We are currently on Panama’s west coast, having enjoyed some unexpected delights — swimming with modular rays and whale shark, and watching humpback swim through our anchorage. The birdlife isn’t to be missed either, with flocks that swarm in large groups flying past in regular interval. 

We are currently hauled out with some preparation before the Pacific crossing. We will detour north to Costa Rica from Panama before heading west to maximise our time in Central America. Beautiful palm-fringed white sand islets lay ahead of us, so for now we look forward to dense jungle and the diversity of life that it holds. 

We just need to weld a small hole in our hull and we’re off….. a fortunate discovery before having to stick our fingers in to seal it. The joys of owning a steel boat!

Antigua: My First Caribbean Island

By Braca Daubeny

Antigua was the first island that we visited in the Caribbean. We sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Gambia and arrived in early January, 2021. When we pulled in I saw some of the most beautiful super yachts that I have ever seen. In particular, there was a massive sailing yacht which had gold-inlay in the front and had been polish to make it gleam. Whenever we drove past we often looked at it and thought that we’d love to swap our boat for that one — but I would need a lot more pocket change to buy it.

My first thought when arriving in Antigua was that we wouldn’t be having as many coconuts as I expected; there we no coconut tress that I could see anywhere. I was expecting a low-laying atoll with sandy beaches and glass-clear water, but instead the landscape was mountainous and bushy. The beaches were far lovelier than I imaged and that’s were I spent most of my time.

Because of Covid, there was a curfew that meant that restaurants could only serve take-away and we had to be back on our boat by 8PM. That was fine because at least we could swim and explore the town during the day. And it didn’t stop us meeting people. 

A few days after we arrived we met a family that lived on a boat called Bright Star. It was a catamaran who had four kids that were very lovely and I wanted to spend all my time with them. We got to play on their boat, swim in the water and share meals together. I was especially close to the two twins, Phil and Name, who were around my age. They were great buddies and it was nice to have them as close friends. 

It was quite a mellow place which was always full of something to do. I am glad we visited because I made some of my best friends and I will remember Antigua as a happy time. 

Rockin’ Across the Atlantic Trades

Week One (of Three): Distance to Run: 2,700 miles

We shot out of Gambia like a bullet and have been racing across the Atlantic Ocean for the past week in strong 20-25 knot winds and rough seas. The skies are grey and uninspiring, but we are covering 165 miles a day at an average of 7 knots — an impressive run for our steely gal. We will reduce our transit time considerably if we continue at this pace, so I don’t mind our rolling universe as it brings us quicker to our end goal. Bring on the rum!

John has been seasick since departure and he has been the only thing around us that is running at low speed, either sleeping soundly or quietly sitting in the cockpit. He is impressive in his ability to press on through the low, maintaining his watches and keeping the boat moving between heaves. While being sick the first few days is not uncommon for him, this is the longest period of time that he has been knocked flat by rough seas.

On the other hand, I have been enjoying the transit and have been occupying my time in the galley or on my computer trying to make order of my photos taken over the course of the past six months. I’m not sure how others who maintain blogs keep their stories, photos and videos up to date. For me, while in-country we are too busy sightseeing, socialising or maintaining home and family to get the time. My time comes when we put out to sea and I finally have some downtime to collect my thoughts and organise my photos. It is slightly overwhelming trying to process six months of media, so for those who wonder what we do stuck onboard a boat all day long, it isn’t all the different than a day in the office… other than the kids are at your feet and you have to work while catching your computer on the slide. So, kids, when you read this comment one day, know while you play lego dragons and I’m staring boggle-eyed at my screen, golden memorabilia is being spun for you.

But computer time really defines my midnight hours, when all onboard are asleep, as the days are far too busy. During the day we fill our hours with as much schoolwork as patience allows and a maximum amount of time at play. The kids are often lost in their imaginary worlds together which is often far too creative and active for adult involvement; that they haven’t thought to ask for a movie is a good sign that that they are happy to create their own stories. They spend hours with a world of dragon lego creations, doodle every design of submarine and unicorn drawings, they play hunters to their collection of oversized teddy-animals, and pretend to be dragons and catapult themselves around the cabin. 

However, I do like to get involved in creating the magic and have always made passages full of surprises and treats. We have a “guardian angel” that checks in on us, leaving behind books hidden under their pillows. We celebrate “moments in route,” such as departure day and half-way day, with aplomb and presents and an occasional beer. We have creative days, where we hold lego competitions, “theme days” where we dress up and stay in character for the day, and we hold puppet shows and dance parties. This time we’ve created an “idea chart,” inspired by the Advent Calendar we did on passage from the Canaries to Gambia. Every day we consult our calendar for the activity for the day which should help keep us inspired throughout the 2,600 miles of our oceanic passage.

But this trip has also brought surprises out of our control. I was listening to repeated whistles which I first thought sounded like dolphin chatting beneath the surface; but it was too rhythmic and repeated, so I decided we had a new creak onboard. I was laying on the aft bunk reading a book when I heard “dolphin!” So it was! Or… wasn’t? As the large pod raced up towards us, I looked out the port light to see one emerge inches away from my face. I was out of the bunk and on deck in a flash. We noticed they were dark grey in colour and resembled dolphin, but they were much larger in size with a rounded, bullet-shaped head. Our best guess is they were a pod of false killer whale. They stayed with us for a half-hour as we provided a mid-oceanic distraction.

Passage Play Calendar: Today we were assigned the task of creating our own jokes, which is both depressing in how truly unfunny we are and inspiring that we require so little to keep us entertained. Braca was inspired by our earlier screening of the Hunt for Red October and rolled with submarine jokes, said, ”What is a bullet and lives in the ocean? A submarine (da dum)! Ayla and I, inspired by or recent crocodile and hippo sightings in Gambia, ran with the Africa theme: “Why does a rhino charge? Because she has no cash in her pocket” and “Why does an elephant have a long nose? Because he lies all the time” (da dum dum)! John ran with the old classic, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” He got booed by his own fan club.

We’ve had no other boat traffic visible on the plotter since our first 24-hours, when we had lots of boats visible with the flash of t heir torch indicating our need to navigate around them in the night. Once we got far enough from the fishing fleet and cleared the shipping lanes, we haven’t sighted a single ship on the plotter. Watch is still maintained on a 15-minute schedule, but it means we can relax and focus on wind direction and boat speed which is easy in trade-wind conditions. There has only been one boat on the plotter – us – for the past week and then last night, bam!, two ships pass us within two miles. A reminder that, while we are out of the shipping lanes, we are not the only ones out on this beautiful open ocean. 

Oh, and speaking of fishing fleet, we now travel with our own fleet of fish hunters. I have ceased trying to save the flying fish that land onboard Atea and accept our cats as true fisher-felines. I figure this lifestyle deprives them of birds and mice, and they look up so proudly when they capture a self-sacrificing fish in their jaws. Ihlosi still stands to the side, unsure of her approach but Ingwe is on them as soon as they hit the deck. They are easy prey given we are being continually bombarded with flying fish all the time. Every morning I put on the kettle, feed the kids and sweep the scales out of the cockpit. Now that Ingwe is eating daily rations of sushimi, our slinky cat is starting to carry a full belly! 

Today is the end of our first week at sea and marks both our completion of the first third of our trip and, more remarkably, our transit of the line made earlier in the year when we sailed north from South Africa. Today we complete our capital “P” of the Atlantic: Bottom point South Africa, top of the line the Azores, the curve Portugal and the Canaries, and closing the letter is a spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at 14N/30W. It is significant as most cruisers carry forward in more of a straight line in towards their destination. We write in cursive in our cruising script. And so, we crack a mini-beer to toast to the occasion. Also, we are finally heading west for the first time since we started “heading west” at the beginning of this season, eight months from our departure in South Africa on 1st of June. Yippee! It has taken us ten years to get exactly halfway around the globe. We will run at hyper-speed for the second half, as we have only finances to cover the year it will take us to get the boat back home.

Week Two: Distance to Run: 2,600m

Our first week was marked by continuous grey skies. Mercifully, the second week has been marked by blue and slightly lighter winds. It has been great to see a vibrant sea again and finally we feel as if we are in the trades. We race across the Atlantic in conditions I’d expected of a transit across this part of the ocean, settled into consistent trade winds under a sky and sea of vibrant blue. Since we first pulled up our sails and set our course to English Harbour, Antiqua, we have held a heading of 280-300 degrees all the way. Our wind — and thus our track — hasn’t shifted in two weeks. Watches include the micro-management of our sails, small adjustments in response to the slight shift in the wind that blows aft across our starboard side, but our sails haven’t moved position since we raised them at the start of this trip. Our wind vane is proving her weight in gold as she carries us silently across the sea, hour after hour, day after day.  Unfortunately, we replaced our old batteries in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, Canaries, and the replacements have left us in a worse position than before the “upgrade.” As a result, as the batteries drop to 23.0 volts three times a day and we have to turn on the engine to charge the batteries.

To add to the noise of the engine, there is also the howling of the cats. I knew bengals were talkers, but an un-neutered female takes it to an entirely different level. Our female cat, Ihlosi, went on her first heat during this passage and the hormone driven change in her behaviour is remarkable. There are the hours she spends looking out over the water howling for a mid-ocean lover to mysteriously spring from the waves, her neutered brother totally indifferent to her plight.  From a demure cat in nature, she has catapulted into an over-zealous attention-seeker, desperate for affection. She finally gave up on her Romeo and reduced herself to human companionship for tactile stimulation. “Cat sex is vigorous,” I hinted to the kids as I showed them how to pat her back and tickle her belly, all taking turns to keep the little harlot contented — and miraculously, quiet. 

Highlight activities this week have included a Lego competition, themed after the How to Train Your Dragon series we are reading together. While Braca won on ingenuity (and dialog… the presentation of his word was an endless stream of chatter) and Ayla won on highest value in her twin treasure boxes of gold bullion, John and I tied in the lethal body part category… me with my killer nipples and John with his death-by-oversized-detachable-buttocks. We also enjoyed a dress-up day in the same theme, having used our lego designs to create our persona dragonistica extravaganza for the day. 

As for unexpected entertainment, we spent a day chasing around the sound of a repeated radio signal, our irritation mounting as the scratchy noise continued without being any closer to the source of the noise. Having resigned ourselves to a passage of tolerance for this mysterious omnipresent noise, it was on hour five that we opened the chart table to find out the static noise was coming from our handheld which had been inadvertently turned on. Silence and relief! We banned all music, singing and humming for the remainder of the day. 

Week Three: Distance to Run: 700m

We are now down to our final days. Tomorrow we will also dig through the bilge for a bottle of champagne, and the following morning we will pop the cork as we pull into the Caribbean and celebrate. I was expecting this to be a rum punch passage, minus the cocktails and palm trees, given we stayed in the trades — famous for consistent winds, rolling seas and sunshine — the entire distance of the 2,700 mile trip. We’ve sailed at 280-310 degrees west with 10-20 knot following winds the entire way and we logged 170 miles over a 24-hour period one of the days, Atea’s all-time record. We got the wind, in part the blue skies, but the “rolling seas” are a bit of an understatement. With fast wind behind us we’ve been corking it (an entirely differently kind of cork than we will be experiencing when we pop that champagne!) The boat has been rolling fast over the large swell and it isn’t the first time that I’ve been appreciative of Atea’s high sides, as we’ve been dry regardless of the ocean’s best attempts to board us. Regardless, after three weeks of lateral aerobics as we balance with the roll, I’m looking forward to the flat waters of a calm anchorage more than ever. 

While the big swell made me think of storms to the north of us and of the political storm that may be even worse, nothing brings to mind the unpredictability of the sea and the potential for disaster as does finding a lifeboat drifting out at sea. We were 800 miles from the closest landfall when we sighted it. The hull and the lines dragging in the water were clean and the paint still in good condition, indicating the boat hadn’t been at sea for long. There weren’t oars or oar-locks, so it wasn’t set up to row but there wasn’t an engine either, so there was no means of propulsion onboard, but there were rope hand-holds on the outer side that ran all around the boat, something I’d expect to find on a lifeboat. Odd. It was an intense moment when we altered course and pulled up to investigate… were there people onboard and if so, what state would they be in? There was nothing but a few rags and six 2-liter water containers strapped inside. What was the story?

The long range radio hasn’t worked properly for a few seasons, and this year we decided to invest the thousands needed to buy a new one. Long range radio is a dying art as most sailors use satellite comms these days, and we struggled to get the installation right without expert advice available to us. Finally, we found the right cable and specialist support in the Canaries and we are now able to receive weather and email. Our first download brought news that a favourite aunt of John’s passed away while we’ve been out here. It is the second family death that has caught us unawares while at sea, and it reminds us how far away we are from our family and friends in this lifestyle. We were also able to send a signal to the Atlantic Maritime Rescue centre about the drifting lifeboat; at the minimum it is a potential hazard to other ships at sea as it would be impossible to see at night, at most there may be people in need of emergency support.

Moving on to lighter topics, I’ll take a moment to talk some trash. I don’t really like to talk rubbish, but sometimes dirty matters just need to be commented on. As I was preparing my final meal of the passage it hit me how truly skilled we have become at waste management while at sea. Take rubbish for instance. Carting along bags of rubbish across the ocean would be fine if you had the storage for it, but we don’t; unless we want to live on top of a rubbish heap for a month, we must manage and maintain. Usually the bin is filled in two days. We are still filling our first rubbish bag three weeks and it still isn’t at capacity. Staring down into the dark abyss, the gravity of this accomplishment hit me: Where had all our trash gone? If I break down the waste and account for it in sub-groups, it makes sense. The food scraps go overboard, the plastics get compressed and the cans crushed, and John digs deep to ensure it is all folded into the smallest dimensions possible.  And then I had my second epiphany: Our tidy trash gets sorted and organised with a higher degree of consciousness than the rest of the boat. Kinda sad to say, but true. Perhaps a confession better not made to the public. 

We conclude the week with Floor is Lava day, whereby we all had to jump onto high ground if someone (invariably Braca) yelled, “FLOOR IS LAVA!,” pass the parcel and a treasure hunt. Tomorrow is our final day and we end it with “Teach Mum How to Play Minecraft” day… oh the merriment. I ooze with excited anticipation.

On our last full day of passage we also had our first contact with another boat — and another human — for the first time in three weeks. We’d seen a boat pop up on our AIS and kept scouting the horizon but couldn’t see them at five miles off, not at three miles and not at two miles off. Where was this boat? Was it technological error? Was our AIS failing us? Within five miles, and certainly within two, we should be able to see them as we crested the waves and looked out at the top. Then we suddenly got a call on the radio when the boat was 1.5 miles away and still out of sight. They were in route to Antiqua, just as we were, on a 9m rowing kayak. “A what?!” I returned, surely I’d misheard. But they confirmed four people and four oars on two hours shifts for the past 42 days. We popped out, no longer looking for a mast but for a tiny pink rowboat and they were right abeam of us, visible only as they rode up on top of the peak of the swell. Of random ocean sighting, we were starting to collect them on this trip. Apparently we will roll into Antiqua behind twenty others, all competing in an offshore race from the Graciosa in the Canaries to Antiqua. And here we are, a day away from the end of our passage feeling we’d done the hard yards to get there. These women put us right back in our place! We watched as they stood and waved, then slowly dropped back and disappeared. I sat thinking what their journey had been like, in contrast to our own across the same body of water. The swell has been huge the past two weeks and keeping the boat in control would have been hard work to say the least. I sat looking out at sea in awe of them, full of respect, then popped down and made the kids some popcorn before settling into a family movie on our soft, warm settee. I haven’t felt more comfortable all trip. I know I won’t be feeling quite as deserving, however, when I crack open that bottle of champagne tomorrow to toast our arrival into the Caribbean.

Land Go!

Our passage notes on our 1,000 mile passage from the Canaries to Gambia

Day 1: John said it, and he’s right: We should have a phrase we say when we watch land slip down past the horizon. Every time we see land again after an ocean passage we greet it with an enthusiastic, “Land Ho!” Rightfully so, as it is uncommon to human nature to go without that beautiful green earth underfoot. So, when we get that first glimpse of a 360 degree view of nothing but blue we should have a universal sailors cry, perhaps something like, “Land Go!” That’s it – I like it. Land Go! There’s an enthusiasm for what lays ahead and a proper nod to the island or continent we leave behind. 

At 9:00am on 7/12/2020 we hauled up anchor and sailed out of Las Palmas, Canaries heading southwest with a distance of 1,000 miles ahead of us. For all of 2020 we’d planned on heading from South Africa to Western Europe to end the year in the Caribbean, expecting to sit under palm trees and be sipping rum when Santa pulled in. But over the past two weeks I caught wind of the possibility of Gambia, and my intrigue was captured. A big muddy river filled with crocodiles surrounded by pristine native jungle filled with birds with overhanding bush filled with monkeys — I’m in! So, with a little persuasion I convinced the crew we should head for a small detour before crossing the Atlantic. Only a thousand miles to the south, a 300 mile river to transit, then back out to that rum. 

Oh, and Land Go! At 13:00 we watched the tip of Teide slip out of sight, the tallest peak in Spain. Land Go feels right – for the land we leave behind, and also for the land that lay ahead.

Our first day at sea is always a quiet one of adjustment. Usually we’ve been running at full speed so the forced enclosure feels like a sanctuary of calm. The movement of the boat also takes some adjustment, as we finalise stowage by securing the odd repetitive knock of things left untucked. Homework is paused. The books come out. We nap. We read. We nap. We read. It is all the pace we should enjoy at anchor, but never seem to find time for. 

But to stir up some trouble, we’ve collected two stowaway elves in Las Palmas. Not as in mischievous elfin-like crew, but two small red and green cotton-stuffed elves that have been entertained the kids since they’ve come onboard. My daughter is a firm believer — these elves are eyes and ears for Santa, though they’ve yet to make the desired impact on bringing out sweet and diminishing sour. I can’t tell if my son, however, is truly gullible or if I’m the gullible one for thinking he’s falling for the magical creatures act. Either way, they are proving to be a lot of entertainment as they mysteriously appear in odd places and odd positions around the boat. I’m also not sure if the kids are having more fun, or the kid in the adults are. Either way, the “elf magic” is helping to keeping things light and entertaining onboard. 

Day 2: We are clipping along at six knots with a consistent 20 knot north-easterly wind, but the rolling seas are keeping things lively onboard. It isn’t comfortable per se, but at least the conditions are reliable and the weather forecast indicates we can expect wind all the way. The day onboard was rather dull as John and I devoured books and the kids got sucked into their tablet. We tend to keep a tight reign on digital time, but somehow today became defined by them. The quiet was good, but the battles that come from it are not – too much time zoned out turns our two angels into little monsters. So, I change the passcodes once again. 

To the rescue was their guardian angels, who come to visit on passage and deliver books under their pillow while they sleep. There’s a lot of magic onboard, usually that twinkles to life when we put out to sea. For those who wonder how we can keep sane while away from outside contact for so long, you obviously haven’t yet been introduced to our magical kingdom of fairies and angels. 

Night watches are still cold. We are at 24 degrees north but the wind is coming down from a wintery Europe. We look forward to the tropics where a blanket of warm wind makes the evenings comfortable. It lays just days ahead of us, and I look forward to sitting out under the stars when it comes. For now, a blanket of wool warms my body as I sit out in the cold wind. 

Day 3: We are now going s l o o o w w w. Two knots slow. In the night our genoa halyard chafed through and our sail was dumped into the sea bringing us to an abrupt stop. It is now lying crumpled up on deck and soiled with antifouling,  like an oversized wet nappie and just as useless. After a few hours of slow progress under jib alone we hoist the main  and gain some speed again. There are alternate halyards that we could use to re-hoist it, but getting it threaded up the foil is not something we want to try at sea. We will  see the rest of the way under jib and main; under-powered but at least moving at a reasonable 5 knot speed with good wind. It won’t break any records to the finish line, but let’s just hope we that’s the only thing we don’t break. 

Other than gear failure, all else remains calm for the day. I am months behind on organising photos, editing video clips and writing since my computer died on the long-distance haul across the Atlantic, and now that I’m digitised again with a new computer I’m catching up while on passage. I’m not sure what the pace of life on other boats is like, but for John and I we remain incredibly busy when we are cruising — boat maintenance, the general upkeep and homeschooling combined with maximising our time in a country and socialising — that our down time gets completely absorbed. I was amazed at how many people we met in the Canaries brought crew onboard for the passages, as well as how many people asked to be our crew… No thank you! Give away the only quiet time we get to enjoy onboard? You got to be kidding me! 

Day 4: We finally turned the corner of the western “Horn of Africa,” or just rounded her continental rump, depending on which way you look at it. The only significance being we worked so hard just four months ago to cross this point heading north from South Africa, and now we are retracting our steps south. if you’ve followed our route through the years, we do seem to run backward before moving forward. New Zealand – Tonga – Fiji – New Zealand in 2011 (and from New Zealand back up to Vanuatu in 2012, Fiji’s western neighbour). Australia north to south in 2012 and north again in 2013. Malaysia – Thailand – Malaysia in 2014. Chagos – Maldives – India – Maldives in 2015. Mozambique – Madagascar – Mozambique in 2018. Africa – Europe – Africa – Caribbean this 2020. When are we going to learn just to travel in a straight line?! 

It appears that our cat – the more inquisitive of the two – has turned into our first truly qualified fisherman onboard. I write this surrounded by the pungent aroma of fish and my cat running wild around the spot in which I just saved (or more likely, half-saved) a very large flying fish. Yesterday I was not the honourable saviour; I caught Ingwe with just a fish heed, all other parts devoured. I sat and watched him as he ate that head down, leaving behind nothing more than a tiny jaw full of miniature teeth. While I prefer fish in the ocean, at least our mog leaves no waste.

Day 5: The kids have been on good form, but seems the two of us picked up a minor stomach bug and have been worst for wear this trip. John and I are finally starting to round the corner, though I do confess John is rounding a little slower than I. Today I woke feeling back to normal, so it was board games with the kids in the morning followed by school and then catching up on some of the advent calendar activities I’d put together for the kids. Each day they cut a square out of their paper calendar and a message is revealed; little treats, small activities, the sort. I was cunning and put in a few self-serving items like the massage I got from Braca the other day and the cup of tea Ayla made me for breakfast. But on low speed, tasks like baking cooked, puppet theatre, and making Santa and elves were delayed. So today we crafted in the afternoon while devouring hot baked cookies, enjoyable for child and adult alike.

To add to the perspective comment earlier, our new House batteries that we bought in the Canaries to replace our old dying ones seem to have their shortcomings. Regardless that they are just off the shelf, they seem not to hold their charge. So, while we are sailing all the way (good), we have to listen to the thump thump thump of the engine for a few hours every day while the engine charges the batteries (very annoyingly bad). 

Three out of seven. My cats look at me in disgust every time I ply a fish from their mouth and toss it gasping and flapping back to sea. I get it — its their catch and I am depriving them of their glory. But if John, kids and I are going to abstain from fishing for “the cause,” then so too must they.

Day 6: We are now at 19 degrees north and truly in the tropics. I felt it the moment I woke up (correction, was waken – you never get the luxury of waking up naturally on passage) as I was sweating in the clothes that had been keeping me warm the past few days. I peeled off the layers and sighed my contentment; there is nothing like that moment when you have sailed clear of the colder weather. Unfortunately, with it went the wind and without our genoa, ten knots wind was giving us three knots through the water. 

Today was a social one for our little pack, energised by the change in weather and the decrease in roll inside the boat. We did artwork and crafts, schoolwork with unusual cooperation and played Monopoly for hours. I’ve been enjoying the time we get together on passage, so different than the more busier life we tend to have when in country, maximising experience and exploring the sites while trying to inject a modicum of routine. Routine? As if. When you know you only have a few weeks or months in a country, it is hard to let the days roll by without feeling the push to take in as much as possible. But on passage we have our roles, our timeframes, our routine and for a short period of time, the regularity of it is nice. 

Oh, but never expect this life doesn’t throw its curveballs! We were sailing along comfortably today when in the near-distance an orange float and black form floated past, just out of sight to catch the detail. All hands on deck as we whipped Atea about face, Braca hollering all the while, “I’m scared! I don’t want to see a skeleton!” The hint of death put an urgency in it, but alas, after our quick response to save the day it was only a torn orange lifejacket that we plucked from the sea. It was enough to cause pause and reflection, however, and bow in reverence to the sea.  

Moths. An acceptable replacement to flying fish. One hundred miles offshore and they were fluttering into the cabin, drawn in by the light. The cats have hit payday, and we applaud their acrobatic leaps and summersaults as they manically tried to soar to new heights to reap their reward. We don’t have the most agile cats, so the display was of particular hilarity as they bumbled around, falling off the companionway steps and landing on each other in an escalating fever to catch the moths.

Day 7: I concede. If my cats choose to be pescatarians, so be it. I’ve tried my best to help protect the continuous stream of fish that make they way onto our boat, but when they jump the six feet to clear our freeboard and then manage to get through the netting that surrounds our guardrails, then somehow bump up and additional two feet to get onto our topsides and then wiggle across the deck and flop through a six inch square hatch into the heads, then they have a death wish I won’t interfere with. For the first time, our male cat who usually gulfs down his food and then shoulder-badges into his sister for his share of her food, now takes a sideward glance at this bowl at mealtime and then saunters off indifferently. He has eyes on a bigger prize. 

Today’s Christmas calendar instruction was to perform a song and dance. After our midday game of never-ending Monopoly, we pulled out the ukuleles but failed to pull any talents out and brought the speakers out on deck perform every style of dance we dare not to ever perform in public. For the first time in days, there was an absence of flying fish on deck — seems we even managed to scare the fish away.

But what did fall on deck was a long, thin VHF antenna aerial. Seems Atea is in a slow, continual state of disintegration this trip. The irony is we spent an extra week in Las Palmas working on sorting out all our comms, bringing on an electronics expert to work on our long range radio and buying and reinstalling a new VHF. After years of crappy comms, we now loose the simplest component that brings us right back to where to started: Mute and uncommunicative.

Day 8: We are 70 miles east of Dakar and have turned in towards land and a direct line to our destination, the town of Banjul which now lies 130 miles in front of us. As if that weren’t excitement enough, soon after we were broadsided by a breaking wave that hit our hull at exactly the right angle and sent a wall of water upward and sideward, flooding our cockpit and aft cabin. The bed and carpeted floor were soaked and the kids came bolting out in fits of laughter as they stood drenched in salt water and holding up the dripping teddies they’d been playing with. For the kids, it was as if the boobie traps they’d been setting throughout the boat over the past few days had finally escalated into a grand finale, the ultimate practical joke being laid on both parents who were looking around the boat in mute astonishment. 

Day 9 : As we continue to close the coast during the night, various fishing boats and floats are seen – some are lit, some are not, and eventually we heave to until daylight so that the last 20 miles are in the light of a hazy African dawn. By midmorning we are anchor down off Banjul, and another 1,000 miles have passed under Atea’s keel.  The heat rises along with a cacophony of noise from trucks belching smoke and fishing vessels preparing their nets. As we listen to the cheerful hubbub of noises and bubbling voices, we realise that we have left calm controlled Europe behind and are about to dive once more into the chaos and reward of Africa.

To view photos of our trip, go to our Atea FB page.

Covid Takes the World to Sea

For years the questions have come from friends and family when questioning us about extended ocean passages: How can you handle so many days confined to a small space? Don’t the kids go crazy when they can’t go outside to play? How do you and your husband handle being together 24-7 with no break? Thanks to Covid-19, everyone now has the answer. National lockdowns have given every citizen in every country across the globe a first hand experience of the intensity of this intimacy. 

Now that people have experience being locked indoors for weeks on end with their most beloved, it is understandable to all how we seek distance from those we are closest to. While we might imagine the bonding that comes with limitless time together and constant contact, in truth too much time starts to merge identities. Your other becomes your identical twin. Now that couples around the world have experienced that 24-7 partnership, outsiders can finally get a glimpse of the cruising couple: Tweedledum and Tweedledee. You spend so much time joined at the hip that you talk the same, walk the same, cough the same, curse the same, stay sane the same. Everything you do you same the same. Your days are so mutual that what one does is almost indistinguishable from the other. There are no evening meals where you share the days activity — you mimicked each step of that days activity. While a lockdown partnership may sound wonderful just ask a cruising couple and they’ll give you an honest answer, albeit the exact same one. 

Things get even more complicated if there are kids involved. Particularly school-age kids. It is one thing to cruise with an infant who gurgles and wiggles and only cries for milk. But take on a child who has learned demand and volume, and a confined space gets even more difficult to handle. I have several friends who now know what it is like to spend morning to night with kids who are cooped up at home with energy to burn. After sharing the experience of lockdown in close confines, they are no longer telling us how lucky we are to be traveling as a unit any longer. They have had a sample of the cruising experience and they are now more afraid of their kids than they are of Covid itself. I have no sympathy. Those parents have gardens with bicycles and trampolines and tree houses. And doors that lock. A cruising family has no escape. You wake with your child in your face and it remains there all day, begging to be fed and entertained and nurtured and cuddled and read to and played with and talked to. There are no neighbourhood houses to shoo them off to, classmates who invite them for an afternoon date, sports programs to entertain them or extended family to claim them. They are yours and yours alone — every minute of every hour of every day.   

Bring those children to the table for a session of homeschooling and the recipe for mental insanity is complete. Not only do children resent their parents filling the role of teacher, parents are rarely trained for it. You blunder over describing concepts you know but have little idea how you learned it, and you force your children to sit there while you try and figure it out. But the time you feel you’ve articulated your point, they are bored and distracted and you’ve lost the stage. If you have more than one child, they fight for the better pencil, the preferred seat, the newer booklet. As soon as you sit down they are immediately hungry or tired or busy. For years I’ve heard people praise my patience, my creativity, my dedication, my miracle-mom efforts. Not any more. Every parent with school-age children now understands exactly what homeschooling is like. Most parents I know who were asked to homeschool during a surge in Covid cases lasted a handful of days before the plaster on the walls started cracking from the screams of parent and child alike. Want to know what it is like to cruise with children? Reflect on school closures before you decide to take your kids out to sea. 

Now consider adding working parents into the scene. For many, this year has brought the office home. No more commuter traffic. No more burnt bread scoffed down as that first cup of coffee stains that newly laundered shirt. No more early-morning preening for a glossier version of you. Now that office and home are one people are praising the void of traffic jams, lack of early morning shuttle services and pyjama-clad conference calls. For the better part of ten years we’ve avoided what many call the “rat race,” skirting the traditional work environment for such at-home luxuries. Now governments across the globe are demanding that the majority of employees do the same. Working families have been required to find a place for home, school and office as everyone seeks to fulfil their roles in a shared space. 

For many, however, this includes multiple rooms in a multilayered house. In cruising terms a boat is not only home, school and office, it also serves as garage, service station, grocery store and storage facility. A cruiser will wake up and smell the job list before they smell the coffee. The work desk doubles as chart table, nav station, electronics and technology centre, and general dumping ground. With a miniature seat fixed to the wall and knees tucked up against a cramped belly, cruisers usually work jammed into the corner of a room that also serves as kitchen, dining table, lounge, bathroom and bedroom. They stare mindlessly at the computer screen as their partner bellows from the galley and the kids climb the walls of the saloon. To compound matters, they try to maintain focus while being surrounded by a long list of boat jobs that continue to pile up and, if neglected for too long, begins to tap relentlessly on the brain as a reminder of things left undone. You want to work in peace and quiet? Never envy the employed cruiser. One day in their shoes and you’ll be demanding the earlier version of your coffee-stained burnt toast life.

Regardless of degree, however, we all have our stresses and a number of friends who were on lockdown at home were starting to feel the pressure of proximity in close quarters. They needed to find an outlet or an escape route. A few would grab their keys, jump behind the wheel and hit the road. Confinement feels quite different when you are moving at high speed. Some quarantined themselves in “Zoom Only” rooms and would hunker down for a group chat with friends-turned-therapists. There were those who dedicated the lockdown period to self-care and spent a small fortune on stationary bicycles and home gyms, and others who dedicated their pets by default for an excuse to walk around the block. 

I had friends in each of these categories who repeatedly told me, “Ah, but you have the life! Simple. Carefree.” True, to a degree. But for those of you who think lockdown at home is similar to being confined on a boat, there are a few key differences of note. For the cruiser there is no “other space” to go to get a clear head — on a boat you have no escape and no detox outlet. There is no gym to help sweat out frustrations, no bestie to sit beside you while you rant, no dog to walk, no fast car to race, no bubblebath to soak in. Then there are the practicalities to deal with: The fridge on a boat is the size of a chilly bin and when the food runs out there is no car to zip down to the grocery store. In fact, often there is no grocery store. Tired? At home you can just excuse yourself to your nice comfy bed. On passage you tag team with your partner and set a watch schedule that allows a three-hour rest interval, often on a surface that is rolling about and repeatedly tossing you out of bed and onto the floor. You miss your friends and you can see they are online, but the bandwidth isn’t strong enough to hold a good connection. Want a dog? Buy a fish. Want a friend? Buy a book. Want a community? Go home. So, before you think that life onboard a boat is something to envy, just reflect on your lockdown experience before shopping for that boat. 

While there is nothing positive about a global pandemic and Covid is truly a savage beast, the national response to containment has given the world an insight into the experience of long-distance cruising. For my friends and family who have repeatedly asked through the years, “What is it like?” — they now know. They may not know it exactly, but they know it close enough. I have a feeling I will see a shift in commentary after 2020. Instead of the usual “I wish I could,” the standing line is going to be “there is no way I would!”

Winning the Jackpot

Winning the Jackpot

Having departed South Africa on blind faith, we look back at the last six months of travel knowing that we won the jackpot when we gambled in June. At that time, we sailed away from a strict winter lockdown in South Africa into an ocean with borders closed in every direction: Namibia, closed. Brazil, closed. The Caribbean, closed. Europe, closed.  We departed into the the Atlantic knowing we couldn’t return and aware that we wouldn’t be accepted anywhere we we heading. Our blind faith lay in the belief that Europe would open within the two months it would take us to sail the 6,000 miles from the southern Atlantic to the northern Atlantic. 

We rolled into the Azores at the end of July to a warm welcome. The chaos that resulted in the early Covid confusion had cleared into a smooth entry protocol: An email was sent to our Sat phone a week before our arrival welcoming us to the island and accepting orders for food delivery on arrival. The officials had prepared a free covid test with results given within 24-hours. We were free to travel around the archipelago unhindered. 

After spending two months under strict lockdown in South Africa and two months of total isolation at sea, being given the pass to travel freely through the archipelago was akin to winning the lottery ticket. The weather was warm, the water inviting, the islands Covid-free and we could wander around the streets freely. We slowly island-hopped our way around the country enjoying our new found freedom, we were finally doing what we’d set out to do four months earlier — cruise. 

After filling ourselves with the splendour of the volcanic isles and treating ourselves to a very relaxed atmosphere free of the usual bombardment of summer tourism, we decided to follow our what we could of our original plan of cruising the European Eastern Atlantic. We sailed across from Terceria to Porto and spent the next two months exploring Portugal from northern to southern tip. We struck it lucky again as Covid was under control and restrictions were lax: The bars and cafes were open, no reservations were required and the lines to get into the top sights were non-existent. Given the reduced tourism, we were free to experience the country void of the usual thong of summer holiday-makers and beer-binging beach-goers. Places that usually required bookings weeks in advance and would pack you in with another 200 visitors were on a walk-up basis and you shared with no one. We explored castles and cathedrals, drove inland through mountains, sipped port in the valleys and sailed around Europe’s westernmost tip down to the stunning cliffs and caves of the southern Algarve.

After the indecision and gamble of deciding to cruised in 2020, so far we have experienced hassle-free entry into Europe through the Azores and a wonderfully relaxed and comfortable cruising season; for us the decision has been the right one. As Spain and France experience their second wave of Covid infections and winter descends on Europe, we decided it was time for us to start moving on. We sailed for at the Canaries at the end of October and are currently enjoying the stark beauty of these volcanic isles. 

Looking towards 2021 we must decide if we are going to maintain our seats at the 2021 poker table. Do we fold and head home? Do we hold our cards and remain in place through uncertainty? Do we place our bet and head for the Caribbean, hoping we hold the winning hand? As a second wave of Covid strikes Europe and America and countries are looking again at closing borders, perhaps a trip up Africa’s deep Gambia river is a sensible detour. No one can guarantee the outcome and we can only hope that our luck holds as we sail forward into uncharted territory in this Covid-influenced world.

Love at First Sight

In December 2010 John was surfing the internet looking at avaliable yachts online – not with the intent to buy, but to spend a little time in dreamland, an ocean fantacy that neither of us were looking to create. He found a yacht, Taiko, and with it we began discussions of turning this dream into reality. We put those thoughts on hold as we traveled Vietnam at the end of December, but resumed discussions when we returned a month later. Taiko was sold to her first bidder, but the seed was planted and we begun our search for another suitable yacht. We found one in Viginia, and were to begin conversations with the broker when we found out that we were pregnant.

Determined to bring this child into the world without letting it stop our dream of cruising, we altered plans. A yacht on the other side of the globe posed complications we thought best not to take on at this stage, we began our search again locally. Within a week we put an offer on a Ganley Solution we’d seen in Auckland, and on the day we had our 7 week ultrasound confirming the pregnancy, we received an acceptance on our offer to purchase Atea.

And so our adventure began. Within two months of purchase we completed an intense execution phase and on 5th of May, 2011, we departed Auckland for the South Pacific.