Barbuda is a low-lying coral island thirty miles north of Antigua, and one of the best hidden secrets of the Northern Antilles. Most of the 1,600 local residents live in the main city of Codrington, leaving the remainder of the island a collection of uninhabited beaches and coral lowlands. It is here that cruisers can enjoy the quiet solitude afforded in so few places throughout the Caribbean.
All beaches being equal, each of the anchorages were very difference experiences: Spanish Point was remote, wind swept and deserted, bringing together a tight cruising community where the kids collectively played on the beach and the adults kite-surfed in the afternoon and everyone came together in the evenings for a barbecue and bonfire. A new curfew had been enforced across Antigua and Barbuda, but this restriction felt a million miles away as we freely mingled under the stars. It was a return to coral waters and sandy beaches, but sadly much of the reef was dead and the fish life sparse, most notable ashore in the mass mounds of conch graveyards. As such, we focused on sports on top of the water rather than under it, enjoying a dedicated period of time for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Eventually the relentless trade winds that blowed a consistent 20 knots across the anchorage that drove us to seek shelter elsewhere. Spanish Point will remain in our minds a wild, windy and remote destination, yet equal in its beauty and the enjoyment of the constant social engagements with other cruisers.
We found a long, beautiful fine white sand beach at Coco Point that, unfortunately, had also been discovered by the local hotel industry. An exclusive water sports club dominated the best kiting spots, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the most of our corner of the beach. The kids enjoyed racing around on their newly-acquired water skis and John enjoyed spending time on his windsurfer, dragged down by kids catching a ride on the front of the board. We enjoyed a lobster dinner prepared by a local fisherman and the company of a few new cruising friends, a few of which became central to our enjoyment of the Caribbean further down the line.
Codrington sits at the northern tip of the island and provides a stunning pink sand beach that stretches for miles. We shared the anchorage with three other cruisers, enjoying lunch picnics in the afternoons and sunset cocktails in the evenings. The highlight was getting close to breeding frigate birds who were amassed in great numbers in the inner estuary. We took our paddle boards on an expedition to get closer to them, and by rowing across a narrow strip of land into the shallow brackish lagoon we were able to approach the frigate birds nesting grounds and silently observe the mating rituals as the males puffed their bulbous red throats and the females squawked their response.
Barbuda will be one of those destinations that provided unique experiences in each of the different anchorages we visited. It was filled with fantastic moments shared with the other cruisers, from lobster barbeques, daily water sport, evening bonfires — all made the more unique as our isolation from society meant we weren’t locked down by a curfew that were restricting so many others. Our days were full, our nights were full, and our memories are full from all the wonderful experiences.
We were interviewed by Yachting Magazine about our decision to leave a country under lockdown and how we were able to successfully continue cruising throughout the global crisis. Covid may have complicated our cruising plans, but it didn’t thwart them. Here is our account of our year traveling through the Atlantic — south to north, east to west: A Family’s 12,000-Mile Cruising Adventure.
Bonaire was a mini-holiday destination for us and we lapped up the luxuries through excellent shoreside meals, social sunset happy hours, desert hikes, round-the-island road trips and daily dives off the aft end of the boat. Diving in Bonaire is like hopping into an oversized aquarium, where everything is benign and beautiful, colourful and diverse, easy and accessible, placid and playful, all the way down to the miniature seahorses resting on the mooring block. There were none of the challenges that can be so typical of cruising in this small Dutch colony. Here, everything was easy: The weather, the life ashore, the life under water, the diving, the sailing, the socialising. Our days were full of fun and full of rum, without a worry in the world.
A full account of our time in Bonaire was published by PassageMaker in the following article: The ABCs of Bonaire.
South America has always been on my radar as a place to travel and when the opportunity came to sail along her northern shores it took less than an instant to say ‘yes!’
While the northern coast is known for strong winds and rough seas, once you make it to the mainland there is a world of wonder to explore: The high mountain ranges, remote national parks, quaint shoreside villages and bustling cities. While crime used to keep any but the wayward traveller away, Colombia has become a highly desirable holiday destination. Having spent time here, I can only concur. “Cruising Colombia” was part sailing through pristine isolated bays, part rustic inland travel, and part exploring thriving metropolises.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.