Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Barbados (2013)

We departed Ile St. Joseph off the coast of French Guiana early on March 23rd, en route to Barbados, 635 miles away.  The first day out was rough with short period, steep waves that are typical in the shallow waters off the South American coast.  We had NNE winds at 12-15 knots with 6-8 ft seas, and we were hard on the wind to get offshore and into deeper water.  We still had a boost from the current, so we actually made great progress, knocking off 156 miles the first day, but both of us were seasick and ready to stop pounding into the waves.

By the second day, we were in blue water again, and the wind shifted to the NE, enabling us to fall off to a more comfortable reach.   We averaged 6.5 knots for the following two days in what turned out to be very nice sailing.  The ITCZ was now behind us, and we had very few squalls and mostly clear skies.

By day four, the winds lightened and shifted to the east and our speed dropped to 5.5 knots.  This worked out well for the timing of our arrival, and we sailed into the lee of Barbados and the Caribbean Sea on the morning of March 27th.  By noon, we approached the deep water harbor where we were required to tie up for clearance procedures.  

Barbados is the most windward island in the Caribbean and is very popular for cruise ships.  Unfortunately, the port, customs and immigration offices were all located around the deep water basin that was built with these large vessels in mind.  The tall concrete walls used by these huge ships are not so good for a little sailboat, but the port requires all visiting yachts to come alongside to complete clearance. 

The port officials communicated our docking instructions to us over the VHF when we arrived, and after one look, we decided against it.  We radioed them for another option, which was just as bad.  After a bit of back and forth, they contacted a local tug boat that agreed to let us tie alongside.  This was not ideal, but a big improvement. 

It was a difficult approach, as the tug was tied up in a corner, underneath the bow of a cruise ship, and it took a couple of passes before we were alongside.  There were two men on board who helped secure our lines.  We positioned all of our fenders for maximum protection and tied off additional lines to keep us from coming up hard against the tug.  This took 15 minutes of adjustments before Saviah was finally secured well enough.  By then, the crew of the tug said they had to leave to help a cruise ship out, and we would have to untie. 

There was another tug in the harbor, so we moved up and re-tied.  Di grabbed our documentation and ran around to the various offices, while Andrew stayed onboard to adjust the lines and fend off.  Thankfully, the clearance was quick, and 30 minutes later, we were on our way.   

The Careenage in Bridgetown is the most protected spot on the island, and given the lack of good anchorages, we were really hoping to moor Saviah here for our stay.  The Harbor Master controls moorage in the Careenage, and he proved difficult to find, so we opted to anchor for the night and try back the next day.  We moved over to Carlisle Bay, one of the few places where anchoring is allowed on the island, and dropped the hook in 12 ft of clear water with a white sand bottom.  There was a bit of swell coming into the anchorage, but after being out at sea for four days, we were used to it.  The clear warm water made for great swimming right off the boat, which more than made up for the rolling motion.

The next morning, we finally reached someone at the harbor master’s office, and were happy to learn there was room in the Careenage for us.  We rowed to shore and headed into Bridgetown to fill out our paperwork at the office and scheduled our arrival time for later that afternoon. 

The Careenage is a narrow inlet in Carlisle Bay that connects with the Constitution River.  Later that afternoon, at our scheduled time, we motored in, and the drawbridge was raised so we could pull into the inner basin.  Boats in the Careenage tie stern-to the concrete wall along the perimeter, and the bow is tied off to moorings in the middle of the channel.  Since we don’t have a good way to get off our stern, we used the dinghy to get to and from shore. 

This was an interesting place to moor, as one of the downtown parks was directly behind us.  Park benches were only a few yards from our cockpit, where people would come and sit day and night.  It felt a little like we were on display.  There were no shower facilities, so we decided to move our showering from the cockpit to the interior of the boat so we wouldn’t have an audience.  There was a water tap right next to the boat and public toilets nearby.   Since there were rat traps lining the shore, it seemed prudent to thread empty plastic bottles through our stern lines to keep the rats from walking onto the boat.  We didn’t want a repeat of the experience we had in Indonesia.

Having unlimited freshwater at the boat was really nice.  We had spent a cumulative 43 days at sea since leaving South Africa two months prior, and Saviah was in desperate need of a deep cleaning.  We washed the boat inside and out, flushed out our water tanks, did lots of laundry and even washed the interior cushions.  

For the most part, it was nice to be in Bridgetown, which is the capital and largest city on the island.  We could walk two blocks to the grocery store, and there were lots produce stands across the street, as well as a fish market nearby.  We were also only a couple blocks from the white sandy beach that stretches along Carlisle Bay.  We spent most mornings running on the beach and then cooling off with a swim in the bay.  The locals seem to be very active, and many people ran along the shore or played paddle ball on the beach.  People were quite friendly here, and we found that to be the case all over the island. 

Careenage, St. Michael's cathedral, fish market
Barbados is an independent country, and has been since 1966.  They were under British rule for nearly 340 years before that, and there is still a British feel to the island.  Cricket and polo are popular sports, and English is the official language, although most of the locals speak a variant, called Bajan, in everyday life.  Although it is based on English, we had a very difficult time understanding it. 

Most of the people of Barbados are descendants of the African slaves that the English brought over to work in the sugar cane plantations.  Sugar is still a big industry here, but with half a million visitors every year, tourism is now the most important part of the economy.  It seems that most of these tourists arrive via cruise ship, and there were usually two or three in port at a time during our first week on the island.  After that, the Caribbean cruise season came to an end, and there was a huge difference in the amount of tourists we saw around town. 

Getting around Barbados is easy and cheap, as busses run around most of the island and cost only $1 per person.  The major bus station was across the street from the Careenage, so we decided to hop on and do some sightseeing.  Our first trip was down to the south coast, which is the center of tourism on the island.  There were miles of hotels, condominiums and restaurants as well as some really nice beaches.  We also visited Bathsheba, on the windward side of the island.  This was a nice area that was not really developed yet, and the coastline is rugged, with some big swell coming in.  

Bathsheba, St. Lawrence Gap, Paynes Bay
We also traveled up to the north side of the island and around some of the inland areas.  Sugarcane was growing in many fields around the countryside, and it was nearly time for harvest.  We hopped off the bus at the Morgan Lewis Mill, and took a tour of one of the largest intact sugar windmills.  We then walked up the road a ways to St. Nicholas Abbey, which is one of the oldest plantations in the Caribbean, built in the 17th century.  The whole property has been very well restored, including the mansion with lots of the original furniture and fixtures and some beautiful gardens all around.  The plantation still operates and is surrounded by fields of sugarcane, which they use to make rum and molasses. 

After a few weeks on the island, our friends Eric and Cristi, their kids Jadyn and Logan, and Eric’s mom Kim arrived.  They rented a really nice condo right on the beach in Paynes Bay and invited us to stay with them.  We had been looking forward to their visit for a long time.  It was nice to catch up with our good friends again, and the deluxe accommodations didn’t hurt either.  Kim and Cristi are both excellent cooks, and we enjoyed some great meals together. 

We had a very relaxing week, spending our time lounging on the beach or swimming and snorkeling.  This stretch of coast is home to many sea turtles, and rarely a day went by without us seeing one.  We also rented stand up paddle boards and played a lot of paddle ball on the beach, a very popular game on the island.

One morning Brian, a local tour guide, picked us up on his Hobie Cat.  We sailed down the coast and stopped at several good snorkeling spots.  There were quite a few turtles around and a decent assortment of fish as well.  It was especially fun just sailing in the flat calm ocean. 

We also did a few excursions to other parts of the island.  Harrison’s Cave, a huge underground cave, is a popular attraction.  The tour goes on a tram that takes you through the tunnels and into various caverns with some really cool formations and even a waterfall.  We also made a trip to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, which the kids really enjoyed.   This is a walk-through zoo with all sorts of animals.  Across the street there is Farley Hill National Park, and we did a short hike up to the Grenade Hall Signal Station, which was used in the 19th century by British troops who communicated with flags to other areas of the island.  The main attraction here was the colony of wild green monkeys, although they were a bit aggressive. 

On Friday night, the two of us along with Eric and Cristi headed out to see the south side of the island.  Our first stop was for drinks at the Crane Beach Hotel, which sits at the top of a cliff with beautiful views of the pink sand beaches and beyond.  Oistins was our next stop, which is the center of the island’s fishing industry with a large active fish market.  They are known locally for their Friday night fish fry, which has all kinds of music and dancing with vendors selling delicious and inexpensive seafood.  One of the popular local dishes is flying fish, which we tried and were pleasantly surprised.  Maybe we should have added them to the menu on ocean passages instead of tossing them overboard. 

Before we knew it, the week had flown by.  We said our tearful good-byes as they headed off to the airport, and then we returned to Saviah.  After a week with A/C and a king size bed, the boat felt extremely hot and cramped.  A few days later, we decided it was time to keep moving.  We wanted to visit several other islands in the windward group, and hurricane season was fast approaching.  So we headed back to the port and cleared out of the country.  The next morning we untied our mooring lines and set sail for Martinique, 120 miles to the northwest.