Cruising Backwards Round The Caribbean

The Downstairs Skipper and I returned to Mina2 about four weeks ago, having left her bobbing on a mooring (Mina2 that is – not the DS) in Falmouth Harbour in Antigua. One of the first things I did was to get out a new toy and have a look at the bottom of the boat. The SeaBreathe is a divers’ breathing regulator attached by a very long tube to an air reservoir which is supplied by a 12 volt compressor which chunters away on deck. It means I can (and certainly needed to on this occasion) spend hours under the boat with a scraper peeling away six weeks of accumulated marine growth which would otherwise have slowed the boat to a near halt. The SeaBreathe is a brilliant bit of kit made in Canada made by a lovely guy called Will Trethewey. It means I can make sure the hull is clean all the time; check the propeller, anodes etc; cut away any ropes that might entangle themselves round the propeller or rudder, and it will save me a fortune in divers’ fees. Thoroughly recommended. Check it out here.

You may recall that we had to sail most of the way round the Caribbean on our earlier cruise without a mainsail as the halyard swivel on the mainsail furling gear had disintegrated. One of the problems with owning a 17 year old boat is that some of the gear originally installed is no longer made – and so it was with the swivel. So, at vast expense, we had to arrange for one to be custom fabricated in the UK and flown out to Antigua where it was installed, waiting for our arrival. The DS and I bent the mainsail on to the mast and enjoyed a fabulous 10-hour sail from Antigua to Guadeloupe – the first time we had all three sails up for months and we romped along at neck snapping speed. But when furling the mainsail at the end of the passage, something was jamming. It seemed that the top and/or the bottom bearings have also given up the ghost. The possibility of finding that we were unable to reef or furl away the mainsail was a dangerous prospect so, once again, the mainsail was lowered and stowed below and we have spent the rest of our cruise once again without a mainsail. We will probably have to have the mast taken down when Mina2 is layed up in Grenada to have it fixed.

Not deterred, we continued our way down the islands under headsails alone to St Lucia where my sister, Georgie, was to join us for a couple of weeks “holiday”. Having picked Georgie up, on our first passage to Bequia as we were motoring in the last half mile, I had a strong feeling of déjà-vu. The motor was running but the boat was slowing to a halt. The forward clutch plates on the gearbox had packed up (this was the gearbox that had been fitted by the rascally Mr Fixit in Salvador only 18 months before). We consulted a good mechanic in Bequia who confirmed the problem but said it would take the best part of a week to get the parts and then two days work to get the gearbox out, replace the clutch plates and put the gearbox back in again. We couldn’t afford the time, so decided to press on without mainsail or engine.

Without feeling pressured to turn the engine on and motor whenever the wind died was, I have to say, an enormous pleasure. It brought back all the long-lost skills of light-wind sailing; having to compensate much more for the (quite strong) northwestward currents between the islands, and being a lot less cavalier about passing close to rocks and lee shores. We were still able to motor backwards in calm waters for short distances just to squeeze into an anchorage against the wind (one of the problems of not having a mainsail is that it makes it much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to tack into lightish winds), and for emergencies we had rigged up the dinghy so it could be quickly dropped, brought alongside and used to push Mina2 forwards.

In a small island called Meyreau there is an idyllic little anchorage called Salt Whistle Bay. The bay had a narrow entrance with treacherous reefs either side. We had not visited it before. We sailed slowly across the entrance, decided it was worth a try, dropped all the sails and motored backwards into the bay, much to the fascination of the other yachties anchored there, before successfully picking up a buoy. We spent three fabulous days there.

One of the things that has fascinated us about the Caribbean is how varied islands can be that are only a few miles apart. Some (particularly the French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Barts) are comparatively wealthy. On neighbouring islands, the poverty and lack of joy can be depressing. Some of the islands are lush and mountainous whilst others are low and arid. But what seemed to have little apparent pattern was that the people of some islands, rich or poor, were friendly and welcoming whereas on another island within sight, they were comparatively surly and unfriendly. A particular example of a friendly island was Anguilla – the most northerly of the islands we visited. It has one bay that is suitable as an anchorage and the Immigration and Customs officers share a hut conveniently right on the beach. As you go in with ships papers and passports the uniformed officials are wreathed in smiles. “Good afternoon” they greet you, “and welcome to Anguilla. Is this your first visit?”. When we told them it was, the DS was presented with a “Welcome to Anguilla” ballpoint pen as a gift. Little things that make such an impression. Having cleared in we walked down the street. As we passed school children returning home in their crisp white shirts and school ties, each one smiled and said “Good afternoon”. We wandered into a gift shop and started chatting to the delightful young assistant. I said that we had been on the island for barely an hour, but we had been impressed by how friendly everyone was. “We are a poor island” she explained, “and the small amount of tourism we get is very important to us. Our motto is ‘We aim to give satisfaction’ and bein’ grumpy ain’t part of that”. A lesson we could all learn from.

Meyreau, too, is a friendly island albeit, like Anguilla, poor. Salt Whistle Bay is a gem amongst Caribbean anchorages, and the many yachts that pass through provide a significant source of income. On arrival in the bay, you are greeted by a boat boy who will offer you a well-maintained mooring should you want one, but if you choose to use your own anchor, that’s fine too and they will leave you to get on with it. There are several boat boys, but only one approaches each boat, so you don’t feel you’re being hassled. Once you’ve settled in, you get the occasional visit from other boats offering to take any rubbish, bring you ice, deliver a fresh baguette in the morning (all of these things saving you a trek up a long and VERY steep hill up into the village). But if you say no thank you, there’s no pressure. On one day, we were offered a couple of delicious Red Snappers straight off the hook which were cleaned and filleted for us by a charming young man who, whilst busy in his work, chatted about the politics, education and religion of the islanders. The next day it was some thick slices of tuna bought from another fisherman who was cutting up the fish on the dinghy pontoon. None of these services were particularly cheap, but they were all delivered with such warmth that you felt you were getting the better side of the bargain. The mooring we chose to pick up (with no engine, it was easier than anchoring in the fairly crowded anchorage) was one of several run by Marilyn. She took our money with a smile and told us it was her birthday the next day and she would be having a small party on the beach to which we were invited. The following day the DS and I were going ashore and saw Marilyn with her family and friends with a large cooler of drinks, and were enthusiastically beckoned to join them. Plied with a homemade concoction of bootleg rum, coconut and seaweed, which tasted almost identical to Malibu, Happy Birthday was sung, Marilyn’s homemade birthday cake was cut with a wish, we were hugged a lot, given too many slices of the cake and we made our way back to the boat vowing to return again to this happy paradise.

Early the following morning we motored backwards through the other moored yachts to the mouth of the bay, hoisted the headsails and sailed serenely to Carriacou.

The following day (13 May) was Georgie’s birthday and I had laid on a diving trip as a present for her. Actually there was an additional agenda as, on the dive, Maria completed her PADI Scuba Diving course and I got my Open Water diving certificate. Hurrah!

Georgie is 57 years old but I have to say that when she’s twirking on the poop deck in a minidress to T-Pain’s “I’m On a Boat”* after a skinful of rum punches, she certainly doesn’t look it. *(If you haven’t come across this charming ballad, have a look at it

– this is exactly what ex-Antarctic cruising on Mina2 is now all about).

At the back of my mind was our final passage of the cruise. We were to lay Mina2 up in Grenada Marine which is on the southern coast of Grenada. With no mainsail and no engine, the only possible route was to sail down the windy, rough and very rocky eastern lee shore of Grenada with no safe harbours, and then sail across a vicious current into the narrow entrance to the small bay with treacherous reefs either side. Not an option I would typically volunteer for, hampered as we were. A big sea runs until one is well into the bay, so motoring backwards or dropping the dinghy to assist us would not be an option. We had one chance and we had to get it right. As we made the turn into the bay to stem the fast running current the wind speed dropped; our boat speed dropped and we started being taken back by the current on to the reef. I called for my brown trousers. Through what can only be described as phenomenal sailing skills, we crabbed our way slowly against the current and passed into the channel just feet away from the foaming surf on the jagged reef. Sailing down the bay, rounding up into the wind and dropping the sails to bring our bow nestling up against the mooring buoy was easy in comparison. The applause from admiring fellow-yachtsmen for this supreme feat of seamanship would have been deafening had the bay not been completely deserted.


Tim Barker is a sailor and occasional adventurer. Since 2004, Mina2, his Oyster 485 yacht, and he (with the Downstairs Skipper and a wonderful bunch of friends) have sailed from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many places in between. Come join their adventures and read Tim's award winning blogs and journals from the comfort of your own computer screen.

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