Monty arrived in St Martin fresh from another season in the Alps and ready for 3 weeks of tropical sailing.
The forecast was for light and variable winds but with a long-period groundswell from a late winter storm in the North Atlantic. Not great for passage-making, but dream conditions for a weekend of surfing on St Barts.
We set sail for the dramatic rock of Ile Forchue and then on to Anse du Grand Colombier on the Western tip of St Barts.
The next morning we loaded the dinghy with surfboards, a grapnel anchor and about 50m of line. As we left the protected bay and motored around the headland we could see the swell funnelling between the outer islands and wrapping around the reefs. The dinghy was riding over the swells and around the rocks along the North coast, (without the benefit of a map or chart!) we could see waves breaking on to coral and cliffs but no sign of any surfers, and too dangerous to explore further in.
Finally we come to a wide bay and see two surfers paddling out. This looks promising. We estimate the depth, throw out the anchor and paddle our boards in towards the break. Our first question is ‘Where are we?’. The two locals are amused at our arrival from sea and welcome us to ‘Anse des Cayes’. a glorious bay lined with coconut trees, a small hotel and a mellow left-hand reef break that was to become our base for a couple of days while the swell lasted.
We can’t believe our luck. We had no idea where we were going. A perfect set-up, some long left walls, nobody around and all the waves we can handle. Don’t you love it when a plan comes together? Even better, the dinghy hadn’t drifted off! We save just enough energy for the paddle back and finally return to Escapade for a very late breakfast and a nap. By lunchtime we have sailed to the pretty harbour town of Gustavia, cleared customs, rented the silliest car we could find, strapped the boards on, driven over the steep hill and back down to our new favourite beach for the afternoon surf session. We have a bag with some money and phones. Monty asks at the hotel if they will look after it for us. The first of many occasions where Monty’s charm and fluent French would ease our path through the French Caribbean. We then seem to become honorary hotel guests and are welcome to park our car, use their gorgeous bar and pool and sleep on their beach loungers when not surfing. A very happy weekend.
When the swell is over we do a quick lap of lovely St Barts including the legendary ‘Le Select’ bar which has been serving cold beer, cheeseburgers and rum under a tree in Gustavia for 50 years. Then it’s time to clear customs and sail for the next island.
I had planned to stop at Nevis and Montserrat on the way to Guadeloupe, but the wind veered right round to SSE so we changed the plan (again!) and at 04.30 set sail in the dark under code-zero and full main, bound for Barbuda.
A beautiful morning, tacking round Ile Coco in smooth seas with the sun rising. The wind gradually builds until the code-zero sheet parts with a bang and it’s time to switch to the jib. Monty catches a barracuda with an armour plated head. My first attempt to dispatch him was a tap on the head with a winch handle. He didn’t appear to notice that, but seemed keen to demonstrate his powerful muscles, jaws and teeth. The next three strikes with the winch handle don’t seem to calm him down at all. For the next few minutes I am locked in a violent and undignified battle with an 18 inch fish, from which I finally emerge slightly scaly, with two fine fillets. The islanders say the barracuda is the most delicious fish in this sea.
The wind keeps building and as we reach the sheltered waters of the outer Barbudian reefs we sail fast over white sand and around coral heads until we finally drop anchor at Low Bay for the night.
Next day we pack passports, boat papers and clothes into dry bags and swim ashore to the narrow spit of sand between sea and lagoon.
Goldilox has arranged our boat ride across the lagoon to the only village on Barbuda, Codrington, where I have permission to clear customs and immigration. This process involves visiting officials in three different offices spread around the dusty tracks of Codrington. Along the way we meet so many friendly people, stop for a chat in the kitchen of the ‘Roti Queen’, hurdle the waist high board across the door of Valerie’s Variety Store (“to keep de lizards out”) and rummage through the amazing selection of wares while she tells us her memories of Princess Diana’s visits. We pause for cold beer at the sleepy ‘Madison Square’ with chickens scratching around, and finally complete all our formalities with stamped passports and papers. Codrington has the feel of a place that has been by-passed by the last 50 years. A true one-horse town backwater in the Caribbean. It is poor, and life is lived very simply. The island is remote, the rough water between Barbuda and Antigua makes the ferry ride unpopular. The air strip is tiny with a few local flights, so there are very few tourists to supplement the income. I think most of the islanders live on the plentiful fish and lobster, they hunt wild goats and deer and we saw some well tended vegetable patches around the simple wooden houses. All the talk on Barbuda is of a massive investment in a new hotel complex led by Robert de Niro. We were told it includes a casino and a new airport to receive direct flights from US.
Big change is coming, for better or worse.
Most of the locals we spoke to were in favour of the deal and say progress is necessary. Monty and I raised a glass to the fragile charm of the place and wondered how much will be lost.
We swim back to Escapade, hoist sail and beat up from Palmetto Point to Cocoa Point, then motor through the reefs to anchor in 4ft transparent water at my favourite spot, Spanish Point. Monty flags down a passing fishing boat and we buy a couple of lobsters for supper. Then we inflate a SUP and he lays on a stylish windsurf performance around the turquoise lagoon.
Over sundowners we discuss our next move. The friendly Codrington customs officer had been surprised that we didn’t realise it was Antigua Sailing Week.
A famous regatta attracting top race boats and international sailors, plus the biggest party of the year for Antiguans with live bands, locals, yachties and hangers on.
And all this in full swing on the next island, 30 miles to the South…