I had been looking forward to visiting Antigua for a long time. Renowned for it’s racing regattas and parties it promised to be good fun. The sail up from Guadeloupe on the 29th January was one of the best, a beam reach in 15kts wind under cotton wool clouds and I made landfall mid afternoon, anchoring Fathom next to Tiama off Piegeon Beach in Falmouth Harbour. Turtles swam close alongside and stingrays glided under the keel in the beautifully clear water. At the end of the bay huge superyachts and the tall rigs of the J Class yachts dominated the skyline while the sound of Bob Marley drifted out across the water from the beach bar. My initial impressions were positive.
The following morning it was a short walk to Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour to visit customs and immigration. The area was named after Admiral Nelson who lived in the Royal Navy Dockyard from 1784 through to 1787 and it is now part of a national park and UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the old buildings have been restored and you get a feel of how it would have looked back in the day. It’s naturally a tourist trap with a few restaurants, cafes and shops on site and plenty of seating available alongside the marina for the envious to sit and look at how the other half live. It is undeniably a pretty place. Falmouth Harbour on the other hand is much bigger and spread out with a large number of small bars and restaurants along the main street. Both of the harbours are a bit of a bubble catering for the upmarket yachting industry, charter boats and cruise ship passengers and prices reflect that. Over the following few days I started to become a little disenchanted with the busy bars full of flashy superyacht and race crews, dressed in their pristine team uniforms and splashing the cash. After so long as a vagabond sailor, and having spent most of the last four years living the simple life with likeminded cruisers in remote corners of the globe, I found myself feeling a bit out of place. I did though meet some interesting people including a couple of crew from Maiden, the yacht Tracy Edwards skippered in the 1989 Whitbread race with an all female crew. She still owns the boat and it is sailing around the world again to raise awareness for girl’s education. I was also pleasantly suprised to discover the Antigua Yacht Club ran a happy hour from 4 to 7pm every day with any drink 5 East Caribbean dollars, the equivalent of £1.50. The only place I could find that seems to cater for visiting cruisers and I felt at home there with my holed shorts and 20 dollar sunglasses!
It was soon time to bid Dustin bon voyage. He was pointing the bow towards Saint Maarten then on to the BVI and the Panama Canal before sailing back to Hawaii later in the year, a feat that will make him the first double amputee to sail solo around the world. His story is both shocking and inspiring; hit by a drunk driving a lorry, losing his left arm and leg in the accident, ending up $450,000 dollars in debt to his insurance company as a result, on food stamps and then his insurance denying him medical care. When all seemed lost he declared bankruptcy and began to rebuild his life, taught himself to sail by watching youtube videos and sold everything he had to buy a $12,000 sailboat! Now, ten years on, he is achieving incredible things. We have so many mutual friends from our respective voyages across the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic i’m not sure why it took until Grenada in November for our paths to finally cross. I’m glad they did as the Caribbean has certainly been far more memorable as a result. Fair winds to the pirate!
February seemed to disappear quickly and I spent my days trying to write and work through the job list. Fathom was treated to a new toilet (head) after the 30 year old original developed a crack and started leaking (not pleasant!). I made a couple of trips along the coast to Jolly Harbour for a change of scenery and to stock up at the better supermarket. One of the highlights during this time was a visit to Shirley Heights for a Sunday sunset party. The restored military lookout and gun battery is a bit of a tourist trap but the view from 490ft down over Falmouth and English harbours is superb. I had gone up there with Harry, a yacht crew from the Oyster world rally that I had first met in Australia and his girlfriend Isy but ended up bumping into Denis Gorman, a fellow Jester Azores challenger from 2016 and his partner Lizzie, Finnish couple Anna and Tuamos and Greg and Jenny from Nebula. It was great to see everyone again and it turned into a fun evening. Soon afterwards Jeremy, a friend from the Isle of Wight, flew in to participate in the RORC Carib 600 race which was good timing as he could bring a spare part for Fathom in his hand luggage. Just before he set off on the race we went with Greg and Jenny to see British rowers Paul and Phil arrive on their tiny plywood boat after a 70 day, 3,000 mile row across the Atlantic as part of the Talisker Challenge. Watching them take their first tentative steps on shore and be able to have a chat and congratulate them was fantastic. The following day Jeremy managed to get me a ticket to the Carib 600 pre race party with free bar but I woke up the next morning with more than a sore head. Achey and with a fever that lasted 24 hours I then developed a relentless dry cough for the next ten days. This happened before anyone was talking about the Coronavirus out here so I assumed it was just a bug but in hindsight maybe it was Covid-19. I will never know for sure but felt pretty rotten.
By now my more ambitious plans to sail towards Cuba and the Bahamas had become unrealistic as the reality of my dwindling cruising budget hit home and I didn’t want to make the sail back across the Atlantic in May any more tricky than it needed to be. Likewise plans to head South towards Dominica seemed less attractive as I couldn’t face another windward bash north and going back on myself felt wrong. It was a strange feeling to have so much time on my hands and not be in a rush to move but I made a vow to spend it productively and try and concentrate on writing. The Classic Yacht week in April promised to be a good spectacle and I looked forward to that. I decided to get fit again and started running most mornings on a nice trail up in the hills and immediately felt better for it.
At the end of February the weather was looking calm so I took the opportunity to sail up to the island of Barbuda alongside Greg and Jenny on Nebula. On the way we stopped for a night in Nonsuch Bay off Green Island on the Eastern tip of Antigua, a great anchorage just inside the reef. On the sail north the following morning Greg was not best pleased when Fathom overtook them to leeward halfway to Barbuda and then ripped a spinnaker trying to catch me up! To rub it in I managed to get the overtake on video. Barbuda is part of the Antiguan nation and has a population of around 1600 people. It is still recovering from hurricane Irma in September 2017 that destroyed 95% of the buildings and infrastructure but is such a pretty place. We enjoyed a fantastic few days anchored off the 8 mile long beach at Low Bay. The beach glows a pink champagne colour due to the crushed coral in the sand and as there were very few other boats around and it was extremely peaceful and a nice contrast to the high energy Falmouth Harbour.
By early March excitement was building for the racing regattas coming up in a few weeks time and the harbour was a hive of activity. One morning while reading the news I became aware of a virus spreading out of Wuhan in China. It seemed another world away though and I didn’t really give it another thought. Little did I know things were about to change very quickly.