What’s best about cruising the French Islands?

It’s hard to say what the best part of being in the French Islands this winter.  It might be the fabulous cuisine, or perhaps the wonderful assortment of fine foods in the markets.  Gone are the rows and rows of junk food that you find in American markets.  Who needs hundreds of yards of chips, soda and sugary cereals.  Here are rows of fine chocolates, cheeses and pates. And, don’t forget about all the great wines and rums to choose from, all at prices that are unimaginable in the US.

Perhaps it’s the simplicity of clearing in and out of the French islands.  Yesterday when we went ashore to clear into customs in St Pierre, we were greeted warmly by the customs officer.  We filled out entry forms on a freshly sanitized computer.  After a few minutes, I printed out my papers and had them stamped.  When I asked what I owed, the official pointed casually to a donation cup, seeming to say  “pay what you want”.   In Deshaies, Guadeloupe the fee was 3 Euros.  I’ll pay that.

I guess the French just want us to spend money on wine, cheese and pastry.  I’m all for that.

Are the sunsets that greet us each evening while we are enjoying a “sundowner” what makes this so special?  Sure, they are great but in the interest of fairness,  sunsets are fabulous at every island.  Perhaps it’s the magnificent scenery of the tall cloud shrouded mountains looming over the quaint villages that make visiting here so special.  We won’t think about the more than 30,000 that died in 1902 when Pele, this peak and still active volcano, blew it’s top and wiped out St Pierre in few scalding moments.   Is it the near hourly rainbows that we see in the mornings and late afternoons as the showers in the nearby rainforests pass through the anchorage?Those short lived showers are a great way to keep Pandora salt free after a sporty run between islands.  We buddy boated with our friends on Highlander to get here a few days ago from Les Saintes.Everyone wants a photo of their boat under sail and I got a few great ones of Highlander.  What’s not to love about a view from Pandora of St Pierre in the late afternoon light?
Or, perhaps the passing of a classic Cornish Crabber as she sailed into the harbor in Les Saintes.Or, the view of the harbor from Fort Napoleon. Ok, perhaps it’s the turquois waters of the nearby reefs that makes these islands so special. Or a visit to a nearby beach.   Ok, the view to the left was sandy but not quite a dramatic.  Complete with swaying palms.  Admittedly, it was, as Brenda woud say, “blowing a gale”. If you like spying local color, look up and see a hefty iguana, feeling pretty proud of himself seeming to say “hey, what you looking at buddy?  You can leave now!”But, the best part of all, and what makes visiting most any island, is time with fellow cruisers, fellow Salty Dawgs, that hang out much of the season together.  “everybody into the pool!”
Whatever it is that makes cruising in the Caribbean great, it’s surely better in the French islands.  Ok, it’s at least as good as most any place other than enduring the cold up north, here in the French Islands.

And, al0ng with great food, wine and terrific scenery, is the rum.  Today, off to nearby Depaz distillery for a tour, tasting and a great lunch.  Yup, cruising with al the basic food groups with the Dawgs.

So, that’s my report and I’ll wrap this up so I can head to the market to buy some fresh tuna for dinner tonight.  Perhaps a baguette too.

It’s all this and more that’s “best” about being in the French islands this season.

 

Les Saintes. Yum.

When we first visited Les Saintes a number of years ago, Brenda’s reaction, when she saw the brightly painted homes with red roofs, was “this is the prettiest place I have ever seen”.   And, like the other French islands we have visited, the food is great too.  Beautiful scenery and great food.  That was on our first year cruising the Caribbean and we still feel that way, years later.

We are on a mooring very close to an active ferry dock.  Hundreds of tourists, mostly from France, arrive daily from the big island of Guadeloupe, overnight bags in tow.   It makes for a rolly harbor during the day.  Not great, I’ll admit.  Off to the north is the big island of Guadeloupe and the view is pretty spectacular in the late afternoon.  This morning I was greeted by a partial rainbow.  It was very windy overnight with a series of strong squalls moving over the island. The first thing that comes to mind when I arrive here is that it looks like a seaside village in the Mediterranean, well at least what I imagine that would look like, as I have limited experience with such places.  Having said that, it feels quite French.  Last night Brenda and I went out to a favorite restaurant.  She had duck breast and I had octopus.  They were both quite good followed by crème brulee.  Yum. This archipelago of islands is only about 20 miles from Pointe de Pietre and yet has a very different feel.  As lush as Guadeloupe is, this island is very arid, more so than most of the others in the area.  The islands are just not tall enough to wring out much rain from the trades.

I am struck by the color of the water.  We’ve been here for a few days already and aren’t sure if we will leave soon for Martinique, about 70 miles from here, or wait until the next weather window, perhaps by next weekend.

Unlike other areas that we visit, here we take a mooring as the area near the town is quite deep and unless you are willing to anchor far out, it’s really the only option.  They seem to be well maintained and even though the water is nearly 40′ deep, you can clearly see the bottom.

The islands, and there are a number of them, ring a large harbor or bay, that is fairly well protected from the ocean swells.    This are is controlled by France and back in the day, when they were duking it out with the English, each nearby hilltop had a fort or lookout.  Yesterday a number of cruisers hiked to the top of one of the highest peaks.  You can see the tiny fort on top of the hill in the distance.  The group hiked up a well paved road that got steeper and steeper as we gained elevation.   The view of the harbor below was amazing. If you zoom in Pandora is in the middle of the harbor. Off to the right of the harbor are many local colorful fishing boats.  The light blue along the edge is shallow water.  It’s very clear water.  On the eastern or windward side of the island, not so placid, with waves crashing on the rocky shore. Zoom in and you can see the beautiful textures in the rocks and foam of crashing waves. Our friend Mark, from Roxy, takes pictures with his iPad and I could not resist getting a photo of him concentrating on the perfect shot. While I was looking at the local color, they were busy watching me.  Goats are a scourge on most islands, eating everything in sight.  As a result, many native plants can never gain a foothold so much of the island is defoliated.  So, here we are in a charming harbor, unsure about what’s next.  But hey, what’s the rush?

Perhaps I’ll go ashore for a baguette.  Brenda had some leftover from her dinner last night so lunch will be duckbreast and cheese on a baguette.  Double yum.

Trinidad for the summer. Cruising with friends for the winter.

As I made my way south to Antigua back in early November, I realized that I really didn’t want to make the run north this spring, only to turn around a few months later to make the return run again next fall. 

The fact is that we really don’t use the boat all that much during the summer so sailing more than 3,500 miles round trip, just to let the boat sit for months, doesn’t make much sense.  And, frankly, when I get back in the spring, I am ready for a break.   Additionally, we have big plans for the house this summer, we are having the kitchen remodeled and I’m redoing the third and final bathroom that I will have done personally since we moved there a decade ago.  That’s a big job so not having the distraction of Pandora will surely help.  We are also planning some traveling which won’t leave a lot of time for using Pandora. 

When I first became involved with Salty Dawg, the group that does the rally, I wondered of the boats that make the run, how many do it year after year and how many just opt to leave the boat in the south for the winter, avoiding thousands of miles of ocean passages every year.   For many, I have learned, it’s a one way trip until they are finished cruising the area and head home, sometimes years later.

So after asking for advice from friends and speaking with a key vendor in Trinidad, the plan is to leave it south and see how it goes.  That’s a big change for us and we will have to see how it goes.   The advantage, beyond the wear and tear on me and Pandora is that there are excellent services in Trinidad so just about anything that I need to have done can be handled there.

This year, the list is long, including painting the decks and now fixing some really nasty scratches that someone put on the boat a few days ago.  I can’t prove it but suspect it was some kids on a small catamaran from a local sailing school.  There are a lot of them sailing around the harbor and it really looks like one of them smashed into the boat, not once but three times.

I wasn’t aboard but the fact that there is a small sneaker print on the hull certainly suggests that a kid pushed off with a salty shoe as they bumped down the hull.

I spoke to the director of the school and he came out to the boat only to say that because I didn’t see it happen…  Additionally, he says that he spoke with the instructors and they did not witness anyone running into Pandora.

I guess I am on my own.  Add that to the list for Trinidad.  Good thing that the company I chose to oversee all of the work is called “Perfect Finish” as I am going to need it.  Another year, another perfect finish.   Well, at least until another small boat crashes into Pandora again.   Another season, a few more boat dollars…

Setting aside the fact that just about every season someone in a small boat bumps into and scratches Pandora,  we have been visiting some really wonderful spots over the last few weeks since leaving Antigua.

As we moved down the coast of Guadeloupe, on our way to Pointe de Pietre, where we are now, we stopped at Pigeon Island, a Jacques Cousteau marine sanctuary.  It’s quite charming and is in the lee of the tallest mountains on the island.  The mountains are topped with clouds all the time.  As a result, there is a constant parade of rain showers, carried by the easterly trade winds.   As the winds move up the eastern side of the island, the steep rise in elevation cools the air, the dewpoint drops and it rains and the showers are carried over onto the western side of the island.  The rain is very light but perfect for forming rainbows all day. As we moved down the coast, early the next morning, on our way to Pointe de Pietre, the water was glass calm in the lee of the island, with a row of clouds marching into the distance.  The moment reminded me of a little steam train chugging it’s way over the horizon. Pointe de Pietre is the largest city in Guadeloupe and while it is a popular stopping point for cruisers, the water isn’t all that clear as it is a very industrial harbor.

Yesterday a group of us decided to rent cars and head into the mountains to visit a popular waterfall.   The roads on the island are very well maintained, generally two lane divided highways but take an exit and you are soon on narrow winding roads. As you climb higher and higher up the mountainside, the going gets a lot steeper and much of the time it’s first gear all the way.   As you get higher up, the roads are barely wide enough for one subcompact car and the switchback turns are sometimes a 45 degree pitch and the car can barely keep going, even in the lowest gear.

It’s wonderful to watch the vegetation change as you climb higher and higher, becoming more lush as the kilometers roll by.

Once you are perhaps 2,000′ above sea-level, the air is noticeably cooler and huge tree ferns are everywhere. 
The near constant rain means that there are rivers and streams flowing in every valley. This particular park has the tallest waterfall on the island, a series of three falls with a total elevation of over 1,000′.  It’s so tall you can see it from the ocean as you pass by.   This shot is from the entrance to the park, an overlook that shows the two largest cascades on the island, perhaps in the eastern Caribbean. The walk to a spot where you can view the falls closer takes about an hour as a well maintained walkway meanders through the rainforest.   There are a lot of steps, up and down both ways.   Some are wood and others carved out of the rocks.    There is water dripping everywhere and all surfaces are completely covered with plants, small and large, competing to grow.    Some are tiny mosses on wet walls. Others, tiny ferns growing from every crack and crevice. Everywhere you look, mossy green.A riot of green everywhere. There are certainly orchids in the upper story of the huge trees but most are not in bloom this time of year.   I did spy some delicate orchids, not currently flowering affixed to branches in the clearings, where sun could penetrate.  In the dense forest, there isn’t enough light near the ground for most orchids to grow properly.  There were a few orchids in bloom like this delicate bletilla. Along the way there are a number of overlooks.  Brenda and our friend Lynn were enjoying the view, while taking a rest.
This day we had rented three cars and traveled together for much of the day.  We only got lost once or twice…After our walk in the rainforest, we stopped at a lovely spot for lunch and after that, a distillery where we were treated to a number of tastings.   It’s hard to say if it was the rum or the presenter that was the most entertaining.  She was quite a character and after listening to her share thoughts about each rum in her wonderful French accent, none of us left empty handed. It was a long day, nearly 12  hours, and the driving up in the mountains, with it’s twists and turns was tiring.   However, it was a great way to spend the day and it sure beats snow.

Guess what?  Snow at home AGAIN.  Better them than me.

So, Trinidad this summer?  That’s the plan.  For now, cruising with friends, especially in the French islands, perfect!

At least that makes the newest scratches in Pandora more bearable.

Data for Brenda. Mission Accomplished.

When we were in Antigua we had a tough time with data on our phone as the Google fi phone, while it has pretty good data, is slow and to get a data only plan for Antigua didn’t make sense as we were not planning to stay for all that long. And, any data plan available in Antigua would not work elsewhere.

We had heard from friends that once we moved to Guadeloupe we could sign up for a plan that would follow us from island to island and even include Antigua if we head back there later in the season.

On our quest, a few days ago, Brenda and I caught a bus to a nearby city/town to track down a data plan and a new phone.  Sadly, Brenda’s iPhone got sick and has developed a nasty habit of the screen going black without warning, usually a few seconds after opening it up.  Not great and to make matters worse, she hasn’t backed up her phone in some time so we have to be careful about any resets that might compromise getting the data off of it when we get home.

Fortunately, we were able to get a decent phone for less than $150 and a data plan that was amazingly cheap at about $50 month for 70 gigabites, a huge amount of data.  And, the best part is that we can continue to use the plan for just about anyplace that we decide to go this season.    As we have become accustomed to instant data and connectivity over the years and being able to facetime of view videos on demand has become a “necessity” and no longer a luxury.

Brenda was chafing at the complexity of being in contact with family and friends so she’s a lot happier now.  That’s good.

On Sunday we had lunch out with our friends Lynn and Mark of Roxy.  We chose a lovely French restaurant.  It was very nice. The view of the harbor here in Deshaies Guadeloupe was wonderful.With the large cliff on one side of the harbor and the mountains out in the distance, the wind can funnel through the harbor and can get a bit iffy when the trade winds are up.   The view of town is especially nice in the afternoon when the sun is setting to the west. The other night we had cocktails, or “sundowners” as they are called in the cruising community on board Kalunamoo.  Amazingly we all saw a “green flash”.  This is when the sun dips below the horizon and shows a last moment burst of green, a sort of spark.  It’s impressive and not very common.  Sadly, I didn’t have my camera so no photo…

This shot is of Kalunamoo the other night as the sun set.  Alas, no green flash that night but pretty nice, never the less. This afternoon I decided to take a short walk up to a swimming hole on a stream that leads into the harbor.  Much of the walk was on cement path.  It was very peaceful.Along the way, as I followed the stream, I passed some very nice palms.
There were also some really big trees.  The vegetation here is much more lush than in Antigua as the island gets a lot more rain.  After a very short walk off of the trail, and a scramble over the creek, I was rewarded by a lovely little pool.  I stopped to cool off and put my feet into the water for a time while I enjoyed the sounds of the water running over the rocks and into the pool.  I could see quite a few fish swimming around below.I’d have liked to head back there with my bathing suit but am not sure if I would  have the nerve to dip into water that is quite that cold for my tropical accustomed body these days.

Yesterday we rented a car with our friends Bill and Maureen from Kalunamoo, but that’s a story for another day.

Today, off to Pigeon Island, about half way down the island.  After that, moving onto Les Saintes, one of our favorite places.  More to tell about all that.

However, the big story is that Brenda, sans iPhone, at least has a data plan.

Mission accomplished.

So, all for now.  Anchor up…

Viva la France!

Well, it took three weeks but we finally left Antigua and headed to Guadeloupe,  arriving yesterday afternoon in lovely Deshaies.

It indeed felt like old times as I headed ashore and cleared in at the T shirt shop.  Nobody asked about vaccination or for the results of a test.  It is always remarkable how much more laid back things are in the French islands verses Antigua.  To clear in for 3 Euros is so different than in Antigua, where you go from window two to window three and back to two and finally window one and all that is after filling out the paperwork on a desktop computer.

I can’t recall the exact amount that it cost to get into Antigua back in November but it was something like $85 US and when I cleared out on Friday the cost, taking into account the time we had left the boat in English Harbor, on a mooring, the cost was nearly $250 US, a bit different than our experience in Guadeloupe.

When we pulled in yesterday, after a boisterous 45 mile passage at an average speed just shy of 9kts, the anchorage was pretty full.  As a result, we had to anchor in 45′ of water and on the side of the harbor that is more exposed to wrap-around swell, not Brenda’s first choice.

This morning we moved to the other side of the harbor and ended up re-anchoring a number of times as other boats left so we were able to get a more sheltered spot.  It’s quite calm now with the protection of a huge cliff off to starboard.  It’s a spectacular view from the cockpit. Last night we had a terrific rainstorm that mercifully washed off all of the salt that had accumulated on deck as we slogged our way here.  With waves washing over the bow for the entire run and cascading down the decks, things were pretty salty.

For some reason, just off of the point this morning, probably from the moisture rolling off of the mountain, was a piece of a rainbow that hung around for nearly two hours.  It was a beautiful sight against the mountain and white clouds in the morning light. As the sun came up, I could see the mist rising up as the sun dried the dense vegetation onshore.   This island has very high mountains, often shrouded in clouds, so there is abundant rain and many steams and rivers.  Nearby, accessible by dink, is a lovely fresh water swimming hole.  Brenda and I hope to visit it in the next few days.

The town of Deshaies is very French, quaint and has a distinct Mediterranean vibe.   The first thing I did after clearing in yesterday was to head to my favorite wine and cheese store.  We have not been here since 2019, just before the pandemic struck.   The proprietor immediately recognized my shirt “Pandora”.  Brenda and I had a lovely rose, two choices of cheese and a baguette for dinner.

Today we head ashore for lunch with some friends.    Perlez vous Francais?  Non…

The view of town from our bow is just so French.  Oddly, nobody ashore seems to speak English all that well.  Why is that?  At home nearly everyone speaks English.Tomorrow we will be heading to a nearby town to get a data sim card and a new phone as Brenda’s iPhone died.   Very inconvenient as we both just have to have our own phone and NEED MORE DATA.   I am told that the connection with a data-only card is strong enough to watch Netflix.  We, especially Brenda, are starving for more video time with family.

Ok, one more photo of Deshaies.  What a lovely spot. So, I guess that we will stay here for about a week and pay a visit to the nearby botanical garden, swim in the amazingly clear water.  Even anchored in 45 feet last night we were able to see the bottom.

Well, after what seems like years since we have been to the French Islands it’s good to be back.

All I can say is Viva la France!  And, of course…  That will be two croissants and a baguette please.

 

Cruising the Caribbean with Covid

It’s mid-January, and Brenda and  I are still in Antigua, nearly three weeks after we returned from the US.  We have finally recovered, well mostly recovered, from our colds, compliments of our adorable grandchildren, the little viral incubators that they are.

The weather here has been terrific, with daytime temperatures in the low 80s and 70s overnight.  Winds have been moderate which has made getting around the harbor quite simple.

We’ve been eating out a good deal with the highlight Brenda’s birthday on the 15th at perhaps the nicest place in the area.  During cocktails we had a very nice Zoom event, compliments of Chris’s partner Melody, who set it up.  Guests included, in addition to Melody and Chris, our son Rob and his family along with Brenda’s oldest friend LeeAnne and Rob and Christopher’s adopted uncle Craig.  It was a very nice event and Brenda was very touched.  It would  have been better to be with everyone in person but Zoom was a pretty good second choice.  Brenda and I continue to enjoy sitting up on Pandora’s deck, made possible by reasonable trade winds, to enjoy the sunset every evening.    Some nights it’s more colorful than others but always a sight to behold.With a full moon a few nights ago, we were treated to a great show.  The moon rose around sunset and didn’t set until after dawn.  Here’s a shot of today’s moonset and our friend Tom’s Rally Point, all by herself in the harbor.  Somehow this photo doesn’t do the moment justice.  On Friday we will make our way around to Jolly Harbor where we will do some last minute provisioning before making the 45 mile run to Deshaies Guadeloupe.  Winds on Saturday look good, about 15kts out of the east which means we will make the run with wind just forward of the beam, making for a nice run.  The seas will be pretty large, perhaps 8′ or so but the period between crests will be long, 15 seconds, making for a reasonable and fast ride.

Friends have asked what it’s like being here this winter and how we feel about the risk of infection.  The simple answer is “normal” and better than we had expected.  I expect that a few of our cruising friends who decided to sit out this season, as they endure below freezing temperatures up north, are probably questioning their decision to take a pass this season.

Last year, pre-vaccination, it was challenging to move between islands because of expensive PCR tests and mandatory quarantines upon arrival.  As moving to other islands was impractical, a big issue was finding a way to get three month visas renewed without being exposed to possible infection.   Visas had to be renewed in St John, requiring a cab ride and a long wait in line, among the then unvaccinated masses.  Not safe at all.

Now, as in pre-pandemic years, the simple option is just to leave the island and go elsewhere.  Return, within 24 hours or at any time down the road and the 90 day clock starts all over again.

This season could not be more different with regards to Covid as most everyone knows of someone that is vaccinated and yet still caught Covid and recovered.  The good news is that in most cases, with those that are fully vaccinated, a case is usually not much more than a bad cold.  Having said that, show up at an event, with even a sniffle, and you will quickly become an outcast.  It’s not really as much about the danger of Covid but more about becoming infected and the inconvenience of having to delay plans for moving to another island because of the need to quarantine and test again.

There’s no question that the governments of some islands are also feeling a bit better about all this as moving from place to place is now a lot easier.  For example, to head to Guadeloupe you are still being asked to get a rapid test prior to departure and yet nobody is asking to view the results upon arrival.  I also heard that once cleared into Guadeloupe you can travel sans-test to Martinique, another French island, assuming that you don’t stop in Dominica, a non French island, along the way.

Brenda and I don’t feel confident about stopping in Dominica this year.  When I asked  about the status of vaccination there, a friend, and admittedly this is second hand information, said that she had heard that “vaccination was encouraged”.  That’s not working for me.  Additionally, the pandemic came on the heels of back to back hurricane hits so things have been very tough on that island for years now.  Yes, I understand that the risk of infection is more about my own vaccination status than that of others but I still feel more comfortable being around others that are vaccinated.

Today I received news about a violent attack on a cruiser who had anchored off of St Vincent, when two armed men boarded his boat, tied him up and took everything that was not nailed down before fleeing.  It’s that sort of thing that makes me very nervous when considering visiting some islands that have been particularly hard hit.

Here in Antigua and on many other islands, life is fairly normal and just about the only reason you’d know that anyone is still concerned about Covid is that masks are mandatory everywhere.   In early November the Antigua government took the controversial position of requiring vaccination for all government employees and those involved in the hospitality business, firing those who did not comply.  As you can imagine, vaccination levels are much higher now.

Taking a hard line to reduce infection was vital as the economy of Antigua, like so many other islands, is heavily based on tourism.   They are receiving the benefit of this decision now as the marinas are packed to capacity and restaurants and hotels are busy.  Additionally, all visitors are required to show proof of vaccination to enter the country.

While those in colder climates struggle with finding a way to spend time in public during cold weather, here in the islands, where just about everything is outdoors, in tropical breezes, life seems pretty normal and everyone is going about their business with little restriction.

While a negative Covid test is required upon arrival in all islands, at this writing, most now allow the less expensive rapid test as opposed to the lab-based PCR test that was the norm until recently.  A few islands still require the more expensive PCR test which might lead to some cruisers heading elsewhere for cost reasons as PCR tests can run upwards of $200-$250 per person.

Many cruisers, after enjoying the holidays here or back in the states, are now beginning to head to other islands with many making the daylight run to the next island to the south, Guadeloupe.   Fortunately, entry there is still as simple in Deshaies, as it had been in the past.  Head ashore to the T shirt shop, pay a few Euros and you’re good to go.  In most cases, cruisers aren’t even being asked for their test results.Given the fear of breakthrough infection, even if it’s not particularly risky for healthy vaccinated people, many cruisers have a supply of rapid tests aboard so that they can check themselves, in advance of paying for a proctored test, the sort required for entry, as they don’t want to pay the $100US for the  rapid test only to find that they must wait due to a positive result.

The general consensus with most cruisers that I have contacted, is that they plan on more spending time in their favorite places so that they can avoid the complexity and expense of regular testing.

In addition to Deshaies, another stop in Guadeloupe is the small archipelago at the southern end of the island, Les Saintes, with its laid-back Mediterranean vibe and great French food.   From there, some will opt to head to Dominica, known for great hiking but many will choose to make the 100 mile run directly Martinique with its mix of bustling cities and quaint villages.

Both Guadeloupe and Martinique offer great variety and it’s easy to spend a few months at either island without the complexities of testing before moving elsewhere.

For cruisers visiting Martinique, clearing into St Pierre is a good first stop, nestled in the shadow of Mt Pele.  From there some move to the bustling capital city of Forte de France or, perhaps continue on directly to the village of St Anne, with its expansive anchorage, a favorite spot for cruisers to hang out, some for the entire season.  Nearby la Marin is a great place to provision and boat supplies are readily available.

All and all, as the pandemic hopefully moves into its final critical stage, life here in the Caribbean feels a lot like “old times” and there are hints that things are finally getting back to normal.

One thing for sure, based on the number of “first timers” that joined the Salty Dawg Rally last November, is that living through the last two years, with so much uncertainty, has caused many to reevaluate their lives and adopt the YOLO, you only-live-once, attitude.  As they say, “you’ll never be any younger or any healthier so cast off the dock lines and go cruising”.

As my friends up in New England are coping with single digit temperatures lamenting for the days when they were able to enjoy alfresco dining, those of us that are here in the Caribbean are enjoying gentle trade winds, daily visits to the beach and those iconic sunsets that the tropics are known for.

So, if you have been dreaming of a tropical winter, now’s the time to begin planning in earnest for next season.   And speaking of planning, why not sign up to participate in the Salty Dawg Sailing Association webinar series, more than 40 topics in all to help jump start your plans to head south next season.  www.saltydawgsailing.org

So, here we are, hanging out in Falmouth Harbor, Antigua for a few more days before beginning our journey to Guadeloupe.  And, like most afternoons, I expect that Brenda and I will head to the beach for a swim before heading back and showering before dinner aboard Pandora. As is so common here, we were treated to a brief shower this morning followed by a stunning rainbow.  This is only a sliver as it was tough to capture the whole spectacle.  Beautiful never the less and more proof that cruising the Caribbean with covid is still a great place to be.

Antigua eye candy.

It’s hard to believe just how much money there is out there but to see all the huge yachts here in Antigua makes it pretty clear that there is plenty to go around, at least among the .01% crowd.

I was meeting with a friend that runs a restaurant here in Falmouth this morning and she showed me an order for $2,ooo for sushi, something that happens most every day from one or more of the mega and giga yachts that fill the marinas here.  She says that the amount of takeout is way up because many of the charter boats don’t want any of their crew to spend time ashore because of the risk of getting Covid, vaccination or not.

That makes sense given the fact that these boats charter for upwards of $250,000 to $500,000 per week.  Having even one crew test positive could cause them to loose a charter.

Yesterday we moved Pandora out to closer to the entrance of the harbor so that we could enjoy some time on the beach.   We try to stay out of the sun in the heat of the day but enjoy doing a bit of swimming in the late afternoon.

This was the view from the deck of Pandora last evening where we enjoyed a glass of nice rose. This boat passed us this morning.    She’s huge at nearly 350′ and is owned by a Russian, if I recall.  We have seen here before.    Note the chopper on her aft deck.   Wouldn’t want the owner to have to endure a cab ride from the airport.  While Anna is only a few years old, Shemara is from the 1930s, rescued as a derelict by an owner with the resources to renovate her properly.   She had been abandoned in the UK for many years.  In order to make sure that the renovation went according to plan, the new owner actually formed his own restoration yard so that he could control the process and be sure that it turned out well.  And, it did, She is a classic beauty.She is a bit of a peanut compared to Anna but so classy.  Her superstructure evokes a bygone era.Check out this link to learn more about her 3.5 year refit.  There are over 1,000,000 man hours in her and so much of her was upgraded and replaced that there is only about 15% to 20% of her that is still original.   She is diesel electric with dual azimuth drives, a system where two pods are on the bottom of the boat that can be rotated in any direction, a blend of old and high tech.

Better yet, check out this 2.5 minute video of her.  It begins with her launch in the 30s.  Even though she is over 200′ long, she looks tiny compared to some of the other boats here.Another beauty that showed up today is Nero.  She’s even bigger and is actually a new boat, launched in 2011, but designed to evoke a yacht from Shemara’s time. This short video gives a terrific tour of her, inside and out.  I’d love to have a G&T in her salon.It’s hard to know where to stop with so much “candy” to talk about.

But, before I break, I have to note that the competitors in the Talisker’s Whisky Challenge have begun arriving in Antigua.  These boats, some with only two crew, will have rowed across the entire Atlantic.  It’s billed as the “toughest race in the world”, and I believe it. Given my choice, I would much rather spend time aboard one of the “big girls” here in the harbor than to spend months rowing across the Atlantic.  But, perhaps that’s just me, getting softer as I get older.

One more thing.  Speaking of getting older.  Brenda’s birthday is today and this evening we will be having dinner where I am writing this.   The evening will begin with a Zoom with friends and family followed by a really nice dinner.   What a great spot to celebrate and enjoy the view of all the eye candy here in Antigua.

Happy Birthday Brenda!

If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

It’s Friday and we have been back in Antigua for a week.  I am finally, nearly, almost, mostly over the particularly nasty cold, compliments of our grandchildren that I have suffered from for over two weeks and now Brenda has the scourge.

Her cough sounds terrible and I am hopeful that she will improve enough to join me at the Antigua Yacht Club event this evening.  Angie, the proprietor of the place, has arranged for Antigua Distillery, local makers of fine rum, to host the event with tastings.   It should be fun.  Besides, when you are in the Caribbean, what’s more important than rum?

A few days ago we fueled up and moved from English Harbor over to Falmouth where the water is a lot clearer.  I was stunned by the barnacles that had grown on Pandora’s bottom during our 6 weeks away.  Think popcorn sized barnacles covering every inch of her bottom.  I hired a diver to clean things up as it was a far bigger job than I could have possibly tackled myself. It took two hours for him to get everything off.  He did a good job, which I’d expect for $4.00/ft

Here’s Pandora on the fuel dock with a slew of Oyster yachts in the background, all cueing up to begin their “around the world rally”.  I’m not sure that this is the year to set off on such an adventure with the virus still running rampant.And speaking of fuel, a few years ago one of my tanks developed a leak which I had repaired.  Well, the repair turned out to be more like a temporary band aid and yesterday, when I filled that tank up again, we ended up with a load of fuel in the bilge.  I discovered the problem late in the evening and spent the next few hours pumping out what fuel I could from the tank into jugs.  What a mess.  As I have three tanks, I don’t have to worry about this for the rest of the season except for whatever is left and seeps into the bilge.  It seems that just about every time I leave Pandora for more than few weeks, something goes amiss.   I guess it’s time to get a new tank instead of a patched one.   Another day, another boat dollar.

When we arrived, on New Year’s eve, there were very few yachts in the marinas as many of them were out on charter.  Well, yesterday, one week later, they are all returning and the marinas are packed.  I was told that every slip is booked for the entire season so I am guessing that they are paying for their slips even if they aren’t there.  Must be nice to live the life of “if you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.”

How about Mayan Queen.  She’s over 300′ long.  We’ve seen her before.  If I recall, she belongs to a Mexican guy that made his fortune in wireless phones.  It must be quite a fortune. And, under the category of mine is bigger than yours, how about the swim platform?  It’s quite a bit bigger than our back deck at home, and a whole lot nicer. And, you about this, their tender with quad outboards?  It’s hard to imagine the need for 1,800 hp on a boat that’s less than 40′ long. Well, everyone needs a way to get ashore but few can afford a “limo tender”.  Nice ride.   “James, take me to the quay.  And be quick about it.”   “Madam, there is a 5kt speed limit here in the harbor.”  “James, be real, that’s just for the little people.”Readers may recall that Brenda and I spent three days racing aboard Marie, a 182′ ketch a few years ago.  She has a new owner and is here in her “usual” slip.  With all the teak, and there’s tons of it, covered, clearly the owner isn’t aboard.
Antigua, known as the “sailing capital of the Caribbean” generally has her share of beautiful sailing yachts.  Here’s two classic J class racers, Ranger and Lionheart.  Ranger is the white one.  I’ve never been crazy about her unorthodox bow configuration.   Her boom is so big that it was dubbed “Park Avenue”.  She has an impressive array of chrome.And, how about Adix, a “classic: built in the 80s.   She’s spectacular.She was once owned by Alan Bond who named her XXX after one of his beer brands.   She has a lot of teak aboard, all varnished to perfection. And, where there are mega-yachts, there are toys.  want to spend $5,000 on a surfboard, look no further.  These are becoming very popular with the mega-set.  Lithium powered and you don’t need waves to surf.  Part of the parade of huge yachts returning to Falmouth this morning is Marie, a a real stunner.  Sadly, as there are so many yachts with that name, I was unable to find out anything about her.  Want to charter a classic?  How about Eros, a meticulously restored schooner from the 30s.  She can take 8 guests so how splitting the cost 4 ways makes it a bargain at about $14,000/week per couple.  Hard to pass up a deal like that.Oh my, so many yachts to choose from.  Where do I begin?No wait, here’s another one, just pulling in.   Sorry, no-go.  She sports an orange boot top, and I drank way too much orange soda as a kid. There must be one that’s right.  Yes, some are nearly prefect but I struggle with the price point.   Sadly, I DO have to ask how much.

For now I will just have to be satisfied with our little Pandora.  At least I can be confident that our view is as good as the big boys.
I’d better sign off now as it’s nearly time to head to the beach for a swim.   I feel sorry for my friends up in CT.  I hear that the forecast is for around a foot of the white stuff.

I’ll settle for a white sandy beach.

I was Blue but now I am better.

It’s been two weeks since my last post but it feels like a lifetime.  When I last posted, I didn’t have passport with enough time remaining to be valid for the duration of our winter in the Caribbean.

I went to the passport office website and the details of an emergency renewal, defined as taking less than a few months, said something like “you better hope that someone had died or don’t bother us, EVER!”.  Not terribly encouraging so in desperation I opted for one of those services that promise a quick turnaround for about $1,000.  However, after filling out the questions on the website, including credit card information, and tons of personal stuff, when they asked for my SS number, I bailed.   But not soon enough, it seems, to avoid a charge of nearly $700.  The resolution of that issue is still pending.

As you can imagine, by that point, I was really  becoming desperate and decided that my only hope was to contact CT Senator Chris Murphy’s office.  Problem solved and Senator Murphy is now my NEW BEST FRIEND, in a few days one of his aids secured an appointment, in person, at the passport office in Stamford.  Problem solved with a turnaround of a few hours.

Ok, so now I have a new passport albeit with a photo that makes me look like a criminal.  When my son Christopher saw it, his reaction was “if you ever get arrested you’d better hope that the jury doesn’t see this phot0 or they will vote to convict before the trial even begins”.  Thanks for the vote of confidence, Christopher.

Our six weeks at home after leaving Antigua was a whirlwind, visiting our son and his family in Maryland, (more about that in a moment), helping our other son and his partner move into NYC after being with us for nearly a year and a half (what a great experience that was).  Make that driving 6 hours round trip to NYC, three times, celebrating Christmas with Chris and Melody and our friend Craig at our home.

Oh yeah, Brenda and I also decorated our home for Christmas, and then she took everything down the day after Christmas, while I drove Chris and Melody and Mila, their dog, back into NYC.

Back home to pack and winterize the house, blowing out all the water pipes with compressed air, antifreeze in the washer, dishwasher, icemaker, drains and toilets.  A long list.

Finally…. Picking up a rental car so we could drive into NYC to stay with Chris and Melody before going to Kennedy Airport.  The next morning, at 0-dark-30 we headed to JFK only to learn that our flight to Antigua on Jet Blue was canceled 15 MINUTES BEFORE WE ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT THANKYOU.

Teh terminal was a zoo.  I have never seen so many people in one building.  So much for social distancing.  It was like a giant mosh pit, with luggage.  Beginning at 04:00 we stood line for the next six hours before we were able to finally secure a hotel room.   By the time we made it to the hotel it wasn’t even noon and after a an early lunch Brenda fell asleep on a bench in the bar while we waited for our room to be ready.  Asleep in the bar you say?  No, no gin involved.

When we finally got to our room, we slept the sleep of the dead only to wake up in time for dinner.   No, make that the sleep of the sick and dead.  Sick?  Let me explain.

Remember that we visited our son and his family in MD?  We had a terrific time and as usual, came back with more than we arrived with.  Repeat after me “small children are noting more than adorable viral incubators”.

Oh boy, did I come back with a doozy of a cold.  Here I sit more than two weeks later and I am still coughing my lungs out.  And no, it’s not COVID, although I was concerned enough to take two rapid tests and a PCR, all negative.

Below is a photo of our family and those adorable vectors.  It’s been four years since our boys, Rob and Christopher, have been together.  Now that Chris lives in NYC, as opposed to Oakland CA, I am sure that we will all be together more often.

Yup, that’s the adorable petri dish gang on the lower left.  From left to right, twins Emme, Rhett and Tori.  When they are sick, you can hardly tell.  With me, yes, you can tell, for weeks on end.  On the top, from left to right our son Rob, his wife Kandice, Brenda, Melody, Chris’s partner and  Christopher.

And, me, down low sucking in all those viral particles.  And Mila, happy, no matter what. So, after all that we are finally back in Antigua and while our “home friends” are feeling the effects of winter up north, we have this view out of Pandora’s cockpit. On our starboard side is Nelson’s Dockyard, home to some remarkable boats.  How about this three masted schooner?   She’s huge.  Ada, I think.  All the schooners here aren’t quite so well kept, though most are.  How about this lovely yacht?  They say that “he who dies with the most stuff wins”.  If that’s true, this guy is a shoe-in. This is really a beautiful place and we are looking forward to hanging out for a few weeks before we head to Guadeloupe.   I guess that’s it for now.  I’m happy now but heading back to Antigua was quite a trial thanks to Jet Blue and I have to say that that experience on “Blue” really made me  blue.  Today I received a survey from Jet Blue and as they say “I told it like it is and as Brenda would say “and that’s what I really think?”  It wasn’t pretty but I hope that they contact me as I included my email.

Blue or not, I’m mostly better now except for one tiny little thing…. Now Brenda’s sick.

Life can be cruel but at least we are aboard our boat in a tropical paradise.  it could be worse.

Will returning to Antigua be easier than visiting Cuba?

It’s nearly Christmas and life is a bit crazy, with family events and all the details of getting ready to close up the house and head back to Antigua and Pandora.

And, speaking of Pandora, my friend Bill sent me this photo, taken from his room at the Admiral’s Inn in English Harbor earlier this week, of Pandora safe and sound on her mooring, awaiting our return.  Our plans for heading back to Antigua have us getting a rental car on the 29th and heading into NYC to visit our son Christopher and his partner Melody before going to JFK the next day to fly out.

And, speaking of Chris and Melody, who have lived with us here in CT for much of the pandemic, decided not to move back to San Francisco and instead moved into NYC a few weeks ago.  Yahoo!  So great and they actually have a two bedroom place so we can visit, and NEVER LEAVE!.

So back to Antigua.  Some months ago I noticed that my passport expires in May but with all the delays caused by the pandemic, I didn’t worry much about that, knowing that I would be heading home to the US with Pandora, in the spring, about the time that my passport will expire.  I figured that if I arrived in the US aboard Pandora with a nearly expired passport, I’d be Ok.  What would they do?  Send me back?  Not likely and then I would be in the US anyway and could get my passport renewed. 

Wrong!  The problem with all this is that I didn’t even think about the  plan to visit other islands in the Caribbean this winter, all of which require a passport to be some 5-6 months from expiration, which it won’t be.   Don’t ask how I got confused about all this, I just did.  Now, not so confused.  Well, not on this topic anyway.

This is now a LOT more urgent as we will likely leave Pandora in Trinidad this summer and there is no way that I will be able to clear in with a passport that will expire within a few weeks of my arrival.

So, on Monday, a few days ag0,  I focused on trying to find a way to “expedite” the renewal.  No simple feat, as these days, in an age of Covid, it takes months to renew unless you are able to use the “life or death emergency” option.  “Officer, it’s life or death as I really need to get back to my boat in the Caribbean, you know, where it’s warm when you are freezing in the north.  Yes, I need to see fireworks.  I’ll die if I don’t.”  Hmm…  I’ll have to work on the message.

So, in a near panic, I began to search online and discovered that there are plenty of services that purport to be able to get a passport renewed in just a few days, for a price.  Well, that price, it turns out, is upwards of $1,000 including government charges.   Not a trifling number but I’m desperate.

So, I picked one, www.govworks.com, and began to fill out a series of questions.  Oddly, the first step was to put in my credit card number before I had even applied.  I should have seen that one coming and bailed immediately.  However, I stuck with it.  After a long list of questions including email addresses, birthdate and contact info for Brenda too, they asked for my SS number.  RED FLAG!  Alert! Alert!  Danger Will Robinson, Danger Will Robinson!!! NO WAY, so I bailed and tried to undo what I had started.  No such luck and a short while later, a charge to my credit card of $700.   It’s going to be fun to get that charge removed from my Visa account.  I do love a challenge.

Ok, so that service was a bad idea.  What next?  I had no idea so I called the office of our town First Selectman and they recommended that I call our state senator, Chris Murphy.

Bingo!   One of Senator Murphy’s aids called me back and said that he would personally expedite my request.  I guess he likes fireworks.  Actually, I didn’t say anything about that but my tale of woe seemed to be enough to inspire him to help.  I did own up that I had voted for the Senator, a democrat, in the last election and likely would again.  I also mentioned that I am registered as a republican, albeit a disenchanted one just to confirm that I was a constituent worth helping in my hour of need.

Anyway, my new best friend Claude, the senator’s aid, said he was going to bat for me and get an appointment.

Of course, passports apply to all sorts of international travel, both by boat and jet but for me, the bulk of passport use involves Pandora.  With all the island to island travel over the last decade, I have a good number of pages in my passport full of entry and exit stamps, including from Cuba in 2016.

How’s that for an awkward segue?  Cuba?  It makes sense to me as I am reminded of the last time I had to really think hard about the complexities of traveling outside of the US, in 2016 when we visited Cuba.

If you were to look at all the stamps in my soon-to-expire passport, you’d see a very faint stamp from Cuba.  I mention the fact that my passport has a stamp from Cuba in it as the standard when an American visits Cuba is for the officer to insert a piece of paper into the passport and stamp that, instead of stamping a page in the book itself, lest a US official will see that we visited Cuba.   Of course, that’s because Americans are not supposed to visit Cuba.  In our case, we were there legally so I was sure to make them stamp my book.  Sadly, the stamp is so faint you can hardly read it.

Things have changed a lot since that brief moment in time when Cuba was open to US citizens. and once again I am focused on all that goes into international travel, if for different reasons.  When we went to Cuba we were visiting an “enemy state” and now just about everywhere you might go, you are visiting “enemy territory” compliments of Covid-19.

I can still remember the surreal experience of clearing into Santiago de Cuba, all bleary eyed from our long three day run from Georgetown Great Exuma. in the Bahamas.  We were very exhausted, and a bit overwhelmed, with the more than two hour process, meeting with multiple officials who had all the time in the world to spend with us as they had so few visiting boats to process.

All of this conjures up some wonderful memories.  The experience of clearing into Santiago de Cuba is a story worth revisiting so check out this post.  The photo below is of the medical officer that visited us in quarantine, flaming red hair and all.

Everyone flies a Q flag when clearing into a country but it’s not a formality in Cuba where we were instructed to head to a far away corner of the harbor.  And, certainly not these days when “Q” as in quarantine is taken seriously, with the risk of importing yet another case of Covid.  Back then, in Cuba, it was all about yellow fever.

Quarantine or not, formalities completed, we shared a beer with the medical officer.  For us, a first, not before or since…Meeting a medical officer with punk style red hair was nothing to compare to seeing the Rolling Stones play in Havana.  Perhaps yet another random segue but since I brought it up here’s a link to a post about that amazing experience.

It’s hard to imagine a time when being in crowds like this will ever feel normal again.
To say that this was a unique, once in a lifetime, experience doesn’t begin to describe what it was like to be there, on a sultry night in Havana with a million fans.  It was crazy.  Think of a mosh pit covering acres and acres and you get the idea.

This short clip below gives a feel for what it was like that night.  The Stones opened with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a song that they first sang at concert in 1968.  It’s still a great tune decades later.

You can watch the entire “Havana nights” concert on YouTube but this short clip captures the feeling of that night when they opened with their first song.
In spite of the massive crowds that night, The Stones actually played to a larger crowd when the did a free concert in Rio de Janeiro in 2006 reported to be more than 1,600,000.   That was their largest concert ever and perhaps the largest in history for any group.

I mention our visit to Cuba as it was the last time that I had to hustle to get paperwork for any trip, as visiting Cuba, even then, when things were fairly open, took months to put together.

I had explored visiting Cuba earlier in 2015 but abandoned the idea as it was just too complicated. However, when I ran into problems in running Pandora to the BVI that fall (another story) and had to abandon my run, I became determined to revisited the idea.

As with my current passport issues, I doubt that I would have ever been able to get all the details in place without the personal assistance of someone in government.   Visiting Cuba, open or not, was complex as I had to get approvals from the State Department, Commerce Department and the US Coastguard.

It wasn’t until a few days before we were scheduled to leave Georgetown Great Exuma for Santiago de Cuba in early March, 2016 that I was finally able to get everything in place to go was finally in place.

So, here I am again, scrambling to get ready to head back to Antigua and Pandora.  Last time it was an enemy of the state, now, in part, it’s an enemy of humanity, Covid-19.

Fingers crossed as I await to hear back from my new best friend, Claude and I guess I’ll find out soon if heading back to Antigua will be easier than visiting Cuba.

At least there isn’t much of a risk of testing positive for Yellow Fever.  It could be worse.