Monthly Archives: March 2019

Nelson’s Dockyard and the spark that made it a national treasure.

So often it is the work of one person or a single family whose actions and vision can be the spark that changes the course of history.   For Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbor, Antigua it was the Nicholson family.

In 1948 the Nicholsons left Ireland beginning what was to be an around the world voyage aboard their 70′ schooner Mollihawk.  Aboard were “Commander V.E.B” Nicholson his wife Emma and their two young sons who arrived in English Harbor, the site of the then derelict Nelson’s Dockyard where they decided to make a home.Over time, their older son, Desmond and his wife Lisa also became passionate about the historic Dockyard, looking beyond the caved in roofs and crumbling walls to envision what is today a national treasure, UNESCO world heritage site and the only operating Georgian Dockyard in the world

It was their hard work, the enthusiasm of the family and certainly others that galvanized support to rebuild the iconic Dockyard that was once the center of British naval power in the Caribbean.

At the time of their arrival, only a few years after the end of WWII, Antigua was not the tourist destination that it is today and the yacht charter business in the Caribbean was not yet born.  Soon after their arrival, the family was approached by John Archbold, a wealthy landowner from nearby Dominica with a request to charter Mollihawk.  This event proved to be the beginning of the first charter business in Antigua, that lives on today as Nicholson Yachts Charter & Services.

Desmond was an enthusiastic photographer and when I was in Antigua last November I visited his daughter Nancy’s art gallery, saw a charming book of his photography and purchased a copy.   All of the black and white photos in this post are from that book and are posted compliments of Nancy.

There were only a few cruising boats visiting Antigua in those early days.   The building in ruins to the right in this photo, without a roof or windows,  is where the customs office is now located. Today the grounds and customs office are fully restored. Nearly every inch of dock space in English Harbor and nearby Falmouth Harbor are crammed with all manner of mega-yachts and cruisers.  Some of these behemoths look more like ocean liners than private yachts.   I was told that in January there were some 80 mega-yachts in residence between English and Falmouth harbors. Shortly after arriving in Antigua, the Nicholson family received permission to take up residence in the abandoned Dockyard and set about doing what they could to improve the facility.   No drones in those days.  These photos were taken after much of the rebuilding was done, replacing missing roofs and walls. Today the look of the Dockyard is true to it’s roots and looks much like it did when it was the Caribbean base for the British Navy with all of the buildings beautifully restored.  In 2016 the Dockyard was designated as a  World Heritage site by UNESCO.

As a point of interest, this next photo was taken about a week after back to back hurricanes ravaged nearby Barbuda and other islands in the Caribbean two years ago.   By a quirk of geography and the storms path, the island and Dockyard were spared.    That same year the Salty Dawg Rally decided to head to Antigua with 55 boats making landfall on the island. The Dockyard doesn’t look all that different these days than it did when Desmond took this photo. Well, one thing that is different is that there are a LOT more boats.  This is a photo of boats participating in the Oyster round the world rally from a few years ago.  I have a friend who had hoped to meet me there this April as they return, having completed a circumnavigation themselves as part of the rally.  I wish that I could be there.  Next year…There are still remnants of the careening dock that was used to pull over navy ships for bottom work.  The Nicholson family used similar equipment to restore yachts in the early years.  Nowadays, right across the harbor, there is a full service yard with a railway servicing yachts of all sizes. Most everyone visiting the island makes the pilgrimage up to the British Navy era Shirley Heights fort overlooking the harbor.  Here’s Desmond and his young bride Lisa, C1958.The Lookout is still a tremendously popular spot to watch the sunset for locals and visitors alike with barbecues and bands performing at sunset every week. Crowds or not, this view will never be beat and no less lovely than it was when the Nicholson family first made landfall.  It’s no wonder that they decided to stay and make a life for themselves on the island.
Sail making has always been a part of the Dockyard, including during Desmond’s time.  I’ll bet that the figurehead in the corner has an interesting story to tell.
And that craft remains a vital part of the Dockyard today.  A&F Sails is located in the Dockyard, owned and operated by the Commodore of the Antigua Yacht Club, Franklyn Braithwaite.  He’s a great guy and has been tremendously supportive of the Salty Dawg Rally. In addition to Franklyn’s loft, the Dockyard is home to many marine related businesses.   These stone pillars, now part of the Admiral’s Inn, were once the base of the loft that took care of the sails for naval ships.    In Nelson’s day, the channel between the columns allowed ships’ gigs to row under the building and have sails lifted into the loft for service. Today they serve as an iconic backdrop for the Admiral’s Inn, run by siblings Astrid and Paul Deeth.  Their parents founded one of the earliest resorts in English Harbor.   These columns are quite a sight as is the rest of the property, especially in the evening.  Astrid and Paul have been tremendously supportive in helping me organize events in celebration of the arrival of the rally for the last few years. The Dockyard plays a big role in the arrival of the Salty Dawg fleet.  We have a number of events in the Dockyard and cap our week of celebration with a dinner by the pool at Boom, part of the Admiral’s Inn. The view of the dockyard from that spot is really impressive. Across the harbor from the Dockyard, is Clarence House, built in the early 17th century as the residence for the Duke of Clarence, Prince William IV.  The restoration of the building was made possible by a grant from Sir Peter Harrison, who now keeps his yacht Sojana, in the Dockyard during the winter season.   When the refurbished Clarence House was officially dedicated in 2016, Prince Harry was on hand.   His appearance in Antigua was chronicled in the Daily Mail of UK. 

This shot shows Clarence House on the hill.
Today English Harbor and Nelson’s Dockyard remain a vital harbor for cruising and charter yachts alike and it all began with the arrival of Commander Nicholson and his family so many years ago.

Every cruiser or yachtsman who arrives in the harbor owes a debt to the Nicholson family that had the vision to help remake English Harbor into what it is  today, perhaps the most wonderful place to make landfall in the Caribbean.

As part of the arrival events for the Salty Dawg fleet last November, Nancy Nicholson, daughter of Desmond and Lisa, hosted an arrival event in conjunction with the season opening of her gallery, Rhythm of Blue art gallery.

It was nice to meet her mother Lisa at the event with Nancy.   I for one, would love to sit down with Lisa to hear more about what it was like in the Dockyard during those early years. So many years have come and gone since Mollihawk arrived in English Harbor but the legacy remains, a good example of how important the vision and work of even a single family can be.

In addition to his work revitalizing the Dockyard, Desmond was instrumental in helping to develop the original website for the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda,  That site along with his many books and articles ensure that Desmond’s legacy in Antigua is secure and the results of his work will continue to benefit the island for decades to come.   Read his obituary here as it lists many of his impressive achievements.

Those who spend time in the Dockyard and, for that matter, all of Antigua surely owes a debt of gratitude to the Nicholson family who helped spark the revitalization of what has become a jewel in the crown of Antigua, Nelson’s Dockyard.

I look forward to joining the Salty Dawg fleet in the Dockyard this coming November and will raise a glass to those who made it possible.

The case for making Landfall in Antigua.

Ok, here’s the deal.  If you are heading to the Caribbean next season I’m here to tell you that the best place to make landfall is Antigua.  So, feast your eyes on this beautiful sunset that could be yours and read on.  There are a number of options for heading to the Caribbean from the US east coast.   Beyond where to make landfall, a key question is about how convenient it is to explore the rest of the islands once you arrive.

Several years ago, when I was planning for Pandora’s first run to the eastern Caribbean, I asked around about where would be the best island to head for.   Many skippers, heading south for the first time, default to the British Virgin Islands as they are familiar with the area from years of chartering.  And while it’s a wonderful place to charter for a week, it’s tough for cruisers to get further south without slogging to weather.  The bad news is that there just isn’t a lot of information easily available regarding the islands to the south.

Cruisers wishing to continue south from the BVIs to the next island, St Martin, must make a run of nearly 100 miles due east, directly into the trade winds.   Some will say that this trip is “easy if you wait for a cold front”.  However, that may take a long time according to weather router Chris Parker who says that you are likely to wait weeks or worse, especially during mid-December through March for a more northerly wind shift. Several years ago, Brenda and I made the run between the British Virgin Islands and St Martin and in spite of light easterlies of only 10kts, it was quite an unpleasant trip, very bumpy motor sailing directly into the wind and waves that made for a VERY LONG DAY that began before sunrise and lasted until long after dark.

It was not a great way to begin our run south after the holidays.  Brenda hated it.  Unfortunately, our experience was not unique and for us it wasn’t a great way to begin our winter season aboard Pandora.   As they say “gentlemen do not go to weather”.

For years now, we have worked with Chris Parker of Marine Weather Center, as our preferred weather router and have relied on him for guidance for local weather forecasting as well as advice on where to cruise based on the type of sailing conditions that Brenda and I prefer.  And, when I asked him about cruising the eastern Caribbean, his recommendation was to head directly to Antigua from the US and begin our winter cruising from there.

From the Hampton, VA, the starting point for the Salty Dawg Rally, the run to Antigua is only about 100 miles further than the BVIs and by the time you get there you have made all of the easting required to begin your sailing season.  Once you’re in Antigua, you can sail just about anywhere on a reach or down wind.

Chris also notes that Antigua is well protected from the large winter north swells produced by the all to common north Atlantic storms.  These swells, that grow out of major lows in the North Atlantic, make anchorages farther north and on the smaller islands untenable for much of the winter.

Stronger winds, known as the “Christmas winds” pipe up in the Caribbean in the second half of December through mid-March.  However, it is easy to ride them out with good holding in the protected harbors of Antigua.  With so many cruisers in the harbor, there is plenty to do on the island if you opt to spend several weeks there before heading further south.If you need a place to keep your boat when you head home for the holidays, dockage, moorings and marina storage in Antigua are a lot less expensive than you might think and flights home for the holidays are convenient and reasonably priced.

Of course, on any long voyage, stuff always breaks and Antigua has extensive services available so you can get just about anything fixed.    And, while equipment is somewhat more expensive than in the US, most anything can be brought in quickly and installed by those who know how to do it.   It’s no surprise that many skippers of megayachts have work done in Antigua.  Need paint work or varnishing?  Antigua is a great place to have that done too and it won’t drain your cruising kitty, well, now compared to some other areas at least.

When heading further south, you’ll be sailing on a reach, the distances between islands are short line of sight sailing and the longest distance you’ll have to cover between harbors is only about 50 miles with most islands closer together than that.

To the south, there is great variety in the islands that you will visit, with each stop offering their own unique cultures, especially the French islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique and the very quaint Le Saintes archipelago just south of Guadaloupe.  

Dominica, the “nature island” is very popular with cruisers given its’ rustic nature and extensive hiking trails through the rainforest.Love waterfalls?   Dominica’s got that…There are often questions about safety and crime in the Caribbean and while it’s always a good idea to keep your dink locked when on shore and tied to the boat at night, crime is mostly concentrated in certain areas of St Lucia and much of St Vincent.  A bit farther south, Bequia and the Grenadines are wonderful and safe.

Antigua has some crime but it’s generally centered in the largest city, St John, where the cruise ships dock, far from Falmouth and English Harbor.   Actually, there is a police station right near the entrance of Nelson’s Dockyard.   You will feel safe when walking around the area, even at night.

It was no accident that the British Navy chose English Harbor and Antigua as their base of their naval operations in the Caribbean for several hundred years as these harbors are very well protected and offer consistent trade wind sailing on a reach to just about every area of the Caribbean.It’s a truly beautiful place. And loaded with fabulous yachts of all sizes.  Yes, Antigua is the ideal place to begin your season and from there you can head further south without beating into the trade winds.   And, as the season winds down you may choose, as many do, to leave your boat south in Grenada or Trinidad where you’ll be safe from the seasonal hurricanes.

And, for those returning to the US, sailing back to the Virgins is an easy run, off the wind, and there you can join up for the Salty Dawg Rally back to the US and home.  Along the way you’ll want to be sure and stop in St Barths and St Martin as well as some of the smaller islands if the north swell is not a problem.

Antigua is very simply the sailing capital of the Caribbean and very cruiser friendly.  And, as rally port captain, I have seen first-hand, that they have been extremely welcoming to the Salty Dawg Rally and have gone out of their way to help us.  The Antigua Yacht Club even throws the Dawgs a free party, with food and drink for all.  It doesn’t get more welcoming than that, if you ask me.If you’ve been to Antigua in the past you know that what I am saying is true and I am sure that you won’t be disappointed by your next trip.  If you are new to cruising the area, trust me, making landfall in Antigua and tying up in historic Nelson’s Dockyard for the first time will give you and your crew a thrill to be in a magical place that has hosted sailing vessels for hundreds of years, a UNESCO world heritage site and the only operating Georgian boatyard in the world.How about this view of the Dockyard from aboard Pandora?Still need convincing?  Contact me, Antigua Port Captain for the Salty Dawg Rally, SDSA board member and I’ll answer your questions.   Believe me, if Antigua wasn’t such a great spot, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my time working to make your arrival a great experience.

And, speaking of plans, when the Dawgs arrive in Antigua in November there will be quite a lineup of events to please skipper and crew alike.   So, I hope that you will join me and the rest of the fleet in English Harbor for our arrival and more than a week of events, some free and all reasonably priced.  Click here to see the details of what’s planned.

Can’t bring your boat?  Not a problem, there are really special, super great rates at the Admiral’s Inn, in the heart of the Dockyard, just for Dawgs and their friends during our arrival time.   How about this as a perfect spot to begin your day with a cup of coffee at the Inn?  The place is beautiful. Or perhaps for a glass of wine as the sun goes down.  Pandora will be in the Dockyard waiting for you.  Well, that’s assuming that you don’t get there first.

So, there you have it.   The case for making landfall in Antigua.  And, with so many Dawgs together, it’s going to be awesome.

Oh yeah, we even do dinghy drifts and pass around snacks to share or should I say “Dawg Food”. So, why would you miss out on this?

Waiting for the crocus to come up. A sign. Anything…

Well, it’s been two weeks since I last posted and that’s way too long.  Along with visiting our son and grandchildren, I have been busy building two looms for Brenda, perhaps as penance for keeping her away from home for the last six winters voyaging here there.

It’s just beginning to get light outside and this is the view from my office window.   Not looking too good for an early spring.Beautiful yes, in a wintry sort of way.  Me, I prefer this instead.   Soon enough.    It’l get better in May.Yes, it’s been tough for me to be here in CT with the sub-freezing weather for months now but at least I have been spending a lot of time in the the shop with no windows so I can’t see outside, the bare trees and… well, you get the picture.  Actually, I already showed you the picture.

Speaking of picture, this is one of the two Takadai looms that I built while hanging out in that windowless shop.   Takawhat! you say.  Check this link to learn more about this obscure fiddly technique.  Trust me, I won’t be ditching Pandora to make ancient Japanese braids any time soon.  However, now Brenda has one of these arcane gizmos of her own…The loom looks deceptively simple, but, trust me, it’s not simple to make at all.   I used some exotic materials including zebra wood.  I have had a single board on hand in the shop for a decade waiting for the right project to come along. I also had to make 40 of these.  They are called Koma and each one has 9 pins inserted into fiddly little holes.  Yikes, talk about repetitive motion…And, there are SO MANY OF THEM.  And that’s just one of the two looms I made.   To set up jigs to make all the parts took plenty of time so I decided to go ahead and make two of everything.  Brenda plans on selling one of them to another weaver. 

Interestingly, there is only one guy in the US that makes these looms and there is a 2.5 year long wait to get one.  From me, Brenda got hers in only two months.  Go me!  However, we won’t talk about the fact that she purchased the plans over seven years ago.    Well, I did have to think about it long enough to get it right.  Right?

Anyway, the looms are nearly done and I can soon turn my attention to getting Pandora ready for spring.    There’s still plenty to do and I’ll be spending days aboard Pandora scraping old glue off of the overhead so I can put in a new head-liner.  I’ve decided to hire the guy who did my cockpit enclosure to install the new material.   That way I can be sure that it will turn out perfectly and I HAVE to have PERFECT.

I’ll also be taking out the last of the less efficient lighting and replacing it with LEDs so I won’t have to be quite so stingy with cabin lighting when we are on the hook.   Pandora’s cabin lighting has been mostly upgraded but there are still the overhead halogen puck lights that need attention plus a number of high pressure fluorescent fixtures that aren’t very efficient either.

And, well, there’s always the quest of trying to fix those small if persistent leaks coming through that bolt hole on the traveler, under a line clutch and one of the granny bars that drip down below from time too time.  Annoying, but a bit of proper bedding should do the trick.   Of course that all sounds easy enough but to get things sorted out and ready for that “bit of proper bedding” will take hours or days.

And, remember my last post?  The one about our visiting the UK and renting a Narrow Boat?  Well, NEVER MIND…

Brenda and I both decided that being away for a month wasn’t all that great an idea after all and we’ve decided to put that trip off and go to CA instead for a week to see our son Chris and his girlfriend Melody.    We’ve been looking forward to seeing them again so that’s the plan.

So, it’s UK out and CA in…  Best laid plans? Right?

We’ve also been visiting with our son’s growing family.   They are getting bigger and louder by the day.  It’s fun to be with them but just about everything that gets done all day long involves bathing, bouncing, playing, feeding or changing diapers along with putting them down for a nap and then getting them up  again.  Really adorable but what a handful…Feed me, FEED ME “Tepe”!!!  That’s Tori’s name for me, Grandpa.   Double adorable.  The best thing about being the oldest is that you get “naming rights”. The morning after we returned home from our visit, Brenda and I both were struck by how peaceful it was to have coffee and read the paper in ABSOLUTE SILENCE.  We miss them but not until after that second cup of coffee and an hour spent reading the paper.   Such are the joys of being a grandparent.

So, back to sailing.   We still plan on going to Maine this summer and I hope for a brief visit up the St John river in Canada.   I’ll be running Pandora to Annapolis for the sailboat show in October.  After that, on to Hampton VA and the Salty Dawg Rally to the Caribbean and my “home island”,  Antigua.

I should mention that there is a load of activities planned for our arrival in Antigua in November and I sure hope that at least one of you will decide to go there too.   The events are great and I should know as I’m port captain and set them all up.   Check out what’s planned for our arrival.   The page is still a bit rudimentary but it will be fleshed out more soon.   While you’re at it, why not sign up for the rally now.  And, of course, make it Antigua, I will.   Everyone I’ve been working with in Antigua has been so supportive and the government is even taking a booth at the Annapolis boat show as a result of my prodding.

And speaking of signing up.  Put the “Open Boat Blue Water Weekend” on your calendar too.  In my “spare time” I have been working on this meeting at the Essex Yacht Club beginning June 21st for three days focused on preparing skippers, boats and crew for safe and fun, well mostly fun, blue water passages.  And yes, you can sign up for that too. But wait, there’s more…  I’ve been asked to give a talk on July 23rd as part of the Camden Yacht Club’s Summer Speakers’ Sunset Series.   I’ll be speaking on behalf of the rally and about cruising the Windward Islands, south of Antigua, an area that I just love.    The event is also a rendezvous of the Salty Dawg Sailing Association and they have a signup page if you’re interested.  It’s free.

The Camden Yacht Club is a beautiful spot with a view of the Camden Hills from the clubhouse.  Other than that, I’m just hanging around waiting for the crocus to come up hinting that spring is just around the corner.   And, now that the “takawhatervers” are nearly done, I can turn my attention back to Pandora so that I’ll be ready in time for some summer cruising.

Oh yeah, and Brenda wants some bar stools for the kitchen so I’ll have to somehow fit that in too.  And, the passerelle (boarding ramp) for Pandora, almost forgot that.

So, there you have it.   Nothing to do except to wait for spring except, well, except just about everything.    A sign, please, at least give me a sign…

But, you know they say, “busy people are happy people”.  Than I must be about the happiest guy around.  Well, the happiest one with dry feet at least.