by Celia Mason
Mid-December, 2008. Two scruffy yachties, just landed in Barbados after an Atlantic crossing, dressed in their best for a trip to the elegant and dignified Barbados Yacht Club to pick up their mail. We have been cruising now for six months, so our “best” means any garment that is neither torn, nor faded, nor stained with oil — ironed, though, is beyond what we can do. As we walk up the drive, between manicured lawns and neat bougainvillea hedges, up the steps to the colonnaded, ceiling-fanned lobby, we try to pat and stretch our rumpled, hand-washed clothes to something approaching seemliness.
Up in the office, though, we are greeted with more charm than alarm, and the kindly secretary flicks through a pile of post to uncover the little bundle of Christmas cards sent by thoughtful friends. “Ah!” she says, “and you have something special, too,” handing us a stiff white envelope with no stamp, but a familiar scrawl. It contains an invitation to Christmas lunch, the day after tomorrow. How have our dear friends, 4,000 miles away in England, managed to hand-deliver an invitation to us? And are they planning on e-mailing the turkey and sprouts?
Five minutes later, after a rather emotional phone call, breaking all rules on decorous behaviour in the Yacht Club, all is clear: after waving us off last July from our home port on the river Deben in Suffolk, our friends had quietly gone home and booked an apartment in Barbados for Christmas — and spent six months hugging their secret to themselves, and preparing the best surprise ever for us.
Which is why, 14 months later, my husband Anthony and I are leaving the well-trodden routes up and down the islands, and setting off from Dominica to return to Barbados. Our friends have gone back there for some winter sun, and now it is our turn to surprise them. The “official” plan had been to head down to Bonaire — but what’s a 470-mile detour among friends?
The sailing route to Barbados from the other islands is relatively seldom taken, the conventional wisdom being that “it is always uphill”, and a thankless slog to windward. Up-current, it certainly is — the adverse current added around 30 miles to the passage — but by waiting a few days for favourable winds, we had a fast smooth sail for nearly all of the passage. Starting anywhere north of Martinique, with a northeast wind, it should be an easy fetch the whole way. And Barbados is worth a visit — the beaches and the water are among the most perfect in the Caribbean.
From Roseau, towards the southern end of Dominica, the course to Barbados took us around the top of Martinique, and out into the Atlantic. We had barely got the fishing lines out when we passed through a pod of bottlenose dolphins, grazing the well-stocked shallows off Scott’s Head. One large fellow, eight or nine feet long, clearly had a bit of an itch, and surfed along on our bow wave, letting his side graze against our stem. Up a little — a flick of his tail — sideways a bit — another flick — ahh — just there, perfect!
Leaving the dolphins to their hunt, we turned to port, heading through the Dominica Channel towards the northeast corner of Martinique. The wind was in the southeast, just a few degrees off the nose. Tomia is a solidly built, 19-year-old Oyster 435, weighing some 14 tonnes before adding all the paraphernalia of living aboard, and she does not relish sailing upwind in light airs and head seas. Anthony, who has been sailing all his life, feels the same, so we turned the engine on, sheeted the mainsail in, and pressed on for our waypoint five miles off the Phare du Caravel, north east of Martinique, where the intention was, having gained enough easting, to bear away onto a broader point of sail.
Keener sailors could have put in a couple of tacks in the Dominica Channel, adding 20 miles or so to the journey, but having the pleasure of sailing the whole way. This route would also have avoided the shallower waters on the corner of Martinique, where the continental shelf suddenly rises up from over 3,000 feet deep, creating sharp choppy seas that stopped Tomia regularly in her tracks.
Sailing or motoring, once we were well away from land, and with the crescent moon setting early, it was a marvellous night for stargazing. Orion strode across the heavens, bow in hand, with the faithful Sirius gambolling behind. Lying on the aft deck, I stared up into the sky, seeking for patterns, snatching a look at the star chart with a torch, then letting my eyes readjust to the darkness and trying to match the design on the paper with the bright reality above. Without light pollution, the smaller stars can be seen, and finally the reason for some of the constellations’ names becomes apparent. Castor and Pollux, yes, there they are, hand in hand, and there, for the first time, I can see the Big Dipper or Plough, with enough of its attendant stars to become a bear, sitting on its haunches. Personally, now it’s come into focus, I would have called it the Great Frog, but that’s a matter of taste.
Round about midnight, the wind strengthened and moved into the northeast, as forecast, and from then on, despite the strong current (between one and two knots) against us, we romped along under full sail. Once out into the Atlantic, the big ocean swells took over from the coastal chop and gave us a gentle passage, with only the occasional rogue wave splashing over the deck.
Barbados is certainly different from the other Caribbean islands, with very few yacht facilities. The only marina, at Port St Charles, is strictly for berth-owners, though you can go alongside the fuel jetty for both diesel and water (at US25¢ a gallon, well worth it for a wash-down after the long passage). It is a good place for checking in and out though, as the other option, in Carlisle Bay, either means manoeuvring in the busy deep water commercial port, or a long hot walk from the dinghy dock. The good thing about the lack of chandleries, yards and marinas, is that you can, just for once, spend your money on other things… no, let’s be realistic: we save our money against the boat’s next demands.
Barbados seems to have two populations: squillionaires and the rest of us. With its fabulous white sandy beaches, it embraced tourism enthusiastically many years ago, and made a name for itself with gated communities and golf clubs like Sandy Lane, as well as browsing in the chic-est shops this side of St. Barts. Practically the whole of the beautiful west coast is hidden from the land by exclusive resorts — but as the beaches are all public, you just need to find one of the signed access points, and then you too can dabble your toes in white sand and the clearest of vibrant blue seas.
You don’t need to be a rock star or a disgraced golf idol to feel at home in Barbados; the locals are as friendly and easy as on any other island, and, once you’ve tuned into the thick Bajan accent, chatty and open — and cricket-mad. There are plenty of shops, fruit stalls and cheap snackettes for those of us on a normal yachtie budget. The flying fish sandwich is the Bajan national dish (yes, they do take the wings off first) and delicious, whether you buy it from the side of the road for BB$3, or pay US$18 in an air-conditioned restaurant.
Just a short distance up from the coast and its ritzy developments, you’re up into the fresh and rolling sugarcane-clad hills of rural Barbados, a world away from the angst of choosing between Lanvin and Chanel in the snazzy boutiques. We took a bus from Bridgetown to visit St. Nicholas Abbey, one of the oldest and most elegant buildings in the Caribbean, where they are reviving the manufacture of rum from their own cane. The house, dating from the 17th century, is beautifully preserved, and a video from the home movies of one of the house’s owners gives an engaging insight into the workings of a sugar plantation in the 1930s. A short walk from the house, along a shady avenue of mahogany trees, is Cherry Tree Hill, with fabulous views down to the surf pounding in on the east coast.
Another sight unlike any you’ll find on the other islands is Harrison’s Cave, near the lovely ravine walk of Welchman Hall Gully, and the Flower Forest botanical garden. An awe-inspiring set of underground caverns, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, towering aggregations of limestone, built up drip by drip over millennia. Sadly, you can’t explore freely on foot, but are driven round on a little electric train.
Quite apart from the sights and the lovely interior, there is the pleasure of a stop in Carlisle Bay, just south of Bridgetown. The snorkelling is good on a couple of wrecks in the centre of the bay, and the beach is a pure pinky-white sand, as fine as icing sugar. The water, like the rest of the west coast, is that almost luminous cerulean blue that you think has been faked when you see it in a tourist brochure. It is so clear that we could still see the bottom by the light of the full moon, together with the surreal sight of a moonlit turtle swimming placidly along, 15 feet down.
There is plenty of entertainment in Carlisle Bay. The simple bars on the beach provide rum, good local food and fine company. At weekends, though, you might want to anchor towards the south of the bay, as one bar goes all out with a thumping disco until three or four in the morning. Landing a dinghy on the beach can be tricky (the obvious jetty at the north end of the bay belongs to the Boat Yard, which charges US$10 per person per day to use the dock; and the pier at the southern end is condemned), but if you take your time and judge the swell right, and don’t mind getting a bit wet, it’s fine. On our first visit here, we discovered the purpose of that neat, waterproof mobile phone cover sitting unused on the saloon table.
Visiting Bridgetown for shopping or to pick up a bus to explore the island is easy, with several places to dock a dinghy in the Carenage, just at the north end of Carlisle Bay. If you’re used to the rollicking private minibuses of the other islands, you may find Barbados’s buses a bit sedate, but the system is excellent and, at BB$1.50 to anywhere on the island, very good value. Each bus stop is painted in white and the blue and yellow of the national flag — and each is identified by a different girl’s name. Who gets to choose them, we wondered.
Each time we leave an island we wish we could have spent longer there, and Barbados was no exception. But we had a lovely broad reach down to Grenada to look forward to. One of the really good things about taking the trouble to sail to Barbados — you’re practically guaranteed a cracking sail back.
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