Three Reasons Why
Not to Sail to Barbuda
by Mira Georgieva
Big or small, noisy or quiet, some very popular and easygoing, others much more unknown and relaxed, each of the Caribbean islands has its own unique character, like schoolchildren. Barbuda is one of those that remain in the corner almost unnoticed, small, shy, and unpopular. Only 25 nautical miles north of Antigua, yet cruisers rarely venture this way. And why bother?
1) dangerous for navigation,
2) away from the main Caribbean Cruising Highway,
3) flat, and has very few weather-protected bays.
These are the three main reasons why boaters dread and avoid Barbuda.
In the times of the sextant, Barbuda, lurking low beneath the horizon with claws of rock and jaws of coral ready to snatch another careless vessel, was feared as one of the biggest perils to navigation in the West Indies. Hundreds of boats lost in the blackness of night found their final resting place near the reefs around Barbuda. And even those sailing in broad daylight wouldn’t see the island, its highest point a mere 125 feet above the sea, until they reached the shoals. Today, in the times of the GPS, many unfamiliar with the area still prefer not to risk sailing there.
Moreover, Barbuda is “off road”. To sail to Barbuda means to take the exit from the main highway and head in the wrong direction. Coming from St. Maarten going south to Grenada, the reasonable cruiser stops in Antigua, not Barbuda. In Antigua, twice the size of Barbuda, the cruiser can chose from myriad big and small sheltered anchorages and popular hurricane holes, with all sorts of facilities. Next logical stop would be Guadeloupe, to the south. Barbuda, away from the main road and with only a couple of relatively protected bays, just doesn’t make sense.
Or does it? We decide to check it out for ourselves.
Sailing north to Barbuda on a beam reach from Deep Bay, Antigua in moderate Trades aboard our 38-foot cat is a sheer pleasure. We get there in less than five hours and we even catch a small tuna on the way. It’s only 80 feet or less under the keels the entire time. Usually in the Caribbean when we sail from one island to another, we can see our destination from many miles away but Barbuda’s shores remain hidden until we are but five to six miles from them. We carefully approach the southwest corner of the island, sneak in between the breakers and the shoals, and keep sailing north along the west coast, very close to shore, between the beach and the reefs, in 12 to 14 feet of water.
We drop anchor in front of the longest, most beautiful beach in waters as blue and transparent as the waters in the Bahamas. There are no other boats around. Not a single soul for miles and miles. In east winds, the sea on this side of the island is still, like a lake. There are no swells, and the waves that reach the shore are tiny and gentle.
On the beach, the sand is like white powder peppered with pink miniature seashells giving it its unusual pink hues specific and unique to this place. There are no footsteps for 12 miles, only vines with purple flowers, driftwood sculptures, and sea turtle tracks.
There are no buildings on shore either except for a small hotel, yellow with a red roof. Lighthouse Bay is a luxurious all-inclusive boutique resort with thousand- dollar suites, where wealthy visitors arrive by helicopter. But at this time of the year there are no guests, not even staff. We are alone.
It’s the first full moon of August tonight. This time of the year, this time of the month, sea turtles are laying eggs.
In the evening, as we go on the beach for a walk, we spot a black shadow in the water slowly approaching land. A hawksbill turtle pops her head above the water and looks around before emerging, her wet dark shell shining in the silver moonlight. We freeze and watch in awe from a distance as the big creature makes her way up, painfully crawling in the sand. Up on the sandbank near a bush she stops for a while. Did she see us? Did we spook her? Or she simply didn’t like the spot and started heading back to sea? I can’t resist and snap a picture before she enters the water and disappears in the ocean even though I know it is not a good idea to flash the poor creatures in the dark. Forgive me, mama turtle. Hope you found the perfect spot to lay your eggs. May all your hundred babies hatch healthy, reach the sea safely and live to be a thousand years old.
The next day we jump in the kayak, all three of us, and start paddling in the shallows parallel to the shore for about a mile and a half to the north end of the beach. We reach a spot where there is a strange art-like installation: a piece of driftwood adorned with conchs and all sorts of plastic garbage the sea has spewed ashore. It is the marker indicating a cut across to the mangrove maze.
The narrow 12-mile, pink-sand strip of a beach on the west lee side of Barbuda is separated from the island’s mainland and biggest village by a shallow swampy area, Codrington Lagoon. The water inside the lagoon is dark-colored thanks to the mangroves and with high salinity. The only way to access our pink beach from the mainland is by small boat, and it is not a short ride. That is why there is no one here and the place remains secluded.
The remote mangroves on the northwest side of Barbuda, where humans rarely venture, provide habitat for the largest Magnificent Frigatebird breeding colony in the Caribbean, one of the biggest frigatebird sanctuaries in the world. With about 1,700 nests, the site has been declared a national park.
The Magnificent Frigatebird also known as man o’war bird is a long-winged, fork-tailed black bird of the tropical seas. An agile, silent flier he snatches fish off the surface of the ocean and pirates food from other birds. Being unable to take off from the water, frigatebirds never land on the sea and thus take their food in flight. They spend days and nights on the wing, with an average ground speed of just over six miles per hour, covering up to 139 miles before landing.
To visit the frigatebird sanctuary in Barbuda you can hire a local guide from Codrington who will take you there by a small motorboat. Or, if you have time and muscle, you can take your kayak along the beach, all the way to the north corner until you reach the driftwood decorated with ocean garbage, drag it across to the mangrove lagoon and paddle inside the bird sanctuary, exploring noiselessly its many narrow shallow channels. Thus, you will be able to spend as much time in the colony as you wish, for free, like we did.
We spent over an hour paddling in the mangrove maze surrounded by hundreds of nesting frigates, their white heads with long beaks popping up from the bushes like curious blossoms, or hovering above us like dark kites watching us suspiciously as we were watching them with amazement, clacking and chattering, telling us something important but, alas, incomprehensible to us.
By early afternoon we are back on the boat. After splashing in the warm crystal-blue waters, a math lesson, and some rest, we decide to make a fire on the beach around sunset. Barbuda’s deserted beaches rich with driftwood are perfect for full-moon-celebration fires. We love beach fires and fires in general. We think they are fascinating and have their own short lives, and it is always a great excitement building them, lighting them and watching them burn.
As we are eating fire-roasted potatoes and sipping white wine, the full moon watching over us, turtles crawling out of the sea in the darkness, black birds sleeping in the branches of the mangrove world, we are counting the reasons why sailing to Barbuda is in fact a good idea.
1) True, the reefs are dangerous for navigation, but with an adequate chart, a GPS, a depth finder, and the good old eyeball technique, you will be fine! Once anchored, the reefs teaming with fish, with their many wrecks, maybe even treasure chests waiting to be found, are safe and beautiful to explore underwater. You may find the best diving and snorkeling spots around Barbuda.
2) True, the island is away from the main Caribbean Cruising Highway (as I call it), but it only means that there are no crowded anchorages and hordes of noisy tourists. Instead there are secluded, pristine, unspoiled beaches, pink on top of that! The people of Barbuda like their island to remain unpopular. They are not interested much in tourist development, big hotels, and McDonalds. They are more interested in peace and tranquility, tradition, and clean water and land.
3) True, there are not many weather-protected bays around Barbuda, except two on the south side, but in calm weather and prevailing tradewinds you can anchor safely and comfortably anywhere on the west side between the beach and the reefs, in excellent holding. Only in wintertime when a northerly descends, are you better off some other place.
And if you want to explore even more of the island, where horses and donkeys roam free, take your dinghy or the water taxi across the lagoon to Codrington. There are beautiful cliffs and caves at the edge of the highlands and you can check out the ruins of Codrington Estate, the Darby Sink Hole, or one of the few restaurants where you can enjoy traditional local dishes including the best charcoal-grilled lobster in the region (and most probably in the world).
Turquoise waters, coral reefs, sea turtles, pink beaches, absolute tranquility and seclusion, a mangrove maize, nesting frigatebirds, driftwood sculptures, beach fires, caves, cliffs, a small quiet village, authenticity, good food, unforgettable sunsets, unforgettable moonrises: How many more reasons do you need to sail to Barbuda?
Visit Mira’s blog at www.thelifenomadik.com.
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