Don’t Worry Be Happy in Jamaica —
and then Back to Venezuela
by Phil Chapman
Me and the missus, Yvonne, aboard Chaser II, and our friends Chris and Tony on Waylander cruised the Greater Antilles this past winter. We made our way via the south coast of the Dominican Republic to Ile-à-Vache, Haiti and then to Jamaica before arriving at this year’s westernmost destination, Cuba.
We had sailed to the Greater Antilles direct from Venezuela on our 44-foot Hunter Legend Deck Saloon. During the three-day crossing from Isla Blanquilla to Casa de Campo Marina in the Dominican Republic we encountered some bad weather, and our thoughts at that time had already turned to our return trip to Venezuela. Would it be easiest to hop down the island chain, or sail east to Puerto Rico then across to Blanquilla, or maybe even go east to the Dominican Republic and then across to Curaçao or Bonaire?
Any of these routes would be against the wind and current. No way did we want to encounter the weather we’d had coming north, so we again made every effort to get a correct forecast, erring on the side of caution. Yes, we’re sailors and some would say we shouldn’t concern ourselves about a storm or two. Ordeal or adventure: it’s a state of mind. Maybe, but Yvonne and I are here to enjoy our sailing experiences not to punish ourselves and our home. We have all the adventure we need.
On our way to Cuba we had stopped in the Errol Flynn marina in Port Antonio on the eastern end of Jamaica. In the greenest part of Jamaica, it is beautiful. (Ironically, like Trinidad, Venezuela and Haiti, Jamaica had been on a list we were once given of places to avoid.) At that time we could only stay a couple of days, so our route south had to include a return visit.
Many years ago, the film star and yachtsman Errol Flynn was captivated by the Port Antonio area and reportedly commented that it was more beautiful than any woman he had seen (and legend has it he made efforts to see a few). The actor once owned a hotel in Port Antonio and his widow still resides here on a 2000-acre ranch that she manages herself. As a tribute to the swashbuckling icon who starred in movies such as “Captain Blood”, “In the Wake of the Bounty” and “The Sea Hawk”, the owners of the marina at Port Antonio changed its name during a refurbishment to Errol Flynn Marina.
The entrance to the bay is absolutely stunning; the colours of the reef, the water, the vegetation and the mountains are breathtaking. As you turn the corner, the marina appears with Navy Island on one side and a small deserted beach on the other. It is totally protected from the wind and waves.
Errol Flynn Marina is a 32-slip yacht complex that accommodates vessels up to 350 feet LOA with a maximum depth of 17 feet. It also boasts single and three-phase power and shore storage and is an official port of entry with 24-hour Customs and Immigration. Boat repairs and maintenance are available at the full-service boatyard, which features a 100-ton boatlift, the only one of its kind in the Western Caribbean. The marina also has free WiFi — something that’s often not mentioned.
We were surprised that the marina is not continually full, but slips were available on both our visits. For those who prefer, the anchorage is superb, and for a small fee the amenities of the marina (swimming pool, laundry, etcetera) are available. George, the dockmaster, and Dale, the marina manager, personally welcome all new arrivals and are on hand whenever you need assistance.
Within the marina area you can walk along to the small, underutilized cruise ship dock. The little beach by the dock is beautiful and there is a lovely bar and restaurant alongside. The landscaping is gorgeous.
About a hundred yards across the water is Navy Island, Errol Flynn’s former paradise. Here once was a beautiful hotel, pool, bar and restaurant with white sandy beaches overlooking the Caribbean. Now all the buildings are derelict, the gardens overgrown, and beaches difficult to access.
Although there have been rumours of plans to make the whole area, not just Navy Island, more commercialized, like many other resort areas in Jamaica, many people would like to see it remain as it is. For the moment, this really is a jewel in the Caribbean.
Outside the marina gates is a lovely, picture-postcard Caribbean town, with maybe a touch of Olde England. There are bright colours, mostly well-tended houses and shops, street vendors and markets, good bars and quaint eateries. It’s safe to walk the streets, day or night, and the local people always have time for a chat.
Time went very quickly here, and it is somewhere we could have stayed longer. We did a lot of walking around the town, the beaches and the fort. We traveled by car to some of the local sights of the Port Antonio area, seeing some beautiful bays that may not quite be suitable for an overnight anchorage. On the beach we sampled some local barbecued jerk chicken that was amazing — or should I say a-blazing? Boy, it’s hot stuff! We got the guy to put some of his homemade jerk sauce in a pot to take away. We have it on board in a glass jar and it doesn’t seem to have eaten through the glass yet.
Tony and Sharon, whose yacht Hoofbeats was also in the marina, suggested we all go on a river-rafting trip. Yvonne and I had been rafting in Venezuela, but that was in white water — fast, brilliant, but over very quickly. Here the river trip is more relaxed. In fact, there are times when the river is too high and the water running too fast and the rafting has to be cancelled.
What a great, relaxing day we all had! Our trip was a very leisurely drift down the river with two passengers per raft together with the “driver”. It’s pretty much a full day out, with maybe an hour’s drive by taxi there and the same home again. The river trip itself is about three hours, with a lunch stop on the riverbank.
The lunch was superb: nothing fancy or touristy. A girl on the shore prepared and barbecued chicken and fish, and served it with rice and beans, for anyone passing. She had a couple of tables and benches and a cold-box for beers. The prices were good, too, even though I believe we passengers paid for our “chauffeurs”’ meals and drinks.
After lunch we plunged into the river for a cool down and a swim — no swimsuits necessary here. No, you don’t go naked: just go in the clothes you’re wearing. They dry in minutes and meanwhile help keep you cool back on the raft.
Bring a hat or some shade: there is none on the raft and very little breeze. You might also need some bug spray if you’re prone to attack.
This eastern part of Jamaica really is precious: probably one of most attractive areas — if not the most attractive — we’ve been to in the Caribbean so far. We really didn’t want to leave, but with the thought of our easterly trip ahead, leave we must.
We were constantly watching the weather on the internet and also talking to weather guru Chris Parker on the radio. A weather window opened which looked good for the next few days. It predicted ten knots of wind and calmish seas — when it’s on the nose we don’t want any more. So, we said our good-byes to the marina staff and newly acquired friends in the marina and set off.
Our decision was to steer slightly south of east. That way, if the weather forecast was wrong and the conditions not suitable after a day or so, we could turn north to the Dominican Republic and wait there until things improved.
As it turned out, 36 hours out of Jamaica, the sea was still kind, there were only ten knots of wind and there was little current against us. Our GRIB files were showing that these conditions would stay for the next few days, so we hung a right and headed direct to Curaçao.
After four days and nearly 600 miles we arrived in Curaçao, having had an unbelievably comfortable motorsail all the way, averaging just over 150 miles per day. Yes, we had to motor to help us point, but we enjoyed the trip.
We stayed in Curaçao for a week or so to see some sights, do a bit of retail therapy and visit the chandlers. I managed to get the new blades for my wind genny after a bird attack, and gathered a few other bits and pieces that we might find hard to get elsewhere. The meat market was good, too — they had some great ribs and sausage. But our fridge and freezer were still full of wine and lobster, so we had to frantically eat shellfish and drink wine for the next few days to accommodate some of these beautiful porkies. The cruising life is tough, aye!
Just across the road from our anchorage in Spanish Waters was a small beach with beautifully clear water. There is also a sunken tugboat, which makes for interesting snorkeling and diving. The crews of Waylander and Hoofbeats, who accompanied us, are certified PADI open water divers. Yvonne and I weren’t yet, so we decided to take a try-out dive with the others. It would count towards our course if we decided to continue. Our weather window to move on would open in three or four days time, so we just had time to do the course. It was a hard three days, diving in the mornings and taking classes in the afternoon plus getting the boat ready for sailing off, but we did it. Downtown Diving was the dive school, right on the beach: our instructor was excellent and the price was good.
We wanted to arrive back in Venezuela by the beginning of June. Yvonne had to fly back to Spain by the 10th to take part in the Moors and Christians Fiesta (it’s like a smaller version of Trinidad Carnival), to see our son and then go on to the UK to see her father and our daughter.
I don’t know why we bother planning anything. We should have learnt by now, because we always end up doing something else. Our “plan” had been to visit the islands of Bonaire, Las Aves, Los Roques and Tortuga on our way back to Puerto La Cruz. But then some people we met in the anchorage who are regular travelers back and forth suggested that it is far better when going east to coast-hop along the Venezuelan mainland, avoiding strong currents and headwinds.
So we headed southeast from Curaçao to Ensa Cata. After spending the night there, we were up early the next morning to sail to Marina Carabelleda. Our next overnight stop was Carenero, then Islas Piritu only 20 miles west of Puerto La Cruz. Coast-hopping worked for us. We had some of the best sailing we had in a long time pretty much all the way from Curaçao along the Venezuelan coast to Puerto La Cruz. With calm seas and sunshine we made seven to eight knots over the ground under sail. Plus we stayed upright — in a monohull, All the overnight stops were good anchorages, some in beautifully clear waters with some gorgeous coral and beautiful fish. The snorkelling was excellent in Ensa Cata — we’ll go there again if passing that way.
We still plan to cruise the outer Venezuelan islands; maybe we’ll visit them heading westwards and then return to Puerto La Cruz, coast hopping again.
Now, back in Puerto La Cruz, we have traveled more than 3,500 miles since our departure from here last November. We had some great times in amazing places. Did I mention the fishing? We had some good dorado, lots of barracuda, wahoo and a great marlin! And we had good company on this trip, making it even more enjoyable.
That’s what we’re here for.
You can read more about Phil and Yvonne’s travels on Chaser II at blog.mailasail.com/chaser2.
Copyright© 2008 Compass Publishing