A Sailor’s Sabbatical in St. Kitts
by John Rowland
My wife, Nancy, and I sailed down to the Eastern Caribbean with the Caribbean 1500 Rally in November of 2005. Except for plane trips back to North America for family visits, funerals, weddings and every alternate Christmas, we’ve been sailing between the Virgin Islands and Trinidad & Tobago ever since. Beyond a few things stored at our children’s homes, we own no property in North America.
By early 2012, we were discussing “taking a break”, admittedly unable to define precisely what that meant. Nancy has taken up watercolor painting and limited space on the 38-foot Silver Seas forced her to pack up all her materials after each session. I was becoming tired of the constant maintenance and one thing after the other breaking. At times I wondered whether we owned the boat or the other way around. Nancy missed simple things like a bathtub and a blender. The list went on. I guess we had simply come to a point where the inconvenience of living on a 38-foot boat had overcome the thrill of sailing and exploring. But still we couldn’t visualize exactly what our “break” would look like and where it would take place. We began to take a “we’ll know it when we see it” attitude.
One of our daughters and her fiancé booked a trip to St. Kitts for late February 2012, so we made our way up the chain to be in St. Kitts at the appointed time. We hadn’t been to St. Kitts for over five years but it didn’t take very long to be reminded why we’d had such a good time on our previous visits. The visit with Samantha and Todd went well, but late Christmas Winds (why conditions in late February and early March can be called “Christmas” anything is beyond me) kept us in Port Zante marina for a while, and the more we became reacquainted with St. Kitts the more that “we’ll know it when we see it” feeling took shape.
So it’s now October and hurricane season is winding down. Silver Seas is tucked into a pit in the yard below Fort Brimstone and Nancy and I are enjoying a comfortable apartment in Frigate Bay while we do some refit work on the boat, working at a very comfortable pace.
This “break” has enabled us to effect some needed refit activity without total disruption of our living space and do it at a reduced sense of urgency, such that we can actually enjoy the effort. Major plumbing changes, rewiring systems and removing systems made obsolete by newer systems we’ve added all require some major tear-up of the living space to get at things. Re-bedding gear in the running rigging and hatches is much easier to do when you are not living aboard.
What prompted us to choose St. Kitts? I can only say that we found ourselves comfortable here. Let me tell you how we see St. Kitts.
The Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Americas. The population is about 43,000. St. Kitts is the larger of the two islands but its area is only 65 square miles and has a population of around 35,000. This contributes to the “small town” feel of the place. The people here tend to be friendly, tend to remember folks who are around for more than a few days, and work hard to make you feel welcome.
There isn’t a large yachting community in St. Kitts. During the season it becomes a transient stop for folks moving between St. Martin and the more southern islands, a day-trip diversion for folks sailing out of Antigua, and a “check it off” stop for yachts cruising with a “bucket list”. At times I miss the kindred spirit of other seasoned cruisers. The absence of a large yachting community is a change from the previous six years of the “summer camp for cruisers” atmosphere of Grenada or Trinidad in the off season. Then again, it is nice to strike up a conversation with someone at one of the local hangouts and be pretty sure the topics won’t immediately run to what’s broken on the boat.
Our little single bedroom apartment meets our needs quite nicely. The Atlantic Ocean borders the north side of the property and, since we are at a narrow part of the island, the Caribbean Sea is less than a ten-minute walk away. The swimming pool is 20 steps from our front door and the air conditioning comes in handy in the late summer. Nancy has a corner of the bedroom set up with a worktable and an easel, with room for all her art materials. Yes, we have a bathtub and a blender and a kitchen much easier to work in than our galley on Silver Seas.
St. Kitts is a beautiful island. There are spectacular views and outstanding beaches. St. Kitts is shaped like a mandolin. The island lies from east-southeast to west-northwest, say about 290 to 300 degrees, with the narrow neck of the mandolin on the southeast end. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the north of the island and the Caribbean lies to the south. At the very eastern end of the island is a narrow channel, across which lies the sister island in the Federation, Nevis. There are elevations providing views of the beaches on both the Atlantic and Caribbean simultaneously, with Nevis Peak, rising 3,232 feet on the opposite side of the channel, as a backdrop. There is some great swimming and snorkeling on the Caribbean side of the island. Other than the reef-protected beach at the Marriot Resort, the surf and the currents on the Atlantic side make the northern beaches quite dangerous. The west end of the island is dominated by the extinct volcano, Mt. Liamuiga, rising 3,793 feet over the capitol, Basseterre, and the cruise ship port, Port Zante. Save the town center, which is patterned after Piccadilly Circus, Basseterre is a typical Caribbean city — a mixture of old and new, local businesses, tourist attractions and North American contamination (e.g. Subway, KFC and Domino’s Pizza).
St. Kitts is a fairly prosperous island. During the season, there are generally cruise ships visiting Port Zante every day. Since our last visit, five years ago, a cruise ship mall has been developed at Port Zante, rivaling the shopping facilities at Philipsburg, St. Marten, on a smaller scale. There are some lovely resort properties, including the Marriot Hotel complex. There are three universities on the island. St. Kitts is the home of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank. There is significant development ongoing, including a high-end marina and condo complex being built around the great salt pond at the eastern end of the island. Restaurants range from fine dining to our favorite beach-shack hangouts. There is a bit of a sophisticated element buried in a true small Caribbean island atmosphere. A mixture of locals, students, tourists and ex-pats make for an interesting community.
Other residents of the island include a large population of green vervet monkeys. These fascinating creatures roam all over the island. Their antics can be quite entertaining. They have been known to steal golf balls off the fairways at Royal St. Kitts Golf Club, snatch food left unattended and even, occasionally, visit the yoga class Nancy attends. Mostly they just “monkey around”.
Since yachting is not a major economic factor in St. Kitts, there are no real chandleries here. Stainless steel hardware and many materials can be found in the hardware stores and lumber yards that support the ongoing construction as St. Kitts continues to develop. Since St Martin is only 50 miles away, most anything needed can be obtained in a reasonable time. Given the proportion of students and ex-pats in the island population, a reasonably wide range of North American products is found at the grocery stores. There is a bus system but, unfortunately, it does not service the eastern end of the island. There are plenty of taxis available and the cost is not unreasonable.
As a cruising destination, St. Kitts can be quite interesting. The best anchorages are on the south side of the east end of the island, marked Ballast Bay and White House Bay on the charts. These bays are normally flat and well protected, even if the winds are up, as long as the wind is east or north of east. If the wind turns south of east, however, things can get very rough. There are a number of good snorkeling sites between South Frigate Bay and the southeast end of the island, accessible via dinghy from Ballast or White House bays. Also within dinghy range are some great hangouts. In South Friar’s Bay there is a cluster of classic beach bars, including one of our favorites, Shipwreck’s. Moving westward, around the point from Shipwreck’s you will come to Carambola, an upscale beach development aimed at tourists from the cruise ships. Moving farther westward you will come to another row of classic beach bars in South Frigate Bay where we have (surprise, surprise) another favorite, Patsy’s. Not that we spend too much time there but, Patsy’s is just a 12-minute walk from our apartment.
On the very eastern end of the island is Cockleshell Bay, which opens onto The Narrows, the channel between St. Kitts and Nevis. This is also a good anchorage in most conditions, except in winds south of east. There is a great beach here, some good snorkeling in the north end and, of course, some good beach hangouts, including another favorite of ours, Lion Rock.
St. Kitts has a rich history. If you are anchored in Ballast or White House Bay, know that Christopher Columbus was anchored there in 1493. Fort Brimstone at the east end of the island is the largest fort of its type built in the Caribbean. Up until just a few years ago, St. Kitts was a major producer of sugar cane.
If you visit St. Kitts and are interested in botanical gardens, one thing you should not miss is the gardens at Romney Manor. These gardens are as beautiful as we’ve seen anywhere.
So, how is “the break” going?
So far, so good. Nancy’s painting is going well and I’ve taken on a couple of writing projects which have been rattling around in my head for what seems like years. The apartment is comfortable and we’re enjoying being here. We are on track to get the boat back in the water in mid-December and ready for our daughter’s visit in January.
We’re still talking about what happens when Silver Seas goes back in the water. St. Kitts makes a great base with St. Martin, Anguilla, St. Barts, Statia, Monserrat, Antigua, Barbuda and Guadeloupe all within a day sail. Maintaining a land base and sailing when we feel like it has a certain appeal.
But sometimes, when we walk the beach, we miss the open sea. Dinner at the apartment is nice but not as nice as in the cockpit in a quiet anchorage. The swimming pool is convenient but not as convenient as diving off Silver Seas’ swim deck. The air conditioning is comfortable on hot nights but nothing compared to the breeze on the water. When we came ashore we were actually questioning whether it was time to “swallow the anchor” but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Don’t be surprised if you see Silver Seas wherever you anchor in the Eastern Caribbean this season.
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