We raised the sail with one reef, and went under way at 06:10 hours. Clearing the top of Guadaloupe took us about an hour. Doyle warns about very strong wrap around winds, so we were cautious, but since the trade winds had not yet started at that ungodly hour, it was smooth sailing for a while. However, the wind and the seas picked up. Predictions were spot on (for the winds), we saw winds gusting to 25 knots now and then, but the waves were much higher, thankfully the swells were from north east, which hit the boat diagonally from the bow, instead of the side.
Nevertheless, the sail up was rough and tiring, but shorter than expected. We had estimated eight hours, but reached English Harbour, Antigua in less than seven.
English Harbour is long, extending from south east to north west, with a small bay to the east of entrance, which turns with a channel that ends with two smaller bays at the end like horns. There are two marinas on either side of the channel, and the inside bays are quite small, which accomodate a handful of boats. The portside marina (Nelson's Dockyard) is full of mega yachts, both motor and sail, and also house the Customs and Immigration office. Right across the channel, there is Slipway boatyard, with a good chandlery and a few spots for docking, but they sell fuel and water to cruisers.
We first thought of exploring the whole harbour before anchoring, but saw that the first anchorage (Freeman's Bay) quite crowded, Al decided to anchor immediately, instead of wasting time, because people usually start coming in the afternoons and jockey for the few spots.
While we were trying to get a good place, the boat in front signalled that they were leaving, so we waited five minutes and anchored in a place safely away from everybody. Doyle cautions about currents and tides in the bay, which require a lot of swinging room around the boats, especially in low winds.
After settling down, we dinghied to the Nelson's marina to clear in. We went straight in and saw some dock space next to a "no dinghy" sign, and got closer. I saw an official looking islander in a uniform, and asked if we could tie there, and he approved, taking the painter from my hand and tying us down. While we were getting out, some guy came along, and told us to get away, shouting something about some row-boats expected to come there in about two hours time. We excused ourselves saying that we just needed to clear in, and promised to come back shortly.
The uniform was watching, and encouraged us to follow him. On the way, he grumbled about "those people bothering everybody", and showed us to the Customs building. He went around the counter, and gave instructions to use the computer where clearing to be done through the "Easy clear" system. Apparently they insisted on using the initial electronic system which was being installed about five years previously in most of the Caribbean, but abandoned since then almost everywhere.
Now many islands use "Sail clear", a different system, which is very handy, since it can be accessed from one's own computer before reaching the port of destination. Antigua, unlike the others, decided to maintain the old system, and make it usable. It is hard to understand why the others started over, instead of improving an established system. But hey, who can bring so many heads together to agree on something?
During our first night at the anchorage, we heard poeple blowing horns, waving lights and cheering, welcoming the last rower into the harbour. We looked and saw the white row-boat that came in accompanied by a motor-boat.
The next day, we learned that twenty six rowers had participated in the "Atlantic Challenge" sponsored by Talisker Whisky. That is to say, that those incredibly fit and determined young men have started in Tenerife, Canary Islands and crossed the ocean in about three months, some a little earlier. The first ones were able to reach Antigua at the beginning of February. Why?
Antigua reminded us of Grenada in some ways; people are very friendly and happy, life is easy. It is a small island, with a small population, which seems to be more affluant and better administered. The roads are better, houses well maintained and covered with flowers, mini-buses more comfortable and crime non-existent. Our friend Sid of Liming Time, who came back from Canada for their second season in Antigua, declared that nobody was locking their dinghies, when left at the docks during the day. First time I ever heard such a thing! In Martinique crime reports talk about even gasoline being stolen from dinghies. People regularly take away their starter keys after locking their dinghy chains. Compared to the windward islands, Antigua seems to be the paradise of tranquility. However, prices are higher, water is scarce, landscape is desolate (until the rains came), without much of tall trees. There are more attractions in the water; everywhere except a portion of the southern shore, is covered with reefs, hence snorkelling and diving are popular. There are several interesting anhorages with clean waters. Sailing around the island is kind of challenging, but not dangerous (like the Tobaggo Keys in the Grenadines), since the problemmatic areas are marked. And flying to Antigua from Canada is easy, with direct flights from Toronto, Ont.
We spent more than a week in Freeman's Bay, and witnessed the boats swinging in circular motions around their anchors, each going a different direction, and at times colliding with each other, if not anchored properly. Wind helps to give direction, and swinging out of order does not happen, but when the wind dies down, nobody knows where one would be. Some bows come together, some sterns.
One time a boat almost hit us while weighing anchor, because its chain had wound around a block of concrete at the bottom (that happened to be there??), and did not come up without unwinding by motoring the boat around it. Our own chain got so twisted that, it was an ordeal to release the snubber hook, because the bridle lines got wound around the chain several times.
One night, we had to ask the boat next to us to anchor somewhere else, since it was swinging dangerously close to us. Everytime we looked up, it was coming towards Ruyam II from a different direction, either by its bow or stern. Poor guy, he was away from his boat for a couple of hours, while we kept watch. When he came back, he saw that his dinghy could not fit between our two boats, and he realized that he had to move, otherwise we would have to stay up the whole night. Anchoring in the dead of night is no picnic, especially in such a tight anchorage, so we felt really sorry for him.
Despite its drawbacks, English Harbour is convenient, because of the amenities in the two marinas, and easy access to the main road with buses to the city (St John). Also it is a picturesque and historical place, which had been in use since the late 1700 s, being a base for Admiral Nelson' s armada in his exploits against Napoleon.
We explored the island on land by taking buses to St John (the city) and to Jolly Harbour at the western coast, and liked what we saw. The city is languidly bustling, which harbours up to four crusise ships at a time. Jolly is another world, developed after the fashion of Florida causeways, with series of townhomes slapped on channels, with a boat slip in front. Apparently these condos are not very expensive to buy (around US$200, 000 as opposed to millions in Florida or any other Caribbean island). Is it worth it? Possibly for people who need a land base for their boats.
Jolly Harbour has a marina and dockyard, which were considered safe during hurricanes (however we could not see any protection around the outlying land, which seemed quite low with some small bumps of scattered hills.
The topography of Antigua and its the northern twin Barbuda is quite different than any of the other islands in the area. It appears that the two would have been connected if they had been pushed up a little more, since both are sitting on a very shallow shelf (20-30 ft with scattered reefs and solitary rocks in various sizes and shapes) for miles on end. No wonder there were two hundred sunk ships around Antigua, west of which is a shallow basin as far as the eye can see.