I'd not been back to Antigua since I left in 1994. After graduating from college and spending three years skiing and surfing, I set off to see the world as a paid deckhand. My first gig was a delivery from subfreezing Newport, Rhode Island, to balmy English Harbour aboard a Swan 65. I had no money, nor a place to stay once we arrived, but how hard could it be, I thought, to find a job on one of those superyachts. I found out; it was hard. So as the months wore on and the little money I’d made on the delivery dried up, I was homeless in paradise, sleeping on the beach. After years of living hand-to-mouth, I was finally ready to return home and join the adult world. Antigua was my crossroads.
I wasn’t consciously avoiding a return to Antigua, but I wasn’t yearning to go back. Then I started thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool to explore the island with my fiance, Caroline, from the comfort of a well-set-up charter boat? It was.
“Well-set-up” is an understatement. The Beneteau 473 Undaunted we chartered from Horizon Yacht Charters in Jolly Harbour, on Antigua’s west coast, was immaculate, and the service provided by Al and Jackie Ashford and the whole Horizon team was top notch. First stop—Falmouth Harbour, 12 or so miles down the south coast.
We nosed out of the slip and leaned into the wind bending around the southwest corner of the island—a wonderful re-entry into the cruising life. We could have tacked our way up through Goat Head Channel between Middle Reef and the mainland, but the engine and autopilot were happy to keep us safe in deep water and heading effortlessly toward Falmouth. Since the annual, and very popular, Antigua Sailing Week was on, I wanted to claim some territory in what I expected to be a busy and crowded anchorage.
Falmouth and English Harbours are must-stop destinations for any Antigua-based charter. Falmouth, a big harbor with good holding, is both well protected from, and cooled by, the easterly trades. Services abound for visiting cruisers, and there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and Internet cafs.
Historic Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour is a 10-minute walk from the Falmouth dinghy dock and well worth a visit (you can walk, bring your boat into Freeman Bay and dinghy in, or try to find a space for stern-to mooring at the Dockyard quay). The buzz was electric by Caribbean standards. Every aspect of the Caribbean sailing life—crews in matching T-shirts hustling for provisions, well-tanned liveaboards spending a lazy day ashore, racers recounting the day’s competition, and plenty of visiting charterers, tourists off cruise ships, and locals make this place seem like the epicenter of the Caribbean sailing scene. In many ways it is. We spent a couple of days there while Caroline finished up some work within reach of an Internet connection and I revisited the scenes of my youth. The beach I had slept on had not changed, nor had (except in size and quantity) the big boats in the harbor, and the international crowd. But the road to Shirley Heights had been repaired, and marinas had been built. The buzz of English Harbour offered Caroline a window on my misspent youth, but after a couple of days, we were ready for less buzz, more sailing, and a lot more solitude.
All we had to do was sail through the entire Race Week fleet first. As it happened, our departure put us in competition with over 200 racing boats rounding a leeward mark that could have doubled as our intended waypoint. We wound our way through the fleet, taking care not to mess with anyone’s line, and then it was just us. Wing and wing. Water gurgling in our wake. Cruising at last. To avoid bashing to windward along the southeastern side of the island, we retraced our path along Middle Reef, headed for Deep Bay. The biggest effort required was to flop the genoa over as we cleared Johnson Point and started reaching north. Deep Bay is a peaceful anchorage and was our staging point for an island north of Antigua we wanted to explore (I hesitate to mention its name for fear of enticing everyone to go there and spoil it).
We realized why Barbuda doesn’t get overrun with charterboats when we emerged from the relative protection of the reef that wraps around the northern side of Antigua. The trades were honking. The seas were building, spray was flying, and the boat was heeled well over. Caroline held on tight and flashed me a look that said “I thought this was going to be a peaceful sail. What have you gotten me into?” I’d reefed down nice and snug, the hills of Antigua quickly fell into the distance, and the boat performed beautifully; I assured her that this is the sailing people dream about and tried my best to look very much in control. That didn’t make the passage north any less exciting, especially because for about 18 of the 25 miles there is no land in sight. We wanted solitude, right? Needless to say, Caroline was the first to spot the low-lying island we were headed for.
Things calmed right down as we barreled into the protected waters of Barbuda’s western side. Our course brought us past a pristine pink-and-white sand beach that we paralleled for about an hour. Do the math. We sailed past this gorgeous undeveloped beach in flat water at 6 knots—6 miles of sheer bliss. There were a couple of cruising boats along the beach, but none were within 2 miles of us when the anchor went down and the dinghy was humming us into shore.
The beach forms a narrow barrier between the open ocean and a large inland lagoon. The peace was palpable. Chris Doyle’s accurate and informative cruising guide promised that George Jefferies (who answers to Garden of Eden on VHF channel 16) would be available to take us on a tour of the island’s frigate-bird colony. Is this what the Garden of Eden looked like?
George picked us up on the lagoon side of what we were already calling “our beach” at 0900 the next morning. He took us across to the colony in the large mangrove forest where thousands of frigate birds live and raise their young and talked about the island like he was talking about his own family. Quite a contrast to the buzz of Antigua. He then brought us into Codrington, Barbuda’s only village, but not before he stopped the boat in the middle of the lagoon. “I want to check something,” he said. Then he threw a Danforth anchor off to the side (seemingly at random) and started hauling in a trap that was teeming with lobsters. How did he know where it was? There was no buoy, no marker of any kind on a monochromatic stretch of water. After spending the better part of the day with George, it was obvious to me that the island and its surrounding waters are simply part of his DNA.
After lunch in the village, where we were treated like friends, George brought us back to our dinghy. “Man, I like it here,” I said. All Caroline did was smile as she drove the dinghy back to our boat. Of course, after a hard day of visiting the Garden of Eden, we needed to recover with a little snorkel, a long walk on a beach without footprints, and a quiet time of watching the sunset.
We didn’t want to leave, but we wanted to see more of the island too. So the next morning, after George had dropped off some fresh lobster, we decided to head to a new anchorage about 15 miles southeast. It would be upwind for part of the way, but we’d be sailing in protected waters. When the next beach came into view, we had no trouble getting excited about parking for a few more days and exploring a new private paradise. There was nobody there, all the way to the horizon. I didn’t want to get my shorts salty, so I just took them off and jumped in the water to check the hook. It was like we’d sailed into a movie. The few buildings on the shore belonged to Coco Point Lodge, one of Barbuda’s few hotels, but there was nobody in sight.
We spent a few more enchanted days here—dining on lobster in the cockpit, beach, soft sand, sun on the skin. But we knew there was still a rocking little passage back to Antigua waiting for us, and it was only when we could no longer put off leaving that the anchor finally came up and we pointed the boat back out into the open ocean. The trades had lessened a bit, and our angle back to Antigua was a little broader than it was on our trip over, so when Caroline flashed me a look of “Love” rather than “What have you gotten me into,” I knew we’d done well. Plus, we’ll be back in December. After several preemptive honeymoons, being engaged for over a year, and trying to figure out a wedding venue, we realized that Barbuda is the only place for us to get married.