Caribbean for Newbies Page 2

The question came up every year: “Whadya think about chartering in the Caribbean?” And every year the answer was the same: “Nah.”My wife, Jennifer, and I sail our Caliber 38, Catamount, in the northern latitudes, on the fresh waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. The idea of chartering in the Caribbean raised many different questions: Isn’t everything so close you don’t really
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The Tobago Cays comprise five uninhabited islands with powdery white-sand beaches and steep cactus-covered hillsides, all protected from the Atlantic by 3-mile-long Horseshoe Reef. The waves were minimal even with the wind blowing its usual 20 knots. In the protection of Baradel Island we snorkeled for hours watching loggerhead turtles lazily nibble sea grass off the bottom. Out on the reef itself we watched bright-blue somethings chase smaller bright-yellow somethings that were feeding on tiny bright-silver somethings. Sea fans waved lazily off coral heads, their purple and mauve lattice configuration highlighted by the brilliant white sand. We felt like we were swimming in an aquarium theme park.

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When the ubiquitous vendors came by in their gaily painted boats, offering fresh fish and fresh bread throughout the day, we succumbed to their offer to deliver fresh-grilled lobster to our boat that evening. We felt we could get used to cruising like this: warm lobster, locally baked baguettes and white wine served under a starry sky on a warm evening miles from anywhere.

The row of bobbing masthead lights from other visiting boats echoed the arc of Ursa Major overhead as it pointed to Arcturus low in the east. To the south we saw the Southern Cross for the first time in our lives. Then a gibbous moon rose from over the Atlantic and spread enough light throughout the anchorage to illuminate beaches and highlight still-swaying coconut palms. We loved the vistas in the daytime, but we didn’t want the nights to ever end.

Even on the hottest day the trade winds kept us cool, blowing 18 to 20 knots day and night. That is quite different from the Great Lakes, where surrounding landmasses heat up during the day, bringing an afternoon seabreeze that dies in the cool of the night. The trades are so persistent that eating in the cockpit was occasionally awkward. I learned to pour milk onto my morning cereal on the leeward side of the bowl lest the milk wind up somewhere downwind near the transom.

On Easter morning we exited the Cays and, once again dodging coral heads, ran down to Clifton Harbor on the south side of Union Island. Union is the most dramatic of all of SVG’s islands, thanks to its steep volcanic summits, sharp ridges and ever-changing shadows. We caught the end of an Easter service at St. Joseph’s Church, surrounded by flowering trees on a breeze-swept hilltop overlooking the harbor.

We chatted on the rectory’s verandah with Father Andrew, a soft-spoken, amiable pastor who was born on tiny Mayreau but studied in the United States. He had served as a substitute priest in my home town of Duluth, Minnesota, a place about as culturally, geographically and meteorologically different from where we now sat as we could imagine. As much as we marveled at the beauty and sweep of the vista from Father Andrew’s rectory, he recalled marveling at the size of Lake Superior with its incomprehensible quantity of freshwater.

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Father Andrew saves more than souls, though; he also heads the board of the Tobago Cays Marine Park and works ceaselessly to protect this national treasure. As he brought us up to date on stateside news from CNN that morning, we were reminded by our conversation with this erudite man that it can take less than six degrees of separation to keep our world connected.

Back in the harbor the sky had blackened and a mile-long squall was rolling in from the east. We had been told that the darker the squall, the less wind it carries, unlike what we normally expect at home. We watched it warily from the boat, but it brought only rain. We worked our way back north around the rugged, uninhabited west shore of Union Island and spent another night in a secluded cove north of the main anchorage on the west side of Canouan.

Then came a big surprise. The wind stopped. Totally. We sat in the lee of a huge cliff without so much as a whisper of breeze. A sailboat motored by in the sunset a mile offshore. Its wake worked slowly toward us, catching the setting sun’s rays in each wavelet until it ran out of energy and the Caribbean once more became a millpond. Another surprise: This far south there is no dusk, and sunsets are almost green-flash quick. But quick doesn’t preclude spectacular.

By the next day the trades had returned and we beat our way north toward home. Dolphin Dance II plunged and pounded into the swells until we gained the lee of Bequia’s dramatic west shore, settling once again into the protection of the harbor. The Easter Regatta was over, the boats had thinned out, and several cruisers were headed out into the falling darkness. Our final beat took us through 10-foot rollers back to TMM’s base.

John checked us back in, then arranged for a trip to a rainforest preserve on St. Vincent’s western shore. We hung on in the back of an open Jeep driven by a graduate of the Hallelujah Driving School, careening through the narrow, serpentine streets of Kingstown, SVG’s capital city, then up a precipitous one-lane road (no guardrails here) to the reserve. With the help of a guide from HazEco Tours we caught glimpses of the rare St. Vincent parrot, found nowhere else in the world, and marveled at gigantic and exotic tropical trees. Finally, it was back to the airport for our flight home.

As we took off we could see the entire island chain, dividing the Atlantic from the Caribbean, its reefs and mountains providing protection and sustenance to people and parrots, turtles and tourists. It was a magical sight. Hornblower was right; this may well be “the finest stretch of water for a yachting excursion to be found anywhere.” Chartering in the Caribbean is a not-to-be-missed experience. Sailors owe it to themselves to go. And if they choose the Grenadines, they just might want to do it before the jumbo jets arrive.

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