“The British attitude toward Antigua was ‘defend at all costs,’” says Randy, our tour guide to Antigua’s legendary English Harbour, a portion of which is now protected as Nelson’s Dockyard National Park. “This especially applied to English Harbour.”
Standing in the center of the park, I take in the naturally protected harbor that the British used as their base of operations in the Caribbean from 1725 to 1889. To the south, via a short channel, is the open ocean. To the north is Deep Bay. Across the harbor is Shirley Heights, a prominent hill where the British placed their artillery. From this lofty perch they could see—and fire upon—not just English Harbour, but any marauding ship plying the waters of Antigua’s southern coastline.
Around Nelson’s Dockyard I see numerous vestiges of yesteryear: stone buildings used for a seaman’s galley, sail lofts, a copper and lumber store, a cordage and canvas store, a pitch and tar store, a joiner’s loft and other buildings that once housed seafaring trades. Interestingly, this legacy still thrives today, albeit with a modern twist. Nelson’s Dockyard might be a national park, but the rest of the harbor is abuzz with sail lofts, chandleries, woodworking shops, welders, painters and diesel mechanics. Antiguans have long enjoyed the reputation of being some of the world’s best varnish workers, and many superyachts visit the island to have their brightwork rejuvenated.
Directly across from Nelson’s Dockyard is Antigua Slipways, where numerous boats are perched on the hard in various states of repair. In other yards, boats are undergoing everything from AwlGrip work to bottom jobs. I smile as I reflect on what Admiral Horatio Nelson might think if he saw a 100-foot megayacht being worked on near his namesake dockyard. Certainly the types of ships—and their intended purposes—have changed. But 120 years after the British navy sailed away, English Harbour continues to cater to sailors bound over the horizon.