We waved goodbye to our friends doing the more conventional thing of getting the hell out of the Caribbean and sailed down to Antigua from Saint Bart’s. The trip down was one of our more exciting and energetic sails and we arrived with a real sense of achievement. Twenty seven hours of beating to windwards in gale force winds! And not more than an hour of engine time to get into Falmouth harbour before dark. We were prepared for it and really enjoyed the exhilarating first leg down to Saint Kitts and Nevis, where we found ourselves trucking along at over 7 knots. We went through some sloppy squall winds (it is the beginning of the rainy season after all) and made good time considering that we had put in a ten mile tack! When we arrived in the beautifully calm and flat waters of Falmouth harbour we felt quite proud of ourselves. Not bad for a crew of two after having had so many months of downwind sailing.
After that the plan was to enjoy a relaxed pootle down the chain of islands that we now knew and loved, revisiting the places we had wanted to see but hadn’t had time to visit on the way up and provisioning up in all the cheap and convenient places in the French islands that we knew about from having been there before. We would keep a weather eye well and truly peeled and check the NOAH website every morning before our first cup of coffee (or at least before the second one). We would be ready at the drop of a hat to sail off out of the path of any approaching storm system.
Our main sail furling was sticking a little, and Simon wanted to take advantage of passing through Antigua to get the opinion of Antigua Rigging, the riggers who work in Falmouth harbour and are used to dealing with Oysters in part because of the Oyster rally. They are knowledgeable about Hood masts (now Formula masts) as these are the masts used by Oysters (although they have recently switched to Selden). Antigua has become one of our pit stops going up and down the Antilles, as our water maker also needed fixing for the second time. We got hold of Julian from Watermaker Services who obliged us by coming on board while we were at anchor. No such luck with Antigua rigging who insisted that we booked into the Cat Club to come and have a look at our in mast furling.
Once on board, Stan from Antigua rigging lost no time in getting our main sail lowered onto the deck and gave the fastest diagnosis we have ever had. He pronounced the swivel (the twizzly bit that turns the mainsail inside the furling system) a word that rhymes with ducked.
Within half an hour our mainsail was packed away into the bow cabin. That was fast! Although we protested that we had been using the mainsail all the way across the Atlantic and that the swivel had always looked that way, Stan informed us that we had been “rolling the dice”.
The upshot was that Antigua rigging could have replaced the whole foil and swivel without taking our mast off, by grinding out the old foil with an angle grinder and removing it in sections. However, they couldn’t get the pieces for another six weeks, which would put us well into July, much later than we wanted to be in Antigua.
This was our first learning point when it came to hurricane season. As soon as you need to be ship shape to be able to dodge out of the path of any threatening weather, you will have something go wrong with your boat that seriously hampers your ability to leave port. In our case, we still had two sails left, our genoa and our stay sail, and could still sail. What we didn’t know at the time was that our batteries were about to give up the ghost. One of the blocks for the genoa sheet on the starboard side was later pronounced to be in need of a replacement shackle. Luckily the riggers in Martinique would tell us that the shackle, although it would need replacing later, would be fine for a few nautical miles yet. We realised that had our batteries gone south while we were in a less propitious place than Le Marin marina in Martinique, one of the biggest boating centres in the Caribbean, we might have found ourselves without a way to start the engine, switch on any navigation systems or lights. A simple shackle could have disabled our genoa as well as our mainsail. Six months of trouble free sailing around the tropics had maybe lulled us into a false sense of security?
Looking out at the empty yacht club was another reminder that we were rolling the dice. What a contrast to when
we had last been in Antigua only four weeks ago, and the whole anchorage had been chock a block. The marina had been full of super yachts, buzzing with activity. Now, the island seemed to have closed down for the season and the yacht club contained one or two boats only. Bars and restaurants had closed for the season and even Nelson’s Dockyard felt like a ghost town. The atmosphere was positively eery.
It wasn’t all bad, though. We met some great fellow sailors, Des and Floss, who are travelling around the world with their two sons on Fat Susan, an Oyster 48 that they have made ship shape themselves . Their story is amazing, as they have only been sailing for three years and have crossed the Atlantic without the help of any rally. They were great neighbours, plying us with beer on a rainy Saturday and helping us to put Simon up the mast.
After a week of waiting for Antigua rigging to come back to us with their estimate of how quickly they could do the job, we made our way south to Guadeloupe with the mainsail back in place but under genoa and staysail alone. We put the mainsail back up because without it, the wind flexes the foil inside the mast and we were worried that it would damage it. Also the noise was driving us mad!
As we left Antigua, the rainy season really started with a vengeance. The crossing to Guadeloupe was in torrential rain and the highest winds we have ever had on board the boat, except maybe for the day of the storm that hit us after Stromboli. We were hit by three squalls, one of which brought winds reading over 40 knots on our wind instruments for more than half an hour. As we neared the coast of Guadeloupe, we heard another boat radio the Coast Guard to signal their location, as they were concerned for their own safety. “We are facing 50 knots of wind and making 3 knots under engine”. They were obviously a little bit scared. For the first time since getting to the Caribbean we were actually cold and had to put on a sailing jacket! The second squall was shorter but was the most sudden, coming out of nowhere. I had just gone to have an afternoon siesta and leave Simon on watch when the wind went from 10 knots to over 40 knots in a matter of seconds. The expression “out of the blue” obviously originated in the Mediterranean where storms can occur without warning while the sky is perfectly blue overhead. In this case, the squalls came out of the grey, as the thick cloud disguised the presence of squalls behind a blanket of grey. We later heard that Antigua had experienced flooding. We picked a feisty day to make the crossing!
I donned swimming goggles and life jacket to put the anchor down once in Deshaies, an anchorage in the north of Guadeloupe which funnels the wind between the hills. Once our anchor was in, we breathed a sigh of relief, towelled ourselves dry and made a warm meal. Our first night in Guadeloupe was about to be eventful….