Barbuda February 2020
If you like to get off the beaten track, beautiful, creamy white sand beaches as far as the eye can see with hardly a soul on them, friendly and resilient people who are immensely proud of their island and/or if you have an interest in wildlife, Barbuda is an absolute must. Only 30 miles north of Antigua with which it shares a common government, there is no need to check out of Antigua to visit this low lying island. However, with the usual northerly winds in winter the passage north from Antigua is usually a stiff beat. This is why we didn’t visit the island last year, fearing a punishing sail up and difficulty anchoring in the shallow waters around it. After all, we have a 2.2 metre draft and had read that anchoring here can be tricky with uncharted coral and many reefs. However, this year we had the most wonderful southerly wind which carried us gently north in good time to enter the main anchoring area in low bay south of Palmetta point while the sun was still high overhead.
I had never anchored anywhere quite like this. Especially on a flawless, sunny day such as the Sunday when we arrived, it looked like a dream or a hallucination. A deserted sixteen mile beach stretched out in front of us. I thought that it only needed a burning giraffe to be a surrealist painting. There was definitely something other- worldly about this spot but it was also a convenient place to visit the island’s biggest attraction, the frigate bird colony which runs from the island’s only town, Codrington. We had feared the approach but found it absolutely straightforward coming into Low Bay. In fact it’s hard to see how any anchorage could be more simple; point at the limitless sand. Pick a spot. Anchor. Put up with swell on the beam. View of the beach guaranteed.
The frigate bird colony tours are given by a small team of extremely experienced guides and take place in the morning. You can book the tour by phone (we had no problem booking on Sunday afternoon for the following morning) and dinghy into the lagoon through a breach in the reef opposite the derelict hotel on Palmetta point. This convenient dinghy pass opened up after the island was hit by hurricane Irma. Although the passing point was marked by a buoy when we were there, it is nerve wracking the first time that you approach the wall of breaking waves and say a little prayer. Once through, there is a 2 mile dinghy drive across the lagoon to Codrington. You cannot miss the dock as there is only one which is currently in use. The other is a pontoon for the now defunct water taxi service which used to charge $40 per head to ferry people through the lagoon. Barbuda was absolutely devastated by Irma and the water taxi is just one example of somebody’s livelihood which was lost in the aftermath. We were told, however, that the breach in the lagoon is closing up, so this dinghy pass may not last forever!
The frigate bird colony tour is one of those attractions that don’t disappoint. Our guides were George Jeffrey and Pat Richardson who took us in two small groups in Boston Whalers across the lagoon (2 miles wide, 7 miles long, the largest in the Caribbean). We had a chilling beginning to the tour ; they showed us a full container that had been blown across the lagoon from the hotel a couple of miles away in Irma’s devastating winds. The original frigate bird colony was also destroyed but the resourceful birds simply nested further up the lagoon. Also known as “weather birds” frigate birds can sense when a hurricane is coming and fly inland to safety. Therefore a frigate bird flying far from the sea is a harbinger of a dangerous storm.
The best time to visit the frigate bird colony is during the mating season which is at its height at the beginning of the year. The male birds, normally completely black (females have white breasts and juveniles white heads) develop incredible, scarlet red throat pouches which they can inflate to attract the females. As our tour guide Pat put it, “they’re saying… come and get it girls!”. The bigger the throat pouch the sexier, as far as frigate females are concerned. Once they have found a mate these red pouches deflate, so it is very easy to see the bachelors among the colony. The birds raise just one chick between a monogamous pair and it is the female who flies far out to sea, sometimes 100 miles out, to find food and bring it back to Dad and the little one. Dad does the baby sitting until late in the season (April or May) when the white headed youngsters are able to start taking their first flying lessons.
Many thanks to Thui for this nice close-up pic
Frigate birds are famously known for being the pirates of the sea, attacking other sea birds to steal their catch. They are not sea birds however, lacking the oil glands that other seabirds have which waterproof the feathers. If they land in the water, their plumage can quickly become waterlogged and they can drown. They depend on the survival instincts of small fish (especially flying fish) which escape their underwater predators by leaping out of the water. Only to be scooped up by the sharped eyed frigate birds! Nature can be brutal. However, when you know how hard Mom has to work to come back with dinner for Dad and junior with round trips of up to 200 miles, you have to admire their stamina. Next time I saw a frigate bird circling, I wondered how far she would have to fly home after a day of fishing. Now I know why more frigate birds appear to have white breasts in winter time. These are hard working Mums!
I had one last adventure before leaving Low Bay. I thought I would swim to the beach from the boat as landing a dinghy ashore seemed rather hairy. The beach between low bay and the lagoon shallows very quickly which means that the waves crash upon the beach in an alarming way. I set off with my bumbag (or fanny pack.. tee hee) equipped with waterproof camera and a whistle. Once out of the surf I found it impossible to get back into the water. The crashing waves tumbled me back onto the beach and I was afraid I would knock myself out in a big, rolling wave. I was stranded! I blew my whistle to wake up Simon who was listening to Radio 4 in the stern cabin. Thank goodness he heard me over the Today programme! For the record, the skipper was absolutely heroic coming into the lagoon to save me and interrupting his siesta. And he wasn’t even grumpy with me. I promised him I would make it public and now I have.
The anchorage in low bay was becoming if not untenable, severely unpleasant. We upped anchor and made for the south of the island. Crown Point is an easy anchorage for long keeled boats. From here it is possible to walk along the water line (a boutique hotel employs a security guard to politely request yachties not to invade the hotel) around the corner to Spanish point where catamarans and daring monohulls anchor between the reefs. This is the quintessential, creamy white sand beach that you see in brochures. An end of the island view over towards Antigua and a visiting boat teaching people to kite surf added interest. Other cruisers we met in Codrington who had been to the Exumas told us that they preferred Barbuda. If you like the colour blue and the stunning turquoise colours of shallow water over sand which you only get in the old islands (north of the younger, mountainous islands from St Lucia to Guadeloupe) without the pressure of cruise ship tourists, then Barbuda is your dream destination. We savoured the peace and quiet, reasoning that our upcoming trip to the British Virgin Islands would be noisy and pressured with so many charter boats everywhere. Little did we know what was coming!
Checking out from Codrington is a pleasure. The customs and immigration are a friendly and efficient bunch and we were pleasantly surprised to be checked out in just twenty minutes. The population of Barbuda is only 1,200 so Codrington is a simple town, but the people we met here were welcoming and radiated a pride in their island. There were more signs of rebuilding and repair here than in French Saint Martin (with surely fewer funds) and the joyful sounds of children playing in the brightly painted primary school as we walked through a town full of butterflies. As I write this one month after our visit to Barbuda, the corona virus is posing enormous challenges throughout the world and has transformed much of Europe into an enormous quarantine. People around the world are living in fear and, far from home, our future as cruisers is very unsure. It is an inspiration to think of the people of Barbuda who have survived the terrible catastrophe of Irma (amongst other hurricanes) and rebuilt their lives with such quiet determination and humour.