Paradise Found—or Lost?

The Tobago Cays

The Tobago Cays

Leaving Grenada was tough, as we’d had such an enjoyable stay, and there was still plenty to see. But with family aboard, and the whole of the rest of the island chain to explore, we were on our way without a backward glance.

One of the great things about the Caribbean is that there’s so little motoring to be done. Yes, sometimes it helps to motorsail up the coast of an island around to the northern tip, in order to get the best angle to the next island. But compared with most places, the steady trades mean some terrific sailing between the islands, even if much of it involves beating to windward. The combination of easterly winds and a predominantly westbound current combine to ensure that northward voyages are solidly on the wind, at least early in the season.

Storm clouds gather over Tyrrell Bay, Carriacou.

Storm clouds gather over Tyrrell Bay, Carriacou.

And this year the ‘Christmas trades’ had kicked in solidly long before we’d left Grenada, and so once out of the lee of the island we were soon bashing into it again, as we headed for Carriacou and Christmas Day.

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We spent several pleasant days in Tyrrell Bay in sometimes wet and windy conditions, waiting for the weather to settle a little. Fortunately it’s well sheltered with good holding, so there were no concerns there, but in terms of the weather it did seem a little different from what we’d been led to expect.

Carriacou wooden sloops being prepared for the season

Carriacou wooden sloops being prepared for the season

St Vincent and the Grenadines

The next leg involved a change of island nations, leaving Grenada for St Vincent. Clearing in at Union Island seemed the best bet, being adjacent to the Tobago Cays, which were our prime reason for being there.

Union Island turned out to be something of a disappointment, with a crowded anchorage and surly boat boys, and didn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm for St Vincent, so we moved on to Saline Bay on Mayreau the following day—a much quieter, better anchorage.

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By now the horizon was filled with yachts of varying sizes, as well as cruise ships of all styles. It was clear that we were now into true holiday territory, with dozens of yachts from the various ‘brand name’ charter fleets in evidence, partly recognizable by their varying degrees of competence, especially when anchoring.

But with plenty of space around us, we weren’t worrying unduly, and it didn’t get out of hand—fortunately, although we did exchange opinions with one cat that anchored within handshaking distance of us.

The Tobago Cays

Everyone wants to go to the Tobago Cays—it’s one of those fabled places that most yachts want to visit. And why not? A small group of islets dropped into an unbelievably blue sea, surrounded by fringing reefs that break the ocean swell, it’s almost a construct of the mythical, perfect island scene.

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But everyone is in on the secret, especially at Christmas and New Year, and even at a distance we could sea a forest of masts, partly obliterated by monstrous slab-sided cruise ships. Still, we knew we’d have to go and see for ourselves, and hopefully there would be space for one more.

Turtle

There was, right out to the southern side of the main anchorage, east of Jamesby, just inside the anchoring zone, where once again we were able to use our shoal draft to best advantage, just us and a couple of cats. Turtles popped up around us from time to time, and stingrays glided by beneath us—nice place!

That’s one side of it

The guide book showed a turtle sanctuary off Baradal Island, which sounded like our sort of thing, but even from a distance we could see the crowds on the minute beach, and a never ending flow of boats coming back and forth from the cruise ships. But once again we reminded ourselves that you’ve got to check these things out first hand, so we jumped in the dinghy, and headed across.

Some cruise ships look OK

Some cruise ships look OK

When we got there our worst fears were realized. The water was completely churned up by the constant passage of small craft, and organized parties of snorkelers were busily pursuing the few turtles crazy enough to inhabit the place.

There was even one heroic individual on a kiteboard ripping up and down through the turtle sanctuary and swimming zone (what is it with these ‘adrenaline sports’ that they seem to only attract the afflicted?). This despite the fact that there’s a huge, designated windsurfing and kiteboarding zone on the other side of the island miles from anyone or anything!

With not a soul in sight attempting to moderate any of this behaviour, this was conservation ‘lite’ to say the least, and so thoroughly depressing to witness that we retreated back to Pèlerin as fast as our dinghy would carry us.

Starry, starry night

Come evening and the place really began to fill up, and to our dismay we watched as a group of charter cats took up residence right upwind of us, and began to raft up. And in no time at all, our uninterrupted view of the reef had disappeared behind four, then five cats, all lying alongside one another. As by this time there wasn’t a lot of option to move, we settled down to watch the windspeed, and hope that the combined anchors of the cheery pontoon party ahead of us held. Bedlam, and by nightfall, the anchorage was absolutely jammed.

A raft of cats

A raft of cats

Call a place Paradise…

Now we know that St Vincent is a poor country, and in a democratic world why shouldn’t everyone be welcome to enjoy this lovely place, especially if it generates much needed income for the islands? But this is a unique place, as is recognized by its Marine Park status, and it became a Park largely in response to widely recognized overuse and over-exploitation of its natural resources.

There are fees levied on every boat that visits. Therefore you might imagine that at least some of that money would be spent on protecting the Marine Park and its fauna, perhaps through the rangers spending less time collecting fees, and more time moderating the worst excesses of the visitors. But I’m afraid that we certainly didn’t see any concrete evidence of such a policy being enacted, and without that necessary action, it’s hard not to feel that this lovely place might likely become yet another Paradise Lost—not Found.

And that, in the long term, will almost certainly have far more negative effects on the financial viability of the Park and the people who depend on it for a living than protecting it would. As it’s clear that the Cays are a number one destination for yachts, and we’re the primary source of much of the local income, surely we should be encouraging a long-term strategy that sustains the place and its inhabitants?

Paper parks

Nobody wants to see such places become a bureaucratic nightmare, but at the same time ‘paper parks’ (where they exist on paper but nothing happens on the water) don’t do any good either.

Maybe the sheer number of boats and people overwhelmed the rangers, and if we had been there at another time in the season we’d have seen a different side to the place. We know only too well that the rangers in such places often have a tough time dealing with recalcitrant visitors on very low resources.

We can only hope that what we saw was just seasonal madness, associated with the time of year, but we wouldn’t bet on it. The Marine Park website is notably light on information about what research is being carried out that might be used to help protect the Cays, but a good start could be made by simply enforcing what few restrictions already exist, and putting nature on an equal footing to tourism.

But—St Vincent has taken the lead in banning jetskis in all of its waters, so it is well aware that there are some things that are simply beyond the pale. Maybe there’s hope yet!

Further Reading

[You can read more of Colin’s excellent voyaging accounts, which share what it’s really like out there (rather than the idealized writing that is so common in other publications) in his Online Book A Transatlantic On “Pèlerin”.]

Charts in this post are thanks to the kindness of Transas Marine who granted us the rights to reproduce screen shots of their charts from their excellent iPad/iPhone app iSailor.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • richard e. stanard (s/v lakota) March 9, 2014, 1:00 pm

    question please re customs fees and any other: do these islands generally levy about generally the same fees when clearing in and out ? what would you say is fairly typical please ?

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie March 10, 2014, 6:08 am

      Hi Richard

      It varies – the French islands (e.g. Martinique, Guadeloupe) have a very inexpensive regime (a few Euros in and out) and some of the others demand that you buy a cruising permit, which coupled with the basic fees (often elevated with overtime) can be 10x that cost.

      But in the great scheme of things it’s very small beer, and no reason to avoid going.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Nick Kats March 9, 2014, 2:16 pm

    Great reality check. Someone has to say the Emperor has no clothes. The Carribean is as bad as I thought yet worse than I imagined.
    Grenada was good though, was it Colin? Have to develop the art of getting off the beaten track. Much of the Bahamas should be wild.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie March 10, 2014, 6:12 am

      Hi Nick

      It’s like the curates egg – good in parts!

      Grenada was lovely, Dominica too, also Bequia. And yes, it pays to get off the beaten track whenever possible. The Bahamas are very appealing, especially those parts where only cats and Ovnis (with their ultra shoal draft capability) can venture. We’re looking forward to it.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • flax March 9, 2014, 4:59 pm

    The Bahamas seems to be trying hard to preserve its unique environment — in spite of the rich and famous (or infamous) buying up a number of islands in the Exumas and a number of eco-unfriendly resort developments on other islands. I’d be interested in Colin’s take on how well the Bahamas is faring compared to the West Indies.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie March 10, 2014, 6:14 am

      Hi flax

      me too – it’s critical to the future of these islands to preserve their environment on so many levels, and yes, there have been some really ghastly developments in some of the islands that they will come to regret one day, I’m sure.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Kevin March 9, 2014, 7:29 pm

    “What a difference a day makes”…I found myself almost saddened to hear of Colin’s experience in Tobago Keys. Albeit our time there was in early February of 2012, it was clearly different. No cruise ships, no crowds, we were able to pick up a mooring just south of Baradal with a front row view of the reef and open ocean. If we weren’t so lazy we could have moved to the anchorage on the north side of the island and had it entirely to ourselves! The water was crystal clear and we filled our time snorkeling with numerous turtles, and parting huge schools of reef fish. To stretch our legs we explored the beach and shoreline of Petit Bateau with no company beyond a few lizards. Our human contact was limited to a polite wave to our distant neighbours, and our early morning arrangement with an enterprising boat boy delivering fresh baguette and ice. No jetskis, no kiteboards, no crowds. Our planned one day stop stretched to two, and the better part of a third until we slipped around the corner and put in at Saline Bay for an equally enjoyable evening. It is true that “things” often conspire to affect the relationship between expectation and reality, and while I am saddened that Colin’s experience was less than ideal, for us it was an experience long to be remembered.

    Reply
    • Louise Johnson March 10, 2014, 2:52 pm

      Hi Kevin, Lou here… I’m really glad to hear of your experiences at the Tobago Cays. Although we adored the natural beauty of the place, as Colin describes in the article, we were heart-broken to observe the number of people/boats present and their exploits (i.e. what they considered acceptable behaviour in a marine reserve).
      We would love to go back someday/somehow, and see the Cays the way you did. It’s heartening to hear your perspective… coming away from the Cays, I had to believe that what we saw was purely due to Christmas week popularity – surely it couldn’t always be like this, and yet still retain the wildlife we did see?! The experience certainly reminded me that by our very presence we can became part of ‘the problem’.
      I wrote to the Cays Marine Park Authority following our trip; nothing heard yet, but by John posting Colin’s article now, it reminds me to resend my email! In these days of the web and Trip Advisor, no entity surviving by tourist $$ can afford to ignore visitor concerns.

      Reply
  • Colin Speedie March 10, 2014, 6:22 am

    Hi Kevin

    I’m glad to hear it, and I wish it had been that way for us. We were quite a way farther North by February and there were fewer boats out and about. It’s good to hear that it’s still possible to enjoy such a beautiful place without fighting your way through the crowds.

    But I’m still concerned by the way that the huge fleet in the Caribbean are capable of pushing the ‘carrying capacity’ of the most fragile places and the people tasked to protect them to the limit. There are an astonishing number of boats present at any one time, even though they are not all in use simultaneously. The marinas on the French islands are full to overflowing, for example. In short, I think that the pressure will only increase on the ecosystems and resources, which will be to the long-term detriment of all, particularly the local people.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Jacques Landry March 13, 2014, 1:12 pm

    Hello Colin. As usual and excellent post.
    This is the area I sail in most of the time, and as some have suggested it is not always that busy, although becoming more so over the last 2-3 years. It is fairly quiet during hurricane season, even more so in October-November. But it’s windy and wet. As you said, there are a lot of incompetent charterers out there, and it won’t improve anytime soon. The problem is that they don’t contribute much (if any) to the local economy. Most of them (the French particularly) will do anything to avoid paying a penny (yes, it is mostly free everywhere in the French island). They pack the boat with food and supplies in the French islands and then sail south. They often arrive just at (or after) sunset and leave early, often not paying the required fee, and some of them not even going through immigration. They don’t buy anything locally, so it really does not support the local economy. OK, not just the French are doing this, but there is a massive flow into Martinique from “la Métropole”!

    This is why the entrance fees have been going up quite a lot over the last few years. As you said, nothing to prevent us from affording the trip, but still going up. Some even have additional levy on charter boats.

    There are still a few quiet anchorages in the Windwards but not the “postcard” type, and these are normally some smaller fishing villages with not much services. But the local buses are normally an adventure (won’t say fun, but special) and they are normally “labelled” as more dangerous areas.

    You may find the Bahamas a more quiet place as they have stepped up the entrance and residence fees a long while ago, but I have not been there for many years so this might have changed.

    Jacques

    Reply
  • RDE (Richard Elder) March 14, 2014, 6:35 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I spent a couple of weeks about this time of year sailing from Marsh Harbor in the Abacos to the area around Staniel Key in the Exumas. One of our goals was to explore Eluthra on the way–we harbor hopped down the leeward side for several days. Rarely shared an anchorage with more than a couple of boats, and the towns along the way were friendly and local rather than tourist in flavor. For example, Alice Town has a large enclosed lagoon with a couple of boats on the town dock there for the winter, but we were the only transitory boat. As a cold weather guy, it was nice to be able to sleep under a sheet rather than under a fan as well!

    Even down in the signature spots like “pig beach” in the Exumas there might be 20 boats rather than the 200 you probably encountered in Bequia. This was four years ago, but I’d find it hard to imagine you won’t be able to not see a jet ski for as long as you choose if you stay away from Freeport!

    Fair winds,
    Richard

    Reply

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