What A Difference A Year Makes

New Year in Dominica

New Year in Dominica

Our arrival in Portsmouth, Dominica for the New Year felt like a homecoming. We’d spent a good spell anchored off the town during our cruise through the islands last year, and still felt there was a lot more to get from Dominica as a whole, so we decided to settle down for a good spell the second time around to explore ashore.

Click on map to enlarge

Click on map to enlarge

Portsmouth sits in a large, sheltered bay with little swell (in most conditions), plenty of room to anchor, and apart from a few coral heads the bottom is mostly sand and offers good holding. There are also moorings owned by the helpful guys from PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security) for rent if you prefer.

There’s a useful range of services ashore, and the backdrop of the hills behind the town is absolutely magnificent. But as we settled in to our new, temporary home, we were moved to ask ourselves the same question that had struck us again and again from Grenada northwards—where were all the yachts?

Compared with last year, I’d guess that the number of boats we’ve seen has been down in the order of 20-40%, an impression that was confirmed by a number of local businesses in Union Island and Bequia.

One small locally owned restaurant told me they were down about 50% from last year; another business, a well loved deli, reckoned 33%—and this at Christmas, when most newcomers have arrived from across the pond and the tills should be jingling merrily. It seemed the same was also true in Dominica, where there were around half the boats that we’d seen at anchor last year.

IMG_0060All of this naturally had an effect on the social scene. While we were there, several events run by PAYS and others, for the benefit of the yacht crews, were either cancelled due to lack of numbers or were very subdued affairs. The effect on local businesses was pronounced, and one thing that we noticed was a (perhaps understandable) hike in prices for most services, as traders tried to make up for falling business volumes.

But their idea of hard up and ours are two very different things, so it was no big deal, and if we spent our days worrying about every single penny then we wouldn’t enjoy this life for five minutes.

Le rayon vert

The green flash really does exist.

Dominica remains one of our favourite islands in many ways, for the people, the slow pace of life, its natural beauty, peace and tranquility. It’s also one of the best places to see the green flash, which can conveniently be viewed at sunset from the agreeable vantage point of Felix’s art studio and bar on the beach, with your feet in the Caribbean Sea.

It’s not a bad life if you don’t buckle under the pressure.

A tour of the island in the company of the wonderful Winston was a great day out, and on a day when the cruise ships weren’t in port most of the beauty spots weren’t busy at all.

Waterfalls; hiking in the Mornes; looking out for the endangered endemic parrot, the Sisserou (which, unbelievably, we saw)—time spent in Dominica is always well rewarded.

And when we finally reluctantly left, we were treated to one last reminder of why Dominica is called the nature island, when a sperm whale crossed our bows to say farewell and reminded us to come back some day. We will.

Where’s The Wind?

Sperm whale

Sperm whale near Dominica

Another big change from last year has been the far lower average wind speeds we’ve encountered, right from the beginning of the season. Last year was windy from early December onwards, and some of the passages between the islands were boisterous, to say the least. We made several crossings with two or more reefs in, and even one with three and the staysail only, which represents a lot of wind when measured against a stiff boat like Pèlerin.

As often as not, this year we’ve had a single reef and full yankee, and even on a couple of occasions, no reefs at all—it has seemed at times like a bit of an anti-climax.

Sure, there have been sporadic belts of enhanced trade winds, but nothing like the endless ‘Christmas Trades’ of last year. Good passage making conditions, though, that carried us up to the charming French islands of Les Saintes, another favourite of ours, not least for the numerous restaurants, a few of which are truly excellent.

After a couple of days of cheerful gluttony we had to move on again to Antigua to rest up and lose some weight.

Party Central

Antigua occupies a position of some importance in the global yachting mindset, home as it is to the famous race week and the Classic yacht regatta. All centred on the well preserved historic backdrop of Nelson’s Dockyard, it’s not hard to see why, and if we were thirty years younger I’m sure we’d love it, too.

IMG_0083-aacBut as a cruising couple we’re a bit old for all the noise and the parties, and so we tend to avoid such places. And that’s where Antigua has an edge over some of the other party islands, in that there’s still a lot to see off the beaten track, if you’re prepared to make the effort.

Not least of which is Great Bird Island, around to the northeast of Antigua. Sheltering behind a protecting reef, the island and its smaller neighbours, Redhead and Rabbit Islands, offer a tranquil antidote to the hustle and bustle of the south and west coasts of the island, with walks ashore, clear waters and abundant bird life.

A few pilgrims make the plug into the wind around to these islands, and a few of the trip catamarans visit the main island, but by evening all is quiet and you can settle down and relax with only the birdsong and the sound of the waves on the distant reef as the sun goes down—that’s our kind of party.

By day we watched ospreys flitting between the islands, listened to the pigeons calling in the scrub ashore, and watched a variety of seabirds going about their business.

Best of all was the visit by a family of whistling ducks, as it’s always good to see the hope for the future that youngsters represent. Now considered endangered (apparently they’re rather good to eat), this was a first for us, and something positive to report to Birding Aboard, the bird recording group for yacht crews.

Whistling ducks- Antigua

Whistling ducks, Antigua.

A Different Route

Last year we came as far north as Barbuda before turning south to sit out the hurricane season in Grenada. This year our plans are to go much farther north, so we decided to turn west from Antigua to visit St Christopher (St Kitts).

This turned out to be a light weather downwind run, so we got the spinnaker pole out for the first time in two years, which left me all fingers and thumbs as I tried to remember what went where without tying myself in knots while playfully dropping the pole on my head to remind me what to look out for. The message got through eventually.

The first signs of St Kitts were unprepossessing after the lush greenery of the leeward islands, and the sight of two colossal cruise ships berthed off the main town didn’t improve matters.

I don’t know if your spellchecker is as mischievous as mine, which always converts my misspelt ‘cruise’ to ‘curse’. Maybe it somehow reads my mind, as I’m just not sure how much real benefit cruise ships bring to these hard-up island communities.

It always seems to me that most of the money ends up back in the pockets of the companies that own the ships, the shops, the concessions, etc., rather than the locally owned businesses.

There are cruise ships

Not all cruise ships are ugly

This is an impression that was heightened through watching the journey of the passengers, fresh from a regime of four square meals a day, emerging from the maw of the cruise ship terminal like a flock of force-fed geese, and then funneled into a vast mall full of gift shops selling exactly the same tat as the last port of call, straight into the arms of the real pirates of the Caribbean; it was not hard to perceive that this was a long way from what you or I would call ‘cruising’.

Beyond that lay the safer waters of a nice, friendly, slightly chaotic Caribbean town, but few of the passengers seemed to venture that far, which was their loss in my view.

As always, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some nice quiet spot to rest up, and once formalities were completed we set off south again for a couple of nights in the calm of Ballast Bay, soon to be the home of the latest superyacht marina, currently being created in a flooded lagoon.

Whether the world actually needs yet another superyacht facility is not for me to say, but if it brings prosperity to a small island and offers jobs for the young people, then perhaps it will be a welcome addition. But I also know that the world still needs its small, quiet oases of calm, and another one gone is always a cause for regret.

Not All Caribbean Islands Are The Same

You could be forgiven for wondering where on earth you are as you sail past the Dutch island of Sint Eustatius (Statia), which acts as an oil terminal for the islands. With over a dozen huge tankers at anchor or alongside as we passed, and ranks of vast storage tanks on the cliffs ashore, it’s a pretty industrial scene. It’s one more way to support an island community, like it or not, but a far cry from the verdant glories of Grenada or Dominica.

The business end of Statia

The business end of Statia

Next up, the tiny volcanic island of Saba, with its little community scattered around the top of the island like confetti. Somewhere we’ve long wanted to visit, but when we got there all of the moorings were taken and after watching the metronomic cavorting of the boats already there, we were quite glad to keep going.

Saba

The pretty little island of Saba

On into the night, and our first visit to the charter capital of the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands.

Another quiet, slow, offwind leg, but that’s fine if it lets you get some rest, and in the temperatures here, no hardship when it’s your turn on watch.

But the nagging thought keeps coming back to us—if we like our peace and quiet so much, just what would we make of the Virgin Islands? Would it be as crazy as everyone had told us?

But a peaceful, inky watch spent gazing at the Southern Cross was a great way to calm all those concerns. Time would tell, and it was a lovely night—so why worry? Just enjoy the ride.

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.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

15 comments… add one
  • Dick Stevenson Apr 14, 2015, 4:57 pm

    Hi Colin,
    Another lovely report. Any guesses about why the cruising fleet numbers are down? Has the ARC and other similar venues seeing a decrease in numbers? If this is reflected also for the charter ops, then the BVIs might be far more inviting. Back in the day a visit to the BVIs fueled (with very good reason) many a land based still working sailor’s getaway dreams.
    Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Colin Speedie Apr 14, 2015, 5:54 pm

      Hi Dick

      I’m glad you liked it and thanks for the kind comments, as always.
      The answer to your question is that I don’t know. Perhaps 2013 was a bumper year? but going on what local people and traders told me there has been a steady decline in business for a few years now, but this last season marked a real decline.
      We noticed the usual things you’d associate with such a decline, prices up, low level hassle up in street markets etc., as people look to survive.
      There’s been a big change in the charter fleets farther South in the island chain, with some companies expanding, and there was no sign of any lack of business. Perhaps that’s significant as it does seem that a lot of people are opting to charter on a global basis, than are heading out in their own boats. Maybe the recession has been a game changer in more ways than one?
      Best wishes
      Colin

      • Marc Dacey Apr 15, 2015, 1:10 pm

        The owners of the RYA saling school I attended in October of 2014 said much the same thing: times are tough and clients are not lining up. I would suggest that the relative expense of the islands and the tendency to boost the prices in the presence of certain complexions may play a role. I had nearly identical goat-based dishes (which are considered cheap food here in multi-cultural Toronto) for three times the price I would pay here, and yet at another place, it cost me about the same price, with very little to separate the two in terms of amenities. As you point out, life’s too short to focus entirely on the pennies, but price-gouging of the obvious sort can tend to rankle.

        Another issue not to be discounted is the demographic “pig in the python” moving ever aftward. As someone born in the early ’60s, I am by no means young, but I have been aware of the vast tranche of “baby boomers” (the prime cruising demographic and the inheritors of a lot of “fear savings” from Depression-era parents) gradually swallowing the anchor as their vitality or just the motivation to cruise a boat in the tropics wanes. Or they’ve been told by their dermatologists not to go below 40N!

        So I’m not entirely surprised by the unfolding of events. Even the middle-aged today have arguably less money, less time and less knowledge of the cruising lifestyle as did people 15 to 20 years their senior.

        • Colin Speedie Apr 15, 2015, 1:51 pm

          Hi Marc
          you make some interesting points that I tend to agree with.
          Not least is the question of cost, which as you varies wildly (as does quality) in restaurants. The danger is that if prices keep rising to cover the deficit of reduced sales volume, demand is likely to be further depressed – that’s business.
          It’s also true that it gets tiring trying to manage any purchases of goods and services to ensure there are no ‘hidden surprises’ when the final exchange is made, something that seems to be on the rise in some islands. I know that puts a bad dampener on people’s enjoyment, and is a common cause of complaint.
          Finally, I suspect there’s an overhang from the recession, which for many people really hasn’t gone away, and it has left a residue of insecurity in its wake that is causing people to postpone or cancel ‘big dreams’.
          And as an ageing baby boomer myself, who grew up in an era of confidence and plenty, I think that’s an all too understandable syndrome – and a great shame.
          Kind regards
          Colin

        • Bob Webb Apr 18, 2015, 1:55 pm

          Totally agree that it’s a demographic trend. I’m in my 60’s and can’t wait to get my boat down there next year to begin my cruise. My “kids” in their 30’s are struggling to get a decent house etc and aren’t even thinking about boating – it’s way down their list. When I was their age I had my first (or was it second) keelboat with eyes, even then, on one day sailing away. Not sure if this applies to European “kids” but I truly believe it applies in Canada (home) and the USA.

  • Dick Stevenson Apr 14, 2015, 5:07 pm

    Hi Colin,
    I have visited maybe a dozen ports where cruise ships have a presence and have come to the conclusion that cruise ships operate like gambling: they promise to the locals (as the price of entry) immense advantages, mostly monetary and jobs and taxes, and end up delivering little except for an impressive degradation of all they touch and encounter.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • Colin Speedie Apr 14, 2015, 5:57 pm

      Hi Dick
      I think you may be on to something there, and I suspect that some islands are beginning to appreciate the steady income that long term cruisers supply – Grenada certainly springs to mind in that regard.
      Best wishes
      Colin

  • richard (s/v lakota) Apr 15, 2015, 11:30 am

    all exceptionally beautiful destinations with dominica even more magical than most including the indian river emptying into prince rupert bay not to be missed and easily visited by dinghy although a guided tour is also worthwhile and supports the local economy…always a good idea…the only problem with making it as far up to the also paradise-like bvi’s is the upwind return to the windwards probably best negotiated with a three or four day run sse direct to the martinique area where one can turn more southerly for a near-reach point of sail to the lower windwards…the three or four day run to martinique (from virgin gorda) pretty much a close reach…better than on the nose to st martin…that anegada passage has been known to turn around some of the best back to virgin gorda to try another day (when they might wind up turning around again and then again)…cheers, richard in tampa bay

    • Colin Speedie Apr 15, 2015, 1:42 pm

      Hi Richard
      Dominica remains our favourite island, with Grenada a close second. you’ll hear our impressions of the VI’s in the next destination post!
      This has been a tough year for anyone going east who left it late. After a long spell of lighter than usual winds at the beginning of the year, the wind has made up for it more recently. But as you rightly point out, such passages can be done effectively with some thought and tactical planning.
      Best wishes
      Colin

  • RDE Apr 16, 2015, 11:18 pm

    I can’t understand why middle class Americans aren’t deciding to spend the winter cruising in the Caribbean.. Could it be the fact that real wages haven’t advanced since 1980 while income distribution has come to resemble the stereotype of a banana republic? Or that hundreds of thousands of homes were fraudulently repossessed and bought by hedge funds to turn into rentals using zero percent loans from money printed for them by the FED? Or the export of virtually all manufacturing jobs (including boat building) to Asia? Or the ever increasing price of gasoline regardless of the wholesale price of oil? Or the escalating cost of a college education for the kids? Or the lifetime burden of student loans preventing young people from buying a starter home?

    Fact is, the American middle class— exactly the ones who might have dreamed of a winter sabbatical on the family Beneteau— has been nearly exterminated. And with youth unemployment in places like Spain at over 50% it is hard to imagine that the situation in Europe is much different.

    Here in Jackson Hole contractors building houses in the 4 to 40 million dollar range on lots costing from a bare bones 1 million to 12 million and up can’t throw the things together fast enough while a substantial portion of the work force lives in their cars for lack of any available housing. Forty miles away where houses are a more reasonable 350k there is absolutely no construction going on because the middle class has no money.

    No shortage of all-carbon megayachts at Antigua Race week this year I’d venture—–.

    • David Apr 19, 2015, 10:36 pm

      Sadly, it’s just that simple.

  • Colin Farrar Apr 20, 2015, 8:55 am

    Colin, thanks for this. Since running into you and Lou in the Saintes, we worked our way down to Grenada, then back north to meet friends in the U.S. Virgins and Spanish Virgins, and now we’re working our way back to Grenada. So far Dominica and Grenada remain our favorites, for the reasons you cite. We also enjoyed Barbuda, and we especially loved Saba: superb diving, rugged vistas, restrained development, and a small-island culture that is surprisingly diverse yet community oriented.

    True confession, though: Blaire and I slept in the salon sea berths at Saba, and we slept poorly. The willy waws twice caused the mooring pennant to wrap around the centerboard in the middle of the night. The first time it happened we slipped the mooring and motored around to pick it up again. The second time – at 0130 during our third night at Saba – we simply hoisted sail and departed. Unfortunately, after beating upwind to Statia, we found boats there rolling through 30 degrees at anchor, so we beat further upwind to Basseterre, St. Kitts. Arriving at 1500, thoroughly exhausted, we opted for the marina and what we hoped would be a good night’s rest. Silly us! It was Saturday night, and the nearby bar kept the music thumping until 0500.

    Poor planning on our part, but we plan to visit Saba again. Next time we’ll anchor, or we’ll figure out a better method for securing Strider to the mooring. The problem seems to be that their mooring rodes have no catenary, I suppose to avoid contacting the coral bottom, so if you snug the eye of the mooring pennant close to your boat you really stress the mooring in the swells and squalls. However, if you leave too much slack in your own lines then your boat rides up over the pennant and wraps it around the keel when the wind gets squirrelly, especially when the current pushes against the original wind direction.

    • Colin Speedie Apr 26, 2015, 10:23 am

      Hi Colin

      sorry for the long delay in replying, but we’ve been out in the Exumas with no signal.

      Sounds like you’ve had a great season, and I’m not surprised that your favourites match our own – they’re a world apart from some of the other islands.

      Saba we would have loved to visit, but it juts wasn’t on with the conditions we saw. Like you, I don’t much like moorings with long pennants, and tend to raise our board if we’re swinging around. We had a night on a mooring in one of the bays on St Johns that kept us awake for most of the night, too!

      Sometimes if there’s a bit of current you can hang a couple of buckets off the stern to keep the boat lying to the current, but it’s all a bit of a faff.

      Even the loveliest places lose their lustre if you can’t get a good nights sleep!

      Best wishes

      Colin

  • RDE Apr 26, 2015, 11:30 am

    Spent a week hopping down the length of Eluthra on the leeward side. Shared it with not more than a dozen other boats visiting places like Alice Town along the way. Just the kind of tourist center I appreciate!

    • Colin Speedie Apr 26, 2015, 1:05 pm

      Hi Richard

      we didn’t get to Eleuthera, but had a wonderful time going up through the Cays, and shared most anchorages with boats in single figures – I’ll be writing it up soon.

      Wonderful place!

      Best wishes

      Colin

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