After 6 days offshore from Bermuda, seeing the green hills of Antigua was the sign that we really made it to the Caribbean. We arrived at Jolly Harbour on the west coast of Antigua in the late afternoon on a Thursday. Since customs closes at 4pm and you cannot go ashore until you clear-in, we anchored in the outer bay for the night.
We had a much needed full night’s sleep at anchor. However, it was semi-restless due to our minds being conditioned to our offshore life sleeping for a few hours and then being jarred awake by an alarm to come on watch.
We took the boat into the customs dock late morning. “Customs” is really three entities in Antigua: customs, immigration, and port authority. At Jolly Harbour, the three are conveniently located in a row of small offices near the marina. You start at customs where you present your outward clearance from your last port. Luckily I had entered all of our data into their eSeaClear website while in Bermuda, so I just had to sign a few pre-filled forms.
After customs, you go to immigration where they check & stamp passports. This seemingly simple function involved three employees (plus a friend) in the tiny office – one to talk to me, one to scan the passports, and one to scan the boat registration. After immigration, you go back to customs, then on to port authority. The port authority is the only one of the three to collect a fee (for the cruising permit). Everyone was super nice and very efficient.
What? The Sharpes in a Marina?
Next we headed into a slip at Jolly Harbour Marina. While staying at marina is generally not our preference when there is a beautiful and no-cost anchorage available, we had a few shore-side things to do, including getting our dinghy outboard engine repaired yet again. We elected to take a “bow & stern” slip since it is half-the cost of an along-side dock. Bow & stern means that your bow faces out, tied off to pilings and your stern lines are tied to the concrete dock behind – with no finger pier. It is sort of like med-mooring but with pilings instead of using your anchor. Luckily the marina dockhands were in a dinghy and on the dock to help us get situated. Most boats there have a passerelle – a gangplank that can be deployed from your aft deck to the dock, allowing you to keep your stern well away from banging the dock. Not being marina cruisers, we don’t have one – so had to do a little leap to get across to the dock. Not a big deal once you get the technique down.
The Jolly Harbour development includes not only a super-protected marina, but also a big haul-out yard, a waterfront mall with a number of restaurants and shops, a fantastic grocery store, a decent boat supply store, and a “gated” community of villas along a number of canals. While there are a few swanky villas, most are quite modest and largely populated with British retirees zooming around in golf carts.
In addition to the gates & guard houses at the entrances to the development, there were ever-present security guards wandering around the marina docks. It must be the safest marina in the Caribbean. That did not dissuade the daily parade of “boat boys” who walk the docks early in the morning, offering to wash, varnish, or whatever. I am an early riser on the boat, usually hanging out in the cockpit with my laptop & coffee by 7am. So I got to say “not today” at least once a day to these persistent but not overly aggressive vendors.
I have come to realize something interesting about my generally co-equal co-captain Kristin. If a “boat boy” offering some kind of service engages with her, she oddly becomes one of those “just along for the ride” wives and offers to get “the captain” aka me. I suppose I need to try saying “let me get the captain” myself one of these times.
Cursing at our Cursed Outboard
If you are familiar with our boating history, you know that we have been cursed with outboard dinghy engine issues with all our boats. This Yamaha 25hp two-stroke is proving to be the same. You’ll remember that we had it repaired in Jamestown, RI, in August then again in Annapolis, MD in October. Somehow our offshore passage from Hampton to Bermuda transformed our perfectly working outboard into one only operating on one of two cylinders. While we could limp along with a half-working engine in Bermuda, it won’t cut it in the Caribbean since it will get used more, over longer distances, and with higher wind and wave conditions.
So upon arrival at Jolly Harbour, we gave the dinghy to Ivan at Xtreme Marine. He determined that the top cylinder was not firing due to the carburetor float being stuck, which he fixed by shaving down the float. Then he dug in further to find that our rough coughing at idle was due to a scored cylinder. That pretty much means its time for a new engine. I looked into getting a new engine, but it is a hassle finding the exact one that will work in the Caribbean with our remote control/electric start setup. So we decided that we will live the rest of this voyage with an outboard that stalls at idle sometimes, but otherwise runs fine once underway. We’ve all gotten quite good at finessing the throttle so it doesn’t stall too often. After we are back in the US, it will get replaced.
Ziplining in the Jungle
While the coastline of Antigua is beautiful, like the rest of the volcanic Lesser Antilles, it also features scenic mountains and rainforest jungles. So we decided to head inland to explore. We rented a car for the day and drove to the Antigua Canopy Tour for ziplining and a ropes challenge course. It had been almost two months since I had driven a car, so re-learning driving on the left side on winding mountain roads was exciting. I heard a lot of “you have lots more room on the right” from the family.
We enjoyed the numerous ziplines over gullies – and especially the follow-on ropes challenge course. Our tour guides were fun and kept us motivated. At the end, I was surprisingly worn out and sweaty from the jungle humidity. So the cold Presidente at the end of the line was quite refreshing.
Afterwards, we drove north through pretty countryside to the outskirts of the capital St. John’s. There we picked up a SIM card at the Digicel store so we can have shared internet access through our MiFi device for the rest of our time in Antigua. The largest Digicel data plan in Antigua is much, much cheaper than in Bermuda (around US$1.79/GB versus US$19.80/GB).
Gamming it Up with SSCA
We are long-time members of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA), a membership organization of liveaboard sailboat cruisers. We fly the SSCA burgee on our port spreader, which signifies to others that you are a liveaboard and are open to socializing and rendering assistance to other liveaboards.
A fellow SSCA member posted on Facebook about an impromptu happy hour (what SSCAers call “a gam”) at the Crow’s Nest at Jolly Harbour. So we eagerly joined the gam as it was our first socializing opportunity since leaving the US. There were around 40 cruisers in attendance, including a number of boats that were part of the Salty Dog Rally, a group of boats that departed Hampton for Antigua just days before we left Hampton. Its quite an experience to be amongst a group of self-sufficient sailors who all piloted their own boat to Antigua via a 1,000 mile+ offshore passage. It reminded me that we are not the only crazy people doing what we are doing.
We also got to meet a number of folks who leave their boat hauled-out in Antigua during the summer hurricane season, and then arrive in November to launch and head off for the winter cruising season. I heard a number of times that they grew tired of that annual 1,000 mile passage from the US or Canada, so they decided to live with the hurricane risk of leaving the boat in the Caribbean. After last year’s terrible hurricane damage in the islands, I’m not inclined to make that same decision at this point – but that may change in the future.
After a week at the Jolly marina, we had that anxious feeling we get when its time to get away from the marina situation (and its money-draining vendors, stores, and restaurants), back to life at-anchor. So we left Jolly and anchored for a night just to the to the north in Five Islands Bay. It is a pretty, secluded spot with only two other boats. The perfect place for Andy’s first drone flight from the boat!
I have seen a few YouTube fail videos with drones bouncing off rigging, crashing to the deck, breaking their fragile propellers. So I was a little anxious about it – but it turned out to be very easy to have a controlled take off and landing. While Andy works the controls, another one of us holds the drone with two hands overhead over the port aft side of the boat where we have the least rigging, antennas, etc. When he powers up, it lifts off easily away from the boat. Especially with the ~15 knot trade winds, landing into outstretched hands is a little tricker, but still much easier than I imagined.
Here is our first overhead boat selfie:
WhatSUP in Falmouth
The next day we motored a couple hours to Falmouth Harbour on the south side of the island. Falmouth is a huge harbor with tons of anchored boats, as well as a few marinas. The annual Antigua megayacht charter show had just concluded prior to our arrival. So the marinas were extra packed with power and sailing megayachts. And I mean MEGA, including Limitless, the 315 ft beauty owned by the founder of clothing store The Limited, which upon building was the largest US flagged yacht in the world (most megas are flagged in tax haven countries).
My favorite was the slightly smaller 295 ft Phoenix 2 (dark hull at right above), with its cool sculpted phoenix figurehead, owned by the richest man in Poland.
We finally inflated both of our stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) and will now keep them stored on deck until we do our next big offshore passage. Even though Falmouth Harbour is very protected, the tradewinds make for some challenging paddling. We definitely follow the mantra: Always go upwind first!
Andy shot some additional drone footage of Kristin and Erin on the SUPs and then I edited it into our first drone video:
A Clutch Move
Our only significant equipment failure on the passage from Bermuda to Antigua was our Lewmar triple rope clutch, the hardware through which our outhaul, preventer, and vang lines run into the cockpit and get clamped down. The outhaul is the line that attaches to the trailing point of the mainsail. So it runs in and out every time we use the sail – and it is under a ton of pressure.
That outhaul clutch has had problems since early in our voyage, but we had been nursing it along with some careful handling and lubrication. But on the way from Bermuda, it fell apart. Upon arrival in Antigua, I reached out to Stan at Antigua Rigging to see if they could fix it for us. It turns out that they had an exact duplicate of our now out-of-production clutch that had been sitting in their warehouse for years. So we picked up the part and decided that we would just install it ourselves since it is a “simple” swap-out.
Being under lots of pressure, deck rigging fittings like this clutch are bolted through the deck, and attached with some sort of adhesive to keep water out of the holes. To get to the nuts on the end of the long bolts, we had to pull off the headliners in the cabin (the ceiling). It was immediately obvious that they had installed all of the wood framing on the cabin ceiling AFTER they installed the deck hardware since the bolts were right on top of wood planks, making it tricky to get a wrench/fingers on the nuts.
Nevertheless, we persisted and managed to get the new clutch installed well. We can now operate the outhaul line under pressure without fear of it suddenly slipping and pulling fingers into bad places.
Med-Mooring at Nelson’s Dockyard
One of the must-do activities in this part of Antigua is the Sunday sunset BBQ at Shirley Heights, overlooking English Harbour. We wanted to dinghy/hike to the BBQ, so we decided to move Boundless from Falmouth Harbour to English Harbour, just on the other side of the peninsula. The anchorage in English Harbour was too jammed, so we made a quick decision to dock at the historic Nelson’s Dockyard marina.
The Dockyard is basically a big pointed quay where all of the yachts “med-moor” by deploying their anchors and then backing their sterns up to the old stone walls. Med-mooring allows you to fit many more vessels. While it is the defacto approach in the Mediterranean, and quite common in the Caribbean, it is rare in the US – and thus we have never done it in our 20 years of boat ownership!
Sometimes med-mooring setups have a piling or mooring ball for your bow, but not here. You just need to drop your anchor and then back into the tight spot between two other boats, getting close enough to the wall where you can get off, but not so close where you bump – all while you you have tradewinds blowing from your side and lots of people watching. What could go wrong!?
Our first attempt was beautiful – we dropped the anchor and backed in flawlessly, thanks to bowthruster magic. Except then we noticed that the anchor was not really set and our bow was getting blown to the side onto our neighbor. So we untied the lines, pulled up the anchor and tried again. This time we dropped the anchor much farther out. But then as I backed in, my magic bowthruster stopped working, leaving us at the mercy of the wind. Luckily we made a soft landing on our downwind neighbor given all of the fenders we both had out. We hand-backed the boat the rest of the way in and got squared away with no scratches. This time the anchor held!
Scaling Shirley Heights
Nelson’s Dockyard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been in continuous use since 1725. The grounds and buildings definitely take you back in time. Also part of the same national park is the Shirley Heights lookout, a former military post on a 490 ft peak on the southernmost tip of Antigua. Shirley Heights is now more famous for the Sunday sunset BBQ parties that have been hosted there for over 30 years.
We started our trek to the BBQ by taking our dinghy from the Dockyard over to Galleon beach. There used to be docks there where you could tie your dinghy, but they seem to have been destroyed by a hurricane. So we just beached our dinghy and tied it off to a tree. Then we set off for our hike up the hill. After a false start up a private road, we found the well worn, steep trail up the hillside. We arrived sweaty at the top just in time for sunset and a lovely view of English Harbour.
The party was hopping, with a big steel band playing and lots of BBQ. We ate tasty jerked chicken and ribs on the lawn. After dark, we decided to head back down. The trek down the trail at night was less difficult than I expected – but thank goodness for four iPhone flashlights! We did not see any other people crazy enough to walk back down, but we did encounter a lot of hermit crabs on the path who seemed surprised to see us!
Snorkeling & Lobster in Nonsuch Bay
While Falmouth and English harbors are tons of fun, it was time for a more secluded spot. So we set off for the eastern “windward” coast to Nonsuch Bay. We anchored north of Green Island just behind a reef that provides calm protection from the waves rolling in from the east. It is an awesome experience to have a reef be the only thing between you and Africa! We did some snorkeling of the reef and saw some nice coral and fish – not great snorkeling, but average.
The highlight of our stay in Nonsuch was when Devon stopped by in his dinghy, offering to bring us live lobsters the next day (or anything for that matter, with a fee). So Kristin ordered up four 2 pound lobsters and they were delivered live the next day at noon. They crawled around our cockpit until I dispatched them late afternoon and grilled up the tails. Nothing like tasty fresh Caribbean spiny lobster right from your cockpit!
Nothing Says Christmas like Drunk Santas
While moored at Nelson’s Dockyard, we had heard about their famous Christmas Day party. So we headed back to Falmouth Harbour for our holiday activities. On Christmas Eve, Kristin cooked up our traditional family meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry salad. Pretty darn impressive operating with a boat stove!
On Christmas morning, we were surprised to see that Santa did in fact find us at anchor (thought I had heard some reindeer swimming during the night).
After the presents were opened, we dinghied to shore and headed to the Dockyard. We started with the buffet feast at the Copper & Lumber Store Inn, built in 1789 to store materials to repair British ships.
After our bellies were full, we then proceeded to hang out with the masses in front of the band & deejay. Most people we dressed in some sort of holiday attire ranging from our cheap t-shirts, to lovely holiday dresses, to sweaty-looking Grinch outfits, and of course Santa suits. The Santas were inebriated local guys, dancing with all of the young ladies and leading the conga line while carrying enormous beverage glasses. That’s the spirit!
Feeling Jolly, Back at Jolly
We were in need of diesel fuel and a big food re-provisioning, so we headed back north to Jolly Harbour for a few days. We stayed in the outer anchorage this time – and were able to easily make the long trip to shore in our now working dinghy.
With our fridge and fuels tanks full, we checked out of customs and set off for the French island of Guadeloupe.