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  • Writer's picturePeter

The Big 5 - at sea

We picked up Jolanda, Ingrid’s sister at Pointe-a-Pitre Airport in Guadeloupe. Her visit was actually planned to be in St Maarten 1 week later, but a small error in conveying her actual holiday dates meant that we all had to change our plans. Interestingly enough, Jolanda only noticed this after the flights to St Maarten were booked. There was a flurry of activity and a very stressful 24 hours for me whilst Ingrid managed the impossible (like usual) and changed the flights to fit in with reality. The only things that were changed was the destination and dates while everything else remained the same.

Her visit coincided with Ingrid’s momentous 60th Birthday, so we had a great family celebration with badges, balloons and the usual necessities for a very special day. As for presents, well, it was more like Christmas than a birthday as Jolanda brought a sack full of purchases for the boat, along with some Dutch (non) essentials. A few of the purchases were left behind in the general confusion, so we hope that we don’t need these items and can pick them up on our next visit back to Europe.

Jolanda’s arrival also coincided with 2 weeks of really calm weather – the trade winds had dropped due to an area of high pressure to the north of us and so we were able to be at anchor most of the time with light breezes and hardly any swell. We could swim when it was hot – which was most days and take the dinghy to shore for shopping and “touristic visits”.

We did not want to do too much, so we spent our time in “The Saints” a group of islands to the south of Guadeloupe and then up to the Cousteau Marine Reserve and finally Deshaies in the north west. Taking the time to enjoy these places at a relaxed pace was really what we wanted to do. In addition, there was hardly enough wind to sail very far, so it was the best and only plan. We saw many flying fish and turtles on our journey, we snorkelled on the reefs, visited a few forts which underlined the strategic importance of these islands in the previous centuries. We marvelled over naval battles where the British and French blew each other to bits for the sake of strategic dominance.

One interesting encounter with the natural world occurred on our boat whilst we were at anchor in one of the shaded bays of the Saints. I was at the back of the boat one morning when I heard a "scratching" sound. Behind my fins was a stow away iguana that somehow must have swam to our boat, climbed up the swimming ladder and taken up residence. Not being sure how sharp their claws were, I slipped on a pair of leather gloves and as carefully as possible, I picked up the meter long lizard. It was truly beautiful and it did not seem to mind being handled by me. Once we had gone through the photo shoot and making sure that all crew members were unharmed, the iguana was returned to the sea. It was surprising how strongly it swam away from us as soon as it was released.

There is a beautiful Botanic Garden near to Deshaies where they do a pickup and drop off service and we also visited St Marie Police Station (from the BBC series Death in Paradise) to bring us back to the present day. We ate at Chez Christine’s and had fun in recognising some of the different sets from this series.

We sent Jolanda back to Pointe-a-Pitre from Deshaies by taxi as the 1-hour taxi ride saved us about 3 days of sailing time. With was now the beginning of May and time was slowly running out before we needed to head south for our hurricane seasons’ insurance purposes.

Having said this, we actually headed further north towards Antigua, which was a day’s sail away – about 48 nm. The reason for heading to Antigua was that they have some excellent marine services on this island and we needed help in 2 areas.

Our first problem was our water maker. For some reason the high-pressure pump decided not to pump any longer. Contact with the supplier (Aquatec) and a sharing of the operating symptoms indicated that the capacitor on the motor had failed and we needed to change this out. I found it hard to believe that this was the problem, but we ordered a new capacitor that we could pick up from Antigua. If this was not the problem, then we had a water maker specialist located there, who could help with further trouble shooting.

It is surprising how dependent we have become on our water maker – for drinking, washing, cooking and for the toilets. Suddenly to be without (just after Jolanda arrived) means that we have to buy (and carry) water from the supermarket for drinking purposes and buy water from the fuel docks when our tanks are low. For us, it was more the inconvenience and the creation of added plastic waste that we were not so happy with, but on a longer journey, no water would be very serious indeed.

We have also seen on some of the low islands that there is insufficient water for human consumption, leaving none for agricultural purposes. These islands were the poorest as all food and most of their water needed to be imported. I can much better understand the need for water security on a national scale and the political ramifications. We see also the “lucky” islands like Dominica and Guadeloupe where there is rain forest and abundant water. Water purchase prices varied from €5/1,000 litres to €50/1,000 litres, depending on the abundance of local water.

After arriving in Antigua, I picked up the capacitor, fitted it myself and pushed the start button of the water maker. Guess what – it actually worked ! Problem well identified and well sorted out for the cost of a small component that was also not in my spares inventory. I do thank the heavens that the failure did not happen when we were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean – how on earth can you foresee such a problem ?

The other issue we had, and the main reason to head for Antigua was our mast. Inside the mast is an aluminium furling rod, that is used to furl and unfurl the main sail. This rod was banging inside the mast, even when the mainsail was furled. We noticed this most when we were at anchor and the swell caused the boat to rock from side to side. This rocking caused a clanging/banging that seemed to manifest itself at night while we were asleep. Due to interrupted sleep and Ingrid’s concern that there may be a greater problem, we decided that this needed looking at and fixing.

We talked to Stan from Antigua Rigging - he thought that we just needed to tighten up the furling rod. I had also contacted Guadeloupe Rigging – they did not even bother to answer my messages. On a slightly less windy day than normal, we moved our boat so that it was pointing into the wind and the sails could be taken down easily. The team of riggers came and took our mainsail down, checked the furling rod and made a rigging inspection to assure us of the integrity of our rig. It was clear that the furling rod was too loose and needed tightening, which was done with little difficulty. Unfortunately, as the mainsail came down, we saw there was a small rip in it that needed immediate repair – we could not sail with a ripped mainsail as with stress, this would get bigger and bigger, resulting in a more costly repair and cause potential sailing problems.

Ingrid went with the damaged sail to the sail loft and managed to charm the owner into giving our sail priority over the hundreds of other sails waiting for repair – with an agreement that we could pick it up the following day! In addition to the rip, we also took the opportunity to ask them to re-enforce the parts of the sail that touch the spreaders and to add some tell tales for my own interest. Tell tales are small ribbons that are usually placed on the foresails to indicate which way the wind is travelling across the sails. I thought it would be interesting to see the air flow and hopefully this may help to improve our sail trimming. We would have done this in any case once we arrived in Curaçao, but as the sail was already down for fixing, we thought that it was an ideal moment to get this additional work done. At $95/hr for work on the sail, it was not a cheap visit, but great to get all the important works done.

The following day, as per schedule, the sails were ready and the loft kindly delivered them to our boat. All we had to do was re-rig them when there was a moment of lower wind with the assistance of John from a nearby Oyster to give us a hand.

All in all, it was a very successful trip to Antigua and it is great to get good service from the local sail support industry, even if it did cost an arm and a leg (I have managed to keep my kidneys in reserve).

Our appreciation of Antigua was a little mixed; We expected more sophistication and wealth on the island. In our area of Falmouth Bay and English Harbour, the old naval base was beautifully restored to reach a World Heritage position. I think it is truly deserved and it was almost like being around South West England as we walked through the streets in the harbour area. It was also great that the old buildings were not just monuments to the past, but they were being used for modern day commerce. One was the sail loft, others were hotels, restaurants, a bakery and a variety of offices for the local industry.

On the other hand, St Johns, the capital was not so impressive. One side was a cruise terminal with casino’s and designer boutiques whilst the other side and majority of the city was poor,

run down and badly maintained. St Johns sounded so romantic, but in the end, we were happy to leave and head back to our end of the island. One thing that did impress me were the mango’s in the fruit and veggie market. They were the biggest mango’s that I have ever seen, but not so practical for little eaters like ourselves.

From Antigua, we decided to return to Guadeloupe, where we wanted to spend some time discovering what else there as to see and, of course, to climb “La Soufriere” the large volcano on the south of the island. We took a rental car and drove around the whole island in 3 days. Some parts were beautiful but there is a lot of investment needed to bring it up to the standard that I expect from France. Many parts were poor and a little depressing.

From Deshaies, Guadeloupe we decided to sail in one go to Bonaire. This is voyage of about 475 nm and a transit time of 3-4 days, depending on the weather.

The weather seemed to offer a favourable beam wind – from the south east as we were heading to the south west, giving us a comfortable ride with a wave height of 1-2 metres.

After the first day of settling into a routine between the 2 of us, the journey became more relaxing and enjoyable. We were fortunate enough to see whales (and their spouts) as we left Guadeloupe and had some excellent days. Taking time to enjoy the beauty around us I was thinking of the “Big 5” that is a must see on an African Safari (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino).

I came up with my own list of the Big 5 at sea – each being something that I could spend time looking at and enjoying:

1) Dolphins

There is something special about dolphins. They are always happy and lift our spirits when we see them. They come from nowhere in little groups up to 10 or 20 of them. They ride the waves to the boat and enjoy playing in the pressure wave at the bow as we move through the water. They stay for maybe 20 minutes and suddenly they are gone as quickly as they came.

2) Whales

Whales are less common to see in our experience, but the sight of a large black object, as big as your boat is awesome and not easily forgotten. We more commonly see their spouts from a long way off as they remain in their pods. We always keep a look out – just in case they are travelling in the same direction. Probably the sight of an orca around Gibraltar is less welcome, but they are truly magnificent beasts and a part of my Big 5.

3) The Milky Way

Breaking away from only animals, there are some natural phenomena that are spectacular to behold. The sight of the Milky Way on a dark, cloudless, moonless night is just breath taking. Sometimes I even turn off our navigation lights for a few minutes, just to get a better view. As the millions of stars spread across the firmament in a milky cloud, it is a sight that can keep you captivated for hours – if we did not have other jobs to do on a night watch.

4) A Green Flash from Sunset

The setting of the sun with a clear sky often results in the marvellous Green Flash phenomena. Just at that last second as the sun disappears over the horizon there is an emerald green flash that is so unmistakable. Unfortunately, the clouds and atmospheric condition are not always perfect, but we look at every sunset with the hope in mind that we may see it. On average we probably see a green flash once a month, so we must keep looking at every sunset.

5) Phosphorescence from Plankton around the boat.

As the hull of the boat cuts through the sea, tiny flashes of green bioluminescence can be seen in our wake and in the waves that we create. Some regions have more than others and the green luminescence is very bright. Other times it is just a little point like a firefly or a flash like a little explosion under the water. The bioluminescence, like the milky way is best seen when the sky is black and moonless.

Like on an African Safari, there are not just the Big 5 to see, but many other animals and amazing views. I love to watch the turtles as they slowly swim by and the flying fish as they shoot out of the water and fly over the wave tops. I am not sure if they do it for fun or it is our boat or a bigger fish that is frightening them to move away. I do spend hours just looking at the ocean and enjoying the sights that are out there. I must admit that the photos ov all the big 5, except the dolphins are not mine. They are too difficult to capture with my iPhone, so I depend on others to help illustrate my thoughts.

The voyage to Bonaire took the expected 3-1/2 days and for the most part, we had steady winds. In addition, the ocean currents were in our favour and for the most part they added a knot or more to our sailing speed. One day was quite rainy and overcast; we worried what the kind of wind the rain could bring, so we were extra vigilant. In the end they were nothing like the squalls that we encountered on the Atlantic, on the way to Grenada so we were saved the need to take evasive action. We arrived after lunch in Bonaire, Harbour Village Marina where a number of our Dutch and Swedish sailing friends have recently arrived. It is always great to have a loud welcome from friends on arrival.

With the recent discussions about “Where shall we go for Hurricane Season” many boats had the same ideas or thoughts that our ideas were worth following – so we all end up in the same marina or nearby on a mooring buoy. As we plan a longer stay, the cost of the marina is about the same as a mooring buoy, so we will remain here for the start of our time and completion of various projects that we have in mind.

The waters around us are just beautifully clear, so we will do some diving and some sporting activities over the weeks ahead.

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