St Vincent

26th Feb.
One night at the now 'down at heel' Young Island was enough, so in the morning we dropped the mooring and headed up north. There was a strong breeze from behind, it was quite gusty and as we weren't going very far we went under jib alone. We sailed along the coast about a mile off taking in the coastal scenery for about 6 miles until we came to a pretty little anchorage, in a bay called Petit Byahaut. We had it to ourselves apart from a local fishing boat stacked with nets and moored in the middle of the bay. We rowed ashore to explore, landing on a little sandy beach with coconut trees (sorry, am I getting as bit repetitive ? ), and walked the length of the beach which was only about 100 yds. The bay of Petit Byhaut is cut off by land, approachable only by sea, making it beautifully peaceful and isolated. Set back in the trees are the recently deserted remains of what looked like an attractive cafe/restaurant. In better days it's trade would largely have been passing sailors, like us. Life is tough sometimes, and we had to go back aboard and make our own lunch, but not before going for a quick snorkel.

The coral we saw was far better than any we had seen before. In fact we had been a bit disappointed by most, which appeared not to be in great condition. But here, all looked very healthy and without being experts we identified six different types; brain coral, stag coral, fan coral and others which looked like mustard coloured tubes or large urns. And all in clear water about 15 to 20 feet deep. This was a great opportunity to get some GoPro footage and at the same time to test out my SCUBA equipment which I had been carrying around for quite a while without using. The diving equipment is carried in case of fouled anchors or rope around the prop, but better to get used to it for pleasure, I thought, in a relaxed atmosphere rather than waiting for the emergency situation. It's a long time since I last used diving gear and it was an exciting moment when I was back underwater and not having to hold my breath. I filmed for about 15 mins, but unfortunately won't know the quality of the footage until I get home and can view it on a computer.

Beautiful though this little bay was, one of our precautions was not to anchor overnight, alone in isolated places, so in the late afternoon we weighed anchor and headed on a couple of miles to a place called Buccament where we spent the night with one other boat. This was another beautiful bay with a luxury resort at one end and a local village at the other, where we anchored and behind these was a lush and verdant valley leading up to some craggy mountains. Pretty spectacular scenery, but normal for St Vincent so we were discovering.

The next day we were in the lee of the island and with no wind we motored slowly up the coast, just about half a mile out. We passed many beautiful beaches, mostly deserted, and backed by lush rainforest with little patches of coconut plantation here and there. As we approached Barroullie we were met by a boat boy rowing out who tried to get us to slow down. We were already creeping along at two and a half to three knots, so I told him we were not going to stop at Barrouallie, and we just kept plodding along and not paying him much attention. "You go Wallilabou ?", he asked, as he quickened his pace to keep up. "Mmm Maybe", I shrugged, in my most non-committal way. "You go Wallilabou", he suggested, "Wallilabou is best". We kept chugging along ignoring him, whilst being quietly impressed by his rowing. At the other end of the town beach we had to divert about a quarter of a mile offshore to avoid a reef, and as we did this we noticed him cutting across a shallow patch close inshore and giving it all he had. He was going flat out to try to beat us to Walilabou, about a mile away, on the offchance that we were going to stop. My first reaction was to increase the revs and leave him behind, which I did for 5 mins. But he wasn't put off............................... I have to give him full marks for perseverance, and as I was soon overcome by feelings of guilt and sympathy for him, I throttled back and gave him a chance.

So we slowly rounded up 50yds off the beach in Wallilabou, dropped anchor and gave the sweating Osman, (as he'd now introduced himself) our sternline to take ashore and tie around a coconut tree. We couldn't believe it....................... if we'd motored a little faster we'd have been met instead, by a Wallilabou boat boy who would have taken our line and Osman would have rowed all that way for nothing. We then paid him the requested $40 EC (about £10) which seemed rather a lot as the actual useful bit of the service only took about 10 mins. and were then beseiged by the local boat boys offering us all sorts of fruit and vegetables, some of which were dried and could be smoked !!!

Going ashore in Wallilabou we discovered we were on a film set, albeit 12 years too late to be caught on camera. This was where 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was filmed and although neither of us had seen the film we were suitably impressed. The quay and shoreside buildings had all received a makeover and were adorned with gallows and coffins. The bar/restaurant was overflowing with memorabilia, but not with customers. When I went in that night to skype Charlie I was the lone customer in a 70 seater . I felt sorry for the sad looking owner who only made $6 EC (£1.50) from me that night, for my single beer. We would have liked to eat there, but again, were being cautious and not leaving Holly Mae unattended at night. I left Noley sitting down below with a cutlass between her teeth, in case of pirates ! But in the morning we made amends by having our breakfast there.

When we arrived in Barbados we had heard news of terrible rains and flooding in St Vincent and St Lucia, which had happened a few days before our arrival. We hadn't had any similar weather, although we did notice a worrying dip on the barometer which had us biting our nails for a few hours at about that time, and that may have been due to the same weather system. 11 people had died in St Vincent and our next port of call, Cumberland Bay, bore the brunt of it. We weren't sure what to expect, but behind the beach it had mostly been cleaned up and back to normal.

For Cumberland Bay, we'd been recommended a 'boat boy' called Carlos to take our line ashore and provide general help. Unlike most boat boys, Carlos has a phone and a VHF, and was much more professional in his approach............... cheaper too. And he'd already heard that we'd paid over the odds in Wallilabou. "Never pay more than $20 EC." he told us. How that news had reached him from the next bay we never found out !
The next day we took a walk a mile up the valley to visit the village of Cumberland which had been hard hit by the floods. The river banks on the way were strewn with tree trunks and boulders that had obviously been cleared out by mechanical diggers, and the village itself showed damage to some of the lower houses, and gardens had been washed away. There's a hydro electric set-up in the valley and the metre diameter pipe had been breached in about four or five places, and was still out of action. ( Incidentally this pipe which must contain some quite high pressure water, is made of wooden strips held together by steel straps. It was a steel pipe only where it passed under the road bridge ). The valley itself is so lush....................the warm weather with rain on a rich volcanic soil must be so productive. We saw several smallholdings and a Government Agricultural Centre there. Quite a few of the coconut palms were missing their tops and it was explained to us, by a man replanting one of the washed away gardens, that it was not the wind but the weight of water in the heavy rain that had broken all the fronds off the palms. Overall the devastation was not as bad as we'd expected but we were noticing that the people of St Vincent appeared poorer than on the other islands we'd visited.

The population of the Caribbean are mainly descended from African slaves, and we'd often wondered and discussed how their lot in life is different from their contemporaries who evaded capture a few hundred years ago. Life is still pretty tough in many parts of Africa..................... and the Caribbean seems a beautiful place to live. Apart from the warm temperatures, the sea and the lush landscape provides a good supply of food; fish, bananas, coconuts, etc. etc. One bar owner told me, "Even if you are destitute, you needn't go hungry here." So their great great........ grandparents had been brought here as slaves, a couple of hundred years ago they'd been given their freedom but continued to live under colonial rule, and at the end of the last century most islands had been given independence to rule themselves. But with freedom and independence they still didn't have much on which to base an economy. There is not much work. We see a lot of men sitting around in the shade of big trees, just 'hanging out' and watching the world go by. One answer to this has been tourism. This undoubtably has brought some money in, but also served to heighten the contrast between the impoverished locals and the wealthy visitors from North America and Europe who use it as their playground to escape from the northern winters. Apart from us yachties, the islands abound with luxury hotels and resorts, often isolated from the reality of local life. Many locals are very friendly and welcoming but there are those who appear understandably resentful. It's made us feel a little uncomfortable from time to time, so it's interesting to see that there is a British law firm taking up the case for compensation with the old slaving nations.

Cumberland Bay had been a beautiful place to stop, we'd filled our water tanks with good, clean, tasty water unlike the chlorine flavour we sometimes get, and we were preparing to leave St Vincent. We couldn't check out in Cumberland, that had to be done 3 miles up the coast in the last town called Chateaubelair. Despite the grand sounding name it has a shady reputation and wasn't a place we wanted to stop. Luckily another service offered by Carlos was to take me around the coast in his RIB to check out. Checking out in the customs after me, was a poor, slightly wild looking local with all the quadruple copies of declarations in his hand. I thought it a little unusual and couldn't work out what he was doing until Carlos explained that he was from St Lucia, and he'd come to export quantities of Ganja to take back home where they don't grow it. North of Chateaubelair on the inaccessible slopes of the Soufriere Volcano are all the ganja plantations. His transport was a local open type of fishing boat called a pirogue, powered by a 75 HP outboard. I'm still confused as to why in this illicit trade the exporter was complying with all the local bureaucracy. Why did he not just arrive, do the deal and depart whilst posing as a local fisherman ? Or under cover of darkness ? Why did he need his passport stamped ? It would have been an easy matter for St Vincent customs to make a quick call to St Lucia customs. The answer lies in blind eyes being turned and a little profit sharing scheme perhaps ?

At first light on 1st March, we released ourselves from the coconut tree and the sea bed and motor-sailed out of Cumberland Bay. We had the mains'l up with one reef in it, ( in fact that reef had not been shaken out since before Barbados, I think.) and we kept close in to the coast planning to raise the headsails when under the lee of Soufriere. We spotted between one and two hundred ganja plantations. Each one had a rudimentary shelter, which from a distance appeared to have been a structure of pallets covered with a tarpauline, and a little cleared area of hillside with tilled earth and neat little rows that through the binoculars were unmistakably cannabis sativa of the high THC content. There were no roads along which the law could make surprise visits...................... this was bandit country !!! I felt a warm glow of kinship with these hardened folk, when I remembered my own plantations of cannabis in West Cornwall, back in the mid '90s, never mind the fact that mine had been of the low THC industrial variety. We were all doing our best to contribute to the economies of our countries !

We put down the binoculars and up went the No 1 jib and the stays'l as we approached the northern end of the island. Headlands are always testing places to sail, with wind accelerating around the corner, and currents doing the same over shoaling water causing waves to build and get steeper. With the trade winds whipping around the high ground of Soufriere we had been warned in the pilot book that this was no easy passage. We could have avoided some of this by sailing further west, but then our course would have been much harder on the wind for the rest of the passage. We could see rough sea ahead as we emerged into full force of the wind and Holly Mae buried her shoulder and ploughed forward powerfully. The GPS was reading 8.8K over the ground, so we had some tide with us, but anyway when we hit those first waves
we were moving quite fast. The waves were steep and we went straight through the first few with heavy water sweeping back over the deck and quite a bit finding it's way into the cockpit. Sometimes we were slowed and were pitching violently and at other times Holly Mae just powered through. I went below to fetch the lifelines and just as I emerged from the companionway was caught out without a strong handhold and thrown back down. I landed sitting on the cooker, whose cast iron top was not as tough as my cast iron bottom. It snapped in two ! "Don't worry, it already had a crack in it,", Noley consoled me. "So did my bottom !", I replied.
The wind was F5 to 6 and these were probably the roughest seas I have yet encountered. But the sun was shining, and the water that drenched us was warm. We watched two other boats close by going through the same as us, being tossed about. It was exhilirating. Holly Mae is 17 tons and her weight and power were an asset in those conditions and Noley was steady as a rock, which she usually is with a challenge. This went on for maybe three quarters of an hour before things started to settle down and the going was easier. Having done our work for the day, we engaged the Monitor who took over until we reached the shores of St Lucia.

As we left St Vincent behind we reflected on it's challenges. Sailing had been tough, we'd felt less secure, even a bit 'edgy' at times, but it's natural beauty probably surpassed the rest of the islands, and the fact that many boats bypass it made it all the quieter for us.