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ANTIGUA REDUX: Xmas Charter Report

Antigua Sunsail base

Getting raped by the airlines has been a recurrent theme during our family winter sailing excursions. Two years ago JetBlue cancelled all their flights out of St. Maarten and held us prisoner there for an extra day, at our expense, because they were afraid to fly in microscopic amounts of volcanic ash emanating from the island of Montserrat. Last year American Airlines cancelled one of our return flights and trapped us overnight in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But they at least paid for a hotel AND handed us generous vouchers for future flights. These helped finance this year's post-Christmas excursion to Antigua, where we chartered a 39-foot Beneteau from Sunsail.

We did get raped again this year, though this time it clearly wasn't the airline's fault. The mega-snowstorm that crippled the East Coast the day after Xmas squashed our itinerary like a bug and we were three days late getting to Antigua. Also, once we got there, the weather kind of sucked. It was overcast and rainy much of the time and the wind was honking, blowing 20 knots minimum most of the time, with gusts in some spots as high as 35.

But I'd be lying if I said we didn't have a fabulous time. Coping with sketchy weather while wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the Caribbean beats shoveling snow in New Hampshire anytime.

We spent most of the charter lurking along the south shore of the island, hiding from the northeast wind as best we could, and from the northwest swell that made most of the west coast anchorages too rolly to be comfortable. For New Year's Eve (the day after we arrived) we dropped the hook in Mamora Bay. That we anchored disappointed the girls, who learned from our copy of Chris Doyle's Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands that the posh resort here, the St. James Club, will provide onboard room service if only you tie up at their pricey dock. I explained they already had room service onboard, but apparently being waited on by parents doesn't really count.

Una aboard charter boat

Lucy on charter boat

I was more interested in the low-lying structure atop the hilly peninsula just south of our anchorage that separates Mamora Bay from Indian Creek. Said structure is marked on Doyle's sketch chart as "Eric Clapton Masion." A typo, clearly. But is the proper spelling "mansion" or "maison"??? It didn't look big enough to be the former, and no one, as far as I know, really speaks French on Antigua, which was, after all, formerly a British possession. At nightfall, in any event, lots of lights went on up there, and I liked thinking about how the Mighty Eric might be gazing down on us.

Mamora Bay, Antigua

Our other brush with celebrity concerned the rather ridiculous mega-yacht Maltese Falcon. We saw her famous curved yard arms hanging over the Antigua Yacht Club marina in Falmouth Harbor as we taxied from the airport into the Sunsail base in English Harbor. But when we hustled over for a look-see the following morning, she was gone.

The inside skinny in high-end yachting circles is that Falcon is actually a dog, which is why her creator, Tom Perkins, put her on the market soon after she was launched. With a weird over-sized rig (over 25,000 square feet) mated to a hull it was never designed to carry, the super-duper square-rigger is said to be super tender. Which is very likely true, as I've seen some rather alarming photos of Falcon sailing flat out with her lee rail well buried. On an old CCA-era cruiser-racer this is perfectly normal; on a 289-foot super-yacht filled with expensive art, grand pianos, and what-not it is, shall we say, a bit of a worry.

Be that as it may, I was anxious to see this Icon of Profligacy in the flesh. My wish came true the morning after our second night aboard, when I stumbled out into the cockpit shortly after daybreak to pee into the wind-ruffled waters of Carlisle Bay. There was Falcon, in all her glory, anchored out in open water a few hundred yards behind us.

Maltese Falcon at anchor

In between spending two nights at anchor in Carlisle Bay, we sailed around to Jolly Harbor on the west coast to see if the swell had died down yet. It had… mostly… but the water in the anchorage outside Jolly Harbor proper was still absolutely turbid, as opaque as milk. The girls had no interest in swimming in it, so we dutifully retreated back to friendly territory.

Jolly Harbor anchorage

I hate to say it, but what I really liked best about our charter was just hanging out around the charter base. Nelson's Dockyard, the 18th-century Royal Navy shipyard and national park at English Harbor in which the base is situated, is just about the coolest place to be on a boat in the Caribbean that I've ever been to. I well remember the first time I visited, in February 1997, after rolling all the way across the Atlantic aboard my old yawl Crazy Horse. After several months cruising in the dry and dusty environs of West Africa and the Cape Verdes, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

What struck me most last week is how very little the Dockyard has changed since then. Many old memories came flooding back as I strolled about ogling the fancy boats tied stern to the yard's ancient and venerable waterfront wall:

Nelson's Dockyard

Nelson's Dockyard

Nelson's Dockyard

PS: We finally did get to see Maltese Falcon up close and personal after she returned to Falmouth Harbor the day before we left:

Maltese Falcon

Maltese Falcon

Maltese Falcon

PPS: Many thanks to Slyvain Caburet and Lily Tow, the husband-and-wife team who represent Sunsail in Antigua. It was my best charter-base experience anywhere ever! Even when stuff went wrong (like when our anchor got fouled as we pulled off the wall to leave), they made it right as fast as possible:

Diving on an anchor

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