Home
History

Ireland Trip
Workshop

Atlantic Island Voyage Home

Crew
Preparation
First Passage
Azores
Madeira
Canary Islands
Cape Verde Islands
Return Passage
Caribbean
Cuba
Bermuda
Homecoming

THE CARIBBEAN

Shifra's Log, January 30, 1999
Anse Bateaux, Tobago.


We've been here in the tropical paradise of Tobago for a couple weeks now, I figure it's probably about time I checked in with y'all. Since we are in the Caribbean I thought I would take advantage of the crystal clear water, well preserved reefs, and our multiple sets of dive equipment to finally learn how to scuba dive. It just so happened that the hotel overlooking the bay where we are is not only situated near some of the best diving on Tobago, but it is a "Five-Star PADI Resort". I'm not sure what that means (other than that they can charge more for lessons and we get a GOLD certification card rather than a SILVER one), but they are only a miniscule dinghy ride away so once we got here the entire crew of the Good Ship Tammy Norie started in on dive camp. Each morning at nine o'clock we putted in to the dock with our PADI manuals tucked under our arms, Advanced Open Water Diver course for them, ordinary Open Water Diver course for me. After an excruciatingly boring 3 days of classroom work, not to mention the HOMEWORK (I thought I had finally escaped school!) I was ready to "see the fun and adventure diving offers". Sadlly enough the course didn't offer a ritual torching of the PADI manual, because really, there is nothing I would like more than to see that thing go up in flames. Anyway, despite the cheesy writing in the textbook, diving is incredible. The feeling of being underwater and just hovering is...amazing. I feel like the reef is sort of an added bonus, just feeling the water all around me and watching my bubbles ascend to the surface is enough to give me chills.

Nonetheless, the reef is there and what a bonus it is! I've become accustomed to creatures that have previously only existed in photographs. I've learned that parrotfish aren't just blue, they glow, and trunkfish are even stupider looking in 3D, but most importantly I've learned that no photograph and no drawing could ever hope to capture the mindboggling grace of a manta ray. On my final training dive I had the incredible luck to be visited by one of those exquisite creatures. He/she/it was...wow. The only way I can describe their movement is like the most fluid and graceful bird, but without bones. This manta was about 6 or 7 feet from wingtip to wingtip and seemed just as curious about the 5 oddly colored noisy things that had descended into it's world as those bizarre things were about it. I spent most of my air in a gleeful ten minutes of communing with the manta, we followed it up towards the surface, then down again to the depths. We petted, tickled, and caressed it's back and belly until it got sick of us then followed it around until it was ready for more. It was strange, even from close up it looks like mantas would be velvety smooth, like an eel, but they're not. Their skin is rough, like a cat's tongue or a 5 o'clock shadow, and when you touch them you can feel and see the muscle twitch under your hand. It was such a beautiful experience, the woman who was diving with me came to the surface at last when her tank was completely empty and screamed at the top of her lungs out of sheer joy, even the dive masters were feeling giddy.

Hopefully while we're here I'll get a chance to see another one, keep your fingers crossed for me. 'Till next time,

Shifra T.

Captain's Log
12 February 1999

West of Martinique, heading for Dominica

The Caribbean way of life has apparently affected me as well; it looks like my last log entry was over a month ago. Despite the hubris of declaring our arrival in Tobago 2 days in advance, we did in fact arrive without incident, and it was a spectacular landfall. The northeastern end of the island is high and dramatic, but even more impressive was the presence of something we hadn't seen since leaving Flores: luxuriant vegetation, everywhere. Amazing what a little rainfall can do for a place. We cleared customs in Scarborough, a charming little port town, with colorful buildings straggling up steep hills and loud Calypso, steel drum, church music and Reggae blaring from various places at all hours. Scarborough is also home to the first Kentucky Fried Chicken we have seen since Farmington, as well as the nastiest set of Immigration officers on the planet. We were pleasantly surprised to find old friends from earlier in the trip here, with whom we did a great rainforest hike and nightly sessions at the Kingswell Inn Pub. We caught up on sleep as well, and restocked the larder with a stunning array of fresh fruits, some of which we'd never heard of.

Joel helped our friend Roland, on Luna Azul, sail his boat down to Store Bay at the southern end of the island, and got some nice video footage of Tammy Norie sailing in convoy. Roland had been stuck in Scarborough for a month with engine troubles and needed a change of scene. Store Bay is the only conventionally touristy part of the island, with a long stretch of white sand beach and numerous hotels. We stayed a couple of days to do some snorkeling, and had a fabulous turkey dinner aboard, courtesy of Roland.

Next we worked our way up the north coast, against wind and current, to Man of War Bay and the town of Charlotteville. This is the NW corner of Tobago, and a different world. Charlotteville is a tiny, picturesque fishing village nestled into a deep cut in the mountains and surrounded by rain forest. Great hiking all around, lots of interesting birds. Then on to Anse Bateau Bay, where we planned to rendezvous with Connie. This is a tiny bay at the northeast corner of the island, completely exposed to the trade winds but protected from the swell by a string of reefs and small islands. While waiting for Connie to arrive, we went into dive camp mode; Shifra got her Open Water Diver certification, and Joel and I did the Advanced Open Water course. This is said to be one of the great diving spots of the world, and we would be inclined to agree: thriving coral reefs, the largest brain coral in the Caribbean, teeming fish life, and a fair sampling of exotics, like Shifra's manta ray. We each did about 8 dives, and lots of snorkeling and free diving from the boat. Joel worked on his lobster-hunting skills. We had a great visit with Connie, who in addition to her delightful self brought a prodigious package of essential supplies, like books, Monty Python CD's, tapes of This American Life, and the latest issues of Funny Times. Enough stuff to keep us laughing for months, which we need to keep us from becoming some kind of floating encounter group. We had rented a car for Connie's visit, which allowed us to check out some other rainforest and waterfall hikes, not to mention a few beaches and restaurants. This was a healthy change from our steady diet of fish life. Left to fend (and cook) for ourselves once again, I abandoned ship and went shopping in Trinidad, for solar panels and the like.Then we popped down to Scarborough to clear customs. In Scarborough, we met up with more friends unexpectedly: Ziggy and Bimbo on La Dengue, en route to Carnival in Trinidad; our Norwegian friend Stein on Alva, en route north from Brazil; and Ariel 4, a Swedish family with 3 sons making a 3-year circumnavigation. These were all boats we had spent time with in Madeira and Gomera, but had not expected to encounter again. After a final celebration at the Kings Well Inn, we moved on to Grenada.

Originally, we had planned to go to Carnival in Trinidad, but decided against it. The music and costumes are supposed to be fabulous, but we kept hearing about what a dangerous unpleasant place Port-of-Spain is, and the prospect of being in a crowded anchorage with 1,000 other boats, for the privilege of roaming the streets with hordes of drunken revelers just didn't seem like our cup of tea on closer reflection.

We had a pleasant overnight run 80 miles to Grenada, where we hoped to haul the boat and do a little bottom painting. That din't work out, but we did get our propane tanks refilled, and now we are moving on to Dominica to meet our friends Bill and Felicity from home. While some would be horrified at our casual passing by of the Grenadines, St. Lucia and Martinique itself, we are drawn to a different sort of island. Dominica, like Tobago, has spectacular mountains and rain forest, great diving, and a minimal tourist industry because of the lack of good beaches and protected harbors. The guidebooks describe it, in their patronizing way, as an "ecotourist destination", or sometimes they just say it is "primitive".

So, we primitives here on our scruffy little wooden boat are thrashing northward at the moment, reefed down and close-hauled into a 20-knot northeasterly wind, bound toward Roseau, island of Dominica, which is 60 miles distant. Mt. Pelee at the northern end of Martinique is standing sentinal on the northeastern horizon as the Pitons of St. Lucia slip below the eastern horizon. Shifra is on watch, playing her clarinet, the dolphins visit from time to time, and a manta somewhere is waiting for us to scratch his ears.

MR

 

Captain's Log
28 February 1999

Island of Saba (Netherlands Antilles)

When last heard from, we were thrashing our way upwind toward Dominica, pronounced Domin-ee-ka, accent on the 3rd syllable, as if it were the French name Dominique. This is a small island of about 70,000 mostly English-speaking people located just north of Martinique, and often confused with the much larger spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, to which much of their mail is mistakenly sent.

We anchored in front of the Anchorage Hotel just south of the capital of Roseau. Our friends Bill and Felicity from Maine arrived at the hotel the next day to spend a week exploring the island with us. The hotel dock was especially helpful for getting ashore by dinghy, as there is nothing like a marina or town dock, or even a harbor for that matter, and the steep rock beach gets pretty heavily pounded with surf despite being on the protected west side of the island. While there, we had a 2-day northerly blow, which brought a large swell to the anchorage, and 2 boats went ashore while their owners were off carousing at Carnival. One, a local fishing boat, we bailed out and hauled out to another mooring. The other, a swedish sailboat, we hauled off and then spent the afternoon diving to retrieve their anchors. No shortage of entertainment. Fortunately, our primary insurance policy did its job: we had out two big plow anchors with oversized chain, well dug-in to the sand; the harder it blew, the deeper they dug, although we did have a couple of rolly, noisy nights aboard.

Dominica bills itself as "The Nature Island", having more or less repeatedly failed in a series of economic development ventures. Aside from ecotourism, the carefully protected sale of bananas to England is currently their only major source of income, and even that trade is about to get crushed in the maw of the NAFTA/EEC banana wars.

So, it is a poor place, happy to have visitors come and dive its spectacular reefs and hike in its rain forest, and spend some money, especially US dollars. The high unemployment rate also leads to some aggressive entrepreneurial behavior on the part of many young men, who push their services as trail guides and "boat boys", unpleasant at times. We also had the good fortune to arrive during Carnival Week, which was crazy: my ears are still ringing. Hopefully Shifra or Joel will write more about that, especially the wild "Jump-up" with moving street bands. After two warm up hikes to Trafalgar Falls and Middleham Falls, we bit off a big all-day hike to the Valley of Desolation and the Boiling Lake. The way there was through rain forest, and the trail went at least as far vertically as it did horizontally, or so it seemed to our aching knees. Our destination was a very thermally active area, with bubbling hot sulfur springs, hot streams with water of various hues (orange, yellow, black, white), and a steaming, bubbling lake about 1/4 mile in diameter. The water was white, with a large active spring in the center, and we were told that the temperature was well above 212 degrees fahrenheit. We did not get a chance to actually test this for ourselves, as the walls were vertical 50' cliffs, but it did steam convincingly. Bill got lots of video footage to quiet the skeptics at home. Underwater, the place was equally impressive. Almost every dive had some area with gas bubbles venting from the rock, like champagne. And one dive, actually called Champagne, had hot fresh water rising from thermal vents along with the bubbles. We saw our first sea horses, and on one night dive we saw octopi, large crabs, many lobsters and a variety of odd creatures like slipper lobsters, many of which were new to us. Bill and Felicity brought mail and care packages from home, along with some essential boat supplies, not to mention a nice boost to our spirits. We are all feeling a little homesick at this point. We did two more dives after they flew home, then headed north again.

An uneventful 180-mile overnight sail brought us to the Dutch island of Saba on february 24th. We arrived at sunset, during a rainsquall, with a blaze of rainbows over the island, which was already spectacular enough on its own. It is a tiny, steep volcano rising abruptly out of the sea and reaching up to a permanent cloud cap and tiny rain forest at 3000 feet. Total population is only 1200 people, mostly in 4 absurdly neat, charming little villages perched high above the sea. Until very recently, it was only accessible by landing on a very exposed beach and climbing up 524 steps in the cliff. That the place was settled at all is a mystery. Now there is a breakwater with a harbor big enough for a few dive boats and the occasional tiny freighter, as well as a tiny airport, so it is a little easier to come and go.

There are no hotels, just small guest houses for intrepid tourists who want to dive and hike in a very out-of-the-way place. (note the heavy emphasis on the diminutives) Oh, and a tiny medical school, of all things. We came here because a dive park had been made, with buoyed dive sites, trail maps, and shops willing to fill tanks for independent divers like ourselves who wanted to explore on their own, at their own pace, as in Bonaire. They even put out moorings for visiting boats. A paradise, we thought. NOT! They just banned independent diving, ostensibly to protect the reef, but more likely to protect the dive shops, in our opinion. So our only option was to dive with a dive shop, at $50 a pop (vs. $5 for a tank refill). Needless to say, we did more hiking and snorkeling than planned, both of which were fantastic. We did do a few dives, having come all this way, and the underwater topography was dramatic: pinnacles rising straight up from the abyss, tunnels, walls and such. Compared to Dominica and Tobago, the differences in marine life were more subtle: more of the fish are at the upper limits of size, like 4-5 foot long moray eels, and 4-foot barracudas, which are a little disconcerting when they glide up beside you and look you over with those cold, predatory eyes. Nurse sharks were promised, but none showed up for us. Lots of sea turtles, and very large, healthy corals.

We are sailing again, on a fine, sunny day with a following breeze. St. Maarten, Saba, Statia, St. Kitts and Nevis are all showing off their respective volcanic peaks along the horizon. Bonaire is 450 miles to the southwest, 3-4 days sailing if all goes well.

MR

 

Joel's Log, March 5 1999
Bonaire


So, where were we? Had you seen us off the Nature Island yet? Yes? OK, how about the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean? Saba, I mean (it's on the license plate). Done that too, eh? Then I guess that leaves us at the Diver's Paradise- Total Dive Freedom- Flamingo Island, of Bonaire (one was on the license plate, one was on the Welcome sign, one was on the passport stamp, and they were all on the T-shirt). Bonaire held to it's promise as advertised- There were Dive shops like there are Antique Stores in Maine- Tony's Pizzeria- and Dive Shop, Marie-Lu's Manicures- Tanks Filled, Captain Don's Dive Habitat- and Duty Free liquor store. Everybody on the whole island was on a nitrogen buzz. People didn't even bother to take off their neoprene- Wet-suit and a tie was perfectly acceptable formal attire, fortunately I forgot my tie. I think that I'm getting ahead of myself though- I should tell ya'll about the dive we did after we left Saba, when we were on our way down to Bonaire. Saba has a large shallow bank off to its Southwest- No deeper than 80 feet deep, which is a quite reasonable depth to dive at. It was a beautiful day, the sea was calm and we were sailing along actually able to see the bottom. I got to thinking what a good place it may be to catch a lobster or two. So we stopped the boat and Shifra and I strapped on our stuff and sunk down to about 70 feet. It was pretty clear that we had stopped over a relatively featureless part of the bank- Sand and shells as far as we could see, which wasn't very far- as visibility had kind of shut down to about 40 feet. We couldn't see our surface float or the boat though I knew it was there because I could hear the engine turning. So we swam along the bottom collecting shells and checking out the tiny wild-life on this sandy Bottom in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I was not only looking at the bottom but was looking up and around quite frequently on the off-chance that something would perhaps hear us and come to look us over, but what parted the murk to appear in front of us was completely beyond my expectations. I had been looking down, I think, when I became aware of something really big, moving ahead of us. I looked up and was frozen, a full grown (as in BIG) humpback was crossing ahead of us. Framed by the blue sea and the stark sandy white bottom below.

I grabbed Shifra and pointed and we watched as it dissappeared back behind the blue curtain all around us. In the millisecond before I clearly discerned what I was seeing I have a recollection of a number of thoughts- First and foremost the most famous of the last words (except I was underwater with a bit in my mouth so I could only think them)- Holy Sit! He/she was obviously checking these weird noisy things, swimming around in it's heaven, out. It gave us the full on profile, classic encyclopedia view of itself, but it was leaving no time to stare. The whole encounter lasted maybe 10 seconds- As it was moving pretty quickly. I was most impressed by it's size, it was incredibly massive and robust, and I rememeber being struck by how compact it looked even given it's size. Seriously, look up a humpback in the Encyclopedia and check out the drawing- that's exactly what we saw, big as life, Big white flipper and everything. And you know what, the whole time that we were watching it, it didn't twitch a muscle! And yet it was cruising. I'm not sure how I feel about being snuck up on by a whale... Anyway, we hovered for a few minutes, hoping to get a better look, but that was all the excitement for that dive. We climbed back aboard feeling awestruck. Mike had seen it breathing on the surface. Near where we were, and as we sat taking off our stuff off it surfaced and breathed twice, then sounded and was gone. Normally quite exciting- I was just awed.

It was probably about 45 feet long. Cool huh?

So that's my story for now. I'll have to tell you about the mermaids and talking crabs later. Oh by the way. We just left Bonaire yesterday and are bound for Jamaica, 500 miles distant.

I'm positively burping with excitement.

Check ya later, Joel

Captain's Log, 19 March 1999
Position: 15d 32m North, 72d 12m West

Heading 306 degrees true, halfway from Bonaire to Port Antonio, Jamaica. Steady trade winds, easterly 15-20 knots.
Moving along nicely under full genoa and mainsail, with a .5 knot current in our favor, averaging about 140 miles/day.

We're back under way again, after 12 days in Bonaire, now racing the sun northward as it climbs toward the northern hemisphere. The heat here is increasingly intense with the equinox only a few days away, and the sun gets within 15 degrees of the zenith at noon now. It will be almost directly overhead by the time we leave the Caribbean in late April, by which time we will be ready for a little cold and fog.

Bonaire lived up to expectations, worth making a detour south for. In typical Dutch fashion, they have looked around at their scrubby little patch of a desert island, scratched their heads, come up with some creative ways to earn a living, then set about developing them to the hilt. For a long time, their primary export was salt, made by evaporating huge ponds of seawater covering the entire southern half of the island. These are still actively worked on a very impressive scale by Cargill, which uses the salt for a variety of industrial purposes around the world, including road salt for New England. More recently, the question of how to attract tourists was raised. Some early pioneers of recreational scuba diving proposed marketing their reefs, and they were off and running. Now the entire western coast is a marine park, and there are dozens of dive operations catering to every possible niche. There are 80 designated sites, all well-described in a comprehensive book, and all accessible by either car or dinghy on your own, or with a dive shop boat for those who don't mind paying a bit more. We got a package of unlimited tank fills at $3 apiece, and could bring our air tanks in either by dinghy or car. In our 10 days of diving, we used 35 tanks, about 12 dives apiece, total cost $105. What they have figured out is that they make enough money from restaurants, hotels, shops, dive courses, and organized boat dives that they don't have to squeeze every penny out of the yachties. In fact, they've put out 100 boat moorings in front of the main town for visiting saiboats to use free of charge, and every mooring has a boat on it, from every corner of the world, all here to dive. The park is huge, with reefs extending over about 20 miles of coast. It is the lee side of the island, well-protected from waves and current, and feels very safe, like a big lake.

We sampled most of the areas, a mix of dinghy and shore dives, although one could easily explore for months and not see it all. There was one big sunken wreck, a 235' freighter called the Hilma Hooker, which we did at night. There we saw a piece of yellow sponge walking across the hull, which turned out to be a Decorator Crab in full camouflage. We did several night dives and one dawn dive, which rewarded us with a big Spotted Eagle Ray. We also dived at the town pier, which ironically is one of the most interesting ecosystems, with surreal pillars and colors, and wierd species like frogfish and seahorses, not to mention a palette of sponges that included every wild color from bright purple to flourescent orange. Shifra and I spent most of one dive watching a large common octupus (3-4') go through its repertoire: flowing over rocks, shooting through the water in arrow mode, changing from shimmering turquoise while swimming free to dappled gray on rocks. When it got tired of us, it headed down below 90', seemingly knowing we couldn't follow. We saw several Hawksbill Turtles, and a number of impressively large reef predators: tarpon, barracuda, snappers and groupers.No sharks, which we didn't mind: night diving is spooky enough.

A few words about our route, which by now has departed a bit from the itinerary on the home page, and which has been variously described by our friends as "erratic", "wierd", and "boneheaded". (We appreciate this type of compliment, by the way) The usual approach is to either proceed up the line of the Lesser Antilles to the Virgin Islands, or to go along the coast of South America en route to the western Caribbean or the Panama Canal.

We've done a little of both, but only because we wanted to get in the good dive places, and Tobago, Dominica, Saba, Bonaire was the best order to do them in without any big slogs directly into the wind. Now we are too far downwind to go to the Virgin Islands, but Jamaica is a nice downhill run, and we can work our way home from there. Recent intelligence from fellow cruisers indicates that it is once again a safe and pleasant place to visit. Connie will be joining us for a few days in Jamaica, which we are all looking forward to. We are skirting the edge of the drug war zone north of Colombia, and so far the only sign we have seen of that hornets nest is that we were buzzed by a low-flying DEA plane last night. We're waiting to see if the US Coast Guard is next, with their crowbars and drug-sniffing dogs.

MR

Home Back to North Atlantic Voyage