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Touring the Grenadines
June 26th, 2012 @ 09:29 PM EST by admin

Hard on the heels of my winter sailing experience in BC, I went to the Grenadines to work towards my RYA Yachtmaster ticket.

I went down there a week before the starting gun to visit the island. My last visit was in the late 70s. Since then, island life in Grenada has not been peaceful. There was a revolution, a coup d’état, US military intervention, the murder of the Prime Minister and a generally chaotic political situation.

When I got there, life seemed pretty much back to normal. The new airport started by the Cubans and finished by the Americans was much larger and better than the old one and very near St George’s, Grenada’s capital, unlike the old one which was located in the boondocks.

Not wishing to stay on idle mode, or in Caribbean limin’ state, I toured the island. I visited a nutmeg processing plant, a rum distillery and Leapers’ Hill.

In the Caribbean, the prevailing winds are easterly trade winds, 15 to 20 knots on average, sometimes gusting to 30. The occasional squall will bring 40+ knot gusts. And of course there is the hurricane season, although at 12 degrees north, St George’s is not typically affected. That said, Grenada has been struck by some very serious ones in recent history, notably the devastating Ivan.

Our boat was docked at the Grenada Yacht Club, an open air club overlooking the docks. It’s a pleasant caricature of a tropical yacht club, essentially a large verandah, with many burgees from other clubs adorning the ceilings and gently flapping to the breeze.

Donald Street, the author of many guides to the Caribbean, was sitting in a corner, typing on his laptop.  He used to sail Iolaire, a 46ft engineless yawl built in 1905. Having read his books, I wonder how he managed to get into some anchorages without a motor. But he did. His cruising guides and charts (Imray-Iolaire) about the area and beyond are amongst the best. At 80, the local icon remains very active.

On his website, he narrates his beginnings in an amusing way:

I started sailing late – at age 12. But I have been around boats since I first knew how to walk. I learned how to row probably around age 6. Once I started sailing, I sailed intensively. By the age of 14 I was interested in yacht design and begged, borrowed (and possibly stole), and bought or persuaded my parents to buy, everything I could find on yacht design.

When he was a charter captain, he met John Steinbeck, the author. The conversation apparently went as follows:

“Why don’t you try writing?” to which I replied, “But Mr. Steinbeck,” “Never mind Mr. Steinbeck, call me John,” “John, I can’t spell or punctuate.” To which Mr. Steinbeck replied, “What the hell do you think secretaries and editors are for? Try writing. Go get me a drink.” I went to the bar to get Steinbeck a drink and had to report that despite it being only 10.00 p.m., the bar was closed. Steinbeck said, “My God, this is a great place for newlyweds and nearly-deads. I don’t know what you characters are doing, but I’m going back to my room to wrap myself around my bottle of scotch. Good night.” That started my writing career.

Although he faces stiff competition in both areas, Don Street is one of the best sailors and most colourful characters in the Caribbean.

Back to our cruise. Our boat was a Beneteau 461, a Bruce Farr design. She was fast and pleasant at the helm, a truly fun boat to sail. The other sailors on the boat were a charming British couple. Our instructor was a tough Englishman, RYA Yachtmaster instructor who has sailed a lot. Impossible was not part of his vocabulary.

After a challenging departure in strong winds, we sailed north on the rougher windward side of Grenada. We spent our first night in a peaceful anchorage on Grenada’s east coast and the next day we headed for Tyrell Bay, Carriacou – a good anchorage with excellent restaurants ashore.

Carriacou is a charming island. We filled up with food in one of the local stores, fresh locally-grown produce, delicious and inexpensive.

The next day, we left for the Tobago Cays, entering the Cays under sail in the interesting south passage, a tight entrance with coral reefs everywhere, course changes with bearings to find and follow precisely. Bareboat charters are not allowed to go there, it’s quite tricky.

On that subject, many bareboats are equipped with a secret GPS device that relays position information to the management company. If the boat is found to be out of bounds, the device will send a message to the managers, who will call the offending boat. To the skipper’s great surprise, I presume.

At the Tobago Cays, we negotiated the purchase of a lobster (in fact a spiny lobster, without claws and with softer meat than, say, Maine lobsters). The skipper made a wonderful bisque from the leftovers. A memorable meal.

I used to sail down there a lot, so I was in familiar territory. We carried out the usual Tobago Cays routine, snorkeling, exploring and cleaning the hull. Hulls tend to get dirty quickly in the Caribbean, more so than in the Great Lakes. That’s in part due to the water’s high temperature.

Then we went north to Mustique, where we took a mooring ball. The mooring was open to the swell which swings round the island. I was rolled to sleep like a child in a cradle. Except that the cradle was rocked by a maniac.

The island is mostly closed to the public. There’s a small section on the western end where ordinary humans are allowed to land. The rest of the island is off-limits. But if you’re Mick Jagger or a British royal, the island is yours. Being neither, it wasn’t mine. The apparently exquisite Macaroni and Pasture beaches on the eastern side were entirely closed to us.

In the public area, Mustique has a pleasant waterfront restaurant, but a beer will cost US$8 and a basic meal about US$100 per person. The two local shops are only for people with very deep pockets. Jaggers and royals again, presumably.

The waters surrounding the island are also private. I found that unusual, I’ve not seen that anywhere before. Boats grabbing a mooring ball or even anchoring need to pay substantial fees. Our mooring fees were US$75 for the night and that was just for a mooring ball. Mustique is definitely not a budget destination- unsurprisingly.

Then we sailed south, carrying out navigation exercises and current calculations. The Caribbean basin empties and fills from the Atlantic on a regular basis; the water flow is documented in tables but it does not go, as one would expect, east to west or vice-versa, it’s sometimes nearly at a north-south angle or somewhere in between depending on the tide’s phase. Tidal currents between the islands go up to 3 to 4 knots and don’t seem to be very precisely defined. On some occasions, we experienced different currents than those indicated in the tables, perhaps the result of winds or barometric pressure changes. Either that or the tables are wrong.

In Petit St Vincent, the locally-built boats were preparing for a race, the most popular one being the Carriacou regatta. These boats are all hand-made on the beach with basic tools and very well crafted. They are not built with plans, just with good eyeball design and years of experience. They generally have a crew of six, with three or four strong lads on trapeze and lots of cloth on the mast. They are fast.

We sailed past Mopion Island, a sand bank with an umbrella on it. It’s a cartoon illustration of a desert island.

Then we went back to Grenada, sailing on the peaceful western side of the island. We returned to port and practised various types of docking in very strong winds. The Med style docking was particularly exciting in cross-winds without a bow thruster.

I was glad we were close to shore, that the waters were warm and that the boat wasn’t mine.

John Cangardel