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When we finished our week aboard a training yacht in Croatia in 2017, we were more than ready to get back to the Caribbean and to do our first bareboat charter. This is the first of three blogs that cover the most epic and gruelling 10 days of our lives.
We booked a boat in the BVIs, and were making solid progress in getting friends to join us at last.
Irma and a change of heading
Then, in September 2017, we watched in horror as Hurricane Irma battered the Leeward Islands. The BVIs took a direct hit. Our friend Mick, sheltered in Nanny Cay Hotel, updated us from the eye of the storm, and we knew from his fear how serious things were.
Between Irma, and Maria a few weeks later, the BVIs were in ruins. So many people lost their homes and businesses and very few structures escaped damage. Photos of charter fleets washed ashore were part of the devastation we saw. We waited. We listened. The strong message was that the BVIs would need its tourists and sailors back, but not in 2018. Too much work needed to be done.
Yet again, we needed to rethink our sailing plans. We decided to go further south, to St Vincent. The change in location meant that our friends could no longer join us.
Once again, we were looking at covering the full costs alone, so we did what any savvy person would do. We took the cheapest boat in the fleet.
That’s smart, right?
Saint Lucia, a dream
As usual, we wanted to make the most of our flights. It’s always been our thing to take a longer break to justify the cost and carbon impact of long-haul flights. To get to St Vincent, we needed to fly to a larger island first. Having already been to Barbados and Antigua, it made sense for us to finally visit Saint Lucia.
Our on-land approach has always been budget self-catering accommodation and hire-cars. All-inclusive is not our thing, and luxury is not generally available to us. We have a rule where accommodation across a trip should average £100 a night or less.
Our accommodation in Saint Lucia blew us away. We enjoyed 7 nights at Tet Rouge. It was slightly higher than our usual limit, but we were there for our 5th wedding anniversary. We’d also got 10 nights for the price of 7 on our yacht charter, so we weren’t far off our average. We have never stayed anywhere we’ve loved so much. Our week in Saint Lucia was magical, and we’ve been dreaming about getting back to Tet Rouge ever since.
But that’s not why we’re here… We’re here to find out how our very first bareboat went. As always, Ailsa’s diaries are a window to the past.
From Saint Lucia to St Vincent
We board the 20 seater plane, spread out, and take off an hour early. The plane goes to Bequia first, where a man travelling alone gets off. Minutes later the sky bus is on the way to Union, a 12-minute flight. A family depart, and we have the final 15-minute flight to ourselves.
Because we’re early the driver we booked to take us to Blue Lagoon is nowhere to be seen. We don’t want to wait 40 minutes, so we grab a waiting taxi instead. The ride is only 15 minutes, through a landscape that looks almost identical to Saint Lucia.
We check in to the Blue Lagoon Hotel quickly. Our room has great views of the anchorage and beach. I change quickly so we can explore the hotel. After a day of travel, it’s refreshing to have a beer and fries outside the downstairs cafe. We try Hairoun, the local lager, for the first time. We’re not impressed – we decide to get Carib for sailing.
We take a walk along to Barefoot’s premises, where we’ll collect our yacht tomorrow. It’s a walk up a very steep drive then along a road with no pavement. It’s not far at all, but it will be tough with bags. Thankfully we’re planning to use a taxi for provisioning tomorrow, so we plan to collect our luggage in it too. The restaurant at Barefoot, Driftwood, looks more peaceful than at Blue Lagoon, so we stay for dinner. We split some incredible conch samosas and a yellowfin tuna pizza. It’s a delicious meal. Unfortunately, we haven’t bug sprayed so we get eaten alive.
AC all the way
After walking back to Blue Lagoon we grab beers and chocolate from the convenience store. Back in our room we turn on the AC, shower thoroughly and lay in the cool air watching TV. It’s the last time we’ll be cool and comfy for a while. It’s good knowing we’ll have the same amenities when we stay again just after sailing. I’m very proud of myself for not freaking out at the small cockroach in the shower. I can’t believe I’ve spent a week showering outdoors with lizards and millipedes, but here I get a roach!
We watch some of Inside Out and conk out early, knowing we have a busy morning ahead of us.
Day 1 – St Vincent to Bequia
As usual, we’re awake just before our 7 am alarm. We quickly get ready and head to breakfast. It’s a convoluted continental style affair that involves some tasteless oatmeal for Colin and a mountain of Alpen for me.
After breakfast, we order a taxi. Desmond drives us 10 minutes to Massy, where we split up and try to shop as quickly and effectively as possible. It still takes 45 minutes, and there’s a couple of things we can’t buy. We think the £320 or so we’ve spent is reasonable [future us are surprised by this comment]. We’re baffled when we come outside and Desmond is nowhere to be seen. After a few minutes, another driver appears saying that Desmond asked him to take over. We’re a little worried his saloon car won’t take everything plus our luggage, but it all fits fine. We drive back to Blue Lagoon to collect luggage and check out, and then round to Barefoot.
Prepping and planning
We unload the car and say goodbye to not-Desmond. As we fill out the payment paperwork and go over the non-fixed equipment it’s all taken aboard for us. We then go down to our boat, Pelican Pete, a 1999 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 34′. We have a run through all the equipment etc, and I get some of the shopping away. After this we head inside the main building for Mark, the manager, to give us a chat through charts and destinations. Joining us at the brief is a couple of other people who are chartering the yacht Jono.
We already had some ideas for our passage plan, but the insider info is useful. We decide based on timings and weather to head for Bequia that day and Mustique the day after. They’re short passages, but they’ll ease us in. We realise we’ll probably miss the new moon at Tobago Cays – the days we’d planned to be there are due to be cloudy and wet, which isn’t the best weather for stars or snorkelling.
In for a long wait
By this point, it’s approaching 1 pm so we decide to eat lunch at Driftwood. We order Roti thinking it will be quick. 45 minutes later we’re still waiting. Mark finds us and is horrified and tells the kitchen staff off. When we’re still waiting 10 minutes later he tells them off more, and we ask for the food to go. We go down to the dive shop in the meantime to get fins. It still takes a while for the food to arrive and Mark is clearly furious. The chef comes out eventually. Not to apologise, but to say the food is made from scratch so takes a while and that Mark is being unfair. As I go to pay Mark steps in and foots the bill as an apology.
An abrupt start after all
We very quickly find ourselves on the way in the end.
What we think are a couple of final checks turns out to be the boat hands taking us out, raising the mainsail and getting us out of the lagoon. Then they just hop away in a dinghy at 14:15.
That’t it. We’re underway.
We appreciate the help getting out of the marina. Unfortunately it means we have no time to prepare, or eat. Once out we decide to unfurl the jib and then eat.
We’ve just got the food out when the wind picks up and gets quite gusty, so we have a brief panic and reef it in. I’m terrified and uncomfortable. I had not expected to be out in force 4-5 on a crossing between islands so abruptly. I was hungry before we started and remain so and know I need food to settle my stomach. There’s no hope – we’re wobbling all over. I can barely cut the food or get a fork to my mouth so I get all of four bites in. I even nearly step in my roti during an unplanned tack!
The first half hour is unpleasant but things improve a little, though I’m not enjoying the wind and don’t feel great. I’m mostly looking forward to it being over. It might have been better with time to properly prepare.
Things get smoother in the lee of Bequia and we gradually make our way to Princess Margaret Beach. We get the sails away with little difficulty. Nervously we drop anchor where we aren’t too close to other boats or shallow water. I take the helm while Colin drops the anchor, and it catches the first time. Just to be safe Colin throws on his mask to check it’s in good holding and we take a transit.
Our first evening on board
I’m exhausted, and starving.
We finally get to eat what’s left of lunch. I manage to slowly unpack, lying down for a rest for a few minutes. Colin ties up the hammock we brought with us and we grab beers and wrestle our way in to it. The hammock is comfy but it’s still very windy so we get blown about all over. We take the hammock down and finish unpacking. Colin rigs up our deck fairy lights and the pop-up table while I sit and write. We fail to get the stereo working, which seems to be a speaker issue. I shower quickly inside, only to find the shower pump is broken. We also discover our anchor light doesn’t work.
It’s very windy so we decide we’d rather sit inside, which is a first for us. After the day we’ve had neither of us feels like cooking. In the end, we just snack on cheese, chorizo, biscuits and nachos while we have another beer. By 8:30 we decide we just don’t know what to do with ourselves so we go to bed and manage to read until after 9 at least.
Day 2 – Bequia to Mustique
We’ve had a rough night. The V berth on the fore cabin just isn’t big enough for 2 people for more than a nap. We started with our heads at the narrow end. I fled to the other cabin for a while but couldn’t put up with the engine smell. We eventually settled on the V berth with our heads at the wide end. At least we’re on the bed, but it’s still cramped. If I don’t roll over constantly I end up with pins and needles from my limbs going to sleep. To add to the broken sleep, Colin keeps checking all night that the anchor isn’t dragging.
Because it’s such a poor night we sleep in until 7:30. It’s an overcast morning and as we’re eating cereal on deck the rain comes, but only briefly.
Port Elizabeth and Turtles
We call Barefoot about the things which aren’t working. By this point, the fridge seems to be playing up as well. They agree to send out an engineer to look things over at 1 pm, so we plan to spend the morning ashore. We’ve managed to get the outboard on to the dingy. This is no small feat as it’s far too large and overpowered for the job. As we get everything else ready there’s a shout from a neighbouring boat – I’ve tied the dinghy so badly it’s floated off! Colin is already in trunks so he quickly puts on fins and swims to retrieve it.
Once Colin is in dry shorts we dinghy ashore. It turns out that the outboard is as temperamental as it is heavy. We take the wooden walkway along the coast into town. Port Elizabeth is beautiful and quaint. As soon as we reach town a taxi driver greets us and gives us a deal on a drive out to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. The drive to the other side of the island is pretty and we chat with our driver as we go.
The turtle sanctuary is small but we enjoy seeing turtles so close. The hatchlings are caught young then raised to adulthood to make sure more get a good chance at surviving. We get a little too close to a mature green turtle that is very curious – Colin goes in to film its face and it nearly takes a bite out of his phone! We also get close enough to hear the turtles exhale as they surface.
We drive back into town and go into Digicell to buy a prepaid sim. We then head along the road to Papa’s Bar. The vendors selling tourist goods don’t say hello, let alone try the hard-sell. In all honesty, it’s a welcome change.
Papa’s is owned by our good friend Gemma’s father-in-law Andrew. We chat to Beth, who is opening up, and she tells us that Andrew is known locally as Lord Soup! I make sure I take photos and send them to Gemma. Lunch is a mango fruit punch and delicious fish and chips – red snapper in a lovely crispy panko crumb. The views are beautiful and we agree that we’ll anchor closer into town and spend our last night sailing here.
We have to leave quite quickly as the engineer has confirmed he’ll be there for 13:15. With a stop to buy washing up liquid and eggs we just make it back in time, even though a sweet dog accompanies us wanting fusses.
The mystery of the missing engineer
Unfortunately, there’s no engineer to be seen. We call to work out the delay. Eventually one of Barefoot’s contacts rides out to us to say the engineer is watching the football! I later realise of course that England is playing Croatia in the World Cup semi-final (which they lose 1:2).
We have a choice between staying another night in Bequia so the engineer can come to look at the niggles, or setting off straight away to make it to Mustique before the “1 hour before sunset” curfew. We opt for the latter.
Crossing to Mustique
We raise the anchor neatly, and bring out the mainsail on both reefs. Next, we release a small amount of headsail, playing it safe after the day before. We need to motor-sail to get around the headland, and then through a passage between two islands. In the end, even with the foresail out, we don’t have much momentum from wind alone.
The sail up to this point is exactly what I like. Once through the channel, we end up close-hauled heading directly for Mustique, much more heeled over than I enjoy and even a bit nerve-wracking for Colin. Pelican Pete is so small that a heel feels like you could dip into the water far too easily! Any time spent below makes me queasy so I can’t add layers when I start to worry about sunburn. Instead, I settle for sitting on the cockpit floor. I reel in the fishing line to find we’ve caught a lot of seaweed.
We hit a light squall just as we want to bring the sails in. It makes things more challenging but we work together quickly and well. I even step on to the coach roof to pull the mainsail down at the mast for the first time – a challenge in wind and rain! I prepare lines for mooring and Colin radios on the VHF for assistance as we’ve heard these are tricky to reach without help. I’m really proud that I hand a neatly coiled line over and get everything attached without much instruction and completely stress-free. We’re on the ball exactly an hour before sunset, as are the other Barefoot Charter boat (Jono) who wave as we come in.
A quiet night
As soon as we’re moored we swim, and get showered on deck whilst it’s still warm. We share the only cold beer and eat crisps and ginger nuts. We have a little bicker over who gets the internet as my tethering to Colin’s phone won’t let us both on at once.
I’m in awe of the size of the houses we can see, and amused at hearing a peacock call. I braid my wet hair (the best way to keep it neat) and assemble the table, and Colin cooks hash browns, sausage, onion, bacon and cheese for dinner. I’m so tired again, the mooring field is rolly. I seem to be getting a lot of not sea-sickness, but sea-sleepiness. We realise we bought far too much alcohol as we’re so exhausted by the time we’re in that we don’t want more than a couple of beers. We sit out a little, but it’s windy again and almost chilly.
After I do the washing up we transform the saloon table into a bed. It’s missing the right cushion of course. We get creative and use one from the aft cabin, with some pillows and blankets to fill in the holes. Once it’s covered with a sheet it’s what we hope will be a comfy and spacious bed. We make it past 9 this time at least.
Day 3 – Exploring Mustique
We’ve slept so much better with a more spacious bed. We still both get some paranoia about the mooring, and it’s a very rolly anchorage, but we manage to lie in until 8.
We have toasted bread with guava jam (I have avocado as well) and try some cake we bought in St Vincent – drywall. The mooring manager comes by for payment.
We gather our things and dinghy ashore, and start by walking through town and up the hill as we’ve been told we can walk freely as long as we stick to the road. There are private property signs everywhere however, and we don’t want to trespass accidentally, so we go back to ask about a taxi tour.
Within minutes we’re in a van being shown the sights. We get a thorough tour of the island, and jump out to look at a couple of beaches. The driver points out the homes of Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger, Shania Twain, the Lacoste guy, and the house where Wills and Kate honeymooned. He also quotes the rental prices per week which are staggering. We see the village that the locals live in, and the schools, library, community centre and other service buildings. Everything is being tidied up as next week marks the 50th anniversary of Mustique as it is, and all the rich owners will be back. We kick ourselves for changing our plans from being here next week! On the way back we stop in at Firefly to book dinner for the evening.
Turtles at Basil’s Bar
We have a look around the shops, then go to Basil’s Bar where we decide to stay for lunch as it’s so nice. We share a really tasty prosciutto, green mango and feta flatbread with chips. After we eat, the waiter points out where loads of turtles are swimming – we see numerous heads popping up for air! As soon as we’ve paid we race back to the boat to grab our snorkelling gear.
Back ashore the waiter watches our bags and helps point out turtles as we snorkel. We see plenty and at one point I have 5 in sight! Annoyingly my camera battery is pretty much flat but it’s such an unexpected surprise that I don’t mind. After swimming, we dress and take a walk along the public beach, as far as the salt ponds. We start to walk around these only to find we’re getting eaten alive by invisible sandflies and monster mosquitos. We quickly head back to the shore, not caring for a few minutes that we’ve strayed to the residents-only beach.
The Mood of Mustique
Back in town, we buy me a very costly can of caffeine-free Diet Coke from the supermarket. We also get the most expensive bag of ice ever ($30XCD! [~£8]) at the fishmonger, before we head back to the boat. The ferry has just docked and the tiny road near the dock is gridlocked! At least it’s the Mustique equivalent, with a dozen mules (petrol golf carts) picking people up.
We string up the hammock and spend some time relaxing before having a swim and shower. As I’m showering the crew of Jono, on their way ashore, dinghy by with one of my flip flops! It must have slipped off the deck somehow. We head ashore to Basil’s just before sunset where we enjoy a happy hour cocktail. The bar is packed with families and there are happy children running around.
A very unexpected party
We walk up the steep hill to Firefly and arrive in the midst of a glamorous party. A woman bee-lines over to us, arms wide open. Before we can react she hugs and kisses us and says it’s great to see us again. It’s all so sudden we just smile. We wrestle with coming clean or joining in the lavish party.
Of course, we come clean. We sidle through the crowd and make ourselves known to the waiter who takes us to a quiet corner table. It turns out that it’s a wedding party, and there might be someone famous coming. We still joke about crashing the party and cheekily ask our waiter if he can steal us a glass of champagne. It transpires that we’d have to try to blend into the party for that. I’m not persuaded. We settle for buying French sparkling wine.
A meal to remember
We eat a selection of starters instead of mains as we can’t decide and we’re not starving. We have rosemary bread, conch chowder, crab backs, lionfish wrapped in bacon, lionfish ceviche and battered flying fish. During the meal Isobel the cat comes to chat, she’s lovely and accepts some crab. We finish the meal with banana flambee.
The meal is so good that we can live with the fact that the party is over by the time we’re done. Our waiter is chatty and fun throughout, and lets us know that the expected celebrity (who never appears) was Bryan Adams. The owner comes over for a chat too, and to apologise for all the noise from the party. Pelican Pete feels somewhat like slumming it, so it’s so refreshing to be somewhere so elegant. The welcome we’ve had is so charming – we’re really quite scruffy and ordinary but everyone has treated us so well.
We finally head back to the boat in the pitch darkness at 10 pm, have a beer on deck, and crawl into bed. We’ve fallen thoroughly in love with Mustique.
Day 4 – Mustique to Canouan
I wake up at 8 am, having slept pretty badly. The swell makes it incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on one side but I just can’t spend all night on my back. We get everything ready and eat a quick breakfast of cereal, then set sail for Canouan at around 9:20.
The wind is a little on and off, so we motor a fair amount. Despite the wind not being bad, there’s still a fair swell, which makes for another rolly trip. I’m just starting to feel it’s going well though, and that we’re doing fine.
Then there’s a loud ping.
The painter for the dinghy has snapped.
What follows is a good 45 minutes of effort. We lower the sails and motor back to the dinghy. I lean out to catch it with a boat hook. I manage on the second attempt, but then it slips out of my hand. After another 4-5 attempts with the second hook (which we attach a rope to), and me nearly losing a hand, we get a hook. Colin jumps into the dinghy, clearly not thinking that it’s not attached to anything and has no motor/oars. Thankfully he’s soon clambering back on deck and the dinghy is safely tied on. Then we’re back to square one and getting the sails up again.
Arriving in Canouan
We bounce slowly to Canouan. All in it’s taken close to 4 hours. I spend much of it daydreaming about Tet Rouge.
With some assistance, we tie to a ball and ask for water/ice which the guy will come with. A man rows over to us for a chat. I feel slightly unnerved as he seems to eyeball Colin’s phone and asks us for the specs of our boat. He pointedly warns us about “the guys from St Vincent” who burgle boats.
I make a lunch of warmed up conch callaloo soup and bacon and cheese rolls, which we eat while our water tanks are filled. Based on the amount of ice we’re going through the fridge definitely seems to have stopped working so we call Barefoot.
They can only send someone to us the next morning, so we have a choice between staying put, or moving on as planned to Mayreau and seeing an engineer in 3 days in Union.