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Immediately after we completed our Day Skipper practical course in the BVIs in October 2015, we were ready for more. We signed up for our Coastal Skipper theory and sat our exams at home a few months later. A short 9 months later we were on our way to Grenada. It was time to take our Coastal Skipper practical with Grenada Bluewater Sailing.
We flew out a few days before the course to have some time exploring Grenada. It was also excellent timing to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. This was so memorable that we can’t leave it off the account of this trip. Lets’ dive into Ailsa’s diary once more. Don’t worry, there’s less Voldemort than in Tom Riddle’s diary…
An anniversary to remember
We set off first thing and drive to Belmont Estate cocoa plantation for a Bean to Bar experience. After meeting our guide we walk around the main buildings and get to know a chatty parrot. Then we have a Suzuki Mule drive into the fields to see the cocoa plants among their fruit tree buddies. It’s so exciting to see bean pods cut down from the trees – Colin gets to have a go. Our guide cuts open a pod, and we suck the delicious pulp from the seeds. The driver knows it’s our anniversary and collects a watermelon and cantaloupe from the vegetable fields for us.
We see the fermentation and drying process next. I get to demonstrate the traditional method of shuffling the beans as they dry in the sun. It involves a soothing walk barefoot through the beans. Only women shuffle the beans, moving over the trays every half hour through the day. We go on to see industrial drying and polishing machinery. It turns out that polishing as a production step is just to make the beans look more attractive to buyers! After tasting some delicious cocoa tea we take a short drive along the road to the main factory. After seeing the bar production, we see ladies packaging the bars by hand. I remember this is what we saw in the Secret Caribbean episode that also introduced us to Montserrat.
Chocolate in EVERYTHING
After the tour, we enjoy lunch, in the beautiful cool breeze of the restaurant. We have a starter of saltfish cakes then a buffet of local dishes (I try callaloo for the first time). There’s also an extra treat of chocolate pepperpot stew, and an incredible banana and chocolate smoothie. We’re stuffed, but somehow fit in a small dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream.
We’re presented with yet more chocolate – a beautiful cake with a “Happy Anniversary” message. We both groan and ask for it to be boxed to take home! We’ve eaten what will probably be our biggest meal of the trip, and a lot for lunchtime. I don’t lose my appetite in the heat but it’s pretty usual for me to feel full after a starter! Our hosts hand us a gift – a whopping 8 bars of chocolate, along with our take away cake and melons. We feel so spoiled for barely £100 overall including tip. We can’t resist a visit to the shop where we buy bags and bags of cocoa tea balls. Colin gets a very good deal on buying me an anniversary present when I see earrings I like for US$10.
Turtle time… hopefully!
After an afternoon relaxing at our rainforest cabin, we drive to Bathway Beach for 8 pm. It’s time to start the evening’s activities – a turtle tour! Once the tour group has gathered, this starts with a briefing talk. Did you know that Leatherback Turtles can be up to 2000lbs (900kg) and 3m long?! We give the tour guide a lift as we all drive along to Levera Beach. The beach is accessible only by permit after dark in turtle season.
Waiting in the dark
What follows is a lot of waiting. In the dark. With only red lights (which turtles can’t detect). Sightings aren’t guaranteed at the end of breeding season – you can’t rush nature after all. We have to hang around until the researchers working the beach confirm that a turtle is ashore. The stars are beautiful at least, and I spot a shooting star. After half an hour though, I’m tired, hungry, and being gnawed on by bugs. After an hour and a half, I’m starting to feel that this isn’t the anniversary treat I’d expected. We’ve had no dinner, it’s nearly 10 pm, and we still have an hour-long drive home.
As with all good things, what happens next comes
when I’d given up hope to those who wait.
Worth the wait
We get word that a mother has come ashore to lay. The group sets off along the beach in single file, watching out for hatchlings as we go. Our guide spots a baby emerging from a nest and as we look closer there are two heads poking out. We watch and encourage them, our guide tickling their heads to wake them up. It seems these ones are slow movers, we need to keep going to see the laying mother.
When we arrive we find the most enormous female leatherback is halfway through laying. She’s easily as long as Colin is tall. A researcher helps his partner count her eggs by holding her back flippers apart. As she’s in a trance during laying we can come up beside her. We stroke her shell (like polished leather), muscular side and flipper.
The call of the sea
Once Mama Turtle finishes laying she starts to flip sand back to cover the nest. She works first with her back flippers, then the front. We watch the whole process, where she moves slowly towards the sea covering her tracks as she goes. One of our group has her little girl, aged around four. It’s great to know she’s getting to see this so young even if she does get a bit impatient! As Mama pushes sand around we can see the ID tags on her back flipper. She has a chunk out of her front flipper from a past battle.
Once the nest is fully covered and disguised, Mama starts to move quickly towards the sea. We stay watching until she dips into the waves and out of sight. It feels like we’ve watched for hours. In reality, from the end of laying to her going into the sea has only taken 23 minutes.
As we walk back, we stop again where the baby turtles were. They haven’t moved and we fear they’ve lost the energy. Our guide keeps on tickling one, not giving up. She finds that a root has been stopping it from moving its flipper out of the sand. Root removed, both babies can climb out of the nest and begin moving around on the sand to build strength. After watching them a while we head back to the cars, taking in what we’ve seen.
Meeting Alex and Chao Lay
A few days later, after hikes, drives, a beach day and being tourists, it’s time to get to work.
It’s a very short drive to Grenada Yacht Club from St Georges, where we’ve been looking around. Our skipper/instructor for the week Alex is already around and expecting us. He helps us carry our bags to Chao Lay, the Beneteau Oceanis 461 that’s home for the next 5 nights. We find out that a retired couple who have sailed with Alex before will make up our crew. Alex gives us an idea of possible passages and gives us instructions to start a plan for the next day. He then says goodbye and the boat will be ours alone until 8 am the next day.
We check out the shower and loo facilities in the marina and head to the bar for a drink. The food on offer looks good and there’s an amber ale on tap I’d like to try. It’s barely after 5 pm though, and I’m still full from lunch, so we head back to Chao Lay. We spend some time looking at passages and working out our tidal streams and such for the next day.
It’s after 7 pm when I realise that we should check what time the bar stops serving food. Of course, the kitchen has already closed! We shower and resign ourselves to struggling to find an affordable meal. What we find a short walk away is affordable, a restaurant/bar/takeaway.
The restaurant is closed but the barman suggests we get takeaway and eat it in the bar, which we do. Our Kingfish, rice and peas and salad look as good as the food at our beloved Oistins, Barbados. It also fits the cheap bill at EC$20 each (around £5). Unfortunately, it only looks good – the fish is dry and luke warm. We pick at our meals, not that hungry, and head back to Chao Lay after one beer. It’s approaching 9 pm and we consider a little more study. We’ve walked 7 miles over the day, so in the end we turn in to prepare for an early start.
Day 1 – Grenada to Carriacou
It’s been a surprisingly good night aboard, and despite a wake up to close the hatches during rain. We’ve slept well until our alarm goes off at 7 am. We eat granola for breakfast and are just washing up when Alex arrives with provisions. We look through our passage plan together and as we do so our co-sailors, Lisa and Joe arrive. They’re retired but young, only 51. Lisa is from London originally with a background in the financial sector. Joe is Trinidadian, with dreads down to the floor. They live on a motorboat in Grenada and are looking for some extra tuition. We get acquainted and have our safety briefing. It’s relieving when we can correctly answer the questions Alex fires at us!
Taking the helm
We set off just after 9:30, with Colin steering us out of the marina under motor. Once we’ve all had a chance to take the helm we run through some steering and man overboard drills. It all comes back to me quickly (thankfully!). We hoist the mainsail then sail north up the west coast of Grenada. There are flying fish popping up around us, and we laugh at their antics.
Once clear of the northern tip of the island we let out the foresail and turn the engine off. The sail is exhilarating. A good force 3-4 pushes us along without too much resistance from the tide. We manage to make 5-7 knots most of the way and take it in turns on the helm. I take the first couple of tacks towards Sauteurs and back out. The aim is to to get us on a heading that will take us between Ronda and the Sisters, but clear of the exclusion zone for Kick ’em Jenny, an underwater volcano. Lunch is a soup made by Alex’s wife. It’s delicious, and really more of a stew with whole potatoes, roast chicken on the bone and dumplings. As we’re at sea, we of course snack on ginger nuts, crucial in avoiding seasickness.
Tyrell Bay, Carriacou
When we arrive at Carriacou after a 6-hour sail Colin steers is towards Tyrell Bay. We work as a team to tack into and through the anchorage. We come close to managing to anchor at sail, but have to switch the engine on at the last minute. I complete the log while Colin checks the anchor with Alex. Afterwards, we all swim for a while before enjoying a beer as the sun sets.
A man, Warrior, comes by on a small rowing boat. If Alex has caught fish he usually gives Warrior the heads for broth. We have no fish today, but there is still some of the soup left over. While Alex hunts out a plastic spoon for Warrior we chat British politics – Warrior wants to know why David Cameron resigned. He says he doesn’t understand politics, but seems to have a good grasp. Eager to learn, he wants me to write out what things like Constituency and Referendum mean so he can learn. Warrior says he’ll be back before we leave the next morning, but Alex is convinced there’s no chance.
At 6 pm we dinghy ashore to The Slipway for dinner. It’s a lovely cool evening and I enjoy a rum punch while Colin has a local IPA. The restaurant is a typical anchorage restaurant – barefoot cruisers all round. A friend of Alex’s, Cynthia, who splits her time between London and Grenada joins us. Colin has a delicious tuna carpaccio and I have an equally delicious goats cheese and avocado salad. As is usually the case, we both have mahi-mahi. The food is amazing, so we order slices of chocolate tart and tamarind tart to share with Joe and Lisa. It’s delicious. It’s after 9 when we make our way back to Chao Lay. After a couple of glasses of wine, we all head to bed.
Day 2 – Carriacou to Tobago Cays via Union
We’re awake not long after 7 am and start preparing for the day. Alex tells us we’ll be doing three short passages over the day. We’ll start by going to Hillsborough, the main town on Carriacou, for shopping. Next, we’ll cross to Clifton on Union Island. We need to check in here and have our passports marked for St Vincent and the Grenadines. Finally, we’ll head to a mooring field in Tobago Cays for our overnight stop.
Breakfast is Hobbit-worthy – toast, cheesy fried eggs, bacon, avocado, mango and passion fruit yoghurt. Afterwards, we plan our passages for the day. We leave the anchorage under sail with me at the helm at 9:30. I manage to get in a couple of nice smooth gybes and am feeling good. That said, I’m still thrown by how much the boat heels when we get out into the open. I’m glad to give up the helm. Colin is the skipper for the day, directing us to stations and deciding when we act.
In Hillsborough, we dinghy ashore and go to the bakery, cashpoint and supermarket. Meanwhile, Alex deals with paperwork and orders roti for our lunch. We bump into Cynthia and say hi. We have time to enjoy a cool drink chatting with a cat. Back on board, we’re off and on our way quickly. Everything we do seems much faster and more efficient than when we were sailing last year. That may be because we’re all experienced and know the basics.
We eat our delicious roti underway, and it’s a quick and comfortable sail despite being a bit choppy. Colin and I go forward. Together we change the Grenada flag to the yellow quarantine (meaning you’re arriving in a new country – life before Covid) flag while Chao Lay is moving at 6kts. This is something that would have terrified me before and I’m proud to get through. The weather is perfect and the sea is a stunning, almost cobalt blue. It’s another short trip, and before 2 pm we’re at a stunning anchorage beside Clifton, the main town on Union Island.
Clifton looks like the Caribbean in people’s dreams. Shallow reefs and sand bars make the water a stunning range of turquoise and blue shades. Palm trees line the beaches. Yachts bob around peacefully, and a kite surfer dots about inside the reef. Alex and Joe dingy ashore to the immigration and customs offices. Lisa, Colin and I stay aboard, taking photos and enjoying the views. After a cup of Belmont cocoa tea and a sticky bun from the Hillsborough bakery, Alex and Joe return. We get underway quickly.
This passage to Tobago Cays is bouncy with big swell, but takes only an hour and a half, until 5 pm. I take the helm near the end and am getting comfortable again close-hauled. We turn on the motor as we approach our anchorage. We’ve chosen to stop between two small islands, and I steer us on to a mooring ball. It takes two goes but I’m feeling quite proud that’s all it took. I’m doing what I’ve been taught previously, putting the boat into reverse to stop. I check with Alex before manoeuvring, but he doesn’t agree with the approach, and things get tense. Ultimately it’s a difference of opinion between instructors, but it’s still stressful for me. I need a time out, and escape to the cabin to calm down.
After a beer, we go snorkelling with Lisa and Joe. Within minutes they’ve found a turtle, which we’re able to swim along with for over 5 minutes. It’s close, and the water is crystal clear, so the GoPro video Colin takes is fantastic. We swim around a little more but don’t see much more. The others have more luck and spot a second turtle swimming behind us, and a couple of rays.
After showering we watch a beautiful sunset. Terns come to us for food, and another ray swims under the boat. We eat a dinner of roast chicken, potatoes and veg prepared by Alex at around 7 pm. It’s so peaceful watching the stars emerge (not too many as the moon is bright). We sit companionably listening to reggae for a while. We’re all tired from a long, challenging day and turn in before 9 pm.
Day 3 – Tobago Cays to Pt Martinique via Mayreau
It’s another early start, and after a hearty breakfast, we motor around to new anchorage. We can see the island where Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan were marooned in Pirates of the Caribbean – Petit Tabac. We snorkel and I’m amazed to see 6-7 turtles. For a while, we follow one, with Colin filming and me matching its strokes as it swims. It’s beautiful to see the turtles totally relaxed and feeding on the weed on the bottom. We relax for a while and buy t-shirts from a local vendor who comes by on his boat.
Salt Whistle Bay
Colin plans a passage and we sail around to Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau. It’s one of the most picture-perfect beaches I’ve ever seen – all palm trees and turquoise water. Our entry to the anchorage is hampered by a cocky catamaran. They don’t seem to know the rules of the road and block our path in the anchorage. I suffer when I miss that the companionway hatch is partially closed and get a good smack on the head.
We struggle a little in finding a safe spot to anchor and end up tying up to a ball. For lunch, we eat pizza, leftover chicken and salad, and I plan a passage to Petit Martinique. We then get a little time to relax. I sunbathe a little, then Colin and I swim across to the beach. As always, we’re on a mission to see if we can buy Diet Coke (we can’t). The beach is stunning, it’s such a shame we couldn’t take a camera over. The dark clouds making for a dramatic view thankfully come to nothing.
At 3 pm we weigh anchor and motor out. I’m skippering for the first time. Things get a little complicated when the tide is stronger than anticipated. We still manage to follow the course I planned to Petit Martinique. I find it hard-going. Between dotting below to check the charts and reading the hand bearing compass I’m feeling a bit ill. Once we’re clear of some nasty reefs, with Colin at the helm, we have room to manoeuvre. After a near-perfect man overboard drill under sail, we pick up a mooring ball, still under sail. 🎉
We have a little over an hour to have a beer, shower, and take a look at tomorrow’s passage. Soon after 6 pm, we dinghy ashore with a beautiful sunset happening around us. Dinner is very tasty, at the Palm Beach restaurant and bar. We try callaloo soup (I’d like it as a chilled soup), cracked conch (chewy) and barracuda for the first time. Much to our delight, we also enjoy the company of the two resident cats. We even catch a wifi signal for the first time since Tuesday morning.
It’s around 9 pm when we get back to Chao Lay and everyone except us turns in. Instead, we look over the 60 or so mile passage tomorrow. This will take us from where we are in Petit Martinique to Prickly Bay on the south coast of Grenada. Once plans look sound we turn in before 10 pm, once again exhausted.
Day 4 – Petit Martinique to Prickly Bay, Grenada
I have an alarm set for 7 am so we can make a prompt start. Colin and I go over our plan for the day and agree on how to split watches. I’m pretty tired – a tropical wave has come in so we had a humid, muggy and rocky night. It’s raining on and off as we eat breakfast, finally tucking into the Cantaloupe from Belmont.
We set off at 8:45 with me skippering and Lisa and Alex on my crew. The wind is low and flukey. After an attempt at sailing, we have to turn the motor on or we wouldn’t move at all. Eventually, we’re motoring faster than the wind, so we bring the headsail in. I guide us around the northern tip of Carriacou and we get a little more wind. We’re sailing towards Hillsborough where I direct everyone through furling in the headsail, dropping the anchor, and taking down the mainsail.
Back in Hillsborough
Alex quickly gathers himself and dinghies into town to deal with customs and immigration procedures and buy food. Colin and I plot the waypoints for the afternoon into the GPS plotter. The plan is to split the afternoon and evening into three 2.5 hour watches; Colin and Joe will take the first and Lisa, Alex and I the second. It’ll be back to Colin and Joe for the third watch. Realistically we’ll all be on deck by then, as it’ll be dark for the last hour and a half. We have some time to relax – we don’t want to set off so early we’ll miss out on night sailing. Alex, once back, sets to preparing some lasagna for dinner. We eat our roti and prepare to leave, setting off as planned at 1 pm.
The longest passage
Colin and Joe are on first watch. Once the sails are up and our course set the rest of us get some rest in our respective cabins. I’m surprised that I am so comfortable below. I doze a little and come up 45 minutes before my watch to find the wind is good. Alex has butterflied the sails for some swift downwind sailing. At 3:30 I take over watch halfway between Carriacou and Grenada. I now feel comfortable keeping an eye on the heading and popping below regularly to plot a fix based on GPS coordinates. We hit some squally weather and don life vests, and the weather continues to be unpredictable. When the wind changes, I carefully judge a new heading. We stay on this through a couple of showers.
By 5:30 pm it’s dried off a little; I change into dry clothes though dark clouds are looming. Alex serves up vegetable lasagna and mince just before we get another soaking. I pop below to don waterproofs between helpings. It feels oddly fine to sail through squally stormy weather, and even to eat a hot meal in the midst of it! Colin takes over watch at 6 pm. Soon after, I head below for another rest before it starts to get dark, and before I get any wetter.
Night-sailing in the rain
I needn’t have waited, when I come out at dusk I’m soon soaked by yet more squalls. Rain comes and goes as Colin pilots us around Point Salines and we get familiar with the lights. It’s getting late and we’re losing the wind, so Alex takes the decision to switch the engine on. We take the sails down as we enter the marked channel into Prickly Bay just before 8 pm. We manage to find a good spot and anchor close to shore. It’s not without some stress though. The anchor drops too far, and Alex loses a lens from his glasses in the kerfuffle to fix it.
We quickly prepare ourselves to dinghy ashore to the Prickly Bay marina bar where a DJ is playing. We hastily and happily get drinks (the strongest rum punch I’ve ever had) and pick up wifi to check emails. An excellent live band starts to play, with lots of Bob Marley but also some recent songs. I find the popularity of Ed Sheeran and people line dancing to Another Level amusing. We enjoy the atmosphere for a couple of hours, then head back to Chao Lay for one last beer and a snack before bedtime.
Day 5 – Prickly Bay to St Georges
Despite going to bed shockingly late (after 11 pm 😯) we’re awake by 7 am as usual. No passage planning today as it’s our last; we’ll simply be sailing back around Point Saline to St Georges. We pack while it’s still cool, and enjoy one last feast of a breakfast. Colin takes me out on the dinghy so I can have a little practice handling it. I’m not that confident or competent and nearly run us aground on a reef. Once we’re back on board, Alex hoists and stows the dinghy and we make ready for departure.
Colin takes the helm as he’s had less time between all of his skippering duties. We have a gentle and enjoyable sail back to Grenada Yacht Club. Once there, we have an hour and a half or so practising manoeuvres. We practice pulling up to a dock forwards and backwards, general backwards steering, and tying up. I do not badly at all which feels good as its not easy parking a 47ft yacht! Our final manoeuvre is to park Chao Lay in her home berth. My role is to step onto shore with lines, and everything goes mostly smoothly.
Once in Alex gives us the relieving news that we’ve passed our practical course. He thinks we need to gain some confidence though. He suggests we get out as part of a flotilla, or with friends, to gain experience sailing without an instructor. We complete paperwork and receive our licences, before enjoying a beer on deck and taking some photos. We all head up to the yacht club’s restaurant, The Spout, for lunch. Service is slow but it’s an enjoyable wait, except for when a fairly obnoxious man foists his company on us. I try to ignore him and eventually let him know how rude he’s being. This seems to be evidence of what a life of solo sailing can do for one’s social skills…
Goodbyes and air con
After lunch, Lisa and Joe say goodbye and head off in a taxi. Alex gives us a lift to our accommodation for our last night on Grenada, True Blue Bay Resort.
To see a sealed air-conditioned room, a large double bed with no mosquito net, and a normal, clean bathroom is amazing. It’s even nicer to have the room made up in honour of our wedding anniversary. I even find a bottle of wine in the fridge when I go to chill the champagne we’ve lugged from Gatwick. I want to swim and enjoy the resort but I can’t help but stretch out on the cool bed. The last few days has suddenly caught up with me.
After the sun sets we sit out on our deck drinking champagne and reflecting on our sailing course. It’s been a huge confidence boost to get comfortable on board and feel like we know what we’re doing. It’s only taken 3 weeks of practical sailing for some things to become second nature. We’re ready to take Alex’s advice and get out on a charter with friends!
Going ‘home’, then home
After our night at True Blue, we had a little proper vacation time planned. Knowing we were flying the notorious Liat, we gave ourselves 2 days to get to Montserrat. It meant a leisurely trip, and a night in Barbados to see our friend Johnny.
Languishing in Airport Terminals
In the end, Liat still failed us. Our flight to Barbados was delayed by 2.5 hours, throwing off our schedule. We still at least had time to visit Johnny and have dinner at our favourite restaurant.
The next day, we were bumped from our flight to Antigua despite being first in the check-in queue. The plane had been replaced with a smaller one. Naturally, the airline decided to prioritise a school sports team over people with connecting flights. We told them they would make us miss our evening flight to Barbados if they put us on an afternoon flight. Sure enough, they did. We ended up booking a last-minute stay in the very grotty, overpriced Halcyon Rex in Antigua.
Montserrat on my mind
Finally, the next morning we made it to Montserrat, to our friends Maureen and David, and a hot breakfast. We spent a few days catching up with the island that feels like a second home. It had been 3 years since our last visit. Even almost two decades after the volcano eruption we could see huge amounts of regrowth and rebuilding. It was a lovely few days, and ones we’ll remember fondly as David has since passed. We haven’t made it back since and it’s one of the places we’re looking forward to getting back to most.
Keep on sailing
After Coastal Skipper, we were as qualified as we could get before sailing A LOT more miles. We had the licence needed to do take out a bareboat charter. We hoped to do one with friends (to split the cost and help crew) the next year.
Unfortunately, nobody was quite ready to spend £££ to sail with two green skippers thousands of miles from home. We couldn’t afford to charter on our own, so we had a rethink. In the end, we joined a training yacht in Croatia.
Keep an eye our for our next blog to see how we got on in European waters!