A fast sail down from Cuba brought us within sight of Colon by the late afternoon of the sixth day with just enough time to anchor before dark. The adverse current had meant sailing for an additional 200nm through the water making the passage length just under 970nm against the 766nm over the ground. Now we were at the approaches of the fabled Panama canal; a small boat about to venture amongst the leviathans of the oceans. The approaches to the canal were clearly marked on the chart and evidenced by these huge ships entering and exiting in front of us. We were sure to keep well clear!
A radio call to Cristobal Signal Station advised us to turn to starboard after the breakwater and anchor off Shelter Bay Marina, close to about six other boats. We looked forward to an unbroken night’s sleep.
We knew that the Panama interlude would prove to be hard work with boat spares to be sourced, important maintenance to be done, the larder re-provisioned and the Canal transit to be organised. All of that had to be done from the Shelter Bay area, a one hour bus or boat ride away from Colon and much further from Panama. Then there was the matter of the canal transit itself and Karin’s French Polynesian visa to be organised once we were in Panama.
We found Cuba to be absolutely fascinating and very different from any of the other Caribbean islands. It felt like we had taken a big step back in time, before the days of modern cars and a permanent connection to the virtual world.
After two weeks when we were finally ‘snorkeled out’ at Jardines de la Reina, aided by a good breeze, we sailed overnight for Cienfuegos, 160 km to the northwest and situated in an enclosed bay. We anchored off another government run Marina Marlin, where, after a lengthy but friendly check-in we were free to go ashore and enter the ‘time warp’.
We were excited to be heading for Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s former capital on the south eastern coast and one of the few points of entry. What should have been a three day sail took us five due to the wind shadow caused by the 1900 m Hispaniola mountain chain. Having daughter Megs on board eased the night watches considerably as we could each get six hours’ sleep instead of four.
Southern Cuba sits on an underwater escarpment that rises sharply from depths of thousands of metres and it has some amazing, almost completely land locked natural harbours, Santiago de Cuba being one.
After entering via the narrow channel we tied up at the marina and were warmly greeted by its manager who told us to stay on board until the doctor had examined us. A white coated lady arrived, enquired about our health, took our forehead temperatures and cleared us to proceed on shore.
Jolly Harbour on the west of Antigua was an easy landfall and we anchored outside the channel, along with perhaps 14 other yachts and the next morning took the dinghy to clear in and do some shopping. Development along the coastline is first world and substantial; palatial homes, guest accommodation and hotels. We later learnt that much of the coastline is private property above the high tide level, which includes most of the beach, as the tide only rises about half a metre in the Caribbean.
Replacement of our sail being a top priority, I sent out some email enquiries and we later motored around the coast to nearby St. John’s, from where we could get transport. Here we found the anchor holding very poor, eventuating in the need to motor back out a kilometre to Side Hill Bay, where, after several more attempts, the anchor finally held.
Our haul out in Trinidad completed, we headed for Carriacou, 25km north of Grenada. The north west flowing Equatorial Current pushed us in the right direction, which was just as well as the predicted wind only appeared later in the afternoon, when on one of our fishing lines we caught a beautiful Black Hind; a mature fish which was a challenge to scale and fillet, but a delight to eat in a soft, fragrant curry.
Once in the full Atlantic swell Karin began to feel sea sick and turned her attention to one of the buckets, shortly afterwards retiring for an early night. She didn’t get much sleep, but always the stalwart crew member, she refused to rest longer and took her four hour watch between midnight and 04:00. Shortly after dawn we passed the northern end of Grenada and made landfall at Tyrell Bay, Carriacou at around 09:00.
Carriacou is known as the ‘Isle of Reefs’ evidenced by the many shipwrecks we saw. Its people originate both from Africa and Scotland, the latter group settling in the village of Windward and starting the local boat building industry, which persists to this day. Both the appearance and speech of the people in that area still reflect their lineage.
Sailing is not all about exotic islands, beautiful sunsets and enjoying G&T’s. On top of doing at least one maintenance job daily, there comes a time when a boat owner really has to do the hard yards.
It was time for Moondust’s maintenance haul-out and, since we could not sail much further north in the Caribbean until the end of the hurricane season in November, being impressed with Power Boat’s prompt e-mail responses and general interest shown, we decided to follow the good references that we got from fellow cruisers and have the work done in Trinidad. We could not have made a better choice!
It was only a two hour sail from Charlotteville around the headland to Bloody Bay. If one looks at the peaceful bay, it is hard to believe that it derived its name from pirate activity in the early 1700’s. It is a small bay with facilities only for day visitors.
For a small island, 42km long and 10km wide, we found that Tobago punches well above its weight! It’s one of the last unspoilt Caribbean islands lying just south of the hurricane belt, close to the coast of South America and 33km north-east of its ‘parent’ Trinidad.
It has lush, tropical rain forest clad mountains with beautiful beaches and quiet bays. The island has two season: a wet and a dry season. The temperature is around 30 degrees C with no seasonal change.