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Reflections on Antigua

Often, it takes a bit of distance to bring the reflection of a visual scene into focus and to be able to evaluate what it is that is seen, such as the visage of a snow-capped peak upon a quiet lake, romping children and dogs out on the lawn, or one’s face in the bathroom mirror. So it is with my experience having just spent three months living on a boat in Antigua, West Indies. Here are some fairly random thoughts about what I saw and experienced.

As a brief review for those who didn't know or forgot, the purpose of being there was to finalize the purchase of a 39 ft catamaran sailboat by my niece, Desiree, and me, and to get it in shape to spend our winters sailing the islands of the Caribbean for as long as we are able and have the desire to do so. The primary goals are simple: escape the winter cold and rain and have some adventures along the way. To that end, my job was to work on what repair and upgrading I could do and hire out tasks that were beyond me. Desiree’s job was to finish up her current house renovation business jobs so she could join in my retired status. We managed to make significant progress on both fronts and are looking forward to venturing onward next October. That’s the setting of our craziness.

And what did I find in that setting, Antigua? I guess I could say it is a place of extremes, not unlike similar settings that exist elsewhere—some of which I have experienced in my past.

The first and most obvious one is the climate, going from a February of temperatures in the 30s to one with temps in the 70s to 80s. It was warm, even hot at times, which is what I sought but took a week to adjust to. It wasn’t really any more humid than home, just a lot warmer, and I drank a ton of water—more than I remember needing to do in other tropical climates I’d lived in. Age? Who knows why.

But it was great to return to a dress code of shorts and a T-shirt! And it was sunny, every day. Of course, it does rain there, but almost exclusively in brief showers or down-pours that dump their load and drift on elsewhere ahead of the returning sunshine. Not too bad a deal. (Except when I forget about a hatch I left open and have to dry out the resulting soaked cabin floor or—worse—bedding.)

Even though it has a tropical climate, like many such tropical places, it isn’t filled with lush vegetation, such as Hawaii, for example. It’s more like the Bahamas or Baja California. It takes higher mountains to squeeze out much more rain than the island’s low hills do. So, it’s pretty scrubby native vegetation with taller non-native trees planted purposely near buildings or growing wild where they can. Many of these have flowering species but are not lush with color. I think that makes them more appreciated because of the contrast they provide to the general green and brown colors.

I imagine the next extreme that stands out is the human one. The island is, what I think, quite populous: a little over 100,000 on a fairly small island. Since there aren’t mountains but hills surrounded by wide valleys, people have built something just about everywhere. And what they built has extreme contrast, ranging from all-inclusive resorts and big luxury estates to simple blockhouses surrounded by attempted privacy barriers of unrepaired fences and walls to abandoned and crumbling houses that serve the poorest population. Sometimes, there is space separating these extremes, as in gated communities, but many times they abut each other closely.

All are connected by a road system that grew up as needed and without any plan, winding through the valleys, narrow, abutting houses and walls, with traffic that threads the needle between cars stopped to talk to roadside friends, taxis and buses stopping for rides, and hundreds of speedbumps scattered in a vain attempt to control traffic. Road name signs are virtually non-existent, as well as traffic signs—but I have sighted maybe 4-5 traffic lights. I have never been in a place like this where I have been unable to arrange a map in my mind as to what is where and the cardinal directions of the compass—completely lost.

As a pedestrian, it takes some getting used to remembering which direction to look when crossing the street because traffic drives according to the British system, on the left rather than the right. With traffic weaving in and out over both sides to avoid slow or stopped vehicles, plus avoiding potholes and speedbumps—and processing the drive-left rule—safely navigating across streets can be a challenge, particularly when there isn’t a sidewalk or space for one. Great fun!

Since I spent the vast majority of my time aboard our boat, I didn’t devote all that much time afoot on the nearby landmass. For those interested, most of the time I was anchored in Falmouth Harbor at the south end of the island. The nearest land had streets that connected to English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard, a historical site from the days when Lord Nelson of England was trying to defend English claims to different islands against the French, Dutch, and pirates that were also trying to make claims. So, there are quite a few ancient buildings in the Dockyard that are still being used, many occupied by sailing services for repair and sales which I also used for getting work done.

In this setting, the topic of extremes is again relevant. The English located there because of the great harbors, deep enough for their ships and military protection. Also, the constant easterly tradewinds, made it easy to sail in and out—which is why this spot has become a major sailing center for the present. There are boats/yachts of all types and sizes berthed at the marinas or anchored out in the harbors. And I was plopped in the midst of all this: It had services I needed and was a free and good place to anchor, and live my little life.

But, around me, especially at the marinas, were all these monstrous yachts. I couldn’t authoritatively guess their costs but easily were multi-million and billion-dollar vessels—mostly sail but some exclusively motor, mostly newer in the last 10-20 years but many were vintage from the 1930s or before. Quite a sight! And then there’s the overhead cost required for maintenance and crew: easily tens of thousands per day.

So, who owns this stuff? Damned if I know. Many just sat for weeks or longer with no one in sight except for crew members polishing and scrubbing what was obviously not dirty since I saw them doing the same thing the week before. Diver teams made the rounds going from boat to boat to clean the hull bottoms of sea growth, required from sitting too long. Occasionally, someone not wearing the crew’s matching shirt, shorts, and shoes could be seen directing the crew’s attention to something of concern.

And eventually, each would leave for a short time and return or leave to travel to another island. You see, the sailing yachts were usually there to take part in various races, often of several days duration, of which Antigua has many starting in November and continuing into April. Other islands up and down the West Indies chain also have races for these boats, and they all have a coordinated schedule for these megayachts to attend. Hence, the reason to leave at some point… and return shortly, or after the hurricane season.

Now, they were quite beautiful boats, even the motor yachts, I have to admit. A particularly—poignant, shall we say—and memorable time was at night. Every night as the daylight faded, around six o’clock, the yachts would turn on their mast lights—and these are tall masts, 150 ft plus with a blinking red light at the top for low-flying airplanes, I guess.

The lights are positioned at 4-7 intervals along the mast—usually, at the cross-arm spreaders—and directed upward so the light shines on the mast in a cone shape, wide at the bottom, pointed end up. The color is usually a warm amber, so nothing garish. It makes for quite a spectacle because some yachts have up to four masts, and they are all berthed at docks, so it gives a slightly packed appearance, like multiple lighted Christmas trees together. As the yachts leave during the season, the sight is diminished, but even if only one boat is left, it still puts on its light show every night.

So, the whole show of size, styling, crew, lights, etc. is a demonstration of… what? Wealth, power, greed, I-don’t-careness? Take your pick, or choose them all. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is a case of extremes—nothing new there—and it does provide jobs for a lot of Antiguans, regardless of the motivation for that extreme.

These yacht service businesses charge a rate of $100/hr. per service person; so a team of three workers on a job costs $300/hr. That’s not just for the big yachts; that’s what I pay too. I don’t know if they charge more for overtime or weekends, which these yachts often demand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Of course, this is especially seasonal, tied to the big races and the winter (high) season months. I’m sure the logic is to “get while the gettin’ is good.”

I’m just not crazy about being stuck in with them; so, I try to do as much as I can of the needed tasks to avoid those high charges. But, some things are beyond me, so I pay; and so far, the quality of work done is very good—it’s just hard to compete with the demands of the big yachts on scheduling jobs. I’ve had many reschedules done for that reason; I just smile and ask them to not forget me. After all, they need to make their money while they can. Ah, well.

But, you ask, what about bright sandy beaches, sparkling sunlit bays, and waving coconut palms? Yep, they exist in Antigua, lots of them, and most are monopolized by resorts—and not particularly interested in lower-rung cruisers like me, as most sailors in the Caribbean rate, unless we want to belly-up to a bar or table. That’s fair. Many are locals who are finally able to reach out for a bit of the tourist trade too; just not the mega-yacht lot.

I could go on about other extremes, and ones not so much, but you get the idea. Did I enjoy the water? Yes, I did get in twice to clean sea growth off the engine propellers and once just to see what was along the rocks at one bay’s shore. The temperature was a comfortable 74 degrees F, but that was all I did. I was always in an anchorage with lots of boat traffic and didn’t like the idea of getting run over by a careless dinghy driver. My job was to get our boat ready so we could cruise to more enjoyable spots next winter, and I was happy doing that.

In sum, I got stuff done, organized our floating home, and feel very much like it is another home: quite familiar now and enjoyable just to be living in it, passing the days in a warm climate, with minor adventures waiting to be embarked upon as the time, weather, and motivation strikes. And that’s the final reflection on my time in Antigua.

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