No, we did not take our boat down south yet, but we finally got the chance to reschedule our flights to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to visit with our dear friends Rob and Monica. Originally, we had been ready to go in March 2020 – but of course, Covid hit and that was that. So when Air Canada resumed direct flights back to Saint Vincent in December 2021 we booked again to go at the beginning of February. Direct flights were cancelled again in January, but we ended up with a flight through Barbados with connection to SVG. Flying over to Saint Vincent we got a first glimpse of the islands and the ocean. We even spotted some sailboats. Now I was really getting excited!
After 45 minutes we landed at the Argyle Airport on Saint Vincent, or the mainland as they call it here. It is the largest of the 32 islands that make up the archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. A lady outside the airport yelled out Dave’s name and pointed us towards our taxi. A brisk ride in a little van, windows wide open, on winding, narrow city streets brought us to the Barefoot charter lodge, where our friends were welcoming us. The sun was just setting and there was a pungent smell of burning leaves, ocean breeze, tropical flowers and food from street vendors in the warm air.
We spent the first day just hanging out on Rob and Monica’s schooner Interlude, which is on a mooring ball in Blue Lagoon just outside of Kingstown on the South side of Saint Vincent. Rob was our sailing instructor in Cobourg and Monica, his partner, was also the Commodore at the Cobourg Yacht Club. Both of them helped us on our maiden voyage down the Great Lakes from Wiarton to Cobourg.
After a 7000 nautical mile trip from Canada, Interlude was getting a few repairs done. The last repair of the hydraulic pump for the steering was in progress and we had brought some of the seals needed. The fix did not go quite as planned and after a day and a half we realized that the hydraulic steering pump for Interlude had to be shipped off to Florida to be rebuilt. Fortunately for all of us, Rob has been a lead instructor and great supporter of the Barefoot Charter company & sailing school, and Phil, the owner has become a good friend of his. Phil graciously offered us a 39 foot Catamaran to use. Wow, what a hardship!
We provisioned the boat and moved on board. So much space!!! We are used to mono hulls. But a catamaran has of course 2 hulls. So we have 2 cabins and our own head with shower in one hull and Monica and Rob have the same in the other. The boat also does not heel. We can leave cups and plates out on counters. So odd – no running around stowing things before you are ready to set sails. There’s a huge back cockpit area and stairs going into the water for swimming.
By 2 pm we had moved our stuff on board and the friendly staff from Barefoot Charter had cleaned the boat, made up the beds complete with a towel folded in the shape of a swan on each bed. They had filled the water and fuel tanks, and even guided us out of Blue lagoon and set sails for us as they do to begin all their charters. What a nice touch and it makes sure that everything is working as it should.
It was a quick sail over to Bequai, which is just about 10 NM south. We got our first introduction to sailing a catamaran. Since this cat was set up for cruising charters it was almost too easy to sail. Willow Dew (what a great omen – our granddaughter’s name is Willow!) was built in 2014. Equipped with 2 engines, a generator, solar, freezer, fridge, electric winch at the helm for raising the main, electric windlass and a self-tacking jib, this boat had all the comforts. Not a high performance sailer, but safe and quite easy to sail.
One by one we are exploring the islands of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, stopping in its many sheltered anchorages and exploring the coral reefs and small villages. It seems it’s always windy here but the waves in the bays are gentle so we get rocked to sleep every night. The bigger islands have a couple thousand locals, Saint Vincent – the largest has about 100.000.
Mayreau, which is only inhabited by 300 and probably as many goats. The local people are very friendly and you can get most of the supplies you need along the way. Some anchorages are quiet with only a couple boats and others are busy with dozens of boats, but there is always enough space for us. We also see a few super yachts with many decks and a full crew.
We’ve also had some nice meals at ocean side beach restaurants sitting outside in the warm evening breeze. While in the Tobago Cays we went to a beach BBQ put on by locals. Its a sort of cooperative and from his regular visits Rob has become friends with Captain Neil. Be sure to look for him if you visit. We ate grilled lobster and fish. The Tobago Cays are a really neat place to anchor as they consist of a bunch of small, uninhabited islands (a nature reserve) sheltered by large reefs to the east. You can anchor behind the reef which will break the waves but you get the full wind straight from the ocean and there’s nothing else between you and Africa except thousands of miles of ocean. Its a great spot to spend a few days.
The water is the most stunning turquoise colour and almost as warm as your body. Yet it’s Winter down here and some locals claim it’s almost too cold to swim. Because it’s located at 12 degrees latitude the difference between winter and summer is about 3-5 degrees Celsius on average. We snorkel everyday for hours. There’s so much life in the water and reefs abound in almost every anchorage. Efforts are being made to restore and protect them. Whenever anchoring we look for light blue patches that indicate sand, to stay off the coral.
We anchored in the calm of Chatham Bay on the West side of Union. There’s no town here but locals have built a few structures and small buildings housing some bars which also serve light meals. As with all anchorages little fishing boats come out to greet you as soon as you arrive, inviting you to their bar or selling you fresh fish, ice and other things. We decided to buy a fresh Mahi Mahi for dinner that day and fried it up. Delicious!
One of the highlights was a hike around Union Island, at the southern edge of the SVG archipelago. On a clear day you can see the outline of Grenada from here. A rough ATV road leads up from the beach and connects to the proper island road. With running shoes it was no issue walking up the steep hill and once at the main road the walking was rather civilized, more a walk than a hike. The day was a bit overcast and at the top of the island we got hit with a nice rain shower to cool us off. The views were spectacular with the odd rain cloud chasing across the horizon.
This is were we met Barry, one of the locals who was sheltering under a porch in the downpour. I had asked him about directions making sure we were on the right track. Turns out he was walking the same way down towards Clifton, the largest town on Union. We had a great chat and found out he had 2 daughters, one in the States and one in Canada. He showed us what the native Manchineel tree actually looks like. It’s known to be poisonous – the fruit, the leaves as well as the bark – and when it rains the poison washes down. So not a good spot to shelter from the rain. Another interesting local plant was the Love Vine, an orange coloured vine that literally hugs the top of trees. According to Barry, this vine also makes a good tea to cure prostate ailments. Eventually we came by Barry’s house overlooking the bay in Clifton and said Good Bye.
Clifton did not impress much as the anchorage looked rocky and overcrowded. We bought a few fruits and veggies from a local stand and walked over the hill towards the village of Ashton. The road led us by the Belmont Salt Ponds, where locals harvest salt during the drier season in April. Ashton Harbour lies in the lee of a derelict marina pier and Frigate Island. It’s also sheltered by mangroves. Like many of the little Islands, it seems that almost every house in Ashton offers something for sail, be it ice, beer, grocery staples or fruits and veggies. Prices are higher especially on the smaller islands, but it’s understandable since many things have to be brought over by boat. How lucky are we to be able to enjoy these beautiful islands, so if our money helps locals make a living all the better. Next time I will bring a Canadian flag to fly from the boat as everyone we met seemed to have a connection to Canada.
There are several initiatives to “improve” the islands and make them more appealing for visitors. Steps are being taken on the ecological front as well, protecting sea life such as turtles, corals and reefs but also the reduction of garbage and pollution on land. Even Barry was surprised to see public garbage cans on our walk through Union. They display some info about local species on the outside, and slogans like “Use me for your trash”. Barry had to look inside one to make sure, and he said he had not seen this before. Garbage and recycling are often an issue on small islands and require special efforts to deal with it properly.
Then there are the rich island resorts and marinas that have taken over some of the islands. The island of Canouan has Sandy Lane Marina at it’s southern tip. It’s a super luxurious harbour next to the airport with berth big enough to hold 100 meter Super Yachts. It looks like a small town in the Mediterranean and feels a bit out of place next to the modest local houses, oftentimes in a constant state of disrepair. Sandy Lane is open to any sail or motorboat and a nice spot to stop for supplies, fuel or water. The question remains though, how much of the dollars spent here do really benefit the islands?
Other highlights of our sailing adventure on Willow Dew included another night at anchor in the Tobago Cays where we got to snorkel with the green sea turtles. They come up quite often for air and then you can follow them while they slowly decent and graze on the sea grass at the bottom. This area is a turtle sanctuary and most sea creatures here are quite used to humans. Again, there is so much to explore here and we will be back for more.
We also got to spend one night at anchor on the windward side of Mayreau, after Rob navigated us safely through the reefs. Unfortunately it was a bit too choppy to dinghy or swim over to the reef to see some of the smaller reef sharks but it was nice to be all alone in this anchorage.
After spending more than a week sailing around in the southern islands of the Grenadines, it was time to start heading north to get back to Saint Vincent. It was a windy day again with gusts up to 30 kts and more, but we tucked in behind the little uninhabited island of Petit Tabac (famous for the scene from “Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl” – where Elizabeth and Jack Sparrow are marooned) for tea and Sticky Buns which Monica had whipped up for us.
While we were having our snacks a striking looking schooner we had noticed the day before seemed to like our idea and followed our example. It was “Wylde Swan” – the worlds largest and fastest topsail schooner. She can sail up to 18kts and was built in Germany as a steamship for the herring fleet. How cool to get a closer look at it. She was on a trip from Anguilla down to Tobago and back, when our path crossed.
After taking lots of pictures and licking our sticky fingers clean, it was time to hoist some sail and motor sail north on the windward side of the Cays. This meant being more exposed to the wind as the trade winds blow continuously from an easterly direction. Waves were sometimes 3m high as we were no longer protected by islands or reefs. On the Great Lakes we would not normally venture out in such conditions, but the ocean waves are different. The period between waves so much longer. On Lake Ontario we see a period of about 3 sec, Lake Huron its a little over 4, but here we saw a swell with a 7-8 second period. Don’t get me wrong, we were being bounced around but it was totally manageable.
By sailing to windward of the islands up to Bequai we would not be pushed too far west with the current and had a better angle. It was an exciting ride with new views of the islands, waves crashing up over the bow of the catamaran and spray flying over the decks. Eventually, waves calmed down a little as we approached the southern tip of Bequai. For lunch Rob suggested a stop at Isle à Quatre just south of Bequai. It’s a private island with it’s own website. Again a stunning beach, a sheltering reef in a small secluded Bay. From afar it is hard to tell if one could even get into this bay by boat, but it’s a little gem. We had lunch, a little rest and a quick dip and were on our way again now on the leeward side of Bequai for a couple of days.
On Sunday morning we ventured out for a stroll through Port Elizabeth. First we followed the scenic walking path along the water’s edge called the Princess Margaret Trail. Then we followed some of the roads up into the town. Music and singing was around every corner as Sunday services were in full swing, literally. It seemed the churches were competing and trying to entice more attendance by being louder than the next house of God. It was fabulous and inspiring how the Vincentians celebrate their faith. We checked out the model boat building shop and walked to the Northern end of the bay for a stunning view from the remnants of the old fort.
Once back at the mainland of Saint Vincent for our last week, we were greeted by the Barefoot Crew, who rushed out with a dinghy to help us secure Willow Dew to a mooring ball. We moved back onto cozy Interlude for the rest of our vacation with our friends. Rob had told us so much about the Barefoot operation and we were really intrigued to meet the people who were the face of this family business and to learn more about it. Phil and Marissa Barnard are a young dynamic couple who’s love for the islands and sailing here can be felt in every aspect of their work. They are so passionate about sharing this love that its infectious.
Monica gave us a great introduction to life in Kingstown, the capital of SVG. After having visited so many of the smaller islands it really felt like a metropolis, although only about 16,500 people live here. She suggested, we take the local bus as it is a truly Vincentian experience…and it was! Busses here are vans which have licensed drivers and are allowed to carry a max of 18 passengers. Most vans are personalized and decked out, some have names like “Selecta” and bright paint jobs with cool graphics. All have stereos and sub woofers that blast Caribbean pop music as loud as they can. And they drive them like race cars up and down the narrow winding roads. The loud music is actually a safety thing as you can hear them coming. Especially at rush hour they resemble more a music club than a bus. They also never seem to turn a customer away. Each driver has a “stuffer”, that’s what I call them, who watches for potential customers, takes the 2 EC when you step off and manages the seating and cargo of the passengers. That means getting as many people stuffed into the van as possible, some not even sitting. In our van we counted 22 plus driver. Forget Covid fears, you are as close as you can get – a game of twister is nothing compared to this – the only relief – the windows are wide open because they have no AC.
On our trip through Kingstown we walked along the street market area down by the harbour. The number of vendors is astounding. Not only are there many little stores that sell various grocery or clothing items, in front of every store there are tables with people selling everything from small bags of spices, candies, fruits or veggies to underwear, shoes or jewelry, some even out of the back of their cars. It seems everyone in SVG has something to sell. It was refreshing to walk up towards the Botanical Gardens and take a guided tour there. The garden is quite impressive with many tropical shrubs and trees from all over the word. Several trees or shrubs that we know as house plants up in Canada, were absolutely huge in this outdoor environment. We had a very overzealous tour guide, who was quite knowledgeable although hard to understand sometimes. He loved to tell us about the many medicinal purposes of various plants. There was always a tea that could be brewed out of it and it would cure cancer! This wasn’t the only time we saw how important the healing power of plants is in this part of the world. After 2 hours we were exhausted but also felt like we had gained a lot of insights into local culture and our bags were stuffed with bits of cinnamon bark, nutmeg and other goodies. It was well worth the visit!
Another spectacular adventure was our drive up into the inland of Saint Vincent. Rob had borrowed a truck and drove us all the way up to the Montreal Gardens, which were closed at the time but gave us a chance to see the spectacular residence of Mary and Marten Barnard, the founders of the Barefoot Yacht Charter company and parents of Phil. It was our last day of our vacation and it was overcast and drizzling as we started our trip. The further up into the inland and higher we climbed the winding roads, the heavier the rain until we were literally in the clouds. Vegetation was very lush and the air thick with humidity. On a clear day the vistas would have been stunning as we were quite high up, but today everything was shrouded in steaming fog. On the way back we crossed through the mountains and onto the windward Highway north. We could see the rugged coastline and the grandiose waves crashing onto the eastern shore of the island. Further north we saw the rivers that come down from the mountains, still caulked with some of the black ash from the La Soufrière volcano eruption last year. Here we had to turn around as there was a landslide warning in the area. Due to the heavy rainfall of the day the rivers were swelling and making it dangerous. It was nice to get back to Barefoot and Interlude bobbing securely at her mooring. It was still drizzling into the evening and we didn’t get to see the sunset on our last night. Nevertheless, one last swim in the ocean felt warm and invigorating as always. How I will miss that beautiful water, when we return back to the cold in Canada tomorrow.