We couldn’t wait to get back. Part of my vagabond youth was spent in Antigua in the mid-1990s, and a slightly more mature me has returned several times since then with my much better half, Caroline. Returning to the simple rhythm of a tropical charter-sail, snorkel, sleep, repeat-is always a salve for our flagging spirits.
No story about chartering in Antigua is complete without some discussion of Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the oft-repeated platitudes about these hallowed harbors where the charter industry was born.
Shirley Heights still has a steel drum-and-rum fest on Sunday night, and the café and bar at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina in Falmouth is still the Ellis Island of the Caribbean: Everybody who’s anybody passes through there.
But we’d come all this way to pull the plug, not swim in the social scene, no matter how cool, or fascinating, or stimulating it proved be. After we did a quick top-up of ice and miscellaneous must-have provisions, the requisite final email check, and spent an eerily windless night on the hook, we put Falmouth in the rearview mirror.
That’s right, windless. The rising moon, well on its way to becoming full later in the week, shone over an almost glassy harbor. The trade-wind machine had temporarily shut down (no doubt due to the ash cloud that seemed to be the cause of all that was problematic that week), and the forecast called for more of the same for the next couple of days.
This lack of wind was weird, but why complain? The uncharacteristic lull provided an easy opportunity for us to go someplace nearby that we hadn’t already visited. Caroline and I had chartered in Antigua before. In fact, when my dreams of sailing adventure collided with what I perceived as an ill-timed need to grow up, I spent an entire winter marooned in English Harbour in the early 1990s. But that’s a story for another story.
The truth is, Antigua-and our next stop, Barbuda, roughly 35 miles to the north-are special places for Caroline and me. We discovered Barbuda after a particularly raucous passage on a previous charter and simply fell in love with the place. We knew what was waiting for us over there in the same way that Bob and Ally knew what we’d experience during our introduction to diving. We knew it’s a fantastic, special place; we just needed to run the engine to get there. And I’m not enough of a purist to sail at a snail’s pace when the engine and Otto the autopilot can get us to where we want to be in good time.
“There it is!” said Caroline. She’s got amazing eyesight and was the first to catch a glimpse, about seven miles out, of the ultra-low-lying island off our starboard bow. Soon familiar landmarks-Spanish Point, then Coco Point, and finally Palmetto Point, on Barbuda’s south coast-came into view. With a smile on my face, I announced, “It’s so good to be back,” and that was even before we’d glided past the six-mile stretch of pink-white beach along Barbuda’s western shore, then snugged up tight in the northernmost point of the Low Bay anchorage.
There was a little speck of a boat about two miles up the beach, but it hardly interrupted the solitude and wild peacefulness of the place. The color of the water in the midday sun was almost intoxicating. The pink-sand beach has the texture and consistency of flour or confectioners’ sugar, and one must sprawl out upon it to fully appreciate it. And then things got even better.
Instead of cooking up yet another delicious meal on the cockpit grill, we’d heard that the whole “town” of Codrington-it’s the only “town” on the island, and “town” is a bit of an overstatement worthy of quotation marks-turns out for barbecue. This was the local scene I’d been waiting for. Sitting on a limestone boulder in front of Codrington’s little market, we ate like kings and queens and were treated like family. We even ran into people we knew. Pastor Moses had presided over our wedding, which took place at the only hotel on the south side of the island several years before. However, we’d never seen him preach in his own church, until the following morning.
Pastor Moses not only preached. He taught Sunday school, and he gave thanks for the ceiling fans that had only just been installed the night before. “Man, it’s pretty hot with the fans!” I whispered to Caroline, with sweat dripping into my eye. “How long do you think they’d gone without them?” Not two seconds later, Pastor Moses was beaming and looking at us.
“Remember that wedding I’ve talked about?” he said to the congregation in his booming and yet soothing voice. “I’m so happy to see Bill and Caroline here. Come up to the front!” he said waving and smiling.
Now, we’re not really churchgoers, so this took us a bit by surprise. But I’ve seen The Blues Brothers, and I do remember good things happening when Jake and Elwood had their fateful moment with the Reverend Cleophus James up on the altar at the Triple Rock Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago. So we held hands and walked up to the front of this tiny little Caribbean church and stood in front of about 30 smiling faces.
“We are so happy you’re here, and we want to welcome you,” he said.
And then one of the ladies in the front row got up and set about engulfing us in the biggest, warmest, most sincere hugs you’ll ever see.
“Welcome and God bless you,” she said in a wonderful Caribbean lilt. “We’re glad that you are here.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “We’re so grateful to be here.” There really wasn’t anything more to say. The love was bouncing off the walls of the tiny church with the brand-new ceiling fans. All we did was try to return the hugs of all of the members of Pastor Moses’ congregation with as much love, warmth, and sincerity as they showered on us.
It’s not too often that yuppie charterers from cold, damp, and dark Boston get transported to great depths-OK, 30-foot depths-and great spiritual heights while cruising crossroads from the past and visiting isolated, silky-soft, pink-sand beaches, but it sure happened to us that week.
And I’m so grateful that it did.