Max Campbell and the crew of Elixir received a generous welcome when they set out on an Atlantic crossing bound for the Grenadines
We glide down the eastern side of El Hierro and leap into the vastness of the ocean as we begin our Atlantic crossing. The island shrinks behind us as the sun melts into the horizon, bathing the waning land in soft orange light.
It’s early January and I’m joined by Harry Scott and Lily Journeaux, two friends from Falmouth, who shouldered their fair share of toil and graft during Elixir’s (our classic S&S Swan 37) year-long restoration.
It’s their first ocean crossing, and as El Hierro disappears into the pink haze, I ask Lily how she’s feeling. “I’m not nervous, but I feel something,” she muses, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s big – kind of like Christmas, but bigger.”
On the first morning, we pole out two big genoas, one on either side. By attaching both sails to the furling gear we can quickly take in sail each time we spot a squall creeping up from behind. The two bulging foresails fill in the steady tradewind, and we accustom ourselves to the downwind romp.
It’s not long before Elixir becomes near-autonomous. The sails and windvane working together to keep course, and the solar panels and tow generator labouring to keep our vegetables cool.
There are a few annoying creaks in the saloon, and an orchestra of thumps and crashes accompany each sloppy crest that shoves Elixir onto her rails.
There is a lingering smell of spilt balsamic vinegar, and it takes a few days to get over the initial spell of tiredness. During the first week, our reconstructed windvane loses control and threatens to give up entirely.
After spending a few hours hanging over the transom, we manage to coax it back into doing its job, and tentatively watch its every move for the rest of the passage.
For 20 days everything is constantly moving, but nothing ever changes. The small, fluffy cumuli are constant, dyed with pink highlights as the sun dips into the horizon. Most evenings we’re entertained with biblical mid-Atlantic sunsets.
Golden pillars spill through gaps in the soft cloud, forging a colander of light that falls on the steely sea surface.
In the final week, patches of sargassum weed break up the expansive blueness. The wind aligns the mossy weed into rows, creating blue-brown tiger stripes that lead the way to the Caribbean.
We steadily shed layers, and the sun becomes increasingly relentless. The harsh, midday light drains the seascape of all colours, apart from a pale, muted blue. At nighttime, the same sky offers an abundant harvest of blue-white phosphorescence.
During one night watch, an intrepid flying fish surprises Lily by leaping into the cockpit and landing on her lap. It has a little round mouth and wide bulging eyes – we manage to grasp the slimy sea missile and cast it back over the guardrail.
Touch and go
Coronavirus stopped the world, yet in the middle of the Atlantic little has changed – though the usual white streaks in the sky, tracing the route of transatlantic flight paths, are nowhere to be seen.
Days on end of offshore sailing stokes a deep element of human nature. By sailing away from the mental pressures of life on land, intensified by the pandemic, we’ve found a sense of calm.
We arrive in Barbados and, after checking our phones, realise it’s a mistake. Covid restrictions are tightening and a lockdown is imminent. We savour a mug of tea while taking in the bleached island.
After three weeks at sea, the land appears alien. But instead of notifying customs and going ashore, we take the easy option – weighing the anchor and heading back out to sea.
The next morning we spot St Vincent. The island is a complete contrast to low-lying Barbados, with deep green hills that tumble into the ocean. St Vincent depends on tourism and, as a result, throughout the entire pandemic its doors have remained open.
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The island is home to an active volcano that’s showing signs of awakening, yet to us it appears the perfect landfall. There’s only one port of entry on the island, and despite our 20 days at sea, we still have a mandatory quarantine and PCR test ahead of us.
Blustery tradewinds whistle along the south coast, and a pair of islands lie a stone’s throw offshore. Between the two, a small fleet of cruising yachts fly their yellow ‘Q’ flags. We join the group and grasp a mooring buoy, curtained behind the teardrop Young Island and the lofty perch of Fort Duvernette.
Compared to the constant pace of the transatlantic, everything becomes slower. The sun takes forever to drag itself across the sky. The tide takes all day to come in, and often, forgets to go out at all. A steady current flows through the anchorage, carrying bright red sea grape leaves and empty coconut husks.
Eight days after landfall in St Vincent, we’re given clearance into the country. We gingerly head ashore, unsure as to whether we’ll be welcomed or turned away. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re doing something wrong by escaping the lockdown to go sailing.
The first thing that strikes us is the friendliness of the locals. Despite the sudden exodus of all tourism from the island, we see no desperation. We’re welcomed by every Vincentian we meet, and on inquiring about the previous year, we receive the same notion. “Sure, it’s been difficult, but this moment will pass.”
Wooden stalls line the lively streets of Kingstown. Tuna steaks lie buried under piles of ice, and lavish piles of coconuts fill the back of trailers. Walking down the high street is a sensory journey. The smell of new spices, the offers of ice-cold coconut water, and the constant hum of hurrying buses and street vendors.
The east-north-east tradewinds make sailing south far easier than sailing north, thus it makes sense to start in St Vincent. We make a quick dash down through the Grenadines, before beating back up again to drop Lily off at the airport. Beth and Tegan, two good friends from Cornwall, fill her place, and with the new crew of four we head south for a second, slower tour of the island chain.
Our first stop is Bequia. A generous stretch of turquoise water is enveloped in a sweeping horseshoe bay. The land wraps around the sea, with both headlands straining to touch each other.
The deep bay provides shelter from most of the swell, and as a result, is a popular anchorage with cruisers.
To the south of Bequia lie a series of small, uninhabited islands. Petit Nevis, across the channel, accommodates the remains of an old whaling station. Stacks of discarded conch shells cascade into the water, and the weathered sections of whale vertebrae scatter the shoreline.
Further south, the long, wild island of Isle à Quatre cradles a lagoon on its southern side. There’s not much colour in the vegetation, a dry, mossy bush; a blend of green and grey. But the colour lost in the land is made up in the water. The lagoon consists of a luscious palette of blues, bottomless cobalt in the deep channel, giving way to the shallower patches of turquoise and the almost teal sections of the reef.
A small beach spreads out beneath a line of coconut palms, gazing out over a channel at Mustique – the Grenadines’ most exclusive private island.
Both Beth and Tegan are new to the world of sailing, and it’s fun to see them find joy in the thing’s we’ve long been taking for granted. The slow pace of travelling, watching land drift by from the water and falling asleep every night to the soft trickle of ripples on the hull.
After Isle à Quatre, we skip down to Union Island. In Clifton, a colourful town in the east of the island, we take our first hit of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The nurse chuckles when I asked her why St Vincent offers vaccines to foreigners. “The more people who have the vaccine, the better it is for the whole world,” she says.
With numb biceps, we load up with vegetables and rice before sailing to Tobago Cays. The marine reserve is made up of a collection of small islands, sheltered by a fringing horseshoe reef. The shallow, seagrass lagoon provides both an anchorage and a breeding site for green turtles.
There are four boats, where there would usually be hundreds. The reef shelves quickly into deep water, and an impossible amount of vibrant reef fish crowd around the sea floor. Nurse sharks weave between coral fans, and from rocky dens poke the heads of lobsters and moray eels.
Windward of the horseshoe reef, a dash of sand provides a platform for a line of palms to dance in the unobstructed tradewinds. Petit Tabac is a painting of a West-Indian island paradise. The island was used as a set for Pirates of the Caribbean and is fondly referred to as Jack Sparrow’s island. We set the anchor inside the sandy lagoon, and enjoy the picturesque island to ourselves.
Downwind of Tobago Quays, Mayreau boasts one of the Caribbean’s most scenic beaches. Saltwhistle Bay is the archetype of Caribbean beauty. A crowd of coconut palms tower over an elongated spit, with a few stretching out over the delicious velvety sand. Again, we’re the only yacht in the bay.
We pick up another crewmember. Matt is a 20-year-old backpacker from Manchester, who we met in the Canary Islands. I remember thinking ‘Who is this (then teenager), out backpacking while the UK is in lockdown?’. His wide-eyed enthusiasm for adventure is contagious. After hitching a lift across the Atlantic to Suriname, Matt jumped ship and found another boat heading to St Vincent, before meeting us again in the Grenadines and becoming Elixir’s fifth crewmember.
Fire and brimstone
The last stop in the long string of islands is Petit St Vincent. The private island is the most southerly and a luxury resort that doesn’t encourage shoestring cruisers. There’s little need to go ashore, as the anchorage is spectacular and the cloudless, aqua-blue water reveals turtles and eagle rays.
A short distance to the west of Petit St Vincent, a wooden sunshade appears to poke out of the sea surface. We dinghy over to investigate the small patch of green and yellow on the chart, and find a delicate strip of sand perched on top of a shallow reef.
The island of Mopion stretches 50m from shoreline to shoreline and provides sweeping views of Union, Carriacou, Petit St Vincent and Petit Martinique. There’s something special about the tiny island – scarcely above sea level, yet surrounded by an amphitheatre of impressive islands.
Our cruise of the St Vincent and the Grenadines ends back in Union Island. A convenient customs office in the harbour allows us to avoid the beat back to St Vincent. In the evening before we plan to leave the country, we watch two large catamarans steam out the harbour with an obvious sense of urgency.
The next morning, on our journey to get our passports stamped, we notice a tangible unease in the streets of Clifton. Forty miles to the north, St Vincent’s Soufriere Hills volcano, which has been stirring since before we’d arrived, is showing signs of an imminent eruption.
The customs officers watch live streams on their phones, and as the heavy stamp falls on our passport, we’re told of an explosive eruption, and a colossal ash plume billowing from the La Soufriere volcano.
We leave with an uncomfortable sense of helplessness. The Vincentians, who have been so welcoming to us on their island, were now being evacuated themselves. We have the privilege to sail away, and by lunchtime, we’re anchored in Carriacou.
The clouds open up, and we catch glimpses of the folding layers of grey ash towering over everything. The next morning, we wake to a boat covered in volcanic dust. Despite the disaster, there’s obvious solidarity between nearby islands. The neighbouring countries of the Caribbean come together to help.
In Carriacou, we take another PCR test before spending five more days confined to the boat. From the quarantine anchorage, we can make out the distinctive black and yellow hull of Iron Bark II.
The 35ft steel gaff cutter has been sailed extensively by Trevor Robinson, including overwintering, unsupported in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Behind Iron Bark II, we find Trevor anchored in his new boat, Iron Bark III, preparing for a direct, single-handed passage to Iceland. His tales of Antarctica are raw and inspiring, and he sows a desire for sailing in colder climates. We seriously consider ditching the Panama Canal and changing our course to Patagonia.
Instead, we take a sunny, downwind sail to Grenada, deciding the high-latitudes are best left for another day. The colourful hulls of traditional Carriacou sloops decorate the harbour, and the steep island flanks are blanketed in a layer of dense vegetation. Like St Vincent, Grenada offers vaccinations to cruisers, and we’re generously given our second shot of AstraZeneca vaccine.
Joy of solitude
The cruising world has adapted to the new circumstances. The extra rules have forced us to slow down and carefully consider the countries we sail to.
We’ve evolved a slower pace of moving, appreciating empty bays that two years ago would have been overflowing with anchored yachts. In St Vincent and the Grenadines, it was still possible to find the joy of island hopping.
After a short period of boat work in Grenada we plan to head westwards, to Curacao, Columbia and then through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. Coronavirus adds a little complication, yet we’re excited to be part of the slow reopening of the world.
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