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Skipper by name, windy by nature

Panorama of Jolly Harbour, Antigua, where we were. Photo (c) Steve P.
Well, it's been two weeks since my first hurricane. Along with the rest of the week, it was quite educational.
One hand for the shore on Antigua, smack in the middle of the eye of the tropical storm that didn't get the 45 knot memo.
Now, said storm, called Gonzalo, wasn't supposed to be of hurricane strength  It was supposed to be a tropical storm of 45 knots or so. But nature will have her way, irrespective of the embarrassment of puny meteorologists, I suppose.

(The above video is copyright Danny Jules, an Antiguan I've never met but who was shooting and ably describing events at the height of the winds. At this point in the tempest, I was crawling on all fours off a vibrating dock while a small yacht was enthusiastically trying to roll over me.)
Ffryes' Beach, Antigua, looking toward Monserrat. Note the left-hand hillside: it's an active volcano.
But to backtrack: I had arrived in the company of "Johnny Canuck"in  Antigua, one of the Leeward Islands, on Saturday, October 11 as a precursor to taking the RYA's Day Skipper course. I had taken a Yachtmaster Coastal course in Brittany 11 months ago, but due to poor preparation, fatigue from a compressed work schedule, and a bone-headed slip-up regarding IALA buoyage in Europe, I hadn't passed. This course was a bit more basic (although it was by no means trivial or particularly restful, especially when compared to the minute amount of seamanship required to obtain Canada's PCOC qualification).
 Lennox Scotland, tour guide, driver and probably the hardest-working man in Antigua.
Antigua itself is a study in contrasts. There's a lot of wealth there in the form of hotels, villas and accommodation for the bigger sort of yachts (and the bigger sort of tourist-hauling catamarans), but despite the fact that the volcanic soil is quite fertile, there's very little agriculture; consequently, nearly everything that can be drunk or eaten, save certain seafood items, is imported. The place isn't cheap, and yet I didn't see that the locals were getting much "trickle down". A part of this may be cultural: local tour guide and "fixer" Lennox Scotland (above) alluded to his country's habit of "working, but not too hard". Mr. Scotland himself seemed somewhat of an exception to the rule as he had several businesses on the fly and was friends with the Prime Minister, whom he knew from childhood.
Vast, tourist-packed cats that motor, not sail, around the island all day: More common than frigate birds.

After about 36 hours of welcome decompression and course prepping as the guests of Ian (our instructor) and his wife Cindy Grant, who were kind enough to have us prior to taking an RYA course with Miramar Sailing, we awoke at dawn (something I find unavoidable in the tropics) on Monday to troubled skies and rising winds. The weather report had suggested the sort of gales typical with a fast-moving tropical storm like Gonzalo, but I had a sense, as did marine veteran John, that we were going to get a little more than had been promised. When my barometer feature on my watch tumbled from 1006 mb to 990 mb in just over an hour, things were feeling a touch dready.

This video shows our instructor's personal boat, a 1980s Jeanneau 32, rolling and bucking at dock, just prior to uprooting the stern cleats from said dock. Ian had gone off Miramar headquarters, a few minutes' drive, to prep (over-optimistic, as it turned out) for the commencement of the five-day course that myself and two other students were taking; John, who has his Yachtmaster Offshore certification, seems to have a hobby of sailing on courses he's long since passed, but to his credit, he claims to always get some educational benefit from the process!
I would suggest this was irrelevant advice during the height of the hurricane. Photo (c) Steve P.

Ian's partner Cindy returned to the villa only to have John and myself inform her that a particularly savage gust (which were increasing in strength and frequency) had peeled off the plank from the dock on which Ian's boat's stern cleat was mounted. As it was too dangerous to board the Jeanneau or even to fend off its vigorous assault on a Whaler-type runabout on which it was thumping, I accompanied Cindy (as ballast!) in her small SUV to go back to Miramar to inform Ian of the situation.

What'cha gonna do when it comes for you?
Amidst a hail of debris, palm fronds and one particularly well-aimed coconut to the roof, we arrived to see that Miramar had its own problems and that three of the school boats were in danger of snapping their lines. I have never seen a line so taut that a man standing on it would fail to deflect it to any degree, but Ian's face wasn't happy when trying to get back on the dock from the boat most broadside to the gusts. We went back to his villa in what could be best described as "loud, liquid air" to see this:

After that, things got a touch worse. The boat crushing the unseen runabout parted its bowlines, went broadside to the howling wind and slammed into the neighbouring villa's (thankfully empty) dock.

After the storm...the damage is on the starboard bow, but she's a tough old bird.
This particular dock had two concrete posts of somewhat sturdier potential than Ian's own, and Ian went aboard, even as the boat was yawing and heeling some 40 degrees, to rig ropes. I had the unusual experience of wrapping an anchor and a chain around a post to keep the boat in place while further lines were deployed.
A "lilo" (British for "inflatable pool chair") belonging to the Grants was returned from a hundred metres to windward.

It was at this point that we figured the height of the wind happened: some prolonged gusts of what we estimate was 80-plus knots, which meant we crawled off the dock on all fours as a spasming yacht tried to climb up a shuddering dock and squash us. Very vivid, and very bloody loud (see Mr. Jules' vivid video above).
Cadenza, the Hunter 42 that took half of its dock aground and tore up hull to deck joint and toerail (but which is probably salvageable). I saw this boat's dock split in half in front of me. Yikes.
The tropical storm hurricane, not being forecasted as such, was not prepared for as well as could be expected on Antigua. Canvas was left up and sails left on booms and forestays, creating windage that led to damage or, in some cases, probably to the loss of boats. Above pictured is a Hunter 42 I personally saw tear a boat-sized chunk of its own dock apart, only to ground heavily on the manmade island in the middle of Jolly Harbour. It sustained obvious and fairly severe damage, but was later secured and, as can be seen on a calm day later in the week, did not appear to be breached nor to have taken on water. Still, a sight I could have lived without, and illustrative of the immense power of the wind to part not only right-sized lines, but to tear apart pilings and lumber effortlessly.

We later heard that 15 boats were sunk in Jolly Harbour and hundreds of homes were flooded, deroofed and left without power around the island. By mutual agreement, we passed on starting the course that day, partially because the assigned boat had sustained some (reparable) damage, but also because everyone's nerves were well-shot by lunchtime. Astoudingly, the power did not waver in the villa properties, possibly because of standby generators. In the aftermath, local word was that Gonzalo, which would go on to do even greater damage in St. Maarten and, days later, Bermuda, went from TS to Cat 1 very rapidly over Antigua I saw a pressure drop of 1003 to 990 mb between 0700 and 0830h and from that low to bounce back to 1006mb by 1130h. I estimate as did the people I was with that we hit 75-80 knots at the very height of it. So my old "record" of 68 knots in the last squall of the 2010 Lake Ontario 300 has been, I would say, well broken.

Typical Antiguan coastline with atypical eight knots of true windspeed

Now, the good thing about a hurricane is that it's eventually over. The bad thing, from the point of view of taking a sailing course in a spot in the trade wind belt where the breeze is always 15 knots from the east, is that a hurricane literally sucks all the expected and customary winds away with it.
Ian Grant: A man who loves his work of improving mucking about in boats.
Still, RYA instructor Ian Grant is a pro and not only compressed five days of practice into four, but managed to have us travel 76 NM out of the usual 100 NM in conditions where hitting 3 knots of boatspeed was a rare and fleeting achievement.
Julie at the helm: She had achieved her Day Skipper ten years previously and was up for what's called a "mile-building course" to refresh her knowledge.
We weren't all there for the same exact reasons, of course. John C., although he participated in many of the activities, wasn't actually on a course, whereas Julie M. was on a quest for "official sea miles" (the various RYA course have minimum miles at sea requirements, some of which must be watch-standing, at night, in tidal conditions, and so on), whereas Steve P. was looking to consolidate his skills by going for a "Competent Crew" certification.
The fit Steve, who had an amazing trove of off-colour jokes and was ridiculously fit.
That's somewhat of the point of RYA courses, or at least what I've seen of them. You take them to have your existing knowledge and seamanship evaluated and, where such holes exist, they can be patched or at least identified on the fly. Everyone aboard was, or so it seemed to me, rather better than was strictly required for the course level they were taking, and certainly the boat handling, tacks, gybes and so on, while not particularly demanding given the light air conditions, were very well executed. I was rather impressed, as seemed Mr. Grant, at the execution of the "back the Beneteau down in a zigzag pattern between six or seven closely-spaced mooring balls". It was nice to have that level of skill aboard.
John at peace before his mood was soured after learning every restaurant in Antigua refrigerates red wine.

There was a fair bit of navigation in the form of coastal pilotage to get done, with the usual overfolded and pencil-nicked Imray charts I've seen before on RYA boats. Some modern passagemakers would suggest that working with hand compass bearings, sailing the depth contour, and working out backsight is overkill in this age of GPS plotters, and that sextant work/celestial is clearly not necessary. And generally such folk wouldn't be wrong..until the governments that run the GPS constellation panic and turn off or degrade GPS because of some perceived threat.
Pilotage in the daylight's a bit of a doddle in Antigua as there are loads of easily spotted hills and the biggest one, Mount Obama (not a joke) has a conveniently distinctive radio tower on it.
Now, when I can, I like to reduce sights for the mental exercise (not much as I have various "easy" methods of doing it on a single page), but also because, unlike GPS, using sextants and bearing compasses ties me into my environment in a more tactile way. Dead reckoning, transits, CN, pilotage and even, if you are feeling very nautical, the old lead line, is all good because YOU know where you are; you aren't taking the word of a machine interpreting a stream of data, which clearly can't care if you end up with a chunk of reef through the V-berth. I'm no Luddite; I just like the unchanging stars and paper charts to reinforce the man-made aids to navigation to suggest the most holistic awareness of where the boat and her crew are. The old ways are complementary to the newer; to abandon their tactile, analog contribution to situational and positional awareness would be akin to throwing out a hammer because you've purchased an electric screwdriver. The RYA would appear to agree: you're supposed to know where you are without the aid of a plotter, and to make "passage plans" that outline in detail how to arrive at places you've never seen based on chart information and, if you can winkle it out, "local knowledge".
Another view of Monserrat, which has lost much of its population since the last big eruptions.

Lest I give the wrong impression, however, there's plenty of time (especially in light airs) to actually look around and enjoy the environment. Antigua, its sister island of Barbuda, and the surrounding islands in the chain (including Nevis, St. Kitts, Redonda, and Guadaloupe to the south, all visible depending on conditions) are very appealing and surprisingly individualistic and there's no shortage of sea life and weather to admire.
More typically tropical Antiguan sunset. Photo (c) Steve P.

The waters are warm and beautiful (though I never fancied a swim, probably due to the lurid jellyfish that was sucked into the Lavac head...) and the view are spectacular.

Beating a course to round the SW corner of Antigua.

Post-hurricane clouds: By week's end, we were hoping one of these would hold wind.

We made an effort (sailing fitfully, then a quick motor) to overnight at English Harbour, the British naval base greatly expanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson into one of the nicest and easily defensible harbours I know of.
On course for English Harbour at a blazing 2.3 knots.
Once there, we were able to have a decent wash (the facilities seemed largely undamaged from the hurricane) and could admire the various fortifications, old "Fort York"-like architecture (but bigger and surrounded by palm trees, naturally) and I even took in a charming local museum, which, unlike similar places here in Canada, had its windows thrown open to catch the breeze...such as it was.
The columns called The Pillars of Hercules, plus The Hat of Steve.

John suggested we Med moor right here. We didn't use the tender all week, although we anchored a few times.

English Harbour boat yard: The place is a strange mix of good old boats and superyachts and Julie.

Why, there's one now: about 80 feet of aluminum ketch.
...briefly eclipsed by yet another vast touristic catamaran...

The Admiral's Inn, should one ever feel the need to have a Sunday roast at 17 degrees North. Easy to find, it's to the right of the tribute to Nelson's penis.

Obligatory model of HMS Victory. The place is a Nelson fanboy's dream and a sort of colonial shrine.
Nelson died shortly after hoisting this signal. My camera died shortly after taking this shot.

Shirley Heights, not only a great place for a fort, but also a big party spot.

Thanks to careful planning, we were able to eat ashore most nights, a few times in Jolly Harbour itself, sadly featuring after Monday a few smashed or sunken boats. Conveniently proximate was a dock where we practised stern-to docking, warping off and other exercises; a 20 metre walk away was Al Porto, an Italian restaurant run by a charming French couple, Alain and Sandrine, serving a lot of local seafood and the aforementioned too-cold red wine. And Ian's daughter works there...Antigua's not really very big, is what I'm getting at.
The good ship Miramar, our home and classroom. As it was a 1986, I found the layout logical and the construction robust. Don't get me started.

A pair of the hardly rare "Charterus Catamarani". Easily spotted by the constantly roaring gensets.

In my opinion, more restaurants should have 60-foot docks.

In the end, and after many experiences too mundane to mention, I got my Day Skipper cert, and with it, a little thing called an International Certificate of Competence, which ensures port officials I'm less of a menace over the waves and in their harbours than I might be with, say, a rotten, token affair such as a PCOC. Ad astra, babies! Although I do not care to see that sort of weather anytime soon, and if I see it coming, we will run out to's crazy on land in a hurricane.

"Nelson's Blood", eh? I'd heard he was sent back to England pickled in brandy.But I do enjoy a tot of rum.

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