|Panorama of Jolly Harbour, Antigua, where we were. Photo (c) Steve P.|
|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.|
|Ffryes' Beach, Antigua, looking toward Monserrat. Note the left-hand hillside: it's an active volcano.|
|Lennox Scotland, tour guide, driver and probably the hardest-working man in Antigua.|
|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?|
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.|
|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.|
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.|
|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.|
|The fit Steve, who had an amazing trove of off-colour jokes and was ridiculously fit.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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 sea...it'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.|