Having sailed monohulls for most of my life, I find nothing scarier than shallow water. Sailing my newly built 42-foot cat, Ti Kanot, which has mini keels and draws 3 feet, has made anchorages possible that were completely unthinkable before. I cannot say I am relaxed about it, but I knew that the time had come to make use of some shallow water. And if I could get through the very challenging entrance to Codrington Lagoon in Barbuda, in addition to a feeling of accomplishment would be the satisfaction of having arrived in a very unusual and delightful place. I was fortunate to have Paul Tobias, a friend of very longstanding join me on this trip. Paul sailed the Atlantic with me over quarter of a century ago and is well versed in cruising.
There are no yacht services in Barbuda, so before leaving Antigua, we completely filled the water tanks – all 200 gallons. This was an occasion in which water might be more important than speed. Plus, if we ended up aground, we could pump out the tanks and float a few inches higher. Sailing to Barbuda from Antigua was a blast – a close reach in 15-20 knots of wind. We averaged 8 knots despite the weight and caught two small tunas, well, one and half – something took a big bite out of one as we hauled it in.
Barbuda is an amazing island. About 12 miles long and 7 miles wide, it is low-lying with a maximum elevation of 125 feet. There are lots of mangrove lagoons, and the island is almost completely surrounded by a perfect, slightly pink beach. I have a Barbudan friend, George Jeffries, who is a fisherman. When he delivered his fishing boat from the States to Barbuda he had a Bahamian crew. The Bahamian, justly proud of his beaches, bet George that the Bahamas had longer and better beaches than Barbuda. As they approached, and a seemingly never-ending perfect beach grew slowly larger and larger, the Bahamian admitted defeat.
One of the things I love about Barbuda is that is very sparsely populated. The 1500 inhabitants are, for the most part, dedicated to keeping their island wild and undeveloped. Wild donkeys, deer, goats and sheep roam freely, as do horses, which are owned but often left to run. Barbuda also has a huge frigatebird nesting colony, the largest in the Eastern Caribbean, and frigatebirds come here from the other islands to mate and rear young. This is a tourist attraction, though it has to be said most tourists arrive by yacht, or a day flight from Antigua. There are not many, and sometimes many days go by without a customer.
Barbuda has prime beach real estate, but the Barbudans have their own ideas about how life should be. All the land is held in common, and administered by the elected Barbudan Council. A Barbudan can get permission to build a house and pass it on to his kids, but he cannot sell it to an outsider and he has no actual land title. The Antiguan government is dying to grab this land, get some development going, and see the dollars roll in. They have made many attempts, but as a last resort, the Barbudans turn up en mass when the building begins and push all the equipment in the sea. They have held out against development for many years now, and as a result have a tough, independent life style, which is very rich, though not necessarily in dollar terms.
Three very fancy hotels have been built on the island and are open only in the winter. These are isolated and scarcely affect day-to-day life, except for offering a few jobs.
Barbudans all live in Codrington, on the edge of Codrington Lagoon, a hard place to get to from any of the normal anchorages. But with a 3-foot draft, why not? Well on the one hand the area hasn’t been properly surveyed for more than a century, the depths on the charts show as little as 0.8 meters, and it is a place no yachts go. On the other hand, we had George, who has snorkeled on nearly every reef in Barbuda, and knows the whole island well. Some years ago when I was surveying the south coast, it was George who came to show me where all the reefs were.
I have lots of confidence in George, and would not have attempted this had he not told me I could do it, but as we set off from Low Bay I was still apprehensive, especially when George assured me we could follow the coast right down over a long shallow bank in a moderate surge. The trip would take us 6 miles north along the coast to the lagoon entrance at the northwest corner of the island.
I had never really calibrated the echo sounder, but was banking on it being reasonably correct. The boat draws 3 feet and the echo sounder is about a foot down. All went well at first; we were reading about 4 feet. Then we got to an area that put my heart in my mouth: little waves building high up in a shoal area. On the plus side, if you go aground in a surge there is a chance you can back off quickly on the next wave. On the minus, if you lose control and boat gets carried into the beach, it can be the end. I decided to push on, trying to steer between peaky waves.
The echo sounder read 3. . . 2.9. . . 2.5, and stayed there for a while before slowly climbing. Whew! I made the decision then that when we came out, I would go the long way round in deeper water. The next leg of the entrance is from Cedar Tree Point to North Beach, a wonderful beach with a lovely and generally calm anchorage in front. Many multihullers would feel comfortable finding this on their own. The deep approach to Cedar Point is clearly marked on the Nautical Publications chart, then you have to feel your way cautiously and slowly, trying to stay as far as possible in the light-colored sandy water, without paying attention to the depths marked on the chart, as they have changed considerably in the last century. You can anchor very close to the beach.
The next part of our journey took us down a long twisty mangrove channel into the lagoon. It is hard for an ex-monohuller to look down and see the bottom clearly, apparently inches below. The shallowest part was at a sharp corner at the entrance to the channel. The depth sounder was reading 2, and 1.9, then 1.7, and 1.6 as we inched round. We stirred a small wisp of mud and were through. The channel between the mangroves was often fairly deep, though we did go aground once at a reading of 1.5 feet, and had to back off and find a deeper route. Codrington Lagoon itself is about 6 miles long and a mile and half wide, mainly 6-8 feet, though it has plenty of shoals and you need a guide.
Codrington is perfectly protected and calm. It is not Barbuda’s prettiest anchorage, but we could dinghy ashore to explore, and the lagoon is absolutely clean. You can see the bottom everywhere and admire the frilly shapes of the upside down jelly fish. That night I heard wonderful but rather strange bird sounds completely unfamiliar to me. They were Caribbean whistling ducks, a rarity in most other islands.
The next morning we went to visit Claire Frank, originally from England, but married to McKenzie Frank, a local historian and politician, who was said to be able to find a rental jeep. She and her husband were in Antigua for the day, but Anne, her mother, was visiting and welcomed us to Claire’s Art Café. Anne showed us Claire’s excellent paintings and photos, but could not help with the jeep. She did manage to find a couple of Claire and McKenzie’s children’s mountain bikes, which we gladly borrowed and headed off for the caves at the north end of the highlands. Highlands might be a bit of a grandiose term for this large bank of uplifted coral that stretches along the north coast and reaches an elevation of about 125 feet, about 100 feet higher than the rest of the island.
The road arrives at an area of sculpted cliffs, huge boulders and deep caves. We entered one of these, climbed up inside and surfaced 100 feet above on the flat top of the highlands, with magnificent views in all directions.
That night we hung out in the village, watching it change character. By day it is sleepy. People are out fishing or farming or sheltering from the hot sun. At night everyone is out in the streets, and we saw that there were lots of small, brightly lit shops that we had not noticed during the day, and many were open till 2200. Bright lights were shining in the basketball court and a host of kids were practicing. A political meeting fired up and the loudspeaker broadcast to the whole village. One charming aspect of Codrington is that it has grown rather than having been planned. Roads meander, twisting this way and that. None of them are paved, most are rather dark. As you walk along at night, large figures loom beside you – horses and donkeys that come in to graze. Every house has a fence, built solely to keep the animals out of the yard. Horses are an important part of Barbudan life, with horse races every Sunday. This is not a rich man’s sport; all the horses come from the island, and there are many of them. Anyone who wants to and has the skill tries his hand. Every morning we watched young men bringing their horses down to the lagoon for a swim and grooming.
I had often heard of the Derby Sinkhole, but had never managed a visit, so George offered to guide us there. We met up with Claire and McKenzie who had returned to Barbuda, and Claire dropped us close to the ruins of the Codrington Estate House, up on the Highlands where the path begins. It takes about 45 minutes to walk to Derby sinkhole. I was surprised that on such a low, dry island, the bush was 6 to 15 feet high and thick enough to give us a fair bit of shade.
Derby Sinkhole is round and crater-like, about 100 yards in diameter, and about 100 feet deep. For the most part the sides are sheer cliff, but there is one place you can scramble to the bottom, which is completely covered in dense tropical vegetation, unlike the dry scrub above. Tall wavy basket palms reach to the top. Inside it is cool, shady, and pleasant. The overhanging walls include the dramatic shapes of stalagmites and stalactites.
Visiting Codrington Lagoon enabled us to get a little more familiar with the village and surrounding land. But the best part was meeting George’s family and making friends with Claire and McKenzie and their family. We sailed out with George, McKenzie, and five children; Asha, Afia, Debbin, Prince and Jenna. One of the great things about owning a cat is that people always are happy to come for sail, and it is ideal for a group.
We dropped them off outside the lagoon opposite the village where they could get a boat ride back, and carried on down to Spanish Point, my favorite anchorage. Here you lie on a vast light green sea surrounded by clumpy brown coral heads. Snorkeling is just a few feet away. George, Claire, Anne, and three of Claire’s youngsters returned the next day for a picnic. George took some of us snorkeling and returned with a couple of lobsters, which he gave us for dinner.
Anyone wanting to follow our cat prints can sail to Barbuda and anchor off Low Bay. George Jeffries is willing to guide you in. His phone number is 268-460-0143, and he stands by on VHF: 16 “Garden of Eden.” He can also take you to the frigate bird colony, and help organize any land tours.
Post Script – I returned two years later. In particular, I wanted to watch the horse racing, which takes place every other Sunday (depending). It was a riot!