365 Beaches

I was halfway across the channel between Les Saintes and mainland Guadeloupe, and feeling spectacular. As I’d been leaving that morning, an Australian guy on an SUP had paddled up to me for a chat. He gave me the simple advice that with the wind strength and direction, I could take it easy and just put out my genoa since I’d probably mostly be motoring anyway. Hoisting the main singlehanded without autopilot always left me feeling stressed, so I gladly took his advice and as a result was blissfully relaxed. The sun was shining, the islands were looking amazing as I left them behind me, and I was over the moon to be single-handing again. It had been so long since that trip from the Grenadines back to Martinique – several months – and I’d almost forgotten how this felt. It’s a sense of total autonomy and connection with your environment (and boy can that environment be beautiful sometimes). With the wind putting us on a broad reach, I hardly needed to touch the helm. I was able to set up the Navik, and even potter down below without worrying about suddenly losing the heading. I brought Flav up to the enjoy the view from the cockpit with me, and fantasised about a life where I could be like this all the time – with an autopilot that would helm the boat for me so I could relax or do other jobs (or even safely reduce sail!). It was so magical I nearly cried.

I was heading for Deshaies, the most northerly convenient anchorage on the western coast of the island, and famous filming location for the BBC’s Death in Paradise. I’d been to Deshaies before by land, and was very excited about the place in general because Death in Paradise is what the folks back home think my life is like. It was a long day of mostly motoring (especially passing the island, which regularly blocked out the wind), but I was perfectly content listening to an audiobook and enjoying the sunshine. Most exciting was that from today I was sailing in unexplored territory for me. I’d never been further than the south coast of Guadeloupe and so the new landscape that passed me by as I headed further north was constantly interesting. As the anchorage drew near I threw on the motor and took a danger pee off the back of the swim platform (so confident was I in the calmness of the sea, and with a desire not to cover my cockpit in piss again) and prepared the anchor. Deshaies is another one of those places full of occupied mooring balls and limited anchoring room. I braved the ‘too close’ scowl gauntlet and had to try several times before I got it right.

In the dwindling afternoon sun, I dived on the anchor and took a refreshing swim around the boat. Then I relaxed in my cockpit with a rum, because goddamnit I deserved it. I know that not long ago I wrote about how I’d fallen out of love with aimless cruising, but this was the life, it really was. And even better, this time I had a clear goal and after each waypoint, a reason to feel proud of myself. The next morning came with an early start, because today was to be a long sail and timing would be crucial. The channel between Guadeloupe and Antigua was the widest I’d have crossed and I needed to leave a good ten hours for the trip. I made my usual sandwiches with the small amount of baguette I had left from Les Saintes, and gathered all my provisions for the day as usual in a pouch in the cockpit. I prepared my log book, and examined the chart. I had about 50 nautical miles to do today, and although the channel crossing should be straightforward, I needed to have daylight and be vigilant at Jolly Harbour at the other side. There were reefs demanding a bit of navigational awareness. I plotted my route into Navionics, taking into account the predicted direction of the wind and the most advantageous angle to reach my destination.

I motored away from Guadeloupe, mainsail already raised and dodging the occasional boat traps. Ahead of me was open sea. This was the first time I couldn’t even see the island I was heading for. After a while the last fishing boat disappeared and I felt truly alone. My Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack was playing in my earbuds and on a whim I decided to take a leaf out of the Poet’s nudist book. This is the epitome of freedom – when you’re alone on the sea and there’s no-one around to see you bare all to the wind. If now wasn’t the time to even up the white patches in my tan, when was? (It must be noted that, given the appalling sunburn I endured on my last foray into nudist sailing, this little episode didn’t last long and I covered up before doing myself serious damage. Also I felt like there was a seagull giving me a funny look). There came a point halfway across the channel when neither landmass was in sight, and this felt really special. Proper open sea. Monserrat eventually appeared to the west (I allowed myself my sandwich to mark approximate halfway) and once or twice another boat passed. There wasn’t much wind, but I only motored for about an hour in total. It felt like a really long trip because it was all channel without much to break up the scenery, and I reflected that maybe this was why it had taken me so long to get myself to Antigua. Up until this point, I hadn’t been ready for such a long solo sail, nor had I really got round the concept of my project in my head. I could have taken a plane or boat-hitchhiked the year I’d arrived in the Caribbean, but I wouldn’t have had the cultural and historical understanding that I had now. I mean, I was still floundering in ignorance, but I was a resident now, and felt a tiny bit more like a local (as much as a white foreigner can).

In all, I spent 9 hours without leaving the helm, and by the time the palm trees on the shore became distinguishable, I was exhausted and very sunburnt. As I drew nearer the coast, the sea turned into that amazing turquoise colour you fantasise about when you think the word ‘tropical paradise’ and it already seemed like a world away from the islands I’d been to before. Picture postcard. Antigua is famous for its 365 perfect beaches – one for every day of the year (even writing that, I feel like a dick because it’s the comment that Every Single Person who ever writes or does a video about Antigua makes). There are no rivers, basically making the island the exact opposite of Dominica, which has a river for every day of the year. The water thing used to be a big problem, with islanders relying on collecting rainfall or importing fresh water from Guadeloupe and Dominica. Now they have desalination plants, but collecting rainfall is still important and while I was there, people I met were anxiously awaiting the start of rainy season (the low-lying nature of the island means it doesn’t attract all that many rainclouds, either). With most of the island’s economy focussed on tourism and not agriculture, and a disease lately killing off the coconuts, it’s certainly not a suitable venue to wait out the apocalypse.

But maybe it had been a good place to escape an apocalypse developing back home, if you’d committed some political no-nos and now certain authorities wanted you and your kin disposed of. According to cousin Nick’s website, Joyce’s Nugent family had come to Antigua from County Westmeath in Ireland after finding themselves on the wrong side after the Battle of the Boyne. (Admire my very smooth segue?) In 1690 ‘Protestants defeated Catholics led by the deposed monarch James II, causing [Captain Walter Nugent’s] estates to be forfeited. He set sail from Liverpool around 1700 to the Caribbean island of Antigua, establishing the family there. One account says that the Irish lands were subsequently restored, but it was too late as Captain Walter had already set sail.’ Nick also notes: ‘He may have gone there to join kinsmen. An authoritative Irish history says 12,000 Irish people had settled in the West Indies by 1669, including 400 in Antigua.’ The family was established with the marriage of Captain Walter to a local wealthy Frenchman’s 12-year-old daughter. The lucky lass produced their first child at age 14 and six of their nine offspring actually survived, beginning the Nugent’s lasting settlement of the island (ending some point just after WWII). The family sunk their claws into Antigua as wealthy land-owners. For nearly two and a half centuries they were prominent voices in the governance of the island, (inevitably) the sugar industry, and eventually the abolition of slavery (although cousin Nick notes that this stance may have contained a degree of self-interest). With a ‘sliding doors’ viewpoint of Captain Walter’s destiny, things could have turned out very differently for the Nugent family had he waited in Ireland long enough for his lands to be restored, rather than hopping on that boat.

I could draw some similar sliding door parallels about how my life could have turned out, had I not chosen to pursue an idea of these ancestral Nugents across the Atlantic and buy a boat in the process… but that would probably be lazy writing. Whatever had really led me to Antigua, here I finally was. I motored up the Jolly Harbour channel, triumphant, exhilarated, exhausted and ready to collapse. I couldn’t yet though, because I still needed to set my anchor and dive on it to check all was good; then put my sails to bed, turn the engine off, wash the pee out of the cockpit (god), and clear up all the latest broken shit in the cabin that hadn’t been sea-stowed properly. But… I’d done it. I’d actually made it to the island I’d been trying to reach since my arrival in the Caribbean three years before. I felt like there should be a welcoming committee of impressed cruisers, with fanfares and a congratulatory bunch of flowers. Because, obviously, if you’d known me before… this is a really big achievement. Like, a really big deal, come on guys. I may be seasick and dangerous, but I got here.

I’d heard hype of Antigua being this major yachting hub, packed full of boats, with endless stuff going on and constant parties. A yachtie’s paradise. And the folks on the Facebook group had told me that Jolly Harbour was where all the cool kids hung out. I scanned around. I couldn’t see anyone. There were a few boats chilling out where I was, in the free anchorage to either side of the channel entering the harbour, but not many signs of life. Perhaps 5 other boats? And at least 3 of those uninhabited. It was June you see, and Antigua Sailing Week, the last fixture in the island’s yachting calendar, had been and gone. You could practically see the tumbleweed.

The next morning I launched my kayak and went to check in at Customs and Immigration. The dinghy was perfectly functional, as was the outboard motor, but I couldn’t be bothered with all the pumping up and faffing around I’d have to do. It never hurt to get extra exercise where you could find it. A bit of a kayak workout would be good for my core strength. I entirely underestimated the size of the harbour, and how far I was going to have to paddle. It was fairly windy and there was a current pushing against me. Half an hour later I made it to the Customs dock, sweaty and bewildered. Customs wasn’t open yet, and there was no-one about except a bunch of staff belonging to somewhere that was closed and where I definitely couldn’t get breakfast or even a coffee, giving me blank and bemused looks. I couldn’t work out if they were confused because I was a sunburnt solo boat-girl creature or because no-one comes to Antigua after Sailing Week. By this point I had come to enjoy the smug feeling I got checking in, when I got to say that I had come here all by my clever self on my shitty little boat and no – that’s right, you heard it – no men at all! But in Antigua, nobody cared. They got me to plug my details into the new computer system (which I made a big deal of being impressed about because further south… well it’s all filing bits of paper in triplicate, ain’t it?), then shrugged when I asked where I could go or what I could see, and sent me on my way, welcome to stay for a maximum of 90 days.

I sat in an empty (but open, yay!) café poking an extremely expensive pancake round my plate wondering what the hell I wanted to get out of being here. Now I was in the ‘land of my forebears’ (cringe), what did I expect it to teach me? So far, Jolly Harbour was all deserted pristine grass lawns, waterfront properties with a space to park your yacht instead of your car, and a supermarket with Waitrose products but no interesting local foods. A gated white community, basically, except all the white people had gone home for the season.

I had to go Nugent-hunting. I’d been given the contact of the now-owner of the house where my grandmother had grown up, a historically important place to the Nugents. I’d written to him a few years ago, and then shortly before setting off on this trip, but he hadn’t responded to either email. I felt a little bit at a dead end, but I had my list of places: The cathedral where Joyce and Tony were married, the museum, the sugar factory where Tony had worked, the House, and the graveyard where ancestors were buried. But… I was supposed to be thinking deeper than that. I was supposed to be asking questions about our place in the history of the island, and all the bastard things my family were probably complicit in (or not? Was I just suffering from a bout of millennial over-wokeness?). I’d assumed this side of the mission would all slot into place once I arrived… like, divine inspiration and a sudden sense of remorse for – and understanding of – all the colonial sins. And how all of this had fed into who I was, right there, right at that moment, rocking up on this shore and demanding it teach me something. How many slaves? And what were their names?

I wandered round the housing development to find the beach bar and some guy with a soup stand talked to me for a while. I kept thinking if I was the Poet, I’d become his best buddy and unlock the secrets of the universe. But I couldn’t understand the guy’s accent. I drifted along the all-inclusive resort beach and wondered if I could blag my way into something. No-one was stopping me, after all. I kept thinking… if I wasn’t alone, or if I wasn’t so crap at being a lone traveller… then I could…? What?

I needed to get out of this place. I was nothing without a purpose. I needed people. I needed a car. I turned to Facebook, because that is definitely the safest way to advertise that you’re vulnerable in a strange place. And, my friends, Facebook (like Tinder not so long before) answered my prayers.

But if all this sounds grim and depressing, don’t worry folks, for tomorrow… we’re going on a Nugent Hunt.