Antigua, ‘the old one’, was named thus by Columbus in honor of the ‘virgin of the old cathedral’ in Seville. This oddly shaped island with lots of nooks and crannies was formerly known as ‘wadadli’ (our own) by the local Carib population.
Antigua was located on the major sailing routes among the resource-rich West-Indies. English colonists settled on Antigua in the 1600s, making it Britain’s ‘Gateway to the Caribbean’ and a very profitable sugar colony. The vast majority of the native Carib were decimated by malnutrition, diseases brought by the settlers, and slavery. They were soon replaced by the more hardy servant Irish, hunger-stricken Madeirans, middle-eastern traders (referred to as ‘Syrians’) and African slaves imported by the dozens.
Our destination was English Harbour, on the south-eastern coast, a scenic, tiny area boasting 2 marinas and 2 anchor zones, naturally well-suited to protect ships and cargo from hurricanes, famed for its protected shelter during violent storms. On the approach, a turtle came to greet Exodus.
When arriving in Antigua you need to anchor in the bay, until the captain has cleared in. After that you can go into a marina, should you so desire. Going straight into the marina results in a fine.
We found a spot in the crowded anchorage, with water breaking over cliffs and reefs near the entrance, urging sailors to follow the buoys that mark the narrow channel. Around us, clear turquoise water, sandy beaches with some coconut palms, not a bad spot for a few nights….
Our captain booked two nights in the marina in order to charge batteries etc. We picked the cheapest of the two, which is actually more of a boatyard than a marina, with very few amenities: only one cold shower for visitors and staff alike, no washing machines, mosquito ridden toilets. Water needs to be connected and paid for separately. It is also not a quiet environment, the workers start at 7.30 and finish at 18h, sanding, grinding, and hammering. An interesting way of docking applies in the whole area, where you drop anchor and reverse in a narrow spot, tying up the stern. Problem is that there is quite a bit of boating traffic in the narrow area and the bottom is completely silted up. Your anchor is basically scooping up heavy water, not gripping properly. If the wind picks up and the tides are at play this gets interesting. Especially at night this might results in getting in the kayak to put out extra anchors.
As we are not marina sailors and we don’t have bow thrusters, moving in and out of a mooring always has us on the alert. Although we had organized some help from the staff and the neighbours, our stress levels were kept up with a new discovery: Exodus’s gears are slipping!
Opposite slipway marina is the UNESCO Heritage Site, Nelson’s Dockyard. This restored colonial naval station was named after Admiral Nelson of the Royal British fleet. In the late 1800s he used this as a base to chase pirates and buccaneers active in the Caribbean, restrict commerce with the newly independent Americas and keep an eye on the frogs in Guadeloupe. It is a bit of a tourist trap, a definite must see for who visits Antigua, but quite charming at it.
The entrance to the bay is protected by Fort Berkeley. Nelson’s dockyard started out as refill station for naval ships in the early 1700s. It gained its reputation as a safe natural harbour when a hurricane swept ashore 35 ships lying in other ports in Antigua, while the ones moored in English Harbour suffered no damage. Soon after, effort was undertaken to build basic ship repair and maintenance facilities, consisting of a place for careening ships, a stone storehouse, and three wooden sheds for storing careening gear. Construction of the modern naval dockyard began in the 1740s, labored by slaves from sugar plantations in the vicinity. Wooden storehouses, quarters for the officers and commander-in-chief with additional storerooms, a kitchen and a shelter, a saw pit were added.
Under Nelson’s guidance the dockyard was further extended to add boundary walls, a guard house, the porter’s lodge, two mast houses, a capstan house, part of the Canvas, Cordage, and Clothing store; and the first naval hospital.
After that, the engineer’s offices, pitch and tar store, and a blacksmith’s shop were built. The last additions consisted of the sail loft, the paymaster’s office, the naval officer’s and clerk’s house.
By 1889 the Royal Navy abandoned the dockyard, and it fell into decay. Restoration of the dockyard started in 1951, now boasting two hotels, a museum, craft and food shops, restaurants, and a marina.