14. April 2023

Paradise found and lost

Our journey from Antigua via Barbuda to St. Maarten.

On the morning of January 21, we leave Montserrat and set course for the neighboring island of Antigua. The distance to Jolly Harbor would be 22 nautical miles by direct route, but we have to tack upwind and that takes time. The waves are high and the ride is rough. We have one reef in the mainsail and initially one in the genua. Mabul rides the waves up and down so that the seawater flows over the bow and deck into the cockpit and from there back into the sea.

Cooking is out of the question, instead we are confronted with a problem right after the first tack. A wave rips our stand up paddle, SUP, out of its holder. Fortunately, Alex has also attached the SUP with an extra line, so that it now flaps wildly in the waves, but is not lost. I turn Mabul into the wind and Alex furls in the genua to slow it down. Only now do we see what has happened: a wave has completely bent the SUP holder so that the SUP flew out. Alex manages to pull the SUP on deck and fix it. We’ll deal with the bent bracket later, but that a single wave could bend a steel bracket like that leaves us amazed.

The rough ride from Montserrat to Jolly Harbor, Antigua

Soon we see Antigua. The island appears gentle with its small hills and the shallow northern half ending in the sea. When we are in the lee of the island, I cast the lure and shortly after a fish bites. He pulls hard and only when Alex slows down the boat, I can slowly pull him in. Again a Barracuda! These are not supposed to be eaten north of Martinique because of the danger of being poisoned with ciguatera. We bring him on board to remove the hook. The fish has bitten hard and the hook removal operation proves to be a tricky affair, with us being careful not to get our fingers between the sharp teeth of the predator. Then he’s finally free and we toss him back. He swims away quickly….

Meeting with fellow boats in Jolly Harbor, on the right SV Arancanga.

After eight hours we reach the bay in front of Jolly Harbor on the east coast of Antigua. The water is shallow until far out and only just 3 to 6 meters deep. We enter the well-marked channel to avoid running onto rocks. To our right are beautiful white sandy beaches and soon we see boats we know: Arancanga of Riki and Martin, just behind them is Frieda Kai of Jay and still a few boat lengths away we see Take Five of Suzi and Emanuel. This will be a reunion!

After dropping anchor, we survey the damage. We’ll be able to straighten out the SUP’s bracket somehow. More annoying is that we find diesel again and about half a liter under the diesel tank. Alex has already replaced one seal, but there are others that could be leaking, so another boat job – but not today. Fighting the wind and waves for a day has made us tired, but here in this quiet anchorage with the pleasant light wind we will sleep superbly.

The next days we spend in the quiet bay of Jolly Harbor, work on the boat, meet our friends, swim and enjoy the well-stocked supermarket. Then the next problem follows: Twice I get stuck with our dinghy, because the engine doesn’t start anymore and all good coaxing and screwing doesn’t help anymore. Slowly I realize that a new dinghy engine will probably be the next big investment, even if I had resisted so far…

View over English Harbor and Falmouth

Antigua is completely different from Montserrat. Here it smells everywhere literally of money, much money. In the bay of Jolly Harbor, sailboats like ours are moored, but in the marina, the million-dollar yachts are set. In addition – and this reminds me of Dubai – various spits of land have been heaped up here, on which the matching houses to the matching yachts have been built. On one side of the houses are the parking spaces for the cars, on the other side they are accessible via the waterway, and in front of each house is a boat that has often been lifted out of the water with a lift to protect the underwater hull.

However, we realize a few days later that the marina in Jolly Harbor is just a boat kindergarten compared to the marina in Falmouth and English Harbor, as we sail south along the coast and drop anchor in Falmouth Bay. The passage to the south is only a few nautical miles long, but in some places it is so narrow that we tack back and forth in a tight zigzag course between the coastline and the reefs.

The mega yacht dock in Falmouth

English Harbor and Falmouth are the true home of superyachts. Already at the bay entrance to Falmouth is a gigantic motor yacht that has some sort of superstructure to allow the helicopter to land. Next to it is an even longer sailboat whose masts are probably three or four times as high as ours. We anchor in the bay next to Frieda Kai of Jay, which is already here, and take the dinghy into the harbor in the afternoon. At the docks are the multi-million yachts. Many of the boats are available for charter, $300-500,000 USD per week, as we see when we google the yacht names. The harbor is full of youngsters in polo shirts and women with spray-on lips and fake breasts strutting the docks. It’s an amusing afternoon sitting here drinking coffee.

From Falmouth Bay we reach English Harbor, a well-protected natural harbor, after a short walk. The historic harbor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and could just as easily be in 18th century England. The famous British sailor of the British Royal Navy, Horatio Nelson, entered the harbor here in 1784 as a young captain on HMS Boreas. The historic dockyard is still called Nelson’s Dockyard in his honor and is regularly visited by tourists. Old, heavy cannons aim over stone walls onto the harbor basin. The Naval Officer’s and Clerk’s House, a two-story wooden building, dates from 1855, when high-ranking bureaucrats and accountants of the dockyard worked here; today the building houses the Dockyard Museum. The gardens and lawns between the two-story stone buildings are manicured and filled with colorful flowers, and on the corner of one house stands a red telephone booth, like those that once existed throughout England.

English Harbor from above

On the dock next to the mega-yachts is a small, cordoned-off area. This is where the rowers in the toughest rowing race in the world step onto solid ground for the first time after rowing once across the Atlantic. This year, 41 teams will cover the 4800 kilometers in their small, approximately nine-meter-long rowing boats. A team of three Swiss and one German arrived on Sunday, one day before our arrival. Their boat Heidi won the race in the Open category and took 41 days across the Atlantic. We meet the four rowers at the dockyard for an interview. Anyone who wants to hear the whole conversation can do so in the BoatCast “With the rowing boat across the Atlantic”.

The German-Swiss rowing team after the finish in English Harbor

With our sailor friends Kim, Ann, Jay and Dee we take a day trip along the cliffs to Shirley Heights. Cacti with little red hats grow on the barren rocks and in some places they have washed out the rocks so that natural swimming pools have formed which are filled with sea water at high tide. Here, in the Mermaids Pool, we lie in the warm water as if in a bathtub and observe all kinds of small animals – crabs, mussels and spiders.

Dee, who is Jay’s guest and works as a hairdresser in New York, cuts Alex’s and my hair at the pools, which is much needed, as feral as we already are. Then we hike up the path to Shirley Heights, a lookout from where British soldiers used to see – and strafe – their French and other attackers from a great distance.

The “Mermaids Pool”, a natural pool

In Falmouth we also meet Hatty and Phil, who are anchored in English Harbor, and learn more about the history of Mabul. The English couple owned Mabul, then called Pepper, for more than twelve years until they sold the boat to us. Since they are a bit older and Mabul is not the most comfortable of boats, they have now bought a catamaran. However, it was not easy for them to say goodbye to Pepper-Mabul, this becomes immediately clear when we invite them to dinner on Mabul. Hatty wipes away a few tears and Phil steadfastly refuses to go below deck for the first two hours – too many memories are associated with the boat they had cherished for so many years and crossed the Atlantic on. You can learn about Mabuls illustrious history and also how Phil invited us to the Tod Club, a very special, slightly antiquated club, in BoatCast “Ein Blick in Mabuls illustre Vergangenheit” We immediately take a suggestion from Hatty and Phil to heart as we continue sailing north along Antigua’s east coast after a few days. “Claim Mabul more, she loves it! As long as the water doesn’t go over the rail, that’s how long you don’t have to reef!”

On February 8, we set sail – full sail! – and set course to the north. Mabul is leaning a bit more, but she is still sailing smoothly and steadily even with twenty knots of wind and full sails.

Stopover on Green Island in the east off Antigua

We stay two nights in front of Green Island, an extraordinarily beautiful anchorage in a small bay on the west coast of Antigua, which is well protected by a reef. With the dinghy we go to the neighboring bay to snorkel, see a spotted Stingray and a few cages on which corals have been planted. Then it’s on around the north coast, once again to Jolly Harbor to stock up on supplies and hide for a few days from the strong winds that are forecast. When the wind has dropped again, we set sail and set course for Antigua’s little sister island of Barbuda. We master the 35 nautical miles in strong waves in five and a half hours. Barbuda, however, we see only a few nautical miles before our arrival on February 8. The island is so flat that it seems to disappear into the sea.

The Princess Diana Beach on the east coast of Barbuda.

We drop anchor right next to Hatty and Phil’s catamaran, which is already moored off Princess Diana Beach. Barbuda, with its turquoise, crystal-clear water and white sand that runs through the fingers like pixie dust, still looks like the Caribbean paradise that everyone dreams of. But already on the second day we notice that a snake – or several snakes – have already taken up residence here in paradise. The snakes here have names like “Paradise Found” or “Peace Love and Happiness” – companies of US-American, super-rich investors. These investors discovered Barbuda a few years ago and have snatched up the most beautiful beaches to build villas and vacation resorts for the super-rich. No one else has access – not even us, but we have a drone and let it fly on the beach on the second day.

View over Coco Point – only accessible to the wealthy clientele of the Barbuda Ocean Club.

From the air, we first see the extent of the construction madness. It doesn’t take long – we are standing on the beach, next to the Barbuda Ocean Club, built by “Peace Love and Happiness” – and the guards of the club scare us away on the beach. Our interest is piqued, what is going on here? What is happening to this paradise and what do the locals think about it? I start to do some research. The first thing I come across are various articles in the English-language press with titles like, “Billionaires Build Resort on Protected Wetlands” or “Can Islanders Protect Their Island?” There is also a website, www.savebarbuda.org, run by a group of Barbudans concerned about the future of their island and the future of their children. We contacted some of them and they are willing to meet us and show us around the island and talk about the issues.

Gulliver brings us a snack

Gulliver Johnson Francis picks us up in his cousin’s jeep to show us around the island. He is 50 years old, his ancestors are from Barbuda, he grew up in England where he studied. First he helps us with some background information.

Barbuda is 62 square miles, flat (the highest elevation is 40 meters) and very sandy. About 1500 inhabitants live here, most of whom are descendants of African slaves. In 1628 the British seized Barbuda. From 1680 the English family Codrington, who had already become rich as plantation owners and slave traders, leased the island from the British Crown. The island was not suitable for sugar cane plantations, but the family had animals bred and vegetables grown to supply their plantations on other islands. The Codringtons had to pay the English crown one fat sheep per year as rent.

The rough Atlantic coast of Barbuda

They made money in another way: they lured ships with false beacons to the Atlantic coast, which is full of reefs, ran them aground, rescued the crew and plundered their ships at the same time….The remains of the towers where the fires were lit can still be seen today. The work, of course, was not done by the Codringtons, but by the slaves they had bought in Africa.

The slaves who came to Barbuda were well educated, shipbuilders, carpenters, wagon or shoemakers, and hunters, and “they already enjoyed relatively great freedoms compared to other colonies,” Gulliver says. In 1834, slavery was abolished, but the traditions of the former slaves remained. One of those traditions from the former slaves was common land rights, as was done in their countries of origin in West Africa. “The land is jointly managed and owned by all, and that’s still the case today and what makes our island so special,” Gulliver says.

Marine biologist John Mussington is concerned about his island

Barbuda and the strong bond between the islanders and their island is unique in the Caribbean, says marine biologist John Mussington, whom we also meet on the island. The people have only survived because they have lived off the island’s resources since the time of slavery and have cultivated them sustainably – until today.

In 1981, Antigua and Barbuda became independent from Great Britain. However, the two islands were merged into one state, and Barbuda has felt oppressed and disadvantaged by its larger neighbor Antigua since the beginning. Land and land rights have always been an issue.

Jackie Franks fights for the land rights of the islanders

Jackie Franks’ father fought for common land rights to be enshrined in the constitution and was repeatedly jailed as a result. Jackie is another Barbuder we meet. She was part of the island council, the political decision-making body for the island’s people. As a little girl, she went with her family to England, where she later worked as a teacher for decades until she returned to Barbuda a few years ago. Her father’s struggle paid off: in 2007, the Barbuda Land Act was passed in parliament in Antigua. It stated that land on Barbuda could not go into private ownership, but would be managed collectively and only the community could decide what happened to the land. But it only lasted ten years and the government started tinkering with this law in 2017 and watered it down so that they can now rent out land from Barbuda to third parties.

Expensive new world of the “Barbuda Ocean Club”

Robert de Niro thus leased land with his company “Paradise Found” so he could build a luxury resort on the island. Billionaire John Paul DeJoria, who calls himself an environmental activist, also entered into a lease agreement with the Antiguan government for land on Barbuda in February 2017. His company is ironically called “Peace, Love and Happiness” and this company leased according to their website over 360 hectares of land on Barbuda to build the Barbuda Ocean Club: a golf course and villas for the super rich. For the next 99 years, the most beautiful beaches will no longer belong to the people of Barbuda, but to the super-rich, who can afford a villa starting at 2.5 million US dollars.

We anchored right in front of the Ocean Club. Every day, the rich paraded their water toys, their jet skis and water bikes. “Private Property” signs stand in close succession and just a few feet from the waterline – which is actually illegal. On the beach, I meet Michael Chandler, the manager of the Barbuda Ocean Club, a picture-perfect American sunny boy. He says 90 residences at Coco Point, where we are, have already been sold, but they could build up to 450 villas, not only on the beach in front of which we anchor, but also on the adjacent Palmetto Peninsula. The golf course is already there. So a new playground for the super-rich at the expense of the island’s population? “We have already invested 100 million USD, yes, a donation to the local population is not, after all, we have to get the money back, but we do a lot for the local population,” says Chandler. What that is, he won’t tell me, but work they would give to the islanders and in doing so they were doing the community a huge service.

“Private Property” – no more access for the island population

The fact that the beaches are now only accessible to his super-rich clients and no longer to the locals is not a problem for manager Michael: “Private property is private property, that’s how it is everywhere in the world.”

The key question is: Who really pays the price for these large-scale tourism projects? The UN’s answer to that is: the environment and the island population pay the price. The UN released a statement in February 2022, writing that Barbuda’s fragile ecosystem is threatened by the Peace Love and Happiness megaproject and that the people of Barbuda have not been sufficiently well informed about the project to give their consent. Specifically, the UN report mentions developments on Palmetto Point, a peninsula adjacent to the large Codrington Lagoon. There, “Peace Love and Happiness” has already built a golf course and is now in the process of expanding the Barbuda Ocean Club and its villas, all on protected marshland. The UN criticizes that mangroves, which protect the island from storms and natural disasters, have been removed in the process.

We don’t get an official permission to have a look at the developments at Palmetto Point, because: private property. With Gulliver, however, we drive up to the guard house and fence, which fences off the private property.

The large construction site of Palmetto Point, actually a protected wetland.

From the air the extent of the construction work becomes clear and also that mangroves were removed in large style. But suddenly the signal to our drone breaks off, “Peace Love and Happiness” seems to use a jammer….How we got back to our drone and thus the aerial photos with a few tricks and some bluff, you can learn in our podcast “Barbuda – Paradise found (and lost)”.

How important the Codrington Lagoon is for the island and how endangered by the construction of the golf course and the luxury villas on the adjacent Palmetto Point, we learn as we chug with Gulliver, Jackie, John and the 70-year-old fisherman George by boat across the lagoon.

The “Pink Beach” owes its extraordinary color to tiny pink shells.

The lagoon is two miles wide and seven and a half miles long, making it the largest lagoon in the Caribbean. It is a breeding ground for fish, lobsters and other marine life that grows here before swarming out to sea to distant neighboring islands.

There are also large mangrove forests in the lagoon and these serve as a breeding ground and refuge for the frigate birds. The birds have up to two meters wingspan, but rather small feet. That is why they chose this place: The mangroves are in a wind tunnel and the birds only have to spread their wings and the wind carries them into the air.

Countless frigate birds nest in the mangroves

Because the lagoon is an extremely important ecosystem, it is protected. With the gigantic tourism projects on Palmetto Point, the lagoon and all this marine life is endangered, says marine biologist John Mussington: “When it rains, Palmetto Point is like a filter. Rain flows through the mangroves, which is filtered and then flows into the lagoon. But now, if a golf course and up to 450 villas are built on this Palmetto Point, then the poison, the fertilizers and whatever flows into the soil will get into the lagoon, poisoning it and destroying the bird sanctuary and the food source of Barbuda and the neighboring islands.” Not only that, according to marine biologist John Mussington, “If a storm or hurricane reaches us from the Atlantic, the island is first protected by the reefs, mangroves and sand dunes to the north and on Palmetto Point. However, if the mangroves are uprooted and the sand is removed, the island lies there unprotected and water and winds can wreak havoc all over the island unimpeded.”

Anyone can see that the tourism investors’ business plan is stupid, Mussington said: “It only makes sense if they’re aiming for something: to make a quick, big profit selling their villas and then take off, leaving us with the headaches and the destruction.”

The last major hurricane was Irma, which swept across the island at nearly 300 mph on Sept. 6, 2017. It destroyed more than 90 percent of the infrastructure and did so even though the protected areas were still intact. The government of Antigua used the hurricane to advance their own interests on the island in its slipstream, says Jackie. She says it was not the hurricane but how the government dealt with the islanders that traumatized the population, “We, the islanders were forced off the island under threat of violence and not allowed to return for weeks. When we fought our way back about a month later, the government put many obstacles in our way. It cut our budget, the island council, in half and hindered non-governmental organizations that provided generators and other resources to the population.”

Everywhere on the island you can still see traces of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma

There was no bank for over a year, so people went back to bartering. However, the first thing the government had built while the islanders were still locked away from the island was the airstrip for private jets. And while the islanders tried to rebuild their lives, the foreign investors continued unhindered with their construction projects.

Disillusioned with how foreign investors are stealing the islanders’ island and the Antiguan government is helping them, we return to Mabul. The next day we invite Gulliver and his mother to Mabul. Since our dinghy has a leak after contact with a coral, we cannot pick them up on the beach, but they will have to swim aboard. We see them coming along the beach, at the same time we see musclemen from the Barbuda Ocean Club walking towards them. Through the binoculars we see Gulliver and his mother arguing with the musclemen until the musclemen pull out their cell phones and film Gulliver and his mother, then Gulliver’s mother abruptly turns and walks back down the beach. Gulliver strips down to his underpants and swims to us. “They threatened to call the police and arrest me and my mother if we took one step further, and that’s even though the beach is public,” Gulliver snorts angrily as he reaches Mabul. What is happening here, he says, is nothing less than apartheid. I feel the anger rising in me as well. What does all this have to do with paradise? I would love to swim to the beach and tell Manager Chandler all the shame, but Gulliver holds me back. It’s no use, the real battle is fought in the courts. It’s a David versus Goliath battle. The islanders are fighting with their modest means and with the help of foreign NGOs representing them in court. The sad thing is that the government of Antigua is selling its little sister island to foreign investors looking for a paradise. Because they do not understand the way of life, culture and environment, these investors are in the process of destroying their found paradise and with it the island population. Let’s hope that little David will win.

We leave Barbuda with very mixed feelings and set sail for a longer downwind passage

As we raise anchor a short time later and sail close to the newly built golf course on Palmetto Point, I ask myself: How much tourism can paradise take, and wouldn’t it often be better if paradise were simply not discovered? I think of the words of marine biologist John Mussington: “They call their project a development project, but what does that have to do with development if they destroy our culture and enrich themselves in the process? Paradise Found, Peace Love and Happiness and what they’re all called, these are the new pirates, the new colonialists here.”

The sun sets and we slip quietly into the night

Upset and angry at what we have seen over the past few days, we sail through the night. Sixteen hours later, we reach St. Maarten. With the escort of dolphins, we glide into Marigot Bay.

Our guests, our friends David and Michi, are already waiting at the pier when we drop anchor. Michi, who makes the audience laugh in Switzerland as comedian Michael Elsener, also brings more lightness into our everyday life on board during the week he is on board. We show him the magic of sailing and the sea, dive with turtles off Ille Fourchue, anchor off a deserted bay on the neighboring island of St. Barths, and silently contemplate the sea during a windy and wavy crossing back to St. Maarten. More about these easy, fun days in the BoatCast “Comedian Michael Elsener lernt segeln”.

Michi learns to sail and enjoys the sweet idleness

When Michi and David disembark again after a week, a three-week logistics and procurement madness begins for us, which we describe in detail in our BoatCast “Bootsprojekte und Logistik in der Karibik”.

St. Maarten is divided into a duty-free Dutch and a French part. We anchor in the Marigot Bay in the French part, because you can anchor here for free and in close proximity to an excellent bakery, but then regularly go with the dinghy across the lagoon to the Dutch part. There – because duty-free – we have ordered a whole series of spare parts and other things in the past weeks and months: a new dinghy engine, for example, or goods such as painkillers, bandages, footballs, fishing hoes and clothes, which we want to bring to Cuba to give away there. Through the intermediary Westtech, which has an address in Miami, we were able to order many things via Amazon that we cannot get on the small Caribbean islands. But a lot of things we have to slowly and laboriously gather on the island. A wooden board, for example, that we can tie to the railing so that we can tie to it the spare gasoline and diesel canisters that we also buy on St. Maarten. It takes me a day to find the right wood, a teak board from Trinidad. Alex spends a lot of time in the engine room checking the alignment of the propeller. At one point a rigger comes aboard to closely examine our rigging. I take care of the logistics of our new family member, the Poseidon dive compressor, which was sponsored to us by Bauer Kompressoren. It will give us a lot more freedom because we can now fill our tanks ourselves and will no longer be dependent on diving schools. DHL Express wants to deliver the compressor from Germany to St. Maarten in three days, but the delivery is delayed, the compressor gets stuck in the USA, then in Puerto Rico, and I get to know DHL Express customer service (too) well in long, repetitive conversations.

That was close, but we finally found the engine heat exchanger at the main post office in St. Maarten

In wise foresight Alex had also ordered a new heat exchanger for our engine from Holland to St. Maarten, i.e. the Dutch part of the island, only now it is nowhere to be found. Neither the customs nor our rigger, to whose address we had ordered the heat exchanger, knows where the package has landed. Only after days do I find out that it is in the main post office building in the capital. The pickup takes half a day….

Some days the procurement madness almost brings us to despair. Moreover, new problems arise all the time – the inverter breaks down, the water maker too… So the excursion with our friends Jay, Riki, Martin and Wolfang, who are also anchored here, is very welcome. We drive with our dinghies to a small beach, which is now world famous thanks to many YouTube videos.

Unbelievable how close the planes fly over the beach

The beach is right in front of the airport runway and the planes thunder just a few meters over the heads of the beachgoers before they touch down on the runway. A deafening spectacle!

Meanwhile, our next guest, our friend Florian, is already waiting for us in the British Virgin Islands. But our departure is delayed because we were still waiting for the dive compressor.

Arrival of our new crew member: the diving compressor from Bauer

Then finally it is there! Alex beams like a cockchafer as he brings it back to the boat on the dinghy, where he builds it a wave and wind safe home in the cockpit before departure. Then, on March 4, relieved and tired, we hoist the sails and set course for the British Virgin Islands. The BVIs, as the small group of islands is also called, is said to be the paradise par excellence for sailors and the place where men take their wives to sail if they want to convince them to exchange their land life for one on the sea. In anticipation of this sailor’s paradise, we sail through the night, illuminated by a bright full moon that makes the sea shimmer brightly even at night. We do not yet know that it is precisely in this sailor’s paradise that we will experience the greatest crisis of our sailing journey so far….


Distance covered: 320 nm
Time : 2 days 12 hours
Average speed: 5.2 kt
Engine hours: 20 hours
Damages: SUP mount bended

More photos from the three different islands can be found here: Antigua, Barbuda and St. Maarten.

Related Boatcast episodes:

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