Inspired by the Spice Island
By Dayyan Armstrong | Sep. 9, 2022
A sail through Grenada & The Grenadines
Excerpts from Sailing the Seas by Dayyan Armstrong & Ross Beane. Gestalten 2020
As you sail along the west coast of Grenada, small settlements dot the shoreline connected by a road along the water’s edge. The land above the coast climbs dramatically to densely forested mountaintops where mona monkeys swing from the trees. On the horizon ahead are green islands fringed by reefs, and your sails are trimmed to take you there across deep and wild waters. Strong ocean currents, confused seas, and active undersea volcanoes all conspire to keep you away, but venturing into the Grenadines is a journey worth embarking on.
The Grenadines is the group of thirty-some-odd islands extending about 50 miles between St Vincent and Grenada. These southernmost of the Windward Islands are so extraordinary they are worthy of an entire winter’s exploration. The archipelago is a mix of sandy cays and small volcanic islands that together creates biodiversity sparsely seen in the Caribbean. St George’s on Grenada is the preferred departure port for the southern grenadines with its position giving sailors options to explore along the craggy south coast of Grenada and take advantage of the trade winds for an out-and-back voyage.
Saling Vincent’s Grenadines and Grenada are both a part of the Lesser Antilles, they use the East Caribbean Dollar, and are they are both British commonwealth but the islands have two separate sovereign governments. Sailing between the two countries requires clearing in and out of customs in a process that is subject to island time.
The history of Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines is awash with change, territories were. Territories were handed back and forth between the British and the French, slavery brought culture from many disparate regions of Africa, and it all blended into the unique culture seen on the islands today. English is the national language here but take a trip ashore and you’ll hear Grenadians speaking a distinct Creole English Dialect that mixes words from throughout the island’s political history. Sail here and you’ll be met by a unique and enjoyable way of life, the natural pace of things is slow and the beauty of the islands is objectively magnificent.
St George’s is true to its roots, architectural details convey the antiquity of the city and its role as an important port. Even with the growing number of luxury hotels and its cruise ship dock, Grenada’s principal harbor is a working waterfront servicing this small island nation and providing for the residents. Commercial fishing boats that go out for tuna are tied up next to the 17th-century brick warehouses that run along the harbor’s edge, bigger ships moor right in the center to load and unload their freight. Beginning a sailing voyage in St George’s offers wonderful provisioning options for the boat embarking on a voyage through the Grenadines. The official market is the large outdoor plaza in the center of town but it caters more towards tourists looking for souvenirs than a yacht chef searching for their provisioning. Follow the locals to the street markets that spring up along the main road where farmers sell fresh produce out of the back of pickup trucks every morning. Traditional Ital food stands, the natural vegetarian cuisine of the Rastafarian people, make fresh juices and teas.
A walk to the fish market first thing in the morning gets you the best selection of freshly caught seafood. One busy stand is run by a no-nonsense woman who swings her machete high above her head to get clean steaks of enormous Mahi and Tuna. Fish are laid out on butcher block slabs for you to select from, they were carried here at sunrise by the fishermen who are docked at the long pier just behind the market. Beside her booth is a metal table with heaps of recently caught and still unsorted prawns and shrimp. Purchasing a kilo of the local crustaceans you will get a grab bag in a wide array of sizes and colors, from white jumbo prawns the size of your hand to tiny little pink shrimp.
The sail between Sauter’s on the north point of Grenada and the island of Carriacou can be a difficult passageway because the sea is often choppy from a combination of the islands funneling wind and open ocean currents upwelling. Ronde offers a welcome respite from this melee midway through the crossing.
Navigating the passage is made more difficult by an active underwater volcano, marked as “Kick ‘em Jenny” on the charts. Mariners must keep at least a nautical mile away, and further if the current eruption threat level is high. Ronde Island is the geographic sister of Kick ‘em Jenny and has the rough edges of a recently formed island. Cliffs drop straight into the ocean and crumble onto sandy beaches that hug the shoreline. Only a small seasonal fishing village exists on one end of this otherwise uninhabited island. Two possible anchorages are only marginally protected and not recommended for an overnight in anything but stable weather and calm seas.
Thirty years ago there were only 8 cars on the island. The first taxi driver on the island still plies the streets today and if you hop in the front seat with him you can get great stories about just about anything and anybody that you pass. He’ll lament the island traffic that can be occasionally experienced when there is livestock in the road and blame it on the fact that there are now several taxis and over a hundred cars (by his estimations). There is also a radio-net on channel 9 VHF ship’s radio that cruising sailors tune into every night at 7 pm to chat about the goings-on about the island and the evenings’ social engagements. Even if you are just passing through it’s worth listening in to the conversation to get a feel for the pulse of the place.
The island of Carriacou is governed by Grenada and the northernmost island before you sail towards St Vincent and the Grenadines. Tyrell bay on Carriacou offers very good protection from the tradewinds and is a large anchorage that can accommodate many boats. The presence of a well equipped local boatyard for repairs makes this is a spot where transient sailors tend to congregate and stay put for a while.
The open horizon to westward offers remarkable views of the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea off the back of your boat while you float at anchor. Dinghy ashore and enjoy a local feast at the Lazy Turtle or any of the local seaside restaurants offering fish and rum. A fisherman harvests a unique Caribbean oyster that are about the size of a coin. After you finish your anchoring procedures, he’ll often dinghy alongside your boat and sell these small but fantastically sweet and delicious delicacies.
Sitting just west of Carriacou in the protection of its lee is a small skinny island with a few palm trees growing along a fine-grained white beach. Sandy Island is protected parkland and mornings are provided for visiting boats. Ashore is the allure of the desert island, once you have arrived, the humdrum of outside life leaves you alone and you settle into a pace that is solely the wind in the palms and the waves lapping at the sand. A perfect anchorage before sailing north or as a stop on your way back south.
Union Island’s steep volcanic peaks are a monument on the horizon as you head north from Carriacou into St Vincent’s Grenadines. The two pointed precipices stand out from the surrounding islands as you approach. There are various nice anchorages on Union depending on what you are looking for. The main town of Clifton is a perfect Caribbean enclave with a big protected harbor and a sleepy colorful village that has everything you need. Docks are available for a fee that offer freshwater to top off your tanks and ample protection inside the reef.
Walking along the main street in town you will find a daily farmers market in a park with remarkably good local produce and fruit. There is also a market for all of the imported goods that come in on the ship that is called “big ship club” and has lots of supplies.
Adding to Union’s layers of Caribbean charm is the aptly named location, Happy Island, just a short dinghy ride across the harbor from Clifton. Happy Island is just a bar, and that’s all. This man-made island is home to Janti Ramage, a local who built the outpost by scavenging conch shells from the nearby beaches. After 7 years, it grew to the size where he could lay the floor to what would become one of the greatest bars in the world. Like a sovereign state, Janti keeps watch of his patrons as a governor does their citizens. Happy Island serves sailors thirst for rum punch topped with freshly grated local nutmeg that was harvested on the nearby shores. Today, a cement seawall helps it to stay put in a storm and offers a perfect place to sit and dangle your feet in the water as kite surfers cruise by.
Tobago Cays area is a vast marine park northeast of Union Island surrounded by a barrier reef and encompassing a few uninhabited islands. This stunning playground attracts sailors from islands north and south. The expansive reef system makes entry difficult and care must be taken to stay in the channels, many of them unmarked, and away from the coral heads. Once inside the horseshoe reef, the lagoon is very large. The protected waters are home to many Sea turtles and plenty of fish, rays, sea stars, and coral on the outer reef. The current running around the islands can be quite strong so snorkeling parties should take the drift into account when planning their exploration.
Locals in their colorfully painted and cleverly named speedboats are busy in the park offering a wide variety of services. Ice, trash pickup, and souvenirs will all come right to you and each one will offer to arrange a lobster cookout dinner on the beach at Petit Bateau. Employ their services and they will take care of you for this wonderful semi-communal feast that happens nightly around sunset on the beach. Your chosen guide will reserve picnic tables for you and purchase the lobsters to bring to the grills where local chefs from Union Island cook your spiny local lobsters over the coals. Bring your own beverages. No shoes are necessary for dinner or the dance party in the sand that might get going if a steel drum band starts in as the night goes on. The party goes until the chefs are cleaned up and the generator shuts down for the night cutting power to the bare light bulbs strung between palm trees. In the moonlight and the silence, as steel-drums are handed onto boats for their trip back to Union, you can spend a quiet moment on the beach looking out at the masthead lights of sailboats anchored in the channel.
Petit St Vincent is a private island with an exclusive resort that features private villas scattered throughout the hills and beaches. The spa on the island is world-class and appointments are open to visiting sailors only after the guests of the island have had a chance to book them. Also open to sailors is a well-appointed beach bar that serves very good food and has comfortable lounging with great views. Going ashore here you pay triple the local going rate for a beer but it buys you access to some of the incredible service and gorgeous facilities that the guests of the island enjoy.
Off the northern end is a high promontory connected to the island by a narrow strip of beach. Salt Whistle Bay on the leeward side offers great protection as you get in close to the beach but is a remarkably rolly anchorage out towards its mouth. The beach is lined with local establishments on the southern end and has beautiful bright sand and coconut palms along its entire stretch. On the windward side of this peninsula, there is a long beach that is perfect for kiteboarders of all skill levels and will often be dotted with colorful kites. The “last bar before the jungle” sits at the mainland end of the beach and has fabulous breezy views of it all and a ping pong table in the sand under the palm-thatched roof.
Many sailors enjoy the wonders of the Caribbean and never make it as far south as Grenada and the Grenadines. Those who venture this far are rewarded with spectacular islands in a pristine sea. A sense of adventure abounds in these far Windward Islands that will have you wanting to keep seeing what is next over the horizon as you sail.