Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua and Barbuda (pronounced An-Tee-Gwa and Bar-Bew-Dah) are beautiful. Antigua has habours surrounded by old volcanic mountains–its English Harbour is a sheltered marina for super yachts, including Bono’s and The Edge’s Cyan–who we keep seeing in different anchorages (their boat, not them). The island of Barbuda is an ancient coral reef, low-lying and much less developed. It’s one town, Codrington, has a tiny grocery store where you can buy local peanuts and tomatoes, as well as imported canned processed cheese (new to me).

Male frigate bird, whose large red pouch signals he’s available for mating

Barbuda has a large frigate bird colony amidst the mangroves trees. The mangrove’s ropey roots act as a fish nursery. Surrounding much of both islands are large stretches of reefs that act as architectural nurseries for the fish and barriers for storm surges. We’ve spent much of our time snorkelling in and around the shallow coral reefs of Nonsuch Bay, Great Bird Island, Maiden Island, Coco Point, and Coral Bay.

Coral core samples, like tree rings, shows the diversity of the Caribbean coral reefs. These samples show population stability over 220 000 years. This means that the diversity of the reefs was maintained over all of human history, including one Ice Age. Just think, of all the changes that occurred on the planet over the last 220 000 years, the Caribbean reefs were unchanged. The coral core samples show elkhorn and staghorn populations, the reef’s main architects, as a constant presence at the sea’s edge and shallow waters, establishing and reestablishing colonies depending on varied sea levels.

But in the last 40 years, the elkhorn and staghorn coral have been reduced by 95% of their original population due to disease and climate change.

Let that sink in.

The reefs were a constant. Nothing phased them. And then in a blink of history, these unassuming sentinels have quietly sounded the alarm confirming our collision for the sixth mass extinction.

Bleached mounds of dead coral look like piles of elephant bones

So I was hopeful to find an obscure 2003 link to a reef restoration project on small islet named Maiden Island. The site describes thousands of artificial reef balls and coral transplants to provide safe space for marine life. When we visited, we found that after 17 years in existence, the coral such as staghorn, which should grow on average 4″ a year, was instead stunted and partially bleached after three major warming events in the last 5 years. The reef ball project seemed to be more of a breakwater solution than a reef restoration project and if you google reef balls, many countries are using them to fortify their shorelines.

We then met Nick Fuller MD, born and raised in Antigua, who rowed across the Atlantic at age 65, authored a book on salvaging, and owns a nearby island. Sadly, this reef restoration project, he told us, lost its benefactor, the now-incarcerated Ponzi scheme financier, Robert Allen Stanford, who is presently serving 110 years in prison in Florida.

The good news is that Ian and I are well and safe, surrounded by moderately climbing COVID cases. The bad news is that we, as in humanity, have less than two generations to change the trajectory of climate changes. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Chasing Coral available on Netflix and here’s a review of Gate’s new book for net carbon zero or better yet, get involved in–the UN’s Climate Change Conference is in November 2021 and “…with 70 countries already committed to net zero carbon emissions, it represents the best opportunity in years to make progress. It also comes at a time when the science is more definitive, the technology more cost-effective, and the price of inaction far clearer.” No time like the present to use any and all the political clout you have on behalf of the next generation.

Sergeant Major Damselfish, together with Surgeonfish, ‘garden’ algae on the coral…sheltering here in Blade fire coral (Millepora complanata)
Great star coral (Montastrea cavernosa) with some branching coral

Several thousand artificial reef balls surrounding Maiden Island, Antigua
Barbuda highlands

Arrival in Antigua

Getting our pain au chocolat delivery–English Harbour, Antigua

Recent changes to COVID travel requirements made us think there could be some country closures, and we wanted to be strategic about our next move. A couple of islands have experienced some local outbreaks after some poor choices over the holidays (not an expert, but y’all probably could have anticipated that several busloads of drunken pub crawlers at New Years was gonna be a super spreader event). We decided to skip St Barths and head to Antigua instead. If we were unable to move again for months, Antigua is large with plenty of anchorages. 

Ian pretty much finished all of the priority work on the boat. He confirmed that all 14 or so through-hulls and their ball valves worked, and the float switch on the bilge pump was temperamental but functioning. He repaired the manual bilge pump, replaced its ball valve, and made sure I knew how it works. And of course, you’ve heard about the new toilet. He also has pretty much assembled all the tools and parts so that he can build another Afrikii if needed. 

We got our COVID PCR test for $120 USD each, received the emailed results the following day, then hauled up our muddied anchor with the shiny new windlass, cleaning it off with the washdown pump. With a fond farewell to the airport-adjacent-lagoon, we steered the boat out into the bay when the bridge went up at 4 pm. Then we set the autopilot for Antigua with plans to arrive the following morning.

I’m going to be honest, I hate overnight sailing. I have been paid all my life to work at night, and now doing it for free just seems…so painful. I whine about it and then go to bed early. Ian wakes me up when it’s my turn to do watch, waves off my whining and climbs into the bed we set up in the saloon so he’s close by if I call him. But this time, it was him calling me to come help when the boat started taking on water. 

At 3:30 am, I woke to a shrill siren of an alarm I had never heard before. It reminded me of a heart monitor alarm when the patient codes. This shrill siren was the “high water alarm”, a pretty important alarm which, when you are in a boat, really warrants such an ominous title. It tells us that the part of the boat that exists under the floorboard is full of water.

Ian took on this air of captain and ordered me up to the cockpit to start pumping the manual bilge pump.

When I didn’t move fast enough, he yelled “Go pump NOW!”, then followed with a supportive rally of “Great babe, you’re doing great, keep pumping!” 

I looked out on the ocean and kind of thought we were actually sitting lower in the water. Ian meanwhile ran around the boat lifting up floorboards trying to determine where the water was coming in. He checked for a leak where water comes in to cool the engine (no), had we hit something (no), and finally he found it–the hose attached to the washdown pump had disconnected and seawater was flowing straight into the boat from under the V-berth into the bilge. He shut the ball valve on the through-hull to stop the flood. And then voilà, with the automatic bilge pump and the manual bilge pump we got all the water out of the boat. Suffice to say, I am satisfied with Ian’s regular maintenance schedule and very happy we didn’t have to test the life raft. 

On another note, we witnessed the arrival in Antigua’s famous English Harbour of the solo winner of The Atlantic Challenge 2020–rowing 3000nm from Canaries, check it out here

Ant Edwards from the UK arrives in the boat Wave Warrior, winner for The Atlantic Challenge, solo class

*Ian’s note: we had forgotten to switch off the washdown pump and with the sailboat engine running the whole trip (we were sailing against the wind) we hadn’t heard it cycling on and off. Because of a small leak on the spray nozzle up in the anchor locker, the cycling of the pump seemed to have shook loose the inlet hose to the pump, and then water just came pouring in from the through-hull hose. In lay terms, there are holes in the boat called through-hulls, to let water out (e.g. the grey water) or let water in (e.g. the washdown pump). These through-hulls have ball valves (aka sea cocks, which is a combined ball valve and through-hull) that allow water through but can be closed down to, well, close the through-hull. He adds, “You want a well maintained (i.e. lubricated) functioning ball valve at your through-hull, that ain’t gonna seize up on you ’cause when they seize, you gotta force them, and then you might bust the handle off. A goddamn mess is what that is.” Amen to that.

What do you want to hear about?

COVID testing, one of many

Where are we

Last month, we sailed from the US Virgin Islands to Sint Maarten/St Martin, an island split between the Dutch and the French. Despite having the most dysfunctional internet monopoly on the planet, this is a good place to do work on the boat. Ian has a four page To-Do list and since spear fishing isn’t allowed here, he keeps himself busy with jobs on the boat. We anchored in a lagoon, at the end of an international airport runway – not idyllic but definitely convenient access to all chandleries and boat services.

One job that got done, a new toilet: The boat has two electic-flush toilets that use fresh water from our fresh water tanks. You just press a button, and a swirl of water comes into the toilet bowl, and a vacuum sucks the contents into the holding tank. We estimate that the toilets use up 50% of our fresh water use, which was an odd design decision because we are literally sitting on an ocean of water. So one job was to swap out one fancy toilet for one basic salt-water manual flush toilet that uses no fresh water, no electricity and can be easliy fixed anywhere in the world. I will spare you all the details but the saving grace of this story is that Ian lost his sense of smell years ago.


COVID-life here feels a lot like Covid-life in Toronto last October. Shops are open, schools are online, masks are required. Though apparently nightclubs and indoor bars are open, too. There’s a low level of community spread, hospitals are managing well, testing is easily available, and quarantine or some sort of monitoring on arrival is required in each island country.

We’ve shared outdoor dinners with other folks anchored in the lagoon. And despite occasional gaffs, we’ve stayed healthy so far.

For example, as you’ve read earlier, Ian has this way of being a bit reckless. He spear fishes without a buddy, he walks on tropical grass with open-toed shoes, and after four rum and cokes in a bar, he mindlessly bums a cigarette off a kid who then rolled and licked it for him, during a pandemic.

Where are we going

All hopes of an inter-island COVID travel agreement seem to have fallen apart, and getting accurate info on each country’s entry requirements is a combination of interpreting out-of-date government websites and wandering around social media. We’re aiming south slowly in order to be out of the path of any 2021 hurricanes by June. And en route, we plan to visit islands that only require entry testing and not 14 day quarantine. Next stop is St Barths.

We are very grateful things aren’t difficult, in fact things are pretty awesome. Really, just like everyone else – the only thing we miss are visits with family and friends. And at least one of us misses the safer conditions necessary for bumming cigarettes.

Let us know what you’d like to read about – I haven’t mentioned details about putting a 3rd reef in the main sail or discovering the best ceviche recipe ever, and the multitude of questions that I ponder daily like – Is a Bloody Mary a cocktail or partial-vitamix salad? Will scaling up reef-safe sunscreen make the slightest bit of difference in the decimation of reefs worldwide? Is the environmental footprint of buying fresh mint from Kenya offset by supporting commercial agriculture in East Africa (yes, without looking closely at the label, I bought mint from Kenya and it seems so far away)? Message us to help us come up with blog ideas. Thanks. Stay safe.

We are currently anchored in Simpson Bay Lagoon in Sint Maarten, at the end of the Princess Juliana International airport

Life lesson

Picking up take out at Pizza Pi in Christmas Cove STT

As one would suspect, I became a bit unhinged in the transition from managing a busy maternity floor to fretting if the zippers of the cockpit shades are adequately lubricated. I wonder what is the point of all this…in the big picture?

Thus, one cool Friday evening, I laid out for Ian all the reasons this current set-up was not working for me. Bottom line: I felt I needed unrestricted laptop charging and I needed to prioritize internet access.

So Saturday morning, I left Ian to solve the solar panel issue before he went spear fishing, and I went to a café where they roast their own imported coffee beans that are both shade-grown and hand-fed sunshine and rainbows. More importantly, this café had unfettered electricity and internet, all reflected in the price of the latte. I planned to do many important things that would calm my current existential crisis.

In the afternoon, I used the handhelf VHF to call Ian to come get me at the dingy dock.

“I caught dinner,” he tells me on the radio. Nice, I think, he got a chance to spear fish, which means he fixed the third solar panel. I am also happy for him because other than hanging out with me, he’s told me that when he’s spear fishing, there is nothing, absolutely, unequivocally nothing else he’d rather be doing.

Here’s how he tells the story of catching dinner:

_ //__

I anchored the dingy about a half mile offshore, where the reef drops off. I took the longer spear gun and tied the spear as usual to a float. I dove down and was looking around, mostly looking for grouper, maybe parrot fish or trigger fish. But this time, I saw a school of trevally (known as the bullies of the sea). I dove down and shot one and then the whole school surrounded me. This made me a little nervous so I made these yelling noises into my snorkel and then batted them away as I went to the surface. Trevally are pelagic (they swim in the open ocean, not around a reef), so this one’s 5lb-6 weight wasn’t a concern for ciguatera disease (a story for another day). I lifted the spear and trevally into the dingy and unscrewed the spear tip from the spear and slid the fish into a plastic bin in the dingy.

I fished for about another half hour and got tired because of the current and just ended up hanging off the back of the dingy to see if anything would go by.

After about 10 mins I looked to my right and a dorado was passing by – I had one shot. I got it. They’re a fair sized fish and they’re strong, so he pulled me for few seconds back and forth until— as designed—the spear and line and float disengaged from my gun. Off he went. So I swam back to the dingy and took off my fins, weight belt and mask and pulled up the anchor, and drove the dingy about 200m and chased him down because I could see the float on the surface.

I got to the float and pulled the line in to get to the spear and the fish, and just as I got to him, he got off the spear. And then I started to panic that I was going to lose the best fish I’ve ever shot.

He was kind of floundering around just under the surface, I could see him because he’s a bright yellow fish. So I got my other gun and cocked it, so I could try and shoot him from the dighy.

But by the time I got the gun cocked and moved the dingy over to where he was, I could no longer see him. Again I was panicking that I was going to lose him.

So I then put on my gear back on, and got back in the water and floated along with the dinghy looking for my beautiful fish.

I was probably 3-4 min of just looking around, and I’m thinking where the fuck is my fish. And then I see a shark way down below at the bottom (DO NOT eat my fish). Finally I saw it at the bottom, down about 65’, and the shark is circling him. Once I saw where he was, I got back into the dingy and dropped the anchor so I’d stop drifting. I was pretty tired by this point.

Then got back in the water with the second gun and because it was so deep I wasn’t sure I could swim down to it, so I swam down about 50’ and tried to shoot him again and drag him up but when I did this, the spear didn’t stick so I went back up to the surface. I decided to move the anchor directly over the fish and drop my 70’ anchor line directly down beside the fish. So, with the anchor marking it I was able to relax a bit and catch my breath. Again, the shark circled the fish.

After about 10min in the water, I got my breathing down and my heart beat back to normal. I dove down using the anchor line to help me and at 50’ I’m thinking I’m out of breath but if I am going to get my fish this is the time. So I continued on, got down there, grabbed him by the gills and then turned around and swam up to the boat. Where was the shark? I don’t know, I was only looking at the fish.

I got the fish in the boat, myself in the boat, my gear in the boat, and I’m knackered. Then I just pulled up the anchor and went back to Afrikii.

_ //__

Regrets that I missed the excitement? Absolutely.

Potential regrets that something could’ve happened to Ian and I wasn’t there to help? Yep.

Was 5 hours of internet salve for my soul? Not at all.

Siri can’t help me with my existential crisis. I can’t YouTube it. I’m just gonna have to have faith that the point of living on a boat will reveal itself.

So much Sashimi and Gravlax
One Dorado
One Trevally

Boats that float

Fixing the anchor light and trilight

The thing about boats is that no natural force believes they should exist, except maybe buoyancy, and even it permits a boat to exist only within a narrowly prescribed formula that is easily upset if weather, blunt force, or gravity have any say.

Every day, we focus on cataloguing the boat’s slow erosion in nature’s universal solvent because of oft-forgotten laws like electrolysis to corrode everything from delicate wires to massive crankshafts; or repetitive torsion to distort large wood framing so square corners no longer fit or small bolts unscrew by themselves; or the slow bake-until-it-cracks of anything that is in the sun.

So when a friend asked us “Soooo do you guys play ginn rummey all day?”, we said we could if we cared for it, all the while watching the boat dissolve under us (okay maybe I’m being dramatic). But truly, as I mentioned – there is nothing right about putting a human on a boat on the ocean. But that’s what makes it a challenge.

Even though the boat was in great shape when we stepped on it a month ago, here is a truncated tally of things that Ian has done (I, on the other hand, have read about a dozen books on nothing to do with boating):

-figure out why the third solar panel wasn’t feeding the batteries

-tone down his look of confusion and disappointment when he wakes up and the batteries are below 12.19 (units? I have no idea)

-register a name change in Canada, choose a font, print the name in vinyl and apply it to the boat

-fix the anchor light and trilight at the top of the mast (he had to climb it 3 times in one day) so other boats can see us at night in our attempt to avoid any blunt force trauma

-replace the kitchen faucet, this was exacerbated by the fusing of all the old bits into one corroded big bit that in the end needed to be cut apart with a grinder

-trouble shoot a fridge that just spontaneously turns off, trying to provoke me at random moments so as a couple, we can debate whether eating that chicken from yesterday would be suicidal or just accidental death

-act quickly when the kitchen sink suddenly starts to drain all over the saloon floor (McGivered it with a stainless steel washer replacing the metal strainer that had rusted away)

-“swap out” the old electric windlass for a new one after one episode of manually hauling up the anchor when the windlass failed – swap out is in quotations because it ended up not being effing easy and Made in Italy is not an assurance of quality engineering

-replace the transom light that he broke when jumping down onto the dingey

-tighten the fan belts on the engine in the constant quest to make topping up the batteries as efficient as possible – who, of anyone reading this, knows that tight fan belts are in any way related to efficent battery charging?

-start a collection of tools and spare parts for the engine, fuel pump, water pump, water maker, starter motor, and toilets so he can continue to fix all this when we are in the middle of nowhere

Oh, and I have lubricated the zippers of the shades in the cockpit – I never knew that there was even such a task as lubicating zippers, and have to say I’m big fan. Now it’s just effortless to open and close the shades every time there’s a cloud burst.

Eh bien, on avance

Swapping out the old windlass, anchor and chain
Getting the new name on the boat, straight

Buying a boat sight-unseen during a pandemic

“What about this one?” I open the link in Ian’s email and let it load while I go and make dinner. Since the pandemic started, I’ve been working in the Arctic at a small hospital and all available internet bandwidth has been sucked into essential services with only a bit leftover for residential use.

The photos show a boat with a good layout. The galley isn’t relegated to the passageway far from the saloon, the flow of traffic through the boat is logical in sickness and in health (I think of access for puking and emergency exits), and it checks everything that Ian has on his list: manufacturer with a good reputation, a skeg hung rudder (a fibreglass shield protects the rudder from getting easily picked off) and large cockpit (the main hangout place). The set price range of about $150k CDN and about 40 feet long meant we were also looking for a certain vintage year in the 1980s, and coincidentally, Ian’s favourite music era

“I like it,” I wrote back.

We had looked at other boats like a Brewer and a CSY, including one near Toronto that—the agent emphasized—Prince Charles had been on. But they either needed too much work or didn’t have that je ne sais quoi.

This particular boat, a Wauquiez Amphitrite 43’, checked out but it was in North Carolina, with what seemed at the time, sky-rocketing COVID rates. We still thought COVID would run it’s course fairly quickly, kind of like SARS and H1N1. So we moved this boat to the top of the list of boats to see once the pandemic was over.

But the pandemic didn’t seem to be slowing down so we had to adapt.

In order for Ian to fund his retirement on a boat, he would need to rent his house. But without a boat to live on, he couldn’t rent his house. After a lot of talk, he finally realized his top priority (after me) was to ´not work’ and the only way to not work was to have a income from the house. Thus, he would rent the house sans boat and then move wherever while looking for the boat.

The boat would materialize. The pandemic response would become clearer.

“You can buy a flight to North Carolina”, Ian wrote. We, like everyone else, thought that the US-Canada border was closed, and we thought that would mean that you couldn’t buy a ticket to fly to the US. What about insurance? Well it turns out that American companies that insure folks who do high-risk sports also offer health insurance during a pandemic (thanks Rick for the tip). And so it happened, Ian set off for North Carolina to see the rather unfortunately named “Frenchie”, treating the whole experience as if he was in a COVID ward for 36 hours. When he returned, I was back in Toronto and we had two weeks of quarantine that we used to get the house ready to rent.

Our offer on “Frenchie” fell through but in the meantime, we decided that the Wauquiez Amphitrite 43’ was the boat…and there was one for sale in the British Virgin Islands…in much better shape…and auspiciously named “Demeter”.

Chesnee, the friendly boat agent in the BVIs probably used about 5GB of data during our video walk-through. He opened cupboards and lifted cushions for us, read out labels on switches, gave close ups of varnish, and honestly added—”yeah, you’ll want to switch out x or touch up y.” The owner had posted a lot on online sailboat cruiser forums so it was an easy search for us to find out about all the details of the work that had been done on the boat—pretty much every update and injury sustained was documented.

Fatty Goodlander, a well-known contributor to Cruising Magazine, also has a Wauquiez Amphitrite 43’ and he endorsed “Demeter” and the owners, Ted and Claudia. They had bought the boat in 2011 and had done a major refit in the BVIs while living aboard with their 2 children. Their reason for selling was that they needed a bigger boat to accommodate teenagers. When hurricane Irma hit the BVIs in 2017, the boat sustained some external damage and through an insurance claim received all new standing rigging (the wires holding the masts in place), stanchions (the little stainless steel fence around the deck), and exterior paint — all major (read expensive) work. From what we could tell from afar, this boat was in amazing shape and was an excellent deal.

Except the BVIs were closed, like completely closed. There was no getting in to see the boat.

There was talk of having the boat sailed to some place that was open (and thus, probably exploding with Covid, e.g. Florida) and we could fly down to look at it. The boat would then be sailed back to the BVIs and we would fly back to Canada for 2 weeks of mandated quarantine. Then there was talk about waiting for the BVIs to open (unlikely since they might not be motivated to do the work of opening until the tourist season was to start in December, stil five months away). Then there was talk of buying the boat sight-unseen.

Frankly, these were unprecedented times, and frankly, shit just gets done differently now.

We put in an offer conditional on a survey, sea-trial, and taking possession in November, after the Caribbean hurricane season. We also included the perhaps unusual condition—”discussion with owners by video conference”.

The conference call went well. Very well. Ted and Claudia were open and excited we were interested in their boat. You could sense their relief that Ian was an experienced sailor and “Demeter” would go to a good family. Later in the process as the deal was about to close, to allay our doubts (are we effing crazy to buy a boat sight-unseen?), we kept referring back to this meeting and reminded ourselves that they gave off a good vibe—and when we’d meet the boat, it really would be as advertised.

After the deal closed, we would own this boat – provided a hurricane didn’t hit the BVIs and decimate it in the next 3 months. Ian kept refreshing his Hurricane forecast app about 5 times a day and when it finally looked like hurricane season would wind down uneventfully for the BVIs this year, we packed up 138kg of luggage and flew south to rendez-vous with the boat in the US Virgin Islands.

And with a leap of faith that all that is good in humanity, the boat turned out to be amazing.

see About Afrikii for photos and description of the boat