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Sailing in Antigua: an amazing adventure holiday for first-time sailors

Returning to the Caribbean after the Hurricane

Penny Walker

Completely lacking in any training or experience, it had never really occurred to me that it would be possible to go on a sailing holiday. I'd always assumed that this was a world that was closed to me, a world only to be enjoyed by experienced seafarers. But if you were to look at all of the places I've travelled in the last ten or so years, you'd struggle to find one that didn't involve the sea. Whether it's been a camping holiday on the Cornish coast, a road trip along the Great Ocean Road, a swim with wild dolphins off the coast of New Zealand's North Island, or an all-inclusive holiday on a tiny island in the Maldives, there's nowhere that I'd rather be than by the ocean.

Growing up in the midlands, the sea was a good few hours drive away in any direction and the only sailing I'd ever done was at the age of seven on a small lake in my dad's dinghy. So when it came to the practicalities of how to make a boat move on the water using only a sail, the only thing I could remember was how important it was to bob your head when someone shouted “about” so that you didn't get knocked out by the boom as it swung across the boat. But I did remember that I'd loved it.

So when I discovered that Caribbean for novices, I jumped at the opportunity. Naturally they wouldn't let anyone as clueless as myself take charge of a 444 catamaran for a week, so we sailed in the company of an expert skipper. 2017 was a rough year for the Caribbean. Hurricane Irma devastated many of the islands in early September, with Maria fast on her heels to swing another powerful punch at the tiny island nation.

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The sailing community was hit hard. Scenes of catamarans flung into bars and washed into streets were common, and the popular sailing destination of the British Virgin Islands became the focus of the international press. But in January, with hurricane season well and truly over, sailors in search of new experiences to replace their annual trip to the BVI while it rebuilt were flocking to new hubs in the Caribbean, keen to continue to support the economy.

Many opted for Antigua, and we followed suit. I'd travelled around a few of the islands of the Caribbean by land and was intrigued to see how a sailing holiday would compare. As we arrived at Nelson's Dockyard, we were introduced to our home for the next week, which was, as I'd been told, much more of a floating hotel than anything else – but with the added bonus of a fully-equipped kitchen.

We spent the first night docked, exploring the nightlife of the small port in much the same way as you would on the first night of any holiday. The chilled vibe of the Caribbean was exactly as I remembered it and the locals as cheery and optimistic as ever. As I awoke the next morning, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I knew that this was the day that our adventure began, but, because sailing is dictated by the weather, had no idea where we were headed. It all depended on the wind. As a travel fanatic, I usually cram as many sights into my holidays as possible, working out the best way to get there, the best time to go and timetabling my days in a way that doesn't always allow for an abundance of relaxation time.

But sailing around Antigua at the mercy of Mother Nature afforded a level of freedom that I had not allowed myself in a long time. Not having a fixed itinerary was surprisingly liberating and reminded me of the spontaneity I'd enjoyed while backpacking around Thailand and driving the Australian coast during the long months of freedom of my early twenties. So we left our course to be plotted by our knowledgeable skipper, Stefan, who became our teacher, our friend and, on the odd occasion when we could attach a barbecue to the back of the boat, our cook.

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The beauty of the trip was that we could be as involved in the actual sailing of the boat as little or as much as we wanted. Some of my days were spent by Stefan's side, hopping around in my shiny new Chatham boat shoes looking the part and learning how to tack and jibe. Others were whiled away on the deck at the front of the boat, enjoying the feel of the wind curling its fingers through my hair, the refreshing spray of the sea on my feet and the warmth of the Caribbean sun on my skin.

I was amazed at how quickly everyone took to life on the boat. Unlike a monohull, a catamaran has two hulls. This means that the boat tips forwards and backwards as your sail and doesn't create the swilling side-to-side motion that frequently causes seasickness. It also means that when the waves are high, you can ride them like a rollercoaster, gliding up to drop crashing into the sea with stomach-dropping exhilaration as the water is forced through the net at the front of the ship to fall on the deck in a musical crash that sounds like a short burst of heavy rain.

We spent several nights at anchor, rather than in a dock, and on one of those first mornings, when my jetlag nudged me awake at 5am, I found I'd woken with the sun. I clambered up on deck to watch it rise, bathing the world in the soft glow of morning light. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a dolphin sighting – a rare occurrence for the time of year.

But what I loved most about sailing around the island was the different perspective it afforded. For many a holiday in the Caribbean involves spending as much time as possible lying horizontal on a beach sipping rum cocktails. While we did plenty of sunbathing and enjoyed many an inexpertly-made rum cocktail, gliding around the island on a catamaran meant that our view changed constantly.

Mountains covered in lush green trees were interspersed with inviting yellow and white sand beaches, port towns were visible from an entirely new angle and famous hotels and celebrities houses were pointed out as we cruised by. Flying fish were a common sighting as we zipped through the waves, and instead of hopping on the dingy to the most well-known (and therefore crowded) beaches and snorkelling spots, we were able to reach secluded spots that are only accessible by sea, offering a sense of privacy that is hard to find on this popular island.    

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Throwing down the anchor and tendering over to a restaurant was also an entirely new and thrillingly novel way of arriving for dinner. While the kitchen and on-board barbecue made cooking on the ship easy, travelling with a group threw up various food complications – think complicated allergies and dietary requirements – and the evenings spent motoring up to picturesque spots such as Jacqui O's and Catherine's Café for some spectacular food not only afforded a break from the logistics of preparing the evening meal, but a distinct sense of grandeur. After all, how often do you arrive to dinner by boat?

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