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Atlantic Ocean

Climbing aboard the charabanc, St HelenaThe South Atlantic was our favourite ocean: winds from astern, never more than fifteen knots, rarely less than ten, and no risk of cyclones.  From Saldanha Bay (north of Cape Town) it was an easy 17-day run to the tiny but fascinating St Helena Island.  We were alone to begin with, but then came a large Colombian yacht (it would later be the first Colombian sailboat to circumnavigate) and a more modern, sleeker yacht called Resurgam.  Its owner was (and is) a famous sailing writer; with the whole bay available, he anchored too close to us and would not move even when he swung onto us; his girlfriend was a lithe blonde who liked doing her yoga on deck; she told us all about Brazil and assured us that the misery of Rio's “favelas” was more than compensated for by the wonderful views they command.  When more congenial company arrived we jointly chartered the island's 1920's vintage charabanc (open-topped, green with eighteen red velour seats) for a tour that took in Napoleon's house, his erstwhile tomb and some of the miles of fortifications, long-since abandoned and now in ruins, that were built to foil rescue attempts.

Ascension Island, South AtlanticAnother 700 miles and we were at Ascension Island, another British possession, but at this time effectively run by the USA as a NASA station; unfriendly officials gave us 72 hours, but this was enough for us to hike to the cloud-wreathed top of the island and have a Budweiser or two at the local PX.    It was a bleak pile of ash but interesting in a number of ways: in the old church a stained-glass window commemorated the British dead of the Falklands War (this had been a critical staging post), an eighteen-hole golf course meandered through pits of clinker and the island's sandy beaches were crisscrossed by what looked like tractor tracks that were really the trails of nesting turtles. 

From Ascension, we turned west and made our next landfall at the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. You can see the island's distinctive thumb-shaped peak from many miles away and when we were told you could climb it by ladder we did so; it was hair-raising but the views were great.  Bosun birds soared and dived around the top.

We made our Brazilian landfall at Fortaleza.  Unfortunately the place had a reputation for theft and violence; a local couple invited us for dinner and insisted they provide us with a guard who would stay on the boat; when we returned, the guard calmly assured us that he had had to shoot several times but that all was well.  But this was the best shopping opportunity we had had since Cape Town, we stocked up quickly and fled onwards.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil Stocking up, Fortaleza, Brazil

Sailing up the northeastern coast of Brazil was exceptionally fast – for much of the time we had a two-knot current in our favour.  For two days we sailed in fresh water: the outflow of the Amazon.  But the skies were overcast, water visibility murky: we decided to give Devil's Island a miss and made our Caribbean landfall at Tobago.

By now the hurricane season was almost upon us: from Tobago we ducked west and south to position ourselves below ten degrees and spent most of the rest of the year, until November 1988, in Venezuela's idyllic offshore islands or restocking at urban centres such as Margarita and Puerto La Cruz.. This was a cruising paradise: light winds, friendly people, exceptionally low prices (fuel was cheaper than bottled water).  Occasionally there were hints of darker goings on: at one of the offshore islands, fishermen advised us not to show ourselves after dark, even if we heard engines and other noises; wrecked small planes on shore confirmed that we were on the main South America/Miami drug route. 

Los Testigos, Venezuela Off Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

Angel Falls, VenezuelaOn land we made a memorable trip via Ciudad Bolivar (the home of Angostura Bitters) to Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world.   We spent one night in a rainstorm playing cards and dominoes with our Indian guide, Oscar, and learned to our cost that he had a photographic memory.  When we woke up in the morning the river had risen a metre and was lapping our hammocks; a tiny semi-wild kitten had taken refuge with Jenny.

Returning to the Islands, we dodged a hurricane in Grenada then spent some time exploring the island.  Old St George's, built around a perfect natural harbour called the Carenage, was picturesque but over on the windward coast were the sobering reminders of recent conflict: debris from the then-recernt American invasion, including bullet-riddled Aeroflot biplanes. Schoolchildren in their immaculate uniforms, complete with enamel badeges reading “prefect” or “Hockey team” reminded us that we were back in lands that had once been British.


St George's, Grenada Schoolchildren, Grenada

Riding the trading schooner from BequiaWe then worked our way north through the Windwards: St Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat.  From the island of Bequia we rode a traditional trading schooner to Roseau and back, and helped the sailors hoist the sailsd to the rhythm of the latest calypso and reggae hits.It was windier than we had expected but we had none of the mishaps with aggressive “boat boys” about which many yachts complained (and still do); by engaging (and paying) them for small tasks, such as taking our stern lines or rowing us up river for a few hours, we made many friends.  A highlight of the Windwards was exploring a huge and completely overgrown, abandoned 18th century fortress at the north end of Dominica, where piles of shot and cannonball lay abandoned in the undergrowth, cannon sat where their wooden gun carriages had long ago rotted beneath them.


The old fort, Dominica Boat boy, Dominica

More: Homeward Bound

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