Sailing the Atlantic, Cruising the Caribbean - Avalon of Arne

By Phaon Reid

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Tobago is possibly our favourite Caribbean Island. We've been back there several times, and I'm sure I'll be back again.

The sail to Tobago from Trinidad (or almost anywhere else in the Caribbean) is hard, uphill work. Everything is against you - the wind is on the nose (probably blowing at 20-25 knots), large swells (often 2-3 metres, also on the nose) and an extremely strong current (up to 5 knots in places) directly against you. It's as if the Gods of the sea don't want you to get there. As a result, Tobago is slightly off the beaten track for cruisers, so the many beautiful anchorages are uncrowded and you very rarely see a charter boat (except during Race week).

Trinidad to Tobago We left Chaguaramas, headed through the Boca de Monos and followed the coast round. In the afternoon, we dropped the anchor in La Vache Bay to take a rest and have a look ashore. The holding and shelter are not particularly good, so I stayed on board while Tim and Sarah explored. Just after they were back on board, there was a tremendous rainstorm. We sheltered below while torrents of water poured off the cliffs, staining the water with sediment.

By about 7.30pm, the rain had stopped so we hauled up the anchor and headed on along the coast. The wind was light after the rainstorm, although there was still quite a swell, so we motored. We carried on motoring, making very slow progress against the current, for many hours. It was a dark, moonless night which made it difficult to judge the distance from the cliffs - this was one of the few occasions when radar would have been useful. By dawn the following morning, the GPS was telling us that we were no longer making progress against the current - in fact we were on occasions going backwards. So we put Avalon on the starboard tack and headed in the approximate direction of Tobago.

We got there eventually. The tide set us down a long way and we had to tack up in the lee of the island, while avoiding the shallow patches to the SW. The pilot books tell you that you have to take your boat to the capital, Scarborough, to clear customs and immigration. We have never done this - we anchor in Store Bay, and then take a maxi taxi, which saves another couple of hours bashing to windward. We have never had a problem doing this. Scarborough is, in general, a fairly ramshackle and unattractive conurbation, but has some useful shops (inluding a good ironmonger's) and a few decent eating places. The Blue Crab has a pleasant setting, friendly service and above average local food.

Store Bay is a good anchorage with excellent holding. It can be a bit rolly at times, and landing a dinghy through the surf, and re-launching, can be a perilous (and very wet) enterprise. The anchoring area can be restricted by the activities of the local fishermen.

The Store Bay/Crown Point area is the most developed part of the island, with most of the hotels, the airport and other facilities. Having said this, the development is less intrusive than in most other islands - although this may change. There is a pleasant beach, and above it the "Beach Facilities" with showers, changing rooms, various local vendors and eating places. These serve typical local meals, including rotis, bake and fish, meat or fish with "provisions", crab and dumpling and so on. The latter is a local delicacy and is very tasty but fiddly and messy to eat. The first time we came, they were housed in shacks, but (after a long period as a building site) the area has now been tarted up a bit so Miss Jean, Miss Esme and the rest now serve their food from modern cubicles. There are a couple of bars, one operated by the local taxi-drivers co-operative and another, newer one called the Waving Gallery. These all serve food as well, and prices are pretty reasonable. The main drinks, of course, are the local (lager-type) beers Stag and Carib, and Red and White rums. The service in most of these places may seem leisurely and rather off-hand, particularly to American visitors, but life here IS leisurely. There are a couple of small supermarkets, although their stocks can be fairly limited. The larger ones (PennySavers and TrueValue) are a short taxi-ride (or long walk) up the main road at Canaan. These are better than the supermarkets in Scarborough.

Pigeon Point is the most famous beach in Tobago and is picture-postcard beautiful. It is possible to anchor off Pigeon Point, although the holding is poor and you have to pay a small fee to use the facilities ashore. There is a bar and a restaurant on the beach although they close early. It's an idyllic spot, and never really crowded.

Should you be so unfortunate as not to have your own cruising yacht, good basic accommodation in the area is not expensive. I think a double room with shower at a place such as Spence's or the Stuart House would cost about US$ 30 a night - I'm sure there are cheaper places. Some rooms have (noisy) air conditioning. The Tourist information office at the airport is very helpful in arranging things, and it wouldn't normally be a problem to arrive without a prebooked hotel room.

One of our main intentions in Tobago was to do some diving. Initially we signed up with one of the Dive Schools which was recommended in our pilot book. At first we just booked a couple of dives, and they took us to some quite good reefs off the SW of Tobago - Diver's Dream and Flying Reef. These were fast drift dives in very strong current, but the reefs and sea life were unspoilt. After this we did some independent diving from the tender on the relatively unspectacular (but nice) reefs in Store Bay and between Store Bay and Pigeon Point. These could also be done as shore dives if you don't mind a short swim.

We then decided to do our Advanced Open Water course with the Dive Shop in Tobago, who offered us a good price. The course itself was a bit of a non-event, just doing a few simple dives, some of them dives we'd done before. It was a fun time, though, as there was a group of divers out from England who we got on well with. After diving we'd all generally go to Bonkers (alias the Toucan Inn) for happy hour drinks, and then just carry on. There's a swimming pool by the bar, and people would often get thrown in fully clothed. One evening some dive gear got thrown in too, and four of us ended up buddy-breathing from one reg at the deep end. On another evening Mike (the instructor) managed to get us all thrown out of The Deep (one of Tobago's few nightclubs), probably as a result of some complications in his love life. Other times we'd go to the Starting Gate, or Sunday School. Tobago apparently has a repuation for having no nightlife. This is not entirely true - there is nightlife but it's generally all organised by (and for) the locals and most holidaymakers wouldn't know it existed. It's different, but it can be a lot of fun. Of course there are also synthetic entertainments put on in the holiday hotels for their guests.

In retrospect, the dive school we dived with were pretty irresponsible in a lot of ways, and I wouldn't necessarily have recommended them even if they were still in business. Both Sarah and I were heartily glad that we hadn't done our Open Water course with them, although we had a great time. A few weeks later, they were all in prison after attempting to smuggle dive gear (and some other bits and pieces) onto the Island by boat. Sarah went to visit Mike in the jail, which was not a nice place. They were in for a few weeks, then heavily fined. The boat was impounded. I think Mike was deported.

While we were in Store Bay, some acquaintances of ours turned up - first Nick in Kylie, and then Eric and Toby in White Bread. It was the first time we had seen Eric and Toby that side of the Atlantic - they had a few tales to tell, of rudder failure, having virtually everything stolen from their boat in Brazil, and so on. Their fibreglass boat now had a steel rudder, and I think they only had about two pairs of shorts and two t-shirts left each - and those were in a pretty sorry state. But they were in good spirits, and we did some serious celebrating. Nick had had his dinghy stolen and had built another very leaky one in the Gambia, complete with sailing rig. Then Jim and Jane turned up in Little Pearl, but only stayed briefly before heading back to Trinidad.

We spent some time cruising Tobago with White Bread and Kylie. Our first stop after Store Bay was Mount Invine Bay, which has good diving, snorkelling and even surfing. Nick tried surfing in our inflatable canoe but (perhaps predictably) this was not a great success. At Mount Irvine there is also a beach bar/restaurant which serves the best Bake and Fish on the planet. This is a sort of Trinbagan fishburger, served in a bun rather like a large flat doughnut. The fish is often either flying fish or shark. We did a good eal of snorkelling and dived Mount Irvine wall which is a good dive (the wreck of the "Maverick" which is now near the bay had not been sunk then).

We cruised on up the coast, anchoring at Castara Bay and Parlatuvier. It really is a beautiful island with some superb anchorages, most of them by almost deserted beaches and with excellent snorkelling and diving.

Finally we got up to Charlottevilee and Man o'War Bay. This is a large and spectacular bay, with a medium-sized fishing village. Because of the fishing, you have to anchor a long way out and the water is very deep. We stayed in Charlotteville for a few days, and met some Brits who were on holiday there. Charlotteville is totally off the beaten tourist track, although there are a few cottages that can be rented. Stocks in the shops are fairly basic, and the locals seemed a bit less friendly than in the other parts of the Island.

There were a few other boats anchored in the Bay. One, a Wharram cat, had a keen and successful fisherman on board. He would sometimes catch more than he needed, and give us a good-sized tuna or kingfish. Sometimes we would have a driftwood barbecue on the beach at Pirates Cove. Another boat, with a swiss couple on board, had a dive compressor, which they let us use for the price of the petrol. The diving and snorkelling in this area is really excellent - some of the best in the Caribbean. The currents can be strong though, so caution is required. We did a number of dives, with Eric and Toby or the Swiss couple. The marine environment seems totally unspoilt and there are plenty of fish - more Queen Angelfish than I've seen anywhere else, and some large schools of Barracuda. There are also lobsters, and on one dive we caught a couple of good-sized specimens.

Our favourite dive site was just round the northern corner of the bay. I don't think many of the dive shops go there (although it was a dive shop owner who told us about it). It has spectacular underwater formations, a wall that goes down forever, fine corals and abundant fish life. But you DO have to watch the current. I'd recommend using a surface Marker buoy, and leaving someone in the boat to keep an eye on it.

We did one paying dive round the corner in Speyside, which was a pleasant relaxing dive after fighting the current in Charlotteville, but less spectacular. We had hoped to see the mantas for which the area is famous, but they didn't co-operate on that occasion.

From Charlotteville we headed back towards Store Bay, anchoring at Castara for the night on the way. It was there that we met Jane from Little Pearl, with some friends but minus the boat. She had left her husband, Jim, in Trinidad after he started having an affair with a 16-year old girl from a South African boat. Subsequently she joined Eric and Toby on White Bread to sail to Venezuela, of which more anon....

Back in Tobago, we hired a jeep for a couple of days to explore the island, taking our snorkelling gear with us. This is well worth doing, but for some of the roads 4-wheel drive is virtually essential - especially the cliff road from Bloody Bay to Charlotteville, where people (even in jeeps) sometimes get thoroughly stuck. We did the trek through the rain forest, which I would recommend. Guides are available, but you don't really need one - the trail is pretty self-explanatory. There are a number of bays where you can stop and snorkel, some waterfalls where you can take a shower, but relatively few places where you can get food. You can also hire trailbikes, which we did with some friends on a later occasion, but they were in very bad shape. Two of the three developed faults during the day. The jeeps were fine.

We had loved Tobago, which is why we stayed there for six weeks on our first visit. We resolved to come back (just a couple of weeks later) for Tobago Race Week. In the meantime we would head north for a while.