For the 50th anniversary of its independence from British rule, the Caribbean island of Barbados is making determined efforts to attract cruisers.
Barbados is one of the most popular tropical islands on the planet, especially with Britons, who flock to its pristine sandy beaches to relax and enjoy the hot Caribbean sun. This year is the 50th anniversary of its independence from British rule, but the island is sometimes still called Little England.
Prosperous, with low crime, it’s a gentle introduction to the West Indies. For sailors the living is easy. Fresh fruit and veg cost very little in the colourful markets and the street food loved by locals is fresh and filling. There are 1,200 ‘rum shops’ (small bars) and the people are famously friendly.
Lying 98 miles east of the Caribbean chain, this is the nearest landfall for yachts crossing the Atlantic from the Canaries or Cape Verdes. Why, then, do many yachts swerve past beautiful Barbados and head for Saint Lucia, Antigua or Grenada instead?
The simple answer is that the yachting and sailing boats who would previously have been content to lie at anchor started to seek marinas where they could plug in electrical devices, walk ashore to showers and shops, and rest at night untroubled by the Atlantic swell.
Other islands were quick to respond by installing pontoons and moorings, leaving Barbados behind. As far back as 1989 Jimmy Cornell cited lack of yacht facilities when he moved the ARC rally finish away from Barbados, a bitter blow for the island and a boost for the new venue, Saint Lucia.
Something must be done
The government and yachting community, remembering the days when hundreds of visiting yachts dotted Carlisle Bay, the island’s main anchorage, knew that something had to be done. Inspired into action, their aim is nothing less than to reinstate Barbados as the Caribbean’s most popular first port of call.
Eager to get the message out to yachtsmen, the tourism authority invited us to look at the work in progress. They’re not hanging about. Building is in full swing at the Shallow Draught dock on the outskirts of the capital, Bridgetown, where there will soon be 40 fully serviced yacht berths. The dock might be renamed to avoid confusion as it is only shallow for ships – in yacht terms it’s plenty deep enough.
The Shallow Draught will also be home to a brand new Customs and Immigration building especially for yachts, proof that the government has taken heed of a major gripe. The current situation where yachts have to negotiate Bridgetown’s huge cruise-ship port to find Customs and Immigration, then struggle to moor on a ship-size dock and visit multiple offices filling in similar paperwork will soon be a thing of the past.
Work began in 2013 to upgrade the inner basin, known as the Careenage, in the picturesque centre of Bridgetown beyond a lifting bridge. Now it’s finished, the 50 stern-to moorings all have water and electricity. Surrounded by the sounds of the city – which in Barbados includes whistling tree-frogs – it’s a great base for forays out to food markets, restaurants and the beach.
I spotted a British-flagged Bavaria 44 and got chatting with the Thornton family who had arrived from the Cape Verdes a couple of weeks previously. It was their first time in the Caribbean and they had already fallen in love with Barbados and its people. They were enjoying the atmosphere of the capital with its quaint waterside cafés, big sportsfishing boats showing off their spoils, and the historic Garrison area and Screwdock, which are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Somewhat inconveniently, there’s a minimum stay of three nights at the Careenage, and you have to give five or six hours’ notice to get the bridge lifted. If you want to transit at the weekend you need to call or email the office on Friday. This is something the authorities may feel the need to address. In the meantime Tonya Seale-John who oversees the Careenage is keen to spread the word that the new berths are ready and waiting for visiting yachts.
So Barbados can now boast 90 public berths, many of them available for visitors. In addition there are two private marina/residential developments about 14 miles north of Bridgetown. At brand new Port Ferdinand the 126 berths are mostly allocated to the luxurious apartments that rise imposingly beside the dock.
Its restaurant 13°/59° is one of the best on the island. While I was there a number of large yachts were anchored off, their owners coming in for cocktails at the Quarterdeck Bar beside the opulently appointed pool.
Port St Charles is the island’s other port of entry, with fuel and docking. Berths tend to be taken by superyachts while smaller boats anchor in the bay. There’s a dinghy dock giving easy access to a bar-restaurant that’s a popular for sundowners.
If you’re prepared to anchor
The island’s main anchorage is Carlisle Bay near Bridgetown. As a first taste of the Caribbean this stopover is hard to beat. Imagine dropping the hook in crystal clear water in a turquoise bay teeming with turtles and tropical fish. Some early mornings you’ll even see racehorses being exercised in the sea. Take the tender and pull it up on the hot white sand of Browne’s Beach and sip rum punch in a rickety bar under the cool of a palm tree.
The boatyard mentioned in older guides is now a beach resort that charges for landings by tender, redeemable against food and drink. But from your spot in Carlisle Bay the Careenage is not far and it’s free to leave the dinghy while you shop.
The island’s two yacht clubs are both on the bay. Barbados Yacht Club offers a week’s free membership to crew from any sailing club in the world, giving access to its grand Colonial clubhouse. Staff and members go out of their way to help, advising on how to get jobs done and providing poste restante for spare parts. There’s a beach bar and restaurant, showers, and you can fill up with water using the club’s shore-to-boat hose.
The Barbados Cruising Club, almost next door, is a down-to-earth place where everyone is welcome. Adults and youngsters mess around on kayaks and paddle-boards. Visitors can eat and drink there, and if you take overseas membership, around £50 a year, you can use the showers and sailing dinghies. The club hopes to offer moorings and a dinghy dock in the future.
Regattas and races
Besides new infrastructure and a friendly welcome, the island is focusing on hosting regattas and world championships. Peter Gilkes, one of the prime movers in the initiative, explained that international events bring new sailors as well as raising the country’s profile in the press.
The Mount Gay Round Barbados Race Series is going from strength to strength. In January the tourism authority-sponsored trimaran Ms Barbados thrilled spectators when she beat fellow MOD70 Phaedo in a record-breaking duel round the island. In March more than 100 GP14 dinghies will arrive for their world championship and next year the Yacht Club will host the huge Finn Masters event.
And there’s more. A big marina development in the pipeline could bring 120 more berths into central Bridgetown.
I noted huge enthusiasm among the island’s sailors to encourage more visiting yachts. Marine surveyor Martin Smyth of Crawford & Massiah Associates says that Barbados has an excellent record of being missed by hurricanes, and if the country had more hard standing it could rival other islands that do a roaring trade in haul-out and storage during the hurricane season.
Sailing in the warm waters of Barbados in a constant strong breeze is an experience everyone should try if they have the opportunity. In January I flew, almost literally, at over 30 knots on Ms Barbados, one of the fastest boats in the world, the warm spray hitting my face like bullets as we powered up and down the west coast, crew constantly trimming for speed.
More boats to Barbados
Between gusts her owner Tony Lawson, a British construction magnate with long-time links to the island, told me: “We’re neck and neck with Phaedo after four epics including the Fastnet and RORC Transatlantic, but the Round Barbados was the one I was desperate to win. We want to bring more boats to Barbados, it’s perfect for sailing, the sun’s hot, the beer’s cold and the wind always blows.”
It seems Jimmy Cornell would agree. More than 20 years after he took the ARC away from Barbados, the improved facilities have passed muster and last December he brought his Atlantic Odyssey rally to a finish in Barbados.
Four Cornell rallies will culminate there in the 2016/17 season, including the Barbados 50 Odyssey set to be a highlight of the 50th Anniversary year, bringing 50 yachts from London and Lanzarote to the island in time for the big day on 30 November.