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A taste of Tobago

Jun 23, 2010

Tobago is a rustic destination, well off the normal Caribbean cruising route. Mountains with rain forests and waterfalls, a thriving local fishing economy, and renowned scuba diving attracted us to this sparsely-populated and lightly-traveled island. Though first we had to get there aboard our J40, Gryphon.

Lying east of the Caribbean island chain, Tobago is seldom visited by voyagers who tend to shy from weatherly work — the 80 mile up-wind and up-current slog from Grenada makes it a non-starter as a destination. But the rewards for making the passage are manifold and the perceptive cruiser finds ways to make it a kinder, gentler voyage.

From Trinidad, some will hug that island’s north coast where the wind is usually lighter and a reverse current is sometimes found. For us the key was to leave from Union Island in the southern Grenadines. Raine and I, with our friend Julia, were on our way from the British Virgin Islands to Panama via a southerly route this time. So after a brief stop at St. Eustatius, we put Gryphon on a beam reach and watched where it led.

Bequia was our next stop and from there the logical thing was to island hop through the Grenadines. We had hoped to discover some of the magic we remembered about these islands from years past, but instead our expectations were quashed in the most part by over-developed, over-sailed, and over-sold destinations. Saltwhistle Bay on Mayreau Island — which we thought was “crowded” one night years ago when we shared the anchorage with five other boats — was in fact packed with 22 boats anchored or moored. The Tobago Cays were worse.

The saving grace was a deserted strip of reef off Petit St. Vincent (PSV) and a cheeseburger in paradise on Union Island for my birthday.

The day after the burger, we motored beyond the reef at PSV where we began sailing hard on the wind, south-southeast towards Tobago. As the day waned, the wind backed and we started to fly as the sun set behind Ronde Island, north of Grenada. During the night we had 15 knots on a close reach and sailed 7.5 to 8 knots for much of the trip.

The current that should have been on our nose — slowing us down and complicating our arrival timing — never materialized. There was a three-quarter moon and this would have had some mitigating effect on the currents. We closed the coast of Tobago around sunrise.

About 26 miles long and six wide, Tobago runs southwest to northeast. Scarborough — Tobago’s capital and one of two clearance ports — is about seven miles up the southern coast from the western tip. Here we finally found the current: with several knots against us and tired as we were, we motored up the coast into town.

Multiple forms and carbon paper
Clearing in was reminiscent of the old West Indies. There are multiple forms, lots of carbon paper, and enthusiastic stamping of passports and papers. The immigration office was jammed with people, but yacht clearance was handled efficiently. Within 15 minutes I was in the inner sanctum where we were given three months clearance, though I only asked for three weeks.

With the paperwork apparently complete, I asked about sailing to other anchorages. This, it seems, would require additional papers. A temporary certificate is needed to move between ports in Trinidad or Tobago. I was given the proper document to go as far as Charlotteville at the other end of the island. There, if I wished, I could get another temporary certificate to proceed further. I wondered, but didn’t ask, about a permanent certificate.


Customs was much of the same thing, without the crowds: a sparse office with several old desks and fewer officers, more forms in triplicate, another inspection of passports, and a $9 port fee. When I asked about traveling to Charlotteville, this, it seemed, would not be possible. Well, not easily anyway and certainly not today. We were given clearance for Store Bay, two hours to the west, but no further. I would have to return to the customs office on Monday to see about anything else.

The town of Scarborough has narrow streets, crowded with cars and people, lots of tiny shops selling fresh vegetables, DVDs, cold drinks, shoes, clothes, and fried food. Power lines are strung copiously and haphazardly. Traffic seems crazy, perhaps in no small part due to the Ocean Village cruise ship anchored just offshore. Taxi drivers in bright Hawaiian shirts offer to take us on a tour of the island or back to the ship.

We left Gryphon in the small yacht anchorage wedged between the wharf for the fishing fleet, a half-sunken barge (Caribbean Princess), and the ferry dock. This is not the place to spend a relaxing afternoon or night. The ferries are massive catamarans that easily do 20 knots. One passed us on the way in and it was impressive! But the anchorage is not. A couple garbage bags come up with the anchor as we leave.

It’s downwind to Store Bay at the western end of Tobago. As we round the tip of the island we discover a small racing fleet just finishing a regatta. Carnival just ended and this weekend is the Tobago Carnival Regatta. Too cool! It’s Friday night, the music is playing everywhere, and we enjoy a sundowner at last.

Store Bay
Store Bay is the best all-weather anchorage on Tobago and many boats that come to Tobago never venture away from here. The anchorage is within easy walking distance of the Pigeon Point Heritage Park and the beach at Buccoo (say boo-coo) Reef. This is a popular weekend spot for Trinidadians out for a brief holiday.

Store Bay also offers all the comforts a voyager needs: laundry at the Clothes Wash Cafe — wash, dry, fold, and Internet, all in one (‘fold’ was more like crumple, but whatever); lunch at Skewers — a middle-eastern cafe and take out (Chicken kebabs, babaganoush, tabouli, and pita bread for less than $9 — and when the executive chef from the Coco Reef Resort comes in for lunch, you know it’s a good sign); and, cold drinks at Bago’s on the beach.

John Strickland is setting up Store Bay Marine Services adjacent to Bago’s. He’ll have access to parts from Trinidad, a reliable means for shipping, and will be able to arrange different mechanical services, though these will necessarily be limited. And he can supply water.

We used the calm anchorage of Store Bay to get some work done around the boat, but we took the time for some fun too. We watched the windsurfing and kite boarding competition one day and we did a couple dives another.


On Monday, we needed to visit customs in Scarborough. We caught “route taxis” — cars that run back-and-forth between two points — both ways. You stand by the side of the road and wave at everyone that goes by. If somebody honks at you, they have room and they stop. For the 20 minute ride from Store Bay to Scarborough we each paid $6 TT — or about $1 US. This is a better deal than the dollar safaris on St. Thomas!

Arriving at the customs offices only 15 minutes before closing, Agent Gregory Almorales didn’t quite know what to make of us at first. He probably assumed we were off the Celebrity cruise ship parked at the dock. We explained we were from a yacht and wanted to sail along the coast up to Charlotteville. We’d like to stop at Englishman’s Bay and Parlatuvier along the way. I pulled out the cruising guide and showed him the places. “No problem. No problem.”

Where the first agent last Friday had been overly specific (“Store Bay for two days”), Agent Almorales was comfortably general (“Stop at Englishman’s Bay, Parlatuvier, Charlotteville”). Voyaging under these conditions is feasible; under the other rules, not.

Wild ride
To begin our circumnavigation of the island, we left Store Bay in the early morning expecting lighter winds at that time of day. The trip along the northwest coast should have been comfortable in a moderate offshore breeze. This coast has numerous small indentations which can properly be cruised whenever there is no north swell. Given our short timetable, we chose to sail past the smaller options and aim about halfway up the coast to Englishman’s Bay.

As we rounded Buccoo Reef and started northeast along the coast, steady winds of 15 to 20 knots blew the spray from the breakers. It was beautiful and we sailed along on full main and reefed jib. By the time we passed Mt. Irvine Bay where we had dived, we had steady 25 knots gusting higher. Somewhere around here, the fun went out of it. We kept thinking, “It’ll change; it’ll change.” We took in the jib and went on main alone.


Another mile along and it was a steady 30 knots. The wind was just accelerating down the hillsides and screaming out across the water. With each wave, a curl of spray would jet up and across the bow looking more like the vapor trail on a wing surface than anything from the ocean. We reefed the main down and were still doing more than 7 knots. Since we were only a mile or less from shore, the waves were tiny — only six inches or so — but each broke against the boat and soaked us over and over.

After an hour of this, we approached Englishman’s Bay where we could see spray from the water all the way in to the beach. On the shore we could see the coconut palms dancing and bamboo leaves blowing everywhere. Raine and Julia clawed down the main with it still blowing more than 30 knots. We motored into about 36-foot water depth and dropped the hook. With 150 feet of chain out, the anchor dug in and held perfectly the first time. We didn’t dare lift the dinghy off the foredeck for fear it would go airborne and land in Barbados.

It was a physical relief to be anchored and to be out of the direct wind and salt spray. The trip was only 10 miles, but it was exhausting. We had a light lunch and went down for a nap.

Around noon, the wind eased. It went to something bearable and then died altogether, all in about 20 minutes. We stood on the deck of the boat and looked out across a placid blue sea with nary a ripple in sight. The palms and bamboo stood tall and people appeared on the beach.

Baffled but happy, we launched the dinghy and went ashore to a beautiful beach. There was a low-key restaurant and gift shop and several cars in the car park. “Ice Cream” Curtis was there with half a dozen flavors of homemade ice cream, including Guinness flavored. (How do you make beer-flavored ice cream anyway?) We walked the road up to an overlook where we could see the beach, the bay, Gryphon, and the broad Atlantic. We marveled, each of us; there was not a single whitecap in sight anywhere. None. The air was calm, the water still and clear.

We got our first look at the north coast as well. The first thing you notice is the lush, lush growth. Tall trees sporting colorful flowers are encumbered with high flying epiphytes and curling vines. Massive stands of bamboo grow to more than 50 feet tall; a single shoot of bamboo may be almost six inches in diameter. And birds! We could hear a dozen different calls in the forest. We caught sight of a few, but the highlight was when two green parrots burst out of a tree right beside us and wheeled and called for a minute before disappearing into another thick tree’s canopy.

Charlotteville
The next morning we snorkeled for a while in Englishman’s Bay. The night had been beautifully calm and the water was crystal clear in the morning. We could easily see our anchor chain 36 feet down. From the variable winds since yesterday’s hurricane, our chain had been dragged all over the sand bottom. It made a beautiful sand painting that we could hover over and admire.

Mid-morning we motored along the coast to nearby Parlatuvier Bay; in complete contrast to the day before, there wasn’t a breath of wind. Parlatuvier Bay is a mere indentation on the coast, lined with a sand beach. There’s a very small village here — maybe 40 houses total — and a fleet of local fishing boats.

Ashore we found our way up a small stream to a three-tiered waterfall. It felt great to soap and soak in the fresh water. Of course, you had to put up with little shrimp or crayfish nipping at your toes and feet. We enjoyed a cool drink from Nicole Chance at Chance’s Convenience Store. This is a very low-key place; everyone has something to do with fishing.

Then we were back to the boat for another short motor to Charlotteville, six miles further east. The north coast is beautiful — rugged cliffs covered with lush growth, deep greens right to the cliff edges. Precipitous drops straight to the water, perhaps some rock rubble at the base or a few jagged offshore rocks from cliffs past. Perched here and there along the cliffs are solitary houses — what a place to sit and watch a tropical storm from!

Charlotteville is a town nestled at the base of the surrounding hills in a small flat basin. When they ran out of room on the flats, houses just continued up the steep hills, each hanging more precariously than the previous. There’s a gas station (but the pump’s out of order), a couple of schools, a tourist information shop, a bunch of grocery shops, and a few restaurants. There were tourists, too, and seven other boats!

The next morning we visited the customs and immigration offices. In spite of its small size, Charlotteville is a port of entry for Trinidad and Tobago and we had to check in with both offices: more handwritten notes in big ledger books and other daily notes on a stapled sheaf of printer paper — even writing tablets are handmade there. Importantly, we now had customs’ approval and another temporary certificate from the immigration office indicating we could harbor hop for several days before leaving Tobago for Trinidad.

We enjoyed walking around the town a little. Back on the boat, a fisherman came by and Raine got a small tuna for $40 TT (about $7 US). She made poisson cru (Tahitian raw fish salad) for dinner — absolutely delicious.


The following day was the hastily arranged, requisite island tour. This turned out to be more of an island taxi ride, but we got to see a lot of the island’s interior, walk to another waterfall, and hike in the rainforest a little. Given the brief glimpse that we got, a proper tour with a well-intentioned and patient guide would have been incredible. The rainforest is beautiful — deep green with brilliant splashes of colorful flowers, full of bird life, fresh smells, cool air, and trickling streams. There were lots of parrots and cocricos, noisy birds known affectionately as the “national nuisance.” Along the road, there were great views, stunning overlooks of the sea and bays, interesting shops, and black and white concrete guardrails that look more like hand-carved banisters — just some of the many impressions that didn’t make it through the lens of my camera.

Anse Bateau
Moving again, the next day we upped anchor and started the seven-mile trip around Tobago’s northern tip to Anse Bateau. Although the island runs southwest to northeast, this top end hooks around to the north. Less than a mile offshore are a cluster of rocks, shoals, and small islands, one with a natural arch called London Bridge. In actuality, these islands are the northeastern extent of the South American continent. Here, the west-setting equatorial current arrives after a long, unimpeded journey and tries its best to move Tobago into the Caribbean. Unstoppable force, immovable object... you get the picture.

It’s like being a rubber duck in a demented kid’s tub. The wind waves come from one direction, swell from another; both hit the multitude of rocks and shoals (not to mention Tobago itself); they rebound, recoil, and ricochet back in another set of arbitrary directions. In the Pacific Northwest they call this effect “clapitos.” When a reflected outbound wave meets an inbound one the two peaks collide with an audible “clap!” A wall of water and spray shoot vertically several times the height of either wave.


Mix all that with 1 to 4 knots of current and you get whirlpools, potato patches, and areas of slick water. Our speed over the ground varies from 3.5 to more than 6 knots in about two boat-lengths. The autopilot is getting a good workout trying to steer a straight line, but ends up looking more like a drunken sailor.

Down the east coast of this northern hook (the eastern limit of our voyage, by the way) the rocks and shoals continue. At least we were out of the lumpiest bit, but the varying currents continued. As we looked into the large bay at Speyside, we could see a string of rocks and islets. Each of these inconvenient hazards to navigation offer yet another opportunity for the currents to swirl and dance. Gryphon feints and dodges in return.

Finally we were inside the last of the shoals and behind Goat Island. The crazy currents were gone and the water only had a light chop appropriate to the 10 knot breeze. We found our way past the outer reefs at Anse Bateau and anchored in perfect sand in about 13 feet of water in front of the Blue Waters Inn — a delightful anchorage.

A short walk led into Speyside where we enjoyed a family-style lunch of local fare at Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen. The ruins of a sugar estate lie along the waterfront, the massive waterwheel and cane crusher rusting away.


For scuba enthusiasts this is a great destination and we did two dives here. The nutrient-rich water that upwells and adds to the bizarre currents around the off-lying islands also feeds a healthy and diverse underwater ecosystem. Pelagic fish come from offshore to feast, adding to the complexity of the food web. Seahorses, green morays, scorpionfish, spotted eagle rays, and one of the world’s oldest and largest brain coral colonies make this a world-class area.

After diving we enjoyed a leisurely but late lunch at the small resort’s oddly Downeast Maine motif restaurant (plastic lobsters, lighthouses, statues of fishermen in sou’westers) before upping anchor and heading to King’s Bay just a few miles west down the coast. This is the last anchorage of any merit until Scarborough. The currents were as crazy as the day before, not surprising since we were close to a full moon. The seas were all lumped up and choppy for the short trip.

Here we anchored in about 20 feet very close to shore. The wind-waves worked their way into the south-facing bay and made for a lot of motion on the boat, especially backwinded as we were from a light offshore breeze. It would not be comfortable for the night, but we were only using the spot for a few hours of rest and preparation before the overnight ride to Chaguaramas, Trinidad.

For us, Tobago was a throwback to earlier times: an island not poor, but not over-developed or over-sold. There is a real local culture and serious attention is paid to fishing as a way of life. There are few voyagers and no charter boats. For anyone who remembers the Caribbean before all the parking lots were paved, Tobago offers a chance to recapture some of that mystique.


Jeff and Raine Williams are back living aboard their J40 Gryphon and have just passed through the Panama Canal en route to the South Pacific.

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