Monday, February 11, 2008

Weekend cruises

At our last Stanford 2020 cricket match, the SUP Falmouth crew, Nikolai Bohachevsky, Robert "Rabbs" Hill said that we should have our first big downwinder.
OK for those of you who don't know what SUP stands for, it means Stand Up Paddle and it the latest watersport to have reached Antigua. So far there are four of us on island and we are all hooked on the fun of both cruising on these boards as well as paddling into and surfing waves. Nik and I have done every imaginable water sport there is here in Antigua and knew that SUP would be the sport for us when we started hearing about it. Nik was much more into following it on the net and was first to get one of these massive boards sent here all the way from Hawaii. At over ten feet long they are not easy to move around until they hit the water, and then it’s all different. Using a carbon fiber paddle you propel yourself over the water in search of adventure and that was exactly what we were planning to do on Saturday. Of course we had to do it early because Antigua was playing the United States Virgin Islands and we had to be at the Stanford Cricket Grounds early that afternoon. The plan was to leave Turtle Bay which is just at the entrance of Falmouth Harbour and cruise downwind riding the large Atlantic swell all the way to the start of the island's Caribbean side. According to Nik, it was a 6.5 nautical mile run and in the very windy conditions that we were experiencing on Saturday morning, I knew it was adventure!
We left from a friend's house just barely making it over his electric fence designed to make sure the garden isn't eaten by goats and make sure the goats are not eaten by his dogs. Man it would probably suck to forget that was there after a good surfing session. Anyway, on the beach I noticed a lovely large cowry shell and picked it up. I was balancing my 10 foot 10 inch board on my head and just slipped the shell into my back pocket. Immediately I could smell the stink. OMG the smell was bad and I had fallen for a trick that I had seen many of my guests fall for over the years. Shells on beaches are not always washed clean of the dead animals inside. This one needed quite a bit more time on the shore before it was ready to be handled. Once I put the board into the water I fished that stinking sucker out and hurled it back to the beach. Someone else will make the same mistake later. Anyway, it was rough and the shore break was pushing me close to some rocks. I didn't feel like having an adventure so early so I carefully made it past the reefy rocks out into the deeper waters. Rabbs and Nik came in after me and we were immediately part of the Atlantic ocean. The waves were big coming from east to west, but there was also some reverb coming off the land on our right making it extra choppy and difficult. Rabbs fell behind me and I knew this wasn't going to be easy. I found it less difficult when I was paddling hard and keeping my speed up, so I kept on going out away from the disturbed waters closer in to shore. From all my time spent fishing I knew that very close to us the waters dropped down past the continental shelf into depths of over one thousand feet deep and deeper still. There were big fish out here and with the waves and winds it was all very exciting. We had over six nautical miles to go and the thing that worried me most was the prospect of being too tired for Antigua's first 2020 battle later that evening. Our plan was to go down past Rendezvous Bay staying well off shore but coming back in to surf a few of the wave spots further down the coast. Our first one was near what we used to call "Farley Bay". In the "old days" we would windsurf the waves there which broke just over razor sharp coral reef. Although the reef wasn't in the same condition these days it still was pretty sharp. I had been sliced up pretty good several weeks ago while surfing some other reefy waves, but you can't think about that too much when you are out there. Nik was only thinking about doing it again when he was on this wave several weeks ago. (Please dont aske me where it was taken either). Shhh....If that's all that's on your mind, then you won't catch the good waves. Anyway, the waves were "blown" a term which means they were getting attacked by the winds and were not that smooth. Nevertheless, Nik and I surfed three or four good waves while Rabbs continued past them. On his last surfing session, his board had come unleashed and had ended up on the rocks only to be followed by him. His scratched up board and urchin needle filled feet didn't like that experience too much and with the pain still being felt under his feet, he kept well clear of the reef on this morning. The wave was longer than Nik and I had expected but it was so windy that getting back to the peak after surfing one was difficult. After getting totally breathless a few times we continued on. Nik went outside the barrier reef but I squeezed though a few coral heads and managed to cruise along the rocky shore for a few hundred meters before going out another channel into the Atlantic. This channel had some huge swells coming in and for a moment I thought I was way too close to the reef and had to paddle like a mad man to make it past the impact zone. Up ahead Nik and Rabbs were taking a break and were sitting on their boards. As large ocean swells rolled between them and me, they would disappear from view. The ever changing blue canvas that is the ocean is such an awesome sight and pleasure to behold up close. I looked for whales but knew it would be difficult in these winds to see much. There were "white horses" everywhere.
We paddled past another nice reef break and knew that we would have to come back and give those a try another day. Winter Hill, the part of Antigua in my mind, closest to the "drop off" was coming up ahead. That point was also particularly choppy and was often a place where you could find calm seas once you got behind the bluff. We were doing what is called a "downwinder" and on downwinders you have to try to use the winds and waves to your advantage. When you feel or see a nice swell about to overtake you, a few hard paddle bursts sometimes make it possible to surf ahead on the wave even in the open ocean. We had been doing this the whole time and at Winter Hill the swells were especially steep. I managed to surf down a big one for what seemed like ages. I was super tired though and tucked into the lee side of Carlisle Bay to relax for a moment while the other guys caught up. I think all those years of having to read swells in windsurfing regattas was making me a little faster on this downwinder, but I am sure I didn't feel any less tired. This spot is excellent for spotting turtles and within seconds I was seeing them pop up for breaths. We continued on toward our destination. Johnson's Point was a few miles down the coast and despite Rabbs moaning (hahaha) we pushed on. As I said earlier Nik and I have spent our lives doing one watersport or another when we were not sailing or powerboating. The ocean is where we both feel most comfortable. This is the not the case with Rabbs who just recently left London. Riding a big motorbike across Europe is more what he is comfortable doing, so being out there in the big Atlantic swells on what sometimes feels like a tiny surf board was a bit threatening.
IT was calmer now and as we cruised past Curtain Bluff Hotel, Rabbs looked way more confident. I took a little wider angle going down the channel in between Cades Reef and Cades Bay while the other two were closer in. I was approaching an area where I occasionally see huge green turtles and sure enough up ahead I could see a monster. It must have been as big as greens get and by far the largest I had ever seen. As I watched in awe waving my paddle at the others trying to get them to come over, another came up just further ahead. Two massive green turtles lay on the surface getting some sun and taking a few deep breaths before going back down to the sea floor to feed. Nik and Rabbs missed them unfortunately and we paddled on. Only one hundred meters ahead I spotted two more slightly smaller greens on the surface. All three of us approached in them in awe unnoticed until the closest took a big breath. It almost did a double take upon seeing us and with a splash it zoomed off below. Another thirty meters ahead were three more green turtles and it was almost as if we had found a secret spot for the big endangered animals. Later I told JD to be careful when he was skippering Xtreme past this section of coastline. We only had a little more to go and came closer in to shore as we approached Pelican Island and Johnson's Point. Here we spotted several smaller hawksbill turtles which we speak about at length on the eco tour. These small turtles probably were around 5-10 years old and have another 10-15 before they would reach sexual maturity. Many people and fishermen make the mistake of saying "there are so many turtles out can they be endangered". The problem is that there are indeed many turtles, but most never make it to sexual maturity therefore not getting a chance to propagate the species. Hawksbills are critically endangered and still occasionally hunted illegally here in Antigua and Barbuda.
Up ahead I could see my pickup truck on the shelly shore just behind and overturned local fishing boat. I was thinking about the three bottles of water I had inside as I made my last paddle to the beach. My bad knee pained as I took my first steps on solid ground since we left Turtle Bay some two hours before. It had been a great adventure and surely many more would follow. As Nik and Rabbs loaded their boards into the back of my Ford, we joked about paddling to Nevis this time next year. It’s only seven times further than we had just done.......:)

Yesterday it was the fourth SUP rider's turn.

Mykl did a paddle session by herself several miles from Darkwood Beach to CocoBay Hotel. Although the conditions were not as rough, the winds were not always behind her and while i took a few photos from the shore, i could see her having to work pretty hard against some pretty strong winds. She said it wasn't that difficult! Pretty good looking though. Anyway, there are four SUP riders now hooked on this new sport and we hope to have some more stories coming up on this journal.