Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Francis Gobinet: "larger than life"

Picture 1281ps
Yesterday news spread around the world quickly of the tragic and untimely death of Antiguan superstar Francis Gobinet. Francis had been such a big part in the lives of so many people that this news is hitting many of us very hard. Reports are that he was at work over the side cleaning the boat bottom in the BVI and didn't come up. His brother Serge was doing the same thing on Ocean Nomad at exactly the same time with me here in Antigua. Anyway, this lead many to think he suffered a shallow water blackout which seems to be more and more common these days. If you like to snorkel of free dive you should read up on it on the link above.
I first saw Francis with his brother, sister, Mom and Dad on their little boat as they pulled in close to the Lord Nelson Beach Hotel beach back in the early 90s. It was where I grew up and spend most of my time windsurfing and at that time I was running a windsurfing event there. The little boy jumped over the side of the little odd looking boat and in no time was windsurfing with some of the other tiny kids there hoping that we would see him. We all saw him. How could we miss him? Nobody could ever miss Francis. If you didn't stop to look at the handsome profile he wore so well you would stop to see the amazing feat he was in the middle of.
upside down
There wasn't anything that he couldn't do and all who knew Francis will have almost unbelievable stories about him.
Books and books could be written about the adventures that he got up to and how he didn't get killed so many times before is a story in itself. He was an exceptionally brave man and as strong as he was brave. Growing up as a white "frenchie" in Antigua wasn't an easy thing to do and life for Francis as a young kid wasn't always easy. Some of the stories we have are not all happy ones and there was no surprise when he got into trouble while growing up.
I remember one year back when he and Stevie Mendes were 12 years old I was organizing a group of windsurfers to go down to compete in the HIHO windsurfing regatta. Andre Phillip was a year or so older. I chartered a 45 foot catamaran and loaded up all of our windsurfing gear and sailed down to the BVI. My brother Ali was there as well as my cousin David and a bunch of others. We were charged of course with looking after the youngest windsurfers. They amazed all the adults at this competition doing extremely well. Francis and Stevie managed to sail the 200 mile week long race around the BVI with no problem. One day after racing we were hosting a party on our yacht for some of the other windsurfers and were all on deck having a good time. I had to go below to grab something and caught Stevie and Francis pounding some beers. If there was trouble Francis was sure to find it back then and secretly we loved that side of him too.
I'm not sure if getting in to trouble had much to do with it, but his parents decided to send him to boarding school in the UK during his later teens.
When he came back he was a young man and I almost didn't recognize him. He worked at various places and got a job at Sunsail's "beach" watersports team where he taught sailing and entertained guests and coworkers with his amazing stunts. Sometime around then I had started Adventure Antigua and modeled the tours we do after childhood adventures that were a big part of my life and the lives of many who grew up on the water here in Antigua. After a few years Francis came to work with me. All of my guests loved him and for every teenage girl who immediately fell in love with his dazzling blue eyes there was a mother on the boat who did the same. IT was funny how many Moms would want their daughters to pose with him for photos. I loved doing the eco tour with him because he understood why we were doing it. It wasn't just a job..... it was what we did for fun. Like many of the crew who has worked with me over the years, boats and the North Sound were like second nature to him. He was tougher than most people and guests would be amazed with his barefoot antics on the sharp rocks of Hells Gate. There was never a dull week with adventures happening just as much outside of work as during work hours.
Finally Francis got a job working for a big boat in the mega yacht industry. He was in heaven on these big boats that could carry him onto bigger and more exciting adventures. Over the next few years he lived an exciting life crossing the Atlantic to work in boating hubs in various places touching the lives of many in every spot.
Picture 927sm
The thing about Francis is that when he was with you he was part of your life and you felt a close friendship. What is more is that your life was usually uplifted in some way. He had an amazing quality to brighten spirits and give you some extra kick to what would have otherwise been just another day. When people describe someone as being larger than life they are speaking about people like Francis.
Francis came back to work with me back in 2007 for a short stint and once again touched people around me in a profound way. I wrote a short blog about him coming back to work with us then. In the water on a day off free diving are Tony and Francis and the ugly guy on the boat is me.
Over the past 24 hours that particular blog entry has been getting hundreds of hits. According to my private web tracker hundreds of search engine searches for "Francis Gobinet" were directed to the page from Italy, Germany, Holland, Spain, the UK, France, Australia, all over the US, Antigua and many other areas. People all over the world heard the very sad news and wanted to find out if it was true. My phone didn't stop ringing all day yesterday with calls from people wanting to find out if it was really true. Someone so young and so much larger than life couldn't possibly be dead could they?
When i was told that he had died I thought of the hundreds of ways that it could have happened. My immediate though was a motorcycle crash, then a car crash, and other ways flashed through my thoughts until my Dad told me he drowned. Then i thought he must have been swimming through a deep underwater cave without tanks or doing something else totally crazy which was typical of Francis. To learn that he died from what looks like a shallow water blackout was more of a surprise than anything. Passing quietly and peacefully into the afterlife while doing what you love with so many people all over the world loving you is a blessing. Francis died way to young and many of us will be angry and sad and lost now that he's gone, but he had a good life and so many our lives are better because we were lucky enough to have been touched by him.
Live every day to the fullest and be thankful for what time we all have together.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta news

The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta this year will be from April 16th to the 21st with four days of racing which will be the most racing in this particular event to date. Once again our Carriacou sloop "Ocean Nomad" will be racing in the ever growing Traditional Class together with many other traditional wooden boats from the Caribbean. Last year we raced here in Antigua less than two weeks after our maiden voyage 300 miles to the south seen here off the lee side of Carriacou in the Grenadines.
On our first day of racing we went over the line with paint still drying and with equipment being used for the first time. It was quite a learning process the first day with many things going wrong and somethings failing altogether. When we put up our asymmetrical (big downwind sail) for the first time we could immediately see that something was wrong. We later found out that the sail designer had sent the wrong info to the sail manufacturer which lead to us having a totally defective sail. It wasn't good to find this out during the race! Anyway we did better and better to end up finishing second overall in the Traditional Class.
Over the past year a huge amount of work has gone into our sloop with a total repaint of the exterior and the construction and painting of the interior. She is now registered in Antigua, insured and licensed to do day sailing charters and tours here around the island. See a bigger version of the image below by clicking here.
sailing paradise

Our website is http://www.sailing-antigua.com/ and of course you can find The Antigua Classic Yacht tour listed on our main website http://www.adventureantigua.com/
We started doing tours and charters in January and they have been going well with people as happy afterwards as they are normally on the other tours we offer.
For the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta we are going to be racing again, but this time we will be taking small numbers of guests on board to compete with us. To be part of the crew guests will pay a per day fee of US $170 which will include a t-shirt drinks, b'fast, lunch and plenty of traditional rum punch at the end of the day. We have already had one person reserve two people for one of the days so if you are interested please email me directly on elifuller @ hotmail .com or call me on +1 268 725 7263.
You can decide which day you would like to join us by looking at the main regatta website here. From there you can see the race schedule which is also on this link here.
Here is a short vid clip of some racing action from 2006:

And another piece from 2007 done by the boys at http://www.acquafilms.com/ here:

As you can see the racing is so beautiful and exciting. I will post more images and news about the upcoming event over the next month.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

awesome weather

If you are one of those people who take note of the online animated forecasts that for the past 10 years have been saying that it rains every day here in Antigua and is cloudy all the time please read this blog link.

The past few days have been so very nice here in Antigua with lighter winds that we have been having and very little swell. The sunshine has been ultra powerful with very little cloud cover at all. Yesterday I was skippering Ocean Nomad on the Antigua Classic Yacht tour offered by my company Adventure Antigua. We had four guests and did the regular tour up the coast. We were looking for humpback whales all day but had no luck there. We did see a pair of dolphins off Curtain Bluff Hotel and over 30 turtles during the day. JD seen in the top pic had never seen so many turtles on a single day, but that's because he's usually working on Xtreme which sees more coastline and more beaches, but doesn't give you as much time to slowly look for turtles. All in all it was a lovely day with fantastic weather and warm clear water. Today is much the same again.
The windguru forecast shows excellent weather for the next week too. Excellent.
Today is my Dad's birthday.... got to get him something, so i am off to the shops in St. Johns which is not the place to be on a beautiful day like this!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New tourism minister for Antigua!

UPP Representative for St. Johns Rural North, John Maginley, will be the new minister of tourism starting this week replacing Harold Lovell. Both won their seats in last weeks general election but Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer shuffled their ministerial positions around a bit. Personally, I think this is great news and we may actually have a minister looking at our tourism forum for the first time in History. Let's hope he does because in this modern age of tourism things are way more complex than the traditional trade shows and glossy ads. There is plenty of info that is never used by the ministry on these message boards and as a regular facebook user Maginley has already shown that he is interested in being more up to date. Another good thing is that he has been involved in tourism all of his life and although i have had problems in Rural North with his leadership there, i feel that he will do good job in tourism. I don't think we have ever had a Tourism Minister who had had more experience in tourism before getting into politics, so things are looking up. Fingers crossed!
On the other hand some of the other movements are not as positive with my good friend and minister Hilson Baptiste being in charge of the Environment Division as well as Agriculture which includes Fisheries. I personally have had conversations with Mr. Baptiste where he eloquently showed his lack of appreciation for environmental protection. There are several projects in his constituency that he has energetically been trying to push through the permission processes which have been failed time and time again by the suggestion of the Environment Division. As it stands now, the Environment Division has no regulatory power at all and is still waiting for their "protection bill" to be passed in parliament. Most of the representatives in parliament are against the Environment Division having real teeth because it would give them power to punish developers and to prevent them from doing ecological damage. Why would they be against this? It's simple. Most government ministers are "lobbied" by developers to get their projects passed and they wouldn't want something silly like environmental protection getting in their way. I personally think that it would have been better for our country and it's environment to put someone other than Hilson Baptiste in charge of that division. Fisheries is another story as that entire division has been corrupted by both political parties and their support for the Japanese in a "quid pro quo" relationship.
I wrote plenty about that here, so with Baptiste in there it will be business as usual once again for sure. For there to be real change we need to have someone like Max Fernandez who publicly said he was and would be against international whaling if he got elected.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Antigua and Barbuda election results.

The UPP won the election in an extremely tight battle where they ended up with 10 seats including the BPM seat in Barbuda against the ALP's 7. For more specifics on the vote you can goto this site where the above image came from. Two seats are being contested by the ALP and with countless last minute issues and problems associated with the voting process I am sure that there will be plenty of drama in the near future. Lester Bird reported in a Daily Observer article that they are contesting two seats because of issues which he said disrupted the legal voting process. Some voting started 5 hours late! It was said that there was fighting in Barbuda yesterday where that seat was one by one vote with 11 spoiled votes. What it means generally for our country i don't know for sure, but with the UPP in power running the country as usual it is my strong opinion that the environment suffers and the cost of living stays higher. The good news is that several of the ALP guys who the nation thinks are crooks will not be in control, and this I think is what won the election for the UPP. Personally, I think this was a lose lose election for our people and many of us closed our eyes and put our "x" down wherever it fell.

Friday, March 13, 2009

UPP victorious before final count.

After a what both parties are calling a disastrous start to the voting with some voting offices opening 5 hours late because of a "printing problem"!!!!!
Anyway, at 8:40 am they are still counting votes in one last constituency. For results please look at this site:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

letter of the week.

Each week I will try to remember to post an email or message board post from one of our happy customers. This one came from a guest who was out recently during some very rough conditions.

Good Morning Nell,I would like to thank everyone at Adventure Antigua for an outstanding timeon the Xtreme Circumnav. We had a wonderful time. All four of us sat inthe back of the boat getting soaked as JD skillfully navigated the waves.It was like an amusement park ride! We loved stopping at Stingray City - itwas amazing how docile those fascinating animals were. The crew, JD,Trevor, and Chris, were extremely accommodating to my wife and I. See, mywife develops a rash if she allows salt water to dry on her skin and then beexposed to the sun. The guys offered her the freshwater hose at every stopand they also gave her the option to ride by JD where she won't get hit bythe spray. The lunch on Green Island was superb and we had a great timewalking down the beaches. I do have to say that the stop at RendezvousBeach was my favorite. The sand was pristine and the rum-punch wasoutstanding. All-in-all we had a superb time on the excursion and wouldrecommend it to anyone who asks. I hope that someday you can offer it inthe hotel that we stayed at(Grand Pineapple) because we do plan onreturning. Thank you again and have a wonderful day! Jim Elder

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The week of elections in Antigua. What to do? PART "2"

Back on March 24th 2004 when we set off on the Eco Tour we were very excited at the prospect of a new era in leadership. The UPP had won the election by far and would be making some needed changes. What was wrong would be made right. In five Islands Harbour we passed one of the Wadadli Cats being skippered by Sheldon and we both waved blue UPP t-shirts at each other. Most of the nation was happy with the decision they had made, and later at Bird Island that day I turned on Observer Radio to listen to people calling in offering congratulations. I decided to call and said something like “Congratulations to the UPP. I am happy to know that people like Harold Lovell will be leading this nation as I am sure with people like him involved tourism will be better off. Winston said “thanks Bird Island” which is where I said I was calling from.
I didn’t know Lovell was going to be minister of Tourism but was exceptionally happy to hear that he was appointed later. In fact, I was so happy that I organized all the people I knew who were involved in tours and charters to get together in an association so that we could meet with him. I was sure that we could finally get some proper representation at government level with a man like Lovell in charge of tourism. Some forty five company representatives met at a hotel conference room in St. Johns to start the Antigua and Barbuda Excursion Alliance. We elected a board or representatives including a president who as it turned out was me, and then we discussed issues that related to all of our businesses. After this, the board met several times for hours and hours to prepare a document that we could take to the minister who we had sent a prelim letter to. We had our organization registered as a not for profit company and waited for a reply from the Ministry. Nada. We knew they were busy, so we waited. Nada. We then got one of our board members who had a friend in the ministry to contact the Minister directly about our proposed meeting. We were told the Minister to get a meeting with the Junior Minister of Tourism, Hilson Baptiste (Brother B). This wasn’t what we wanted and again asked the minister to meet with us. Once again we were told that all tour companies and water sports had to speak with the Junior Minister of Tourism. Determined to push forward we ended up meeting with Brother B at the Ministry of Tourism. He listened for to us speak but generally have us more advice and spoke more than he listened. He’s a great talker and an excellent politician. He told us to make some changes to our letter and our presentation and to come back to him again soon. The board did some research on similar organizations in other islands and met with the minister again the following month. This is the letter we presented to him sometime in 2004:

Mr. Harold E. Lovell
Mr. Hilson Baptise
The Ministry of Tourism
Antigua and Barbuda

Dear Sirs:

After our meeting with you several weeks ago we have had some time to take your advice and have properly formed the structure of the Antigua Barbuda Excursion Alliance. We have also been more specific with regard to our members’ goals and the following is a description of the issues and the ways we see that they can be solved:

1. Fair representation of our tours to the tourists in this country.
A) We feel that all tour desks should be run either by the hotels themselves or by our alliance. This could be accomplished if the ministry sets up a meeting with the Hotel Association pointing out the inherent problems with individual excursion operators running tour desks. The main hotels in question, Jolly Beach and The St. James Club should also be urged by the ministry to change this unfair policy. Many of our members complain that since the tour desks were taken over by a competitor they have not been sold at these hotels.

B) All ABEA members must be allowed to have brochures on display at any tour desk in Antigua, and no member should be excluded from being sold by any tour operator, which is currently taking place. There are several Tour Operators like Bo Tours and Virgin Holidays (Sun Tours), which will not sell many of our member’s tours because of exclusive deals with other operators. This policy is running small members out of business and is preventing others from getting into this market.

2. Protection for indigenous operators.

A) All watersports and Excursions should be owned and operated by Antiguan or Barbudan citizens who are majority shareholders in that particular business. With all the talk of a free market economy we feel that protection of our sector made up mostly of small businesses is still important. Since 2002 many tourists have come here only to set up shop with minimal investment running similar local excursion operators out of business. Examples are Ultra Marine a dive company, Adventure Caribbean Yacht Charters, Jolly Charters, and Island Speedboats. Why are they permitted to do this? Within one week of arriving for the first time in Antigua someone can start an excursion company with their private yacht or speedboat. Usually they will be offered duty free fuel and parts as a foreign registered boat too. They must get permits through the Ministry of Tourism if they are foreign flagged boats. If they are not they there still needs to be some sort of control preventing them from setting up excursions as soon as they arrive in the country. This is totally wrong and is also running locals out of business.

B) Hotels should not be allowed to start any more excursions within their companies. There was a cabinet decision some years ago pertaining to hotels buying catamarans therefore cutting out excursion operators. This was supposedly stopped and yet we have more and more excursions being swallowed by hotels. Snorkeling excursions have to be offered outside of the hotel to keep our small businesses alive. Many small snorkeling operators and dive operators have closed recently in a directly proportional frequency to the number of similar excursions being offered by hotels in-house. For example, St. James now has a Deep Sea fishing boat and the reps are not allowed to sell any other fishing trip at all even if the guests ask for it. This is crazy!

3. Duty Free concessions and Tax structure.

A) Fuel is of major concern to most excursion operators and is a cost that has been lessened for most operators in our neighboring islands. We feel that duty free fuel for excursion operators is an essential concession that should be considered. IT would free up more money for our business to spend on marketing and training and generally improving our product. Many of the other islands in the region offer this concession to their marine operators.

B) Duty Free concessions on regular spare parts, which have to be imported. Small and large operators can be overwhelmed with the high costs of the parts alone without the burden of duty and freight. For example the average propeller in our sector landed in Antigua is US $1500. Propellers in Antigua do not last long and it is not uncommon for small operators out collecting off the shore to damage props. We are asking for the same concessions that the Marine Trades Association is asking for their sector.

C) Corporate Tax is something that needs special consideration for Excursion operators. Because of obvious liability issues, excursion operators have to operate as limited liability companies, and as a result fall into the corporate tax structure. Dealing with audited accounts and complex tax structure can be a major challenge for the small excursion operator and we urge the Government to think about the small business when coming up with the new tax system outlined in the pre-election manifesto.

4. Environmental protection of our key sites.

A) Nearly all of our members rely on a healthy Antiguan and Barbudan Natural Environment both ecologically and historically. Therefore protection and enhancement of our historical and ecological assets is essential to the survival of our sector and will help the sustainable development of the country on the whole. Protection and Enhancement will also set us apart from many of the other islands where there is very little natural or historical assets to show guests.

B) Key Marine habitats (which are made up of mangroves, flats, reefs, and offshore islands) that need immediate protection are as follows: Great Bird Island, Rabbit Island, Green Island, Guiana Island, and Exchange Island. These places are used daily by our members as essential components of their day-to-day business. They are extremely important assets, which can be there for the long term with very little capital expenditure. Most valuable assets in Antigua need large sums of money to maintain unlike these key areas. Examples of things that are threatening these environmental assets are:

i. Destruction of mangroves due to development. This has happened this year at Long Island, Maiden Island and Emerald Cove and cannot be allowed to take place in the future. These are assets which cannot easily be replaced and have such a massive benefit which man made attractions can not achieve.

ii. Destruction of flats due to dredging. Flats are a complex ecosystem not very well understood by the people of Antigua, but they are much more healthy habitats at this stage that the coral reefs (a similar system) are. For example, cockles, clams, oysters, bonefish, permit, barracuda, snapper, jacks, rays, “chicken lobster”, shrimp, crabs, live inside flats. You then have countless species of animals feeding on the as well. A good example of flats can be seen in Cades Bay along the mangrove habitat. It is also what was dredged at Maiden Island recently. Guiana Island has miles of world-class flats, which are used by our members daily to show off our healthy ecosystems.

iii. Destruction of coral reefs due to a variety of stressors, which include over fishing on the reefs, reckless anchoring, mangrove depletion, deforestation of our hillsides, and silting due to dredging or other construction practices. All of these stressors are controllable and some very easily. For example, the ABEA feels that in the key areas listed above, there should be no fishing at all allowed. This was outlined in the UPP pre-election manifesto. There are countless studies where such bans on fishing in key areas have enhanced fisheries on the whole. We are told daily that our reefs are not as good as other holiday destinations that our guests have been to. In many of the other islands where snorkeling is better than ours marine patrol boats regularly stop fishermen. Patrol boats can easily be paid for in a variety of ways without the Gov. having to spend any more money at all. For example, in the Bahamas every boat entering the waters is offered a fishing license for a fee. They are given rules as to where they can fish and to what they are permitted to catch. Also, at very popular destinations mooring balls are set up so that boats don’t have to anchor. When a yacht picks up one of these balls a fee is paid on a per day basis. These fees could be used to purchase and maintain two patrol boats to keep our reefs alive and well. I am sure that our members would be willing to contribute to this as well in some way. Our reefs, mangroves and flats are here for our children and children’s children and need to be looked after.

5. Transportation

A) We would like the government to understand that in order to provide good service for the guests from all hotels around Antigua we must be able to get the guests to our tours at a reasonable rate. Many potential guests stay in their hotels rather than pay the transportation costs to and from our excursions. Therefore we propose special rates be offered by taxi operators to tour operators so that we may include transfer in our excursion costs.

B) We also want to be able to collect guests from hotels and ships using our own transportation without fear of conflict. If a tour is US $50 per person and we have to pay cab fare of US $60 round trip for one person then it’s just not worth it.

C) We should be able to decide which taxis we can use if we are paying for the service. This way we are assured that good service is offered to our clients. The current system leaves transportation of our guests up to a line system even though we pay for the cab. This means that even if we get bad service we have to put up with it.

6. Member privilege and Member Rules.

A) One of the good things about being in an Alliance is that our members are bound by rules, which govern their general practices. A well-polished self-governing body keeps standards high and makes sure that minimum requirements are adhered to.

B) With a strong set of membership rules and regulations and a good board who can enforce them there has to be an incentive as well to adhere to them, and we feel that the privileges/concessions that are being requested from the government should only be afforded to members in good standing. For example, if we know an operator doesn’t have the correct safety gear then we will give them a warning to correct the problem. If this is not addressed then we can suspend them from the Alliance and let the authorities know. Their duty free fuel allowance could be suspended. This will make sure that members don’t break the rules.
We hope that you can see the potential of this Alliance of small local businesses, and will take into consideration how hard it is to stay “afloat” in these incredibly competitive times. With the CSME and the free market that already exists in Antigua local operators are falling by the wayside and we feel that this important sector shouldn’t go down the same road that the local restaurants did after the all-inclusives arrived on Antigua. Locally run small businesses need help and this Alliance can be seen as something to look up to if given the opportunity. We look forward to speaking with you again.

Eli Fuller, Nick Cheremeteff, Eustace Armstrong, Conrad Labarrie, Laurance Gonsalves

Antigua Barbuda Excursions Alliance

This next meeting was more of the same. I think we ended up having about five meetings at the Ministry of Tourism including meetings where the director of tourism purposely didn’t invite the Junior Minister. We met with the Ministry’s Environment officer we met with the Transport Board and time and time again we got nowhere. We tried to meet with the Minister of Tourism to explain our frustration without any success. After months and months of meetings and countless hours of hard work, telephone calls, emails, letters and more meetings I couldn’t take it anymore. I was totally convinced that my hard work was getting nowhere and that we were just being run around. Not one point on our agenda had been taken to a higher level by anyone in the Ministry and I resigned as president. The ABEA met several more times and in the end decided that until there were some big changes to the new UPP run Ministry of Tourism our strategy wasn’t going to work. Once again each of our businesses plodded along with all the problems we had before the election and found it harder and harder to operate. Taxes went up, we were refused the right to register for ABST without any consultation with our representative group. Tour boat licenses were pushed forward without any discussion with us. More and more foreign operators came into the sector. Generally the entire excursion sector suffered and no help at all was given to our organization or to the individual companies they represented.
I decided to go to the Minister of Labour. Again, getting a meeting with a minister in Antigua was extremely difficult and after months of trying I managed to get one. Jackie Quinn-Leandro sat patiently listening to my presentation. It mostly had to do with point number “2” in the letter above. The tours and excursions operators of Antigua have always been told by the former and the current government that their sector is reserved for Antiguan and Barbudans only. We have been told that no foreigners can do this type of business yet every year more and more small foreign run tour and excursion companies start up. The minister said that these people could not possibly have work permits or permission to do any such work on a radio show several weeks earlier, so I wanted to speak with her about this. After our meeting she said she would speak with the Labour Commissioner, the Coast Guard, the Minister of Tourism and the Chief Immigrations officer to come up with a proper policy that would protect local operators in this field. Several months later when she was on another call in radio show I called in to ask her about her progress. She had been talking about illegal workers with Winston Derrick. My call caught her by surprise and she made some excuses and said that she would be in touch. Nada. I called her office several times leaving messages, but nothing was done. I gave up.
Since nothing was done by any of the ministers in the Tourism department and nothing was done in the Labour department, I decided to speak with the Tax man. Lord knows Money talks and Bull s%$& walks so I knew that the Minister of Finance would listen to our concerns. Several excursion operators were very concerned by the number of new foreign boat operators running boats that were not Antiguan registered as required by law when doing day tours and excursions. Some hotels were now doing tours on their own boats too. All this time local excursion operators had to buy boats, import them to Antigua, pay duty, pay ABST and register the boats locally. Foreign boats doing tours were free from all that tax and could get parts and service tax free. Foreign boats and tours were at a competitive advantage. Errol Cort was very interested in the loop holes outlined and said something would be done to create a level playing field. I told him that local boats would love to be operating in a tax free environment if we could get it. This time I did see some action and was contacted by someone in the Ministry of Finance to get more details. That was months ago and nothing has been done since then. We are still paying 15% ABST and even higher duty on all of our imported parts while our foreign registered competitors are Tax free. I agree tax has to be paid, but why are some who don’t have proper work permits or proper permits allowed to operate at a competitive advantage?
Anyway, back in December I read in the Antigua Sun paper that there was a tourism conference being held where leaders from all the tourism related sectors were invited to attend. I called some of the other operators in our excursion sector to see if any knew about it. None did, but I decided to go anyway. Minister Lovell addressed the gathering in a “State of the industry” speech where he spoke about all the amazing projects that were coming on stream as well as the great projects that had taken place recently. He then spoke about the alleged lack of local entrepreneurs speaking about the 45 “attractions” in St. Martin and asking why we only had half of that number here. He mentioned the Zip Line tour company here saying that we needed more of these types of companies and encouraged locals to be more visionary and to invest money into the sector that he alleged was severely lacking substance. After he spoke I told him I had a problem with his allegation and that I also had a problem with him calling on Antiguan’s to blindly jump into this market. The TV cameras and radio station mikes were live and I almost felt bad saying the things I had to say, but his speech was a slap in the face of all Antigua and Barbuda excursion companies who have been struggling to stay afloat for the past five years while asking his ministry and his government for much needed help. I told him that I had no doubt at all that Antiguan businessmen would be at a competitive disadvantage if they entered this market. I told him I had been trying to meet with him about this for some time. He said this was untrue and that his door was always open to me. Bla bla bla. If he accused me of telling tales then I could handle it because as long as I could get something done for the people in our sector it mattered very little. The next morning I called the ministry to set up this meeting once again. There were 13 or 14 telephone numbers in the book for the Ministry of Tourism and I called every single one that day without getting a reply to one of those numbers. I spent one hour calling and decided to do some other work. The next day I tried again and after twenty five minutes before I finally was able to speak with the Minister’s secretary. She told me that I was wrong to attack the minister in the way I did two days before, but told me she would organize a meeting. The first meeting finally came and I was called to say the minister had the flu. The second meeting came and I was told by email that the Minister had to go off island last minute. I emailed back and said I was willing to meet at any time that the minister would be available. Time and time again I tried to set this meeting up and in the end stopped getting replies from the several people within the Ministry of Tourism cc’s on the email.
Six weeks after the Minister told me that his door was open to me on before a live audience I attended a birthday party where I ran into local radio host Winston Derrick. I told him about my trouble meeting with the minister. He got very frustrated and said he would organize the meeting for me. Sure enough within a few days I was given a date to meet once again with the Minister.
The meeting was very productive with Minister Lovell, the Director of Tourism, Mr. Marshal and another technician attending. We went over two parts of the letter above and the minister gave direction to his director and technician to do certain research and to get back together in two weeks. One of the things that he asked the director to do was to find out how other islands like Barbados and St. Lucia dealt with the excursion sector. He left us to off to Cabinet where he was late. Two weeks later I emailed the director to see how things were going and to remind him that he said he was going to be sending me a letter inviting the Antigua and Barbuda Excursion Alliance to get their board together to come and meet with him at the Ministry. No reply. Another week passed and I emailed them all again. No reply. At the cocktail party recently for the opening of the RORC 600 I saw all three men at the same time and Lovell asked me how things were going. I told him that nothing had been done (the truth) and urged him to try to help move this matter along. Not a thing was done.
There is more I suppose and I could go on and on about the Ministry of Environment and how disastrous they have been on getting things done or even worse on stopping bad things from happening. The mining of all the sand out of Mckinnons Swamp and again at FFries Bay was unforgivable mainly because you had educated officers in the Environment Ministry writing letters asking the DCA and Minister of Tourism to issue stop orders only to have those letters ignored. Sand was taken and some people got rich. Terrible things have happened environmentally all over Antigua with the highly educated “technicians” in the Ministry of Environment pleading with the Minister and the Development and Control Authority to stop the destruction only to be ignored. What is the point of the Ministry of Environment if they have no power at all. Their educated opinions are cast aside like the mangroves that have been dug up or the sand mining regulations that would have stopped trucks from taking away white sand from our land.
I don’t know if I would openly call the UPP corrupt, but I am telling you some stories in this blog about things that actually happened. There are many rumors and stories about corruption in certain parts of the UPP government to do with sand and trucking and lots of other things, but I don’t know about them to say they are true or not. You know i blogged about some of the perceived corruption within the sand mining sector as well as how badly i thought John Maginley looked after the residentas and businesses in the Coolidge area and can read more (if you have time) here on that in this link. As I said earlier there are also loads of stories about the ALP who were in power five years ago, and I just can’t understand why none of these guys get into trouble. These stories here that I mention are true because I was part of them.
It’s been five years of trying to get something on the letter reprinted above ticked off and accomplished and nothing has been done. It is extremely depressing when you work hard to encourage people to do their jobs and nothing at all is accomplished.
We vote in a general election in just a few days and like many on this twin island state I am lost as what to do. Many of us voted for the UPP so that we could vote the old ALP out of power. It won’t be the same this time as the UPP are now in power. Some of those same ALP people are still running to be re-elected, but is the threat of having a few of the old ALP at the helm enough to make us vote again for the UPP? The cost of living has gone up in this country so much in the past five years with more tax than most people can handle. Many Antiguans have left to look for work outside of the country where life is easier. I have a pilot friend tell me that after doing his accounts he discovered that after the first four years that the UPP got into power he had paid an additional EC $62,000 in tax and the cost of living for him had also gone up considerably. The road from his house to his job was no better and neither was his healthcare. The things we had hoped to see have not materialized magically and many of us wonder how long it will take for the huge tax increases we are incurring will be turned into something tangible. After 28 years of non stop leadership the old Bird run ALP party finally were kicked out of power five years ago because it was felt that they were just too corrupt. The stories had to have some truth. After only five years in power the UPP today have plenty stories of corruption being thrown at them too and with the stories of mismanagement and neglect I am totally lost. Is the new APL really new? If not will their leadership give us a better standard of living? Will there be positive changes to the UPP or will it be another five years of the same? I know I don’t like how the Antiguan excursion operators have been treated by the UPP and I don’t think there will be positive changes in the near future, but the thought of one or two of the former ALP clan running this island is scary.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The week of elections in Antigua. What to do?

We all have sad stories of incompetence, corruption and other abuse of power that took place during the unbroken 28 year run of the ALP government up until five years ago when the UPP were swept into power. It seems so long ago that they were in power, and some of us wonder if much has changed within their leadership and party. I met with Max Fernandez recently and know for sure that he can’t be compared with Bernard Percival whose former constituency he took over as the ALP representative there. Just that one guy means the ALP is not the same party that it was five years ago, but he’s one guy. I haven’t met with any of the other new guys, but know that one is being sued for child support and one worked hand in hand with the Japanese and their support for whaling. I would have a very hard time voting for either of them. Another of the ALP lineup waved a gun in my face after the security guards at the club I was running told him that I didn’t allow weapons of any sort on the property. He was so upset that we wouldn’t let him come into the club with his licensed pistol that after screaming abuse at me for 25 minutes in my office he finally stormed out of the club. I don’t think I can forget the gun being waved in my face by a mad man screaming and frothing any time soon. Probably the reason I can’t forget that is that later that night in the wee hours of the morning it was alleged that he sexually molested a youth that he picked up at another club. The charges were later dropped by the under aged boys mother. He’s running for his second term as leader for his constituency and is probably seen as the Achilles heel of the party. As I said, we all have disgusting stories about events and people from the time before the last election. When a party is allowed to be in power for 28 years people almost accept and expect bad things happening. I suppose most of the bad stories were to do with corruption, and I personally think that the leading UPP party won the election based on the now famous promise to make “what was wrong..right” and to stamp out corruption. There are still calls everyday to “lock up” the former corrupt politicians from the last administration. Many of us have asked why none of them were charged and there have been some interesting excuses. Some say that the Attorney General for the leading UPP administration, Justin Simon, is a “Bird Man” meaning he is secretly a supporter of Lester Bird and his ALP party. Kinda crazy in my opinion but what do I know? Others say that if the ruling UPP party starts locking up the former ALP leaders they will be unable to stop some of their own from being tarred by the same brush. One often hears Errol Cort’s name being thrown about in those types of discussions. It is felt by many that Lester Bird’s ALP made Errol Cort their Attorney General because of the extremely close relationship they had with him. There have always been allegations of corruption thrown at Mr. Cort which were alleged to have happened while he was a Bird associate. He held several key government positions while working for the Bird Government while at the same time running his legal firm Cort and Cort. The most famous bit of allegations and finger pointing took place during the medical benefits hearings where he publically parted company with the ALP. Whatever you believe or don’t believe you would have to agree that if most of the allegations of corruption were coming from the political party that is now in power it is strange that none of the allegations have even been turned into charges. I don’t believe that the former Bird party was free from corruption and equally I can’t believe that the now ruling UPP party hasn’t found any information on this corruption. It’s very strange indeed.
Anyway, here we are a few days before the general election here in Antigua and millions of dollars have been spent by both parties on their campaigns. Many church leaders and regular people like me have commented on the extravagant waste of money that this campaign has shown. If the communities that needed real help received a small fraction of the moneys spent there on blue and red plastic sheeting, signs, posters, flags, hats, key rings, inflatable hammers, t-shirts, billboards, TV and radio commercials, vinyl lettering and signs, gifts and the like, this island would have been helped tremendously. This election campaign was like a mini US election campaign and we are a poor country. Of course many of the poorest people here thought it was great, but many like me think this has been disgusting. If I were running the country I would try to pass laws very quickly to ban all political posters, banners and billboards from ever showing their ugly faces (I am not speaking about the people on the billboards) on our streets. I would also make sure that any party make public the funding for their election campaigns and also the budgets for these campaigns. This was way way out of hand.
Like I said to start this blog post, we all have stories about the old ALP party. We as a nation voted them out and as a result can speak about those stories without fear. Fear is a strange motivational emotion here on this small island. I keep hearing about poll findings and predictions and often think to myself that if a pollster called me I would find it hard to tell them exactly how I felt. I don’t think any poll can predict who will win this election on Thursday. It seems that if you are thought to be a supporter of one party or another then the party you don’t support is bound to take it personally. So much so sometimes that you can lose your job and much worse. We all know this to be true because after the last election the UPP immediately started firing what they called “Bird People” who worked in government positions. It didn’t matter how well you did your job in the police force or in tourism because as long as people thought you were a “bird person” you were given walking papers. In fact, some of the shortcomings of the UPP are now being blamed on “Bird People” who are still working as “sleeper cells” in government institutions. I guess this is normal all over the world, but when your world is a tiny little island your political affiliation is much more scrutinized. Many of us have to go to our political representatives from time to time requesting help and often we have to go to the various ministries to get things done. It’s here that your perceived political affiliation is even more under scrutiny. “He ah wan Bird man?” is a question I have heard many times. Unlike Errol Cort, who did plenty of work for the ALP government, my Dad John Fuller did a small amount of legal work for Lester Bird. As a result, all of the Fuller family were labeled “Bird People” whoever we voted for. I read the UPP manifesto five years ago and knew I had to vote for change. I publically congratulated the UPP after voting for them and hoped that “what was wrong would be made right” as they had promised. Working almost daily up in the Guiana Island mangrove habitat I was delighted before the election back then to see them say they would turn it into a marine park. That was pre election promise number one to me that they broke by almost immediately giving Allen Stanford the now famous “Green Light”. After they won the election the “green light” to develop the area in what they described as a low impact eco friendly US $700 million dollar project was given. I lost quite a bit of hope at that point as did many others who had voted for them. This was wrong wrong wrong no matter which way you spun it. Anyway, there is so much more history to that story, and what I want to speak about tomorrow is not so much that story or any more horrible ALP stories. Tomorrow I want to speak first hand about UPP stories. The purpose of this blog entry and the one tomorrow isn’t to try to get you to vote one way or another, but to shed some more “sunlight” on things that have been happening here in Antigua over the past five years. I will speak about a labour problem that faces many Antiguans in my business sector and the meeting I had with the Minister of Labour about it. I will speak about the problems that we faced in our sector to do with tourism regulations and the countless meetings that we have had with the former Junior Minister of Tourism and the current Minister of Tourism. I will speak about the unfair business practices and competitive advantages of foreign businesses operating in Antigua and the fraud and tax evasion that are rampant in my sector that I spoke with the Minister of Finance about. I will remind the readers about my dealings with the Minister of Health, my representative, and the sand mining issue. The list goes on an on and on of “wrongs” that were brought to the attention of the various ministries by me and my associates in the tours and excursions sector, and to be honest those wrongs haven’t been made right. More to come on that tomorrow.

Friday, March 06, 2009

a ground swell is coming


Weather in Antigua like in most places can be interesting and difficult to figure out. Thankfully with the right experience and right set of websites a person these days can have a very good idea about what weather to expect.
I get calls and emails from people each week asking what weather to expect. Most people want to know about rain and as my regular blog readers know, I have written for years on the forums and on this blog about the silly animated forecasts that incorrectly predict rain in Antigua almost 365 days a year. You can read all about these stupid forecasts here in this blog as well as a reasonable idea about how much rain you can expect to find during your vacation to the very dry rain starved island of Antigua. Antigua is one of the driest islands in the Caribbean for a reason: we get very little rain!
Anyway, another common question i get asked is about cloud cover as i have many friends who are photographers and video people. With a live view of both satellite maps and radar imaging for the area around Antigua a person can get an up to the hour picture of what both cloud cover and actual rainfall is doing. Here is an example of the satellite image for today showing Antigua and Barbuda in Red with little cloud cover. Guadeloupe is green and Dominica pink both to the south. St. Kitts and Nevis yellow to the west north west. Most satellite image maps can be put into motion to show a sped up collection of recent images. This movie of images gives you a great idea about what direction the cloud cover is moving. The same things can be done for rainfall by using the radar images. This image below shows the same set of islands with small clusters of rainfall showing up in shades of blue. Again when put into motion you can see which direction the rainfall is moving. Usually they match up with the satellite images and give you an idea about what clouds are producing rainfall. For my snorkeling and sight seeing trips, tours and charters this is all very important because it gives us an idea of what to expect every day before we leave port in the morning. In fact, we at Adventure Antigua get phone calls from the other tours and even some hotels asking for similar information.
Another call I get is from people wanting to know about the wave forecast also known as the surf forecast. Waves and surf often have little to do with the local weather and many times you can have no winds blowing and beautifully sunny skies with huge waves pounding the shores. Sometimes you have moderate winds coming out of the east and huge waves coming from the opposite direction. Ground swell as these long period waves are called are generally generated by windy conditions and storms far from the Caribbean. This is especially the case in the winter when huge cold fronts push off the east coast of North America. Whenever you see super cold nasty conditions on the East Coast we usually can expect ground swell hitting the Caribbean a few days later. The nor-easters as they call those storms way up north push off the coast in cold fronts and churn in the Atlantic sometimes 1500 miles from the Caribbean, but the storms are strong enough to send waves all the way down to the Caribbean and South America. Apart from looking at kids playing in snow on the TV up in the States surfers and mariners have other ways of knowing that a swell is coming. Windguru.com is one of my main weather sites because it has all the info on there for a week's weather including cloud cover, winds and waves. They are usually accurate enough for the heads up on most weather events and they have been forecasting north winds and ground swell all week. The waves and winds were forecast to start coming today and peaking over the weekend into early next week. JD on Xtreme and Tony on the Eco boat called me a while ago to let me know that as expected the swells have started to pick up coming in from the North and wrapping around on to the west coast. For us, ground swells are something that we have to be very careful of because beaches along the normally calm leeward side without the protection of barrier reefs are susceptible to rolling waves. This means we can not collect guests from beaches like Hawksbill, Galley Bay, Jolly Beach, Cocobay and often times Dickenson Bay. Expecting these swells we usually shuttle guests over to St. Johns, Deep Bay and Jolly Harbour where picking them up is very easy. The funny thing about ground swells is that during the "winter" they are only bothersome on these unprotected leeward beaches. Once you get off the shore you barely notice them and as soon as you get past Dickenson Bay going north inside the North Sound you stop seeing them. The barrier islands and reefs keeps that area protected which is perfect for our tours. This ground swell looks big enough to cause beach erosion and other problems with it peaking on Monday, but the surfers have been extremely excited. Most have their boards all ready for the waves and a bunch of my friends have purchased tickets to other islands where the surf is even better during these events. Apart from windguru.com there are many other sites online forecasting waves. The most famous is surfline.com with forecasts for specific areas. It's where i got this image showing the swell arriving from the north into the Caribbean today:
Their forecasts are the most detailed and most accurate.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Please be on time for our tours.

We had an strange set of problems with yesterday's Xtreme trip.

The first thing that happened is that after business hours the day before we had a call saying that a party of 8 wouldn't be coming on Xtreme because they were sick. They were from the cruise ship coming into Antigua the next day, and with Adventure Antigua manager, Nell, having turned people away all week for the fully booked tour the cancellation of 8 at the last minute was not great news. All day we had been getting calls from people wanting to go out the next day. For some reason we had nothing booked for Thursday or Friday but were turning away people for wed. We require 24 hours notice on cancellations which i think is very generous as we only take a small deposit. The group of 8 people said they were all sick and wanted the deposit back.
Then with the smaller group booked on Xtreme JD and Trevor left Jolly Harbour on time at 8:15 bound for the St. Johns pickup at 8:35 am. (Whenever there is a cruise ship in town the Xtreme tour leaves an hour earlier so that we can be accommodated at Stingray City in between their cruise ship arrivals which sometimes are groups of 200+. We are the only outside tour that stops there and it's always worth doing the tour early in order to be at Stingray City by ourselves.)
JD called us at 8:45 am saying that he had collected four people from the cruise ship as per normal but that two were missing. He had walked the docks looking for them before calling the office. Nell asked JD to wait a bit longer and JD went and spoke to the skipper of Excellence, the other large boat on the dock telling him to keep an eye out for the guests. At 9:05 after another call to the office, JD pulled out of St. Johns bound for the last (and now late) pickup at the Sandals resort. The worst complaint we have ever had on Cruise Critic was that our tour was rushed because so much time was spent waiting for some Sandals guests who didn't turn up. Here we were doing the same thing to them. This sort of thing happens several times a year and the we have to make decisions to leave people who don't turn up every now and then. Actually every week we get no shows and sometimes after a phone call to their hotel room we find out that they don't want to come anymore which saves time and off we go. In the case of cruise ship passengers who booked online and paid deposits we give them the benefit of the doubt and wait around for them for as long as possible.
The Eco Tour boat skippered by Tony comes into St. Johns usually at 9:50 for a 10 am pickup. Yesterday Tony pulled up to find his guests as well as JD's two missing guests. He quickly called JD and then Nell. The guests complained to Nell saying that they were "left". Nell apologised and ordered a cab to take them to Stingray City at our expense (one way US $30). They arrived late there after all of Xtreme's guests had finished swimming in the park. JD took them in and swam with the rays helping them take photos and all the usual stuff they would have done had they been on the boat when it arrived there.
Blue sky at Green Island

The tour went on as usual with the lunch stop at Green Island, the historical tour of Nelson's Dockyard, the snorkeling at Pillars of Hercules, and the deserted beach stop at Rendezvous Bay. boys will be boys
At some time during the day JD overheard the couple saying that they had missed the tour on the island the day before and wondered if they had made mistakes with Caribbean time vs Eastern Time. Anyway, at the end of the tour the guests demanded a discount because they missed two hours of the tour. Jd explained that he was there in St. John's on time and delayed the departure of the tour by 30 minutes which on our tours is almost unheard of. She said this was untrue and that JD must have left when they were in the Exotic Antigua shop thinking they were no shows. JD reminded her that the shop didn't open until 9 am. With that she demanded to speak to the office once again and proceeded to rant and rave (for the second time). I won't mention the things she said, but what i will say is that her bitter complaints were not the only ones we had that day. After she got her additional discounts and left we had complaints from the crew and from the other guests who were disappointed that we paid for her cab fare, disappointed that we gave her $60 in additional discounts to the 10% they received for booking online, disappointed that we permitted her to create such a scene on what would have been an excellent cruise, disappointed that her rants and lateness caused delays in the tour's schedule. Nell and JD both say that in all the years she has been working in this industry yesterday was the most difficult.
As far as the Xtreme tour went yesterday everyone would agree that it could have been better. I am sure that the guests who cancelled last minute want their US $25 deposits back, I am sure that the people who came late want all their money back. I'm sure that JD, Trevor, Nell and Jill would rather not work for me on days like that, and I am sure that the guests who had to endure the saga would have preferred not to have had it happen on their day as well. What do I do to make sure this doesn't happen again?
We have clear instructions of pick up time and place on the emails that go out to our cruise passengers (who rarely have problems). We have boats and crew that arrive on time unless there are problems like this one. I just don't know what to do to avoid this kind of thing from ever happening again. All the guests who were on the boat in St. Johns that morning commented on the fact that Jd's story was legit. We know his story is legit because he called us while he was looking for the guests. Other passengers later commented on this fact too saying they would email their side of the story. What's upsetting is that the unhappy lady actively told Nell on the phone that she would go on the internet and tell her side of the story to do harm. I'd rather not have written this particular blog, but I know that her story will do us harm. That story is that we left her at the dock without a second thought (we were down from 21 people to just 11) and that we were rude, called her a liar, and didn't want to give her any money back after shafting her out of a portion of the tour.
I think if you are planning on coming on one of my tours or any other tour in Antigua please assume that we will be on time and that we may not wait for you if you are late. Please email Nell again if you are unsure of the directions and keep the number which she gives you in your confirmation email as a just in case backup.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

blue skies and warm winds

With the madness that is going on here just the week before the the huge general election coupled with the madness still going on with the Stanford saga it's easy to forget how beautiful it is here in Antigua. We all take so much for granted at times like this, and it's important to step back and look around us. The amazing weather we are having at the moment should help you see that despite everything life still is beautiful here on the island. I think it's important to do that just for a short while each day. So many people at the moment are emotionally charged in this politically crazy time that they lose track of what is really important. Each day i get asked who i am voting for and I have such a hard time deciding myself that i don't know what to tell them. I think I will have to make up my mind soon. We have to vote next week! I think i will do some thinking at the beach this weekend!