The low-lying island of Barbuda, with its highest point only 125 feet above sea level, is surrounded by miles of shallow, turquoise water, dotted with coral reefs. Miles of pink sand beaches frame the island, and it is home to the largest colony of frigatebirds in the Eastern Caribbean (surpassing any in the Galapagos).
The island was devastated by Hurricane Irma in September, and all of its residents were evacuated to Antigua. They began to return after the new year, and cruisers soon followed. In late January, there was a short lull in the wind, making travel north favorable for us to continue on to Anguilla or St. Barths. However, cruisers who had recently visited Barbuda reported that the water and coral were in great shape, and the birds were returning. The upcoming weather window would give us enough time to comfortably travel to the island, stay a few days and return to the protection of Jolly Harbour in time for the next blow. We felt that if we missed the chance to visit the island, we’d regret it, so we set our sights on Barbuda.
Although it is over half the size of Antigua, only 2,000 local residents live on Barbuda, in and around Codrington, the island’s only village. The Barbudan people were originally slaves for the Codrington family, who leased the island from England…wait for it…for one, fat sheep. The family used the island as a hunting ground, and also grew livestock and root vegetables for their estates on nearby Antigua.
The Barbudan slaves were not closely supervised, and worked together to hunt, fish and grow their food. Once emancipated, they stayed on the island, and continued to live cooperatively. Land on Barbuda is held communally, and this has been key to the residents keeping control over their own island. Since there is no individual ownership, land can not be sold to outsiders.
Barbuda reluctantly agreed to join Antigua, when the two islands became independent from England in 1981. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to develop the island, which has been met with strong resistance from the local residents. Case in point, the Antiguan government allowed a huge hotel project to begin on the island, and mobile offices were erected, in preparation for construction to begin. Wanting to keep the land in question as a park, the Barbudan people gathered at the site, and pushed the offices over a cliff; the land remains a park.
The island survives, in part, by selling sand, but continues to struggle against those who would love to get their hand’s on its beachfront real estate. After forcing its residents to evacuate after Hurricane Irma, Antigua again tried to allow hotel development on the island. At the final hour, the Barbudans won their latest fight, and the island remains under community land ownership. Power to the people!
We left Jolly Harbour for an eight hour run to an anchorage on the west side of Barbuda. Just off of St. John’s Harbour, a Disney cruise ship intersected our path, not seeming to care that we had the right of way.
Scott hailed the mouse-ship on the radio, asking if they intended to give way. The response, “We’re in a hurry to get into St. John’s.” Translation: “I’m bigger than you, and I’ll do what I want.” Much as Scott wanted to play chicken with the floating theme park, we slowed our speed, and waited until Donald Duck had cleared our path.
As Barbuda came into view, we could see Irma had left her calling card along the island’s shoreline.
We anchored off of the eleven mile beach, on the island’s west side. Hurricane Irma had blown a cut through it, shrinking it’s former, continuous length. Once anchored, we took the dingy ashore for happy hour. Our friends on s/v Mr. X, and s/v Christine had come to Barbuda as well, and were anchored near us.
The next morning, we went exploring. Since the island had very little development, mostly centered around Codrington, there wasn’t visual, shocking damage along our stretch of coastline. Trees and shrubs were still stripped bare in places, from their salt-water wind pounding, but in many places, green growth was coming back nicely.
As we stepped off of the dinghy, our feet sunk down several inches into soft, pillow-like sand. We assumed that the hurricane winds had blown much more of it up onto the beach, making the level higher than normal. Along the water’s edge were piles of small, bright pink shells. Obviously, over time, they break down and become the pink sand that normally colors Barbuda’s beaches.
The mass of shells still provided a beautiful hue along the coastline, and the vibrant pink was easily visible as we approached the beach, and up close as we walked the shore.
We were anchored off of a very narrow strip of land, framed by the Caribbean on one side, and a salt pond on the other.
At the far end of the pond, we caught site of the many, many frigatebirds that live on the island. Countless birds flew in the air, and the mangroves below were full of black dots from the frigates nesting in their branches.
Although we didn’t take a tour, to get closer these birds, here’s a bit of info. on them, as well as a few online photos:
Frigatebirds have a greater wing span to body weight ratio than any other bird. This makes them top heavy, and their small feet and short legs makes it nearly impossible for them to walk on land. They are also unable to take off if submerged in water, and immediately struggle (I read that a Barbudan local once saw a frigatebird fall into the water, and two others came immediately, one on each side, to lift it back into the air).
Frigates scoop food from the surface, and are masters at waiting for other birds to catch a meal, and then harassing them until they drop their catch.
They return to their nesting sites each year, and during mating season, males inflate their red throat sac like a balloon and clatter their bills, waving their heads back and forth, calling at females flying overhead (doesn’t sound like they play hard to get).
Our friends, Blue and Perry, had vacationed on Barbuda the previous winter, and asked us to put eyes on the resort where they’d stayed if we were nearby. The Barbuda Belle location wasn’t too far, but water’s off shore were too shallow for us to anchor close to it, so we set off in the inflatable dinghy.
Despite the hurricane damage, the island was still very scenic. We stopped several times along the way, to wander the beach and admire the clear, turquoise water.
At the final point before Barbuda Belle, a lone palm tree had survived Irma’s devastating winds.
After 90 minutes, Barbuda Belle came into view. The resort had taken quite a beating, but we could see that reconstruction had already begun.
After thorough documentation, we made the journey back to Sea Life. Our friends had relocated further south, and we now had the entire area to ourselves. The only sign of life we could see, was a dot on the horizon; a catamaran anchored miles away. Bliss.
We spent the rest of the day, and that evening, enjoying the solitude, and raised anchor the next morning to head for Antigua. As usual, Howard slept through much of the passage. I got some writing done, while hiding from the brisk wind coming in through the open pilothouse door.
We settled back into Jolly Harbour, and prepared to wait out the next batch of relentless, winter wind. Here are more photos.
“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”