Jamaica A Surprising Journey
Text and Photos by Carmen Tobias*
I was living on a sailboat exploring the south coast of Cuba. We were traveling slowly enjoying the Cuban culture and pristine beauty of these rarely visited waters. After 3 months we arrived in Santiago de Cuba on the south east tip the country. Here we did some repairs and stocked up on supplies for the next journey. We were heading for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. There were four of us, two Canadians and two crew members we met in Santiago the week before form UK and Sweden. The trip was expected to take 4 to 5 days to cover the 450 nautical miles of water. We were well stocked, the boat was in great shape and the crew was excited and ready for the adventure.
We left with the premise of good weather for the next 6 to 7 days, heading south towards the windward passage between Jamaica and Haiti. The windward passage is a unique body of water with very strong currents merging from the north and south of Haiti and running into the Formigas Bank a 5,000 foot mountain under the ocean. This creates another current in the opposite direction merging with the north and south currents.
The weather was clear and the seas were good and we sailed the first day and through the night without incident. The second day we were getting into the windward passage and discovering just how strong the merging currents were. Even though the winds were picking up and the current was throwing us around, we had a solid boat and a good crew, there was no turning back.
The second day we were under sail with the engine running fighting the current when the engine revved up and appeared to be in neutral. It was dark now and after close inspection we realized the drive shaft bolts had sheared off. This was a big problem!
Our new friend and crew mate the The Big Swede worked for 3 hours getting thrown around in the engine room in 4 to 5 meter waves. He finally got some undersized bolts to hold the drive shaft together. Success! We had the engine again to help navigate the rough seas.
We were relieved and resting in the helm, sheltered from the wind and waves. I was looking out the window into the blackness and something didn’t look right. When we turned on the deck lights we saw the bottom of the Staysail had detached from the deck. This was a fully inflated sail swinging wildly only attached by the top 40 feet up. The seas were 4 to 5 meters and the wind was 30 knots and it was pitch black.
Three of us ran out to the deck and worked at stabilizing the dangerous beast. After what seemed like hours we got the sail tied to the mast shrouds, thanking god that no one was hurt. We were exhausted, wet and bruised. After regaining our composure we assessed our predicament and options. We had a vibrating driveshaft, our batteries weren’t charging properly and the foredeck was a mess with the crippled sail. We were still 250 nautical miles from Santo Domingo and the storm was still raging.
The closest refuge was Jamaica 30 nautical miles away. We had heard many horror stories about Jamaica and Kingston, ranging from pirate boardings to armed murder in the streets.
We had no option left, we headed for the closest sheltered bay Bowden Bay on the south eastern tip of Jamaica. We anchored in the bay just before sunrise, and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next morning life looked pretty sweet, we were alive and still floating. We had no idea what was in store for us. But we were about to find out as a Jamaican Coast Guard boat was approaching us with 4 fully armed, large Jamaican soldiers.
They rafted up to our boat and boarded. To our surprise they were happy to see us, spoke perfect English and were joking and laughing with us. We were visited three times, by Quarantine, Customs and Immigration. All the Jamaican officials were very friendly, happy and professional. This was our first impression of Jamaica.
The coast guard sent over a mechanic to help us get our engine started and supplied us with contacts and directions to the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club.
After a 10 hour sail from Bowden Bay to RJYC we arrived at night. The entrance to the harbor was narrow and shallow, but to our relief there was two club members on the fuel dock with flash lights guiding us in.
We were received royally, and immediately felt at home with our new friends. Our contact Pat, a tiny lady who was obviously running the club, got us settled the following day with moorage. She was very accommodating, helping us find tradesmen to help repair the boat, and directing us where to buy supplies. My impressions of Jamaica were quickly changing. This was a developed, organized country and everyone spoke English. Kingston has great cellular coverage and great internet access. There were electronics stores, modern grocery stores, hardware stores, and even Scotiabank which is my Canadian bank. Over the next few weeks I made many new friends at the club as we all had a common interest: sailing.
Now, RJYC is a small marina but apparently it is the largest in Jamaica. I was invited to participate in an overnight sailboat race by a new friend of mine. I was happy accept. There were five boats sailing out 25 miles or so, then all rafting up together in a sheltered bay for the evening. There was plenty of food, music, laughing and the occasional rum. The next morning was perfect weather and winds for the race back to the club. We won the race and I guess I passed the initiation.
I quickly realized that there was a small group of very experienced sailboat racers in this club. I had about 15 years sailing experience only racing in the yearly regatta in Vancouver, this was a whole new concept for me. To me sailing was put up the sails, set a course and hang on for many days and nights until you got there.
These guys pushed their boats to the limits, putting stresses on the rigging I would never dare to do on our boat, at least not on purpose.
I was hooked, and took every opportunity to participate and learn the skills of sailboat racing. I was invited and sailed on many different boats that summer, everyone was very supportive. One of my first friends was a bartender who drove me around and showed me Kingston. He took me to neighbourhoods I had only heard of in Bob Marley songs, Tivoli Gardens, Trench Town, Daytonville, where we sat with his friends and drank beer. This was not the dangerous vision I had, but communities with families and children, and good people.
I traveled through the east side of the island all the way to the north coast up to Port Antonio. Jamaica is very mountainous with 7600 foot peaks, and is covered with small narrow winding roads. There are many communities, restaurants and bars along these roads where I felt welcomed and safe. I travelled to the north coast where the resorts of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay with their picturesque white sand beaches reside. Most of the tourism is on the north coast, this is the Jamaica we all see in the tourism advertisements.
In all, i spent 6 months living at the yacht club in Kingston. It was a very special time in my life and I had some great experiences there. I am looking forward to returning and continuing my adventures there.
* The author works for the Taina Group Canada and describes his visit to Jamaica, where Cubaplus magazine, belonging to a Canadian company, is now represented.