In 1723, work began on the British Navy dockyard at English Harbor on Antigua. Completely surrounded by high ridges and immediately open to the sea through a narrow channel, the harbor is easily defensible and well protected from hurricanes. So well defended by forts Shirley and Berkeley at the entrance to the bay, Napolean's spies were invited in to view the defenses (the story goes) on the theory the French would not even attempt attack once they saw them. They further ringed the island with forts within sight of each other to raise the alarm should ships be sighted. Having a complete refit capability in the Caribbean gave the British a much better ability to field a large fleet in this hotly contested area as it spared men, material and time to do the required rework at the front, rather than sail all the way back to England. It seems to have worked. Antiguans were never ruled by the French and do not speak Creole today.
Abandoned only with due bureaucratic speed after the end of slavery, the introduction of the sugar beet and the general collapse of the plantation economy, the huge sail lofts, workshops, mills, storage and administrative buildings and docks pretty much sat, rotting in tropical conditions until just after WWII when former commander Vernon Nicholson sailed into the harbor with his family. The extensive stone works had been protected from salvage and plunder by ghosts, though the wood had fallen to termites. Nicholson recognized the attraction to the then exclusive yachting set and restored the dockyard ruins to marine use. The whole thing is now a national park, though a working one. Some buildings have been converted to use as pubs, art and T-shirt galleries and inns but many are still serving as saillofts and chandleries and private yachts and a few tall ships have replaced the warships at the stone quay. Based on this, Antigua has become the Caribbean pole of the Mediterranean/ Caribbean axis for the super yachts and restored classics alike. In April, English and neighboring Falmouth harbors are the place to see and be seen. For about two months in the winter, this is the place to view and to show polished, varnished floating palaces and restored sailing yachts alike. Uniformed and dapper crew bustle about getting ready for the big races and the arrival of their owners. The VHF crackles with arrangements for all the specialists required to keep these fabulous vessels looking and working flawlessly. Cruise ship tourists, vendors, guides, mega-yacht crew and would be day laborers wander around looking a little stuptified by the Caribbean sun. The rest of the year, Antigua sleeps in the sun.
The yachts sailing here are some of the most fantastic, beautiful and expensive structures ever built. Athena, built by Jim Clark, the inventor of Ethernet, is the largest privately owned schooner in the world at 90 meters long. Its three carbon fiber masts are just short enough to fit under the Bridge of the Americas on the Panama canal and are gaff rigged. It is beautiful. It sits next to Ranger, a modern yacht in the style of the old J-Boat racing yachts of the early part of the century which held the America's cup in New York for so many years. When walking along the boom, a crew member's head just shows over the cradle holding the sails. On the other side is Tiara , a fully modern yacht with hydraulic roller furling on the bow whose gleaming mechanism stands taller than a person and one of whose stainless steel anchors easily supports the workman polishing the topsides. Beyond that lies the Talitha G, looking much like a cruise ship of the thirties with two enormous stacks raked slightly back at a jaunty angle. At night, these majestic giants top the masts with red lights (to warn low flying craft) and by day, the whole area sparkles with polished, gleaming bright work, stainless steel and painted hulls, each crisply reflecting the glory of it neighbors like the hall of mirrors at Versailles
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We hung out in all this splendor, helping friends with a disabled engine and trying to remedy a steady trickle of fresh water getting into the bilge. Between trips to the various chandleries in the area, we would walk the docks, trying not to drool on braided dockline the size of a wrist and spotless fenders which, suitably fitted out, could serve as small boats in their own right. We decided that our fresh water stream was associated with a badly rusting water heater first brought under suspicion by our surveyor three years ago. None of the chandleries had our water heater and some suggested that we go up to the other end of the island to St. John, the capital, where all the goods on the island are brought in. We sailed up, anchored in amongst the smoke belching cruise ships in a fragrant corner of the harbor and set out in search of the fabled Antigua Plumbing. Walking through its noisy, dirty streets with abandoned buildings, sleeping street vendors, looming government buildings, trash and fragrant decay is surreal when you reflect it is less than twenty miles to the world center of the glitterati.
The contrast is not just between poverty and plenty. It is a contrast between centuries. When sugar collapsed and Her Magesty's Navy left, Antigua largely slept. A slow pace, plenty of sunshine and beautiful beaches, made this a pleasant but sleepy existance. There are now more Antiiguans in New York city than on the island (about 70,000) and three times more Antiguans live abroad than at home. Bird, the hero of the independence movement became a kind of Tammany hall operation whose grip was only broken in the last two years with the help of international elections inspectors and the courts in England. Though he took care of his friends and relatives, there has been no developement of hospitals, schools, roads or housing. The yachting crowd got a fabulous international airport, the US Coast Guard got a huge tracking station and St. John got multiple cruise ship docks. Most of the businesses just shut down when the 10 week season is over and there is too little water for agriculture to thrive. Enough money flows through to keep things afloat and the construction of more resorts seems to have been boosted by the reform government. Parham, the nearest town to us here on the outer reefs seems to have gone to sleep in 1850 and has chickens and goats wandering among centuries old ruins and modern shacks. The Japanese have built a fishing dock and its bay is dominated by a ship's graveyard but no actual money generating activities were observed by your intrepid travelers on Friday save a luncheonette whose 1 item long menu provided us and two other customers lunch. The huge Anglican cathedral seems in good enough repair (though very plain), but its huge cemetary seemed to be in the process of reverting to an arid jungle. The peak activity was a Rasta, living in a shed against the ruins on main street, lighting his ganja.