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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in Trinidad and Tobago January/February 2002 

Tobago is first, coming from Barbados.  After a brisk overnight sail (140 miles) we arrived off the capital, Scarborough, on 14 January and anchored there for two weeks.  It’s possible to anchor off palm-fringed beaches in clear turquoise water, but because the island lies N/E  -  S/W, there isn’t a leeward side.  The seas were rough and the wind strong while we were there, so we stayed tucked up in Scarborough.  It’s a friendly, busy town which still has some fine wooden buildings with gables and dormer windows, trellis work and balconies;  some of them sadly abandoned, but others brightly painted and much in use.  Local eateries serve delicious grilled chicken and tasty rice, or the best rotis ever, and all so cheap; a big plateful of food for £1 or £2.  So, time-off from the galley!


We hired a car to explore.  The S/W point of Tobago is where tourism has developed.  Here are the hotels and apartments, white sand beaches and stalls selling beach wraps which billow in the wind under the cliché leaning palms.  The rest of the island seemed to us like a pastoral idyll of hills and valleys covered in lush rain forest.  Villages perch on the edge of steep ravines where people farm cocoa, coffee and bananas,  cockerels strut and chickens scratch under mango trees, dogs sleep in the road.  According to ‘Lonely Planet’, when the sugar and rum industry collapsed, the plantation owners sold or abandoned their property, leaving most of the islanders with a plot of land,  -those who had no money to buy it simply squatted. 


Tobago is big on trees.  Massive breadfruit with their astonishing leaves,  bamboo (not a tree), 60 feet tall, big shady tamarinds, and loveliest of all, the mountain immortelle, - great spreads of soft orange flowers lighting up the valleys.  We saw plenty of exotic birds:  colourful mot-mots, little blue-grey tanagers, and jacamars.   One evening we went looking for parrots in the northern forest reserve and found the skies filled with their noisy squawking.  In fact they are very common, and kids walking home from school had a good laugh at this pair of nutty tourists peering through binoculars!  Around the coast each beautiful bay has its small fishing community.  Pirogues are moored bow and stern  beyond the breakers,  slender rods stowed upright and dipping up and down in the heavy swell. The surf rolls in leaving the sand cool and smooth.  People hang out in the shade of the sea grape trees, make a fire from driftwood, cook a bit of fish, fry up some plantain.  Ah…. life’s a beach on Tobago.


Everyone chats to you in Scarborough, and we were urged to join the crowds who went to see Spectakular, one of the Calypso ‘tents’ that came on tour from Trinidad.  This was our first taste of carnival.  Dozens of artists entertained a huge audience with their new Calypso and Soca songs, and plenty of comedy in between.  Much of the social and political satire went over our heads, but the audience was ecstatic with glee.  The music was great and the energy of the performers and general exuberant atmosphere held us in our seats from 8.00pm till after midnight.


This event inspired us to shake off the dreamy stupor we had drifted into, haul up our anchor and set sail for Trinidad.  The islands are only 20 miles apart,  but you have to sail  around Trinidad to the other side, 80 miles in all, so this was another overnight sail.  The wind was strong, as usual (though not too strong -force 5/6)  the sea was not so rough, and the mountain range which runs all along the north coast of Trinidad was lit by a full moon, (making this the first enjoyable sail since our passage from Canary Islands to Cape Verde Islands).   At sunrise we reached the Boca de Monos, a narrow straight in the top ‘arm’ of the island.  There are three of these gaps, or bocas (which might be why  Columbus called it Trinidad).  The high coastline of Venezuela stood out in the morning light, only 7 miles away.  Surrounded by diving pelicans and soaring frigate birds we sailed through the gap into Chaguaramas Bay where we tied to the dock of one of many boatyards.  Chaguaramas is the busiest ‘yottie’ place in all the Caribbean islands and we were one of about 3000 yachts, mostly here for repairs, cleaning, fitting out or laying up. Lots of Americans keep their boats here.  We were here to get our steering gear fixed, our dinghy professionally mended, and a sail repaired.  It was a bit of a shock to be tied to the land, (not since Canary Islands).  Security lights beamed into the cabin at night, an oil rig a few meters away (in for repairs) ran a noisy generator and an enormous tractor hoist hauled boats in and out of the water all day.  But compared to any boatyard in the UK it is a very charming setting.  Against a backdrop of wooded mountains, the boats ashore are laid up on grass under the shade of bright tulip trees.  Palms border the paths, cafes on the waterfront are framed with bougainvillea, the pretty yellow kiskadees sing all day.  Also, it’s very sociable and we met up with several yachts we have seen along the way, including two from Pin Mill.  


It was very hot and our repairs took a month,  no question of escaping to a quiet cool anchorage.  Helen and Neville, who joined us in Trinidad for two weeks, didn’t get a sail at all.  But what with carnival and exploring the island, the time passed quickly.  Neville is Guyanese and has friends in Trinidad, one of whom took us to see the cane fields in the central plains.  Sugar is no longer a profitable enterprise and the work in the fields already seemed anachronistic.  We watched people (mainly of Indian origin) burning the cane, cutting cane (both by hand and by combine), loading it onto trucks and taking it to the sugar/rum factory.  The workers were friendly and gave us bits of cane to chew.  In the dusty heat it reminded me of a haymaking scene, like something out of Thomas Hardy.  It felt sad that soon this land would be sold to developers for building smart houses.  We drove to San Fernando where Neville was reunited with an old friend from London and they reminisced about the days in the 50’s when carnival and steel bands were starting up in Notting Hill.


Carnival – where to start.  For weeks the music dominates the radio stations and the Calypso and Soca hit tunes had become very familiar.  We also had the full-on experience of the ‘pan’ by going to pan yards and watching the bands practise for the finals.  These bands consist of 100 players and maybe 150 pans and the sound is  thrilling.  Each band must play for 10 minutes in front of the judges.  How 100 people can keep together and maintain such complex rhythms at such a pace I do not know.  The players seem indefatigable, totally focused, always moving and absolutely riveting to watch.   We went into Port of Spain on the night of the finals and joined the crowds around the bands as they waited their turn in the grandstand.  There were twelve bands, the pans transported on handcarts with canopies, all elaborately decorated.  Each band has about 20 carts which must be wheeled into place several times as they slowly progress towards the judges, each stopping place giving another chance to practise.  At a signal from the leader, all one hundred players simultaneously burst into electrifying sound, the fans dance and everyone is spellbound for the next 10 minutes.  In between, you can eat and drink at any of the dozens of stalls along the way, a great delicacy being ‘bake and shark’.  It was one big party, and for me the most exciting part of  carnival.  The parades on Monday and Tuesday were, of course, sensational; thousands dancing (‘chipping’) through the streets under the blazing sun, hands in the air, jumping up, waving flags and scarves.  Many of the costumes denote traditional characters (the history and culture behind this carnival is incredibly complex), the most alarming being the blue devils, a man and a boy roped together wearing hideous masks and menacing innocent  bystanders with a kind of rhythmic hissing.   There are charicatures of white plantation owners and society ladies, and all kinds of obscure (to us!)street theatre going on.  The kings and queens of the different mas’ (masquerade) bands were magnificent in hugely  elaborate costumes.  This year a new rule limited the size to 18 feet and 2 wheels, resulting in a dispute about the winners.  A week after carnival we went to ‘Champs in Concert’ where all the winners of everything perform in the grandstand.  We saw  ‘Sparrow’ (famous since the 60’s) singing his new Calypso ‘Poverty of the Mind’.  The display by the winning ‘king’ was spectacular, with fireworks showering out of his costume, and another chance of course to hear the best of the steel bands.


Work in the boatyards came to a standstill during all this long carnival holiday.  We rather lost track of what was happening to our repairs, and went off exploring:  a nature centre high in the rainforest, where we watched birds from the serenely peaceful veranda of an old plantation house:  yellow orioles, a chestnut woodpecker, the vivid green honey creeper and tiny humming birds.  Also, some fascinating little black and white mannequins darting about in the forest making a snapping sound with their tails.  These islands have turned us into enthusiastic twitchers!   The most stunning sight is the scarlet ibis. Their habitat is the huge swamps on the west side of the island.  At sunset they fly in to roost, thousands of them brilliantly scarlet in the low sunlight.  As they settle, the trees appear to burst into red blooms.


Our most memorable rainforest experience has to be the 5 mile hike to the Madanas waterfall.  We rose at 5.30 and drove for three hours high over the mountain range to the start of the trail.  There were 10 of us tourists and about 100 Trinis and the guide, known as ‘Snake’.  We slithered off along the muddy trail, past cocoa trees, the pods gleaming yellow and red in the shadows,  and then deeper and deeper into the forest.  It was amazing how quickly such a crowd spreads out.  In places the track was barely discernible and we felt very small under the towering canopy.  We reassembled at the river, for the last mile of this hike was actually IN the river!  Into the water we went, gasping at the cold, the unexpected depth, the submerged and very slippery rocks.  We were often up to our waists and in three places we had to swim.  We looked like 19th century explorers wading up the river with our rucksacks on our heads or floating alongside.  Everyone helped each other along and finally we all got to the waterfall, completely soaked but on a communal high.  We ate our soggy food and relaxed around the deep pool while the young men climbed up the side of the falls to dive into the pool, the more timid ones egged on by chanting, and then loud cheers.  It was a great Sunday outing.  We had to do it all over again to get back, and our wonderful guide, together with his cheerful assistants made sure we all made it to the village before day suddenly became night at 6.30pm.


Next morning, the engineers came on board to install the new cable for our steering.  No reason to stay longer in Trinidad, but so hard to leave.  A few more trips into Port of Spain, a lively, busy city so familiar now, a few more dhal pouri rotis, a few more newspapers, still commenting on carnival, and still full of the political impasse since the December elections….


We sailed to Grenada on Friday, 8th March; quite a tough sail as it was into the wind.  But the sea was quiet and it was a clear starry night.  We are now anchored in Prickly Bay on the south coast, enjoying the cool breeze blowing through the boat and jumping into the sea whenever we feel like it. A new island, the ‘Spice Island’ awaits.


Have a good Easter holiday.  Best wishes from Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008