After tying up at the Cat Club’s dock in Falmouth Harbor and taking a shower, we adjourned to the hotel’s restaurant for a couple of cocktails and a meal to celebrate our safe passage. Having been a good boy all the way to Antigua after leaving Bermuda, I once again decided to engage in some varsity cheating on my diet, but I enjoyed every bite (and sip). We had a delicious meal, and returned to the boat to collapse for the first night of uninterrupted sleep in almost a week, safely tied to a quay once again.
The next morning, I had my first chance to take a good look at Falmouth Harbor in about 14 years. It has changed dramatically – apparently, a few years ago, Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame, and most importantly, fortune) visited Antigua and fell in love with the place. He decided to make Falmouth Harbor the Caribbean base for his motor yacht, Octopus, which, at 416’, is the world’s largest. (A web site describes it as follows:
“Octopus cost Allen over US$200 million and has permanent crew of 60, including several former Navy Seals. It has two helicopters, seven boats, a 10 man submarine and a remote controlled vehicle for crawling on the Ocean floor. The submarine has the capacity to sleep eight for up to two weeks underwater.”
If you have MS PowerPoint, and feel like looking at how the other half (of .001 %) of the other half lives, click here for a slide show of one of the world’s truly epic toys.)
Anyway, Allen’s love has been a mixed blessing for Falmouth Harbor, according to some friends who are familiar with the place (the boat wasn't there while I was, but it's impact was obvious). The sleepy little harbor I visited several times in the ‘90’s is gone, replaced by a network of piers suitable for accommodating both Allen’s boat and many others almost as large – there were half a dozen sailboats there while I was there with lengths greater than 120’, and there was still two weeks to go until the charter boat show which kicks off Antigua’s high season and draws a fleet of big cruising boats that would make any sailor’s mouth water (and wallet flinch). That development has brought a lot of money to this little town, and that’s good, but like moths to a flame, that money has also drawn criminals. Falmouth is still a very pretty place, and one of the world’s great yacht harbors, but the streets which one used to be able to walk along without thinking about it have gotten a good deal less safe, I’m told.
After I got through with my gawking, we unpacked the boat again, and did some cleanup work. Frank and Mike packed their gear in anticipation of their flights home that afternoon, and the rest of us organized ourselves for a couple of days of work to follow their departure. We also met Clive, the Rastafarian varnish guru who would take Hound in hand and give her extensive varnish work its annual dose of love (that varnish work being a significant part of the reason for the trip – the Antiguan varnishers are widely and justly famous). Unpacking also involved taking the inflatable dinghy out of its locker, inflating it, and mounting its engine, a priority since it would serve as our primary means of transportation for the next several days (and David & Zoë’s for the next several weeks).
That process was punctuated by Frank & Mike’s departure that afternoon, but took a couple of days by the time we were done, and provided the time necessary to make contact and arrangements with the guy who would take me in hand for the next few days, and enable the second part of this adventure: diving!
I'm new to scuba diving (just got certified in October), so I don't have much to compare with, but I had an amazing experience scuba diving in Antigua. After finishing our cleaning up after the delivery, I spent from Saturday afternoon through Tuesday afternoon diving out of Falmouth Harbor with Bryan Cunningham at Seawolf Diving. I'm a recently certified Open Water diver, and wanted to spend some time getting comfortable and diving in visibilities greater than 2' (I got certified on Long Island, so that wasn't an option at home).
I first contacted Antigua Scuba and Ultramarine in English Harbor, but got told that the former was closing up shop and the latter was only operating out of a base on the other side of the island. Before I heard from anyone else, I spoke with my sister-in-law, who had dived with Seawolf on Montserrat, and heard that they had moved to Antigua, and so I contacted Bryan through his website. I was by myself for this trip, so I needed to find someone who could serve as my buddy, and am new enough that I wanted a little more attention than I might get on a "cattle boat". Seawolf has a package that includes an Advanced Open Water certification with booking six dives or more with them, and that solved both of those problems, as well as providing some direction to my diving, which was an added bonus.
Seawolf is a PADI dive center officially based in Montserrat, but actually operating mostly in Antigua for the last couple of years (Montserrat being significantly less hospitable to tourism after the volcano erupted and all). They run two boats, both of which are small, but perfectly adequate to the trips they make, which are quite short (more time diving, less time riding in a boat, which suited me fine). The on board accommodations might best be described as basic by comparison to some operations (bring your own water and snack), and they aren't shiny, but they were perfectly seaworthy, included all the necessary safety gear, and were fine for the short trips we made. Bryan himself was very competent, knowledgeable (certified as an instructor by PADI, NAUI, and SDI, and experienced in diving all over the world), very conscious of caring for the reefs we dove on ("no gloves, please - they make you more inclined to touch things"), and very personable - lots of fun to dive with.
Again, I don't have a lot to compare with, but the prices seemed very reasonable, and the diving was spectacular - tons of fish (I saw dozens of species and hundreds of individuals on almost every dive), great reef life (lots of sponges and fans, heaps of spiny lobsters, and some interesting corals), really interesting bottom formations and topography, and amazing visibility on every dive. The water was warm (about 82º with no thermocline), and the sea state was quite benign for most dives (this is apparently a little variable - if the trade winds are blowing hard, it can get a bit choppy on a couple of sites, but it was fine while I was there).
I stayed aboard Hound, but there are a couple of nice places to stay in Falmouth and English Harbors (the Catamaran Hotel, the Admiral's Inn, the Antigua Yacht Club or the St James Club are more upscale options, and Zanzibar or a couple of others for the more budget minded - there are also a number of condos for rent in Falmouth at a variety of prices), and the local nightlife and restaurants are entertaining and tasty, respectively. Even if I don’t go back for the sailing (something I hope to do again), I’ll be going back for the diving.
One problem - after the beginning of December, accommodations can get tight, as the two harbors are a major winter destination for big sail and power yachts, which can suck up a lot of the hotel space when they're not out on charter - make your arrangements with a bit of lead time to beat this problem. Another problem (depending on when you want to go) is that business is so slow in the summertime that Bryan may not be staying on the island then, but traveling to the Mediterranean to work there, and returning in the fall.
I dove nine times in four days, including a variety of relatively shallow dives (<60’), one deep dive(>90’), and a night dive, which was spectacular in its own way (looking up through 40’ of water at the moon is an interesting experience!) I had great fun with Bryan, met his family and several friends, who were lots of fun, met a dive buddy I hope to have the chance to dive with again, ate, drank, and was merry, and generally had more fun that I thought you could have with a rubber suit on. The trip was a resounding success for me, as I felt as though I went from someone with no experience at all to having at least the beginnings of a clue. I got a lot more comfortable in the water, halved my air consumption rate, doubled my bottom times, dramatically improved my buoyancy performance in four days, managed to complete the AOW course, and had a ball. I'll go again as soon as I can manage it, and I'd recommend it highly to anyone who wants a great diving experience. Thanks, Bryan!