June 15, 2005
Port Antonio, Jamaica
18 ° 10.795 North
076 ° 27.302 West

Rolling Out the Rainbow Carpet

By Douglas Bernon

Port Antonio, a sweet, cul-de-sac-shaped harbor that glaciers once kindly carved out of the Blue Mountains on the northern shore of Jamaica, just 20 miles from the island's most eastern tip. Protection is so good from all directions that some cruisers choose to ride out hurricane seasons here, either at the Port Antonio Marina or on the hard at its shipyard. For us, though, Port Antonio was to be a brief stop on our way to Panama's San Blas islands. But as is so often the case, slowing down improved the experience, and our stay became longer than we'd planned. As the local Rasta's say, "No complaint, ya mon."

Jamaica's Blue Mountains produce some of the best coffee in the world and offer great hiking.

The approach to the harbor was magnificent. From offshore, we peered ahead, searching for a glimpse of the island through the gray squalls. At first, we saw a purple haze we took to be more rain clouds, but as we got closer to land, the clouds re-arranged themselves and suddenly there was the looming outline of the Blue Mountain range; as the squall passed it took on sharper definition. Yet more squalls stole our vision completely, but only briefly and with the grandest of payoffs for their temporary inconvenience. We were treated to a rainbow whose arc actually was the rhumb line into the harbor.

The signs around Port Antonio were colorful, amusing and practical. The speaker shop did great business; music was loud everywhere.

We didn't have a large, detailed chart for the entrance to Port Antonio, but The Yachtsman's Guide to Jamaica, by John Lethbridge, has first-rate hand-drawn chartlets with accurate detail. He suggests an offshore waypoint from which you steer dead south for about half a mile, after which you turn to 248 degrees True and enter a channel that runs directly into the anchorage. Although his book was published in 1996 and remains the only cruising guide for this island, the buoys he showed were actually still where they were supposed to be and in well-lit, working condition.

Port Antonio Marina

Lethbridge wrote 10 years ago that there are three different marinas here as well as an anchoring field, but today the marinas have merged into one, which is owned by the government and managed by a US firm. In addition to slips for 32 boats- and a tie-along pier that easily held a 165-foot motor yacht - the marina maintains nine mooring balls, which they rent for $7 a day. If you choose to anchor instead, and want to use the facilities, you can do so for the same daily charge; the fee includes unlimited high-speed internet access at the air-conditioned marina office, a comfortable air-conditioned television room, use of the fresh-water swimming pool, a secure place to tie up the dink, and as much ice as we could carry, which in that steamy anchorage was plenty.

Bernadette and I rejoiced in the rainbow that Port Antonio laid out for us, and joked that the island provided a pretty elegant welcome process. No sooner had we said that than the VHF crackled: "Vessel entering harbor, Vessel entering harbor, this is the Port Antonio Marina. If you'd like to tie up along our dock for check in, feel free to do so. Have bumpers ready on your port side, and we'll have men there to meet you."

One day, a fellow named Skinny took us up into the mountains, to a coffee finca.

I called back, "Port Antonio Marina, This is the sailing vessel Ithaka. Many thanks, we'll see you in a few."

The radio hailed us again, but with a different voice. "Ithaka, Ithaka, this is Macy. 'Bout time you guys got here. Go ahead and tie up, clear your papers, and then come on out to the anchorage. You'll get better a better breeze out here, and you'll be farther from the no-seeums."

Dave and Julia (center) from the boat Macy, which Julia built herself. With them are Dave's son Arlan (right) and his friend Chris (left)

We hadn't seen Dave and Julia on Macy since the launching of their wooden 40-foot sloop more than a year ago in Rhode Island. For 10 years Julia had built this beauty herself. She is a master woodworker, master mariner and infinitely talented. We were thrilled to catch up with them again.

With our Q flag fluttering, we tied up at the quay. The rule is that until the quarantine officer arrives, no one can leave the vessel except to walk up to the office. It was a Saturday, so we were told the quarantine official would be along, but not right away. We waited and talked to other cruisers on the dock, each of whom told us the same tale about the old man who was about to arrive.

Douglas had a field day photographing interesting wall murals around Port Antonio

"He'll sit forever on your boat. He's got nothing to do and lots of time, and oh yeah, he'll expect a gift before he'll actually leave." We're used to government officials wanting "gifts" for doing their jobs. Call it a tip or baksheesh or just plain extortion, this bribe is generally requested with no shame and often with dramatic flourish. (Once, in Honduras, when an official attempted to extort an extra $30 from me, I grabbed my heart, screamed "Oh no, mi corazon!" and threw myself to the floor. Even crooks appreciate a good performance. He laughed, and waived his demand entirely.)

After several hours our official arrived. He was an elderly man, heavy set, and dragging one leg behind him. He appeared to have suffered a stroke from which he had not fully recovered, but he was friendly and we helped him onto Ithaka. He made no effort to check for any of the contraband which a quarantine official might be curious about - eggs, meat, live goats and chickens. But he sat contently in our cockpit, admired the mountains, the sky, chatted, asked few questions, had us fill out a form in duplicate-he had no carbon paper-and when our three minutes of business was completed, sat for another hour with a happy, but unfocused smile. He told us we were free to leave the boat, and that we could take down our yellow Quarantine flag and hoist the Jamaican colors. Still, though, he didn't budge. We told him we were going to move the boat off the dock. He said we were free to do so, but first he said, "It's Saturday, and I had to come in to clear you. I sometimes get something for that. Do you have a gift for me?"

Macy's carved name-board graces her transom

"No," I said. "How much of a gift do you expect?" I asked.

He didn't twitch a muscle. "Hmmm, usually about, maybe $100?" he replied.

"Not bloody likely," I told him with a laugh, knowing we'd have to fork over something, or he'd sit there until hell froze over, but that it wasn't going to be anywhere near $100.

I went below, got a $5 bill and handed it to him, with our thanks for checking us in on a Saturday. He took it between two fingers with the greatest disdain, examined it with pained eyes and looked as if I had just dropped a cow pie into a crystal punch bowl. For the first time all afternoon he focused on me directly and asked, "Is this all de gift you got?"

"Yes, that's it, my friend," I said, and tried to stand up, say good-bye, and escort him off Ithaka. But, he would not be activated for so low a fee. I went below, got another five and told him "That's it."

Then he allowed himself to be helped off our boat and onto the pier. When I later surveyed the cruisers who were already checked in I found they'd "gifted" anywhere from $5 to $20. What a system. We were free to get off the dock and into the anchorage, which we did as fast as we could, and felt the breeze rush down our forward hatch as we headed into the light breeze and picked up a mooring.

Two hours later our friends Frank and Lynda on Simba, who were tied to the quay, radioed us to say the customs man had arrived. We went back ashore. This fellow requested no gifts, and there was no customs charge. He stamped us into the country with only an intense lecture about his disdain for President Bush and the war in Iraq, and his greater affection for former President Clinton.

"What did you like better about Clinton?" I asked.

"Oh everything," he said. "I know he got in trouble wid dat sweet Monica. Ya mon, he shore did."

Immigration, he told us, would not be coming at all on the weekend, but "no worries, mon. You be free to walk wherever you want. Jus go into d'office after d'weeken and check in then."

We loved going to the market, and learning from the vendors all about the unusual fruits and veggies, and how to cook them.

I thanked him for his insights on American presidential politics, after which Bernadette and I hurried back to Ithaka, finished stowing our gear, raised our sun awnings, grabbed our wallets, and called Macy to find out where in town we'd find the best Jamaican Jerk Chicken and the coldest Red Stripe beer. They told us about their favorite spots. But before we dinghied in, we sat for a moment, smiled, and laughed happily. To our stern were mountains; over the bow we looked at a waterfront park from which we could hear reggae music. There was a new island for us to discover. Nothing major had broken in 24 hours, and the officials hadn't nicked us badly. We'd had both a rainbow and a reunion with old friends. All in all, it was a pretty great arrival.

Cruising Guide for Jamaica

The only cruising guide for Jamaica is John Lethbridge's "The Yachtsman's Guide to Jamaica," (ISBN: 976610030-6). It's filled with first-rate hand-drawn charts that we found totally reliable for entering Port Antonio. Friends who have circumnavigated the island say they relied confidently on Lethbridge everywhere they went. However, the book was written in 1996, and while coastlines have not changed, the text information is a bit out of date. Still, it's the bible for cruising here and a must-have.

The Port Antonio Marina and Shipyard

Port Antonio Marina

This marina is impressive. The grounds and docks are immaculate and well-guarded, and the staff was consistently helpful. There are hefty docks and piers, water and pump-out facilities at each of the 32 fixed dockage berths. In the harbor they maintain nine mooring balls. Port Antonio is equipped to take anything from small sailboats to mega yachts. For boats under 50 feet, the fee at the dock is $.55 per night with a discount for longer residence. For boats over 50 feet, the fee is $.75 per night. For mooring balls the fee is $7 per night, and $5 for long term stays.

The marina also has a haul-out facility with a 100-ton travel lift, the only one in this region of the Caribbean. The fee for haul and launch is $2.50 per foot. Chocking is a flat $25 and dry-dock storage is $.50 per day for short term, and $.30 for long term. Like the marina, the shipyard is well protected.