ANTIGUA, WEST INDIES — English harbor is a natural safe haven from the trade winds that blow here from the northeast. The harbor centuries ago was defended by the English whose primary interest on Antigua was sugar. Black Africans had been sold into the slave market on Antigua by the thousands because sugar harvesting was labor intensive.
Now most residents of Antigua are descendants of those slaves.
"Half full or full?’’
Louie was asking how much gas I wanted in the boat. For nearly an hour we had climbed onto and fallen off of cascading waves, undulating waves, en route to English Harbor from the cove where my friend keeps his boat.
Now we were at English Harbor wanting gas.
I was unsure of our boat’s capacity.
The pump had been running quite a while.
"Half.’’ I said.
The day before Louie had piloted the boat alongside steep cliffs onto which the Atlantic Ocean alternately washed against and, spectacularly, crushed itself. Along the cliffs, narrow roads lead to widely separated homes, many of which are Mediterranean in appearance.
A friend owns one of these and is not using it now and so I am here. My wife is here also. “Go down and go fishing,’’’ he said. “Use the boat.’’
In the morning about 5 when I shower the Caribbean breeze swirls through the house. There is no air conditioning and even now, on summer’s cusp, none is needed. The air is very fresh. As I step from the shower I hear waves spill far below against sand and rock. I take my coffee on a stone patio that is not separated from the house or its gardens. Inside is out, and outside, in.
Louie will arrive at 8.
“Nine hundred,’’ the man says.
He means in Caribbean currency and when considered in U.S. dollars the sum for the gas is about a third of the nine hundred.
I pay the man and Louie and I untie the lines and stow them neatly in a forward hatch. Then we leave English Harbor and as we do I wave to a couple from Minneapolis who have wintered in Antigua on their sailboat. The man is a community college teacher and in the summer when he and his wife return to Minnesota he teaches. “There are even more students during a recession,’’ his wife says.
Louie and I had fly fished the day before, or I had, but logistically the undertaking was complicated. Tides can be different on one side of an island than another. There were those to consider. Also the mangrove bays that I cast to often lay unprotected from the wind.
Joycelyn, the cook, had issued very specific orders to release nothing we caught.
“Bring back anything you catch,’’ she said.
I said we would.
But I knew also I wouldn’t kill a bonefish and certainly not a permit.
I had thrown a 10-weight rod and by early afternoon when the sun grew hot Louie was unsure of our prospects. I employed flies resembling crabs in various colors and sizes and styles, also big streamers and an assortment of stimulators.
Barracuda swim in these waters, also tarpon and I wanted really to hook up with something to take some pressure off Louie, who does not fly fish.
“Fly fishing seems a lot of work,’’ he said.
So on this second day we filled the boat half full of fuel at English Harbor, paid for the fuel, parted the rock cliffs that flank the harbor and angled into the rolling seas.
Louie and I needed to brace our legs as widely as possible while we affixed steel leaders to heavy lines. The lines wound around spools on reels the size nearly of soccer balls. The lures we used were the length of a man’s forearm and as we free-spooled line off the stern, the boat pitched steeply, and yawed.
Very little about this exercise required discussion. We were dependent on our equipment. The boat needed to stay afloat and the motors needed to keep running. Louie regulated our speed by varying the engines’ RPMs, which consistently ran between 3,000 and 4,000.
In another two days, fishing yachts from throughout the Leewards would descend on Antigua for a big billfishing tournament.
So we were in effect testing the waters.
An hour passed and the distance between us and a now-barely visible house atop a steep precipice grew evermore distant. The cliff is wildly striated and seems to reach nearly to the heavans.
At its base, waves crashed in cascades of foam that even now from so far away rose like geysers.
The house belongs to Eric Clapton and my suspicion was on this day he would not be fishing.