by Kathy Chetland
To be honest I was not overly excited about visiting Jamaica. We were on our way to Cuba and just thought we would make a short stop on the way. We had read about the high crime rate on the island and about "the unfriendly and often aggressive attitude of officials" (World Cruising Guide) and so were prepared for the worst. We are leaving, however, with quite a different attitude.
We had a very pleasant sail from Curaçao with perfect conditions all the way except for a few squalls on the last night, and as the new day dawned and the coast of Jamaica rose up from the darkness we began to relish the prospect of patties and Red Stripe for lunch. The wind had eased considerably after the squalls of the night and our speed was gradually dropping as we sailed, against the current, up the eastern coast towards Port Antonio.
When we found ourselves struggling to do three knots we decided to motor the last few miles. That was when we discovered we had a problem with the engine. We could still make it to Port Antonio before dark, even at two knots, and had little option but to make the best of it and keep sailing. But then the wind died completely. We were going nowhere.
For the next few hours I tried to pick up any breath of wind that came by while Nigel worked on the engine. Neither of us was successful and we gradually drifted back down the coast ever closer to shore. We had tried several times to get assistance using the VHF but had no reply. Our drift was slow but we were getting worried; the afternoon was marching on and we were running out of options. We watched distant rain clouds optimistically, hoping for wind, but each one seemed to make a detour and pass us by.
After an eternity we managed to attract the attention of some fishermen who agreed to give us a tow. They took us to Manchioneal, where no cruiser had been before!
We entered the harbour under the curious gaze of several fishermen as their boats milled around us, and eventually anchored off the police station in 3.5 metres, under the supervision of police representatives who had come out in one of the boats.
We were asked to report immediately to the police station with our documents. Nigel went alone while I sorted the boat. He was gone for more than an hour and a half and I was beginning to wonder what was going on - I still had images of muggings and aggressive officialdom in my head.
Eventually I heard the dinghy return and a bright, smiling Nigel was telling me to come ashore. He had been having a beer (or two) with the policeman! It had been arranged that an Immigration official would come out to check us in and, after another beer, we were free to look around until the appointed time.
As we walked along the road away from the village, a man ran up behind us calling us back to his bar. "Here we go," we thought. "The hassle begins." We were wrong; he was inviting us for a drink in his bar, money or no money, as fellow travellers. We spent a happy hour there and went back several times.
Check-in was straightforward and the Immigration man friendly and helpful, as were all the officials we met during our stay, so by the time we settled down for the night we were feeling more positive about our situation.
The first thing we needed to do the next day was to contact our son to report our safe arrival, and with that in mind we walked into Manchioneal Village. Manchioneal is a small fishing village in the parish of Portland on the east coast of Jamaica, about 22 kilometers from Port Antonio and 80 kilometers from Kingston. It is set at the foot of the John Crow Mountains in a rich, green landscape with an abundance of fruit trees and small vegetable plots. The village, which straddles a main road, has several small shops, including a clothes shop, a hardware store and a post office, and many rudely-built huts housing bars, or eateries serving delicious dishes of fish, chicken, pork or goat.
Fishing boats line the shore behind the shops and there is usually someone there mending nets, preparing for a trip or, if you are lucky, bringing in their catch. Many of the homes are small, roughly built houses with patched roofs and walls, and little furniture. People gather in small groups outside the stores or bars to pass the time of day and occupants of passing cars call out greetings as they go. The beat of loud music sets your pace as you walk along. But there is no public telephone!
We went into a general store to enquire about how we could make our call and explained that we needed to let our son, in England, know that we were safe. The lady in the shop insisted we use her mobile phone to call and wanted no payment. She was very friendly; we stayed chatting for some time and thereafter always visited when we were passing.
At first we were amazed by this generosity but soon came to realise that this is the Jamaican way. If you need help with anything in Jamaica you will find it. The warmth and kindness of the people here is apparent everywhere.
We soon realised that our intended two nights in Manchioneal would be longer as we had to send to UK for an engine part. We were quite happy as we were already starting to feel at home. We went to tell our friends at the police station and they made us feel very welcome, giving us the use of their shower facilities, allowing us to fill our water jugs and to dispose of our rubbish at the station and offering any help we might need. A few days later they invited us to the Inspector's birthday party where we were fed on goat curry, roast fish and endless beer and rum! As news got around that we were stuck many people told us they were happy that we were staying and asked if we needed anything or asked us to drop by for a chat.
We settled down for our stay. Manchioneal harbour is protected by a natural wall of ancient coral; it has a large reef just inside the entrance to starboard, and a river flowing in at the southwestern corner. It is, however, open to the southeast and in certain conditions can be very rolly, although we were comfortable for all but three or four days of the three weeks we stayed there. With only local fishing boats using the harbour there is little need for a dinghy dock, so at first we beached our inflatable dinghy outside the police station when we went ashore. Once we realised that security was not an issue we began to take the dinghy into the river and leave it tied amongst the fishing boats, always with our air pump and fuel cans on board and never locked. The only outcome of which was that a fisherman asked if he could borrow the pump to inflate some fenders, having no other means of doing so.
The entrance to the river is quite tricky, with stony shallows extending from each bank leaving only a narrow gap to navigate. Once through, the waters are calm and the mangroves ahead, where dozens of egrets roost at night, give a feeling of tranquillity. On the starboard bank is Manchioneal Fishing Village, a small community; separate from the main village, and sponsored by 'Feed the Poor'.
The fishing community here is like a big family and we were made to feel part of that family during our stay. Every Sunday they have a get-together with a "cook up" during the afternoon and early evening, and we were always included. We were treated to delicious fish soup and baked fish with rice and peas, all simply cooked on an open fire and worthy of any good restaurant. The atmosphere was always very laid back and the air filled with music and laughter.
It was during one of these gatherings that the fishermen asked if they could look at our charts, having none of their own, to find banks within their 80-mile radius where there might be good fishing. We were delighted to be given the chance to repay some of their kindness and spent a happy afternoon plotting waypoints with them, while being plied with beer. (I hope the later ones are accurate!)
The river was also the place to do our laundry and to bathe. We would go about a mile upstream, in the dinghy, through the mangroves and the brackish water they so love, until we reached fresh, crystal clear water. Here we would sometimes meet others, who had come for the same purpose, and pass the time of day. I don't think I have ever enjoyed doing the laundry so much (the sheer luxury of unlimited rinsing water!). And bathing was wonderful, our hair so soft after washing in such pure water. We didn't use the police showers once!
Our days were filled, once the jobs were done, with swimming from the boat, trips into the village, and long walks in the surrounding countryside, stopping along the way to talk to all manner of folk. Jamaican people are very direct in their approach and conversation evolves easily about all sorts of things; life, politics, cricket, the sea.
We found that people talked with pride about their country, of its beauty and its bounty and of how its reputation as a dangerous country is unfounded. In fact most of the crime centres around Kingston and much of it between rival gangs in small areas of the city.
We took a day out to travel by bus to Kingston and found the atmosphere relaxed and the people we met helpful. We certainly didn't feel threatened at any time, even when we were lost on the outskirts of the city, looking for the chandlery which, incidentally, is very well stocked. Portland, the district in which both Port Antonio and Manchioneal lie, has the lowest crime rate in Jamaica with the majority of its crime being petty theft and domestic incidents. The locals take great pride in this and actively work to keep it so.
Eventually it was time to move on and we made our way to Port Antonio. We spent a few days at the Errol Flynn Marina, which is well run by a congenial manager and has very good facilities, including a small swimming pool and free Internet access for patrons.
The town itself is a bustling place with a good atmosphere and a market with the best fresh produce that we have seen for a long time, with all but the apples and grapes being locally grown. The supermarket has most things that one might need.
Again we were met with kindness and felt welcome wherever we went but, of course, we wouldn't expect anything less from our Jamaican hosts! Time after time people asked us to pass the word that Jamaica is not the bad place it is reputed to be and asked us to invite other cruisers to come and see for themselves. In particular the people in Manchioneal invite you to visit their harbour! We shall certainly return.
Should you decide to visit Manchioneal, you should clear in at Port Antonio and get a cruising permit. As you enter the harbour, keep close to the rocks on your port side where the water is deep. The fishermen take a transit on those rocks and the police station (a square white building with a blue base) where you can anchor safely. The water by the river mouth is shallow and there are reefs, clearly visible, to starboard. It is possible to navigate safely closer to the village. Should any boats come towards you as you enter, don't worry, they are only curious and will pilot you in if you ask for help.
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