Sunday, July 28, 2013

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (2013)

On May 21st, we departed at first light and had a pleasant sail from St. Lucia to St. Vincent.  We had ESE winds at 12-18 knots with six foot seas and reached the lee of St. Vincent shortly before noon.  This rugged volcanic island stretches 11 miles from north to south and seven miles from east to west.  The terrain is a combination of steep mountains and dense green forest and is sparsely populated compared to the other islands in the windward group.  The island of St. Vincent makes up about 90 percent of the total land in the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The French were the first Europeans to try to settle on the island in the 18th century, but fierce Carib resistance kept the Europeans out long after most other Caribbean islands had been colonized.  This was the last stand for the Caribs, many of whom were from other nearby islands that had already escaped British or French rule.  They were eventually defeated though, and St. Vincent was traded back and forth between French and British rule for quite a few years until it was ultimately ceded to the British in 1783.  It remained under British control until the country gained their independence 35 years ago. 

Today there are about 100,000 people living on the island of St. Vincent.  Unlike the first three Caribbean islands we visited, tourism is not the most important part of the economy here, but instead agriculture, with the biggest crop being bananas.  Most tourists that visit St. Vincent just pass through the hub and capital city at Kingstown, before heading south to the islands in the Grenadines, which are more geared towards tourism.

On our approach to St. Vincent, we headed for Wallilabou Bay, a port of clearance near the middle of the west coast.  After hearing about recent issues with crime in this bay, our plan was to anchor in neighboring Keartons Bay instead.  This small bay is just south of Wallilabou, and there is a restaurant here called The Rock Side Cafe.  The owners, Orlando and Rosi, have installed moorings in the bay and are able to keep a close eye on yachts from their home. So far, they have not experienced the same issues as Wallilabou, making this an attractive option for us.

We pulled into the small bay and tied up both the bow and stern to separate mooring balls, which kept us from swinging around and pointed the bow into what little swell there was.  The water was crystal clear, so we went for a quick swim to cool off and found a small cave in the nearby cliff wall, which was good for snorkeling.  The customs office was only open from 5 pm to 6 pm, so we had some time to kill before heading ashore, which was quickly filled, as boat after boat of locals stopped by trying to sell us jewelry, fruit, bread, ice, fish, crafts – you name it.

Later that afternoon, we rowed to shore and met Allah, one of the employees of the restaurant.  He made the short walk with us over to Wallilabou Bay to show us where the customs office was located.  This was a beautiful bay and would have been an ideal place to moor Saviah, were it not for the reports of crime.  It was also the main location for filming the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.    A seaside pirate village was built here around the small hotel, restaurant and even the customs office in the bay.  While waiting for the customs officer to show up, we walked around the remains of the set and through some of the buildings.

Saviah moored in Keartons Bay and nearby Wallilabou Bay
After we met with customs, we hopped on a local minivan bus to the village of Barrouallie, about ten minutes north, where we completed our immigration paperwork at the local police station.  Allah was a huge help in guiding us there, as it would have been very difficult to find on our own.  By 6 pm, we were officially cleared into the country.

The moorings in Keartons Bay are free for dinner guests, so we decided to have dinner ashore that night.  It was a delicious creole meal with many courses, served on their backyard patio overlooking the bay.  We started with pumpkin and bacon soup followed by a salad, and then the main course of chicken and fish in creole sauce with rice, plantains, and peas.  As if we needed anything else, mango cheesecake was served for dessert.

That night, we talked to Orlando about doing a hike up to La Soufriere, the active volcano that is the country’s highest peak.  It has erupted several times in the last hundred years, most recently in 1979.  The mountain is located on the far north side of the island, and we would need transportation and a guide to do the hike, which Orlando agreed to coordinate.   

The next morning, we rowed back to shore early to meet Orlando, Allah, and Shema for the hike to the volcano.  The drive to the trailhead took about 30 minutes.  The roads wound up and down through the very rugged terrain and through areas with dense tropical rainforest.  As we neared the coast, many men were walking along the road with backpacks and carrying machetes.  Apparently, they make their living doing illegal marijuana farming on the hills of the mountain we were about to climb.  This is a big part of the local economy, and although it is technically illegal, many of the local people are involved and the police turn a blind eye to it. 

The hike started with a walk along the beach, accompanied by a dozen or so “farmers”, before turning inland and winding through huge lava tubes left from one of the previous eruptions.  From there, the overgrown trail wound about three miles through very dense vegetation.  Fortunately, Allah led the way with his machete, clearing a path for us.   Mango trees were everywhere, and we stopped several times to eat a few and fill our backpacks with more to take back with us.  Allah pointed out the many patches of marijuana plants growing on the hillside.  They were more like trees, and he said he used to climb them when he was a boy. 

After a few hours, we reached the exposed ridge for the last stretch to the top.  As soon as we did, the wind started to howl, and it began pouring rain.  We continued on and made the last 20 minutes to the top of the crater, completely drenched and shivering.  The rim sits at 4,048 feet of elevation and offers great views of St. Vincent and the Grenadine islands on a clear day.  Unfortunately, we could hardly see 50 feet in front of us through the dense clouds.  We huddled behind some shrubs on the rim for a little protection from the wind and had some sandwiches and hot tea.  Before starting the descent, there was a break between clouds allowing us a short glimpse into the crater, about 1,000 feet below.

hiking Mt. Soufriere
After the hike, we headed back to Saviah and topped off our water tanks using a very long hose that Allah brought out from shore.  The next morning, we untied our mooring lines and sailed south to the Grenadines, a chain of over 600 islands that stretch from St. Vincent in the north to Grenada in the south.  Most of these islands are tiny, some are privately owned, and only about a dozen of the larger ones are inhabited.  The northern two-thirds belong to St. Vincent, and the others belong to nearby Grenada.  There are about 16,000 inhabitants on all of the islands combined.

The most northern Grenadine, and one of the largest, is Bequia.  This was our first stop after making the 16 mile trip from St. Vincent that morning.  We sailed into Admiralty Bay on the west coast and picked up a mooring ball in front of Port Elizabeth, which is the only town on the island.  This is a charming seaside village where about half of the island’s 4,500 residents live.  It is a popular stop for yachts heading south, and the harbor was fairly packed with boats.  There is also a ferry service that brings locals and tourists over from other islands.  There is huge difference between St. Vincent and nearby Bequia, and it was hard to believe that they are part of the same country.  Like the rest of the Grenadines we visited, it is much more peaceful and laidback.

There are many restaurants and shops lining the shore, as well as street vendors and produce stands.  The bay has some really nice beaches, and the swimming was good right off the boat.  The plan was to stay for a night or two, but we stayed a bit longer to enjoy the tranquility, as well as the good protection from the strong trade winds that were blowing.  After five days in the bay, we stocked up on fruits and veggies at one of the produce stands and made the 25 mile sail south to the Tobago Cays. 

more Bequia
The Tobago Cays are a group of five small, uninhabited islands protected from the easterly swell by a big horseshoe shaped barrier reef.  The islands were under private ownership for several hundred years until 1999 when they were purchased by the state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and turned into a marine park.  They are only accessible by boat, and you can anchor just about anywhere in the park where it is deep enough.  Park rangers come by to collect a fee of $4 per person per day, which we found to be well worth it. 

During the peak season, the park is usually very crowded with both cruising boats and charter boats that bring tourists over from nearby islands for a day of snorkeling.  During our visit at the end of the season, only a dozen or so boats were there at a time.  We saw quite a few turtles and the occasional ray when we were snorkeling, but were surprised at how few fish there were.  It seems that the human impact has taken its toll on the area. 

We still enjoyed our stay, appreciating the beautiful scenery, clear water and great swimming.  With no land mass to block the wind, the breeze kept us cool on the boat, and the reef broke the swell, making it nice and flat in the anchorage.  We also wandered around the uninhabited islands, which were pristine and had some nice beaches and hiking trails.  Vendors come over from neighboring islands, and would occasionally sell fresh bread and other food.  It would have been easy to linger here for months, but after a week, we were getting low on water and decided it was time to head out.

Tobago Cays
There are several islands within a few miles of the Tobago Cays, but we needed to keep moving south and only had time for one more stop in the country.  We chose Union Island because there was easy access to freshwater at one of the docks, and it is also a port of clearance. 

The island is approximately three miles long, a mile wide, and home to around 3,000 residents.  There are a couple of good anchorages on the island and the most popular one is in front of the town of Clifton.  After the short five mile sail from Tobago Cays, we tied up along the dock at the Anchorage Yacht Club to refill our water tanks.  The small anchorage in front of Clifton was crowded when we arrived, so we opted to go west a mile and anchor in the lee of Frigate Island. 

Quite a few years ago, a company decided to build a huge marina in the shallow waters between Frigate Island and Union Island, but after getting the main piers installed, the project was abandoned.  You can take a dinghy to Frigate Island and then walk on what remains of these abandoned docks that stretch all the way to the small fishing village of Ashton.  Unfortunately, the vegetation was quite dense making it hard to find the path, and the mosquitoes were really bad, so we gave up trying.  We headed back to Saviah and spent the night in the anchorage by ourselves, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. The next day, to escape the mosquitoes, we decided to try the Clifton anchorage again. 

We found a small open spot in the crowded anchorage, but it was less than ideal.  Although it looks nice, there are only a few narrow strips where you can anchor between the numerous reefs and not room for many boats.   It wouldn’t take long to go aground if we dragged anchor, but the forecast called for light trade winds for the next couple days, so we decided it would work for a short stay. 

anchorage near Clifton
We rowed to shore and walked around the small town with its many colorful produce stands and brightly colored buildings.  The next day, we made the long hot walk up the northern side of the island, before returning to Clifton to do the short hike up to Fort Hill.  From the top, there were great views of nearby Grenadines and the much larger island of Grenada further to the south. 

Clifton on Union Island
After two days, we had seen everything of interest to us.  We cleared out of the country, and the next morning, we made the eight mile sail south to the island of Carriacou.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

St. Lucia (2013)

On May 10th, we left Martinique and headed south to St. Lucia.  It was a pleasant sail with ESE winds at 12-15 knots, and an unexpected boost from the current helped us make the 25 mile trip in less than four hours.  We sailed into Rodney Bay on the northwest side of the island and entered the narrow channel that leads into Rodney Bay Lagoon.   
Rodney Bay

Rodney Bay Lagoon is a completely protected inner lagoon with a large marina and boatyard, as well as lots of stores and restaurants.  Customs and immigration offices are also located close by.  Our plan was clear into the country and stay in the marina for a couple of days.  This would give us a chance to take care of a few small projects and have a mechanic look at our outboard, which we haven’t been able to start for several months. 

St. Lucia is a mountainous island of volcanic origin, stretching 27 miles from north to south and 14 miles wide.  The British and the Dutch both attempted to settle on the island at the beginning of the 17th century, but were fought off by the Caribs, the island’s inhabitants at the time.  About sixty years after the first European attempts at settling on the island, the French signed a treaty with the native people and were the first to successfully colonize the island. Only a few years later the British again laid claim, beginning a long battle between the two rivals for control of St. Lucia.  Over the next 150 years, possession of the island would change 14 times (French and British each ruled seven times), until the British took definitive control in 1814.  

After many years of British rule, St. Lucia gained its independence in 1979.  The French influence is still strong here, and although the official language is English, most of the locals speak a French-based creole, and many of the towns have French names.  The population of the island is around 175,000, and the currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, also used by most of the islands in the eastern Caribbean.  Today, the largest industry here is tourism, and most visitors arrive by cruise ship.  Fortunately, the season ended before we arrived. 

After we cleared-in, we dropped off our outboard at a local “mechanic” (we use this term loosely) and then took advantage of the fresh water at the dock.  We opened our hanging locker for the first time in many months, and found our foul weather gear and cold weather clothing was damp and moldy.  We re-caulked the leaky chain-plate above the locker to keep more water from coming in, but the contents still needed a good scrub.   It took about half a day and lots of soap, water and bleach to get everything clean and stowed again.  Hopefully, we won’t need any of this gear for another six months.

Several days later, the mechanic was still working on our outboard.  Since we had time to kill, we caught up on a little varnish work and did some sightseeing at nearby Pigeon Island.  We actually made the 45 minute walk from the marina to Pigeon Island three times, but our first two attempts were thwarted because the park was closed for the annual jazz festival, then a day for clean-up.  But finally, the third time was a charm, and we were able visit the island, which turns out is actually not an island any longer.  The inner lagoon where the marina sits was dredged some years ago, and the dirt was deposited between Pigeon Island and St. Lucia, creating a causeway.  

Years ago, the British built Fort Rodney on the island, as it was a good location for defending against the French fleet on nearby Martinique.  With the end of hostilities between the two countries, the fort was basically abandoned in the 19th century.  Trails lead all over Pigeon Island, passing by the remnants of the old stone buildings.  At the top of Fort Rodney Hill is a small fortress with a few rusting cannons, and another trail leads up to the top of Signal Hill, the highest point at 359 ft.  This point afforded great views of St. Lucia, Rodney Bay and even Martinique to the north. 

Pigeon Island
After five days in the marina, we finally got our outboard back, and it was still not working.  It looks like we will be rowing a bit longer.  With nothing else keeping us in Rodney Bay, we sailed south to the village of Soufriere.  It was a brisk 19 mile sail in winds gusting up to 25 knots, but we were in the lee of the island with calm seas. 

This is one of the most beautiful areas on the island and the place we were most excited to visit.  The town itself is quite picturesque, sitting in front of a deep bay, surrounded by mountains and lush green landscape.  The two most well-known landmarks on the island, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, rise up sharply out of the sea just south of town.  The bay is a marine park and anchoring is not allowed, but mooring balls have been installed in a few areas for boats to tie up to.  They were fairly inexpensive at around $30 USD for a week.

We were glad to use the mooring buoys, as anchoring here would be challenging with a steeply sloping seafloor and lots of coral heads.  Our first stop was at the Bat Cave moorings, just west of Soufriere.  There is indeed a bat cave, where hundreds of bats could be seen hanging overhead during the day.  At night, we could hear them flying around close by, which we didn’t mind since they supposedly eat the mosquitoes. The clear water along the cliffs was good for snorkeling and swimming, and under Saviah, we found some nice coral and colorful reef fish.  

Soufriere and the Pitons
After a few days of snorkeling, relaxing on the boat and exploring the town of Soufriere, the Pitons were calling, and we were ready to do some hiking.  Both Gros Piton (2,619 ft) and Petit Piton (2,460 ft) can be summited, but the smaller of the two sounded more interesting to us.  It is a much steeper and more challenging hike, but there are far fewer trees obscuring the views.  It’s also more accessible since we could moor close to the trail head.  We arranged for a guide at one of the local hotels, as we heard from several sources that the trails are difficult to find and easy to lose.

We moved to the moorings on the other side of the bay, and the next morning rowed to shore.  Our guide, Manu, met us on the beach.  We were glad we hired him because there is no way we would have found the trail on our own, and we also learned a bit about the island during the hike.  It was overcast and drizzling for most of the way up and definitely a strenuous climb.  There were a few tricky scrambles and several very steep sections where we needed ropes to scale large boulders.  It took two hours to reach the summit, where on a clear day you can supposedly see Martinique 40 miles north.  We weren’t able to see very far due to the clouds, but there were still great views of Gros Piton to the south and the town of Soufriere and the bay to the north. 

The area around Soufriere is one of the most beautiful spots we’ve been to, but sadly, there are some issues with crime in the area.  Most reports are related to theft, primarily dinghies and outboards being stolen, and occasionally a boat is broken into while the owners are ashore.  We were definitely on alert during our stay, and after a week, we were ready to move on.  We rowed to shore for one last time and cleared out at the customs and immigration office.  The next morning, May 21st, we untied our mooring lines and headed south to the next island, St. Vincent. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Martinique (2013)

On the morning of April 17th, we motored out of the Careenage in Bridgetown and into Carlisle Bay.  After three weeks in the stagnant water of the inner basin, Saviah’s hull had a shocking amount of growth on the bottom.  So, we dropped the hook in Carlisle Bay to spend a few hours scrubbing it and stowing things for the passage.  We weighed anchor just after noon and set sail for the 120 mile trip to Martinique. 

It was a pleasant sail in 10-15 knot easterly winds during the afternoon and throughout the night.  As the sun rose the next morning, the island of St. Lucia came into view off our port bow.  We could also see Martinique, as well as the biggest, darkest squall that we’ve seen yet, looming over it.  After Di woke up that morning, we tucked in the 2nd reef in the main, furled the jib, and waited for it to hit.  The easterly winds died completely, and a few minutes later, we had 50 knots of wind from the northeast and a torrential downpour.  Visibility was almost nonexistent at this point, as we could hardly see past the bow of the boat.  The swell changed direction from SE to NE and quickly built to six feet.

The conditions stayed the same for half an hour before the winds slowed down to 30 knots and visibility improved.  At this point, we decided to fore-reach and with a little bit of current were actually making a few knots of progress.  Our original plan was to sail up the west coast to St. Pierre on the northwest side of the island, another 38 miles away.  More squalls loomed on the horizon and we were completely soaked, so we decided to just call it a day and head into Cul-de-sac du Marin instead.  This was the closest bay, and the long narrow inlet is one of the most protected on the island.

The island of Martinique is striking.  Unlike Barbados, which is quite flat, the rest of the Windward Islands are of volcanic origin with many tall peaks and lush green landscapes.  We worked our way up to the head of the bay and anchored near the town of Le Marin.  This is one of the biggest yachting centers in the Caribbean with a big marina and several chartering outfits based here.  We joined the hundreds of other boats, mostly French, in the anchorage, and set off to shore to clear into the country.

The clearance formalities were easy.  In the marina office, we filled out the electronic form at one of the computer terminals, printed it, had it stamped by the marina staff, and paid five Euros.  No visits to other offices or any other fees were required.  If only it was always this simple.  

The island of Martinique is an overseas region of France, and as such, is part of the European Union.  It has been a French possession for almost 380 years, with the exception of about twenty years where it was under English control.   The currency is the Euro and the official language is French, although many people speak a local French-based Creole. 

Although this port wasn’t on our list of places to visit on the island, we were glad we stopped.  The next week brought squalls and frequent downpours, and Marin was a good place to be.  The heavy rains kept our water tanks topped off, but unfortunately, some of that water was finding its way inside.  We found several new leaks, primarily around the chain-plates and portlights.  Luckily, there were plenty of chandleries where we could find supplies to make repairs.  Good grocery stores were also nearby, making it easy to do some provisioning for the next few months in the Caribbean.


After our first week of bad weather, boat work and provisioning, the sun poked out, and we were ready to see some of the area.  They have local minivan buses here called taxis collectifs that have regular routes to nearby towns for only a few Euros.  We hopped on one and headed toward Ste. Anne, a few miles to the south.   This is a sleepy little seaside town built into the hills that rise up behind it.

There is a hiking trail that leads from Ste. Anne along the coast to Les Salines, one of the best beaches on the island.  The trail alternates between wooded coastal pathways and walks along the beach.  The pathways were very muddy due to all the recent rain, but it was easy to wash off with a swim in the sea.  We had a leisurely lunch on the beach at Les Salines followed by another swim before the two hour hike back to Ste. Anne. On another trip we took the bus over to the base of Piton Creve-Coeur and did the short hike to the summit, which had some great views of the bay and beyond. 

view of Cul-de-sac du Marin from Piton Creve Coeur, around Ste. Anne
After nearly two weeks in Marin, it was time to see some more of the island. Our next stop was Fort de France, about 23 miles north.  We had a nice sail up in the lee of the island and into Baie de Fort de France, where we dropped the anchor right in front of the downtown area. 

Fort de France is the capital of France's Caribbean overseas department and the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the French West Indies.  Approximately 135,000 of the island’s total population of 412,000 live here.  The anchorage has great views of the city and the mountains beyond to the north and Fort St. Louis to the east.  The fort was built in 1640 and is still an active naval base. 

A boardwalk runs along the waterfront, with a park stretching out behind that.  Within the park, there is a statue of Empress Josephine, holding a locket with a portrait of Napoleon on it.  Josephine was from Martinique, but is not very well liked, as it is believed she was responsible for convincing Napoleon to continue slavery in the French West Indies in order to help her family’s plantation.  This is most likely the reason the head has been lopped off the statue and red paint splashed on the body. 

Fort de France, statue of Empress Josephine, Fort St. Louis
We spent several days in Fort de France, walking around the town and looking at some of the interesting buildings.  One of the most visible landmarks is the Cathédrale St. Louis, built in 1895.  The spire is 187 feet tall and is the most recognizable landmark in the city.  We also visited the Palais de Justice, a neoclassical courthouse built in 1906, and the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, which is an elaborate building that was constructed in Paris and displayed at the 1889 World Exposition.  It was then dismantled, shipped here, and reassembled on site.  It still operates as a library today. 

Cathédrale St. Louis, Bibliothèque Schoelcher, Palais de Justice, local hotel
After three days in Fort de France, we sailed 14 miles north to St. Pierre.  We dropped the anchor in about 40 feet of water right in front of the town dock.  We thought the anchorage would have good protection from any easterly quadrant winds, but the wind wraps around the mountains and funnels into the anchorage from the south.  This created two foot seas in the anchorage with lots of rolling and pitching.  It was uncomfortable aboard Saviah, and the row to shore was very wet. 

St. Pierre was high on our list of places to see while in Martinique.  The town sits at the foot of Mt. Pelée, an active volcano and the highest point on the island at 4,583 feet.  We wanted to stop there for a couple reasons.  Andrew wanted to hike up to the top of Mt. Pelée, and we had a schedule of yole boat races that showed a race in St. Pierre that weekend.  It turned out that neither of those things would happen, but we still a good visit. 

St. Pierre has an interesting history.  It was founded in 1635 and was the capital of the island and the most important city both culturally and economically on Martinique.  It was once known as “the Paris of the Caribbean”.  That changed in 1902 when Mt. Pelée erupted, and within a matter of minutes, the city was destroyed.  Most of the city’s population of 30,000 were wiped out, along with about a dozen ships that burned in the harbor.  There were only two survivors, one of whom was a prisoner serving time in a tomblike solitary-confinement cell at the local jail. 

The city was never restored to its old glory.  The capital was moved to Fort de France, and almost a century later, the population is only around 5,000.  St. Pierre is still an interesting town to walk around.  Many ruins line the streets, some partially intact, while others are just foundations.  Many of the original stone walls have been used for newer buildings, and some of these have been built with shuttered doors and wrought-iron balconies that were common before the eruption. 

St. Pierre, ruins of Quartier du Figuier
The next day, we waited for signs of the yole race, but nothing ever transpired.  It was disappointing, but that evening, we heard a big commotion on shore and looked out to see the beginning of a parade.  We hopped in the dinghy for another wet ride to shore, which was well worth it.  Band after band marched down the main street, with people dressed in a variety of colorful costumes.  Apparently this was part of the weeklong celebration leading up to Victory Day.


Our plan was to climb Mt. Pelée the next morning, but the volcano was shrouded in clouds.  We also didn’t feel comfortable spending the day away from Saviah, as conditions in the anchorage were still a little rough.  So instead, we left and sailed 17 miles south to the more protected bay of Grand Anse d’Arlet.

Once in the bay, we tied up to one of the new mooring balls that the town had recently added, which were free for cruising boats.  There were also moorings along the cliff walls around the south side of the bay where we tied up our dinghy and did some snorkeling.  It was nice to be in clear water again, as our previous anchorages on the island were in mostly muddy bottoms with murky water.

There wasn’t much going on in this tiny village, but we could have easily spent a month here.  The bay was flat calm, and the village was very quiet and peaceful.  The water was remarkably clear and great for swimming, and ashore was a nice beach dotted with brightly painted fishing boats.


The following day, we set off on the trail over and around the headland to the neighboring bay, Anse D’Arlet (also called Petit Anse D’Arlet).  This is a picturesque little fishing village with a gorgeous beachfront.  The town itself was full of colorful buildings, and a photogenic 18th-century Roman Catholic church sits at the head of the town pier.  The town reminded us of the villages in French Polynesia where the locals were out sweeping the streets in front of their homes, and the whole place seemed impeccably clean.  We spent the morning walking around and swimming in the bay before enjoying a creole lunch at one of the beach huts.   


The annual Martinique Tour des Yoles Rondes (Yole Boat Race) was taking place over the weekend in Ste. Anne.  We really wanted to see these boats in action, so after only a few days in Grande Anse D’Arlet, we decided to sail south to watch the races.  It was a long holiday weekend, so we needed to clear out of the country that Friday before things shut down.  Di rowed to shore to the beachfront bar/restaurant, where there is a designated computer terminal used to complete clearance forms.  She filled out the forms, printed them, and the bartender stamped the paperwork.  If only it could always be this easy.

The next morning, we headed down the coast to Ste. Anne.  Although we had visited Ste. Anne by land, we hadn’t anchored here yet and were happy to find a huge anchorage, with shallow clear waters and a sandy bottom that stretched a long way off the shore.  The first race of the day started down the coast in Le Diamant, and from there, the course followed the shoreline for about 10 miles and finished off the Ste. Anne town center.  It was already underway when we arrived, but we made it to shore in time to watch the boats cross the finish line.   

yole boat races
When we first arrived on Martinique, we saw pictures of these boats, but didn’t know anything about them.  Apparently they are built in the tradition of Martinican fishing vessels from hundreds of years ago.  The hulls are shaped like a big canoe and built out of wood from the local pear trees.  Spars are made from giant bamboo poles and support rectangular shaped sails that are usually brightly colored. 

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult boat to sail than these yoles.  They don’t have a keel, dagger-board, or even a rudder.  Steering is done by the helmsman who has a large oar off the stern, which he rows from side to side to steer.  As for ballast, that would be the crew.  There seemed to be 12-14 people on each yole, and the job of most of them was to balance the boat.  The sail is rather large for that size of boat, which means that they have to hike way out.  They have long poles to hang onto that can be moved from side to side depending on which tack they are on.  It takes a lot of coordination to get just the right amount of weight over the edge.

If winds are strong or there is a big gust, just about everybody gets out at the end of a pole.  If there are too many bodies out, or not enough, then the boat tips.  There aren’t any decks on the hull, so it is easy to scoop up a bunch of water quickly.  There are buckets on board for bailing, but if the rail goes in the water for more than a few seconds, the hull can fill up and no amount of bailing will help.  Then the boat sinks.  We saw this happen a few times each day, and it was usually during a tack or jibe where the boat switched directions.  People were scrambling to move poles from one side to the other and did it either too fast or too slow. 


The next day, there were two more races.  We rowed to shore and watched them set up for the first race along the stretch of beach north of Ste. Anne.  We weren’t the only ones – there were thousands of people from all over the island out to cheer on the racers and enjoy the big party afterward with food, drinks and live music. The course for both races was the same, with a beach start and then zigzagging back and forth around several buoys set up across the bay. 

For the first race, the boats were rigged a bit different than the previous day, with two sails held up by two slightly shorter masts.  We stayed on the beach for the start, which was a bit chaotic as the yoles were rigged with sails and held in place by crewmembers in waist to chest deep water.  They were relatively close together and went the starting gun went off, they all had to get on at the same time without capsizing it or running into their neighbor. 


For the second race of the day, the boats were again rigged with a single large sail.  There were many other vessels out trailing the racers, but we decided to watch from Saviah.  We rowed back and re-anchored in a different spot to be a little closer to the action.   We ended up a little closer than intended and had boats pass both in front and behind us, some within a few feet.  It was quite an experience watching these guys race and definitely a highlight of our stay in Martinique.  The next morning, we weighed anchor and made the 25-mile sail south to Saint Lucia.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Barbados (2013)

We departed Ile St. Joseph off the coast of French Guiana early on March 23rd, en route to Barbados, 635 miles away.  The first day out was rough with short period, steep waves that are typical in the shallow waters off the South American coast.  We had NNE winds at 12-15 knots with 6-8 ft seas, and we were hard on the wind to get offshore and into deeper water.  We still had a boost from the current, so we actually made great progress, knocking off 156 miles the first day, but both of us were seasick and ready to stop pounding into the waves.

By the second day, we were in blue water again, and the wind shifted to the NE, enabling us to fall off to a more comfortable reach.   We averaged 6.5 knots for the following two days in what turned out to be very nice sailing.  The ITCZ was now behind us, and we had very few squalls and mostly clear skies.

By day four, the winds lightened and shifted to the east and our speed dropped to 5.5 knots.  This worked out well for the timing of our arrival, and we sailed into the lee of Barbados and the Caribbean Sea on the morning of March 27th.  By noon, we approached the deep water harbor where we were required to tie up for clearance procedures.  

Barbados is the most windward island in the Caribbean and is very popular for cruise ships.  Unfortunately, the port, customs and immigration offices were all located around the deep water basin that was built with these large vessels in mind.  The tall concrete walls used by these huge ships are not so good for a little sailboat, but the port requires all visiting yachts to come alongside to complete clearance. 

The port officials communicated our docking instructions to us over the VHF when we arrived, and after one look, we decided against it.  We radioed them for another option, which was just as bad.  After a bit of back and forth, they contacted a local tug boat that agreed to let us tie alongside.  This was not ideal, but a big improvement. 

It was a difficult approach, as the tug was tied up in a corner, underneath the bow of a cruise ship, and it took a couple of passes before we were alongside.  There were two men on board who helped secure our lines.  We positioned all of our fenders for maximum protection and tied off additional lines to keep us from coming up hard against the tug.  This took 15 minutes of adjustments before Saviah was finally secured well enough.  By then, the crew of the tug said they had to leave to help a cruise ship out, and we would have to untie. 

There was another tug in the harbor, so we moved up and re-tied.  Di grabbed our documentation and ran around to the various offices, while Andrew stayed onboard to adjust the lines and fend off.  Thankfully, the clearance was quick, and 30 minutes later, we were on our way.   

The Careenage in Bridgetown is the most protected spot on the island, and given the lack of good anchorages, we were really hoping to moor Saviah here for our stay.  The Harbor Master controls moorage in the Careenage, and he proved difficult to find, so we opted to anchor for the night and try back the next day.  We moved over to Carlisle Bay, one of the few places where anchoring is allowed on the island, and dropped the hook in 12 ft of clear water with a white sand bottom.  There was a bit of swell coming into the anchorage, but after being out at sea for four days, we were used to it.  The clear warm water made for great swimming right off the boat, which more than made up for the rolling motion.

The next morning, we finally reached someone at the harbor master’s office, and were happy to learn there was room in the Careenage for us.  We rowed to shore and headed into Bridgetown to fill out our paperwork at the office and scheduled our arrival time for later that afternoon. 

The Careenage is a narrow inlet in Carlisle Bay that connects with the Constitution River.  Later that afternoon, at our scheduled time, we motored in, and the drawbridge was raised so we could pull into the inner basin.  Boats in the Careenage tie stern-to the concrete wall along the perimeter, and the bow is tied off to moorings in the middle of the channel.  Since we don’t have a good way to get off our stern, we used the dinghy to get to and from shore. 

This was an interesting place to moor, as one of the downtown parks was directly behind us.  Park benches were only a few yards from our cockpit, where people would come and sit day and night.  It felt a little like we were on display.  There were no shower facilities, so we decided to move our showering from the cockpit to the interior of the boat so we wouldn’t have an audience.  There was a water tap right next to the boat and public toilets nearby.   Since there were rat traps lining the shore, it seemed prudent to thread empty plastic bottles through our stern lines to keep the rats from walking onto the boat.  We didn’t want a repeat of the experience we had in Indonesia.

Having unlimited freshwater at the boat was really nice.  We had spent a cumulative 43 days at sea since leaving South Africa two months prior, and Saviah was in desperate need of a deep cleaning.  We washed the boat inside and out, flushed out our water tanks, did lots of laundry and even washed the interior cushions.  

For the most part, it was nice to be in Bridgetown, which is the capital and largest city on the island.  We could walk two blocks to the grocery store, and there were lots produce stands across the street, as well as a fish market nearby.  We were also only a couple blocks from the white sandy beach that stretches along Carlisle Bay.  We spent most mornings running on the beach and then cooling off with a swim in the bay.  The locals seem to be very active, and many people ran along the shore or played paddle ball on the beach.  People were quite friendly here, and we found that to be the case all over the island. 

Careenage, St. Michael's cathedral, fish market
Barbados is an independent country, and has been since 1966.  They were under British rule for nearly 340 years before that, and there is still a British feel to the island.  Cricket and polo are popular sports, and English is the official language, although most of the locals speak a variant, called Bajan, in everyday life.  Although it is based on English, we had a very difficult time understanding it. 

Most of the people of Barbados are descendants of the African slaves that the English brought over to work in the sugar cane plantations.  Sugar is still a big industry here, but with half a million visitors every year, tourism is now the most important part of the economy.  It seems that most of these tourists arrive via cruise ship, and there were usually two or three in port at a time during our first week on the island.  After that, the Caribbean cruise season came to an end, and there was a huge difference in the amount of tourists we saw around town. 

Getting around Barbados is easy and cheap, as busses run around most of the island and cost only $1 per person.  The major bus station was across the street from the Careenage, so we decided to hop on and do some sightseeing.  Our first trip was down to the south coast, which is the center of tourism on the island.  There were miles of hotels, condominiums and restaurants as well as some really nice beaches.  We also visited Bathsheba, on the windward side of the island.  This was a nice area that was not really developed yet, and the coastline is rugged, with some big swell coming in.  

Bathsheba, St. Lawrence Gap, Paynes Bay
We also traveled up to the north side of the island and around some of the inland areas.  Sugarcane was growing in many fields around the countryside, and it was nearly time for harvest.  We hopped off the bus at the Morgan Lewis Mill, and took a tour of one of the largest intact sugar windmills.  We then walked up the road a ways to St. Nicholas Abbey, which is one of the oldest plantations in the Caribbean, built in the 17th century.  The whole property has been very well restored, including the mansion with lots of the original furniture and fixtures and some beautiful gardens all around.  The plantation still operates and is surrounded by fields of sugarcane, which they use to make rum and molasses. 

After a few weeks on the island, our friends Eric and Cristi, their kids Jadyn and Logan, and Eric’s mom Kim arrived.  They rented a really nice condo right on the beach in Paynes Bay and invited us to stay with them.  We had been looking forward to their visit for a long time.  It was nice to catch up with our good friends again, and the deluxe accommodations didn’t hurt either.  Kim and Cristi are both excellent cooks, and we enjoyed some great meals together. 

We had a very relaxing week, spending our time lounging on the beach or swimming and snorkeling.  This stretch of coast is home to many sea turtles, and rarely a day went by without us seeing one.  We also rented stand up paddle boards and played a lot of paddle ball on the beach, a very popular game on the island.

One morning Brian, a local tour guide, picked us up on his Hobie Cat.  We sailed down the coast and stopped at several good snorkeling spots.  There were quite a few turtles around and a decent assortment of fish as well.  It was especially fun just sailing in the flat calm ocean. 

We also did a few excursions to other parts of the island.  Harrison’s Cave, a huge underground cave, is a popular attraction.  The tour goes on a tram that takes you through the tunnels and into various caverns with some really cool formations and even a waterfall.  We also made a trip to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, which the kids really enjoyed.   This is a walk-through zoo with all sorts of animals.  Across the street there is Farley Hill National Park, and we did a short hike up to the Grenade Hall Signal Station, which was used in the 19th century by British troops who communicated with flags to other areas of the island.  The main attraction here was the colony of wild green monkeys, although they were a bit aggressive. 

On Friday night, the two of us along with Eric and Cristi headed out to see the south side of the island.  Our first stop was for drinks at the Crane Beach Hotel, which sits at the top of a cliff with beautiful views of the pink sand beaches and beyond.  Oistins was our next stop, which is the center of the island’s fishing industry with a large active fish market.  They are known locally for their Friday night fish fry, which has all kinds of music and dancing with vendors selling delicious and inexpensive seafood.  One of the popular local dishes is flying fish, which we tried and were pleasantly surprised.  Maybe we should have added them to the menu on ocean passages instead of tossing them overboard. 

Before we knew it, the week had flown by.  We said our tearful good-byes as they headed off to the airport, and then we returned to Saviah.  After a week with A/C and a king size bed, the boat felt extremely hot and cramped.  A few days later, we decided it was time to keep moving.  We wanted to visit several other islands in the windward group, and hurricane season was fast approaching.  So we headed back to the port and cleared out of the country.  The next morning we untied our mooring lines and set sail for Martinique, 120 miles to the northwest.