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.