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.