Dominica

 

January 31, 2009

0330 hours we raised anchor and slipped out of the Fort de France anchorage bound for Dominica. The rock music was still going strong but there was otherwise no other sign of life and the street and harbor lights were sufficient for us to maneuver between the other anchored yachts. There was little swell in the lee of Martinique as we motor-sailed north along the west coast. By dawn we had also passed the slumbering town of St. Pierre and the volcano Pelee brooded above, its summit shrouded with heavy clouds. Once past St. Pierre, the waves began to build and by 0700 hours we were beam reaching under full sail across the Dominica - Martinique channel. As we left the tip of Martinique, we passed close by a pod of about a half dozen small black whales - yet to be identified.

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Once clear of the land, we experienced 8 to 10 foot seas, uncomfortably just off the beam and the wind increased to just over 22 knots. We reefed down to Genoa and mizzen, while still sailing at better than 8 knots. We have experienced this phenomenon before; when we are just clear of the island, there is some kind of wind funneling effect. By the time we were in mid-channel, the wind had dropped back to the forecast 17 knots.

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1000 hours we were off the coast of Dominica, motor-sailing north towards the town of Portsmouth. Dominica has some seven active volcanoes on the land (plus an eighth below our proposed anchorage) and the terrain is amazingly rugged. Steep mountainsides cut by deep valleys and everywhere thick lava flows, all cloaked in dense green vegetation. The population of the island is low, about 70,000 all told, and large expanses of the coast show neither habitation nor visible attempts at agriculture. At 1325 hours we dropped anchor in Prince Rupert Bay at position N 15 34.9' W 061 27.9' and were almost immediately visited by Martin in his water-taxi "Providence". Martin gave me a ride to the Customs office at the other end of the bay and within minutes we were checked in and legally here. Martin returned at 1800 hours and transported us to the town of Plymouth and we walked back through the town in the direction of the "Purple Turtle" restaurant for supper. From what we have seen, Dominica has nowhere near the wealth we saw in Martinique but the homes were well kept, the streets clean and the people invariably friendly. At the restaurant we briefly met and chatted with John, a molecular biologist and Professor at the local University, plus his associate who is the headmistress of the elementary school. The arrival of the waitress bearing our supper unfortunately interrupted a lively and interesting conversation. Our choice of the former was "chicken or fish", was nicely cooked and tasty.

 

February 1, 2009

On Sunday, sometime in 1492, Columbus sailed into Prince Rupert Bay, although that was not the name written on his chart. He was either badly hung over at the time, or had used up all of the good names of Spanish Royalty, ex-mistresses or whatever and the only name he could come up with for this new island was, "Sunday". He thought about it for a while and decided that maybe that was really too mundane and would maybe sound more exotic in Spanish, such as, "Dominica". Hence the name. The local Carib Indians lived up a river that emptied into the bay and in the same tempo as his island naming scheme, this became the "Indian River".

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Martin picked us up in his water-taxi at 0700 hours for a tour of this historic river. The ride to the mouth of the river was spectacular in itself, as the beach and shoreline is decorated with the wrecks of nearly a dozen rusting hulks of sizeable ships, that were cast ashore by Hurricane Omar some three months ago. One of the hulks blocked the entrance to the Indian River and it took a mechanical digger to create a new entrance to the river, so that tours could proceed. The river is perhaps a couple of feet deep and both banks are lined with "swamp bloodwood" trees, a variety of mangrove. The trees overhang the river forming a verdant tunnel, with hanging creepers, crabs scuttling amongst the roots, exotic birds flitting amongst the branches and herons and egrets stalking their prey along the muddy banks. It is not a large river and Martin had to lift his outboard at the river mouth to proceed upstream with the use of oars, that at times barely cleared the opposite bank. Columbus had been rowed up this river, as well as Captain Drake and Captain Sparrow. Captain Sparrow's journey can be viewed in the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean II", wherein he consults the oracle of the very pretty voodoo witch. We passed the site of the voodoo witch's cabin but she has since moved on and the jungle has largely recaptured the site.

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The river contained shoals of mullet fish and Martin pointed out that the river was very saline, allowing barracuda from the Caribbean Sea ingress to occasionally thin the mullet. As we slowly passed under the overhanging trees, propelled by Martin's muscles against the flow of the river current, we saw a four foot long iguana silhouetted in the branches above. Our destination was about 700 yards from the river mouth, where an enterprising individual had build a snack bar and we disembarked for a guided nature walk along the river banks, with Martin identifying the jungle plants for us.

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Back at the bar the owner introduced Annette to his friend "Martin" - same name as our river guide. This Martin was a large land crab that he was in the process of fattening on a diet of coconut and sugar cane and who was invited to dinner some two weeks hence. Annette has been lusting for crab for a while time now and it was with difficulty that we got her to return "Martin the crab" to his owner.

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On our return down the Indian River we passed some inches below a boa constrictor that was hung on a creeper just above our heads. It moved a little so we knew it wasn't plastic. Probably a left over animatronic snake from the movie shoot. This river trip was a fabulous experience and a great tour. What a beautiful place.

1025 hours: We raised anchor and set sail for Les Iles Des Saintes. Back to France! The passage was similar to yesterday with 20 knots of wind on a beam reach and 6 to 8 foot waves. Off to the starboard we could see the low profile of the island of Marie Galant, as we approached the narrow pass between "Grand Ilet" and "La Cloche". This was not the recommended approach to the islands and the guide recommended "good visibility". As we neared the pass entrance, we could see jagged rocks on either side, with spectacular breaking seas. As usual, what would have been an exciting passage was enhanced by the arrival of a heavy rainstorm with gusting winds blocking out most of the view of the hazards. By the time the squall had cleared, we were between the rocks and heading back into deeper water beyond. We anchored at "Bourg Des Saintes" on the Islet of "Terre d'en Haut" at position N 15 52.2' W 061 35.1' at 1345 hours, next to fellow Amel Super Maramu, "SV Bootlegger". We visited with the Martin, Kevin and Carl aboard this fine vessel and joined them for an excellent supper ashore. Altogether a very fine day.

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Guadeloupe

February 2, 2009

This morning we made the pilgrimage ashore to "check in" with the authorities. This is far more laid back in the French world than just about anywhere else we have been. For example, we arrived yesterday on a Sunday and the relevant authorities were "closed" for the week-end. Today we wandered into the police station and the officer gave us a single page form to complete, that needed to be faxed to Guadeloupe from the local "cyber-cafe". We bought a beer each and hung for ten minutes or so until the form was faxed back to the cafe but now bearing a stamp in the bottom right hand corner. Back to the police station and we showed the officer our stamped form. That was it. No document or passport checks.

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Ashore this is a delightful place for yachties. The streets are narrow and lined with ever kind of store selling gifts, jewelry, art and fashion clothing that you can imagine. Santa Fe's "flea market" on steroids. Annette believes it would take her at least a week to shop the place with the thoroughness and degree of intensity that she believes it requires and deserves. We took a necessary lunch break at a restaurant called "Tikaz' la" operated by Philippe Dade, allegedly a former chef for British Royalty (perhaps Fergie?). This elegant restaurant was literally on the beach. The waves would come right up to the low concrete pad upon which our table was sitting. I kept expecting to get splashed but it never happened. Lunchtime entertainment was provided by a brace of Pelicans who were fishing a few yards from where we sat and who were paying a whole lot less for their meal.

 

February 3, 2009

We began the day by renting wheels in the form of a motor scooter. This form of transportation is pretty much dominant on Iles des Saintes. The paved roads are few, narrow and usually the width of a single car or van. Scooters are everywhere, as are scooter rental outlets. Our first stop of the day was to visit the imposing fortress that dominates the anchorage from the summit of a 1000 foot elevation hill to the north. The fortress is called Fort Napoleon and was built in 1867. I thought this was a little late to be building stone fortresses, as the American Civil War had already introduced and demonstrated the effectiveness of the rifled cannon and entrenched fortifications, plus Napoleon himself had been dead for half a century. There was little information as to the origins of the structure, other than that is had been used as a prison until the early 1900's. The fortress was surrounded by exotic cactus gardens and truly stunning views. To the north we could see the scattered white triangles of sails bound to or from the island of Guadeloupe. To the south lies Dominica and all around are the scattered isles of the Iles Des Saintes, with the deep blue of the Caribbean and the ochres of the shallow reefs with the white of breaking waves. We have not been plagued by mosquitoes here and the climate has been quite pleasant. As we walked through the prison governor's office, my thoughts were of Steve McQueen, imprisoned on Isle du Diable in the movie "Papillon". This place was Club Med by comparison.

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It does not take long to tour the islet of Terre D'en Haut and we visited several beautiful beaches that would be ideal for long picnics and lazy swimming. We thought that these islands would be perfect for a family vacation. One of the many small restaurants we had passed had been grilling chicken on an open barbeque. Annette has very little self control in matters like this, so we stopped for lunch and fed French fries with small pieces of baguette to a rooster that was strutting unconcernedly between the dining tables.

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February 4, 2009

At 1055 hours we raised anchor and set sail for Point a Pitre on the Island of Guadeloupe. The sail was hard on the wind and the wind gusted between 12 and 24 knots, with seas in the 8 foot range. We sailed with reefed Genoa and reefed main until the wind dropped slightly and we could then unfurl both sails to maintain speed. The waves were short and steep and I speculated that this might be due to the many shallow banks directing and deflecting the Atlantic breakers our way. At 1430 hours we backed into a slip between two other Amels at "Bas du Fort" marina, Guadeloupe, position N 16 13.3' W 061 31.8'. We are hooked up to city power and will enjoy a couple of nights with air-conditioning. The whole island has been on strike for several weeks, allegedly to protest the cost of living versus France (have they even been to France lately?). We have noticed that prices in the Caribbean are markedly less than those we experienced during our transit of the Mediterranean last year. Nevertheless fuel is unavailable here and many of the grocery stores are closed. The restaurants around the marina appear to be in business, so we will see how this affects our stay.

 

February 5, 2009

We picked up a rental car this morning and set out to tour the east side of Guadeloupe. The island is shaped like a butterfly, with geologically recent volcanoes on the West wing and older extinct material on the East wing. The marina is located somewhere close to the butterfly's butt, so to speak. As we left the marina area, there were huge piles of garbage on the side of the road and debris scattered everywhere. We headed east along the coast road, that is nicely surfaced and reasonably well sign-posted. The traffic was moderately heavy and we came to an area with crowds of people walking and vehicles parked everywhere. As we eased by, we could see that the east bound folks were hauling empty fuel cans, while facing the other direction was a line of cars, parked bumper to bumper and stretching well over a quarter mile. These people were trying to purchase fuel from a gas station and it looked like total chaos.

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There has been a "strike" here for nearly two weeks. We have quizzed the locals but the details are still fuzzy. The best we can tell is that the strikers represent one particular political party. They have no specific demands, their desire fall more in the category of, "everything". They want independence from France but they also want the cash handouts to continue. Anyone who has raised teen-agers will recognize this approach. From our point of view, the most obvious effect was that most of the gas-stations were barricaded closed, with stacks of tires, forklifts, wooden pallets, parked vehicles and the like, in a decorative style reminiscent of Gaza. We continued our drive to the east and the traffic began to thin out. This side of the island is well cultivated, with the major crop being sugar cane. We did not see industrial size plantings, the fields were smaller than I would have expected for this type of commodity crop. There were groups of banana trees but nothing that looked commercial plantings. The homes were smart and well kept and there is definitely an aura of prosperity here, quite unlike the English speaking islands we have visited, such as Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. What is missing is any visible form of wealth generation mechanism, such as mining, manufacturing or agriculture, that could support their lifestyle. This place must cost the French taxpayers a fortune.

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The small towns we visited were very picturesque and the views magnificent. As we passed through the town of St. Anne, we followed three truck loads of riot police, that were equipped with all of their gear such as helmets and shields. Disquieting. The town of Le Moule had a police checkpoint, that had some hard faced, legionnaire types scanning each vehicle as they passed. Apparently we did not fit the profile and were thus ignored. We stopped for lunch in Anse Betrand and then headed back to Point a Pitre to see if we could find an open supermarket. Many of the stores were closed and some barricaded but we found ourselves in a part of town unlike the pastoral regions we had drifted through. Here were stark blocks of soviet style apartment buildings, with the ground level walls daubed with graffiti. There was garbage and debris scattered everywhere and a plume of smoke with the stench of burning rubber, where some auto tires were on fire. Nevertheless there was a supermarket with a single open door and we parked and "walked easy, man" over to do some shopping. The place looks like a war zone but we found a boulangerie (baker) that was open just fifty yards from the supermarket and stocked up on the very necessary baguettes. Our neighbors at the marina told us that two days ago there were no baguettes after the strikers cut the power. Maybe we are not seeing Guadeloupe at its best........

 

February 6, 2009

Our next boat destination is Deshaies (pronounced "Day-Ay") on the northwest tip of Guadeloupe. Local information indicated that the Customs official there is often "hard to find" and folks have waited a day or two to check out of Guadeloupe. To avoid this, we went to the local Customs office near the marina and obtained our clearance documents. We really wanted to sail the "River Salee" that separates the two halves of Guadeloupe but extensive research indicated that it is just too shallow for DoodleBug. Pity.

Our auto tour of Guadeloupe continued today with the west wing of the butterfly. This is the mountainous island with two active volcanoes and far more spectacular scenery. This side has the banana plantations and a little sugar cane but overall seemed less cultivated than the east, probably due to the rugged mountainous terrain. We had lunch at a pretty beachside cafe and were the only diners. On our return across the mountainous spine of the island, we stopped near the summit of the pass of "les Mamelles" and hiked a trail towards the summit of the peak of the same name. I say "towards" because as the trail climbed higher, the mud grew deeper and Annette was losing her flip-flop footwear in the deeper holes. A beautiful hike but I did not want to risk losing the whole girl in a mud hole; thus we retraced our sloppy steps back to the parking area, where it was necessary to paddle in the drainage ditch to remove the worst of the mud before inflicting the balance on the rental car.

Back at the marina we made a last trip to the internet cafe. The marina Wi-Fi was inoperable and so too was a subscription I had purchased in Dominica, that promised Wi-Fi connections in Guadeloupe. I received an e-mail from our satellite phone provider in answer to my query, wherein they stated they had "discovered" that both of our Sat phone SIMS had become "inoperable". Could they send me two more? I e-mailed back and said that the latter was unlikely; could they re-activate the existing SIMS? They called on our cell-phone and explained that they needed to transfer my service to "Stratos", their upstream provider. More calls but by now the cell-phone battery was sinking fast and sure enough, went dead in the middle of being put on "hold". Back to DoodleBug to recharge. An hour later we reconnected and I was promised that I would have Sat phone service restored that same evening. And so we went to bed.

 

February 7, 2009

A quick check this morning showed that we were still without Sat-phone service. We dropped our lines at 0735 hours and set sail for Deshaies "around the island". This meant sailing for over three hours to the southernmost tip of Guadeloupe before turning up the west coast for a further five hour sail to the north. We really missed not being able to sail the river through the middle of the island! The sail itself was a very pleasant broad reach, under full sail with blue skies and sunshine. When we made the turn back north, we were still able to sail for the next three hours before the wind became fluky and switched to a headwind. We sailed into Deshaies Bay and dropped anchor at 1500 hours at position N 16 18.4' W 061 47.9'.

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Daughter Marian had called our cell phone earlier and we had related our tale of Sat phone woe to her. She tracked down the various parties and by the time we retired to bed, both phones were working again. The other miracle was that the Dominica Wi-Fi subscription actually worked in Deshaies Bay and we were thus able to update our weather forecast information that showed light winds for the morrow. The guide book had warned that this bay was a wind funnel and indeed it was. Nevertheless the holding was good, we had plenty of room to swing and we went to bed with winds of 25 knots or so pushing DoodleBug around.