Our journey south continued with an overnight stop in Dominica. We had bought some extra-strong line in Guadeloupe to use as a tie-down for the clew (rear bottom attachment point) of our mainsail. It’s been breaking loose when we use the main, and every time it happens we have to drop the sail to fix it. So in The Saintes, when we had light wind, we hoisted it part-way and tied down that clew with the strongest line we could get our hands on.
And it worked! Too well, actually… about an hour into our ride to Dominica we felt a brisk gust and heard a loud “BOOM!” This time, the strong line and my knots held just fine… but the small aluminum bar on the boom, to which I had secured the clew, actually broke off. Grrrr! No matter what we do these days, we can’t get our mainsail in working order! Back to the drawing board…
Dominica is a young island, geologically; it has no significant beaches and 7 potentially active volcanoes. It doesn’t see much tourism except from cruise ships (we stopped here once in 2015) and cruising sailboats. But it gets a decent amount of both – there’s good snorkeling, diving, and hiking here.
For a while Dominica had a reputation among sailors as a good place to get your dinghy stolen. It happens in some of the economically depressed isles; a stolen outboard engine can be sold for good money. But some of the river tour guides in Portsmouth, the northern port, were smart and came up with a good idea: PAYS, or the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services. They set up good, strong mooring balls, organized regular 24-hour patrols in the bay, and now visiting cruisers are greeted by a PAYS member in his little wooden boat whenever they enter the harbor. The PAYS “boat boys” will help you moor your boat, collect the modest fee, offer to take your trash or bring you ice. Once you are helped by a boat boy, he’s “yours” for your stay. If you want to take a tour of the river or hike to a waterfall, he’ll take you himself or set it up with an associate. He’ll show you where to clear customs or find the best fried fish. It’s like having your own private concierge on the water. (And boy, does it make mooring easier.)
Our PAYS representative was Albert. He was courteous, professional, and competent in every way. Once he got us set up on our mooring ball, he asked us how long we’d be staying. We had originally thought we’d stay a couple of days, but with our loose mainsail, we decided to head as quickly as possible to Martinique. So we told Albert we’d only be there overnight. No problem, he assured us – if we wanted to take a tour of the Indian River with him, nearby, that was still an option as long as we left by around 3:30.
We were a little taxed and disheartened by our trip and our mainsail woes, but then we decided we would probably regret skipping the tour. So after lunch we called Albert and asked him to pick us up at 3:30. He showed up at 3:55 (island time, you know) and we got off our boat and into his. We packed cameras and rain jackets, because the sky kept spitting light rain. This was a good decision – we got rained on, but we truly didn’t mind. It showed us a different kind of beauty than we see on sunny days.
The Indian River is a National Park in Dominica. They have many of these parks, because they care about preserving their natural resources, which are abundant. So a journey up the Indian River is an opportunity to see the landscape as Columbus might have seen it – palm trees, flowering vines, tangled roots with skittering crabs, slowly flowing water, birds and iguanas in the canopy overhead. It’s a peaceful ride – at least when you’re there in the off-season, as we were. As soon as we entered the mouth of the river, Albert turned off the outboard engine and began rowing us upstream.
Along the way, Albert told us many things, including how he’d lost his leg, a year ago. We marveled at his strength – mentally as well as physically. He has adapted his boat and his lifestyle to accommodate his disability, and had no trouble with rowing us or with talking with us about his ordeal. (It wasn’t an accident, we learned, but we were unclear as to the actual cause; he had some sores that would not heal, and then began to spread, so he asked the doctors to remove the leg. He said he’d rather go on living than let one leg kill him.)
And he had a lot of knowledge about the flora and fauna we saw: what plants could be used as medicines, which trees were good for building vs. which ones were good for firewood, the best crabs for frying or for stew. When the vines would bloom and what the giant black nest in the tree was built by. (Termites! Yuck.) Where Hollywood had built a set for Pirates of the Caribbean II. (Part of it is still there.) We took a lot of photos and enjoyed the silence and stillness along the way.
After about a mile (an hour of rowing), we came to something unexpected – a little wooden dock, with a stone path up a hill to a lean-to kind of building surrounded by ginger lilies and tropical foliage. Albert instructed us to climb the path and take some refreshment – and when we did, we found the most remote and rustic bar you can imagine. The bartender told us that there used to be a sort of hotel there, with hammocks for sleeping, but the last hurricane damaged the shelter and it had been closed for a while. But the bar survived! We had a choice of 5 different flavors of rum punch: Andy chose coconut, while I took a risk on Dynamite (a blend of the other four). Delish! And so bizarre, to sit and enjoy our drinks with a young Dominican who walked to work just for us. He told us that in high season, he gets lots of customers from the cruise ships, but today we were lucky – we had him all to ourselves. Lucky indeed!
The trip home was quicker, as our rowboat floated down the current. Albert returned us to Gratitude, and we paid his fee plus a little rum punch of our own making (Dominican rum with pineapple juice). The next morning we pulled up anchor around 8 a.m. and pointed the bow south, toward Martinique.