Montserrat – by Andy
We left St. Maarten early on July 27 and set sail for St. Kitts. We had great sailing winds for this part of the trip, and we arrived around 3:30 p.m. We had plans of going ashore and helping the local economy, but we could not hail anyone at the marina on our VHF radio. Karen suggested we just phone them instead? Still no answer. We decided to stay put, and we anchored in the bay, and Karen cooked a beef roast. We opened a bottle of pinot noir and enjoyed a lovely dinner aboard ship.
The entire Caribbean seems to take an extended siesta in the afternoons through the “off season.”
This part of the world is better suited to day sailing due to the fish traps that are liberally strewn about. They consist of a floating round plastic buoy about the size of a shot put, and sometimes an empty white detergent bottle floating in the water (if you’re lucky). That’s all you can see from the surface. But a thick line runs from there down to the ocean floor to a trap set up to capture some kind of bottom feeder (lobster, red snapper, career politician, etc). If you catch that line with your propellor, you are in for some trouble. The 41-tons of Gratitude’s weight moving along at 8 kts would be too much for the line, but if it wraps around the prop, it could easily break off something expensive. And these traps are everywhere. It was not unusual for us to be able to count 15-20 at once, scattered haphazardly around – even miles offshore. It’s not the ones you see that worry you so much. Forward visibility is very limited when the sails are up, and when there are whitecaps on the ocean, it can be really difficult to pick them out until you are right on top of one.
Early Sunday, we struck out for Montserrat; about a six-hour passage. The winds were again, very friendly for sailing, and we made excellent time.
Montserrat had it going on, back in the day. The island was home to beautiful houses, restaurants, golf courses, a cruise ship dock, and AIR Studios which was used to record music by Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms), The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder. Jimmy Buffet was, perhaps, prescient when he wrote and recorded Volcano there “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blow” in 1979.
Then in 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the island, damaged 90% of the infrastructure, and crippled their economy in one fell blow. The cruise ships stopped coming, and tourism dried up overnight.
But all of that was just a prelude to Mt. Soufrière, the volcano that looms over the island. The volcano that had been dormant for 16,000 years. In 1995 it awoke and erupted, and ⅔ of the population had to evacuate the island. It continued to erupt off and on for the next 16 years, occasionally spewing smoke and ash ten miles into the air. It covered the airport in its pyroclastic flow, virtually eliminated the capital city of Plymouth, and utterly ruined most everything. (Karen’s nerd-note: Pyroclastic flow is different than the molten-lava stream you see out of, say, Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii. It’s more like big glowing solid chunks of rock and billowing clouds of ash, creeping up on a town and destroying it over the course of weeks or months, rather than one explosive day. There are big explosive events – but they are not the only source of destruction.)
We took a tour with Joe Phillip, a native who was here when it happened. It was amazing to ride through the exclusion zone and see buildings that were buried. Karen pointed out that it really is like a modern day Pompeii. Joe had photos of the town from before, and he would take us to a spot, show us a photo, then point out the corresponding ruins. Seeing the miles of burned-out or buried buildings, the scope of lives lost, ruined, or changed forever – it was sobering.
After that, we spent about an hour rigging a new outhaul to the sail’s clew. The outhaul is a line that puts horizontal tension on the bottom of the sail to keep it pulled back tightly when it is deployed. We had to get creative with getting it rigged and tied properly. That has been a big part of this journey since we started. Working together to repair things is a daily occurrence.
That evening, after dinner, I stepped out to the stern – The lights on the back of the boat looked wrong. something looked strange. I called Karen to come out and look. “I can’t. Something’s wrong” she replied.
We were seeing the same thing. Tiny black flies had descended on us in a swarm, and they were covering anything that was illuminated. It was a shock-and-awe number. Once we figured out they were attracted to the lights, we turned off everything we could and got out the small vacuum we keep aboard. We had bought some fly paper in Spanish Wells, Bahamas months ago that we had never used. We hung it up from the ceiling. By this time, it was evident that this was a full-scale invasion. It was like something out of Exodus, except these didn’t bite.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that cleanup took days. But mercifully, the flies did not return.
The next day we departed early for Guadeloupe. Our anchorage there was set deep in a harbor with mountains protecting on three sides. The wind howled over the mountains, making a low, hollow whistle like you were blowing over a giant Coke bottle.
But we were getting notifications about bad weather forming in the Atlantic. A tropical depression, called Invest 96, was forming and possibly headed straight for us, so we decided to make our way further south. I’ve never given much through to the National Hurricane Center, but I am so thankful to live in a time where people do this job. Thanks to these men and women, we have advanced notice and predictions that did not exist long ago. It saves lives and property.
Guadeloupe and Les Saints – by Karen
Wow, Guadeloupe! You stole my heart in Deshaies and you kept it at Terre de Haut. So much to love….
We left Montserrat in the early morning and made it to the northwestern coast of Guadeloupe by about 3 pm. I had originally thought we’d stay longer in Montserrat… but our taxi-tour of the island was thorough, and the only accessible restaurants by foot from the dock were quite touristy. Plus, you know, potential approaching storm. We decided to move on, knowing that our time in this region is limited and we can’t see it all.
It turned out to be a good decision. Deshaies, the first anchorage we visited, was utterly delightful. The boutique where check-in is offered was closed for lunch when we arrived, so we camped out at L’Amer bistro for a late lunch (linner? Dunch?) and free WiFi while we waited. Our stewed octopus was FABULOUS. Guadeloupe is a territory of France, and the cuisine is part French, part Creole. Mmmmmmmm… every meal was delectable. When Le Pelican, the boutique with the customs computer, reopened at 4 pm, we stopped by. Check-in was easy and cheap – a mere 4 Euros, paid to the boutique. We also found a cute little iguana wall-hanging to grace Gratitude’s saloon.
When we dinghied back to the boat, I had the bright idea to grab our full load of trash and go back ashore to find the dumpster. I thought I remembered the location from the guidebook map I’d studied, but turns out my memory is not very reliable. After about a half-mile of walking, mostly uphill, Andy was beginning to question my sanity, but I refused to stop – the trash had some rotten fruit and had been attracting flies, so I wanted it GONE. In desperation, I walked up the driveway of what looked like a guesthouse. The very nice lady of the house, who spoke a little English with the help of Google Translate, finally figured out what we were looking for. Her son, Max, grabbed his car keys and said, “Come with me!” Even though we were reluctant to impose, they were insistent, so we got in the car and he drove us 5 minutes to the public trash-pickup. (Which turned out to be a short walk from the dinghy dock, in the opposite direction I had taken us when we started walking. Oops.) Max and his mother were our heroes, showing kindness to strangers bearing smelly trash. Note to self: once you get home, be on the lookout for strangers who could use a helping hand!
The next day we got up early and went back ashore, grabbing breakfast at the patisserie (bakery) with luscious pastries and quiches, and Illy coffee. We could’ve been in Europe as we sipped our coffee at the sidewalk table. Then we burned off those calories with a mile-long hike, straight uphill, to the Jardin Botanique. This delightful little botanical garden offers a gorgeous array of tropical foliage, Caribbean lorikeets and parrots, a koi pond, arboretum, cactus garden, and man-made waterfall and river gushing over boulders. Every vista is lovely; we spent two hours meandering down the paths, admiring the beauty and resting in the shade along the way. A snack bar and gift shop at the end refreshed us for our walk back downhill to town.
Dinner that night was at another small French place called Mahina, where we met a German family who applauded our wine choice and conversed with us about Germany. We ordered tapas (yum!) and then shared an entrée of pork loin filets in a creamy sauce with pasta and salad on the side. All around us were French vacationers filling the balcony with their exotic words and exclamations; the sounds of the ocean and the little coqui frogs filled in the gaps. I will say that in Guadeloupe, every time we ordered food, we never knew what we would get. The menus were all in French, and nothing ever came out like we expected it would. Don’t get me wrong – it was all delicious! – but we had to stay flexible and open-minded when we ordered, ready for anything.
One of the many benefits of Deshaies is the free WiFi that is available all the way out into the bay, where we were anchored. We got the log-in instructions on our first day from L’Amer, and we used it both days to check email and weather, to monitor the aforementioned tropical depression. Although we are still within our insurance company’s location requirements for hurricane coverage, we have NO desire to weather even a tropical storm, much less a hurricane, aboard Gratitude. So we pay close attention to troubling weather forecasts.
This storm, “Invest 96”, had our attention, as it seemed to be headed straight for Guadeloupe. Not only that, but we were starting to get low on fuel. We generally tank up at every major port, but since leaving St. Thomas in early July, we’d not found a catamaran-friendly fuel dock. So between the impending foul weather and our fuel shortage, we reluctantly decided to keep moving south. Basseterre, a major port in the south of Guadeloupe, seemed our best bet for fuel, so we traveled 20 miles and hailed the fuel dock. No answer! What is it with these Caribbean bridges and docks? The further south we go, the less likely they are to monitor the VHF radio. No matter – we found the fuel dock anyway. Andy brought the boat alongside like a pro, and I threw out the lines and got us secured without a dock hand in sight. It made me proud – clearly, we’ve come a long way in our boat-handling skills.
After getting fuel, we decided to motor another hour or so and anchor overnight at The Saintes – a group of small islets just south of Guadeloupe, also belonging to France. Once again, we were charmed by the small village where we anchored. Bourg de Saintes, the town on the island of Terre de Haut, is beautiful and clean, teeming with French restaurants and cafes and ice-cream stands and French tourists. The water in the bay was clear and cool, full of other boats, and swimmers and snorkelers. We liked it so much that when we checked weather again and saw Invest 96 was losing energy, we decided to stay one more day.
There was a lot to see and do in Bourg de Saintes. They are incredibly cruiser-friendly. There’s a cruisers’ support office ashore that will do your laundry cheap. All the French-speaking people were – gasp – friendly! No, seriously, truly warm and welcoming. And patient with our extremely limited French. There are relatively few gas-powered vehicles on the island – walking was easy and the occasional scooter or delivery truck watched out for pedestrians. We rented some electric-assisted bikes and went exploring. You might scoff at the electric-assist thing… but the hills on Terre-de-Haut are no joke. The roads twist and turn and climb – even with the electric assist, we had to stop and hike the bikes up the hills.
The most interesting place we found was Fort Napoleon. (Yes, he had it built.) It had incredible views over the bay and rooms full of restored furniture, historic boat models, even taxidermied fish. (Those were a little gross, if I’m honest – they’d all turned brown and leathery.) And a cactus garden surrounded the buildings.
Then back down to town, for lunch and ice cream and siesta. Hey, when in Rome…
After seeing what Guadeloupe and The Saintes have to offer, I wonder why the Virgin Islands are so much more popular with Americans. The islands here have just as much to offer in water recreation, with better restaurants and amazing cultural diversity. It just doesn’t feel as touristy – it feels authentic. When we get ready to bring Gratitude back north again, I’m going to budget at least a couple of weeks to visit the rest of Guadeloupe.