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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
06/28/2007, Dominica

It was a gray morning when I climbed up on deck to get things ready for departure. We wanted to make an early start so that we could arrive in Dominica in time to visit the island a bit. We were weighing anchor with Kelp Fiction II at 6:30 and underway shortly thereafter.

We motored out of the saints and set sail as we turned into the wind. The wind was up around 20 knots apparent as we crossed the Dominica Channel. We were bound for Roseau, the capital, at the southern end of Dominica. As it was late in the season we planned to make continuous progress south until we reached Saint Lucia or the Grenadines.

We made over eight knots speed over ground until we cleared Cape Melville at the northern end of Dominica. As typical, things got gusty around the point, backed a bit, then went light and the soaring three and four thousand foot peeks knocked the wind down. I suppose we could always stand off but I enjoy cruising the coastline of these beautiful islands too much to stay that far away. Dominica is particularly beautiful, and in retrospect, the most lush and impressive island we've visited on the interior. High verdant peaks piling down into rain forests that meet the sea.

We have been making heavy use of the Doyle Cruising Guides since the Bahamas. They are updated regularly and truly indispensable. You could cruise without them but the sketch charts alone are worth the investment. The guide also helps you avoid making costly mistakes. I have often used the guide to get a reference for reliable individuals around various ports.

In this case Pancho was recommended by the Leeward Islands Guide, and we were glad we contacted him on the VHF. Pancho helped us locate the least rolly moorings in the area, connected us with a tour guide/van to see the island (same afternoon), and shuttled us to the dock and back. Not bad for a $25 mooring fee.

We were tied up by noon and Kelp Fiction arrived shortly thereafter. After settling the boats Pancho took us all to the dock and introduced the driver. He was a great guy and had quite an entertaining personality. He also knew the island very well.

Our first stop was customs over at the commercial dock to clear in. Dominica has made part of the process very easy in that you only have one stop to make for everything. It is a little out of the way however. Fred and I made our way through security at the port and down to the warehouse that customs resided in while everyone else walked around the eateries engrossed in the cricket match on TV.

Cricket is huge down here. Bigger than soccer I think. The East Indies team is the darling of all of the locals in the Caribbean. Each island has their favorite son on the team and from what I understand they do pretty well. In the only game I watched they beat England, which I imagine is good since they invented the sport.

After clearing in we set off for the interior. Dominica is steep to and there are not too many spectacular harbors or great beaches on the west side. It just rises up into jungles and mountains. We drove through some quaint villages but spent a lot of time working our way back into the foothills through cascades of trees and dense undergrowth. Everything was green or some other striking color. Everywhere you look there are trees loaded with fruit or nuts. If you were destitute in Dominica you would never be hungry, and would probably have a better diet than most Americans.

After quite a bit of driving we reached the end of the road, literally. Our driver led us to a wonderful little restaurant with a lovely view down over the hills and rain forest. After a late lunch we hiked up a trail to a double water fall. These were high water falls with spectacular drops into small pools. The waterfall on the right is cool and clear, the one on the left is warm and colored with minerals from the vents that heat it.

We traveled about the hills a bit more and enjoyed the local hot springs. Like many of the Caribbean islands, Dominica has several active volcanoes. No recent eruptions but a boiler room below none the less. We stopped by several other impressive view points and towns on our way back to the port.

Back at the boat we marveled at the whirlwind day, a six hour sail, clearing in and out (simultaneously), lunch, waterfalls and a tour of the island. It was nice to be on the move and yet still make time to absorb the beauty of the islands as we pass by.

The Saints
06/27/2007, Isles de Saintes

We up anchored at about 6:30 this morning on our way to Isles de Saintes. Isles de Saintes is a small cluster of islands just south of Guadalupe. They are a beautiful and rugged looking little set of islands with small brightly painted buildings capped with red roofs all about. Reminds me of picture I've seen of places in the Mediterranean.

Our trip down Guadalupe was a balance between sailing and motoring sailing in light wind. For contrast, we crossed a 30 knot squall off of the southern tip of Guadalupe. We almost made it with great conditions the whole day long, but apparently Mother Nature needed us to have some drama in our lives.

We anchored off of the main town of Bourg des Saintes on the island of Terre D'en Haut at around noon. We tried to clear in again but were informed that customs was only open from 9 until noon. As it turned out we flew the Q flag through the entire central French territory.

The Saints are a wonderful place. You have the beautiful Caribbean water and all of that, but the villages in the French islands are what is most endearing. Walking or biking through town is a pleasure with lots of small shops and eateries. We enjoyed some wonderful food and stocked up a bit on groceries prior to returning to the boat. It would have been nice to stay a few days but we were on a mission to get south. July first and the end of our named storm insurance coverage was just around the corner.

The Saints
Sailing to France, sort of
06/26/2007, Deshaies, Guadalupe

We had not had any really nice weather in some time. As you get used to the "really-bad" stuff, the "bad" stuff starts looking ok. It was not a great day to travel but we decided to get moving as it was better than the trend.

Sailing down the lee of Montserrat was intriguing. Hideko and I spent a lot of time looking through the binoculars amazed at how much of Montserrat, which we had not really seen by land, had been destroyed. The sail around the south end of the island is truly awe inspiring. You must stay outside the maritime exclusion zone just in case but you can still see the destruction clearly.

Around the southern point things got zippy. We were motor sailing with a reef in and I started to see the wind speed close on 30 knots. I went forward and popped in reef number two as we turned into it.

It was a 6 hour sail with the wind howling 25 to 30 knots thirty degrees off of the bow. Seas were good sized to go with it. The trip was rather eventless other than the passing of a small private plane. The thing sounded like a P38 Lighting and he buzzed Kelp Fiction really close. Fred tried to warn me but just as I was saying, "what plane", it blasted by us 100 feet off of the deck. I almost jumped out of the boat it was so loud. After rolling around to see the looks on our faces the pilot flew off. I'm sure karma will sort things out.

We entered the bay at Dashaies (Day-Hay) and anchored around noon. It is a beautiful little town. Unlike the former British territories, Guadalupe is France, and therefore the EU. The French islands are quite a bit less poor and have much better food than the surrounding areas. They are, of course, more developed as well.

Dashies has a small marina and a little canal that winds up by town. There are lots of little places to eat on the shore and you can tie up at the dinghy dock, in the marina or in the canal.

When Kelp Fiction arrived, Fred and I tried to go clear in. Another great thing about the French islands is that they are pretty lax on the clear in, clear out business. There are no fees involved, which I think relaxes the concern a bit. If you try to clear in every day, that's good enough. We tried. They were closed. So off we went to dinner at one of the local restaurants. We had a lovely meal and a lot of fun.

I had to think long and hard about the whole clearance issue at first. I am interested in respecting each nation we visit along with their laws. After speaking with officials in various countries however I have come to believe that you must consider each country in turn. No two are alike. The further south you go, the more things seem to be on the honor system. I have talked to several officials in the French countries and if customs is closed for the day (or week as the case may be) they would rather you buy dinner at a local restaurant and shop some to support the economy than stay aboard with the Q flying. That is as long as you make an earnest attempt to clear in as soon as possible.

You must always get the low down before taking a cavalier approach however. In Montserrat, a place I thought would welcome any visitor with open arms, we were told to wait on the boat until the next day when customs would arrive at 8AM. If we had not gone immediately to clear in we could have gotten on the wrong side of the local officials. Not a good idea on an island with 15,000 folks where officials have a lot of autonomy and fairly poor jail facilities (although the view from the Montserrat jail high on the clif was spectacular as I recall).

One More Day in Montserrat
06/25/2007, Little Bay

Today was a down day waiting for weather. I was glad to have a spare bit of time because I wanted to locate a friend. During the Dive Instructor tests in the BVI I met a guy named Ned. Ned was originally from Dominica but worked at Green Monkey Diving in Montserrat. We had a great time talking and I told him I would stop in for some dives when we made it down his way.

We stopped by the dive shop and wouldn't you know it, Ned had left the week before. The slow season had sent Ned to Saint Kitts, we probably crossed at sea, to work at one of the dive operations there. I was so bummed.

We had lunch at a little restaurant (generous) next door. It is a neat place with lots of intricate decorations and a great view of the bay. The "restaurant" is basically a small shack with a fridge and a BBQ. Our choice for lunch was chicken and ribs or ribs and chicken. We all had the chicken and ribs. The food was good and the atmosphere was great.

Orin from the BBC news happened by and we did an ad-hoc interview. We were the only cruisers on the island at the time and we gave him our best verbal depiction of viewing Montserrat from off shore.

We wrapped up the day with a swim where upon Cindy discovered the Flying Gunards scrounging around our anchor chains. These fish have large colorful wings that they open up to scare you if you get too close, though they spend most of the time digging about the bottom looking for food in the sand. They have little claws, almost like a bat's hands, that they stir up the sub-straight with. They seem to like to hang around the anchor chains because as the boat swings it stirs up the bottom, apparently exposing something they are interested in.

Touring Montserrat
06/24/2007, The Exclusion Zone

It was a cloudy morning and the weather forecast made a couple of nights in Montserrat look like a good idea prior to making the crossing to Guadalupe. We all wanted to see the island so it was just as well.

Both Kelp Fiction II and our boat were still flying the yellow flag so we set out to the main quay to clear in as the first order of business. Apart from the concrete quay and the yard, the port consists of a warehouse and a security trailer. We arrived just as the customs officer got in and cleared in with no hassle. Montserrat doesn't get a lot of visitors and the officer was pleased that his signature was going on a Japanese passport.

A taxi/tour guide had hailed us on the VHF when we arrived and he was waiting for us at the gate. We piled in the van and set off for a day of exploring. There's not much to Montserrat these days. Most of the folks are very nice but the population is only about 15,000. Little Bay is scheduled to be the new capital but development is moving slowly for justifiable reasons. The main settlement has relocated to an area near the top of the hills in the northern part of the island. Great views but not a lot of flat land to work with.

There had previously been a ferry that brought tourists a couple of times a week to Montserrat from the more prosperous Antigua. Montserrat is a dependent territory of the UK. Given the choice of the subsidized ferry or an airport, the government of Montserrat shut down the ferry and built an airport. It is a nice airport in the hills near the settlement but not capable of handling more than a 16 seater. Due to the expense of flying in, a lot fewer folks visit the island now.

If you look at a guide to the Caribbean pre the 1997 eruption, Montserrat is heralded as the Emerald of the Caribbean. Pictures of the beautiful town of Plymouth and the lovely harbor of Road Bay impress. Unfortunately all of the areas where people previously lived, worked and played are restricted now. Much, including Plymouth and the old airport, is now wiped out, buried in ash and stone. You can only go in if you need to retrieve something from your former business or residence and then only with a police escort. Eruptions of pyroclastic flow take only 90 seconds to reach the ocean and the poisonous fumes kill instantly.

We stopped by a tourist outpost that was being built on the west side of the island. It is at the edge of the restricted zone and offers panoramic views of the desolation around the old airport. You can clearly see how the runway disappears under several feet of rock and ash. We stopped at the observatory on the west side of the island as well. It was closed but it is situated so that you can see the entire volcano and some of the primary run off zones. The beach near the old harbor is about 100 yards farther out into the ocean now.

The volcano is massive and dominates the horizon. You can only rarely see the top as it is typically enshrouded in steam and clouds. Man is no match for the forces of nature. All we can do is try to predict Mother Nature's actions and get out of the way accordingly. You can discover more at the Montserrat Observatory web site here:

Passage to Montserrat
06/23/2007, Little Bay

Saint Kitts is a nice place, but unfortunately for us we spent all of our time in a concrete marina (thanks to me and the flu, or whatever it was). The perfect anchorage may lie just down the coast, who knows. To get perfect anchorage status for us the anchorage must be a protected anchorage with not too many boats, it has to have inviting "jump in" water, a nice beach and good snorkeling/diving/fishing near by, and finally, a waterside café with fresh bread and WIFI, serving three meals a day. Not too much to ask? So far we have found pieces but not the whole place.

So today we're off to Montserrat. The Saint Kitts Port Authority referred to the island as Monster Rat. Cute. I guess a little inter island humor should be expected seeing as how Nevitians (those on Nevis) and Kittitians (those on Saint Kitts) have quite a rivalry going and they are from the same country. Nevis tries to succeed every once in a while but from what I hear they don't want to take their part of the national debt with them when they go so things are at a general impasse.

The weather has been tough for our entire stay in Saint Kitts and today is not really much different. Twenty knot winds and pretty good sized seas. We sailed south along Saint Kitts and then along the narrows between Saint Kitts and Nevis. The narrows between the two islands are famous for being a tricky place to navigate with strong currents and lots of rocks.

As we sailed along the coast of Nevis the wind came around and we either needed to tack our way up to Montserrat or motor sail. So motorsail it was.

About half way across the channel between Montserrat and Nevis is an Island called Redonda. It is basically a huge, inhospitable looking, rock. While it formally belongs to Montserrat no one really goes there except the occasional dive boat. At one point some interesting folk from Antigua claimed the rock and renamed it the Kingdom of Redonda. Apparently the king comes by now and again to climb to the top of his kingdom and then goes home to Antigua.

As we approached Montserrat it materialized out of the clouds and haze like an apparition. This is the one island in the Caribbean I have wanted to see more than all others. The volcano erupted as recently as this last winter, spewing ash into the sky that dusted our boat as we were crossing the south coast of Puerto Rico. It is an intriguing island, with the smallest population of any nation in the Caribbean at 5,000.

The entire southern part of the island has been wiped out or marked off limits. This is sad because Montserrat used to be known as the emerald of the Caribbean, and the area in the south was where the main port and all of the larger settlements were located. The only port of entry now is Little Bay. I assure you that it is a little Bay.

When we arrived around three in the afternoon the Bay had about four or five other boats anchored and there was precious little room for too many more without crowding. We anchored and lowered the dinghy to see about clearing in. In the French islands if customs is closed, no big deal, grab a bite at a café, shop a bit, just make sure that you clear in at the first opportunity. The British islands tend to be a little more uptight. I walked up the quay and approached the only person in view on the entire island. He had on a uniform and was tending a shack just inside the large chain link and barbed wire fence.

I asked him if we could clear in and he was very friendly. It was Saturday at four in the afternoon so no one was handy. He made a few calls but couldn't raise anyone. I said thanks and that we would come back in the morning first thing. Then I asked if it would be ok for us to go ashore to grab a bite to eat. A cloud passed over head. No, you must stay on your boat, was the response. Check.

So Hideko, Roq and I marveled at the intriguing island from the bay as we welcomed Kelp Fiction into the anchorage.

One more day
06/22/2007, Saint Kitts

We talked about leaving today but giving Randy, and the weather, one more day to get better seemed like a good idea. I went to the marina office to close out our bill and on the way picked up Chinese takeout for dinner. Yum.

(photo looking south over the apex of the Saint Kitts hour glass toward Nevis)

Saint Kitts

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