Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
11 March 2019 | Zar Par Marina, Boca Chica, Dominican Republic
Barbara Johnston | Hot and muggy, with occasional squalls
In the Dominican Republic, everyone loves to have their music REALLY LOUD! Yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, about 50 motor boats were anchored in shallow water, a few hundred feet from us, most pumping out their own favorite music – salsa, merengue, rap, what have you. Several of the boats seemed to have ranks of speakers mounted above everything else, competing to drown out their neighbors.
Saturday afternoon at the same time there was some loud music, but mostly it was jet skis, back and forth, back and forth, sort of like motorcycle gangs. They stirred up the water into huge confused waves. We bounced around, pulling hard on our dock lines. I vacillate between amazement that people would choose to get their fun this way, and anger that it’s sometimes so loud I can’t think. Fortunately, most nights, it quiets down after dark.
One of the boats in the marina here supposedly belongs to the professional baseball player, Robinson Canó. Sometimes a huge crowd of people gathers on the docks – beautiful young people – we wonder if it’s the baseball player or some other celebrity that’s attracting their attention.
The boat next to us gathered a huge crowd of beautiful young people this morning and started pumping out loud rap music at 10 am. Security guards stood by on the dock. We asked, and it’s a merengue band, “Negrito Dolar”. We feared they’d stay all day and into the night, but as of right now it’s pouring rain, and they all seem to have left.
We have read or heard in several places that the Dominican Republic is known as “La Bella Isla” (the beautiful island), but this part of the island – the streets adjacent to Marina Zarpar – are not beautiful by any definition. The marina staff tells us we shouldn’t walk in the surrounding neighborhood after dark. There’s garbage everywhere in the streets and vacant lots. Fires burn at night; I think they’re burning plastic bags and other sorts of garbage, we sometimes find the ash on our decks in the morning. One morning Sue and I decided to walk east toward Boca Chica, along the beach. We left the marina grounds at 7 am (well after sunrise) and the first thing we saw was two guys with rifles, seemingly guarding the beach. We didn’t feel very good about proceeding, and indeed, the marina staff told us that we shouldn’t go that way until after 9 am.
Yesterday – on a noisy Sunday afternoon – the beach was packed with swimmers, sunbathers and trailers for jet skis. Something louder than all those boats was coming from the direction of the distant beach. Thumpa-thumpa.
We did, indeed see parts of the island that definitely meet the “Bella Isla” description. On Thursday we had signed up for a tour to Saona Island. It turned out not to be what we had signed up for, but we did see some very beautiful beaches. Friday was much more interesting and to our liking: we took a van north to the Samana peninsula for a whale-watching expedition. The countryside becomes much more lush, with beautiful plantations of rice, sugar cane and oil palms. Sadly, the whale-watching boat went too close to the whales, to the point of what seemed like harassment, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit of outrage on their behalf. These were humpback whales, in a location where the females give birth in February. Not long from now they’ll start their migration back to northern waters. After the whale watching excursion we spent a few hours on Bacardi Island, another beautiful beach.
Our driver for the whale-watching excursion was a maniac. He drove that 11-passenger van faster than any other vehicle on the road. He passed everything in sight, whether there was enough sight-distance or not, whether there was oncoming traffic or not. Villages with speed limits of 25 kph he took at not less than 60 kph. One picture that is burned into my memory: our van is passing a fully loaded pick-up truck. There’s oncoming traffic. A motor scooter with a young couple aboard zooms up between us, the pick-up driver shoots his hand out the window holding a coke bottle; the motor scooter driver grabs the bottle and they drop back as our van zooms past the whole affair in sufficient time to miss the oncoming traffic. Yikes!!!!
We met an interesting Italian guy (Matteo) aboard the speeding van. He said that his counselor advised him to travel in the Caribbean to reduce stress. With the maniacal driving that was happening, I asked him how that was coming… He said they have crazy drivers in Rome, too. He and his partner were interested in our sailing travels. At one point he asked whether we had kids, and weren’t they worried about us? Matteo has an office job for his day job (no doubt the source of his stress), but he’s really an artist. He showed us photos of some of his artwork – He paints religious iconography in the Byzantine style – quite amazing to all appearances. Judge for yourself, his Instagram page is piermatteotortorella.
Yesterday was our third day of touring – we visited the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, the capitol city of the Dominican Republic. Lots of beautiful old buildings to see, as well as a cave complex with crystal blue lakes – cenotes, similar to what occurs in Mexico’s Yucatan Penninsula. We saw the Christopher Columbus lighthouse, which our guide described as a spending boondoggle, wasting vast amounts of money, much to corruption, which could have been spent on education. Despite the monument’s name, it is not a lighthouse and not close to the ocean. They moved the supposed ashes of Columbus from the Cathedral to this new monument. In fact, apparently, Spain claims it has Columbus’s remains, as do Italy and several other Caribbean islands.
We saw the Cathedral – the oldest in the Americas, with many parts built in about 1520. We saw the house where Hernan Cortes (one of the conquistadores) had lived – it’s now the French Embassy. Other old buildings were both rough and beautiful – plenty of old and new art.
Now we’re planning for a three-day passage to Jamaica, starting on Tuesday. We had originally hoped to go to Cuba, but that is not to be. Just not enough time, and too many unknowns.
But let me back up a little bit – I haven’t told you yet about our very interesting time in Puerto Rico, nor about the overnight trip to get here. Since I’m going generally backwards, we’ll start with the passage from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. George and Sue aboard Julia Max departed from Ponce at 6:30 am, since their speed tends to be a bit less than ours. We set out at 8:30 and set off downwind in what is becoming a familiar sail pattern: Genoa and staysail both deployed from their respective forestays, staysail on a pole and genoa free-flying. If the wind is at least 12 knots we are able to keep both sails full and make 5-6 knots. If we have 15 knots of wind, the speed increases to 7 knots. We were in and out of that range all day, but at dusk the wind lessened and we were back to motoring. By that time we were in the Mona passage, with no sign of Julia Max. In the middle of the night we finally heard from them, about 3 miles north of us, near Mona island. Gradually we moved past them, mostly motoring until our arrival at Marina Zarpar at about noon the next day. It was a somewhat exciting arrival because part of the entry channel was narrow and only about 7 feet deep. We slid in and found a spot in the marina.
We figured Julia Max would only be an hour or two later, but the afternoon continued with no sign of them. Finally in the late afternoon we received a text message and then a phone call. They were having engine trouble and were traveling at slow speed, not expecting to arrive until after dark. We talked to them on the radio and persuaded them to come in and drop anchor, even if they couldn’t make it to the dock. It was a real relief to see their navigation lights come into sight around the end of the island guarding the entrance. We talked to them as they made their way through the sets of approach buoys and then finally through the very narrow, shallow channel. They ended up anchoring about 100 feet away from the dock in 9 feet of water. Big sigh of relief! I’m glad to report that the engine troubles were at least temporarily resolved the next day by a local mechanic.
One of the things that has been very much on my mind over the last week or so is a French traffic ticket! We had rented a car in Point a Pitre, Guadeloupe, back in January. Craig was the designated driver since I had my purse (and license) stolen back in November. Imagine our surprise when our housesitter forwarded an official notice from the French government, accusing Craig of speeding near Point a Pitre on January 16. No doubt a tricky radar camera. But as we started wading through the dense French of the notice, we realized that our last day in Point a Pitre was on January 12. I started dragging out receipts and looking for photos, and it soon became apparent that the rental agency had given Craig’s information to the French government for a time and a car he hadn’t been driving. At the time of the supposed infraction we had been at the Botanical Gardens in Deshaies with our friends the Szekelys and the Stonecliffes.
So I went into lawyer mode and started preparing declarations and then translating them into French (thank-you Google-translate and Alliance Francaise for the classes that enable me to mostly spot the Google-translate deficits, and thank you to Sue Stonecliffe, whose French is way better than mine!) Everything finally came together yesterday and I was able to get the documents uploaded to the French website. So that’s what I was doing when all that music chaos was going on with the boats anchored out in the shallows.
Now, let me take you all the way back to where the last trip report left off. Our first stop in Puerto Rico was the island of Culebra, which I wrote a bit about in our last trip report. It would be an interesting place to spend more time. The people are very friendly, but their resources are somewhat taxed by the 2017 hurricane damage. They are still running on generators and many buildings are heavily damaged or destroyed.
From our anchorage we went ashore to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant, tying our dinghy to the dock and then sitting at a table a few feet away. Fish are prominent on the menu, and the custom is that you empty your plate of fish bones into the water, where a large school of tarpon fish are waiting to go into a frenzy over your leftovers. These fish are 2-3 feet long, and a bit off-putting when it’s time to get back into the dinghy.
The next day we joined George and Sue in a dive trip – they dove while we snorkeled, all with a commercial divemaster with a small boat. There are lots of tropical fish to see, as well as plentiful sea fans, brain corals and sea urchins. The divemaster told us that there are probably still unexploded munitions in the area (from years of US weapons testing), but no one was touching anything… Coming in after the dives we zoomed through a big rain squall, actually getting cold. (Haven’t been cold for almost a year!) One of the other divers aboard the boat was a local who is a big supporter of local music programs. He invited us to a fundraiser where local children would perform various types of music (including classical). Sadly, our schedule required us to move on before the fundraiser.
From Culebra we went a short distance, past multiple small islands, to the port of Fajardo on the big island of Puerto Rico, where we stayed at Sun Bay Marina. The fairway between the docks is fairly narrow there, and a big barge with crane turned out to be occupying 2/3 of the fairway as we approached our assigned slip. The wind was blowing 20 knots, and it was a real fire drill coming in. We had the help of at least six people on shore taking lines and helping us turn the boat into the slip without actually damaging anything.
The slips in this area of the world seem to have pilings at the entrance, so that you can actually tie your boat up from all four corners against sometimes very strong winds. We had been assigned a slip with a 16 foot width available (our width is 13.5 feet), so we had to line up fairly straight to get in. We didn’t know about that custom or this piling, so its appearance added considerably to our frustration. Most local boats here are power boats which, with their usual two or more engines, can turn on a dime. Sailboats here often have bow thrusters – something that’s not common in our home cruising grounds – so they can also turn almost on a dime. Both those things probably contribute to the narrow fairway configuration of most marinas.
We did get successfully docked. Craig went up to talk to the marina owner, venting his anger, but finally calming down and having a very nice conversation with her. Olga is the local SSCA and OCC port officer, and over the course of the next several days, she proved to be a most helpful and sympathetic host. She has several rental cars parked at the office, and the marina enjoys the high-security advantage of having the local US customs and immigration office right across the parking lot. We rented one of those cars and were able to to do a lot of shopping for groceries, boat parts, and almost anything we wanted. Hey, this is the United States – there’s a West Marine store – wait, there are TWO of them!
Craig launched into the fix-the-toilet project (the pump was now leaking a cup of water over the course of a few hours), and determined the pump needed to be replaced. Of course there wasn’t a pump assembly to be found in Puerto Rico. We briefly considered sending Craig by short air flight to Florida, where there are an amazing 58 West Marine stores, but then we determined that for less money we could buy a complete replacement toilet, pump assembly and all, in the San Juan West Marine Store only an hour’s drive away. Our boat is now 18 years old, and that’s the original toilet, so it’s not an unreasonable plan.
Together with George and Sue Stonecliffe, we made a couple of outings to the old, colonial part of San Juan. During the first outing we met up with Brian Abel, who had crewed for us in the South Pacific, back when he was about 20. Brian is now working in Puerto Rico as an engineer for Crowley Maritime. The day before he joined us for dinner in San Juan, he was at the christening of a giant Crowley container ship (called the Taino) built for the mainland US-to Puerto Rico run. Brian is in charge of the design, construction and maintenance of onshore facilities for Crowley’s port in San Juan. Perhaps I’ve stated his job wrong, because he seems to travel quite a bit in the Caribbean, presumably to other Crowley facilities. Anyway, it was really great catching up with him and finding about all the interesting turns his life has taken.
We toured the two forts which formed the almost impregnable defense of San Juan during the nineteenth century. The design and construction of these forts is quite amazing, in part because the walls are not conventional or rectilinear. Instead they are at odd angles, designed to confuse an enemy. There were a number of exhibits about the history of Puerto Rico, and particularly its relationship to the United States. From the highest point of one fort, we watched a group of crazy kite surfers in the 25 knot wind, jumping off the top of waves and staying in the air for perhaps 20 seconds.
Puerto Rico has sprung back from the 2017 hurricane damage somewhat better than some of the other islands we have seen. But we were looking only at the urban parts, and reportedly things are much worse in rural areas. Puerto Rican drivers are somewhat crazy, and the rule seems to be “whatever you can get away with.” Many traffic lights are non-functional, perhaps due in part to hurricane damage. But we also had people tell us that the traffic lights were out long before the hurricanes.
We stayed several days in Sun Bay Marina, and then sailed south and west to the city of Ponce (named after Ponce de Leon, the sixteenth century fountain-of-youth guy who thought he was going to find it in Florida). We stayed at the marina operated by the local yacht club, which had very nice facilities (nicest shower yet in the Caribbean, with actual hot water!) The big deficit (there’s always a deficit, isn’t there?) was that across about 500 feet of water was an arcade/amusement park/music venue. It was fine during the day when the kiddies were there, but after dark they brought in live bands and turned up the volume to an earsplitting level, even inside our boat. The music went on to at least midnight, and one night until 3 am.
On Friday night, the first day of Carnival, George, Sue and I went into the City to watch the parade. There were a few floats, and a few vejigantes (people dressed up as very scary critters), but mostly the focus was on young people. There were little girls in beautiful dresses and local officials riding on the back of convertibles, but the bulk of the parade was bands from local middle schools and high schools. The parade got started about an hour late, so we engaged in a lot of people-watching as onlookers gathered. The bands stopped at every intersection and performed music, drum routines and a bit of dancing before moving on. We would like to have seen more Carnival events, but boat chores and a relentless schedule to get through the Panama Canal are driving us on.
Like other Caribbean cities, Ponce suffered quite a lot of damage in the 2017 hurricanes. Many of the museums and tourist attractions seem to be closed, notwithstanding the websites and public notices saying they were open. We had particularly wanted to see the museum of Puerto Rican music, which reportedly had a collection of instruments available to pick up and play. But it was closed, so we chose a local history museum instead. It was a beautiful old building with elaborate mosaic floors and stained glass windows. Exhibits – all in Spanish – focused on all periods of history, with very complicated explanations of the political situation and unrest in the 1930s.
I think I’ve come full circle and brought us back to the passage between Ponce and Boca Chica, which I described above. So with apologies for the length of time since my last blog post (I blame the French traffic ticket!), I’ll leave you here with us in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Tomorrow, we’ll set sail for Jamaica, a likely three day passage. Best wishes to all!
Craig & Barbara Johnston
Westward to Puerto Rico
18 February 2019 | Culebra Island, Puerto Rico
Barbara/Windy, not quite as hot as it's been!
We left you last in Sint Maarten, the Dutch southern half of an island shared with French St. Martin. The two halves of the island get along well enough that there is essentially no land border. No need to go through any sort of immigration or customs. It no doubt helps that both mother countries are EU members, and the EU famously has minimal borders for immigration and customs. But no such luck for the boats themselves; they have to clear customs just to go from one side of the island to the other. For that reason, we decided to leave Sequoia in Sint Maarten and make a dinghy trip to St. Martin. Dinghies seem to escape the customs rule, although apparently not explicitly; it’s just a wink and a nod thing.
Our newly arrived guests, Mike and Kelly, went in the dinghy with us. We passed through the lagoon, under the causeway, past the airport and into French waters. We wanted to see a bit of French culture, especially a French grocery store and all its good cheese and bread selections!
Somewhat unexpected were all the hulks of boats and pieces of boat that remain from Hurricane Irma’s devastation in September 2017. The eye of the Category 5 hurricane passed directly over St. Martin. There are disabled boats everywhere. Sailboats are mostly dismasted but many are still floating. It seemed particularly sad to see a mast sticking out at an odd angle from underwater. Ashore many buildings are missing their roofs or doors or facades; a few have been reconstructed.
At the northern end of the lagoon we found a dinghy dock, a few restaurants and souvenir shops, and a cigar store. We walked away from the lagoon and found the supermarket, indeed full of French cheeses and other good things.
The next day we headed out of the Sint Maarten Lagoon, through the raised Simpson Bay Bridge at the appointed hour, and headed north a few miles to Anguilla, anchoring in Road Bay. Anguilla was a British Crown colony, granted “internal autonomy” in 1967 and placed in a confederation with St. Kitts and Nevis. St. Kitts and Nevis are right next to each other, but far away from Anguilla. The Anguillans didn’t like that, and wanted to continue to be ruled directly by Great Britain. It’s a somewhat convoluted story, but the Anguillans put together a small force and invaded St. Kitts, demanding severance of the confederation. No blood was spilled, the politicians revised the relations, and Anguilla is now a British overseas territory.
We went ashore in Road Bay and caught a launch ride to Sandy Island, right offshore. Reportedly it was a good snorkeling spot, which actually turned out not to be the case. But they have a beautiful sand beach, renting beach lounge chairs and umbrellas. A steel drum band of three came ashore and played along with a recording, which made it sound like there were many more of them, including some invisible singers. Expensive drinks and meals were available and more or less mandatory.
It was a truly lovely place, and we only felt slightly ripped off by all the charges. No doubt all their structures are ripped apart periodically by hurricanes in the summer, so they undoubtedly have higher than usual infrastructure costs. In fact the infrastructure was failing a bit in the rest rooms: salt water pumped ashore to flush the toilets ran out by midday. And one does wonder how they do a septic tank or other sewage disposal on an island that’s basically just sand.
The next day we went to Shoal Bay beach, not by boat, but by taxi. We first tried to hire a driver recommended by another cruiser, but he turned out not to be licensed. A cruise ship was in port, all the island taxi drivers were there trolling for customers, and they threatened to turn him in for being unlicensed. In the end he told us we should use a licensed taxi, because otherwise he’d get in trouble. It was an interesting bit of drama, but we did make it to the Shoal Bay beach. It was far more beautiful than the Sandy Island beaches, with much more reasonably priced food. We had some good swimming and snorkeling with Mike and Kelly, then lunch. Midway through lunch an iguana came into the restaurant. One of the locals captured it and brought it around table by table to show the tourists. In the end he took it out and deposited it in one of the stunted trees that had survived Hurricane Irma.
The anchorage of Road Bay was, in itself, quite interesting. There was a group of sailing dinghies that came out every evening, just before sunset, whooping and hollering and ululating. They chased each other all over the bay and obviously had a grand time. Mike swam over to the side of the bay, where there appeared to be a beach. He came back and reported that what appeared to be sand was, in fact, a carpet of conch shells. Was someone illegally harvesting the conch meat and depositing the shells there? It’s certainly true that these Caribbean islands seem to offer a lot of conch fritters…
The other boats in the bay came and went, and finally we were also ready to go. We left just at sunset for an overnight passage to the British Virgin Islands. A distance of more than about 70 miles is too much to accomplish in daylight hours, and we never want to come into a strange harbor in the dark. But this passage wasn’t much more than 70 miles, and we’d have to go a bit slowly to avoid arriving in the pre-dawn hours.
This was the first overnight sail for Mike and Kelly, and a real thrill, especially for Mike. At one point Kelly said she’d go below and read before going to sleep. I should have immediately realized what she was saying, because reading is about the worst thing you can do if you want to avoid seasickness. But I didn’t catch it, and Kelly quickly felt seasick. Fortunately, she was actually able to get to sleep and felt fine when she woke up in the morning.
We entered the BVIs and went through customs at Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. The marina was obviously badly hit by the 2017 hurricanes, and most of the commercial enterprises were no longer in business. The guide books we have are pre-hurricane, so it’s often the case that things are not as described. Because we bought fuel there, the marina gave us several hours free tie-up. Michael and Kelly walked some distance to find a promised grocery store, but it wasn’t there.
We sailed a bit south to “The Baths” at Virgin Gorda. There were plenty of mooring balls available, so we took one and several of us went snorkeling. This is the first place we’ve come to since Portugal that I’ve actually been to before. When our kids were young we did a couple of charter boat trips in the BVIs with my parents. “The Baths” is one of the places I remember. There are large boulders heaped onto the beach – and by “large” I mean as big as a small house. In between and underneath the boulders are tidepools of clear calm water – quite beautiful with the turquoise color of the water, and shafts of sunlight reaching through in places.
Mike had indicated before they joined us that he’d like to do some scuba diving, and one specific place he had in mind was the wreck of the RMS Rhone. We checked available dive companies and found one that was operating out of Cooper Island, nearby the Rhone dive site. So we decided to head that afternoon for Cooper Island, where we able to pick up a mooring ball, fairly close to the beach. Cooper Island proved to be a charming destination, with low buildings, several low-key businesses and recently installed artistic landscaping. Of course the prices reflect the care that obviously went into restoring the place after the 2017 hurricanes.
We arranged with George and Sue Stonecliffe, aboard Julia Max, to join together for a diving/snorkeling trip to see the Rhone. Julia Max arrived at Cooper Island later that afternoon, and the next morning we all went ashore for the grand expedition.
A big powerful dive boat took us to the site of the wreck. The RMS Rhone, a supposedly “unsinkable” British mail ship, had foundered in a hurricane in 1867. When the ocean water reached the hot boilers, there was an explosion which broke the ship in half. The stern portion is shallow enough for snorkelers to see, and the bow is much deeper. The divers (Mike, George and Sue) geared up for their dive first, and then the rest of us (Barbara, Craig and Kelly) got ready for snorkeling. Both groups had a fantastic time, seeing the wreck spread over several acres and its recognizable parts like the rudder socket and an 18 foot diameter bronze propeller. There were lots of interesting fish as well, and the dive group was able to see more varieties of fish than the snorkelers.
Mike had just acquired a “GoPro” camera, but the dive was going to be too deep for it. Kelly, though was able to use it to take interesting pictures of the stern portion of the wreck. When we got back from the dive trip, Mike and Kelly took off with the GoPro camera, and began to create long videos of their snorkeling explorations. They found a number of sea turtles, and the videos are astonishing. The next morning Mike went in the water right by Sequoia and found a group of three sea turtles on the sea floor there. We all went in and had a look. Astonishing!
We traveled next to Road Harbour, Tortola, across the channel from Cooper Island. The hurricane devastation there seems to be universal. Half sunk boats are everywhere and most of the docks and buildings around the bay were either destroyed or severely impacted. We found a marina with an available slip but no electricity. There are a lot of repair projects going on, but little progress being made. We had the sense that there is a lot of will to spring back from the damage, but not enough workers and not enough money.
Mike and Kelly had to leave the boat in Road Harbour to head back home. I think they are newly inspired to get their own sailboat – a recently inherited Ranger 22 – fitted out and into the water at home.
We met George and Sue again in the Benures Bay anchorage on Norman Island. The attraction there is a spectacular snorkeling site on nearby rocky islets called ”the Indians”. The BVI park service has placed a number of mooring buoys around the snorkeling site, for day use only, and we joined up with George and Sue aboard Julia Max to take up a buoy and go snorkeling together. The Caribbean snorkeling sites are actually few and far between, compared to how it was even a few years ago. The big hurricanes do a lot of physical damage to the coral, but more than that the phenomenon of coral bleaching, due to higher sea temperatures, kills the coral outright, leaving a boneyard of dead white coral. Since only the live coral attract the colorful reef fish, there is not much to see in many formerly vibrant places. Sites such as The Indians, Cooper Island and the Rhone Wreck are now the exception. See them while you can!
Our boat project for Benures Bay was the replacement of the three zincs on Sequoia’s underside which prevent electrolysis. They gradually are eaten away and have to be replaced with new ones every 4-6 months. Craig put on his scuba gear and gathered all his tools (each zinc has different types and different sizes of fasteners, and each requires a different tool). George and Sue came over from Julia Max. George was a tremendous help to Craig through his 90 minutes of diving, handing tools and dispensing advice. Sue and I did computer research and route planning inside, taking advantage of the better internet access we have aboard Sequoia.
From Benures Bay we headed north through “The Narrows” to the island of Jost van Dyke. It’s a small island, with only a few hundred year-round residents. But during “the season” (November to May) population triples or quadruples with boaters and tourists. The big attraction is seemingly Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant. Several publications have named it the number one or two place to be in the world for New Years Eve. We did try it for dinner – although on a less popular night than New Years Eve. The prices were spectacularly high. The food was good, but not worth that much! Foxy’s has a nice atmosphere, with tables set in sand, and license plates, club burgees and national flags nailed to the ceiling.
Jost van Dyke has a customs clearance office and we used it the next morning to clear out of the BVIs and head toward the US Virgin Islands. It wasn’t a long way, across the channel, to the USVI entry port of Cruz Bay on the island of St. John. We found the US customs office in a FEMA trailer at the head of the harbor. We also visited the National Park headquarters (80% of St. John is actually a national park), where we paid for a couple of nights on a mooring buoy. Back at the boat, we did swim ashore to check out the fish (we did see quite a few). But there were so many small motorboats and dinghies speeding by, we felt pretty vulnerable. (At our next opportunity, we each purchased fluorescent swim shirts to wear while snorkeling).
The next stop was Crown Bay Marina at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. It was mostly a provisioning and boat chore stop – fill the tanks, top up the batteries, stock up the refrigerator and take some good showers. On our last day there we did go into town to check out the old streets, museums, shops, restaurants, catching a local open bus for $1 per person. This town probably symbolizes the USVI for many tourists. The colorful old colonial-style buildings all had heavy doors and shutters for storm protection. But it was Sunday and most everything was closed, there being no cruise ship in the harbor.
This morning we sailed from the US Virgin Islands westward, toward Culebra Island, a part of Puerto Rico. Our island-to-island sails have evolved from the northward trajectory starting with St. Lucia, to a now westward direction, as the chain of islands curves around to the west. All along the wind has come mostly from the east. So what started out as a close reach (wind from nearly ahead) has changed into a downwind run (wind from behind). We now find ourselves using the same sail combination we used crossing the Atlantic: No mainsail, but two jibs in the front, sheeted to catch the wind from both sides. We usually put one of the jibs on a pole fastened to the mast, but the distance today was short enough (20 nautical miles) that we didn’t bother with the pole. As is often the case, there were big wind waves which made the boat roll from side to side – not the most pleasant sort of sailing.
Culebra is shaped somewhat like a baseball catcher’s mitt. The opening between the thumb and hand is a large bay known as Ensenada Honda. There is a reef nearly all the way across the entrance, but with a narrow entry for boats. Once inside the waves nearly disappear, although the wind continues. We sailed north about two miles to the town of Dewey, which most people call Culebra. We’ve now anchored in the bay there and have cleared in through customs and immigration, without leaving the boat, all through the magic of CBP’s new app. We were “interviewed” by means of a phone conversation and a couple of photographs, and have now been designated as “Verified travelers” with assigned numbers. Yay (?) I hope it helps with TSA’s airport security lines! This afternoon we’ll enjoy the windy (and therefore cooler) anchorage, and tomorrow go exploring ashore.
In the next few weeks, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica!
St. Kitts and Sint Maarten
31 January 2019 | Simpson Bay Lagoon, Sint Maarten
Barbara/Sunny with showers
On January 22, we set sail from English Harbour in Antigua and headed for St. Kitts. It’s potentially a long day’s passage, about 60 nautical miles, so we got up at 6 am and prepared to leave at 7:00. We knew that rowboat #6 of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge was expected to arrive within a few hours of 6 am, so we did have some hope we might get outside the bay and watch them come in. But just at 7:00 am the rowboat came in and crossed the finish line. Flares went off, horns of super yachts sounded and crowds roared their approval. We cheered, waited an appropriate amount of time and then cast our lines off, heading out the harbor mouth.
It was a fairly uneventful passage, with about 15 knots of wind, mostly from behind. We anchored in Ballast Bay, near the south end of St. Kitts. It’s a relatively undeveloped part of the island, with good holding for the anchor and not much in the way of waves or swells, despite plenty of wind through the night. We were later told that this part of the island used to be completely inaccessible except by hiking or boat. There was a high hill (now with a tunnel drilled through) which made road-building impossible. The land was bought up for pennies by various foreign investors, who now are starting to rake in the profits.
At the head of Ballast Bay, in Port Christophe, there is a superyacht marina under construction. A number of monster boats are already there, but the shore facilities have a way to go. We did inquire about whether they would allow us to tie up there, and, yes they would, but the charge would be $150 a night for a boat our size. We’re just as happy anchoring.
We did go in by dinghy and have a look at the boats. A gigantic metal-gray one is named “Odessa” and I imagine that it, and a number of the others, are probably owned by Russian oligarchs. We later learned from “Arnold” (more about him later) that St. Kitts & Nevis (which together form one country) offer citizenship for purchase. It started out at $400,000.00 USD but they’ve now lowered the price to $100,000.00. You’re expected to invest that money into a business or a house on the island. Those giant concrete docks in the Port Christophe marina are for sale – I didn’t find out the price, but I’ll bet it’s at least $100,000.00. That might just get you your new citizenship. If no one else will have you, come to St. Kitts! (Russian oligarchs welcome…)
Our friends, George and Sue on Julia Max, arrived in St. Kitts the day before we did. They had gone up the coast to the capitol, BasseTerre, to check in with customs and immigration and do a bit of shopping, and they invited us to come and join them. So the next morning we upped anchor and moved the few miles north. BasseTerre may be the center of things on St. Kitts, but it has a number of negatives. First, it’s not as well protected as Ballast Bay, so modest swells come in. It’s somewhat disturbing to the activities of daily life on the boat and makes sleeping difficult. We persisted for a couple of nights there, and then returned to Ballast Bay.
Of course, the visit to Basse Terre was mandatory because of the need to check in with customs and immigration. That in itself was quite an adventure. We launched the dinghy and motored in to the small marina. The primary tenants of the marina are various tourist boats. They cater primarily to the tourists who pour off the cruise ships docked next door – thousands of them every day. One of the interesting things we saw in the marina was a set of lobster traps, just submerged and chock full of live lobsters. Presumably these lobsters are destined for high end restaurants and/or cruise ship kitchens. Never mind that they’re all crowded together without food, and perhaps without sufficient oxygen, in a marina with dozens of petroleum burning (and perhaps petroleum leaking) boats. Troubling.
The cruise ship docks have space for two cruise ships, of the sort that carry 5000 passengers each. Every day we were there, two different cruise ships occupied the docks. They come in about 7:00 in the morning and depart again about 5:00 in the afternoon. More cruise ships often anchor just offshore. One day we saw three cruise ships offshore in addition to the two at the docks.
We found the customs office adjacent to the marina. As we entered, a Swiss couple was leaving, and they advised us to “be really nice to her.” We found the customs official behind a closed door in a very air-conditioned office. She did try to smile but was obviously not having a good day. She inserted carbon paper into the necessary forms and Craig sat down to complete them. He was instructed to reverse the carbon to fill out the other side. All in all only about 15 minutes but then she directed us to continue on to the immigration office, outside the marina complex and over toward the cruise ships.
There’s a shopping complex surrounding the exit from the cruise terminal, with hundreds of tourist shops – jewelry, souvenirs, spa services, fast food restaurants, liquor stores and dozens of touts who come up and shove brochures in your hands, wave posters and offer to find taxis, book tours, and give any kind of advice they think you might need. Craig said it reminded him of an adult Disneyland.
Regrettably, the immigration office is in the cruise terminal complex. We had to push our way through the tourist crowds and past the touts and through the security gates to find the office. As it happened, they were just closing up (one person suggested to us that between 11:30 and 1:30 the immigration people all go onto one of the ships and have a sumptuous lunch). In any case, they directed us to come back at 2:30 or 3:00. We went off into the hordes of people and found a Shawarma restaurant which was not bad.
When we came back, it seemed the officer in the immigration office was having a really bad day. She directed Craig to sit down at a computer and fill out a form. She said we should have used that form, and that computer program to check in to every Caribbean island (except the French ones) since our arrival in St. Lucia in December. She said all those islands are doing it wrong to allow any other way of checking in. The authorities want to be able to track us through the islands. She said we ought to go back to those islands and tell them that they were doing it wrong.
The form asks for what port we left from, what port we arrived at, and where we were going next. But you couldn’t type in “English Harbour, Antigua”, instead it is some obtuse code (which I’ve now forgotten). There’s no cheat sheet to tell you what the codes are; instead you just have to ask the immigration officer.
As we were processing through at the immigration office, they were also issuing visas or permits of some sort to some of the deck hands on the cruise ship. In addition, random tourists came in and asked for stamps in their passports. (It’s a thing…)
We checked out a couple of grocery stores, but by then we were totally exhausted and went back to the boat. We checked in with George and Sue and agreed that the next day we’d go see the fort at Brimstone Hill, do some grocery shopping and then return with our boats to Ballast Bay, where the water was so much more calm.
The next morning, Sue, George and I left the anchorage in their dinghy at 6:30 am. We had been told that the Farmers Market is the best at that hour. As it turns out, despite that advice, there was no farmers market on Thursdays. Instead, small stands were set up on both sides of the road, selling local produce, and in some cases cooked meals. We found what we needed (limes, papayas, watermelon, cucumber, tomatoes) and then went in search of the bakery for baguettes and breakfast pastries. As it turns out, I was planning on celebrating Craig’s birthday that evening (inviting George and Sue), and had planned to make a cake. But here, in the bakery, was an elaborate, colorful baked birthday cake, fairly expensive, but there it was, and I wouldn’t have to turn on the oven in this heat. I bought it, and we made our way back to the dinghy, back to Sequoia, and the cake was still intact.
Later in the morning, we all went into town and found a driver with a large van (“Arnold” – he called himself “the governator”) and asked him to take us to Brimstone Hill Fortess. This hilltop fortification is the largest British fort remaining in the Caribbean. The historic battle there was between the British and the French (of course) and involved a months-long siege where 1000 British soldiers held out against 8000 French. The British finally surrendered, and then they got the fort back a year later as the result of a peace treaty. It’s partially restored with a nice museum showcasing historic artifacts and illustrating the way of life in such a fort in the early 19th century. Arnold drove us up to nearly the very top and then we walked the very strenuous road to the top of the fortress and admired the views in every direction.
That afternoon we moved the boats back to Ballast Bay and George and Sue joined us for a very nice birthday dinner for Craig, followed by a session of a board game based on sailboat racing. It’s a favorite of George and Sue’s, but we’d never heard of it. Great fun.
We arranged with Arnold to pick us up at the Christophe Marina (that superyacht marina in Ballast Bay) for the trip back to Basse Terre to check out of the country with customs and immigration. It was a duplicate effort to the check-in – same forms, same amount of time, same prickly civil servants. After that, Arnold took us to his favorite grocery store, one of his favorite places for lunch, and then for some sight seeing. That’s when we learned about the previous inaccessibility of the southernmost part of St. Kitts, and the opportunities now on offer for citizenship for anyone who can pay. He took us to a view point which was previously the end of the road, and we could see Sequoia and Julia Max in Ballast Bay out in the distance.
St. Kitts is altogether an interesting place. The country, consisting of two islands, is called St. Kitts & Nevis. Nevis was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. St. Kitts is the ancestral home of Thomas Jefferson’s family. The scenery is beautiful, and the people are quite interesting. But I don’t think we’ll be buying any citizenship there.
The next day we sailed north to Sint Maarten. It was somewhat of a wild ride, with swells of 6 to 8 feet. We got rather wet and were glad to finally reach our destination. We anchored in Simpson Bay (another rolly anchorage like Basse Terre in St. Kitts), and then waited our turn the next morning to get into Simpson Bay Lagoon. They open a bridge inbound 4 times a day, and you’d better be on time or you won’t get in.
Sint Maarten is home to an even larger collection of superyachts than we saw in English Harbour. We saw one boat that had a 30 foot sailboat on its back deck (the dinghy, perhaps?).
Quite a lot of damage was done here by Hurricane Irma in the sumer of 2017, and they are only just now springing back. There are still ruined hulks of boats in the lagoon, and apparently it’s worse to the north in the French part of this island. We found a little marina with space for us, Lagoon Marina. They’ve only just gotten their electric service installed for visiting boaters, and it is certainly flawed. An outlet that looks like a US 50 amp/120V outlet actually gives you 220 volts. The dockmaster told us “Oh you can have 110 or 220, whichever you want.” Our circuit breaker saved our electrical gear, and after testing with a voltmeter Craig reset the isolation transformer for 220V and everything worked. Woe to other North American boaters who expect that outlet to be 120V!
Sint Maarten is the Dutch half of an island with the French department of St. Martin occupying the other half. You are allowed to travel freely by land between the two parts, but if traveling by boat, you must do the whole check-in check-out business for going back and forth. So far we’ve chosen to stay on the Dutch part. We biked over to the customs office, adjacent to the Simpson Bay Bridge (where we entered) and jumped through all their hoops and paid all their fees. We’ll have to go back again when our next guests (Mike and Kelly) join us and we depart for the next island.
The whole island is billed as being duty free, so there are a lot of businesses here catering to the boating tourist trade – especially the super yacht trade. There are huge chandleries (stores for boat parts and accessories) on both sides of us. The prices are not super high, but they are no bargain, given the amount that has to be paid for shipping. Liquor, however, is super cheap. Too bad we aren’t strenuous drinkers!
Here’s where I’ll leave you this time. Hope you are enjoying our tales of our various destinations. Best wishes to all!
Craig & Barbara
French and English Islands
21 January 2019 | Nelson's Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua
Barbara/Hot with plenty of showers
We have just finished a delightful 10 days with our friends, Dan & Barb, who joined us in Guadeloupe (where we stayed in several different harbors), and then made the passage to Antigua, where they caught a flight home. We saw many interesting things with them, some expected, and some completely new (and in some cases baffling).
Case in point: we rented a car, to do some sightseeing the first day of the rental and to take Dan & Barb to the airport on the second. The roads in Antigua are astonishingly awful. The Berlitz guidebook warned us of that, and the car rental agent warned us again. There are deep potholes everywhere. There are extra high speed bumps everywhere. Some of the speed bumps are so high it is impossible to cross them without bottoming out on the muffler (next time I think we’d rent a jeep or a truck!). Moreover, like many tropical countries, the lower elevations have deep, deep ditches to catch the tropical deluges, and if your tire leaves the pavement, you’re in the ditch. At intersections of the narrow streets you have to make a very wide turn or you’re in the ditch. And we did that once. The bumper damage cost us $120, which fortunately our credit card company is paying for.
Another problem we ran into was the inability of Google to navigate intelligently. The intersection of the Google incompetence and the awful roads was our trip to the airport to see Dan & Barb off into the teeth of a big snowstorm in New York where they’d change planes for Seattle. (They did make it OK…) Google seemed to be directing us toward the airport, but the roads were getting worse and there was no traffic on them. We began to have a bad feeling about that, but we were pretty much committed. The roads got worse and worse, and then Google said we were there. Indeed, we were at one end of a runway, looking at a high chain link fence with a no-trespassing sign between us and the runway. Definitely not at the terminal. We hauled out our sketchy tourist paper maps and made our way several more miles around the end of the runway, along the coast, through some airport maintenance areas and finally to the terminal. It’s a very fancy airport with facilities that will serve Antigua well for years into the future. The airport road circles around a cricket pitch. The parking lots were nearly vacant and there were only a handful of travelers inside.
After saying goodbye to Dan & Barb, we made our way back to English Harbour assisted only by the tourist map. We had learned our lesson.
As we have made our way north through these Caribbean islands, we notice that they are alternating between French and English. The English islands are typically independent countries, whereas the French islands are departements of France. The infrastructure in the French islands is much better (most noticeably, better roads and sidewalks) and the people seem to have a bit more money and be generally better off. Amazingly the French islands have vastly simplified the bureaucracy (at least as we see it from the customs and immigration standpoint). Checking into a French Island involves 20 minutes at a computer, and a fee of 2 Euros (less than $3). Even the 20 minutes at a computer is only caused by unfamiliarity with a French keyboard. The English speaking islands, by contrast, involve stops at several offices, an hour or more of your time and about $50 in various fees. (We’ve seen a news story about a 71 year old French guy now crossing the Atlantic in a high-tech barrel, driven only by the wind and waves, and not by any effort of his own. He was quoted as saying he’d like to arrive at a French island because the paperwork is easier. He’s certainly right about that!)
Speaking of people crossing the Atlantic in different ways, we are now in English Harbour, Antigua, where the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge participants are arriving. This is a race of four-person high tech rowboats. Two of them row at a time and two sleep. The first night we were here, the third-place finishers arrived at 2 am with lots of cheering, fireworks, air horns and general hullaballoo that went on for at least an hour. Sequoia is tied up next to one of the bars, which promises to be open for every arrival. Yesterday the fourth place finisher arrived in the afternoon and 5th place late in the evening. Lots of noise for each of them, although we were so tired last night (after the airport adventure) that we were oblivious. The 6th place finishers are scheduled to arrive at 6 am tomorrow, which will be shortly before we depart for St. Kitts. So far all the finishers are guys, and in apparent celebration of their arrival they have a tendency to take off all their clothes (except for perhaps their very skimpy Speedos). Several days from now we are told that the Antigua girls team will arrive. The Antiguans we have talked to say that there will be tremendous crowds for those “girls” (in their twenties) and that there will be noise unlike any we’ve heard so far. We’ll be sad to miss that very local event.
We are tied up at Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour in Antigua. It’s unlike anyplace we’ve ever taken our boat before. Historically, this was THE English dockyard in the Caribbean; lots of repair and provisioning facilities, and a center for naval operations. They’ve made the dockyard into a historic park – it’s a UNESCO site, for whatever that’s worth. All of the old buildings have been restored, although most put to new different uses. The “Admiral’s House” is a museum; the “paymaster’s office” is the little bar 20 feet away from the stern of our boat; but the old sail loft is still a sail loft – just that the sails are for pleasure boats, not for naval ships. Instead of English naval ships being tied to the sea walls, it’s sailboats and motor boats. We might be the smallest boat here; most of the boats are mega-yachts, both sailboats and motor boats. They have lots of paid crew who are constantly polishing the boats, procuring supplies, cooking, cleaning, etc. etc. Some of them are charter boats. One boat (perhaps 150 feet long) took a just-turning-50 French Canadian woman out with 11 of her friends for a week-long birthday cruise. Eating at the fine French restaurant tonight we learned that the mega-yacht across the way rents for $800,000 per week!
Of course all of these luxurious boats have every convenience and comfort aboard. Our shower is a little bit cramped, so we have been taking showers in the shore facilities. I don’t know whether it’s historical authenticity or punishment for us "tiny" boats, but the water is stone cold, even though they charge $2.
I’ll back up a little bit and tell you about other islands we’ve seen recently. When I last wrote, we were in Dominica, a quite poor English-speaking island that was devastated by Hurricane Maria a year and a half ago. The next islands to the north are Les Isles Saintes – French and part of the departement of Guadeloupe. Approaching the anchorage there we had to run the gauntlet of a group of kite-surfers and wind-surfers. They love to pass right in front of us in what is obviously a game of “chicken”. They don’t realize (or don’t care) that if they fell while passing right in front of us, we would be unable to turn quickly enough to avoid them. The best we can do is continue on a predictable path while they play with us. I’m happy to report we haven’t hit one yet.
Les Saintes is a beautiful group of islands, full of day-trip tourists who come over by ferry from Guadeloupe. Two cruise ships stopped in the rather small harbor while we were there. The very picturesque streets are full of souvenir shops and expensive sea-view restaurants. The contrast with Dominica could not be greater. We stayed on a mooring buoy for three nights, going ashore for customs, groceries, laundry and one dinner in a restaurant.
From Les Saintes we went to Pointe a Pitre, the biggest city in Guadeloupe. Dan & Barb found us there the day after we arrived. We went to the big Slavery Museum the first day, which was astonishing and horrifying. Although the focus is on the Caribbean, there were also portions devoted to slavery in the United States, and modern slavery which takes the form of human trafficking. We learned that although the Guadeloupe slaves were freed at the time of the French Revolution (1789), Napoleon decreed 13 years later that they be re-enslaved. Not surprisingly there was a slave rebellion.
As we left the museum, we were accosted by “Edy” (“one d only”) a gentleman of 75, who told us that he was a descendant of the Carib Indians. He wanted us to know about St. Georges, the 18th century son of a French planter and a slave woman, who went to France and became known as a swordsman, musician and composer, and who rubbed elbows with Mozart. Edy was ready to talk to us for hours, but we finally made our escape. (I did check on Wikipedia, and there really was such a person, who left a substantial body of musical compositions, some of which are being performed today.)
The next day we made a road trip to Deshaies, a town along the northwest coast of Guadeloupe, where we met up with George and Sue Stonecliffe. They had just arrived on their boat, and we made plans to meet up in the next day or so. We ate lunch together in a restaurant which was the set for the bar in early episodes of Death in Paradise, a British semi-humorous cop show we’ve enjoyed in the past. It was really quite something for us to see the sets and the scenery from one of our favorite shows. The restaurant had lots of photos from the first or second season of the series. We also saw the beach where Detective Inspector Poole had his beach house (although apparently they remove the house when not actively filming.) It’s amazing how different it actually looks – most notably, it rains a lot, but in the TV series the sun is always shining.
From Pointe a Pitre we sailed to Basse-Terre, where we met George & Sue, then Pigeon Islet (a Cousteau diving and snorkeling refuge) and finally Deshaies again (but this time by sea). While in Deshaies we visited a fantastic botanical garden, and had a nice restaurant meal with the six of us (C&B, Dan & Barb, George and Sue). The botanical garden is extremely well maintained, and it has a vast array of tropical plants. Many were in bloom, but this is obviously not the primary flowering season. Another visual treat was the view from the restaurant we chose. The deck hangs out over the beach, and just beyond is the quite-full harbor. Each boat (or nearly every boat) has an anchor light at the top of the mast, and they wave gently back and forth in the dark night as the slight waves move the boats.
The passage from Deshaies to English Harbour (where we are now) involved another crossing between Caribbean Islands. There tends to be an enhanced wind between the islands, where waves can pile up and things can get pretty exciting. Fortunately this was not one of those times, and we had an easy passage. When we arrived at English Harbour, we did a stern-to med-moor maneuver, with our anchor out in front of us, and then backing up to the wall, adjusting lines so that we’re close enough to step off the boat, but not so close that we bump. It was the first time for us using that method, and we were mostly successful (just a few bumps in the night).
So I think that brings us up to date. Tomorrow we leave for St. Kitts and more new adventures.
Best wishes to all our friends and family,
Craig & Barbara Johnston
St. Lucia, Martinique and Dominica
04 January 2019 | Portsmouth, Dominica
Barbara/Windy, sunny and rainy, in quick succession
Wow, I looked at our last blog posting and it was the day before Christmas! The time seems to have flown by. We are now in Dominica, the island that was directly in the path of Hurricane Maria last year. These people are such survivors; there is construction going on everywhere, but still plenty of evidence of what happened. But let me backtrack and tell you about some of the places we’ve been and some of things we’ve done since we last wrote.
As you’ll recall, we arrived in St. Lucia on December 17 after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. My last blog post will have given you some initial impressions. A major project when we arrive in a new place is always acquiring or recharging a SIM card so we have cell phone connectivity and access to more data speed than our meager T-mobile international plan allows. In St. Lucia this involved a trip to a shopping center about a kilometer away from the marina, where there was reportedly a Digicel office. We made the trip on our folding bikes, although the roads aren’t in very good condition, and full of heavy traffic and crazy drivers. Craig has more courage than I do, so he rode on the road while I tried to find what passed for a sidewalk or a parallel street. Many level changes, gravel, paving, stairs, more gravel, potholes, you get the idea.
We did find the Digicel store, and after making it through a transaction that must have lasted 45 minutes, we were finally connected for St. Lucia. And purportedly for Dominica. But not for any of those French-speaking islands!
As new arrivals in the tropics, we were beset with heat fatigue. We tried to get as much done as we could early in the day, because we simply petered out by midday. So the day before Christmas, needing a few more supplies for Christmas dinner, I walked to that shopping center again, at 8 am, rather than trying the bike. I was able to get back to the boat, by means of a taxi, by 10 am, before being completely exhausted by heat.
We invited new friends David and Gretchen to join us for Christmas dinner. They are the owners of another Outbound, Calllisto (Sequoia is an Outbound). The company owner, Phil Lambert, had alerted all the Outbounds in the Caribbean that we had arrived, and we have indeed had contact with a couple of different boats. David and Gretchen proved to be delightful folks and they had all sorts of good advice for us about our upcoming destinations.
I cooked a pumpkin pie – from scratch from a St. Lucia pumpkin – for the Christmas dinner. The pie turned out great, if a bit lopsided. I also cobbled together a stuffed rolled turkey breast from some sliced turkey I’ve had in the freezer since France. Since the oven thermostat is an exercise in extreme approximation, the roast turned out a bit dry, but very tasty.
Being in St. Lucia for Christmas was somewhat weird. It’s been years and years since we have been away from home at Christmas time. We missed the family, but managed to have a Skype call with Ian, David and Tara. Christmas carols (mostly the tacky commercial ones) waft across the water from various boats. One evening there was a live steel band playing Christmas carols. There are big painted wooden candy canes erected all around the marina. Many boats are decked out in Christmas lights.
The boat next to us in the marina was a big fancy sportfishing boat – about 65 feet – named Freyja. Living aboard were two young men who were the paid crew. They had an inflatable Santa and an inflatable shark which they hauled up in the Christmas spirit. Followed by plenty of Christmas spirits and loud parties. Every few days they would go out looking for good fishing spots so that they could take the owner there, if and when he ever showed up. (We never saw him). Each time they returned they’d put out the Santa and the shark again, with a new arrangement of Christmas lights.
The day before we left St. Lucia I realized that Caroline and Richard, of Midnight Breeze were in the marina. We had met them in Pasito Blanco, in the Canaries, before we crossed the Atlantic. We spent a bit of time with them, regretting that we’d all been there for a week, without knowing the other was also there.
The next morning, we crossed the channel to Martinique, a distance of about 25 miles. Conditions were somewhat rough between the islands, and a deck leak we hadn’t seen since the return passage from Hawaii, 6 years ago, reappeared. Unfortunately, it dumped a few quarts of salt water onto our berth during the course of the passage. After our return from Hawaii, we had put a lot of effort into trying to locate the source of that leak and/or prevent its recurrence. But all the hoses and buckets of water in the world cannot duplicate the effect of big waves crashing on top of the foredeck. Leaks can start in one place and travel many feet between deck layers before they enter the cabin. So the problem is not solved, and for the remainder of this trip, we’ll be protecting the mattress with plentiful tarps.
The same wind that had caused rough conditions in the channel were still going strong when we reached the southern end of Martinique. We had hoped to get into the “Le Marin” marina, but they said on the radio that they had no place for us. So we chose instead to anchor in the Ste. Anne anchorage, where about 300 boats had arrived before us. Conditions were pretty crowded, but we did find a place to anchor after a couple of tries.
In the morning we launched the dinghy and went ashore to find the customs office. It turns out that in Martinique, the whole process is computerized. There is a computer in the back of a “snack” restaurant, where you input your information, print out a sheet, and then get it signed by the “officer” who is also the cook, bartender and server for the restaurant and doing a brisk business. He gets a fee of 5 euros for taking a quick look at our passport and boat papers and signing off on the entry document. This is such an improvement on other countries where you spend hours filling out multiple forms by hand, perhaps at several different offices that are located at some distance from each other.
Ste. Anne is a charming little town with a good cross section of French tourists and locals frequenting the various businesses. Shortly after we finished lunch at the “Snack” restaurant and picked up some groceries, there was a tropical downpour which left us running for cover. It didn’t last long, and we were able to get to the dinghy and back to the boat without further incident, although with rather wet shoes and clothing. (Not to worry, everything dries quickly…) Squalls came and went the rest of the day, and there were a few gorgeous rainbows (see photo at the top of this post).
The next day we were able to move into the Le Marin marina without too much drama. They are quite obviously at the limit of their ability to accommodate all the boats that want to come there. It was a bit difficult to decipher where they wanted us and when, even once we did get radio communications established. We edged between a boat full of Italians and one full of Spaniards, across the dock from a Norwegian boat and an American one. On the same dock were vast numbers of charter boats being cleaned between guests and loaded with fresh food. Everything is very French. All the charter boat guests were French, and most of the boat owners also appeared to be French. French restaurants ashore and a French boulangerie/patisserie (Yum, fresh croissants and baguettes every morning!)
Our friends Mette and Ottar, of the boat Tiril, were on the other side of the marina, and we were able to make contact with them quickly. We had met them in Pasito Blanco in the Canaries, and we knew they were going to be staying in Martinique for at least of a month. (Mette, unlike the rest of us, is still working – she does translation for the Norwegian government, one of many professions that can actually be done long-distance while you’re cruising.) We were able to have a nice dinner with Mette and Ottar at a dockside French restaurant one evening.
The next day we were back to the search for good cell phone and data coverage, since our T-mobile plan seemed to be providing nothing at all. The St. Lucia SIM card of course did nothing. This time, we were able to buy a card with an ongoing contract that promises to provide coverage in most Caribbean countries, all the way to Panama! What a relief it will be to be able to arrive at the next island and not have to worry about cell coverage. This same plan provides coverage throughout Europe. If only we’d done the trip the other direction, think how many cell phone stores we could have skipped! (FYI, it is from Digicel and for 40 Euros a month allows a healthy 30 GB of data.)
It was alternately (or simultaneously) hot and rainy in Le Marin, but we did manage to explore around the marina a bit. The area definitely seems more prosperous than St. Lucia, with clean streets and good infrastructure. There is quite a bit of street art, and many interesting buildings.
Our next stop was St. Pierre at the north end of Martinique. Looming over St. Pierre is the cloud-capped Mount Pele, a recently active volcano. In 1902, after sputtering for a few weeks, the volcano let loose with a superheated flow of volcanic gas which killed nearly 30,000 people who then lived in St. Pierre. The town has been rebuilt, but there are ruins everywhere. Anchoring is prohibited in a major part of the harbor where there are sunken ships that anchored during the eruption and burned to the waterline.
It was New Years Day, but the “8 à Huit” store was open. We were able to get some fruit, meat, cheese and various other necessaries before they closed at noon. Then we went for lunch at a small, very French restaurant, Le Tamaya. We were the only guests, so able to have an interesting conversation with the proprietors. The restaurant was named after one of the ships that went down in the harbor in 1902, and there were nautical artifacts on the walls. The food was excellent, too!
From St. Pierre we crossed the channel to Dominica, continuing to Prince Rupert Bay and Portsmouth at the north end of the island. Dominica is a much more impoverished island than Martinique, from all appearances. Martinique is part of France, and is heavily supported by the French government. Dominica is an independent country, although part of the British Commonwealth.
There is no marina in Dominica, but a local association (“Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services” or PAYS) has installed a large number of mooring buoys and offers a variety of services to incoming boaters. Already we’ve gotten water taxi services to the Customs office and today we were rowed up the Indian River through a tropical mangrove swamp. Also in the boat with us was an extended family from the Czech Republic. The grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins were just visitors, but George and his family are heading north, planning on doing the Northwest Passage this summer, and perhaps we’ll see them in the fall in the Pacific Northwest.
Jerome, of PAYS, rowed us up the river to a semi-civilized outpost with tropical gardens. He showed the children a large seed which when cracked open yields an orange paste which can be used as body paint or to make meat look better than it really is. Among the sights seen along the river were crabs, fish, birds, iguana and a location where parts of Pirates of the Caribbean, Part 2 was filmed. The cabin was created to be the home of a witch… It has since been wrecked by Hurricane Maria, and the wreckage is hardly distinguishable from the jungle.
Yesterday after we visited the customs office, we walked through the town of Portsmouth. Many houses are still standing roofless, open and abandoned due to the effects of hurricane Maria, and many unusable business premises have been turned into makeshift housing. Everywhere there are piles of lumber and rebar, and the sound of hammers and drills can often be heard. We passed wrecked boats on the beach and construction equipment that is no longer usable.
When we were in St. Lucia, we were approached by an American woman, Sheron Wahl, who was soliciting funds for a Dominica recovery effort entitled “SOS Dominica - Feed My Sheep”. She was accompanied by Martin Carriere, who, it turns out, is a member of PAYS here. We elected not to contribute to the Feed My Sheep effort, in part because it has a religious basis we don’t favor, but also because Sheron had made no effort to obtain US tax-exempt status, and thus there was no real expectation of any oversight. Instead we have made a substantial contribution to the Dominica recovery effort through “Global Giving”, a highly rated American charity.
We have one more day in Dominica before we move on to Les Saintes and Guadeloupe. Tomorrow we hope to take in the Farmer’s market, and perhaps do a bit more land-based exploration.
We wish a Happy New Year to all our friends and family.
Craig & Barbara
Completion of our Atlantic Passage
23 December 2018 | Rodney Bay, St. Lucia
Barbara/Hot and humid
We made it! We are now in St. Lucia, catching our breaths after making the transition from an ocean-going environment to the hot, humid, friendly place that will be our home for Christmas.
I managed to post two blog updates during the passage, although it was never easy. Just using the computer, with the boat moving around so much, was a challenge. The mouse had a tendency to roll right down the nav station desk, into the tray behind, sometimes triggering unwanted effects in the computer. I didn’t want to write about things that went wrong (not wanting to alarm family members at home), and most of the time the most momentous thing happening was starting a new book on the Kindle.
We all managed to cope with the watch schedule, for which each of us had an assigned three hours during the night. My particular night watch was from 4 am to 7 am. Usually when I took over from Tom at 4 am, Venus (“the morning star”) had already risen in the sky, and after about an hour the light would start to fill in along the horizon, often with a lovely sunrise to follow. The first few days we had to bundle up a bit at night, but by the end of the voyage it was shorts and light shirt for everyone, 24 hours a day.
Our crew for this crossing was Tom Foor, a music friend of Barbara’s. Tom has made a number of crossings, so has good sailing experience, and he’s also easy to get along with. Tom is married to Yvonne, a violinist and close friend of Barbara’s from high school. After a number of years of no contact, Barbara and Yvonne reconnected at a chamber music workshop in Sacramento. We got to know Tom (also an excellent violinist), and the sailing connection was made. Sequoia is quite different from the previous ocean-going boats of Tom’s experience, so there were quite a lot of new procedures and methods to learn. Tom did great, and we were very glad to have him along.
During the last part of the voyage we had stronger winds, up to about 30 knots, ranging from dead astern to 30 degrees off the starboard quarter. Between sailing downwind, often in lighter airs, and some issues with slop in the gooseneck fitting we used the staysail and genoa jibs only. Each of those sails can be easily adjusted in size, so we were always able to have the right combination of sails for whatever wind was blowing. In 30 knots of wind we were seeing seas of about 3 meters (9 feet) so the boat’s motion got pretty exciting. Cooking in the galley became ever more difficult, and I was glad to have saved some of my frozen passage dinners for the end of the trip (defrost, heat, serve – no rolling vegetables to contend with!)
The last day of the passage we began to see squalls and a bit of rain. Apparently squalls in this area of the world are an island thing – the volcanic peaks of these Caribbean islands have a definite effect on the weather. St. Lucia appeared on the horizon, and we set to work re-inflating our fenders and getting ready to dock in Rodney Bay. Craig phoned to see if there was space and was told that “all space” was reserved for ARC boats. (The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, constituting about 200 boats was paralleling our course across the Atlantic in about the same time frame.) Fortunately it turns out that’s just what the person in the office is told to say to everyone, and in actual fact there were plenty of berths available.
We had a choice to tie to a 120V or 240V dock. First time we’ve ever been given that choice! We ended up on a 120 dock, which meant that the first job upon arrival was to change the wiring in the boat’s transformer, which had been set to 240V for European marinas. Before the passage Craig had decided to install a switch between the two settings, so that the changeover would no longer involve a long crawl into a remote compartment and physically, with a screwdriver, changing how the wires are connected. Craig found a marine electric supply store right across the street, acquired the necessary bits and pieces and embarked on a long difficult project. (It was supposed to take ½ hour). But we now have the switch, so this should never come up again!
Every day here we are visited by local “freelancers” who would like to sell us fruit, offer their washing and waxing services, or guide us to nearby sights. One particularly insistent fellow, named “Vision” was working on an adjacent boat. He sang at the top of his lungs as he worked and was always cheerful but insistent. We finally agreed that he would take us on Saturday morning to the farmers market in Castries (the Capitol of St. Lucia, about 20 miles down the road). We agreed to meet at 6:30 am, although it was actually about 7 am by the time we got started. Vision drives like a crazy man, but it appears so does everyone else. He found a place to park near the market, between a huge pile of filled garbage bags and a heap of coconut husks. We waded in to the mass of humanity and found most everything we needed. The people-watching was fascinating, and we found that they were watching us as well.
The people who live in St. Lucia are 80% African, descended from slaves. The tourists are 98% Caucasian. This makes us feel a little as though we have been transported into some kind of apartheid society, and we’re more than a little bit uncomfortable. There are guards at the entrance to the docks, and the entry code seems to be: if you’re white, you can come in without question; if you’re African you can’t come in unless we know you. We’re glad to see local folk in some of the restaurants we visit, but it doesn’t happen often. The free lancers and vendors are extraordinarily and genuinely friendly. I suppose their attitude may be due to their complete dependence on the tourist trade and a need to “make nice” but it seems more genuine than that.
It may be just the two of us celebrating Christmas together this year, but we have hopes of finding some other folks without visiting relatives who want to share a glass of cheer with us. The Outbound sailing community (Sequoia is an Outbound 44) is on alert that we’re here, and we do expect at least one other Outbound to be in the area starting tomorrow (Christmas Eve).
We think of friends and family often, particularly during this holiday season. We wish you all the happiness of the season, with extra fervent wishes for peace in this difficult time of strife in the world.
Craig & Barbara
Rodney Bay Marina, St. Lucia