Passage: Guadeloupe to Dominica to Martinique

Judge not too harshly the two men who have remained incommunicado for the past several days; ’twas circumstance, not choice that stole our pen and turned our eyes to more pressing matters. But the storm has ebbed, and now we shall lay forth our recent history, hopefully seeking your satisfaction.

We left Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe on 4 December and made south for Terred’en Haut, a small Guadeloupean island with a quaint town and clear waters. A handsome church steeple rose above the red roofs of the hamlet, standing square and simple against a pastured hill with a few weather-twisted trees. The color and composition of the scene hearkened truly of a Van Gogh, and we were pleased to anchor in such a harbor. Staying for a few days allowed us to take several walks through the village and familiarize ourselves with its main street and single stoplight. As always, the wind beckoned us on, and we duly weighed anchor on 6 December, heading south by east to the garden of Dominica.

Warned by various sources of theft and harassment, we exercised great care in locking down our belongings, even then living in fear of losing our dinghy or other belongings. Our fears were not allayed during trips into town, where we first observed abject shacks of corrugated metal along the shore, each one invariably fronted by a crusty wooden boat with a brilliantly new engine on the back. We were constantly approached by men who, though striking up a polite conversation, never failed to ask which sailboat was ours, how many of us there were on our boat, and whether or not anyone was on the boat right now. Fictions were told to each of these men, but their curiosity was unsettling.

We had read of a beautiful waterfall that could be reached by taking the dinghy up a river, carrying it over some shoals, then proceeding a bit further. We went to the mouth of this river intending to do just that, a bar of soap and bottle of shampoo close in hand for a badly-needed washing. There, we were stopped by a large group of men, “boat boys,” in the jargon of that area, who forbade us to pass unless we paid for one of them to guide us. When we refused, they grew aggressive, and we turned to exit. A welder working on an old tug above us tried to keep us from leaving, presumably to encourage us to hire one of his friends. We chose to push on, and were rewarded by a deliberate shower of sparks from his torch. Though we couldn’t even feel them, the meaning behind the gesture was clear, and we motored back to the boat disgusted.

Searching for the customs office also proved fruitless, and we decided to head south for Martinique the next morning. Our engine, as usual, refused to play ball. We went to work on it, but were unable to fix the problem, and were forced to stay another day, taking the opportunity to hike to the ramparts of an old English fort. Early the next morning we gladly sailed away, discussing our disappointment in a country so naturally beautiful.

Our destination of Sainte-Pierre, Martinique lay some 55 miles away, meaning the passage should reasonably take between 10 and 12 hours. Entering a strange harbor at night is anathema to the cautious mariner; entering without charts of the place even more so. Naturally, we expected to do both and duly paid the price. Arriving on a moonless night at 9 pm, we tried to find an anchorage, but the grade was so steep that we were in 50 feet of water with less than that distance between us and the pounding rocks on shore. We decided to head a little ways out to sea, hove to, and wait for dawn. As further incentive for this plan, our engine refused to run more than 10 minutes before overheating, making it impossible to charge batteries or maneuver much when anchoring.

It was a long night in the rain taking shifts and sailing around in circles. Come morning, we tried again, but found the situation much the same; the only difference being the clarity with which we could see the sinister rocks so close by. On short sleep and almost no food (2 powerbars and a packet of Ramen each during yesterday’s sail), we turned south again for the city of Fort de France, Martinique, where we could at least be sure to find a mechanic, if need be.

After a filling breakfast of pancakes, the wind quit and we were becalmed. Our pace was sub-pedestrian, and the zeroes on our wind and boat speed instruments encouraged us to cast out our fishing lines; we caught nothing. We could not motor, and so had to simply wait. I endeavored to play Simon and Garfunkel on my recorder, while Aaron cast his line for the elusive Dorado. Finally, the wind picked up in late morning and we drove our ship hard toward Fort de France. As we neared, it became obvious that the wind was coming directly from our intended destination. Mustering all of our sailing skills, we managed to tack back and forth until, after much time and toil, we spurred the motor into action and quickly dropped the anchor at noon on 9 December.

As it happened, we placed ourselves perfectly, and we congratulated each other heartily before heading into town for a lunch of bread and cheese. Returning to the boat, exhausted from our marathon passage, we read briefly before falling asleep at 3 pm, not to wake until early the next morning.

We’ve spent the past couple of days walking the city, getting fresh vegetables at the outdoor markets, and trying to fix our engine. Our trials have narrowed the problem down to our muffler or exhaust hose, and though we’ve improved the situation somewhat, a solution still eludes us. In light of this, our electricity consumption has been put on close ration until we manage to fix the problem completely.

Despite these hardships, we’re happy to be in port and are thoroughly enjoying Fort de France. We’ve had an excellent breakfast of pastries and espresso in a corner cafe, browsed through French books depicting the history of soccer in an old library, and walked the city at night. Next week, we plan to head south to St. Lucia, where we will spend the holidays. Until the next time, dear reader…

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