The past 2 months have flown by. In addition to traveling, we’ve had guests on board and I’ve been working on a contract. Yesterday I delivered a packet of postcards to a lady who works in a gift shop at Soper’s Hole, BVI. As there is no post box there, she offered to drop them off in a post box in Grand Harbour – a kind gesture that I really appreciate. My packet included cards from all the different countries we’ve visited. Some people on my list of recipients will receive more than 1 at a time. Likewise, in this post I will try to give to you an idea of our travels and my impressions so far.
I was very happy about leaving France. After living there for 6 years, I needed a change. So I was a bit disappointed when we decided to skip St-Lucia, St-Vincent and the Grenadines to go directly to Martinique from Barbados. Did we really travel so far just to go back to France? To be fair, we needed to take the boat out of water for its yearly paint job and fix a few things after our trans-Atlantic passage, and Barbados does not have any facilities to do so.
Apparently 10 years ago, Le Marin, in Martinique, was a sleepy sea-side town with a small marina. Today, it is the biggest port of the Caribbean and has excellent facilities for boat work. It was the obvious destination. What’s more, my brother was coming to visit. As he wanted to experience sailing, we devised that he would land in Martinique, stay with us for 3 weeks and then travel back home from Guadeloupe. This would give us enough time to visit both places and do some sailing to get from A to B.
Upon our morning arrival in its bay, I was stunned to see number of boats in the marina. Not since La Rochelle have I seen such a big port. And so many catamarans! I had never seen so many cats in one place before!
To be in France was good for Pierrick. After 6 months away, he needed some familiars, and this can be had in little details such as the language spoken, the public radio stations, and the brands of super markets.
Though I started off being a bit discouraged to be running straight back into Marianne’s arms, I must admit that I really liked Martinique. My friend Laurence, who’s from there and is a total culture buff, recommended some books by Martinique authors. I finally bought more than I should, visiting the Librairie Antillaise and smaller bookshops whenever I could. Joseph Zobel, Gisèle Pineau, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant, Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé… I am plunging my mind into the stories of these people, descendants of slaves and made out to be different because of the color of their skin.
Martinique is distinct in that, of all the places we’ve visited, and of all the places where I’ve lived, never have I seen such a mixed people. I’m told that racism is prevalent. The old French families that made their fortunes in Martinique were not killed off or chased out as they were in Guadeloupe. They are still there, and they own almost every private enterprise on the island. They are a white class with their feet firmly planted on the floor above the glass ceiling. This obviously causes resentment from the majority of the population, a majority of which is not white, and if you can’t attack the white boss, you can easily attack some white-privileged person. I heard a story of a man being who was attacked by a colleague. A man he used to eat with at munch time. After that, he no longer felt safe in Martinique and left to go back to La Métropole, mainland France. A heard another story of an rich old white woman who discharged her nurse when she found out that the lady’s husband was black. But that’s not the impression that Martinique gives. To me, it felt like a place that was finally normal. Where people were people before being their skin color.
Martinique has quite a few attractions to offer its visitors. We especially enjoyed the Maison Clément, an old rum plantation. Setting aside the discomfort that the place was established on the back of black slaves, today the place has to show a beautiful garden, the old house of the proprietors and the old sugar mills, and a small contemporary art gallery. To walk through a beautiful garden, visit a planter’s past home and then soak in art works was, for me, a high light.
The island boasts several rum plantations that can be visited, a botanical garden, nature museums, hiking paths, a historical village that recreates the slave quarters on plantations, and some great snorkeling spots where we swam along sea turtles. There’s even a banana museum!
We are also lucky to know a few people who live there and who could show us around and answer our questions. Our friends from Lucky 4 arrived shortly after us and we were happy to meet up with the Toomey’s of Sacre Bleu, whom he hadn’t seen since Tenerife. We happily spent almost 4 weeks there.
The passage from Martinique to Guadeloupe, which we did at night time, a habit we’ve taken to over the past months to ensure a daytime arrival, was high maintenance. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it required constant changing of the sails and putting on the motors depending if we were protected by an island (in which case there was almost no wind) or got the lashing winds from the Atlantic. My brother stayed in his cabin – later likening sleeping in a moving boat to sleeping in a washing machine! I think it’s at that point that he decided that sailing might not be for him…
We arrived at the grouping of islands called Les Saintes – a truly beautiful sight to see – and we basically stayed there as long as possible, going from one anchorage to the next depending on the direction of the wind and swell. Snorkeling is great. There’s good internet connection. The restaurants in the two small surrounding towns are good. It’s a great place to spend time, and we probably would have spent much more time there were it not for my brother needing to catch a plane back home.
We sailed to Guadeloupe on a sunny day, leaving its Basse Terre with its high peaks and misty tops on portboard. We had decided to stay for a while in the Pointe-à-Pitre marina. I had to work and surely there would be a good connection in the marina…. And we could take in the carnival too. This was a mistake. Pointe-à-Pitre is a sad, quiet city. It boasts 2 museums. One was closed for renovation. The other one was closed Saturday afternoon, as apparently everything else in the city. We had walked one evening from the marina to the city center to take in some of the carnival. On the way we saw a marching procession that left much to be desired and a bunch of young, unruly kids whipping the ground with long ropes. By the time we got to the city, everything was over and people were making their way home. It must have been around 8 or 9 PM. We learned only the next day not to walk the way from the marina to the city because the only road passes through the bad part of town. The marina recommended that we go by dinghy. The marina is set up with a walkway that has a dozen restaurants. There’s local food and African, and French, and Italian. It’s actually considered the fancy place to go out and eat in Pointe-à-Pitre. The internet connection (my data connection) was slower than in Les Saintes.
We rented a car for a few days to explore the island, drive my brother to the airport, and explore the island some more. Haute-Terre has a coast lines with white sand beaches. Basse-Terre boasts mountains and forests and waterfalls. Our friends of Sacre Bleu anchored in La Bouillante Bay, something I wish we had done. It’s free, the town is quaint, the connection is fast, there’s great snorkeling nearby and the landscape is beautiful.
Guadeloupe gave me quite a different impression than Martinique. The island seems poorer. Its people seem more hostile. The small shacks in the shanty towns surrounding the marina all had a shinny car out front. The vegetation grows lushly wherever it can, and is less trimmed down into gardens and landscapes. There’s a sense that it’s remained wilder. Or less upkept? The roads, being in France, are good. But contrarily to Martinique, you don’t feel like you’re in France when you’re in Guadeloupe. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have any locals to speak to. We know one guy from Guadeloupe, but he changed his number so we couldn’t reach him.
Again, we did this passage at night time, and it’s one of the most impressive sailing trips we’ve done so far. The wind was pretty constant at 20-25 knots and there were 4 meter waves. Anybody faint of heart or unaccustomed to the crashing sounds of a catamaran hitting waves would have thought his hour had come. We stayed calm throughout, even when waves crashed over the top of the boat and came splashing us, startled, standing at the back of the boat. These things no longer phase me. I know how my boat works and what she can take. I know what me and my captain can handle. I’m confident in this team. Still, I wouldn’t go out sailing in those conditions with just anybody on board. I wouldn’t risk terrifying or making sick anybody I care for. Unless they were a seasoned sailor. For the first time, I thought of myself as different than the regular human being on a boat. I’m no skipper, but I’m no faint of heart. We arrived in Pelican’s Bay after sunrise, and by that time it had started raining. A cold, misty rain. The anchorage was busy and uncomfortable, but as we didn’t know at what time the bridge opened to find a spot in one of Simpson’s Bay’s marinas and were quite tired, I insisted we stay there for a night, find our bearings and decide on a marina for the next day.
Contrarily to what we had read on blogs, we never had to pay to cross the Dutch-side bridge. As Pelican’s Bay was already quite unstable and the weather forecasted several days of strong 40 knot winds, we decided to find a spot in a marina for a few days. It was very expensive. But as my friend Maïa and her family were en route to join us for a week of holiday, we wanted to welcome them in stable conditions. Hauling 4 people and their luggage in a dinghy did not appeal to us, and we didn’t think they’d enjoy the Pelican’s Bay experience.
We were right about that! A few days later when the winds had died down, we left the port to spend one night in the Bay before heading towards St-Bath. It was a disaster. My friend’s eldest was sick. Very sick. We’ve never had anybody on board ever be so sick as her, poor thing. Her brother was fine until he heard of his sister being unwell, at which point he’d start complaining about feeling sick too. My friend, who’s sailed with us before and is of a strong constitution, became sick by tending to her vomiting daughter. And that’s how we ended up doing a quick loop up the Eastern side of Sint-Marteen and settling in the Oyster’s Pond marina. It was also expensive. Less than in Simpson’s Bay, but when you consider that there was only intermittent water access and the facilities were those shared with the bar, it was charged much more than it’s worth.
Our week was mainly organized around the kids, which means we spent a lot of time at beaches. We don’t really like beaches. I don’t like the sand. Pierrick was scandalized to find out that many restaurants and hotels have their way with the beach front of their facilities, claiming it as private and installing their chairs to rent, when no seaside land in France is private. It’s against the law. He had a clash with a hotel manager when we visited the beach at Anse Marcel, which was fully taken over by 2 deluxe hotels. We went to Grand Case instead, hopping that the little car we had not-very-legally rented from a nice and trusting lady could manage the very steep roads. Grand Case we liked, and we were pleasantly surprised by its Tuesday night festival, with a mini parade, street food and merchant stalls.
We weren’t planning on staying much longer in St-Martin. What we had seen so far hadn’t impressed us. When our guests left we made our way North and anchored at Grand Case. Pierrick changed the alternator on our starboard motor and was having some problems with the strap, so an extra day in St-Martin became an extra week. And has he couldn’t seem to fix the problem himself, we ended up in the bay at Marigot where we could find a mechanic to help us. Luckily, we met up with Mia and Jon from Itchy Foot, another boat we had met in Tenerife, and spent a few lovely evenings with them. It’s always nice to catch up with sailor-friends and compare notes on the crossing and the places we’ve visited.
St-Martin is a strange place. There are over 100 different nationalities living on the island spread out between the Dutch and French sides. People from all over flock to the island to offer tax-free wares. As all duty-free places, they specialize in clothing brands, electronics, jewellery and liquor. Dutch is learnt in school but not once did I hear it spoken in the streets. English is the language used there. French is spoken on the French side, along with English and Spanish. The US dollar is the currency on the Dutch side, the Euro on the French. I saw an art gallery or 2 in Philipsburg with nothing on show to lure me in. Another gallery in Grand Case was selling an OK albeit large painting of an unknown artist for over 30K, a price that only makes sense if you actually don’t want to sell the piece.
What I did like was the sense of community that we found with the sailors. Every morning at 7:30 AM, sailors all around the island turn on their VHF radio to channel 10 for local announcements. Things to swap. Expertise sought after. A gathering. A game of dominos. A question for those who know the island. And all day long, mariners call other boats over channel 10. We especially enjoyed hearing kids call another boat to see if their friends could come out and play.
Generally, the place does not give off a sense of itself. There doesn’t seem to be a local culture. It’s like a city where there are many people of different origins who live along side each other but don’t really seem to get along. To each his own. Except instead of being in a city (that is often a cultural center), you’re stuck on an island where everything that’s sold is geared to tourists. People are friendly, but the place seem devoid of soul.