The line extends – north from St Lucia

The Line Extends – tales of Jeffrey Smith’s circumnavigation aboard his Catana 431 catamaran Today!

After three days at the dock in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, recovering from our race across the Atlantic, it was time to fuel up and head north. Another ARC boat, Spicy Lady, was also heading north, so we agreed to buddy boat together. Her captain had charter-skippered for several years in the Caribbean, and I spent an hour with him going over charts and discussing potential anchorages.

We agreed to head for the southeast corner of Martinique on our first day, towards the St Anne anchorage outside Le Marin. The sailing was phenomenal – fairly large swells in the St Lucia Channel between St Lucia and Martinique, moderating to mild rollers as we got north into deeper water. It felt bizarre to be heading upwind again! After 17 days sailing downwind from Las Palmas to St Lucia, sailing upwind was really odd.

We got into the groove after an hour or so, and the 25 miles went by quickly. Spicy Lady had snuck out of Rodney Bay while we were distracted getting fuel, and we were extremely surprised when she called us on the VHF and said she was already anchored at St. Anne. She beat us in the ARC by about 16 hours, so I was getting bummed thinking that she was going to beat us on each leg north! As racers will, she explained how she was only using her number three and was not trying very hard, looking around, watching the dolphins, etc. So it was surprising for her that she managed to beat us so easily!

We anchored in three meters of water – about 10 feet – and Tom and Scott immediately jumped in and swam over to Spicy Lady. Not having anchored in a long time, we let out about 60 meters of rode, and had drifted directly downwind of their boat. Tom took off like a shot, and Scott was swimming a little slower. I thought the dinghy might be of use and leisurely brought up the rear.

The row directly into the wind became a struggle, and I was sorry I had not anchored closer. Carolyn on Spicy Lady chastised me when I finally arrived, as they had left a nice gap off to starboard and were offended we had anchored so far away!

After gin and tonics/beer, Scott used the winch to take Tom up the mast to retrieve the spinnaker halyard lost during the ARC. Carolyn was quite pleased, as she and Pierif were double-handing and very tired. She invited us to stay for dinner and we had a great pasta meal. I was fully relaxed after the gin and several glasses of Spanish wine, and was lucky not to fall asleep face first in my pasta!

We made it back to Today! and settled in for the night. The lights of Martinique surrounded us – St Anne’s is an outstanding anchorage. I regretted not having gone all the way into Le Marin, as there are great chandleries and restaurants. We found the chandleries in Rodney Bay to have a small selection, and were looking for parts to replace items used in the crossing. But we made do by sitting in the cockpit, watching the lights come on along the shore, and the stars come out overhead. A spectacular evening and a great introduction to our first day of cruising in the Caribbean!

We had agreed to get up at 10:30 the next day and head for St. Pierre, an open roadstead near the northwest corner of Martinique. We got up early and flung ourselves overboard for our first swim in the Caribbean. 84 degree water feels great, and it was wonderful to swim around the boat. I got industrious and had Scott hand me a cleaning pad, and went after the hull. We had the boat cleaned in Las Palmas, but had accumulated a lot of slime during the passage. Plus, I needed to beat Spicy Lady today!

While I was under the bridge deck, I asked Scott to call them on the VHF, as I knew it was getting close to our departure time. Scott told me they had already raised anchor and headed by, saying they would see us at St. Pierre! I had Scott and Tom start removing the anchor bridle while I got back on board, and we got the anchor stowed. Then I found Spicy Lady still anchored in front of us!

Totally confused, we motored over, and it turned out they were having diesel problems. There was a big cloud of white smoke, and some black smoke when they put load on the engine. So they reanchored and Pierif went to work. We hovered and eventually reanchored, waiting while they worked the issue. After a short time, they got things resolved, started the engine and were able to motor. They headed west towards the southwest corner of Martinique.

We were using the delay to add reinforcements to our mainsheet, as it turned out the blocks the factory installed were undersized, and a boat like mine with a smaller main had blown up their mainsheet blocks during the Atlantic crossing. We added some Spectra lashings to the sheets and blocks, so if the block lets go, the sheet will not be lost. My Catana has a dual mainsheet system and the lashings will improve the safety of the overall system.

This took a little time, so Spicy Lady had worked out a nice lead on us. As we were still in the wind shadow of St Anne’s, I held off on raising the main for a bit, as I wanted to avoid having to immediately reef if it turned out there was more wind in the channel. So Spicy Lady was even further ahead when we eventually went full hoist on the main and set the jib.

We were headed for a prominent landmark on the southwest corner of Martinique – a large rock known as “The Diamond”. It looks like Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast, and we left it to starboard, giving it a wide berth. The wind and waves curved around the coastline, and we were soon surfing at 9-10 knots.

Spicy Lady had cut inside The Diamond, and the shorter course gave them an additional lead. But we were starting to really grind them down, and it made for great sailing. We could see them throwing headsail changes in an attempt to maintain their lead – great fun!

The coastline of Martinique is spectacular – lush green hills rising out of the sea, with small towns nestled in valleys creating natural harbors. We sailed north past Petit Anse du Diamant and Anse d’Arlet, which deserve a return trip to explore.

Fort de France is the capital of Martinique, and lies off a huge bay. We dodged a passenger ferry coming out of the bay, and after handing the helm over to Scott, we experienced major wind shifts from the headlands at the north end of the bay. The wind lightened considerably, and then filled again, and we were off. We tried setting the screacher at the same time as the jib, and it worked great. We saw 8.2 knots of boatspeed in 12 knots apparent, and had a wonderful time sailing along the spectacular Martinique coastline.

We were chewing into Spicy Lady’s lead, and I told Scott he had to pass them or get off the boat and push! A short time later, the wind died, and Spicy Lady started her engine and motored the last few miles into St. Pierre, our anchorage for the night.

It was heartbreaking not getting past them, but Thomas consoled me by reminding me that the first boat to start their engine in light air loses! So we started working on our scripts for teasing Carolyn and Pierif when we saw them that evening, and prepared the boat for anchoring.

St. Pierre is at the foot of Montagne Pelee (Mt Pele), a volcano that erupted and consumed the town, killing everyone except one person in the small jail! As we motored up, we entered what appeared to be the outlet of a freshwater stream. The water changed from blue to muddy brown, and we headed close to shore to find holding ground.

We anchored close to Spicy Lady in about 14 feet of water, and set significant rode, as the anchorage is quite steep-to, and boats have been lost when they dragged offshore into deep water and drifted away. It took us a couple of attempts to get a good anchor set, and we were quite satisfied. Unfortunately, the couple on the boat on the mooring bouy behind us was not as enthused, and the man came over in his dinghy to ask us to move.

Spicy Lady yelled over to us that the holding near them was quite good, so we poked our nose by their transom and dropped anchor. We let quite a bit of scope go, so we ended up directly downwind of them again. But we were considerably closer than the prior evening!

We were surprised to see a Catana 381 catamaran anchored close by. It is unusual to see other Catanas in Europe, but I have found that many people have brought their Catanas to the Caribbean, so it is more common to come across them here. Cats are quite popular here – at least a third of my marina in Guadeloupe is full of cats.

We rowed over to Spicy Lady to consult regarding dinner arrangements. We agreed that we would come by later, pick them up and take them into town for dinner. As it had been sunny all afternoon, we were overheated and looking for a nice swim. The brown water under the boat was not appealing, so we piled into the dinghy (known affectionately as Lamont Cranston) and rowed out of the fresh water/mud mixture into the blue water. Scott set the anchor and we did back rolls overboard.

Having dived in the Caymans, Bonaire and San Salvador, I was surprised by the lack of sea life. We saw a few star fish and several spiny sea urchins, but no fish. As the sun was going down, we flopped back into Lamont, considerably refreshed and ready for our first French dinner in the Caribbean.

Tom was the most enthusiastic rower, so he dropped Scott and me off on the beach. We surfed into a sandy part of the shore, managed to avoid flipping the dinghy as Scott and I piled out, and then spun Tom around and gave him a push to get through the shore break. Significantly lightened, he made quick progress of the row back to Spicy Lady to pick up Carolyn and Pierif. Ever thoughtful, he had brought a towel for Carolyn to sit on, as she had dressed up for the occasion!

With his dinghy surfing skills refined, Tom safely brought his cargo onto shore, and we grabbed the dinghy lines and hauled it up against a breakwater and secured it with the painter. We then hiked in a few blocks, and started looking for a restaurant.

My experience in Europe has been that there are restaurants or places to buy bread, meat and pastries every few blocks. St Pierre was dramatically different. It was clear that the town was still heavily impacted by the volcanic eruption, and the majority of buildings we saw were heavily damaged.

It appeared that the local government was attempting to start urban renewal efforts, and some new buildings were under construction. We walked along the main street, looking for restaurants, and eventually came upon one that had a convenient balcony looking out over the anchorage. Our boats were safely at anchor, and being able to observe them during dinner added to our enjoyment of the evening.

Not being able to read French, ordering in restaurants is always an adventure. Fortunately Pierif is a native French speaker, and he was able to help us with the menu and with the waitstaff. We had a great meal, filled with laughter as each boat’s crew teased the other about whether they were really racing or just touring…

We agreed to get up at first light the next day in order to get to Ile de Saintes during daylight. The Saintes are 18 miles south of Guadeloupe, and are a small collection of islands that are lightly developed. Imagine a small version of the San Juans 30 years ago, with passages into the heart of the archipelago ranging from easy to suicidal, based on depth and current.

5:30 was the magic hour, and Tom, Scott and I got out of bed and got the engines going and the anchor up right on time. We called Spicy Lady on the VHF and they were just finishing their tea, and would be with us shortly! Pierif got their chain up quickly and they motored out to sea, dodging the lobster pots that dotted the anchorage. We followed them, taking pictures of the spectacular sunrise, their boat, and Mt Pele.
We motored north for 45 minutes, and as we approached the end of Martinique, the wind started to fill and we raised the main and shut off the engines. The Martinique Channel separating Dominica from Martinique is about 21 miles across, and was deep enough that the swell from the Atlantic was mild.

We had outstanding conditions, and were powered up, so we quickly left Spicy Lady behind. We were surprised to see another monohull back with them, and postulated that it was OysterCatcher, an Oyster 62 that had also done the ARC and was paralleling our course northwards. They had anchored at St Pierre with us, and must have left shortly after us.

The southwest corner of Dominica is known as “Scotts Head”, and we asked Scott if it was named after him. When we arrived, the wind completely died, and I called for a mid-ocean swim.

We had done the same thing on a calm day in the Med, and it is one of my favorite memories. We leave one person on board, rig a fender to a line in case the boat starts to drift, and then fling ourselves overboard for a swim.

Tom changed on the swim step just in time to give OysterCatcher a glimpse of his buns, while Scott and I, ever modest, changed into swimsuits in the salon. Tom and I jumped overboard and enjoyed the 80 degree water.

Spicy Lady was about 20 minutes behind at this point, so Tom got out, Scott got in, and Tom called them on the VHF to invite them to join us for a swim. Carolyn was concerned about getting to the Saintes in daylight, so she planned on continuing to motor north.

We tried to tempt them by offering to clean Spicy Lady’s bottom, and they came by – I think Carolyn was interested in seeing if we had swimsuits on or not! It was an odd experience being in the water next to my boat in the middle of the Caribbean while another boat motorsailed past…

Feeling the press of time, we took showers on the swim step and then fired up the engines and started north. Spicy Lady was about ½ mile ahead of us, and we ended up motoring the entire length of Dominica. It was very odd – the only wind was light and out of the northwest – not the tradewind conditions we had been experiencing for days.

As we closed on the north end of Dominica, we could see significant wind and waves approaching. We had been motorsailing with our full main up, and watched as Spicy Lady started to round up as the first puffs hit her. She immediately reefed, and we started the same process on Today!.

Its about 12 miles from the north end of Dominica to The Saintes, and the channel has a reputation for being rough. We put the second reef in, as we were seeing gusts to 25, and started working across the passage. The boat felt great – the sun was out, we were doing 9-10 knots to weather, and we were making time against Spicy Lady. It was phenomenal sailing – beam reaching the Caribbean.

A significant squall was crossing ahead of us, and I headed up to give it room to get past so we would not experience its effects. The wind increased a few knots, and we got a smattering of rain, but largely avoided any impact. This technique for dodging squalls is really effective – the squalls generally march across the ocean on a clear path, and you can pick where (or if) you intersect them. When we were coming across the Atlantic, we would gybe towards the squalls when we wanted more wind and speed, and would gybe away when conditions got too intense. It was surprising how quickly conditions would moderate as we sailed away from the cloud mass.

Approaching the southwest pass into The Saintes, we contacted Spicy Lady and agreed to follow her in, as she had been there before and was more familiar with the conditions. The southwest passage is quite wide, but shouls up quickly, with major obstructions at the edge of the channel.

We also found that the entire channel was laced with lobster pots, and spent the next several miles dodging buoys. Spicy Lady was helping, as she would shift course and give us advance warning. She dropped her sails and started motoring, but we kept sailing, as the conditions were wonderful, and negotiating the passage under sail was a fun challenge.

As we rounded the corner towards our anchorage, a local passenger ferry passed us to starboard, and we dropped the main and rolled up the jib. The short tacks up the entrance channel had been great, but Spicy was waiting for us, and we needed to catch up with them.

There are several anchorages in The Saintes, providing protection regardless of wind direction. The main anchorage was a little rolly, so we tucked in behind “Pain de Sucre” (Sugarloaf Rock) and set our anchor in about 10 meters of water. We drifted back over water that was substantially deeper, so we let out a lot of scope to make certain we had a good set in case the wind piped up.

Carolyn and Pierif declined our dinner invitation, as they were exhausted and still faced several days of sailing before they would get to Tortolla for Christmas. Carolyn admitted that Pierif had been making every sail change he could think of to try and pass us, and they both congratulated us on our performance. It was great sailing with them, and it was wonderful that our boats were so closely matched and that we were able to stay so close together during the passages.

Scott and Tom jumped in to explore the rocks and shoreline – the water was spectacularly clear. I rowed over to explore the beach and plan the approach for dinner. The beach landing looked fine, but the hike into town looked brutal. The beach by the local hotel looked better, and we thought we could catch a cab into town from there.

After snorkeling for awhile, including diving the anchor to check its set, we showered off and headed to the Bois Joli hotel for a drink. We were the only people in the outdoor bar, and found a nice table looking out over the beach and anchorage. Scott ordered a Pina Collada, while Tom and I ordered rum punch. The waitperson mentioned to me that my drink was quite small, but did not say anything to Tom.

When the drinks arrived, Tom was crestfallen as Scott shouted out, “I win!”. His drink was four times the size of ours, although ours made up for size in terms of raw alcohol content. We got through the first round, and then ordered a round of Pina Colladas to quench our thirst!

The concierge ordered us a taxi, and we headed into town for dinner. The route was pretty circuitous, and we were glad we were riding and not walking. After wandering the main street looking at alternatives, we settled on a small place looking out over the water, and had an astounding meal. We were laughing uproariously and had a great time when the owner stopped by and offered us an after dinner drink. Thoroughly relaxed, we watched the boats at anchor and discussed the days events.

Finishing up, we paid for the meal, and asked about a cab back to the hotel where we had left the dinghy. The proprietor said all the cabs were finished for the night, so our only alternative was to walk back.

At night on a strange island in the middle of the Caribbean, we were faced with finding our way home drunk! We took off, thinking that if we paralleled the coast line we would eventually find the anchorage.

Several encounters with barking dogs later, we started up a long steep hill that we recognized as part of the route home. We had followed a cautious scooter as they slowly descended on the way into town. It was about 80 degrees and humid, so we all took our shirts off. Scott decided to run, and as Tom and I looked on, he disappeared up the hill. Anticipating finding him hurling at the top, Tom and I meandered up the hill.

We had brought our headlamps in anticipation of the hike, which helped illuminate potholes. We came upon a fellow and his dog, and the dog was fascinated by the circle of light cast by Tom’s headlight. We laughed as the dog chased the light around for several minutes, before hopping onto the scooter with his master and roaring off into the night.

We eventually made it back to the hotel, found Lamont safe where we left him, and rowed back to Today!. An outstanding day came to a peaceful end as we all fell into bed.

We spent the next morning at anchor. Spicy Lady left very early to make the next leg of her passage to Tortolla. Tom caught up on his sleep while Scott and I had a fabulous snorkel session off the point. I saw a juvenile spotted drum, one of my favorite fish to photograph, and black coral, which was quite surprising. At one point I dove down on a rock, and the light caught the edge as a small reef fish crossed in front. It was spectacular, and I wished for my underwater camera.

We moved the boat into the main anchorage so we could get a better feeling for the town, and avoid another night walk. There was a dinghy dock close by, and we went in, got phone cards to call home, and got the lay of the land.

The Saintes enjoy significant tourist traffic from Guadeloupe – day-trippers come across on a series of ferries and spend the day shopping, hiking, swimming and eating. It is extremely picturesque, and I encourage you to visit if you are ever sailing in the area. There were only four boats in our first anchorage, so it was not too crowded.

At 1700 the shops close up and the tourists head for the ferries home. The island immediately quiets down. We went back to the boat to relax, and then came in for another great dinner. The restaurant looked out over the water, and the lights shining on the clear water attracted reef fish, so we had a fish show during dinner.

Each hillside had the remnants of a fort on it, so the next day we rented scooters for the ride up to Fort Napolean. Fabulous overlooks helped us gain a better appreciation for the island – there were bays and outcroppings and small villages all around. You could spend days wandering from anchorage to anchorage, snorkeling, diving, wind surfing and enjoying the scenery.

As Scott had to fly out the next day, we raised anchor and headed for Point-a-Pitre on Guadeloupe. After clearing a fouled halyard, we set the first reef in the main and started sailing upwind towards the island. Dodging more lobster pots, we quickly closed on Guadeloupe, and started preparing for the entrance. Shallow water extends up to six miles offshore, so I was quite concerned about the approach, and was glad that we were making the crossing in daylight.

We passed in between two squalls that were deluging the south end of Guadeloupe, found the well-marked channel, dropped sails, and motored into the marina. Calling the marina on channel 9, staff came out and met us in a dinghy and guided us to our new berth. They helped us with the dock lines, and Today! snuggled into her new home.

This entry was posted in Sailing, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.