Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Passing through Guadeloupe (15th and 16th April)

Guadeloupe sunset

Guadeloupe is a hilly, green, butterfly-shaped island, with lots of coastline to explore and excellent hiking. We didn't have time to see as much as we wanted, in a hurry to get to Antigua in time for Classics Week, but found fantastic snorkelling at Pigeon Island and a relaxed, pleasant anchorage at Deshaies in the north.

Guadeloupe is less than 10 miles of open water away from the Saintes. Natalie saw a whale breaching in the choppy waters (I managed to miss it every time) and we then had a relaxed sail mostly in the calmer lee of the island. A classic yacht approached and overhauled us, and I managed to get some good pictures as they passed close by. Later, the wind dropped and our engine went on.

Troubadour passes us, en route to Antigua.

Pigeon Island is two-thirds of the way up the coast, a little islet less than a mile from the mainland shore. We arrived shortly before sunset and anchored off a slightly touristy area with several dive shops and restaurants, spotting a turtle as we did so.

Jacques Cousteau once described Pigeon Island as one of the world's top dive sites, guaranteeing - you might assume - that it would be instantly spoilt. Luckily, we found it was well managed, if inevitably quite crowded. We took the dinghy across in the morning and tied to one of several mooring buoys (anchoring isn't permitted for obvious reasons). The snorkelling was on a different level to anything we'd seen so far: superb visibility, abundant coral, an interesting underwater landscape and no shortage of fish. There were plenty of jellyfish too, but they were the none-stinging kind.  It's a shame that our underwater camera had given up by this stage..

We had lunch back on board before packing up the dinghy and setting off up the coast. A couple of hours later we were anchored in Deshaies, an attractive anchorage with, for once, no rolling. Our fastest turnaround ever! Ashore, landing via a smart dinghy dock, we found a small town with several restaurants and bars, and (this being France) a good small supermarket.

Deshaies, late afternoon.

We fancied eating out for a change that evening, and (after a particularly good sunset) took our chances with a pizza place one road back from the waterfront. We sat outside on the terrace and enjoyed p'tit punches (white rum, lime juice and sugar - they left the bottle with us!) and were delighted to see musicians turn up. An ancient local was the most energetic dancer to a mixture of local Zouk and reggae, some of the best music we heard on the trip.

The anchorage had been calm that day, but it wasn't to last. Deshaies is a naturally windy place, the bay funnelling air down from the hills, and in the night we were woken by disconcertingly strong gusts whistling through the rigging. We tried to sleep, hoping it wouldn't last..

Limbo, Deshaies sunset

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Saintes (10 - 14 April)

For the first time, our route north offered a choice beyond just sailing down the lee of the next island. Four small island groups lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe (see map). Should we take the well-trodden route to the Saintes, just 18 miles away, or head for the small, less visited island of Marie Galante further to the east?  If the latter, we could sail on to Iles de la Petit Terre, then La Desirade, leaving a good but long reach to Antigua.

The Caribbean trade winds blow quite consistently from the north east, with some fluctuation either side. This generally makes heading anywhere to the east of north an uncomfortable proposition: into the wind and the sea. The route towards La Desirade would mean three legs to windward, assuming we could land on Iles de la Petit Terre, which are only really accessible in settled weather. It was these two tiny islands which were the real draw, Marie Galante and La Desirade sounding interesting but not unmissable.

Approaching the islands

As ever, the wind made the decision for us. I was keen on getting off the beaten track if we could, but we set off from Prince Rupert Bay unsure of our destination. We would see what it was like when we were out of the sheltering lee of Dominica. We found a reasonable if rather lumpy beam sea, and a force four to five wind which had more than enough north in it to make Marie Galante a real thrash to windward. The track was beaten for a reason, and the Saintes it was. We eased sheets very slightly, and stormed along at 6 knots.

Terre de Haut and the anchorage
The Saintes is a cluster of islands offering several anchorages and some interesting walking, all in a very small package. Reluctant to start the engine, and enjoying a great sail in the flatter water between Le Bourg and the jagged rocks of Les Augustins, we didn't get the sails down until the last minute. Dolphins approached us before we picked up a mooring off Terre de Haut towards the end of the afternoon (see map). This bay has strictly delineated anchoring and mooring areas, but the anchoring areas are a token concession, being further out and in deeper water.  There weren't too many free buoys, and we ended up moored a fair way from shore. We were approached for payment within minutes of arriving. The slight swell wouldn't let Limbo sit quietly, but the sense of arrival made up for that, and we enjoyed our new surroundings.

The schooner 'Lilly Bolero' approaching from Guadeloupe

We had another rocky night, often disturbed by the large metal pick-up loop on the mooring buoy scraping against the hull. In the morning we watched carefully for any departures, and soon got another buoy close up to the shore by a small beach, where it was more sheltered.

We headed into town to explore. Some of the smaller cruise ships visit the Saintes (few places, it seems, are immune) and the town was horribly crowded. Fortunately the cruise shipper is a plain-dwelling creature and very easily avoided by heading uphill, however slight the incline. We followed the road out of town past the beach, then onwards as it wound towards the summit of the island. It was hot going, several goats and the lizards our only companions. A large iguana dashed across the path in front of us.

Lunch stop

An old fort building sits at the top of the peak, and we climbed a rusty ladder for a better view, across to Dominica to the south and to Guadeloupe just a few miles away to the north. The shades of the reefs below were startling.

Hilltop Fort

Commenting to Natalie on the absence of any black people, she replied, 'yes, it's great, isn't it?'. Had I inadvertently become engaged to a closet racist?  It transpired she'd thought I'd said
'bike people', meaning moped riders (mopeds are for hire all over the island, but there were none up here). Which was a relief.

Summit view
We continued down to a small beach by the Pain au Sucre, a distinctive mound of rock which forms one side of a small bay. It was an appealing anchorage, and we decided to move there once we'd finished in town. Terre de Haut is a pastel-coloured place full of T-shirt shops, delicatessens and restaurants, but has a pleasant, holiday atmosphere. It could be in the south of France somewhere. Our Chris Doyle sailing guide had promised cheap set menus, but we couldn't find any for less than 20 Euros, so we gave up and bought a pizza to cook on board.

Limbo and the sailing cruise ship Royal Clipper

We needed to catch up on email, and we had a frustrating day finding a connection. I'd thought we could access one from the boat, using our booster, but after getting back from town it didn't work so we headed back in.  We ended up paying to use an internet cafe. In the end, we achieved very little. One of the downsides of cruising is that it can sometimes take ages to accomplish the simplest task. We bought some fresh fish and a baguette.

Pain au Sucre anchorage. 

After three nights off Terre de Haut, it was time for somewhere quieter. We motored the couple of miles to Pain au Sucre and, after a couple of attempts, found a reasonable space not too close to the other yachts or to the reef. It was a lovely anchorage, with some interesting snorkelling around the reef close to shore. We saw a lion fish, a striking brown and white-striped creature with feathery fins: a venomous, invasive species with no natural predators, apparently introduced by thoughtless aquarium owners in Florida. We found out later that several islands hold 'lionfish derbys', with prizes for the most kills. Also disconcerting was the wreck of a catamaran washed up on the rocks, its engine block still lying on the seabed.

We spent a couple of days lazing on board, with a walk up another hill for the views across the anchorage. We deployed, for the first time, our inflatable kayak (an ebay purchase). Shamefully, we hadn't got around to unpacking it until now. I did wish we'd chosen a slightly smaller, quicker to inflate model, but it was great fun. We were a bit jealous of those with boats big enough to store rigid kayaks on deck, to nonchalantly throw into the water whenever required.


We felt slightly isolated at Pain au Sucre. There were several other yachts there, mostly French and American, but nobody really talked to us (and we were bad at approaching them). It had been a while since we'd had an evening with other cruisers, and our friends were scattered far and wide across the island chain at this stage.

One evening I was excited to see a gleaming gaff ketch approach and anchor near us. She was the Thendara, built in the 1930s, and looked stunning. Limbo was in good company: we were also heading for Antigua Classics, starting in just a few days.

Thendara, 1936