21 January 2017

Sailing the French Caribbean

Argon visite de superbes isles francaises... Argon visits beautiful French islands (I think that's what I said)...

Captain Linda Perry Riera

We have explored most of the French Caribbean islands over the past couple of months.
Listed in order of most French to least French (according to me):
  • Les Saintes (29 Nov - 4 Dec)
  • Guadeloupe (4 Dec - 14 Dec)
  • St. Barthelemy aka St. Barts (6 Jan - 9 Jan)
  • St. Martin aka Sint Maarten in the Dutch south (9 Jan - 22 Jan)

Martinique is another French Caribbean island but we did not venture this far south.
Disclaimer: I am kind of cheating by grouping Saint Martin with our French Island experience... the northern part of this island is French and the southern is Dutch. We anchored and moored in the Dutch section but there is clearly a seeping of cultures across the border and we enjoyed exploring the entire island a bit by car. 

Impressions - Positive and Not So Positive

Beautiful Water, Beaches, Anchorages, Hiking, and Sunsets

The sailing to these islands was sometimes calm and other times rigorous. Often we did short hops from one harbor to another as well as plenty of exploring on land. Each of these islands is abundant with gorgeous water and beaches. Some of the anchorages are well-protected, while others are more open to the elements.

A hilly, rigorous walk one morning to the northeast portion of Les Saintes is rewarded by an expanse of protected beach loaded with coconut trees: Baie de Pompierre. Later in the day the crowds from the day ferries from Guadeloupe arrive. 
View after a long climb up to Fort Nepoleon on Terre-de-Haut Island, Les Saintes. This fort was never used in battle and instead became a prison. It is now a museum of the history of Les Saintes and is surrounded by a botanical garden.

Hiking along a trail in the rain forest of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe.

A short steep hike up to Fort Oscar yielded this view of Gustavia Harbor, St. Barts. St Barts was probably our least favorite island on our trip thus far. Although the water surrounding is beautiful, the anchoring is difficult (see below) and the overall feel of the island is that of a playground for the wealthy with endless high end shops and mega yachts.

Port of Dehaise - French for "Wind Tunnel Anchorage" apparently

One of our stops along the north western shore of Guadeloupe was Dehaise. This is a very popular anchorage and has a vibrant and busy downtown and restaurant scene.  On our second night here just about dinner time, the wind picked up into the low 20s. No problem - probably a passing squall.  An hour later, it was clear this was no quick squall as we were now sustained in the 30s.  This was going to be a long night. We experienced several gusts into the high 30s with one hitting 39 for a few nervous moments. It was not until about 0500 the next day after a sleepless night on high alert that winds fell back to the low 20s (a relative relief but normally what we would consider a pretty windy anchorage). The forecast was for mid to high teens.

Our anchor slowly dragged "only" about 25 feet overnight. Other boats struggled much more with holding having to re-set many times with one catamaran eventually giving up in the middle of the night and taking off southward in search of more protection.

Our most uncomfortable and tiring anchorage was in Dehaise on northwestern Guadeloupe. Although absolutely gorgeous, the cliffs and hills surrounding are known to act as a wind tunnel accelerating the easterly trade winds.

During one of our days here, the wind was low enough that we felt comfortable leaving the boat and renting a car for the day. We got a 5 speed Ford Festiva and Bob had way too much fun driving around the steep and windy mountainous roads of Guadeloupe. It was Bob's first time driving in months and his first time handling a manual transmission car in decades.

St. Barts presented another beautiful but difficult anchorage. The water was spectacularly clear and inviting but there was scare room among hundreds of mooring balls and fairly deep water requiring a lot of scope.

Deceiving picture of our anchorage outside of Gustavia Harbor in St. Barts... Although the water was spectacularly clear (with many sea turtles all around) and the scenery beautiful, the conditions were very exposed (rockin' and rollin'). It was difficult to find a good place to anchor given the hundreds of private moorings that fill the anchoring area and less than ideal depths (mostly around 30 feet) requiring generous scope. One may notice a bit of a pattern with beauty sometimes going hand in hand with challenging.

Anchorage in Les Saintes.

We have been blessed with so many beautiful sunsets. This never gets old.

Most of the waters in the French Islands have been clear and inviting. Water temperatures continue to be welcoming at 80-81F. Our best snorkeling to date was in Guadeloupe at Pigeon Beach and Jacques Cousteau Marine Preservation. The video below starts off with us snorkeling with several docile sea turtles next to where Argon was anchored, then out by Pigeon Island where we ventured on the dinghy for a really impressive underwater show.

Note: An exception to the pristine waters in the french territories is definitely in marinas and other waters that are somewhat landlocked. Unfortunately there is rudimentary water and sewage treatment on these islands with some harbors being literal dumping grounds. Upon some google searching, there seem to be some efforts underway in Saint Martin to upgrade water treatment. Let's hope this happens before the conditions in harbors progress from just gross to toxic.


Delicious Food

The French sure know how to do food well. Whether it is a restaurant for a sit down meal, a cafe for a coffee and pastry, or provisioning at a grocery store, it is a pleasure to eat and shop for food on these islands. The prices seem to be strangely reasonable too. I have enjoyed getting all sorts of pate (Bob calls this cat food), bechamel sauce, creme francaise, different cheeses, delicate packaged crackers of different sorts, etc.
A fantastic French bakery in Saint Martin became a quick favorite. Awesome breaks and croissants!

Charming streets in Les Saintes lined with dozens of small restaurants where the food is always deliberately prepared.

Deedo at Rum and Peas in Saint Martin mixing up a Rosemary Ginger Martini and a Mint Rum Fizz.

Attitude and Service

The food may be terrific but sometimes getting and/or paying for it can be challenging. I am trying to be culturally open minded and not overly American; however, the service, particularly in French restaurants, continues to puzzle. It is often as if we are an imposition. It feels like once your food has been brought to you, they are done with you. One experience (of which we have experienced several permutations) was at a restaurant in Guadeloupe near Bas du Fort where we sat with empty glasses and clear plates for an enormous amount of time while our waitress sat in a corner gazing up in the air puffing cigarette after cigarette. (Smoking is still a thing on these islands.) Am I supposed to approach her and ask for more water or the check? Do I try to get someone else's attention? I wish I could say this was a one-off experience. I will be sure to seek guidance and understanding from my French friends when back home. Oh, and, we normally enjoy hopping between restaurants... getting a quick app and drink at one place and moving on to the next to perhaps share an entree, etc. That does not work in these territories. Once you enter a restaurant, you have entered a long term commitment for your evening. There is no hopping!


Other Stuff


Crime / Dinghy Theft

Although we have not had a problem ourselves, we have heard from more than one source (mostly French people) that one should always lock their dinghy up (even in daylight and even when at your own boat) when in any French territories in the Caribbean. Maybe our lowly A/B dinghy with its scrawny 6hp outboard is less desirable than a french Zodiac with more manly power (which is fine by me). Many people lock their dinghies up with serious chains probably bigger than their anchor chain; we use wimpy steel cables hopefully a deterrent for the unmotivated thief. We are not used to locking up our dinghy and find it pretty sad that we should need to. If we come to a dock and all other dinghies are locked, we lock ours too. We don't want to be the "easy one".

The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the large marine supply stores on St Martin hire people to steel dinghies. We attended a seminar to help our fishing skills and I could not help but notice all the lovely new dinghies on display ready for purchase.


Well-Stocked Chandleries

We made a concerted effort to stock up on spare parts of all sorts prior to leaving Boston having heard that it can be challenging to get needed parts on many islands. Unfortunately, we somehow missed securing spare zincs.

We were like kids in a candy store when finally discovering a real chandlery in Guadeloupe after searching across several islands. We noticed back in Antigua that our prop zinc was in dire need of replacing. After searching in vain for a new anode in Antigua, Dominica and Les Saintes, we were in heaven to finally find a well stocked chandlery near Marina Bas Du Fort in Guadeloupe.
We would eventually learn that Saint Martin, which was visited many weeks later, is the super island for marine supplies in the Caribbean. We paid several visits (cha-ching) to Island Water Works in Simpson Bay during our stay there.


Puzzling Business Hours

Hours of business operations were challenging to adjust to on Les Saintes and Guadeloupe. Many businesses close around noon to three and most restaurants close around three to seven. It was sometimes maddening. It's not okay to be hungry at 4 or 5 pm or to need something from the hardware store at 2 pm. We eventually learned to plan our trips ashore better.

On this day we had skipped lunch and were starving for dinner by 5pm. But no, no, no... dis is not allowed to have dinner or even an appetizer so early. We found a market open, which of course all sell very good yet inexpensive wine, and parked ourselves on a bench drinking wine out of the bottle and munching on peanuts at 6pm. Gawdy, eh?


Not completely unexpected, given well known French pride, it was sometimes difficult to explain a needed boat part or secure directions being a typical American fluent in only our native tongue. Of course we tried using common phrases such as s'il vous plait, merci beaucoup, bonsoir. And unsuccessfully attempted to get a bit more complicated by asking puis-je parler anglais (but my pronunciation was so poor the dockhand at Marina Bas Du Fort did not understand me so I resorted to the more standard parlez-vous anglais). Most menus, especially in Les Saintes and Guadeloupe, were only in French; I could decipher if something was duck or fish or with cheese and eventually if it had mushrooms or eggplant, but not much more. It was sometimes a "surprise meal". Saint Martin was an exception as it is quite American compared to the others.

Uh, yes, sure. Completely clear.

This we can understand.

Comfortable Nudity

Commonplace was lots of naked cruisers of all sizes and ages comfortably washing themselves off their sterns or just generally hanging out (bah-zing!)
"Bonjour, Argon" we hear from the water behind the boat as a man swam up to us. Upon inviting him aboard, I was relieved to see he had swimming trunks on (usually he did not). We enjoyed a nice chat with Michele from the catamaran anchored next to us before he jumped off and swam back. Michele is a pilot in France and showed us some very interesting weather applications that he uses both while flying and sailing.


First the cool part... There is a really fun beach at the beginning of the runway in Saint Martin. Maho Beach is a popular place to hang out and watch and listen to the roar of the arriving and departing aircraft. Bars flank this section of the beach where one can hang out watch the action from a safe distance.

Maho Beach is a popular place to hang out and watch and listen to the roar of the incoming aircraft approaching the nearby runway. And... people purposely stand in line with the runway (in the danger zone) to get blasted down the beach by the jets as they take off. (Not me! And that's not quite how Bob got hurt.)

Signs warn of the dangerous jet blasts, but many ignore.

Here is a very short video of some of the action at Maho Beach:

The white sand beach and turquoise water is quite inviting. Sometimes, however, the surf really picks up such as when we were there. We decided to play in the water any way which ended up being a big mistake. A big wave picked Bob up, turned him over, and he was pummeled in to the sand landing his shoulder. He said he knew immediately that he was really hurt. After struggling to crawl away from the continued waves in excruciating pain, it was clear he was more than just bruised.

Feeling a bit better post Xrays and with a bit of pain medication. The medical centers on Saint Martin are very modern. Bob was efficiently evaluated, diagnosed with a broken collar bone and treated at a nearby hospital and followed up the next day with an orthopedic surgeon (no surgery needed, just several weeks of no right arm). Bob was still blowing sand out of his nose two days later.

We revisited the site of the accident the following evening when the water was much calmer and enjoyed a glass of wine from the bar deck. We stayed out of the water.
I have also been struggling with a foot injury for weeks. (We are sounding like a couple of old people talking about our aches and pains these days.) Thank you to our brilliant friend, fellow sailor and Physical Therapist, John Murphy of Core Physical Therapy who kindly confirmed the diagnosis (plantar fasciitis) and gave us instruction on how to treat.

Pictured here is split prototype #1 using a knee pad, sail tie and belt which was soon upgraded with a thick velcro strap from our Dan Buoy to attach at the knee per feedback from John. A few days later, when at a pharmacy to fill Bob's pain medication prescription, I was able to purchase a proper night splint.The foot is doing better now, but still mending.

Cruising Friends

We have greatly enjoyed meeting the Wallace Family from Fairfield, Connecticut initially in Bermuda back in early November, then in Antigua where we enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving at Pillars, and now in Saint Martin. We hope to meet up with them again in the Bahamas around April.

The Wallace family is on a 10 month sailing trip aboard their lovely 49 foot Bavaria, Celeris. Pictured are mom Cindy with kids Jack and Emery. Dad Geof is busy working on a boat project.

Preparing to Depart - Bonjour French Islands

We tucked in to a marina earlier in the week to escape some vigorous winds out in the anchorage but extended our stay a couple of nights after Bob's accident. Although Simpson Bay Marina was great, I was very happy to be moving to Simpson Bay anchorage for a few days for Bob to continue his recuperation.  

Bob piloting Argon through Simpson Bay Bridge. We anchored outside the lagoon in Simpson Bay for our remaining days in Saint Martin. Bob now has to be the brains and Linda the brawn for a while.

Some final boat chores were tackled as we prepare to depart for our next destination. We will aim for the petite, steeply mountainous, less traveled island of Saba just 30nm southwest before turning northward on a run to the British Virgin Islands later in the week.

Cleaning and waxing the hull from the dingy. The salt really bakes on in this Caribbean sun so I have had to use a light compounding cleaner wax combination with lots of elbow grease. But at least I can jump in the water and cool off when needed.
After spending almost a week (and too much money) in the lovely Simpson Bay Marina due to both high winds and then Bob's broken shoulder, we moved out to Simpson Bay where we can again enjoy swimming, paddle boarding (well, I can; Bob can't) and sunsets.


01 January 2017

Montserrat: Sailing, Volcano and Music

"Read the cruising guide and decide if you want to go to Montserrat or not" she said.  So I did, and it sounded interesting enough.  So our next destination after English Harbour, Antigua would be to the Southwest instead of due west to Nevis/St Kitts.

Bob Damiano

The reliable easterly Trade Winds made sailing to either Montserrat or Nevis/St Kitts very doable. The nearly equally reliable "Christmas Winds" made either of these sails a bit challenging as well.  During this time of year, the Trades are blowing more like 18-28kts instead of 15-18kts.  Doesn't sound like much of a difference but that whole 1/2mv2 thing makes it a big difference! For a background on the Christmas Winds phenomenon, here is a great article written by our very own favorite weather router Ken McKinley.

In the Eastern Caribbean, there is nothing to the east to prevent seas from building up, and with the trades above normal for many days, things can get a bit fun out there.  Your simple "island hopping" puts you effectively in offshore conditions as soon as you leave a harbor.

Picking Our Day

As much as we loved Antigua and English Harbour in particular, we were itching to continue exploring.  The forecasts showed a slight decrease in winds and seas on Wednesday December 28 - very slight.  The passage would be about 35 nautical miles and would be nearly all in totally exposed water. We both popped a Stugeron that morning to lessen the chance of our stomachs rebelling.  We got a later start than we wanted because of the procedures at Customs and Immigration including putting me back on the crew manifest since I flew to the states and back the previous week.

Sunset over Montserrat viewed from English Harbor Antigua about 30 nautical miles away.

As predicted, conditions were a bit challenging. We were sailing almost dead downwind but the seas were hitting us at a shallow angle from behind.  Mostly 2 meter swells with an occasional group of a few 3 or 3.5m waves. Argon feels like a very tiny boat in these conditions!  It was a pretty rolly ride and we had to be hyper vigilant to avoid an accidental jibe.  We opted not to rig the preventor on this trip.  We started out on a port tack with a reefed main and only the 90% jib and that's what we still had going when we arrived in Little Bay, Montserrat 4 hrs 50 minutes later.

PFD and tether conditions on this trip.

Arriving at Little Bay

As soon as you round the northern tip of Montserrat, you are in sight of Little Bay - the main anchorage and entry point.  Well - it's the main one now but before the devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995-1997, Plymouth to the south was the main port of entry and indeed the capitol city. Now it is an abandoned disaster area in a strictly enforced exclusion zone (from land and sea). Much more on all this later.

From the sea, Montserrat is spectacular with huge mountains and sheer cliffs and lush jungle. You can see the highest mountain to the south and see the gasses still escaping from the Soufriere Hills Volcano.

Montserrat about 5 miles away

Little Bay has a reputation in the cruising guide and on Active Captain for being a bit rolly.  After what we went though in Dominica, our idea of rolly is very different with higher thresholds of tolerable conditions. In here, there are some small swells that come in from the northwest. Since you are usually facing east in the anchorage, you do get rolled a bit but it was well within our comfort range.

Argon in Little Bay as seen from the beach bars. The rocky island of Redonda is in the background about 12 miles away.

Argon anchored in Little Bay taken from a distant hill during our tour

"Argon, Argon, Come in Please" came over the radio about as soon as we dropped anchor.  Wow - is customs watching AIS and contacting us already?  No - it was none other than Joe Phillip (regarded very highly in the Doyle Cruising Guides) offering to give us an island tour.  This guy is very enterprising.  He monitors AIS, Air and Sea communications and basically knows when anyone is coming to the island. He is very quick to beat his competition at contacting you and offering his services.

We got to land (there is no dinghy dock per-se, just a small platform along the commercial dock/ramp). We got finished with Customs fairly quickly, painlessly, and inexpensively then met Joe outside of one of the beach bars where we planned our tour for the next day.

Overnight, a couple of small tankers approached and anchored out in deeper water awaiting daylight. Early the next morning, one them (a container ship) approached the dock/ramp and attempted to offload. The ship and its ramp were bouncing off of the concrete dock in the swells and they ultimately gave up and returned to the deeper water anchorage.  Later, they came back in and for a second successful attempt at offloading. This harbor could really use a breakwater and apparently one is in the plans.

Containers being offloaded in Little Bay

About Joe Phillip / Avalon Tours
Joe is a lifelong resident of the island.  When the eruptions started and they evacuated his town, they told everyone it would be for a weekend and put them in "temporary" housing in a school. Well, that temporary situation turned into weeks, months and years and the evacuated areas are still uninhabited. Joe's old town is about to "celebrate" the 20th Anniversary of the evacuations and have cleaned up a few buildings and fields in the old neighborhood for a gathering in early 2017.  Joe had the amazing foresight to take and collect lots of photos and videos.  Photos of mundane things like street corners, the high school, a church, a golf course - stuff that no one would normally waste film on. But he knew that these would become anything but mundane and instead would become amazing/unbelievable "before" pictures of the devastation to come.

Joe showing us one of his hundreds (and hundreds) of photos of scenes of the island before the devastation. This photo is of the spot where the vehicle is stopped now.

What sets Joe apart from his competition is that he brings these photos and videos along on the tour on a very large screen iPad.  He is constantly stopping and pulling up photos of your location to give you the contrast of then vs. now.  Some of this reminds me of photos of Centralia, Pennsylvania in the states (the town that was abandoned after a coal fire started under it) but here, it's on a mega (seriously, mega) scale.  The before pictures show streets and sidewalks, with curbs, houses, street lights and gardens. What you see out the windshield is a jungle with a barely visible collapsing roof here and there.

In case Joe doesn't contact you first, he can be reached on phone and WhatsApp at 1-664-492-1565 or by email at joephillip@live.com.

There is a ton of information and photography / video about the Montserrat Volcano online.  I'm probably not adding anything significant other than the impression it had on us to see it first-hand.

Special Permission - Exclusion Zone

When we were clearing out of customs in Antigua someone overheard that we were going to Montserrat and said "you have to go to in to Plymouth!".  I asked if he took a tour and he said "no, we just went.  It's totally illegal but you have to do it".  

This is very bad advice!  We asked Joe and there is a legit way to see Plymouth but it requires some red tape and a bit more money. They take this exclusion zone thing very seriously, so don't "just go". Do it right.  Essentially, Joe has to get permission from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) and a police escort. The latter costs an additional $150EC.  The next day, permission was granted (based on the threat level) and we were to meet the police at the gate of the exclusion zone at 10AM.

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) - a playground for geologists. Soufriere Hills Volcano is one of the most actively monitored volcanoes in the world.

Chopper at the MVO; Soufriere Hills Volcano is in the background

Panoramic photo with labels at the MVO
Soufriere Hill Volcano in the distance as viewed from the MVO

Zoomed in a bit on the volcano

The no-go zone. They won't have a sense of humor if you are in here without permission

While in the exclusion zone, you are not to venture very far from the vehicle and the vehicle engine must be kept running at all times.  The police van is never too far away either. The tour guide is also given a two way radio which keeps him in contact with the MVO at all times. Joe had to report our position every 15 minutes or so.  Like I said, they are serious about this stuff.  Joe pointed out some "escape roads" that have been cleared in case something happens.


The former capitol city of Montserrat was totally destroyed in the eruptions that started in 1995-1997.  It is buried under meters of mud, ash and volcanic flows from all the subsequent eruptions (as recent as 2010).  Any single story building is completely underground. Only the three and four story buildings rise above this and give a hint of their former structure. You see lots of rooftops at ground level.

Me and Joe walking along a former market towards a former Hotel (round building on the left)

This was a busy downtown street now buried under 5-10 meters of ash and mud

More scenes of a former vibrant, busy downtown with the volcano in the background

Linda in front of the 3rd and 4th story of this building

second story
Plymouth in the debris field of Soufriere in the background

Overlooking what was once the flourishing capital city of Plymouth; the volcano is in the background still spewing sulfur plumes

The Rest of the Tour

We had to do Plymouth first because of our arranged time with the police escort.  After this, Joe did his more "standard" tour with us.  As it turns out, you can get great views of the Plymouth Ruins without actually going into the exclusion zone, but I'd still recommend that you do if you come all this way!

Now. The pyroclastic lava flows consist of huge amounts of ash and mud. The mud and ash form a new rich soil bed for vegetation to flourish. There are several buildings partially covered in ash and completely covered now in brush and trees.

Joe took us all over the island making numerous stops and showing us how things were before on his iPad (I told him I really hope he has good backups of these photos).

High school, second story. The ash/mud road is more than 6 feet above the original road.
The MVO from below
Abandoned Condos

Musical Connection

As a special treat for me, there also happens to be the remains of a very illustrious recording studio here.  Associated Independent Recording (AIR) Montserrat was built by Sir George Martin (the fifth Beattle of course) to be a sister facility to his AIR in the UK but in an exotic location.  The Police recorded Synchronicity here. Jimmy Buffet (no Jimmy Buffet jokes) recorded Volcano here.  The Stones, Elton John, Pink Floyd, and many many other big names have been through this place.

Today, AIR Montserrat is in ruins and is abandoned. It was not the volcano that did it in, but a combination of Hurricane Hugo and a changing Music Business that killed it after ten active years creating great music in the 1980's.

Here is the late Sir George himself talking about AIR and Montserrat as he walks through the ruins.

The studio is closed to the public, but it's location is well known if not a bit out of the way.  It is even called out on the panoramic photo at the MVO.

Joe drove us through the gate up to the property and waited outside as I walked the hallowed grounds. The complex is a large house with an incredible mountain view and a swimming pool with a studio building next to it.
At the entrance of the house

The pool. I told Linda that Sting probably swam naked in here.

Me walking into the studio

The control room with the glass looking into the live room behind me

The live room. Note the beautiful wooden diffusion in the ceiling and the stone wall sections. The light colored wall on in the background is also a stone diffusion wall.

Linda in the control room

The trashed doghouses where the main studio monitors once were

An iso room. The floors in here were very squishy so I didn't walk through it.

Me in the live room.  Why didn't I think to at least record a hand clap impulse on my phone?

The live room looking back towards the control room

Power breakers

Looking out of the studio back toward the pool and house

The parties that must have taken place here!

Out at the main gate

AIR Montserrat as seen from the MVO (and zoomed in)

In case it's not clear: We think Montserrat is a must-visit place for anyone - sailor or landlubber. If you ever get confident in humankind's ability to build anything - anywhere it wants, just come here for a day. You very quickly realize who is boss between earth and humans. If you are not a sailor, Montserrat has a perfectly good airport! You can also do a ferry here from Antigua (although at the time, googling for information on this was not very successful).

Our few days on Montserrat will be some of the most unforgettable ones of this whole voyage.

It also must be said that although most people focus on the volcano and destruction to the south, the north of this island is very safe, vibrant and beautiful. Many people apparently believe that Montserrat is totally abandoned but in fact, there is still a population of around 5,000.  The government offices have all been re-established in the north as well as schools, hospitals, banks and a surprisingly robust infrastructure overall.