Is This the Right Bus? How About Now?

Guadeloupe is a large butterfly-shaped island full of french people, and cheese. Just south of the mainland lie Les Saintes. They are a series of small, beautiful islands only accessible by boat. One of the islands, Terre de Haut, allows you to clear in, and I made my way there first. There was some sort of extended lunch break going on when I arrived at the office, so I sat down on a bench outside with my book to wait. Presently, a ferrety man slouched up to me and sat down on the other end of the bench. He introduced himself in french, and I happily indicated that I couldn’t understand him. Unfortunately, he spoke english as well. He began the conversation by kindly suggesting that I shouldn’t get any more tattoos because they’re not ladylike. I made a ladylike grunt, and told him that I actually had forgotten, but I didn’t speak English either. The Ferret ignored this comment and asked if I needed a guide for the island. Luckily at that moment the building re-opened, and I curtseyed my way out.

Harbor in Terre de Haut

With the exception of my gentleman friend, I found Les Saintes to be charming and handsome. There were more cats than people (always a good sign), and I didn’t have to walk more than five minutes from any point on the island to arrive at an ice cream parlor. After a few happy days, I made my way to the big island of Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe has an excellent bus system. It does not, however, have any sort of online schedule or list of bus routes. The tourist office ladies confirmed that there’s no printed schedule either, but that the busses will stop anywhere for you as long as you flag them down. Further south in the Caribbean, this system works really well. Instead of big busses, there are minivans with the names of their major destinations on a card in the front window. In Guadeloupe, each large city-bus had a very informative number and nothing else.

House in Les Saintes

I memorized the name of the town I was aiming for and the phrase: “are you go here?” Stationing myself by an official-looking palm tree, I waited for my first victim. After several minutes, an orange bus trundled down the road and I flagged it down. Stepping aboard, I asked the driver my question. He couldn’t understand the name of the town I was trying to pronounce, so I whipped out my phone and pointed to the map. The driver pulled a pair of reading glasses from his shirt pocket and squinted at the tiny screen.

“No”

Chicken Alley

He opened the doors, and I stepped back out. Another bus passed, and I played the same charade. Then, a third. Just when I was about to give up, I found my magical orange chariot: 22B. I crossed my fingers that I had pronounced the name of the town correctly, and sat back to see where I would end up. Miraculously, I arrived where I had intended. At the end of the day, there was a brief moment of panic when I forgot which bus line to ride home. But I was good at bus roulette at that point. I only went through two busse before I found the right one. Progress. That’s all I ask for.

Although Guadeloupe is beautiful and friendly, I started to feel lonely after a week. The language barrier made it almost impossible to make friends, and I was developing an unhealthy dependence on baguettes. It was time to clear out and move on. The clearance process in the French islands is the most relaxed of any other country I’ve been to. Usually there’s a computer at the back of the local marine hardware store. You filll out an online form, and bring it to the front desk. The hardware cashier stamps it, and sometimes even checks your passport. At Les Saintes I had cleared in at an internet cafe. Assuming the procedure would be the same in the town where I was clearing out, I didn’t bother smartening up. I had to take a bus into the next town, and was planning on spending the day hiking around. Since I only have three nice shirts, I try to save them for special occasions.

Storm Clouds over Guadeloupe

Checking the map, I saw that customs was located inside a town-sized marina. Paved paths snaked around ornamental trees and perfectly manicured grass. Everyone was wearing polo shirts and seemed to be in a hurry. I looked down at my flip flops, which I had recently repaired with 5200 caulk and seine twine. Thank god I’d fixed them! It would be so embarrassing if people noticed my shoes were falling apart.

At the end of an elegant path stood a round building called the Captainery. I paused to take a sip of water and wipe the sweat off my face before entering. There was a sign on the door in English and French that read: Formal Clothing Only. This was probably a mistranslation of the classic: no shirt, no shoes, no service. I pushed open the door and was dazzled by a shiny floor and giant counter. Oh good. If I stood close to the counter, no one would notice the glue line around the bottom of my flip flops. One of the coiffed secretaries pushed over a stack of papers, and pointed to a little desk across the room. I sat down. As I reached into my bag for a pen, I noticed that the floor was wet. I lifted my bag up, thinking I’d set it in a puddle. Ha! They call themselves fancy, but their floor leaks! A steady dripping now splashed from my bag into the puddle. I looked behind me and noticed a line of water from the counter to my chair. Then I looked in my bag and noticed the now empty water bottle. I’ve never filled out a form faster. Sloshing back over to the counter, I pushed my damp papers across to the secretary. My pack remained hidden under the mercifully imposing counter. I smiled my best smile, and tried to act like I wasn’t leaking water all over the spotless Captainery. The sweet sound of an official stamp filled my ears, and I scuttled out before anyone changed their mind. Once outside the door, I turned my bag upside down, and a little waterfall gently flowed out onto the perfectly manicured lawn.

My favorite anchorage in Guadeloupe

Optimist Family

“Wagwan?”

I turned my head to see a man walking out of the sailing school and down towards the dock where I was hefting a load of groceries back to my dinghy. My favorite place to tie up in Falmouth was the pier right next to the local sailing academy because it was sheltered from big boat traffic and out of the way. Antiguan dialect is strong and beautiful and I pieced more of it together every day. The man looked at me enquiringly. I repeated the word in my head a few times: wagwan… wagwan.. Oh! What’s going on!
“Not much”, I replied. “How are you?” Luckily I had guessed right and we started chatting about sailing and boats. He introduced himself as Rhone and told me that he was one of the instructors at the sailing school.

“I’m super jealous” I said, eyeing the zippy little lasers scooting around on the wind. “I so miss dinghy sailing.”
“Want to come out? I can take you tomorrow after work.”

I hastily agreed, and we made plans to meet at the dinghy dock the next afternoon. Thus started a great friendship between myself and about six or seven of the sailors associated with the academy. I hung out in the chase boat with them while they trained the little Optimist sailors in racing. They took me wakeboarding in the evenings. I hung around with the little boys and watched the fishermen casting nets for bait. The instructors let me sail the lasers and drive the case boat. It was like having a little island family.

An air of excitement hung around the sailing school, and after a few days I discovered why. The whole sailing dinghy crowd in Falmouth was getting ready for Opti Worlds, which they were hosting at the beginning of July. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Optis are tiny pram-shaped boats that are perfect for kids up to the age of fifteen. They’re great for beginner sailors because they can be capsized and righted easily, and bashed into each other without sustaining too much damage. What I didn’t know was that Optis are a world-class dinghy. The world competition this year includes sailors from more that fourty different countries, and takes place over a mile offshore. These must be some pretty gnarly kids, I thought.

Optimists Sailing
Photo from sailingdata.com

My new friends invited me to stay and volunteer to help run the races, but I had to keep moving. Hurricane season is approaching, and there are still a bunch of islands I want to work my way through. It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Falmouth and my sailing family, and headed back to sea.

 

The passage to Martinique took two days and two nights. I was skipping Guadeloupe and Dominica to head right for Martinique to do some boat repairs. I planned on looping back up to explore at least Dominica before I headed south again. Since the islands are so close together, I don’t really see a problem with doing them out of order.

The first night of the passage was squally and dark, and I was up and down constantly to drop my headsail for each burst of wind. Between squalls, the wind was a friendly 10-15 knots, and I had my big headsail up. The short bursts of wind that came with the squalls would have easily overpowered my large genoa, so I made a routine of running forward and dropping it before each gust hit. The squalls were usually accompanied by about 10 minutes of fierce downpour before the whole thing blew away and the night was mine again. Seeing squalls on a moonless night is tricky. By the time I felt the boat starting to significantly heel over, it was too late, so I had to be extra vigilant. It was imperative that I spot each squall before it hit me, but I was also trying to get some sleep. I woke up every 20 minutes to scan the horizon, and started noticing that where the squalls lay, the black night was slightly blacker than anywhere else. It was mostly overcast, so I couldn’t use lack of stars for a guide. Once a squall was spotted lurking upwind, the fun part began. I didn’t want to reduce sail too soon, or I’d be bobbing around uselessly- sometimes for up to half an hour. If I waited too long, I’d get a thorough soaking, and wrestling down the genoa would be about ten times harder. The key was to wait until the first tendrils of the squall wrapped their little fingers around the sails and tapped Gecko over a hair. Then I’d spring up and rush about, dropping the headsail, checking the course, and running below for cover.

This made for an aerobic night, and by morning I was exhausted. The sailing was beautiful all day, but with the night came more tricks of the wind. Right about midnight, I was rounding the north coast of Martinique when the wind completely died. I knew about the wind shadows to the west of the islands, and had accordingly kept to the east on my sail down. Unfortunately, my destination was halfway down the west coast of Martinique. I was only a few miles offshore, and totally exhausted. I secured the sails, and tried to catch some sleep while Gecko bobbed around in circles. However, I was too nervous to sleep for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Being so close to shore without knowing the currents had me worried that I’d get pushed up onto the rocks. When the sun rose, I fired up the old engine, and motored on.

Three miles out from Fort-de-France, a huge squall overtook me. For two hours, I was bombarded by whiteout rain, and swirly winds which made it almost impossible to make forward way. Finally, wet and cold, I dropped hook in the Fort-de-France anchorage. It was Ascension day, and the whole island was closed for the holiday. Since I couldn’t clear in, I made a cup of tea and laid down for a delicious nap.