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

Paradise, Loose Pants, and Party Crashing

The secretary pointed at a corridor to her right. “First door on your left is customs”, she said. I had just arrived in to St. John’s Antigua and was preparing to clear in to the country. I thanked her and made my way to a door that was slightly ajar. Through the crack in the door, I saw a woman in a blue uniform with her head on a desk, snoring lightly. I knocked, then took a step back to give her time to compose herself. After a “come in” wafted through the crack, I pushed the door open and entered. The woman, who introduced herself as Sage, was sitting up and blinking. She motioned me to sit in front of her desk, and pushed over a stack of forms. As I started filling them out, I saw Sage stand up to fetch something from the other side of the room. Amusingly, she had unbuttoned and unbelted her tight pants while she was sleeping. Completely unfazed, Sage held them together with one hand while she walked across the room to grab a stamp. Not bothering to rebutton, she returned to her chair. Her composure was so impressive that I was convinced this was a normal routine for her.
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Antigua customs officials turned out to be just as friendly as all the other Carribbean countries I’d visited. Sage was a motherly woman, concerned about my well-being and sanity for sailing alone. She gave me her number and said she wanted to put me up for the night in her house. She couldn’t envision that I was getting good rest on the Geck. I thanked her profusely but explained that my boat was my home, and I didn’t want to leave her for the night. I also wasn’t happy with the place I’d anchored and was planning on leaving once I was cleared in. We bid farewell, and I returned to Gecko.
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The next three nights I spend in Five Islands Bay, halfway down the western side of Antigua. Five islands is a magical location. It’s a huge bay, surrounded by green hills. Most of the land around the bay is national park, so there were almost no houses in sight. Right in the middle of the bay is an island called Maiden Island. I anchored in the lee of Maiden, and didn’t see another person come within a mile of my boat for the next three days. The water was clear and beautiful, the air sweet, and the nights full of bright stars. I set up the sailing rig on my dinghy and explored the shallow head of the bay. It was lined with deserted white sand beaches and tangly luscious undergrowth. I had finally found paradise.
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I ran out of freshies on day four. Since I don’t have refrigeration, it’s hard to keep fresh vegetables for very long, and I hadn’t provisioned for more than a few days anyway. I also needed to top up my water tanks and make a hardware store run. It was time for civilization.
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Jolly Harbor is just around the corner, and the perfect place to resupply. I arrived early in the morning and completed my errands by the afternoon. Like a hopeless addict, I upped anchor and returned to Five Islands for the night, telling myself that I had to leave for good the next morning. My plan was to sail to Falmouth, which is located on the southern side of Antigua. However, I hadn’t factored in the strong headwinds, and after a full day of sailing, and two hours spent trying to get around the southwestern corner of the island, I gave up and headed in to Carlisle Bay.
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Carlisle is a tiny bay with a little beach resort and not much else. I wasn’t crazy about the location, but it would be a fine place to stop for the night. I had just finished putting away my sails for the evening when two kayaks approached my boat. They were paddled by three jolly British vacationers. We chatted and I invited them onto my boat It turns out that they were three of one hundred and fifty pharmaceutical reps who were on a work retreat. They informed me that this was their last night and they were having a big party at the resort to celebrate. “It’s an open bar. You should sneak in”. I didn’t need to be told twice.
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That night, as the sun set, I heard the beginnings of the party. There was a live band, and the colorful lights twinkled all the way out to my boat. I heard what sounded like speeches and clapping. When the chatter was replaced by music, I decided to make my move. Easing into my dinghy, I rowed silently towards the beach and tied up on a small dock at the far right. Once my feet touched the sand, I straightened up confidently, and strode down the beach. The key to sneaking is looking like you belong. As the dance floor came into view, I paused and scanned for the friends I’d met earlier. Perhaps they weren’t there. Should I just go back to my boat? Suddenly a flamingo shirt caught my eye and I spied three familiar faces by the bar. My friends loudly introduced me around as the American on the boat, and quickly realized that my initial caution was unnecessary. Everyone was friendly, and nobody seemed to care that I was crashing their party. They were a lively bunch, and the rum flowed freely. Literally. Their company was going to need a crane to pick up the tab we must have left behind. We danced and chatted until the wee hours of the morning when we all parted ways. I waved to my friends as they retired to their hotel rooms. As I got back into my dinghy and rowed home, I decided Carlisle Bay wasn’t so bad afterall.
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Croissants and Wine

The anchorage in St. Martin smelled like cigarettes and cologne. I arrived with the sunset, running into the anchorage at 6 knots on a stiff breeze. I wanted to drop the hook before the sun set, and right as I finished coiling the last line, darkness closed in. I was anchored in Marigot Bay, which is one of the main ports of entry into the St. Martin.

Marigot Bay

The next morning, Q-flag fluttering from the spreaders, I rowed into the dock to go clear in. Clearing in could be accomplished somewhere called Island Waterworld. This sounded hilariously like knock-off of Disneyworld, and I pictured my passport being stamped by a weird French Snow White. Disappointingly, Island Waterworld turned out to be a marine hardware store. There was a computer in the back where mariners were to put in their boat and passport information. When the little printer above the computer spit out the completed form, the hardware store clerk stamped and initialed it. I was cleared in!

The long row in to shore

Marigot Bay is a large, crowded anchorage. I dropped hook at the very outer edge of the field of boats. This meant that I had over a half-mile row to get in to shore, but it was worth it for the breeze and the privacy. A huge sense of relief settled upon me on arrival. I had finally finished the worst of the easting, and I was getting further away from the more developed North Caribbean. The distinct French flavor of St. Martin was exciting. The cheese and pastries were amazing, the wine was cheap and delicious.

View from the fort

I made friends with a young woman who had boat-hitchiked across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands. She was currently working on a big yacht to save money so that she could keep sailing around the Caribbean. Paula showed me around Marigot and introduced me to her giant friend group. Because of this, I stayed in St. Martin almost a week longer than I had originally anticipated. The pressing need to push quickly through the islands was fading. I was finally relaxing into the salty stupor of an untethered sailor.

Paula and the captain of her yacht

Finally, there was no putting off departure any longer. I bid farewell to my friends and set sail for Antigua. The sail took two days and a night and was the best passage I’ve had to date. A soft breeze filled my headsail, and the gentle waves swelled demurely under Gecko. There was no headlong crashing into breakers, no rail in the water. Instead, the shy stars poked their heads out on a cool night breeze as the smooth black water slipped under my keel.

While underway, I figured out how to rig up a sunshade using my old (and super cool) Whinnie the Pooh blanket. Lying in the shade in the cockpit, listening to Harry Potter on audio book, and watching the sun twinkling on the waves, I melted into a happy puddle of bliss. Perhaps this was the mass appeal of sailing, I mused. It certainly was relaxing.

The afternoon slunk in on day two, just as I saw Antigua raise her shoulders out of the sea. Realizing I wasn’t going to make it in before the customs office closed, I changed course slightly. Next to the capitol city of St. John’s lies a small anchorage. Spending the night in the busy commercial port held no appeal. Instead, Geck nosed her way into Deep Water Bay and I dropped the hook for the night. I’d deal with civilization tomorrow.

 

Life’s a Dance

 

 

I wanted my first step on land to be a wobbly lurch, as though I needed to prove to myself that I was ‘really a sailor’. Instead, I skipped nimbly off my dinghy, and made a disappointingly graceful entrance back into life on solid land. This didn’t last long. Since I hadn’t looked up information on clearing in and out of Puerto Rico from the mainland US, I walked to the customs office to let them know I’d arrived. Customs in Culebra is located in a little office in the tiny airport, about a fifteen minute walk out of town. A blast of cold air met my face as I walked in, and I found myself sitting across from a middle-aged woman with a cheery smile.

“Where did you come from?” I told her I’d sailed directly down from North Carolina. “So why are you here?” I thought this was an odd question, but started talking about how beautiful I’d heard Culebra was. Was it suspicious that I’d come to this tiny island? But no, the question was directed at my presence in the customs office. Since I was coming from the mainland, I didn’t actually have to clear in. Ah. Well, live and learn, I suppose. Instead of being mad that I’d wasted her time, the woman behind the counter began to tell me all the things I should see and do while I was in the area. She wrote me a list of grocery stores, and told me that since it was Easter weekend, there would be parties for the next few days, and lots of live music.
“It’s Easter?”
“Yes, that’s why there are so many people here. Our population increases five times this weekend. Normally this is a peaceful oasis.”
I wasn’t sure if I was glad or disappointed that I’d ended up in Culebra during a non-oasis weekend. This was a holiday weekend second only to New Years. I decided to be glad, since I didn’t really have a choice anyway.

Colorful murals in Culebra

The first night, I told myself the party wasn’t going anywhere, and went to bed at eight. I got a glorious ten hours of sleep, and woke up feeling more functionally human than I had in days. I had met a lovely South African charter boat captain the day I got in, and that morning he took me and another boat in to do laundry. My whole vberth was completely salt-water soaked, and all my winter blankets had been festering in their own stew for over a week. I’ve never been so excited to do laundry in my life.

Laundry Day!

That night, I ventured out for my first brush with civilization in two weeks. I started at the Dinghy Dock Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like. There was a live Bomba band playing, and people were dancing to the music: three musicians and five drums, their hands flying and their eyes gleaming. I bought a drink and decided to join the dancers. Having never danced to music like that before, I watched the dancers for a while, to mimic their movement. Then I joined the pack, trying to blend in, until one of the girls bumped into me. She apologized in Spanish and I responded in English.
“You’re a gringa!?”, she said. “You dance like you’re from Puerto Rico!” She and her friends adopted my for the night, and told me that Bomba, even though originating in Africa, is the traditional dance and music style of Puerto Rico. They instructed me on different dance steps, and insisted on paying for my drinks. After they moved on to the next bar, I lingered behind and chatted with the band after they wrapped up their set. Two of the men in the band were born and raised on Culebra, and to me they seemed to be the very spirit of the island. They spoke almost no English, and I speak almost no Spanish, but we sang songs back and forth to each other, and danced around in parodied intensity. The third band member had spend a fair amount of time in the States, and he acted as translator. We went out on the town, and it seemed that everyone knew those three. It was the best introduction I could have asked for to the island. I didn’t get back to my boat until almost five the next morning, and I sank into bed exhausted but radiant.

A local reminder from the hurricane

Back in the States, I remember hearing about how hard Puerto Rico was hit by the last hurricane, but it wasn’t until I started talking to locals that I realized the lasting extent of the damage. Although the hurricane hit in September of 2017, Culebra had just gotten power back from the mainland two months before I arrived. That meant that the whole island had been running on generators for well over a year! Almost all the coral in the surrounding waters is dead, because their sewage treatment plant wasn’t fully functional under reduced power. The ensuing pollution killed almost all the coral around the island. People are working to get a grant to try to bring the local coral population back to life, but in the meantime it’s a sad reminder of a situation that could have been avoided with more help from the mainland.

I dove on Geck to check her underbelly. Everything looked great, but the bottom paint is already starting to chip off

Despite the lack of funds for cleaning up and restoring their island, the locals and visitors who call Culebra home have done an amazing job of using what resources they have to keep their island beautiful. Their hearts all lie with their island, and I could tell that everyone gave more than just their time to bring their land back to life.

Fueling up!

After five days in Culebra, I sailed over to a gorgeous bay in St. John’s. Ditliff Bay is part of the larger Rendezvous Bay, and besides a few houses it’s very private. It’s also the last anchorage before the national park, where you have to pay to stay on a mooring. I noticed that one or two boats would come to anchor for the day, but I was the only one who stayed past late afternoon. This meant I had sunset and sunrise to myself. The water was amazingly clear, and the snorkeling was a five-minute swim from my boat. After the busy Culebra harbor, it was amazing to have a tranquil little bay all to myself.

Gorgeous sunset in Rendezvous Bay

In Coral Bay on St. John’s, I met an amazing community of local boaties; everyone here is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I went sailing with some new friends, and we anchored by a little floating taco restaurant where you call in your order and they deliver your food to you by Zodiac. Having friends to talk with while sailing is such a nice change for me. I laughed at myself as we sailed out of the bay. I’d been so worried while I was coming in about hitting reefs around the edges of the channel, but we sailed right up to either side without a problem. Local knowledge is better than any chart. As we sailed back into the bay, I realized that I’d finally found my community of sailors. And I’m only just getting started!

Sailing around Coral Bay with new friends

PS- check out my YouTube channel for more of my daily life! Videos are slightly behind the blog, but that just makes it more exciting!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnJ3QXRI-whcqJBrW-z_htw