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.

Pickles for Breakfast

To clear out of St John’s, I hitchhiked from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay. It’s only about half an hour by road, but the sail would have set me back by a whole day since Cruz Bay is to the west, and the prevailing winds are easterlies. St. John’s was the easiest hitchhiking I’ve ever done. The first car I got in reeked of epoxy resin, so I felt right at home. A local man named Chris was driving, and he took me most of the way to Cruz Bay. On the drive, he told me about his experience with Hurricane Irma. He and his wife decided not to evacuate the island, since the house they were living in had withstood several previous ‘canes. He said what they didn’t realize was that Irma would funnel right up between St. John’s and Jost VanDyke in the BVIs. Apparently hurricanes don’t pay attention to international borders.

Top of St. John’s

The top wind speed recorded was 300 miles an hour. Chris and his wife were lying in bed when their porch was blown 30 feet up into the air and then sent soaring off down the mountain. Throughout the night, the rest of their house slowly started blowing away. They heard the kitchen get torn off and flung into the sky. Then the roof blew off. The two lay in bed with the rain pouring on their faces, watching bits of their house circle in the air above them. Finally, they decided they should leave the house. Chris stood up, and a metal wall slammed into him, knocking him back onto the bed. He and his wife picked their way through the wreckage of the road to try to make it to the fire house in Coral Bay. “Everything over 12 feet was gone, man. The wind didn’t care how big around it was. It was just gone. Every telephone pole was knocked over. There were wires everywhere. It took us four hours to go only a few miles.” When Chris dropped me off, my head was reeling with his descriptions. It was hard to believe that the sleepy little island had been through so much trauma.

The dinghy tie-up in Coral Bay

Once I got to Cruz Bay, clearing out was straightforward. The customs officers were surprised that I was sailing by myself, and we had the typical conversation where they said I was brave, and I said it was probably due to a shortage of brain cells. I took advantage of being in a larger town to go shopping at a ‘real’ grocery store. The prices of food on St. John make me a little weak at the knees. The locals say that if you want to do a big provisioning that you should take the ferry to St. Thomas, but I was just looking for a few freshies.

Exploring Marigot by foot

Even with a loaded shopping bag, hitching back was equally easy, and I was soon back on my boat and prepping to leave the following morning. I’ve been dreading the passage from St. John’s to St. Martin for two weeks. It’s due east, right against the trades. The wind had been blowing 15-20 for the past week with no signs of taming. I came up with a multitude of excuses to stay in Coral Bay. I told myself that the less I wanted to leave, the more it meant I had to go. With that rousing pep talk, I upped anchor and took off.

Traveler after I took the load off but before I repaired it

 

Half an hour after leaving, I tacked for the first time and noticed that the entire starboard side of my traveler was coming off. There was a good three-inch gap between it and the cabintop. Ah! Here was my excuse! Ironically, I didn’t want to stop now that I’d started, but if I sailed with the traveler like that, I’d destroy it. I dropped hook in an outer bay and did a quick fix on the traveler. The two outboard screws had stripped out of the cabin top and were free-turning. I gobbed some 4000 caulk on everything and tightened it down. Not beautiful, but it would get me to the next port. Throughout the passage, I kept the main carefully centerlined on the traveler so that it woldn’t pull unevenly on either side.

View from the fort in St. Martin

As soon as I upped anchor for the second time and rounded the headland, the full force of the weather hit me. It was snotty. Gecko was plunging into the waves, and the spray soaked me every time we dived into a fresh one. I have yet to get seasick on my boat, but the motion had me feeling a bit queasy. Again, the thought of turning back crossed my mind, but I pushed it away. This passage was going to suck, but it was short and it would be over soon. Tired of getting sprayed by every wave, I went below to lay down. That whole night, heat lightning flicked across the sky above me. At first, I turned off my battery breakers and sailed totally blacked out. Eventually, I decided that the more immediate danger was of getting hit by another boat, so I turned everything back on.

Surveying Marigot town, St. Martin

It was so rough, I was unable to do much. The first day out, I ate most of a jar of pickles for dinner. It was hot and stuffy in my cabin with all the hatches closed. I wet a pareo and laid it over my bare skin so that the evaporation would cool me off. Somehow, I slept.

The next morning was still rough, so I ate the rest of the pickles for breakfast while I checked my course. I was going to get in some time around sunset that evening. That thought cheered me up, and I went into the cockpit to tweak the sails. I was still getting soaked by every wave, and I soon became encrusted in salt. I would wash this off with buckets of saltwater. Sounds weird, but it works.

Beautiful sunset in Marigot Bay

Finally, just as the sun was getting ready to disappear, I arrived in Marigot Bay, St. Martin. It’s a long approach, and I was urging Gecko forward as though she was a race-horse. The bay is packed with boats, and I didn’t want to try to find a spot to anchor among them in the dark. The wind was strong, and I was zooming in under full sail at 6.5 knots. At the last minute, I rounded up and dropped everything, then motored to the edge of the anchorage where I dropped the hook. I had just finished stowing everything when the light disappeared.

The next morning, I rowed ashore to go clear in. There were some local islanders hanging out by the dock, and one of them came up to me as I was stepping onto the pier. “Man, I thought you was a dude out there rowing!”, he said. This is the second time I’ve been mistaken for a dude while doing something on my boat. I think it’s pretty funny because I don’t exactly have a boyish figure. That day, I was wearing short shorts and had my hair in two braids. People just see what they are expecting, I guess. Since we were already chatting, I asked my new friend where Island Water World is. This is a local marine hardware store that will also clear you in somehow. “I’ll take you there, man”, I was told. We had a pleasant walk. I leaned his name was Rodrigo and that he was from Anguilla. His girlfriend lives in St. Martin, so he comes over on his boat to visit her. Rodrigo dropped me off at Island Water World and waved goodbye.

After clearing in, I wandered around town. St. Martin is French-owned, and their food is amazing. I’ve been eating so much cheese and bread and good cheap wine that I’m worried about the freeboard on my dinghy. I’ve found everyone I meet to be extremely friendly- both the local islanders and the French. I had a religious moment at the giant grocery store- the SuperU. I hadn’t been in a grocery store this nice since leaving the Statees over a month ago. The prices were reasonable, and the produce so beautiful it made me want to curl up with it on a blanket and watch the sun set. I’m planning on staying here until the end of the week, and then my next stop is going to be Antigua! The adventure never dies.

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