At 4 a.m. we sailed north from delightful Bequia, choosing to pass St. Vincent on the windward Atlantic side to minimise the use of our engines.
Once around the point a delightful breeze scooted us along at 6-7 knots and later that afternoon blew us into the bay at Anse des Piton at the south end of St. Lucia.
We were enthralled by the dramatic vistas of the two towering, sharply conical rocks soaring upwards nearly 800m, after which the bay is named. These drop down to the beach, bringing with them harsh down drafts. The bottom was rocky, so with the help of a local boatman, we picked up one of the mooring buoys and as the gusts buffeted Moondust, I hoped that all the hardware underwater had been well maintained.
We were pleased to find ourselves next to Zig Zag, a Cape Town built catamaran, belonging to Francois and Rosemary du Plessis, a delightful couple who had been sailing in the Mediterranean and Caribbean for four years. We met them in Bequia and found that when kindred spirits meet there is never a shortage of animated, interesting conversation, often catalysed by an abundance of iced rum cocktails. With only a short hop the next day to Rodney Bay at the northern end of St Lucia, we had time to snorkel before catching an unexpected breeze. Although the fish life was disappointing, we saw some beautiful sponge coral.
Anchor holding in Rodney Bay was very poor and after several strenuous but unsuccessful efforts with goggles and flippers to lift and walk the anchor over the sea floor to small nearby patches of sand, I eventually marked a promising area further off with a small buoy. We motored over and finally were able to dig in for the night.
We hadn’t planned to spend much time in the eastern Caribbean because it is a popular cruising area which generally results in crowded anchorages and high prices. Both proved to be the case but two factors predestined our route north. Firstly we were surprised to learn that Karin would be able to enter the French Caribbean islands without a visa, meaning that we would be able to re-provision Moondust in Martinique, at prices subsidised by the French government. Secondly Karin’s daughter and her boyfriend were to visit us in December and flights to Antigua were the least expensive.
French islands: Martinique and Guadeloupe
We only spent one night in Rodney Bay and enjoyed an easy sail the next day to St. Anne in Martinique. The French islands are indeed genuine departments of France, as evidenced by the identical sounding chimes of the church bells, the produce in the supermarkets, the street ‘furniture’ and even to the font used on traffic signs, reminiscent of many wonderful cycle tours in the Alps. The immigration and customs procedure was conducted at a computer terminal provided by the proprietor of the local coffee shop, who relieved us of two Euros, stamped the form we had printed and voila we were done!
We spent several days shopping and ferrying successive dinghy loads of groceries to Moondust, as far as possible buying everything we would need for the next three or four months, having been warned that the further north one goes the more expensive things become. We also spoilt ourselves with French baguettes with cheese, pâtés and wine!
Pretty much tired out by the purchasing and packing process and needing to move north towards our rendezvous with the family, we set sail, again up the windward side of this island. We had spotted what looked like an idyllic bay, Baia du Tresor, near the north end of Martinique. This would provide a good starting point for the hop past Dominica to Guadeloupe and we set off early in the day, motoring around the southerly point until we caught the breeze.
In the French islands there were no mosquitoes and no ‘boat boys’, as they are known, plying us with their wares, but, there were plenty of fishing buoys, dropped in abundance in any water under one hundred metres deep. ‘Lobster traps’ the cruisers call them and they are a real curse, effectively meaning that one has to watch carefully to avoid them whenever the boat is moving. The buoys generally consist of a string of soft drink bottles, perhaps tied to a white float, which may make them a little more visible, but nevertheless eminently suitable to snag propellers.
We hadn’t gone far before Karin yelled ‘cut the engines!’ Instantly I put them both in neutral and then, peering over the starboard side I saw a sturdy green line, leading down taught from beneath Moondust, fading into the depths. Efforts to release this from deck failed, so I tethered to the boat and went over with snorkeling gear and my Leatherman. In the Atlantic chop it took a lot of oxygen and quite some time to haul, cut and unravel the three turns of line that had embedded its way between the sail drive housing and propeller. Finally relieved of our leash, we moved on, redoubling our watch. With the engines turning at 25 revolutions per second, I had been fractionally too late to prevent a snarl up, but fortunately quick enough to prevent damage.
Baia du Tresor was secluded, sheltered and beautiful and we went for an energetic hike around the craggy headland the next day, before arriving back aboard to the tantalising aroma of freshly baked bread. After a swim and lunch we planned our departure for later that afternoon as it was too far to sail past Dominica to Guadeloupe during daylight hours.
Martinique waters had one last surprise for us, however. We were clear of the bay and under sail when Moondust began labouring. In the fading light a careful look revealed that, despite our vigilance, we had managed to snag another fishing buoy, luckily whilst both engines were off. I headed the boat into the wind, fetched the long bamboo handled gaff and managed to cut away some of the floats. That done, I was surprised at the fierce tug of the fish trap on the other end of the line as it unwound from around the propeller and I had to let go of the gaff for fear of damaging our newly applied anti-foul bottom paint.
Shortly afterwards we passed the one hundred metre contour and began a peaceful night’s passage which brought us the next morning to Isle des Saintes, a quaint group of eight islands, the southern most of the Guadeloupe group. At Terre de Haut, where we had to clear in, all the best anchor spots were occupied by pre-laid mooring balls so we tied up and enjoyed three days exploring the island and its waters. We also had a happy reunion with Patrick, Sherrie and their kids on yacht Falkor.
With no prospects of a hurricane for the short remainder of the official season, we were comfortable to move further north and set off across the narrow strait between Iles de Saintes and Guadeloupe proper. There was just enough wind for full sail but we kept an eagle eye on the water and also the amount of sail carried by yachts ahead as we neared the southern tip of the island. We were watching for the notorious wind shear that we had heard of, which can peak quickly from very little to forty or fifty knots! Two dismasted catamarans we had seen earlier in our travels bore testament to this potential hazard.
Unaware that we were in for an eventful day, we sailed peacefully north in the lee of the island, blessed with a gentle breeze. After some time we noticed a large motor cruiser following us and found it strange that it wasn’t visible on our ship identification system. Gradually this rather intimidating vessel drew nearer until I finally went to the stern and gave it a wave. It then sped up, drew within hailing distance and a man came to the foredeck and greeted us, advising that theirs was a French Customs craft.
‘Where is your flag?’ was the first question, which had me apologising for not flying our flag of registry. Satisfied with my response he asked ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Isles des Saintes’ I replied. ‘And before that?’ Martinique.’ ‘And before?’ ‘St. Lucia’. ‘Before that?’ ‘St. Vincent.’ ‘Before that?’ ‘Grenada.’ ‘Before?’ ‘Trinidad,’ ‘Before?’ ‘Tobago.’ ‘Before?’ ‘Brazil.’ ‘Before?’ ‘St. Helena.’ Satisfied, as presumably he could see Cape Town as our port of registry on our sugar scoop, he next asked ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Antigua.’ ‘And after that?’ ‘Panama.’ ‘After that?’ ‘The Pacific Ocean.’ ‘After that?’ ‘The Indian Ocean and Africa.’ With a smile, a wave and wishes for a safe journey they departed, heading for the next yacht.
Losing our genoa
After passing in the lee of the southerly high ground of Guadeloupe, we neared the lower lying centre of the island and could see wind kicking up white caps. With full sail still up in about 17 knots I shouted to Karin ‘Let’s reef.’ As I was turning Moondust into the wind to prepare to reduce sail, we were astonished by a sound like a rifle shot, followed by the ear splitting flogging of canvas. A glance showed that about a metre of the trailing edge of the genoa had split from the bulk of the front of the sail which was now completely uncontrolled, flailing wildly. The smaller rear portion was equally anarchic as the sheet (rope) holding down the lower rear corner of the sail had snapped, causing the debacle, and the remains of this mess had wrapped themselves around the port shrouds (cables holding up the mast), shaking the mast alarmingly.
Ignoring that for the time being because the wind was rising, we quickly dropped the mainsail and then set to work, rolling up the front portion of the genoa in an effort to tame the chaos. Once that was semi-secured, we battled with the after edge of the sail. Luckily we had two more tethering lines on the rear corner of the sail and used these to partially quell the riot, but eventually powered up the motors, after carefully checking the propellers for tangled lines.
It took us over an hour to motor in to shore against wind and wave; all the while the noise of the shredded sail was quite nerve wracking. After battling to find a secure anchorage in the strong wind, we finally began to unravel the disorder which extended to near the top of the mast. Several nearby French cruisers were witness to our noisy and untidy arrival, torn sail flapping in the wind, and two of them offered their help.
I automatically declined the first offer, but whilst doing so, Karin saw two strong men approach in the next dinghy and, exhausted by the ordeal, exercised her veto and immediately accepted assistance, without which we probably would not have managed ourselves. Viva la difference between the sexes!
It takes an experience like this to really appreciate the absolute necessity of sails on a sailing boat. Aside from their inexhaustible power source, they generate far more power than our combined 80 h.p. engine output and without them one cannot contemplate crossing an ocean.
With order semi restored we pushed onto Deshais, a sheltered bay at the northern end of Guadeloupe, where we spent a peaceful night and were up early the next morning to start the day sail to Antigua. We hoisted a reduced mainsail to balance the steering and resigned ourselves to a day of motor sailing; our ability under sail alone being severely compromised without a head sail. We looked carefully for fish trap buoys as we couldn’t afford to lose an engine as well!