We did make it to Montserrat after another close-hauled day where we almost made it to the island under sail. We did not quite make it so ended up motoring for an hour or so that we could get to Customs before it closed at 4 pm. If you arrive late they will wait for you and hit you with a significant overtime fee. Montserrat received a lot of attention in the late 90s (a lot for a small island with 11 000 people) when its volcano Soufriere (many islands have a Mt Soufriere here including St Vincent and Guadeloupe) erupted. Most of the population was evacuated and by 2000 about 2/3 of the island was unliveable and is treated as an ‘exclusion zone’. This included the capital city which had just completed, but not yet opened, a fancy new hospital. Some people stayed and some returned and the current population is about 3000 living in the northern third of the island.
What was news to me was that Soufriere is constantly erupting. We could see this as we approached the island (Picture 1). There was a steady stream of volcanic ash blowing off to the west. The only reason that people can live there is that the trade winds are very predictable and rarely blow from the south. Southerly winds would blow ash across the entire island. When we were there I briefly smelled a very strong sulphurous odour in the air. As well as losing its capital and most of its last, the island lost its best harbour – a condition that really, really matters hereabouts. The new, main harbour is the worst we have been in with strong winds coming down from the heights to the east and swells curling around the northern point. The harbour is quite spectacular to look at with cliffs on two sides, but there serve to only reflect the waves back into the harbour. The result is a somewhat chaotic non-pattern of waves. If the swells have any north to them – for example from a storm that could be hundreds of miles away – the harbour cannot be used at all. Picture 2 shows Ainia at anchor with the volcanic ash blowing out from the shore behind. There is another anchorage three miles south of here, at the edge of the exclusion zone, but I cannot imagine what it would be like with the ash almost overhead.
You have to admire the fortitude of the people here who are trying to rebuild their home and its economy (we saw virtually no tourists) but you wonder if it is all in vain since there is a high likelihood of more major eruptions. Also, one assumes that the money for the reconstruction is coming from the UK to its colony, but how much will it cost and will the money prove sufficient – for example, a new capital city is being built but so far it is only roads and utilities.
The next day we headed to Guadeloupe by heading around the northern tip of Montserrat and to windward of the island. You are allowed to pass down the western, leeward side of the island but we talked to some people who got ash caught under the ash plume (with a rare west wind) and they said it was hard to breathe and the ash on their deck was very hard to clean off. Pictures 3 and 4 show the eastern side of the exclusion zone. It is hard to see the very top of the volcano because there are always clouds (water vapour and ash). As we passed we could see the remains of the pyroclastic flows from the volcano to the sea. These flows consist of rocks of various sizes, together with ash and gases, all at a high temperature, but not hot enough to be lava (melted rock). Most volcanoes (and volcano damage) come from pyroclastic flows and not lava, as in the famous volcanoes of Hawaii. These flows happened at Pompeii, Krakatoa, Mt St Helens and apparently even the Moon. As well as the older flows near the ocean we could see new ones actually happening higher up. Also as we passed, the largest we had seen occurred from a vent quite a bit below the top of the mountain.
Guadeloupe could not have been more different from Montserrat and even the other islands we have visited. The French islands (Martinique and St Martin as well) are actually part of France – not colonies or part of a French Commonwealth, but like Normandy or Provence just part of the country. They are much wealthier and seem better organized. And they are very French, with a large dose of the Caribbean thrown in. After the crappy bread we have been having I was really looking forward to a good baguette for breakfast. The first town had a boulangerie and I was already to make a 7 am run for bread in the morning when a young man pulled up in a dinghy to inform us that the bakery was no longer in operation but that he took orders for bread that he would deliver from a nearby town between 7 and 8 in the morning. He did not want the money upfront so it seemed like a very good deal. Sharp at 730 our baguette and croissants were there and for a very good price too – and the baguette was superb (the croissants only OK).
Our next stop in Guadeloupe was at two islands just south of the main island- Les Illes des Saintes. One of the islands was good for farming and the other was not. The result was that there were plantations on the former, which meant slaves and a population today that is almost totally Black. The other island relied on fishing and the fishermen were from Normandy primarily. The result today is that most of the population is White – or mixed with quite light skins.
We did some grocery shopping here and it was fun to see what was similar to North America and what was Caribbean and what was decidedly French. Groceries were not cheap but the selection was pretty good and quality good.
One neat feature of Grand Bourg, Illes des Santes (Picture 5) is that they do not allow private cars on the island. Hence most people drive scooters – and the scooters are not even allowed in the ‘downtown’ part of town during the day. Also, in the early evening (5 pm onward) there are huge numbers of people on the streets and in little parks talking to their neighbours. All very civilized indeed. The only bad things were that the anchorage in front of the town was ‘very’ rolly – the boat faces east into the wind but swells curl around the island and come from the north. We moved to a nicer anchorage the next night (Picture 6) Also we went out for the prix fixe dinner – 23 Euros and it was not very good at all.
Guadeloupe also had something else wonderful – the Customs/Immigration checkin/out procedure. You go to a local business (in our case an Internet/gift shop) and use a terminal to complete a form (the usual info – boat name and data, crew names and data). When you are done you click on a button and the info is sent somewhere (Paris?) and two copies of the form print out in the shop. The shopkeeper signs one copy and gives it to you and you give her 3 Euros and that is it for entry and outbound clearance. In contrast in Montserrat, I went to the Customs office and filled out a similar form (four copies with carbon paper), then had to go the cashier to pay ($48Can) then go Port Authority office and give the guy there a copy of the Customs document and pay $3 and then go back to the Customs with a copy of the Port Authority document and then go Immigration (five minute walk) to get the passports stamped. And Montserrat was not the worst so far. I think that young people are graduating from the local colleges and there are not jobs for them so they end up working for the government creating paperwork and then passing the paperwork around.
From Illes des Santes we had a choice. We could do day trips to Dominica, Martininque, and St Lucia before arriving at St Vincent – or we could do an overnight trip and avoid the hassle and expense of clearing into (and often out of) Customs and Immigration. We got a good start and decided to do the overnight as at least it was not to windward. A challenge was that we would sail a distance in the open ocean with a good wind and be making 6 to 8 knots. Then you get to the edge of the next island and wind would accelerate for an hour or so. Then when you got fully behind the island most of the wind would quit for several hours (these islands are quite big and very tall). Approaching Dominica we had winds gusting above 30 knots; an hour later the winds were less than 10. Anyway, we finally got to St Vincent.
St Vincent (more properly, St Vincent and the Grenadines – SVG) is the starting point for our main cruising area in the Grenadines and Grenada. We will only be going about 60 miles south from here before starting to head north.
We had a strange experience off Martinique. It was about midnight and we passed a flashing white light to the west. The water was several thousand feet deep so it was not a navigation buoy and besides there was nothing on the chart. At midnight after 17 hours on the water one does not thing all that clearly or quickly and I finally decided that it could be either a liferaft or someone in the water with an emergency beacon on their PFD. Anyway, we turned around to check it out (would help one sleep better at least to know) and it was a very strange construction with three round orange floats in a triangle supporting a vertical stake with the light on it. It was not large enough to support any cable to the bottom so it must have been floating. What it was I really do not know.
Our plan was to get south before the ‘Christmas winds’ came in. These are stronger winds (20 to 30 knots) that last for several weeks from mid-December onward into early January. We have had these in St Vincent and then for almost a week in Bequia (say ‘Beck-way’) where we have been taking it easy and doing some chores like varnishing, and sewing – doing repairs on the Bimini and riding sail. The last two pictures show a) a little line that got loose from out awning and flogged itself into a bunch of knots and b) June hard at work sewing. We bought the sewing machine for $40 at the SSCA Gam in Annapolis and it is great. It was made in Japan, likely in the 50s or 60s and weighs something like 60 pounds (gears are all bronze). It has been converted so you can turn a hand-crank.