Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chasing the moon

Sorry for the enormous gap between posts. We did not sink or even forget how to type. The problem was merely a technical one. The backlight on our computer quit. We were not able to get a new one until we got to St Martin (technically Sint Maarten, the Dutch side where the prices are essentially like those in North America). We now have a Lenovo notebook computer that is about one quarter the size of our laptop but seems to do the job nicely. After the purchase we fired up the old machine to see if we could get some data off - using the tv for a screen and the stupid thing worked! There still is a problem with the keyboard that we cannot resolve until we are back in the US but we might end up with two computers.

We are now in Puerto Rico which means that there is a lot of ground (and more water) to cover. Rather than try to write a comprehensive take on the last few months - just some highlights and a few interesting pics ... and not the normal beach pictures. North of St Vincent there is an interesting alternation of former British colonies and current parts of France. The French have decided that their former colonies should become just parts of the nation. The result is that they are also part of the EU and $much$ richer than their neighbours.

St Lucia -- This is a lovely island and illustrates well the shifting colonial history of the entire region. Islands were won and last in battle and often returned by treaties or were bough and sold so that virtually every large island has had two or more owners: French, English, Spanish, Dutch, and even Danish. Most of the place names in English islands like St Lucia are French since the French were in control for many decades or even longer when places were being named. Few of these names were changed.

Picture is of the market in Castries in St Lucia (contrary to the T-shirt). These markets are always fun to visit and this one was particularly large and active.

Martinique - Martinique is a lovely island that is only a few hours sail from St Lucia. We spent several days in Ste Anne at a comfortable anchorage just off a long beach and very nice, small town with great baguettes (a major consideration when at any French island.) Ste. Anne is adjacent to a larger town called Marin that is a major sailing centre by any definition - for example, there are something like a dozen boat brokerages there.

After Ste Anne we stopped in the former capital, St Pierre. St Pierre's main claim to fame is that it was destroyed by its volcano in 1902 with 30,000 deaths and one survivor. They have kept a few of the ruins, for example a major theatre and some stores and there is a small, yet interesting, museum. The heat of the eruption can be seen in a large bronze church bell that softened and reshaped itself.

Here is June hard at work in St. Pierre. The town is in the foreground with the volcano behind. Hard to imagine such devastation from such a beautiful mountain.

This is the ruin of the city jail in St Pierre - which was right next door to the town's pride and joy, the opera house. The only survivor of the volcano was a prisoner housed in the tiny building in the lower right corner of the picture. Afterward he joined P.T. Barnum's travelling show of oddities where he showed off his burn scars.

Dominica - Dominica is a particularly lush island that has not been able to take advantage of tourism because there is not enough level land on the island to allow for a full-sized airport. Hence it is a bit poorer than many of its neighbours - and much poorer than its immediate French neighbours.

The guidebooks say that you should only anchor in the northern part of the large bay off Portsmouth because there have been significant numbers of thefts from boats at night. In fact, a local association of tourist companies, taxi owners and the like provide a marine patrol at night in this area. When we did an island tour the taxi driver said there wasn't a particular problem because the two brothers who steal from boats were currently in jail. Seems like the last time they got out a jail a theft occurred almost instantly from a boat. The police started their 'inquiries' at the brothers' house and found the stolen goods. Hence the boys are back in jail for a couple more years - they really should post their current residence in the cruising guides and then people would know where they can anchor. A more serious comment... the cruising community is hyper-conscious of security issues; to my mind more so than is justified. The result is that bad publicity about a place means that no boats will stop which can have a devastating impact on the economy. This happened to one formerly popular bay in St Vincent and the folks in Dominica saw that was it happening there and made moves to insure that visiting boaters felt comfortable and secure.

The picture below is of a neat restaurant up in the mountains that we visited while on a tour of Dominica. It had a fabulous view over the ocean and excellent local food - eaten out of a calabash which is a dried gourd.

Guadeloupe - This is one of my favourites down here. Guadeloupe is shaped like a beautiful butterfly with a mountainous half and a flatter half. It is all very modern with tall buildings and excellent highways - we shared a car rental with a nice young Swiss couple and did a tour to the mountainous part of the island, called Basse Terre - go figure. While there we climbed to the top of the smouldering volcano, La Soufriere which was almost 1500 m high. It was a fascinating experience as we climbed up above the clouds that are almost always there to temperatures around 15C and winds almost strong enough to blow one off their feet. In places you could see gases coming out of the mountain and there are hot springs. The last eruption was in 1972 and it is closely monitored since a major eruption could happen at any time.

Top photo is of the intrepid mountaineers at the top of the mountain. Lower pic is looking into the crater of the volcano.. Just visible is a probe that is used to sample the gases coming out of the volcano. In this photo it is very hard to determine what is cloud and what is gas from the earth.

While we in Guadeloupe we also went to one of the Carnival parades. People in Guadeloupe take their partying very seriously and their religion somewhat less so. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the final day of partying in Rio, New Orleans and everywhere else that has a Carnival. In Guadeloupe they have decided to have an additional day of Carnival on Ash Wednesday. I guess this is OK because the focus of the day is to banish the devil, but the festivities are the same as the previous day. Finally, because Lent is very long they have decided to add a day of Carnival in the middle of Lent because ... well, I guess because one cannot go that long without a proper (or improper) party.

Waiting for the parade. Many of children were dressed up in very fancy clothes for the event.

Each group in the parade tried to outdo its rivals by having the most fabulous costumes and best (and loudest) music. these groups ranged from 15 or so to at least 100 so it is easy to imagine how much time and money went into creating these displays. There was even a group of Breton ancestry with bagpipes who were doing dances that looked very much like Scottish country dancing - the Celts did get around.

During a delay in the parade this girl had a chance for a break from walking on her stilts for at least a couple of hours. When she was on the stilts she was full of energy and charm but during the rest you could see that it was a very tiring thing to do.

There is a narrow divide between the two halves of Guadeloupe called the Riviere Salee. Boats that are not too deep can take this to get from the south shore to the north shore - and the reverse of course. The only problem is that they only open the three bridges over the Riviere once a day. For us the first bridge opening was at 5 am with the second about 20 minutes later. Of course, it was pitch dark and three of the lighted buoys on the route were, well, not lighted. I had warned myself not to first in-line of the five or so boats going through but did not manage to do this. Dumb! Anyway, we got through and it was interesting trip into a large area of mangrove swamps and huge numbers of birds.

Back to our focus on volcanism, an early feature of our visit to Guadeloupe (actually the southern islands of 'The Saints') was the depostion of a considerable amount of volcanic ash on our deck and even inside the boat. I woke up early one morning to pee and had the distinct feeling that we had a lot of sand on the floor. An hour or so later I turned on Chris Parker's weather report on the SSB radio and he announced that a third of the lava dome on Montserrat had exploded during the previous evening. The ash reached something like 30,000 feet and was carried eastward by the jet stream. The ash fall continued for 36 hours and schools and the airport in Guadeloupe were closed for two days. For us it meant a couple of hours of careful cleaning both inside and out on Ainia. The material was interesting in the sense that it was very fine but did not form mud when wet - sort of like very fine sand. This photo shows some of the boat before the cleanup.

Antigua - The alternation of British and French islands continued with Antigua. This island has the rare distinction of never changing hands. It was only ever British. A major reason for this was the famous, and impregnable, bay called English Harbour. With the help of two or three forts at the mouth this was a perfect base for th4 Royal Navy. A bonus was that English Harbour was a superb hurricane hole as well. They have done a terrific job of restoring buildings at Nelson's Dockyard as it was named after Trafalgar. In fact Horatio was stationed there for three years as a fairly junior captain, long before he became a heroic and iconic figure of British history.

Antigua was also the first, along with St Martin, of the two famous mega-yacht bases. Two quick stories about that. Antigua is the home for two J-boats, the type that raced for the America's Cup in the 1930s. Velsheda was owned by the man who owned the Woolworth chain and is the original boat. Ranger is actually a replica of original and is for sale now for only $20 million (see BTW, the original Ranger was owned by someone named Vanderbilt. We saw Velsheda come into an anchorage on the east side of Antigua and just sit there for about half an hour - we could not figure out why. Then her 'tender' came in - a powerboat about 145' long. She anchored and then the J-boat rafter to it for the night. I guess there was not enough accomodation on the sailboat to the owners or, more likely, charterers.

This picture (not ours) is of Ranger competing in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. In 2009, Ranger and Velsheda had a 'little' collision (there are no 'little' collisions of boats like these) in this regatta. I don't even want to think about how much the repairs were. Interestingly, Ainia would qualify for the second oldest group in this regatta (0ver 25 years).

Antigua is also the winter home for Mirabella V, the largest single-masted boat ever built (247' LOA). Mirabella V is available for charter (reportedly for $350,000 week) and also for sale if you need to move up from your current vessel. More at The boats tied up either side of Mirabella were probably in the 150' range but looked quite tiny.

St Martin/Sint Maarten -This is a most unusual island. It is partly French (St Martin) and partly Dutch (Sint Maarten) and mostly American. The US dollar is the main currency (many places take the Euro and dollar at par so you see few Euros) and everyone speaks English - on the Dutch side almost as a first language. The French side is quite nice and the Dutch side is quite is useful. The latter is duty-free so a lot of stuff is very cheap there. The result is that almost all the serious shopping is here. We bought a new windlass for the anchor at less than US prices and the new computer at US-competitive prices. Prices are often quoted in three currencies - US dollars, Euros and Dutch Antilles Guilders (usually called Florins). Apparently when the Dutch switched to Euro they neglected to tell their colonies so the Florin lives on.

There is no real border between the two other than a line on the map. Most boats anchor on the French side because it is free and take their dinghies to the boat stores, marine services and supermarkets on the Dutch side. The Dutch built a new bridge to the interior lagoon and want to pay for it, so there is a bridge charge, an anchoring charge and a clearance charge. The French charge 5 Euros to clear in and their bridge and anchoring are free.

While there we went to Orient Beach which is reputed to be the best beach in the Caribbean. It is a beautiful beach but very commercialized with five companies having the right to rent their hundreds of beach chairs and umbrellas with only a few areas open for free use. The less said about the bodies to be found on the nude part of the beach the better.

BVIs - It is an overnight sail from St Martin to Virgins. I talked in earlier posting about the BVIs so will skip it here except to say that it was even busier with charter yachts than before.

Puerto Rico - From the BVIs we went directly to Culebra in Puerto Rico (PR), skipping over the US Virgins. We have spent time in four places in PR and it seems like a very nice place. We were going to rent a car to go sightseeing but we had forgotten that it is Easter weekend and cars seem no available at all. We need to some serious shopping here before heading on to the Bahamas where we understand everything is enormously expensive. We also need to send off June's US income tax returns (federal and state). After they are done we can work on the Canadian returns.
This is the rather wonderful library in Culebra, PR. The trailer on the left seems to be for storage while the one on the right is the actual library. It has a children's room, a computer/internet room and an adult book room. It is entirely run by volunteers and is open for four hours a day on four days of the week. You don't even have to be a local resident to take books out.

This dolphin came to play with us as we were sailing along the south coast of Puerto Rico. He kept circling back to us as if to encourage us to go faster. At times he seemed to be almost touching the boat. After about 10 minutes he gave up and left.


Three Passages
One of really neat things about extended cruising is the enormous variety of sailing experiences. Three of these follow.
1. Antigua to St Martin - This is too far for a daylight trip so the question was what time should we leave Jolly Harbour in Antigua to get to St Martin in the morning so we could clear Customs and get settled. We used a projected speed of 5 knots because it was supposed to be very windy and we don't like to motor if we can avoid it. This meant a departure around lunchtime. During the afternoon this looked optimistic as were doing more like 3.5 to 4 knots. As darkness approached I wondered if we might end up using the iron genoa (the engine to non-sailors) since the wind often drops at night ... except it did not. We started to go pretty fast - more than 7 knots so the problem became one of slowing down. We reefed the main and then reefed the main some more and then reefed the jib and then totally rolled up the main but we could not get our speed below 6 knots. The result was an arrival at the exposed and windy harbour of Marigot at 4 am and having to anchor in the pitch dark in the outer harbour among the mega-yachts.

2. St Martin to Virgin Gorda - This was the passage that inspired the title of this post - chasing the moon. Again we postulated a speed to arrive in the Virgins in the early morning ... and everything worked exactly according to plan. We averaged around 5.5 knots and for most of the night were aiming right at the reflection of the almost full moon. We arrived when we expected after a very relaxed trip.

3. Vieques to Salinas, PR - We knew this was going to be a run and the previous day we had had no great success running with just the jib up. It frequently collapsed and then popped open with a loud noise and wear and tear on the boat. We decided to use the asymmetric spinnaker and see how it would do. We did 50+ miles and averaged between 4.5 and 8 knots as the wind strengthened during the day. A bonus was that the sail was perfectly behaved and the boat totally stable and comfortable. It is a big sail to get up and down (1300+ sq ft) but worth it if it is going to be up for a long time.


Next ... we will be in PR for a few more days and have decided to make a big push to get to the southern Bahamas (weather permitting). We are going directly to Great Inagua Island from PR which is about 400 miles and should take about 3 days or so.

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