Martinique to Dominica

29th March 2018

The sail to Dominica was superb in even flatter seas than the last time we sailed. In weather like this, it is difficult to imagine the scenes of devastation on 18th September 2017 when hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Dominica. 

Even as Dominica looms in the distance, it is clear something is wrong. The smooth verdant shapes of other islands are replaced here by something resembling a bad haircut. As we came closer to the island, it was apparent why: leaves and branches are missing from a high percentage of trees all over the island. And of course, it isn’t just the natural landscape impacted. These figures from Wikipedia make for distressing reading:

Overall, the hurricane damaged the roofs of as much as 98% of the island’s buildings, including those serving as shelters; half of the houses had their frames destroyed.Its ferocious winds defoliated nearly all vegetation, splintering or uprooting thousands of trees and decimating the island’s lush rainforests. The agricultural sector, a vital source of income for the country, was completely wiped out: 100% of banana and tuber plantations was lost, as well as vast amounts of livestock and farm equipment.In Maria’s wake, Dominica’s population suffered from an island-wide water shortage due to uprooted pipes. The Assessment Capacities Project estimates that the hurricane has caused $1.37 billion in losses across the island, which is equal to 226 percent of its 2016 GDP.As of January 31, there are 31 fatalities confirmed across the island, with another 37 people reported missing.

Dominica from the sea

Portsmouth Harbour

Our destination in Dominica was Portsmouth. Here, the boat boys have organised themselves into a group called PAYS – the Portsmouth Association of Yachting Services. They have laid several moorings in Portsmouth’s bay and take care of security. It’s a well-organised group of guys.

About half an hour before arriving in Portsmouth, Alexis, one of the PAYS members, met us in his bright yellow boat asking us if we were on our way to Portsmouth and if we wanted a mooring ball. The answer to both those questions was yes. He said he would meet us there, then zoomed off into the distance. Sure enough, when we arrived in the bay, he was there to direct us to a mooring ball not too far from town. Maria handed him the ropes; he passed them through the mooring and back to Maria, then Alexis said that he would take me to customs to clear in. There is no expectation of money for helping boats to pick up a ball; it’s part of the service.

A few minutes later, Alexis came back, and I stepped on to his boat. We picked up another couple on the way, then motored over to the fishing dock to get off.  We couldn’t use the customs dock because the northern swell made it too dangerous to land. So we transferred to Alexis’s taxi for a wild ride through the town. 

On the way to customs

Customs

The customs office is a sight to behold. There is a duty-free initiative on building materials until June to help people rebuild their houses. And to get this exemption from duty, the local folks need to go to the customs office to get a form approved, and as we walked into the office, it seemed everyone from town was there. The noise was incredible, and the conversations lively, with subjects ranging from building to politics.

Fortunately, both the other sailors and I had used Sailclear before we arrived to request clearance, so we didn’t need to suffer it for long. Because our details were already on the system, this cut the time down to around 10 minutes per boat and we were out before overtime starts at 4 PM. Dominica has a great system where, if you stay for two weeks or less, it is possible to clear in and out at the same time – and all for 10EC. This, I think, encourages people to stay a bit longer.

After getting back to Lady Jane, we discussed tours with Alexis and asked him to take us down the Indian River at 0800 the next day.

Indian River

We had companions for the trip to Indian River, Jim and Ann from Annapolis on an Outbound 46, Ubiquitous. Alexis collected us from our boats and motored us to the mouth of the river. Then he switched off his outboard to row the rest of the way. Engines are not permitted beyond here, to protect the flora and fauna. But rowing looked like a tough gig. Alexis’s boat is exceptionally sturdy, so it takes a lot of effort to make it move – especially with five adults and a large outboard weighing it down.

Indian River is, perhaps unsurprisingly, where the Indians used to live. It is home to a wide variety of creatures, including (probably more then than now) wild boar and boa constrictor snakes from which the Indian’s extract snake oil – makes a man sliver like a snake, and the ladies like it – according to Alexis.

Hurricane Maria severely damaged the river. It is only navigable at all thanks to the efforts of the locals with help from the international community. These good folks removed fallen trees and debris from the seaward part of the river, but the upper reaches are still unnavigable. Calypso’s House, from the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, is gone and so has the tree canopy that previously arched across the river.

Bizarrely, one one of the buildings still standing is a bar at the upper end of the open section of the river. The barman in this palm-fronded oasis sells two types where rum punches: special and coconut. So, as this is a one-off experience, and as Jim said ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere.’, we tried them both.

Around Town

On 31st March, we strolled around Portsmouth where evidence of damage and destruction is everywhere. Some houses remain wholly destroyed. The rebuild process has been continuing at an almost unbelievable speed though. Considering Maria’s ferocity and that it is only six months since it happened, this is a real testament to determination and community, and it is impressive to see.

We stopped for something to eat at Smithy’s cafe on the main street on the way back to the dinghy dock. Lunch, consisting of chicken, noodles and salad, accompanied by a bottle of local beer, cost 40 EC. That’s just over £10 for two, and it was excellent. Smithy’s hold a Christmas party for the kids here, complete with bouncy castles and gifts. Until now, they have been buying the presents but are looking to include more children, so are looking for donations of presents from sailors later in the year. If we make it back in time this year, we are in.

Back on board Lady Jane, Jim and Ann invited us for ‘late sundowners’, it was 1745 after all. We don’t turn down offers such as this one, and we arrived on their lovely boat by 1815. And we spent a delightful evening with them drinking French wine and cheese.

Barbecue party on the beach

Sunday night is BBQ night at the beach, organised by PAYS. So, on Sunday morning, one of the PAYS guys came around to sell us tickets. Which, for 50EC each including food, rum punch, and music, is a bargain. Even the start time was a very reasonable 7 PM.

As Jim and Ann were also going to the barbecue, we invited them over to Lady Jane for drinks before we motored our dinghies over to the PAYS dock at around 7.15 PM, expecting the first of a ragged mob of sailors to be drifting in. How wrong could I be? The PAYS building was packed full of folks, probably eager to make an early start on the rum punch. Unbeknown to Maria and I, the barbecue deal was all you can eat and all you can drink. So, as long as you had a PAYS-provided plate and plastic cup, it was possible to eat like Mr Creasote and drink like an ageing rock star. 

The organisation of the party exceeded our expectations. The queue for food or drinks was never too long. And when the food ran out (there was enough there for twice the number of people there), the PAYS guys rearranged the tables and chairs to make space for a dance floor. The dance floor was nothing but sand, but that’s enough after several rum punches and a bit of encouragement. 

I’ll have another

The French water gipsy circus act that we have seen in several places on our travels also turned up. To be frank, my expectations were not high. We had seen it and heard it all before. Or so we thought. Since the last time we saw them in Bequia, their act has had a bit of a makeover. The music is fresh, the act new, and it was very entertaining. These guys were good.

Jim and Ann sensibly left around 1030 PM, I think. And I suggested to Maria that we leave at the same time given that we had an early start the next day. But she was adamant that we should stay. ‘Just one more drink and then we’ll go.” So, after trying out that dance floor and having that one last drink, that’s what we did. 

The next morning, one of the motley crew regretted that decision, and it wasn’t me. At 0900, with a heavy head, lots of great memories, and some missing memories for one of the crew, we left at 0900 headed towards Îles des Saintes, just to the south of Guadalupe.