St Lucia to Martinique

The aroma of freshly baked croissants and the sound of the Marseillaise drifting across the water announced our imminent arrival in Martinique. Then, as we got closer, we could see people on bicycles adorned with stripy jumpers with strings of onion and garlic hanging from their necks, peddling their way off to market.

Of course, that is just clichéd stereotyping. Martinique is, however, very much a part of France – department number 972 in fact – and as a result, it is very French.

The trip here from St Lucia was an easy one. The wind continued to blow in a favourable direction. And after we cleared the northern tip of St Lucia, the sea state wasn’t too lumpy either.

The stretch of water between St Lucia and Martinique is renowned for whale sightings, so Maria maintained a keen watch to see if one could be spotted. Her efforts paid off; around two thirds the way across the channel, a camera-shy whale appeared in the distance.

St Anne

Our destination was St Anne, a small town with a large anchorage to the south-west of Martinique. Although our guidebook gave us an overview of the layout and size of the anchorage, we were not expecting it to be so big. It is vast,  but it’s also incredibly flat and calm. We dropped our anchor here in a patch of sand near to the town and stayed from Thursday 15th March until the 24th.

Neil and Rita accompanied us from St Lucia on their catamaran, Balance, arriving just before us. So, after putting up the anchor ball and tidying up Lady Jane, we lowered the dinghy, motored over to Balance, picked up Neil and Rita and headed into town to clear in.

The dinghy dock in St Anne is enormous, and best of all it’s right in the centre of town. From here it is just a few minutes walk to Cafe Boubou (just down the street to the left of the church) which has the customs computer. Clearance here is as simple as typing into it the details of the boat, the journey, and the crew. All that’s needed to do then is to print out the result and hand the paper to the cafe owner, who stamps the form for just two euros. And that’s it. The only difficulty is using the French AZERTY keyboard. And all this can be done in a lovely little cafe while drinking Lorraine beer.

A bus ride to Le Marin

On Friday, we took the bus to Le Marin with Neil and Rita because we thought it would be a nice place to visit. It transpired, however, that this is not the place for sightseeing. It’s a place to work on your boat, or to shop at Leader Price.

We spent what felt like hours trudging the streets looking for something interesting to see; we found a church. Eventually, we gave up and went to the marina for lunch, and a visit to the chandlers of course, before heading back on the bus.

That evening a mast-less Mojito joined us in the anchorage. Gerrit and Pascale’s boat was dismasted some time ago, and they have been in Le Marin waiting for repairs for longer than anyone would prefer. So at weekends, they detach themselves from the Marin mud to get some respite in the clear sandy waters of St Anne.

Saturday Night Reunion

On Saturday, Neil and Rita picked us up in their dinghy (it’s faster than ours) to go shopping at Leader Price in Le Marin, where it’s possible to tie up almost to the supermarket door.

Leader Price is probably the finest place to provision in this part of Martinique. The choice is good, the location accessible, and the prices are keen. And after loading the dinghy with groceries, just 15 minutes later we arrived back on Lady Jane restocked with Vin Rouge and fromage.

That evening we went out with Gerrit and Pascale for another reunion celebration. This time to Maxine’s bar for crevettes and cocktails. Maxine’s bar is so unassuming you wouldn’t know it was there – until the doors are flung open at 1730 and the cocktails start flowing. Then it goes from nothing to packed in the space of a few minutes. Fortunately, we were one of the early ones and managed to grab a table before the hoards arrived. The food and drinks – crevettes, t-punch and planters – here are excellent.

Albert, a friend of Gerrit and Pascale’s, joined us for drinks. Albert’s boat – the same type as Mojito – also lost its mast, so they have a common bond. And here is one of those strange coincidences where it is necessary to check that it isn’t 1st April when listening to the story. Albert’s boat was also dismasted on the same day at exactly the same time: 10 am on 13th February. How’s that for weird?

After dinner at a resort near to the floating dinghy dock, we agreed to meet up the next day for a walk to one of the beaches towards the south of the island.

Sunday Marathon

‘It’s only an 8km walk.’ was the sell from Pascale on Friday night, ‘and there’s a bar when we get there so that we can have a beer, then get a taxi back.’ That’s my recollection of Friday night’s conversation. And on that basis, off we went on the dinghy to start our trek from the floating pontoon just to the south of St Anne town.

The day started well enough. There’s a signposted route guiding the way to each of the beaches through a series of shaded forests. We had plenty of water, and we were all in good shape. The signs guided us along family beaches where people were enjoying their Sunday picnics. And along nudist beaches where people were enjoying hanging out. We crossed rocky ravines, hills and valleys. And as we approached the 8km marker, we were really looking forward to that beer.

But when we arrived at our destination, not only was there no bar to be found and therefore no beer – no taxis were to be had either. This beach is in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by a single track road along which taxi drivers will not venture.

So, after much debate on the merits of backtracking (horrors of the nudist beach and rocky ravines) vs the direct route (potentially quicker and less hard on the eyes), we set off on the direct route. And, we thought, just maybe we could grab a taxi or a beer on the way – or both.

After another 6km of walking in the relentless heat, our optimism faded. Our water supplies were as exhausted as us, and homes ahead became mirages promising cold beer and a taxi telephone numbers. Gerrit and I were walking about 200 metres ahead of Maria and Pascale for much of the way. But this time when we looked around there was no sign of them. The reason for that was they were in the back of a pickup truck having flagged down a passing driver. Fortunately, the driver also stopped for us so that we could heave ourselves aboard. And better still, they were headed to St Anne – and to a bar. So we piled out with them and bought them a beer, before hobbling to a restaurant for food.

The rest of the week

Before leaving St Anne, we met up with Gerrit and Pascale one last time and went to the Pizza Boat. This might also sound like another 1st April gag, but it really isn’t. The Pizza boat is a catamaran with a large pizza oven on the back. They operate out of Le Marin for the week, then pop out into St Anne for the weekend. And the pizzas are incredible, possibly the best we have had anywhere. How they pull this off, I have no idea. It is possible to have them to take away or eat onboard on the trampoline at the front of the boat, where they also keep customers lubricated with either wine or beer.

Walking wasn’t on top of the agenda after Sunday’s marathon, so we took things easy for a few days; only venturing out when the scars – both physical and psychological – had healed. Our next walk, from our new anchorage at Grande Anse over to Les Anses-d’Arlet, was an easy one. And this time bars and taxis were in plentiful supply. Here, we found a small beachside restaurant to have lunch and grabbed a table in the middle of the gazebo acting as a sun shelter. Then the rain arrived. It was torrential, and the diners on the outskirts of the cover were quickly getting soaked. One commented that we have the best seat in the house. I agreed as the rain continued to pour down for over an hour while those determined diners, munching on their poulet and chips, edged their chairs closer to the tables in an attempt to find a dry spot.

 

On Monday 26th March we pulled up the anchor and headed over to Fort de France to revisit the places we visited when we came to the Caribbean on a cruise ship in 2016. Gerrit and Pascale motored back to Le Marin for more repairs and to organise shipping their catamaran back to Europe to get a new mast (which is a long story). But they are planning to be back.

Fort de France

On the way to Fort de France, we sailed past the fearsome-looking Diamond Rock. Occupied by an English garrison between 1804 and 1805 this presented a major obstacle to French shipping moving between St Lucia and Martinique.

We created a minor obstacle to Italian shipping after we dropped anchor. The anchorage was a bit busy, so we had to be a bit more creative than usual, but found a spot just opposite what is probably the best dinghy dock we have come across so far. And after digging the anchor in, I plopped myself into the water to make sure all was OK. Our anchor was okay, so I took a look at the position of the others around us. Following the Italian boat’s anchor chain nearly had me out of breath as there was so much of it. I thought I was conservative with anchor scope, but this guy had about 60 metres of chain out in three meters of water. And therein lied the problem. His anchor was to the port side of Lady Jane.

I intended to ask the skipper of the Italian boat when he was planning to leave so that we could be onboard ready to move – and to tell him the location of his anchor relative to Lady Jane. Before I had the chance to do that, he was off faster than a whippet out of a trap heading to the wrong side of Lady Jane and confused as to what was happening. So I started the engine, Maria got the fenders ready, and I shouted to the Italian to reverse and go to our other side. Fortunately, he got it. He reversed, I motored Lady Jane to starboard and he escaped muttering away in some unfamiliar Italian as he went.

Around Fort de France

After the anchor debacle ended, we jumped in the dinghy, tied to the dinghy dock and headed to Leader Price for a few more essentials, beer mainly. And after bringing the supplies back to the boat, we headed back out for a walk around town.

Fort de France is just how we remembered it, except that the Black Pearl bar is now closed. We spent our time idly strolling around the city, and in doing so blundered across an excellent chandlery. We have been looking for silicone grease and a 30 amp power adapter since leaving it behind in Barbados. And here, in a little shop in Fort de France, they had them – and at a reasonable price too. These mundane things assume a wholly different perspective when sailing and we were thrilled to bits.

Early the next morning, we lifted anchor and headed further into the bay to take on fuel. It isn’t apparent from charts or pilot books exactly where the fuel dock is. I tried Google earth and came up with nothing more than a fuzzy image. So we headed in the approximate direction of the berth, past warships on our left and tankers to our right, in the hope of tracking it down. And there, near a marina in the corner of the harbour, we found the DCML fuel berth with the worst berthing arrangements we have seen. It’s a floating pontoon usually acting as a dinghy dock. There are no cleats and there’s not a lot of help either. Fortunately, of the two boats there, the one already on the windward side of the pontoon left first. So, we could allow ourselves to be blown down onto the pontoon to give time to work out where to tie the ropes. Attempting the other side would not have ended well.

After splurging over 200 Euros filling up the main tank and the spare containers with diesel, off we went to St Pierre.

St Pierre

There wasn’t a lot of wind to blow us towards St Pierre so that extra diesel came in very handy. Our mission was to get here to clear our of Martinique so that we could head to Dominica, as this is the most northerly location with a clearance computer.

Three and a half hours after leaving Fort de France, we arrived at the anchorage in St Pierre, which is straightforward enough if you refer to the pilot book. There’s a series of yellow buoys marking a no-anchoring zone where many ships sunk following the volcanic eruption in 1902. We managed to squeeze in close to the town and dropped our anchor in a patch of sand where we held firm for two nights.

St Pierre has a rough charm. Clearly, the composition of the town has radically changed from its position of cultural capital of Martinique in the early 20th century. But we liked it.

Mount Pelée

On 28th March, we set off on a mission to learn more about the volcano. So after clearing out at L’Alsace a Kay cafe so that we could leave the next day, we walked out of town to the Earth Sciences Discovery Centre. Here we took a self-guided audio tour, listening to an Irishman telling us about the building and the events leading up to the eruption. And, after the technician had finally worked out how to put English subtitles on the film about the events of 1902 (it took 1/2 hour of huffing and puffing), we sat down to learn more. The eruption of Mount Pelée is a tragic tale. Although plenty of warning signs belched from the volcano, no-one knew what these signs meant. When the volcano erupted, the force of the blast killed over 28,000 people. Only two people survived. It was an emotional film and an emotional place. The gardens around the discovery centre contain 28 red blocks, each one representing the loss of 10,000 lives.

The volcano is still active, but the vulcanologists know a lot more than they did in the early 20th century. And there is no imminent risk of eruption now.

After learning those sobering facts about the events of 1902, to lighten the day, we walked another 40 minutes to the Depaz rum distillery where the tour and the tastings are free. But we opted to pay an additional five euros to see the mansion house, which is in the process of refurbishment with some help from the EU. It was worth the money, the mansion is lovely.

The rum here is made with water naturally filtered through the volcanic terrain, allegedly giving it a unique flavour amongst rums. We don’t know so much about that, but the t-punch we tried was very good. And at six euros a bottle, so were the prices. So, with a couple of bottles of rum and a bottle of cane syrup in our bags, we happily clunked our way back downhill to St Pierre.

Then, early morning on 29th March we said farewell to St Pierre and headed towards Dominica, one of the worst hit of all the islands by hurricane Maria.

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