Thursday, February 21, 2008

Guadeloupe, Part II

After arriving in Pointe-a-Pitre we took a couple days to explore the city and take in some of the Carnival revelry before Greg and Jean joined us. We spent a wonderful few days exploring the country by car before doing a little exploring by sail.

Guadeloupe by Car

We drove the entire coastline of Basse Terre, the mountainous island of Guadeloupe (Guadeloupe's mainland is made up of two islands - Grande Terre and Basse Terre). We drove to St. Anne, toured the rum museum, and took in some of the exhibits (literally). I've become a big fan of the French rums, they are so much better than I'd ever realized. No big surprise really, if it is to be ingested, the French probably do it better. We also drove to Deshais (the anchorage we bypassed in Part I) and visited the botanical gardens. Hands down the best we've seen. On our way further south we stopped in the capital, Basse Terre city, and parked amid roughly 300,000 other cars and took in some of the Carnival parade. The next day we hiked up what we believe is the second highest peak on the island. We had driven most of the way to the top and still had another 500+ feet to climb. What a view!

Guadeloupe by Boat

We had a great sail over to Marie Galante, the largest of Guadeloupe's surrounding islands. Marie Galante is a quaint, quiet island. We ran, ate, relaxed, and took a short sail to a different anchorage further south, catching dinner on the way with our new fishing rod. The following day we sailed back to Pointe-a-Pitre, dropped Jean off, and headed north with Greg back though our favorite set of Guadeloupian early-morning opening bridges - this time with no ignition trouble. Our plan was to head out through Cul-de-Sac Marin and up to Antigua, about 35 miles away. The weather was not cooperating; it was forecast to build to 30-35 knots and 12+ foot seas that day, but since we were leaving early we were relatively confident we'd have enough time to get to Antigua before the seas got too out of control. At 7:30 we were clear of the outer reef and motoring north - we still had virtually no wind. By 8:30 we were well clear of the headland and the wind filled in with a bang. In just a matter of minutes we had gone from 15 knots of wind to 30-35. With 5 hours still to go and a guest unaccustomed to sailing on board, we figured the prudent thing to do was to turn back. Five hours of 30-35 knot winds would have given us steep, 12+ foot seas long before we arrived in Antigua.

Turning back gave us an opportunity to explore the Grande Riviere Goyaves, which we had missed on the way south. The river runs for five miles up into the sugarcane fields and country side and is navigable only by dinghy. After a short stint cursing our guidebook ("This freakin' river isn't navigable by a rubber ducky.."), we realized we were trying to dinghy up a mangrove swamp. A half-mile further south and up the river we went, surrounded by beautiful country, sugarcane fields, mountains, and cows with attendant egrets.

The following day we sailed back around the north part of Basse Terre to Deshais, marking our third and most enjoyable visit to this beautiful little waterside town. On the way there mother nature put on a show for our guest (Greg), sending us a squall with 40 knot winds and torrential downpours. It was some of the strongest weather we've seen, but fortunately extremely short and as such nothing to worry about.

In Deshais we relaxed, worked on a few boat projects, ate some great meals, and experienced the best snorkeling to date. There is a beautiful coral garden just off the cliffs at the northern side of the anchorage. It is in very clear, relatively deep water, and diving down 15-20 feet you can swim among schools of fish and thriving colorful coral growing on pillars and little rock caverns. Unfortunately I forgot the camera for this one, so no pictures.

Next Stop: Antigua

From here we head back north to take in Antigua and Barbuda, which we skipped on the way down. We're looking forward to being back in English-speaking territory - we've been struggling through Guadeloupe with my ridiculously poor French skills.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Guadeloupe, Part I

We're alive. No, seriously. I'm sure you've had your doubts, what with three weeks of radio silence and all. But, no, we're alive and kicking in Guadeloupe. Or should I say France? This is, technically, France and it shows - from the sporadic and vaguely schizophrenic working hours to the lovely (and stinky) cheese and cheap wine.

Rodeo Clown

We had a great passage from Saint Maarten down to Guadeloupe. It was a broad reach with twenty-five knots of wind, and with just the genoa out we averaged over 7 knots. We had left on a one day weather window; the conditions were forecast to deteriorate significantly from about the time we arrived with a very large northerly groundswell rolling in with 30+ knots of wind. We arrived in Deshais, took a quick lap through the anchorage, and turned around without even slowing down. The anchorage, as we feared despite our guidebook claiming the contrary, was not well protected from a northerly swell, the boats were rolling rail to rail, and it would only get worse. Our options were to head another 40 miles south and then back north to Point-a-Pitre, or we could go 5 miles back north and then 5 miles east, wait inside a large area of reefs, and then head another 2 miles to Point-a-Pitre through the river that divides Guadeloupe. We went with Option B. Bad idea. Conditions had already begun to deteriorate, and seas that hadn't seemed so bad when were running with them now seemed ridiculous. Cielo bucked up and down like a big, beige rodeo bull as we attempted to power directly into wind and sea. On about every third wave we would hear and feel an awkward and ominous rumbling vibration as our propeller, normally buried deep beneath the water, ventilated and came out of the water. The best we could manage was about 2.5-3 knots of speed. At one point, after pounding into three exceedingly steep and large waves, Cielo literally came to a standstill and we had to bear off 90 degrees to start moving again. Just to make sure things didn't get boring, Guadeloupe's friendly local fisherman had sprinkled the waters with lobster and fish traps, about one every ten feet or so, for us to dodge.

Heston's Heroes

Six hours later we'd finally pounded our way north, then east, then picked our way south through a poorly charted 2 miles of reef and gotten the anchor down near Baie Mahault, Guadeloupe. We were the only cruising boat in sight. We had a snack, settled down for a long nap, and just as we were about asleep....BANG! BANG, BANG!! Gunshots?!? Yikes. Then more, then dozens more. I was literally afraid to stick my head out of the hatch and look around. Turns out we had anchored a couple hundred yards from a firing range, there just hadn't been anybody shooting in the middle of the day when we arrived.

3, 2, 1....Contact??

The river that divides Guadeloupe is spanned by two bridges that only open once a day. For south bound traffic the north bridge opens at 4:30AM. If you're not floating in front of the bridge with lights on and engine running by 4:20AM the bridge tender leaves for coffee. To avoid having to pick your way through the shallow, narrow river and surrounding reef in the dark, the French have thoughtfully placed three moorings near the bridge. Unfortunately, someone removed them. Of course, we didn't know this, so we spent an interesting 30 minutes going up and down the river looking for these mysterious moorings, culminating in a race with another boat for what turned out not to be a mooring at all. So we anchored in a little cove surrounded by mangroves and settled down to sleep until 4AM, figuring 20 minutes should be plenty to get the anchor up and get over to the bridge. Four o'clock rolls around, we're up, turn the key in the ignition and...nothing. No click, no sputter, just dead silence. Of course by now it's 4:15, and I'm remembering that I thought the ignition switch had gotten doused with too much salt water spray the day before. A mad rush below and back and Lizz and I are sitting with a spotlight, a can of Boeshield (like WD-40), and a hairdryer trying to get the moisture out of the switch. Still nothing. Turns out it was a loose wire on the starter motor, a little wiggle and we were back in business and heading toward the bridge with at least 30 seconds to spare. By 6AM we were anchor down in Point-a-Pitre, and ready to get back to sleep.

To be continued...