It has been a wild ride this past week. I said goodbye to good friends as their journey came to an end, and I continued mine alone, straight toward the path of a tropical storm.
After an unforgettable stay in Dominica, it came time to put the clothes back on and leave the waterfalls of that tropical treasure astern. In stillness of the morning twilight, I readied Tarka and myself for departure. In almost ritualistic fashion, I prepared my morning coffee, and sipped it on deck, reflecting on my time on the island. I glanced over at King of Bongo, its crew happily still asleep, and wondered how I’d manage without them. Those thoughts would have to wait though, as it was time to lift anchor and set sail.
With the sun still below the horizon, I sailed south around Dominica’s southern most point. The seas were calm, the swell was low, and the winds afforded me easy sailing on a beam reach (meaning the wind is 90-degrees to the boat). Though this type of wind is generally desirable, all my sailing experience has been close to the wind, so I haven’t really figured out how to properly set the sails for this kind of condition. Fiddling with the ropes in hand, I looked behind one last time as Dominica was enveloped in a fog of heavy rain, and turned forward to see Martinique just off the bow. Goodbye paradise, hello France.
Seven hours of pleasant sailing later, I dropped the sails and set anchor in St. Pierre. St. Pierre is a wonderful small town in the northern part of Martinique. Interestingly, it was completely destroyed one hundred years ago by the volcano that towers overhead. In that eruption, only two of the townspeople survived — one, famously, being a prisoner protected by his own holding cell. Today the town carries the combined culture of the Caribbean and the French. It is picturesque with brightly colored buildings contrasting the cloud-covered, lush green volcano in the background. The water is crystal clear and, while I was there, it stood perfectly flat. The shelf I was anchored on though was small with a very steep drop-off. Dragging out to sea would have meant no hope to re-hook along the way, and dragging the other way would have quickly put me on the beach. Thankfully, no squalls came through.
St. Pierre afforded a perfect place to rest after an exhausting week of adventuring around Dominica. I have made it somewhat of a point to sit on the deck and watch every sunset. In these moments, I like to remind myself that that orange disc descending into the ocean is a star just like one of the many that light up the night sky. That the heat I feel is radiation from fusion that has travelled millions of miles through space. That this same heat energy drives our planet’s weather. Higher latitudes receive less radiation, while lower latitudes receive more. An Earth-sized heat engine is thus created by the temperature gradient between low and high latitudes. In an effort to equilibrate, winds are born: hot air driving north, cold air south. But the sun would not set without the rotation of the Earth. This rotation puts a spin on things, and in doing so, gives us low and high pressure systems, and over warm ocean waters, provides the ingredients for tropical cyclones.
That’s a whole lot of baggage in one sunset. I think the point I am trying to make is two fold: one, the sun – our star – pumps enormous amounts of energy into our planet, some of which is reflected, some absorbed and radiated, some producing our weather, some converted into life as we know it, and teeny-tiny amount falling onto Tarka’s solar panels; two, it’s hurricane season! Heading south does not help me cross the Pacific, but it is a necessary compromise to avoid being a bowling pin in hurricane alley. Thus, as enjoyable as St. Pierre was, the march south had to resume.
King of Bongo and Tarka on their final anchorage together.
King of Bongo and I set sail together for one last time. Our destination was just around the corner in the capital city of Fort de France. We anchored our boats with the bustling city port ahead, and a large stone wall of an old fort to the side. Fort de France is a legitimate city, and the biggest in the Lesser Antilles. It features real city-like things, such as busses that are busses, and not old converted vans. It has a European-style light rail system It has shopping malls. It even has McDonalds-es.
Rowing from my boat and into this legit city, wearing the flip-flops I repaired with a piece of rope, my unshaven face, my salty wind-blown hair, and my thrice-worn articles of clothing, made me quite the contrast. Indeed, I felt out of place and a bit lost. I had become used to being among people living an island life — people who understood that your disheveled look was a sign of seamanship, and not homelessness. Now I was overwhelmed. I even perused the magazines in a bookshop, covering the latest trends in technology, or gear reviews for this or that, and even one on gaming – all French, of course. Even though it has only been three months, these things feel foreign to me. Though interesting, they have no place in my lifestyle. They are like lures back into a world I abandoned in April, and I do sometimes fear that I will not be as smart as the fish near the end of my lines, and that I will bite the bait.
For now, I shook it off, and continued with my objectives for the day: find provisions and WiFi. That night I had Alex over for rum drinks for one last time. He marked my charts for places I should see, as well as good spots to anchor. I had already said goodbye to Anneta in St. Pierre, as she had a flight back to Poland to catch. Meanwhile, Alex still had to get King of Bongo into a shipping container before he could leave. In the morning the next day, after finishing my laundry and buying some rope, it was time for me to leave. Alex rowed over to say goodbye, and shortly after, Tarka and I set sail south, and for the first time, without my buddy boat.
I am going to miss King of Bongo and her crew. Though their presence didn’t offer any extra layer of safety on passage, it did offer a layer of comfort. You knew there’d be someone to talk to on the radio, whether it’d be about an incoming squall, or to just check to make sure everything was okay. Alex also taught me a great deal about sailing, and probably more importantly, anchoring. Anneta taught me everything I need to know about Polish cooking: potatoes, onion, meat, and potatoes. Together, they gave me confidence to explore the farther reaches of islands, where others would be afraid to step off the dinghy dock. Without them, Tarka and I will be just fine, but I know we won’t be the same. In some ways, it’s like the end of a relationship: it’s sad, but I learned a great deal, and I know there are plenty of buddy boats in the sea.
Tarka and I washed away our sorrows in the ocean, lost a lure to what was definitely a 400lb tuna, and spent a forgettable night in a quitter anchorage further south. In the twilight of the next morning we were gone, pointed at St. Lucia.
Sailing to St. Lucia was easy. The winds were such that I could sail on my genoa alone, which made things a lot easier. If the winds picked up, I could just make the sail smaller by rolling it in from the cockpit. The main sail can also be made smaller, but it requires me to point the boat into the wind, go on the foredeck to lower the main, tie reefing points, and haul in lines. It’s a pain. During the passage, I hung Wilson (my circular Bluetooth speaker companion) from my backstay, and blasted an album from the band St. Lucia. It only seemed appropriate.
Thirty miles later we were in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. Rodney Bay isn’t a particularly special place, but it does seem to be a tourist destination. All the typical attractions were present, and most were noisy if not downright dangerous. I dared not swim far from my boat for fear of being run down by a jet ski. However, Rodney Bay provided several blessings. For one, its Marina has exceptional facilities, and if you know someone with a password, it equates to unlimited hot showers! I knew someone with a password, and the hot showers alone tempted me to stay the week. Another feature of the bay is that it has a lagoon, which would have provided some protection from a tropical cyclone. It just so happens that a tropical wave I had been monitoring for several days had just been upgraded to a tropical storm, so I decided to stay in Rodney Bay a few days longer and wait it out… and, you know, enjoy the hot showers.
Tropical storm Don whirled its way straight for Grenada. This is now the second tropical storm to hit Grenada this year, and in this light, it seems a bit silly that I’m in a hurry to get down there to avoid tropical weather. To be fair, Grenada is not a “safe” place during hurricane season, it is simply “safer”. On average, Grenada is impacted by a hurricane every 17 years. The last was a category 4 hurricane that devastated the island in 2004 and the rainforest still hasn’t recovered. I’m hoping that Grenada is just absorbing a few soft blows, and that the real punches will land further north. If worse comes to worse, sailing to Trinidad is always an option.
As Don moved on by to the south, a few heavy squalls came through, and I collected more rainwater, but there were no major impacts up in St. Lucia. The next morning I topped off my gasoline and diesel supplies, checked-out through customs and immigration, and sailed south to spend the night between the magnificent Pitons. This would be my launching point to the tiny island of Bequia in the Grenadines, in hopes of skipping St. Vincent entirely. Little did I know though that this sail would turn into the most frustrating passage of my entire adventure to-date. That story, though, will have to wait until next week.