Written by Purser Kate (Bob) Addison
23 March, 2016
The Caribbean feels like a sailor’s reward at the end of a long voyage. It is difficult not to love these islands, scattered in a chain curving down from Puerto Rico almost to Trinidad, with their pristine turquoise waters and palm-fringed white sand beaches baking in the sun. Each island and nation is so different, but they share good food, good music and a sort of irresistible zest for life that defines the Caribbean for me.
PICTON CASTLE made her landfall at Martinique, dropping the anchor in the afternoon of Thursday 25th February, just 18 days out of Cape Verde. The transatlantic crossing started brisk with the trade winds blowing strong, and we made good time though with some swell and spray limiting ship’s work to mostly rigging and carpentry projects. Then as the wind eased a little we piled on more sail: running out stu’n’s’l booms and setting kites, and the weather was finally settled enough to varnish – I’ve never seen the quarterdeck rail look so shiny and smart.
It was almost a shame for this excellent passage to come to an end. I could have happily kept sailing straight for another month, except for one thing: fresh food.
Sailors are apt to start thinking about food almost as soon as their anchor is hoisted and their course set for the open ocean – maybe it’s all the fresh air and exercise of hauling on lines and climbing aloft, or maybe it’s just that the food we have to eat for a passage is limited to what we stowed aboard in the last port. So we do run out of things and especially fresh fruits and vegetables, most of which don’t keep too well after a week or two at sea anyway.
As a passage progresses, night watches are increasingly spent torturing each other with detailed descriptions of exactly what we would all most like to eat: juicy steak, bacon and avocado, ice-cream. And as the days-since-last-lettuce increase, so does the longing for salad and fresh vegetables. It sometimes surprises people that it’s possible to crave green leafy things, but mid-ocean it most definitely is. It all makes the anticipation of port even greater.
So after two and a half weeks at sea, imagine that first slice of juicy melon and first taste of ice-cream – amazing.
Being French, Martinique, our first Caribbean port of call, also has the great advantage of proper bakeries selling good baguettes and coffee, and incidentally an astonishing range of pharmacies. There is a fresh fruit and vegetable market right at the end of the town pier where we landed with our skiff, just a short run from our anchorage out in the bay. There’s a supermarket selling ice-cream opposite the market, and a bakery just up the street. Town is set all along the water, with fine swimming beaches, lovely cafes and restaurants and further afield little fishing villages dotted around the island.
The town of St. Pierre here was once a significant French city, but almost the entire population was killed in 1902 when the active volcano Mt. Pelée erupted. Apparently there was some advance warning from geologist types, but nobody wanted to panic the population by passing on the warning. So, no panic but the city was completely wiped out. The current town is much smaller and is built on the ruins of the original city. The museum at the top of town is a small but striking illustration of the devastation, with photographs, objects and descriptions of the disaster: boxes of nails that had melted together to make a solid lump and a huge bronze church bell, misshapen and cracked as if made of chocolate, slightly warmed and smooshed by the sticky hand of a giant child. Scary stuff. Happily the volcano seems to be behaving itself these days, and we hope more notice would be taken of the early warning signs should there be another eruption.
We launched our Afro-Norwegian dory, SEA NEVER DRY, in the bay off St. Pierre at Martinique. She is a great boat to learn to sail in: simple, small and tacks easily. You’ll notice pretty quickly if she’s not trimmed right because the lee rail is underwater, so then you learn to bail pretty quickly too! The off watch were welcome to take her out sailing anytime they wanted and at least one group took her out for a sail every day.
Meanwhile aboard ship the watch on duty was kept busy going after a variety of cleaning, painting and varnish projects. Got to look after the ship so she continues to look after us. There were some rigging jobs too: replacing a few braces and buntlines aloft, making a new pilot ladder, replacing ratlines, and rigging SEA NEVER DRY to sail. But the best part of a day’s work aboard the ship is the 4pm swim call. Tidy up your project for the day, change into a bathing suit and then jump off the rail or jib boom to splash about in the cool clear water. We rigged the swing rope off the fore yard, so the more ambitious among us (Jack) could do crazy flips into the water.
After three days in Martinique, stretching our legs, sailing, swimming and eating a lot, we set sail for Dominica, just 34 miles and a gorgeous day sail away to the north.
Dominica is a truly amazing island with terrible anchorages: it’s a steep, lush, volcanic island, and the volcano drops away just as steeply under the water so it’s hard to find a place to drop your hook where you won’t drag off into deep water. We get around the problem by running out hawsers from the stern and tying them to a stout tree ashore, letting the anchor go forward – we lay like this Med-moored’, our stern just a stone’s throw from the beach, snug as anything.
The lush, mountainous scenery makes this island a favourite for eco-tourism: our gang hiked to incredible waterfalls and through untouched rainforest to natural hot springs, went scuba diving and snorkelling off Champagne Beach named for the bubbles from ongoing seismic activity, and off some of the island’s pristine coral reef. We were very well looked after by the Anchorage hotel, using their dock to land our skiff in exchange for buying plenty of meals and cool drinks on their cool patio by the pool. Not that that was much of a hardship.
Ruins Rock Cafe is another PICTON CASTLE favourite spot here, with an amazing spice shop in the back room selling all kinds of spices, hot sauce and about 70 varieties of flavoured rum with free samples. You’d be pretty brave to try all 70 at one sitting though.
The damage caused by last summer’s hurricane was less obvious than I expected. It seems like the clean-up operation was fast and efficient. Money came from the Chinese to rebuild infrastructure, one taxi driver told me.
Dominica has a cruise ship dock, and the town completely changes when a ship is in town: market stalls selling colourful clothes and sun hats, spices and sarongs pop up everywhere; reggae music plays, and it seems like every taxi in town wants to take you on a day trip around the island. The cruise shippers do seem to mostly keep themselves to themselves though – local cafes and restaurants anywhere except the main waterfront seem to mostly cater for locals, and every one I went into was excellent. My top tip for Dominica is the grapefruit juice: cool, sweet and incredibly refreshing in the sweltering, tropical heat.