The anchor is up in Saint Louis on the island of Marie Galante at 10: 30 AM. Our destination today is the town of Portsmouth, Dominica, some 26 miles to the south. Sailing conditions today are sublime, made possible in part by the wind angle between Marie Galante and Dominica. Winds are in the 15 to 20 knot range out of the ENE…slightly abaft of the beam. This is Cutter Loose’s sweet spot. She powers through the wind-driven chop making 7 to 8 knots over ground. Today is one of the best sails since we arrived in the Caribbean.
Approaching Portsmouth, the wind becomes swirly as we are greeted by Lawrence Roberts (aka Lawrence of Arabia) who brings his colorful skiff alongside Cutter Loose to offer us a mooring in the harbor. We cheerfully accept the offer and Lawrence escorts us to our mooring. Ironically, Lawrence now collaborates with another guide by the name of Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam was our boat boy back in 1996 when we visited Portsmouth with Pittsburgh friends Chuck and Jeanne Berrington aboard IP 40 Relationship. The boat boys are now middle-aged men, proudly carrying on the tradition.
Thus far on our journey, the notion of boat boys is a novelty. Here in Dominica, it is customary to utilize the services of a guide. Actually, it is more of a courtesy than an absolute necessity…a method of gaining insight into the local culture while supporting the economy. Lawrence and other legitimate guides here in Portsmouth have organized themselves into a type of cooperative called PAYS (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security). PAYS controls all of the moorings in the harbor and offers them for rent at a reasonable cost of $10 per night. PAYS members take turns greeting new arrivals and providing security in the harbor at night. For those boats that wish to anchor, the guides help them find a good spot outside of the mooring field. A mooring or an anchorage is the first item on a menu that offers a full range of optional services, including guided boat tours of the Indian River, laundry service, water taxi service to the Customs office and a variety of inland taxi tours.
Lawrence whisks us off to Customs at full throttle in his runabout. Since it is Saturday afternoon, the office is officially closed. But Lawrence knows how to track down the Customs officers after hours. We have obviously interrupted them from their leisure activities. With the entrance formalities behind us, Lawrence takes our bag of dirty laundry and agrees to return it the next day, washed and dried.
At 7 AM on Sunday morning, Lawrence arrives for our guided boat tour of the Indian River in Portsmouth. With the engine off and Lawrence manning the oars, the only audible sounds in these early morning hours are the green herons squawking, an occasional fish surfacing for food and the lapping of water against the hull. For two hours, we are guided through this watery tunnel with dense vegetation along the banks and overhead. Lawrence points out every species of plant and animal down to the termite nests. He explains that the Carib Indians once used this waterway as an expressway from their inland villages to the sea. When the water becomes too shallow for navigation, we disembark for a brief tour of a rustic bar carved out of the jungle. The bar is closed this morning, but refreshments will be served to river tour passengers that arrive later in the day.
As it turns out, our two hour tour of the Indian River occurs during the clearest weather of the day. Off-and-on morning sprinkles turn into a steady afternoon shower. We spend a relaxing afternoon aboard Cutter Loose, refreshed by relief from the heat and intense sunshine of the topics. On Sunday evening, the social event is the weekly barbeque at the PAYS shelter on the beach. This is yet another way for us to support the PAYS organization and to become acquainted with other cruisers. After dinner, a DJ transforms the event into a dancing extravaganza. It seems rather incongruous to be here in Dominica watching 60-something cruisers from around the world singing and gesticulating wildly to the sounds of YMCA by The Village People.
Portsmouth is another one-street town in a state of decline. It is lined with vegetable stands, bars, restaurants and businesses. There is simply an insufficient number of employed residents to support a vibrant business district. The bulk of employment is in the tourism sector of the economy. Walking the street, we are approached by a variety of taxi drivers and tour guides, some of which appear to be unstable.
The most recent form of investment in town is the new fisherman’s dock financed entirely by the Japanese government. Presumably, this is a way for Japan to insure a steady supply of seafood from around the world to meet the demands of the Japanese people. When we lock our dinghy to the fishing pier, we face the wrath of a fisheries employee who informs us that locking a dinghy is forbidden. He informs us that dinghy theft is not a factor in Dominica as it is in other islands such as St. Martin. This may be true, but we are taking no chances. The rule amongst cruising sailors in the Caribbean is “lock it or lose it”.
The beauty of Dominica lies not in its towns, but in the interior of the island where steep mountains with lush vegetation and tropical rainforests abound. On Monday, we share a rental car with buddy boat Dragon’s Toy for a self-guided tour of northern Dominica. Traveling north and east from Portsmouth, the first stop is in the seaside village of Calabishie where we stop at a small bakery to sample their wares.
Past the settlement of Marigot on the Atlantic side of the island, Pagua Bay comes into view thousands of feet below. Beyond Marigot is the Carib Territory, where Carib Indians sell their woven baskets and other wares at roadside kiosks. Turning inland, our drive takes us along the Pagua River through the Central Forest Reserve which offers outstanding views of the volcanic mountain tops and lush valleys below. The return to Portsmouth from Saint Joseph is along the west coast highway.
After a long day traversing the highways and byways of Dominica, dinner tonight is at Tomato’s on the campus of U.S. based Ross University School of Medicine in Portsmouth. This is a small slice of the Americana right here in Dominica. ESPN is on the TV. The menu features predictable Italian-American favorites. Faculty members and students are engaged in academic-speak over drinks on the patio. For a few hours on the eve of our departure from Portsmouth, it feels as if we have never left the States. Tomorrow, we will sail south to the town of Roseau, the capital city of Dominica.