On Wednesday afternoon, the anchor is up in St. Pierre. Cutter Loose is bound for Fort de France, about 15 miles to the south. Since it is late in the afternoon, the decision is reached to anchor for the night in the town of Schoelcher, a northern suburb of Fort de France. Victor Schoelcher devoted his life to the elimination of slavery and an end to French colonialism. As such, he is a national hero. Slavery was abolished in Martinique in 1848. Statues and buildings named in honor of Schoelcher can be found throughout Martinique.
On Thursday morning, we move on to the designated anchorage area next to Fort Saint-Louis in Fort de France, the capital of Martinique. By far, Fort de France is the most highly populated area in the Eastern Caribbean. The population of the city of Fort de France is 94,000. Another 135,000 Martiniquais live in the outlying suburbs, which are extensively developed. The total population of Martinique is 409,000. To place this in perspective, the entire island of St. Thomas has a population of 51,000 of which 11,000 reside in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie.
Fort de France is located in the northwest corner of an indentation in the west coast of Martinique that is nearly four miles from west to east and three miles from north to south. The Baie de Fort de France is a harbor with many sub-harbors, including a cruise boat terminal, a deep water container dock, islands, marinas, smaller suburban waterfront communities and resorts. All of these places are connected to Fort de France via ferry. It is not often that Cutter Loose is anchored in such close proximity to a major metropolitan city. Fort de France is quite accommodating to cruising sailors. There are no port fees and the huge dinghy dock is conveniently located next to a well-maintained and well-illuminated urban waterfront park known as La Savane. There is little wonder why cruisers are attracted to this area.
In La Savane, there is a headless statue of Empress Josephine (wife of Napoleon) who was born on a plantation in the nearby village of Trois Islets. Martinique natives are not particularly enamored with Josephine since she was raised on a plantation that made use of slave labor. The statue was decapitated in 1909, but the head has never been replaced. Martinique officials fear that it would only be a matter of time before the new head would suffer the same fate as the original head.
The most visible form of development in the harbor is the new 20 story Pointe Simon waterfront condo/office tower, which is in the final stages of construction. Ashore, Fort de France is a mixture of old buildings in need of repair alongside new and renovated buildings. As is the case with all urban areas, some streets are downright seedy in appearance while other places are quite attractive. A multi-modal transit center on the waterfront functions as a place where ferries, buses and taxis converge.
Schoelcher Library was built in Paris, disassembled, transported to Fort de France and reconstructed on a site next to La Savane. The former Hotel de Ville (City Hall) is being rehabilitated into a center for the performing arts. It’s courtyard connects to a popular intown shopping mall known as Cour Perrinon. Nearby, the French government is building a new federal appeals court.
A pedestrian mall has been created on the Rue de la Republique which makes it an ideal location to pause for a café and a pain de chocolat while observing the passers-by. The bells of Saint-Louis Cathedral toll every 15 minutes and can be heard throughout town and across the harbor.
Fort de France is a vibrant city. Its narrow sidewalks are filled during daylight hours with vendors and consumers. Every night, there is some form of entertainment on the waterfront plaza. Sometimes the music is quite good. While cruise boats occasionally call here, the town’s economy is geared largely to local consumption. There are a few glitzy jewelry stores, perfume shops and t shirt stores near the waterfront, but most of the stores sell basic clothing and housewares.
There are several open air markets scattered throughout the downtown where fruits, vegetables and flowers are sold. Given the French emphasis on food and fresh ingredients, it remains a mystery that the three grocery stores in the downtown are amongst the poorest quality we have experienced in the Caribbean. We are told that the larger, more modern grocery stores are located in suburban malls.
With the help of the tourist office, we locate a bicycle repair shop in downtown Fort de France. The owner is a bon homme who speaks passable English. When he becomes lost in our conversations, he nervously summons the neighboring shopkeeper whose English is near perfect. There is no problem repairing the broken spoke and trueing the wheel. However, in order to reconnect the rear brake, a special cable is required which is not available in Martinique. He apologizes profusely as he jury-rigs a fitting for the rear brake. He explains that he is a professional and that he is disappointed with his work on the rear brake because it is below his high standards. He asks us to purchase a new brake cable when we are in the U.S. this summer and return to Martinique with the cable next year so that he can finish the job.
As is the case with most towns in the Caribbean, there is no public Wi-Fi in Fort de France. Internet service is provided by a handful of restaurants and bars where access is free with the purchase of food and/or beverage. This means that we routinely carry our devices ashore in a waterproof bag.
There is more English spoken here than in other areas of Martinique. Almost every shop or restaurant has at least one employee that speaks a few works of English. Fashion and music in Fort de France are decidedly more American than French. Shops gear their marketing and loud music largely towards the gangsta hip-hop preferences of the young men. For mademoiselle, the emphasis is on day glow-colored, skin-tight clothing. Vive la difference!
Part of visiting new places requires a cultural adaptation to local toilette etiquette. For example, a trip to the rest room at the Cours Perrinon brasserie creates some anxious moments. In the traditional manner, there are two separate doors to the rest room…one for madames and the other for monsieur. However, once inside, both doors lead to a common lavatory area surrounded by a row of separate stalls that are used by both men and women. One’s initial instinct is to apologize and depart rapidly upon entering a rest room filled with members of the opposite sex. But here, the custom is to share and share alike. It is considered polite and appropriate to carry on cross-gender conversations at the lavatories.
On Sunday morning, April 7th, Erwan Tabarly (FR) crossed the finish line in Fort de France after 20 days and 22 hours to win the Transatlantic Betagne-Martinique single handed race. The Beneteau Figaro class race departed Brest, France on March 17th. Tabarly completed the 4,455 nautical miles with an average speed of 8.85 knots in his 33 foot one-design racing sailboat. The closest competitor arrived in Fort de France 35 minutes later. Gradually, the remainder of the fleet crosses the finish line, docking stern-to the quay at Pointe Simon. The accomplishment of these intrepid single handed sailors is nothing short of incredible. Yet their arrival in the harbor this morning goes largely unnoticed by Martiniquais.
The real excitement today is on the beach near the dinghy dock where spectators surround a fleet of yoles. Yole racing is a national obsession in Martinique. Yoles are a traditional, round hull, wooden sailboat constructed from a hollowed-out tree trunk. They have no rudder and no keel. The boat is steered by a single rotating oar affixed to the stern. A total of fourteen boats are lined up on the beach for today’s competition. The colorful rectangular sail plan is rigged and ready to go.
Each boat has a crew of 12. Each yole is 30 feet in length and made of heavy wooden construction with hiking poles that extend outward on each side. Acrobatic crewmembers slide out to the end of the bamboo hiking poles to counterbalance the heeling motion of the boat. At the starting gun, there is abundant screaming and splashing on the beach as crew members engage in a concerted effort to launch their heavy boats.
At first, the fleet makes slow progress through the anchorage. As the wind fills the sails, the boats begin to move more rapidly and there is more shouting as the yoles weave their way through the anchored boats. After two windward legs and a downwind run, the final leg is a reach to the finish line at the beach.
Today, it is an exciting photo finish between the two lead boats. As the finishing horn sounds, there is a loud cheer from the winning crew and their supporters on the beach. After lunch, there is a second race. When the racing is over, the beach party begins and lasts well into the evening.
On Monday, Cutter Loose is headed south across the bay some three miles to the peninsula of Anse Mitan on the south shore of the Baie de Fort de France. Anse Mitan is a resort community with hotels, condos, a marina and a small, upscale business district with the usual collection of touristy restaurants and shops. As such, it is the Bainbridge Island of Fort de France.
Many cruisers prefer to anchor off the beach at Anse Mitan and take the ferry to Fort de France when the spirit moves. Bus service is also available from Anse Mitan to neighboring towns and Fort de France. A short bus ride away is the tiny village of Trois Islets, also fronting on the south shore of the Baie de Fort de France. Napoleon’s wife Josephine was born on the family plantation near here, now in ruins. We will resume our journey south on Wednesday. In the meantime, we will enjoy the pleasures of Anse Mitan.