The week of February 24th is devoted to a series of southerly day sails through the Leeward Island chain. Our objective for the week is to reach Fort de France, Martinique in time for Carnival celebration.
The marine weather forecasters have been predicting a period of relatively settled weather during the coming week. That’s good news because Cutter Loose will complete three inter-island passages with Atlantic exposure during the coming week. It is unclear whether the Eastern Caribbean is settling into the more benign weather pattern of spring, or whether slightly lighter trade winds and smaller waves are simply a temporary phenomenon. Because each of our destinations will be slightly east of south this week, the wind angles will be tighter than the delightful broad reaches we enjoyed whilst sailing north through the Leeward Island chain, just a few weeks ago. Tighter wind angles translate to more robust passages, pounding through the easterly swell with decks frequently awash in blue water.
Under sunny skies on Monday 2/24, Cutter Loose departs her mooring in Jolly Harbor, Antigua at 7:45 AM. Our destination today is Deshaies, Guadeloupe, some 56 miles to the south. Clearing Pelican Island on the southeastern corner of Antigua, it is a straight shot to Guadeloupe. The weather is cooperating today as winds have backed slightly north of east. With 15 to 20 knots of wind on the beam and moderate 5 to 6 foot seas, Cutter Loose is on the express track to Deshaies with speeds consistently in excess of 8 knots over ground.
The anchor is down in Deshaies at 2:40 PM. This is a popular harbor for northbound and southbound yachts. Boats arriving in late afternoon are relegated to the outer fringe of the harbor where both the water depth and the roll from the swell is greater than in the relative protection of the inner harbor. Cutter Loose is anchored in 40 feet, but the holding is good. Besides, this is just a one-night stand and the weather is calm. We will be moving on in the morning.
Our mid-afternoon arrival allows plenty of time to dinghy ashore to clear in at Le Pelican, a clothing and accessories store. The Customs computer is located on a tiny shelf at the rear of the store. To reward the cook with a reprieve from galley duty, the plan involves an early dinner ashore tonight at a terrific little pizza restaurant on the waterfront. We sampled the pizza here in March of 2013 and it was quite good. Thoughts of this pie have been tempting us all afternoon. As fortune would have it, the pizza shop is closed on Monday and Tuesday. How could this be? Pizza shops are never closed! Rather than wait until 7 PM for other restaurants to open for dinner, we purchase our daily baguette and dinghy back to the boat for dinner.
On Tuesday morning 2/25, it is back in the dinghy for a quick trip to the patisserie for café and croissant before shoving off for Pigeon Island, just 12 miles to the south. Pigeon Island is home to the Jacques Cousteau National Park, an important diving and snorkeling destination on the west coast of Guadeloupe. Cousteau brought the intricate reef system surrounding Pigeon Island to the attention of the world by declaring it to be one of the world’s top dive sites. An underwater memorial statue of Cousteau is located within the park.
At 1 PM, Cutter Loose is at anchor in Malendure Bay on the mainland. From here it is a one-half mile dinghy ride to Pigeon Island and its smaller adjacent sister island, Petit Ilet. Between and at the edges of the islands, there are numerous moorings for the commercial dive boats that transport snorkelers and scuba divers from Malendure Beach. Most of the activity this afternoon is confined to the warm shallow water between the islands, an area that is well protected from wind and wave. However, on the northwest side of Pigeon Island is another shallow protected cove that has remained relatively undetected by the dive boat customers. This underwater panorama is filled with displays of huge elkhorn coral and abundant schools of assorted tropical fish feeding in and around the backdrop of the reef wall that surrounds this cove. In terms of the variety of fish and coral, this is one of our best snorkeling experiences ever.
Malendure Bay is a convenient base location for snorkeling at Pigeon Island, but its reputation as a rolly anchorage is well deserved. Under cloudy skies and light showers, the anchor is up in Malendure Bay at 7:45 AM on Wednesday 2/26. Our destination today is a group of islands known as Iles Des Saintes, about 28 miles south of Pigeon Island.
The first 20 miles of this journey is in the relative protection of the lee of Guadeloupe. At Pointe du Vieux Fort on the southernmost tip of Guadeloupe, the “cape effect” instantly produces 25 sustained knots of wind as Cutter Loose rounds the corner and heads southeast towards the harbor at Bourg Des Saintes. The final eight miles of today’s journey are spent motorsailing dead into the wind with abundant pitching, rolling and waves crashing on the foredeck. This is the essence of cruising. On certain days, the wind is our friend, delivering us comfortably to our destination in record time. On other days, the wind is a deterrent.
Almost everybody seems to love Iles Des Saintes. This grouping of small islands attracts cruising sailboats, boutique cruise ships and boatloads of tourists aboard day ferries from Point a Pitre, Guadeloupe’s largest town. The vibrant town of Bourg Des Saintes (the sole settlement on the islands) has placed 80 moorings in the harbor for visiting cruising sailboats.
Today, all of the moorings are filled. Cutter Loose is relegated to an anchorage in an outlying section of the harbor. There are three boutique cruise boats anchored in the harbor nearby. Launches begin to ferry passengers ashore at 8 AM, which is just about the time when the first ferry arrives at the town dock from Point a Pitre.
By 9 AM, this small, lineal village is instantly filled with visitors. Some are participants in narrated tours while others proceed directly to the ubiquitous motor scooter rental shops scattered throughout town. Village streets and the island’s very limited road network become saturated with noisy motor scooters weaving in and out of the parade of pedestrians perusing the clothing, souvenir and ice cream shops. A new ferry arrives at the town dock every hour.
Many businesses close their doors from noon until 3 or 4 PM, at which time the waterfront restaurants become filled to capacity. By 5 PM, most of the day tourists have boarded the ferries for the return trip to Guadeloupe, whereupon the town returns to the sleepy village setting that we remember fondly from our visit here aboard Relationship in 1997.
In many ways, the village has become a victim of its commercial success, while the much larger port cities of Basse Terre and Point a Pitre located five miles away on the mainland of Guadeloupe appear to have fallen into irreversible decline.
On Thursday 2/27, after an early morning visit to the Customs office and a quick stop for café and pain chocolat, Cutter Loose is bound for Prince Rupert Bay on the “Nature Island” of Dominica. This Atlantic exposure passage proves challenging, primarily because the wind direction is slightly south of east today. This translates to a 60-degree-wind angle and 26 miles of bashing to windward.
Despite the fact that this is not her favorite point of sail, Cutter Loose heels obediently and withstands a four-hour drenching as she delivers us safely to the town of Portsmouth in Prince Rupert Bay. After clearing Customs, our reward is a hearty meal at Tomato, an open air Italian restaurant on the campus of Ross University Medical School in Portsmouth. This is quite a treat, inasmuch as Italian restaurants are a rare commodity in the Eastern Caribbean. Despite the accumulation of layer upon layer of salt in recent weeks, Cutter Loose is still looking her best when we return in the soft light of late afternoon.
At 7 AM on Friday 2/28, the salt water washing machine is cranked up once again as we undertake the 60-mile journey from Portsmouth, Dominica to Sainte Pierre, Martinique. This is the third and final open ocean passage of the week, with today’s sail a close reach with a 70 degree wind angle. Cutter Loose is slightly more comfortable and powerful at this wind angle in comparison to those of recent days, which translates to a slightly smoother, faster ride, mowing down the moderate five foot easterly swells with confidence.
After a long day on the water, it is comforting to be able to make out the land features of majestic Mount Pelee, towering over the town of Sainte Pierre. In another hour or so, Cutter Loose will be riding comfortably at anchor in the harbor. The contrary and fickle Eastern Caribbean wind machine responds to these comforting, anticipatory thoughts by delivering a series of instantaneous 30-knot wind gusts that sends Cutter Loose rounding up chaotically into the wind. After much flapping and flopping of sails, Cutter Loose is back on a broad reach while we further reduce our already diminished sail plan. Entering the placid harbor at Sainte Pierre, we realize that we are most vulnerable in our moments of inattention and distraction.
Having arrived less gracefully than anticipated in Martinique, we leave behind the Leeward Islands and enter the Windward Islands. From here to Grenada, the island chain bends ever so slightly to the southwest, placing the easterly trade winds abaft of the beam, thus rendering our passages smoother, drier, quieter and faster. At this point in the winter cruise, the pace will diminish to a slow crawl south towards Grenada, taking the time to savor the delights of Martinique and the Grenadines along the way.