Prospects for improving weather signal that the time has come to bid farewell to Martinique. The anchor is up at Sainte Anne on Tuesday, January 6th. Our plan is to transit the Leeward Islands with the goal of reaching Antigua by Friday, January 9th, before another episode of squally weather arrives in the Eastern Caribbean.
The first leg of our journey through the Leeward Islands takes Cutter Loose downwind past Diamond Rock, then north along the coast of Martinique to the coastal village of Sainte Pierre. Along the way, the metropolis of Fort-de-France looms large on the eastern horizon. There is still some punch remaining in the weather. Steady winds at 18 to 27 knots in the lee of Martinique provide for a powerful but comfortable broad reach to Sainte Pierre.
Having already cleared Customs in Sainte Anne, there is no compelling reason to go ashore at Sainte Pierre. Rain showers are frequent here in the shadow of the Mount Pelee volcano, as evidenced by the lush green hillsides that form the backdrop for this attractive coastal village. Today is no exception. Off and on rain showers throughout the late afternoon and evening create a cozy environment aboard Cutter Loose.
On Wednesday, the anchor is up at 6:15 AM for leg two from Sainte Pierre to Prince Rupert’s Bay on the island of Dominica. Clearing the lee of Martinique and entering the Dominica Channel, the wind is still blowing at 18 to 27 knots. Unlike yesterday, however, the seas in this open-Atlantic passage are every bit of 8 to 9 feet. Heavily reefed and on a beam reach, Cutter Loose makes short work of today’s assignment, delivering us to Portsmouth by 3 PM. A unique aspect of Dominica Customs is that one may clear in and clear out during the initial visit to the Customs office provided that one departs within seven days and further provided that the port of departure is the same as the port of arrival.
With Customs formalities behind us, the next stop is Tomato’s Café on the campus of Ross University. This establishment serves traditional Italian cuisine, which is rare in our Caribbean travels. We visited Tomato’s during a stop in Portsmouth last season. The food is good, the portions are large and the prices are geared primarily to the student market. To our dismay, Tomato’s is closed today. The students have begun to straggle in from semester break, but most of the campus-oriented establishments are closed or empty today. Disappointed and hungry, we settle for a meal at another local establishment.
The anchor is up in Prince Rupert’s Bay at 7:30 AM on Thursday, January 8th for a routine journey to the town of Deshaies on the northwest coast of the island of Guadeloupe. The weather is beginning to moderate, which treats us to a comfortable reach under sunny skies and in calmer 5 to 6 foot seas past the mountainous islands of Iles des Saintes to Guadeloupe. Given our early start and our rapid progress, a 4 PM arrival in Deshaies appears achievable. In light of yesterday’s unfulfilled hankering for Italian food, we can almost taste the delicious pizza that is served at one of our favorite restaurants on the waterfront next to the dinghy dock.
At 1 PM, just inside the lee of Guadeloupe near the town of Basse Terre, the wind dies to a whisper, as is its tendency. The sails are slapping in light and variable wind. This is nature’s message to furl the sails and motor to our destination.
Upon starting the engine, there is a loud noise and no propulsion. Curiously, the wheel stiffens, becoming difficult to steer. In the twinkling of an eye, the pure bliss of a delightful beam reach degenerates into despair. Something is terribly amiss here in paradise.
The first thought that comes to mind is an entanglement of line wrapped around the propeller and wedged into the rudder post. After all, we have seen several lobster trap floats since sailing into the shallower waters in the lee of Guadeloupe.
Donning a mask and snorkel for an underwater look at our predicament reveals a much different, more sinister story. The propeller shaft has become longer. The aft edge of the shaft is now butting up against the rudder post, impeding its movement. Back on board, a quick inspection of the engine compartment confirms the problem. The coupling that connects the propeller shaft to the transmission has parted. The remains of a sheared coupling bolt lie in the bilge. Cutter Loose is drifting at the whim of the current without steerage or propulsion.
The mind shifts into high gear, sifting through our circumstance. Absent a replacement coupling bolt, it is not possible to effectuate repairs at sea. Even if steerage could be regained, it is not possible to sail the boat in today’s light and variable wind conditions.
While this is a serious setback, it is not a dire emergency. Cutter Loose is safely afloat. Since she is being pushed gradually away from land by the current, there is no danger of running aground. It is clear, however, that we need to reach out for help from others.
Our “pan-pan” announcement on VHF 16 alerts other vessels in the vicinity to our circumstance. Almost immediately, a response is received from CROSSAG (an acronym that stands for Centre Regional Operational de Surveillance et de Sauvetage Antilles – Guyana). Through a system of repeaters In the Windward and Leeward islands, our announcement has been heard some 150 miles away at CROSSAG’s headquarters in Fort de France, Martinique. This does not come as a surprise. CROSSAG continually monitors VHF radio Channel 16 for distress calls. Each day in the Eastern Caribbean, CROSSAG broadcasts frequent emergency search and rescue messages in both French and English on Channel 16. CROSSAG is the equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard in the French West Indies. In a heavy French accent, the marine radio operator at CROSSAG refers to our vessel as “Cutter Loser”, which adds insult to injury.
After calmly recording our pertinent information (lat/lon, description of vessel, number of persons on board, etc.), CROSSAG telephones a private tow boat service in nearby Basse Terre, Guadeloupe. Within an hour, m/v Hooker arrives on the scene. Thankfully, Captain Marin Marcel speaks a few words of English. He maneuvers his 30+ foot fishing boat alongside Cutter Loose and heaves a heavy towing line on the foredeck. With gestures and a few key words in English, he explains that our destination is Marina Riviere Sens in the town of Basse Terre, about three miles from our present location.
Once inside the marina breakwater, Captain Marcel deftly maneuvers Cutter Loose alongside the fuel dock. It is now 3 PM on Friday afternoon. Although we never felt in danger, we are profoundly thankful to be safe in a marina. This eliminates the potential of a catastrophe. Now we face the prospect of securing the services of a diesel mechanic on a French island, not the least of which is overcoming the language barrier. Since the weekend is rapidly approaching, the first opportunity to connect with a diesel mechanic will be Monday at best. Given our experience with the waiting game here in the Caribbean, it could easily take a week to sort this out. Most importantly, however, Cutter Loose and her crew are safe and sound.
Within minutes, the Gendarmerie (Police) arrives at the fuel dock in their go-fast pursuit boat. They are armed with weapons. From their gestures, it is clear that they are asking us to move away from the fuel dock. They explain in French that they are here to take on fuel. We explain with gestures that our boat is dead in the water. They seem agitated with us, but become calmer when we invite them to tie alongside so that the fuel nozzle can be extended across the deck of Cutter Loose. After more maneuvering and gesturing, the Gendarmerie vessel is finally tied alongside. At this point, the office informs the officers that the marina’s tanks are temporarily out of fuel. Clearly frustrated by their inability to secure fuel, they shower us with multiple mercis and au revoirs and proceed on their way. Happily, we are not in trouble with the Gendarmerie.
Captain Marcel docks his boat nearby and climbs aboard Cutter Loose to have a look at our mechanical problem. Since he speaks some English and has a cellphone, we ask for his help in contacting a mechanic. Marin is not a mechanic, but he is a fisherman with mechanical skills and access to hardware. Marcel urges us to relax while he searches for a replacement bolt. Within 30 minutes, he returns with an assortment of nuts and bolts in hand. To our amazement and delight, the repair is completed by 6 PM.
We are pleasantly surprised by the attention granted to two American sailors late on a Friday afternoon in Guadeloupe. We breathe a heavy sigh of relief, not just because of the efficiency of the repair, but because we were confronted with a potentially dangerous circumstance on a perfectly calm day in flat water just three miles from Marin Marcel’s home port. It is frightening to think about what might have been. Had today’s predicament occurred during an ocean passage in heavy weather, it would have been a completely different story. The seas in the Eastern Caribbean are almost never as flat as they are today.
Since it is already dark, the decision is reached to spend the night at the marina. Several hours later as we are settling in for the night, there is a loud knock on the hull. It is the night manager of the marina. He informs us in French that under no circumstances are we permitted to overnight alongside the fuel dock, as this is a potentially dangerous situation. We explain that our repair was recently completed, the hour is late, we will depart at the crack of dawn and besides, there is no fuel available at the pumps. He will have none of this, insisting that we move immediately to another slip in the marina. We are guests in a foreign country, we do not speak French, we have no legal standing and we have no choice but to comply with his wishes.
Begrudgingly, we move Cutter Loose to another slip. This is a stern-to, med moor marina, which requires us to back a fat boat into a narrow berth wedged tightly between two nearby neighboring boats on either side. Working the bow, Pat must locate and retrieve two mooring floats, threading our port and starboard bow lines through eyelets in the mooring pennants while the boat is backing into the slip. The bow lines must be set such that the stern is close enough to the dock to jump off for access, but far enough away from the dock to avoid a loud bump in the middle of the night. This maneuver is difficult enough in the light of day let alone in darkness. Not surprisingly, our new French-speaking neighbors are alarmed at our late evening intrusion.
The marina manager collects a dockage fee in the amount of 32 Euros. He also requires photocopies of the boat’s official papers, i.e., the USCG registration certificate and our proof of insurance. Providing this information is somewhat disconcerting inasmuch as we have not cleared Guadeloupe Customs and Immigration because we had no intention of making landfall in Guadeloupe. Given the hour, the path of least resistance is to remain silent on this issue since we are not leaving the marina on foot. Besides, the Customs office is now closed and the yellow Q flag flying on our spreader clearly announces to the world that we have not yet cleared. Thankfully, the French islands are less rigid than their English counterparts about clearance procedures. It has been an interesting day…one that we do not wish to repeat…ever.
At 6 AM on Friday, Cutter Loose departs Marina Riviere Sens bound for Jolly Harbor, Antigua. Once out of the lee of Guadeloupe, we are treated to another delightful beam reach in 18 to 20 knots of wind. The active volcanic island of Montserrat passes to port as a vague image of Antigua finally comes into view on the northern horizon. Since the weather is expected to become squally over the next five days, we elect to take a mooring in the well protected inner harbor at Jolly.
Over 200 miles have passed under the keel of Cutter Loose since we departed Sainte Anne, Martinique four days ago. It is now time to pause for the purpose of attacking radar problems, a mechanical check of the propeller shaft alignment, laundry and other boat tasks.
Jolly Harbor is a cruiser friendly community. Besides the marina, boatyard and a brand new Budget Marine store, there are a dozen or more restaurants and pubs that are filled with cruisers during the late afternoon and evening. On Sunday afternoon, U.S. football fans gather in front of the large screen TV at The Crow’s Nest restaurant to watch the playoff games. As predicted, the weather turns sour with four full days and nights of line squalls that move through Jolly Harbor every 30 minutes.
On Monday, January 12th, Cutter Loose moves to a slip at Jolly Harbor Marina. The local Raymarine technician removes the radome to perform a bench check of the radar system at his shop. Then on Wednesday, the yard mechanic at Jolly Harbor Marina removes the transmission coupling for inspection. His micrometer test clearly shows that the opening for the propeller coupling has worn to the point of becoming oblong, inducing excess play that causes increased vibration and, in turn, stress on connecting hardware. The replacement coupling must be ordered from the U.S. It will be sent to Antigua via overnight delivery. Thus begins the waiting game for replacement parts to arrive and repairs to be effectuated.
We are determined to enjoy our stay here in Jolly Harbor, despite the inclement weather and circumstances. Each morning, we relax over a freshly brewed cup of espresso at the stylish Café Go Go Italian microvan right here in the marina. Mornings are spent checking e mail and working on boat tasks.
At lunchtime, a visit to Linda’s coffee shop in the adjoining boat yard provides generously-sized chicken roti for $10 EC each ($3.70 USD). One half of one of these tasty monsters satisfies even the heartiest of appetites.
Making new cruising friends at Jolly Harbor is as easy as saying hello to a neighboring boat or greeting a passerby on the docks. Happy hour celebrations with Paul and Carol from Colorado Springs aboard s/v Odysseus, trans-Atlantic sailors Graham and his son Alex from Toronto aboard s/v Salty Ginger, Toby and Sherry from Sarasota aboard m/v Corabelle , and Ed and Sue aboard s/v Angel Louise who recently completed an Atlantic Circle, including two winters in London and an inland cruise of European rivers. Everybody has fascinating travel stories to share.
The sun is shining brightly as squally weather dissipates on Thursday, January 15th resulting in an exodus of many yachts from the marina. There is pent-up demand on the part of many cruisers to move to new and interesting destinations. The improvement in the weather creates an opportunity for a late afternoon swim and a long walk on the beach. The proximity of the beach to the marina is one of the many amenities of Jolly Harbor as a cruising destination. It is a short 10-minute walk from the marina, past the Crow’s Nest pool and tennis courts, to a lovely one-mile, curved, white-sand beach with an abundance of shells.
A total of six Island Packets are docked at the marina and anchored in the harbor. A spontaneous IP rendezvous is organized at West Point, a centrally located bar and cafe overlooking the marina. Included in the celebration are Kewaydin, Pengelly, Island Time, Seabattical, The Dove and Cutter Loose.
On Saturday, January 17th, a major victory is achieved when the shiny new transmission coupling is installed. The story on the radar, however, is not as encouraging. The parts needed for the repair are on back order from the manufacturer and will not be available for several weeks. Rather than remain in Antigua waiting for the parts to arrive, this project will be deferred until we reach St. Thomas. The Raymarine dealer located in Red Hook will order the parts and advise us when they arrive, at which time we will schedule an appointment for the repair.
After ten days in Antigua, the time has come to move on. On Tuesday, January 20th, we will set sail for the island of St. Kitts.