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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Greetings from Point a Pitre, Guadeloupe March/April/May 2002 

From Grenada we have worked our way slowly up the East Caribbean island chain visiting the windward islands and the French Antilles.  Guadeloupe is as far north as we’ll go before turning south again to get beyond the reach of hurricanes, which can start any time from June onwards.  Hurricanes aside, we have been very aware this year of the volcanic activity in these islands.  Just north of Grenada an under-water volcano called Kick’em Jenny is on ‘amber alert’ so boats have to give the area a wide berth.  Soufriere Hills in the south of Montserrat has been active for 6 years now and shows no sign of stopping.  It is spewing up ash and stones as I write and boats are warned to keep five miles off.  This is a shame because we had planned to go there.  We heard that the few people who have stayed on the island (about 2000) are delighted to have visitors as they feel demoralised and forgotten.  A documentary on Guadeloupe TV showed the extent of the destruction, covering a third of the island, and the despair of people living with a volcano that can erupt again at any time. 


On Martinique this year, 8 May marked the centenary of the terrible eruption of Mount Pelee in1902, when the town of St Pierre and its 30,000 people were annihilated in two minutes.  You can still see the ruins of what was once a great cultural and economic capital, the ‘Petit Paris des Antilles’ which had some fine buildings including a theatre.  The capital was moved to Fort de France and St Pierre is now just a small fishing community.  We climbed Mount Pelee and saw the vast crater, looking very innocent, and completely overgrown with the mosses, lichens and flowering plants that characterise the upper slopes of these mountains in the tropics, (charmingly named ‘elfin woodland’).  We couldn’t stay for 8 May as the harbour is quite small and part of the ceremony was to assemble 40 classic sailing vessels in memory of those which sank.  It must have been a moving sight, including the three masted barque, ‘Belem’, which by chance a hundred years ago was in Martinique but in a different harbour, and so escaped.  (We saw the ‘Belem’ in Bermuda on our first voyage, on a leg of the Tall Ships race.)


Here on Guadeloupe we climbed La Soufriere, a Volcano 1400 metres high and, it seems, always in cloud.  It was very wet and cold the day we chose, and quite eerie with the mist swirling around the jagged craters at the summit and vents belching out hot sulphurous fumes.  This spooky atmosphere contrasts strangely with the prettiness of the elfin woodland; bright gleaming mosses, tiny flowers and delicate grey-green lichens. 


The name Soufriere crops up everywhere and we have become used to the ‘rotten egg’ smell wafting over our anchorages.  In St Lucia we anchored off the fishing port of Soufriere, so called because of sulphur springs on the hills behind.  The anchorage is beautiful, under two volcanic peaks at the south of the island, the Pitons.  Dominica also has a town called Soufriere, for the same reason, though Dominica must hold claim to the most dramatic sites of the earth’s crust in the Caribbean. It has a whole boiling lake, reached via the ‘valley of desolation’, an area of bubbling fumeroles where you can hear the hot gases sighing and the sulphurous mist obscures your fellow hikers.  The ground is stained brown, black and orange from the minerals, and covered in yellow sulphur crystals.  No elfin woodland here!  But one day on Dominica we went to a beach, aptly named Champagne, where you can experience sulphur vents under the sea.  The gases rise to the surface forming slender swaying columns of bubbles glittering like diamonds.  The effect is a magical underwater world of tropical fish and coral and rocks enhanced by the sparkling ‘champagne’.  All this is happening just a few metres off the beach, so very easy snorkelling;  and the surprising thing about Dominica is that you always seem to have these goodies to yourself.  Tourism has not made much of an impact here, yet.


Another plus re the ‘soufriere’ is the warm pools where you can relax weary limbs after hiking.  These are popular with local people whom we have joined in St Lucia, Dominica and here on Guadeloupe to laze and chat in warm soft water which, they claim, cures all ills and leaves you looking younger, - in our dreams!   Also,  mountains means rivers and waterfalls, refreshing swims in deep pools.  Dominica has literally dozens of waterfalls.  But Guadeloupe has the most spectacular, the ‘Chutes du Carbet’, three impressive falls, the second one cascading down 110 meters (too violent to venture in to this one).  Walking in the shade of huge trees under the canopy of the rain forest is one of the delights of the islands, and a great relief from the hot sun.


Sailing has been good, speeding through the open sea in the windy gaps between the islands, and cruising more serenely in the protected waters in the lea of the islands.  We have seen whales twice off Dominica (where the sea is 1000 meters deep just two miles offshore) and some quite athletic dolphins.  Nick’s brother Chris was on Dominica with some friends and they joined us for a whale watch trip.  We got lucky and saw a young sperm whale leap right out of the water.  We had watched it with its mum (?) for quite a while and seen lots of blowing and a few dives.  Chris and his friends have contacts on Dominica and one night we were invited to a beach picnic where musicians played African drums and we ate shark salad and bakes and barbecued chicken, and people told stories and recited poems.  It was supposed to be a moonlit night, but the sky was overcast and it rained on and off.  A tarpaulin was rigged across two pickup trucks to keep the food dry, and the candles placed around kept going out  - just like home! 


It always feels special to be involved with people who live in the country you’re visiting.  One Sunday afternoon we stopped to watch a village cricket match.  It was a relaxing scene on the edge of the forest.  The spectators were very welcoming and we had some salt fish sandwiches from a stall and our first taste of tamarind balls, exquisitely sweet/sour and very addictive.  Sometimes of course, arriving by boat, we get more attention than we want from enterprising young men who are keen to help us moor up, sell us fruit, clean the hull, guide us to the nearest waterfall and so on.  But it’s always very good humoured and when we do use these services they are good. We have plenty of opportunity to watch the fishermen.  Sometimes you look out in the morning to see them laying a net just yards away.  On all the islands they blow a conch shell to announce their catch – you can always be sure your fish is fresh.


On our last night in Dominica  we were anchored in the north of the island in Prince Rupert Bay, off the village of Portsmouth.  Nick and I and two other yachties were invited to eat at the home of Judith, home being a small one-room shack.  She had set a table outside and we had breadfruit baked in a wood fire with land crabs she had caught the night before, and pumpkin and christophenes.  She was playing a tape of Soca hits from the Dominica carnival and singing along.  Her favourite was ‘Give me back my vote …. you lie, you lie!' as she claims the government does nothing to change the lives of people like herself.  People in Portsmouth do indeed seem very poor.  But she is a cheerful energetic woman and an excellent cook.  We sat finishing our beers as she carried off the pots to the communal tap singing away as she washed up.


Including our trip 2 years ago, we have now spent about 8 months in the East Caribbean.  Prevailing winds and our plan to be in Venezuela for the hurricane season have made it impossible to visit Cuba or Jamaica, which would have been new and different.  But there is always more to see and more to learn on these islands.  On St Lucia we went to a plantation house where they still process cocoa using equipment from over 100 years ago, the firing huts burnt black, the beans drying in the sun on wooden racks which run on iron rails to slide under cover when it rains.  With time on our hands, we never miss a museum or a bookshop, so we continue to absorb the history of Arawaks and Caribs, the battles amongst the Europeans to colonise the islands (which are littered with forts), the horrendous years of slavery and its legacy, the ups and downs of the sugar industry (alive and well on Guadeloupe and Martinique) and the banana industry (struggling, so please buy Windward Island bananas in your supermarket!) and the ever-perplexing issue of tourism as the last resort.  Every time we buy a newspaper there is an article about tourism;  one worry is the destruction of the environment to build fancy resorts, another is the competition from the rest of the world  - the Caribbean is perhaps not such a popular destination as it used to be.  But we have happily added our tourist dollars to the economy, worth every cent, and now we are heading south towards Venezuela.  We will stop in the Grenadines and in Grenada where Nick’s dad will join us for a while.


Hope the summer at home is beginning to bloom.  It rains constantly here.

Best wishes from Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008