Sunday, August 7, 2016

Iles des Saintes, Dominica, Guadeloupe

Our new life is one month old. Things have fallen into something like predictability, mysteries have been solved, confidences gained, habits curtailed, and routines established. Already the boat has come slightly undone. We imagine returning with the boat in much the same shape as when we found her. This time the wear will be from use instead of neglect. Smudges stand out on the topcoat from careless dingy approaches, the staysail has been torn and patched, and much of the teak has found its way out of the varnish to silver in the sun. The wind and water don't stand down from watch. Around the clock they work to defeat our barriers, turning the weakness of metals into rust, sagging the fabrics around the cockpit. The deck box I once cherished was given away to the first willing fisherman in Iles des Saintes. Unsanded and unpainted epoxy mounds cover the holes were that box once was. Maybe we will sand and paint, maybe not, but the V-berth is as dry as an archaeological dig.

The elements have worked on us as well. We are all shades of bright white and brown, covered with cuts, bruises, and big flakes of sea salt stand out on our knees and forearms. The rules of this life are abundantly clear. A beautiful boat does not matter; a dry boat is non-negotiable. Refrigeration isn't necessary. It's actually quite freeing to give up the scleping of ice for a warm rum punch. It also
feels better to eat plain pasta than risk throwing a bag of chicken overboard. We have learned to provision sparingly. We don't eat half as much as we anticipated, and everything goes bad very quickly, though our vacuum-sealed Sam's Club Gruyere has only improved after three weeks in the bilge. Showering is also overrated; if you both smell it doesn't matter. These concessions to the sailing life make icy bottles of beer and fresh water showers truly exquisite.

People like to say that the two best days of boat ownership are the day you buy the boat and the day
 you sell the boat. I hate that saying. The best two days for us are the first day we arrive in port and the first day we are underway. Those days are filled with the unknown. I love when we approach a new port and what seemed like solid shoreline defines itself, revealing an entrance and a protected
harbor.  We locate the mooring field or anchorage, and making our plan for approach, I look at the turquoise water and the little harbor town for signs of life. Our boat finds its swing on the line and we take the dingy ride to shore, at first so adventurous and quickly so routine. We usually look for cold beer first and find a terrace in the sun where Max can order a Heineken and I a Carib. Coldest beers so far were from Loft Cafe in Rousseau, Dominica. Also the cheapest. Our first night in port combines three of my favorite things: cold drinks, clean sheets, and a thorough shower on the deck.

In Iles des Saintes, our second stop, we enjoyed Napoleon's legacy through pate and butter smeared on fresh baguettes and steep hikes to forts packed with goat and hermit crab squatters. We walked the small town day after day, snorkeled the reefs, ate at a fancy restaurant with our table in the
sand, and worked on the boat for the first half of each day. We attempted to fix the leaking toe rail, extracted and re-bedded key portholes, and gave the dingy a complete overhaul. After six days we were done with Iles des Saintes. We loaded up on baguettes, petite cans of foie gras, rich French butter, and set out for Dominica. The truth is that if we start to feel like we are on vacation too much, something essential is lost. So now we know to move on after about six days.


I have been to Dominica once before, with the exceptional crew of the Harvey Gamage, and have always wanted to return. Iles des Saintes to Dominica is a drastic cultural shift that exposes the sordid history of colonial powers in the Caribbean. It was owned by the French, the British, and the natives still live in the rugged interior where no European was willing to follow.

We rented a mooring from a fisherman named Markus in one hundred feet of water directly in front of his corrugated sheet metal house where he lived with his pregnant wife. I liked Markus and he demonstrated exactly the
welcoming spirit that makes one return to Dominica. He had recently dropped a brand new outboard off his boat in that depth of water and was pretty pissed about it. He told us the story within a few minutes, while handing me the mooring line, and I often saw him rowing around, looking down in order to see it.

Dominica is not for the faint of heart. Iles de Saintes is where the faint of heart should go. Dominica is steep, rainy jungle and dark sand beaches. Reefs bubble with volcanic activity, 7 or 9 active volcanoes (depending on the rasta with whom you are speaking) disappear into the clouds, and 365 rivers flood and ebb with frequent rain.

The streets of the capital, Rousseau, are not pristine, or even clean, but they burst with culture. Markets bear unidentifiable fruits and women sell fried flying fish for pennies. Young men ride through town in the beds of pickup trucks filled with coconuts, machetes on their shoulders. Everyone wants a Toyota. The interior has the topography of a tropical Princess Bride. There is a boiling lake, a valley of desolation, dense jungle filled with wild ginger and turmeric, deep gorges with marble smooth curves, bubbling sulfur mud and strange birds singing in the canopy.

Max and I hiked to the boiling lake with a local guide named Kenny. He was loquacious to say the least, knew everything about the history of Dominica, the trees, the birds, but really wanted to talk about Donald Trump. Specifically, he wanted us, as Americans, to answer for Trump. There was an amazing moment,13 miles into a 14 mile hike, in mudslide level rains when he stopped and demanded that we explain, until he understood, the primary process in the US.  We explained it, not easily, shouting through the rain, and when he understood, he became actually angry. He shouted that it couldn't be true, but we insisted. I saw a slight change in his eyes as he made a realization and then shouted, "Government is shit in America too, not just Dominica," and smiled. I really, really love this island. Go there. Hike the boiling lake. Ask for Kenny.

After Dominica we sailed north to Guadeloupe. Max flew to Germany to be with his family for the funeral of their beloved grandfather and I am on a mooring in a picturesque harbor with
turtles for friends and boat projects underway. Of course I miss Max, but it's good for me to have all the boat responsibility. I have finally begun to actually think about conserving power, run the engine when necessary, and check on every little thing over and over. After a sleepless and stormy night where our mooring line parted and the safety line almost went, I have become an expert on proper mooring line tying techniques, and check ours to analyze chafing every hour. I have taken on all Max's paranoia.

Right now, however, the water is flat, clear enough to see the turtles eating the grass at the bottom, and the sun is setting on the bright red steeple that dominates my view of town. Max returns Wednesday, and Thursday we set off for El Parque Tayrona, Colombia.
Atop Fort Josephine, Iles a cabrit

Iles des Saintes

Iles des Saintes

Iles des Saintes

Main Street, Terre de Haut

Iles des Saintes Harbor

Passage to Dominica

Champagne Reef, Dominica

Kenny on the way to the boiling lake

My disgusting foot looking extra weird

Stormy waters in Guadeloups

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Max and his lil friend in Iles des Saintes