First of all let me apologize for being so long in doing an update. Getting internet proved to be much more difficult when we left the Virgin Islands, and surprisingly there has been so little time when I did get a good connection. Time flies when you are having fun. Anyway, we are now at a marina getting everything secure before we fly home in a few days. So with a good connection and free time, I will start this update now and hopefully finish it before we leave for home..
We have completed our training session for how to be good cruisers. We have done a crossing, explored new lands and cultures, had a variety of nature watching, and learned how to shop and search for needed items, and do it in a foreign language, and of course some exploring Before we left I felt that my sailing and survival skills were reasonably well developed, but now I look back on how much we have learned. And we have been fortunate to get our lessons in a generally hospitable environment. The next part of our trip to Bermuda and the Azores will be much more challenging, but I feel much better prepared now.
What have we learned?
Crossing - My last update was about the 3 day crossing that we did. A good learning exercise. We were able to experience a multi-day crossing with a full moon, relatively co-operative winds, and a simple landing at the end., making it relatively easy However, we are able now to visualize some of the challenges and conditions of a real crossing.
New lands - The Caribbean really has a variety of cultures. The Virgin Islands and the northern islands of St. Martin and Antigua are principally an American based culture. Different people, different environment, but similar enough that when we came back to the Virgin Islands, it felt like familiar home territory. The southern English islands of St. Lucia, St.Vincent, and Grenada have pockets of the consumer culture of America, but mostly it is very poor. Here you meet sa impler culture, with minimal consumerism. The major retail outlets are the markets where fresh produce and fish and meat can be bought. And there is a large rural population where individuals do simple farming and fishing to sell at the markets. There are grocery stores and department stores like in Canada, but certainly not the selection and quality. A special mention for Barbuda. This island is low and has a contnuous beach around the entire island. Here you can anchor off of a 10 mile beach and see no buildings and share it with only 2 or 3 other boats. No other island in the Caribbean compares. The French islands constantly have you thinking of Europe. These are the wealthiest islands, and well supported by France. They have good roads and public buildings, and most of the private buildings are well kept, and the most modern cars of anywhere else. Shopping was a treat as the variety and quality of food was excellent. The French islands were the only ones with a significant amount of wind mills. To the extent that the smaller islands supplied all of there electrical needs from wind and even exported some to the larger islands...And the Dutch islands were probably the biggest surprise. They spoke English and used US dollars, but all of the government buildings and police were in Dutch. These also were very well kept islands, with the island of Saba being virtually a fairyland. Saba is a circle about 3 km wide, but 1 km high! The only anchorage is typically quite rolly, and requires a 20 minute dinghy ride in open ocean to get to the only landing point. We stayed 2 nights, and the day we arrived and the day we left it would not have been possible to take the dinghy to shore. Fortunately the middle day was good. At the landing spot there is only a power plant and a tourist shop, and there we arranged for a taxi to tour us around the island. The first town is 1200 ft (400m) high, and the houses go up from there. The roads and public buildings were very well kept, and the houses (by cordial consensus) were all white with red roofs, and brown or green trim at the doors and windows. The whole effect was somewhat surreal, with the fairyland order to the development, and almost everywhere you were you could look almost straight down to the ocean 1500 feet below.
The islands were all Caribbean, but certainly there differences were significant. The most consistent feature was that almost all of the people were friendly and helpful.
Nature - In my first update I talked about the nature watching, and it has only gotten better. We have been surrounded by dolphins many times, seen countless turtles, never tire of the flying and jumping fish. In the last few weeks we have seen several rays, and were quite startled to see them jump. I saw a large fish jump but it was too far away to identify what it was. I would have said it was a shark from the coloration, but did not think that sharks jumped. About 5 minutes later, to answer the question, it jumped about 20 feet from the boat identifying it was a ray (rays and sharks are the same family). And the birds are spectacular. We watched a group of pelicans and boobies working an area over what appeared to be a weed bed. Where there is sand the water is a very light blue, where there is weed or grass it is dark, almost black. However, I noticed that the weed bed seemed to move. We realized it was a school of small fish 200-300 feet long, by 50 feet wide by 10 feet deep. And they were so close together that the water was black! The birds were constantly feeding on them. My neice went to investigage with mask and snorket, but quickly swam back after a short investigation. She thought that she had seen several sharks in the school, but we later realized that they were tarpon 4-6 feet long. The most fantastic was several whale sightings, and on two occasions when we were under sail we were able to come right up to them as they rested on the surface before the next dive. We believe they were sperm whales, and would have been close to 50 feet long, and we got to within 50 feet of them. Magnificient. Also, we got to within 100 feet of a large hammer head shark resting on the surface.
Shopping - Everyday grocery shopping was always interesting, just from the complexity of the event compared to at home. First you have to get to shore, and hopefully at a place that is walking distance to a grocery store. Then locate the best store or group of stores for your grocery needs, and figure out what food items are the best value in this part of the world. Don't be buying pears when the bananas were grown a mile away! And be prepared to do it all in French. Then be properly equipped with bags to lug it back to the dinghy and on to the boat. Of course shopping for specialty marine items, hardware, or utensils becomes ever more complex. When it was a very specific item we termed it as "questing". An item like an inverter, a generator, or a battery charger had very specific requirements. They always required an effective search in the right place. Even toasters and mixers have to match the electrical system on the boat, and so only could be bought on the French islands. Then of course there were more exotic quests. We had seen some drinking glasses in a restaurant in the small French island of Iles des Saintes. We enquired if we could buy some, and were told no, but were given the name of the store in Pointe a Pitre, a main town in Guadeloupe. All of this in French by the way. So we set off for Pointe a Pitre, found the location of the store by going to the tourist information (in French). We determined that the best way to get there was to take the boat up a river and anchor, and take the dinghy to a highway bridge, and then walk a mile to the store. The directions we had were not good so we had to ask multiple times for directions (in French). The last place we asked they started giving directions, and then the man said to come with him, and he put us in his car and drove us there! I said that the people were friendly and helpful. Glasses bought we headed back to the boat, and enjoyed a rewarding cocktail with the new glasses.
Exploring - Of course each island required an appropriate exploration. Some the anchorages were the attraction, at others a circumnavigation was required to see the interesting coastline. There were volcancos to climb, rivers to explore, and scooter and bus trips to see the attractions of the interior. They had cock fights in the French islands and I am sure that they would be interesting, but we were told it was not the season. There were restored forts and museums. The most interesting one was the museum at St. Pierre on Martinique. In 1900 this was the largest and most active trading city in the Caribbean. It had a significant infrastructure and even a large elegant live theater. However, the town was at the base of a 4000' volcano, and in 1902 the volcano exploded. It exploded with the force of an atom bomb. The town had 30,000 inhabitants, and there were 12 ships at anchor. Two people survived, a criminal in a stone cell, and a cobbler in his wine cellar. In the museum there were pictures of the town before and after the exlosion. Before you had a very active and wealthy town. After,...no buildings stood, just pieces of walls.
Not a very long update considering how long it has been since the last one, but hopefully it covers what we have done. I will head back home on Tuesday, and be back for two weeks, then we return to head for Bermuda. I will try and keep in touch more often.
All my best......Doug.