Settling into Martinique

Boundless spent a full month anchored in Martinique, allowing us to really settle in to the Caribbean cruising life, further polish our emerging French language skills, and eat unlimited baguettes.

Beware the Channels

Boundless departed The Saintes in Guadeloupe in the late afternoon such that we would sail overnight and then arrive at Le Marin, Martinique in the morning. We planned to sail in the lee of Dominica and Martinique (i.e., on the west side of Dominica and Martinique where the land blocks the wind so the wind and seas are much calmer). We decided to do 3 hour watches for the whole trip since it was mostly at night. Andy and I took the first watch and were quickly reminded by the big wind and seas that it had been a while since we last sailed offshore.

In the eastern Caribbean, the “channels” between the islands are notorious. Not only do you not have the mountainous islands blocking the easterly wind and seas, but near the ends of the island you also get a ton of “cape effect” which amplifies the conditions. And there are the occasional rain squalls. Well as it worked out, the Kristin/Erin watches covered both of the crazy channel crossings, while the Doug/Andy watches covered mostly flakey winds behind the islands. Really, I didn’t plan it that way. 🙂 Kristin and Erin had a couple of crazy rain storms during the night, including one where the winds and our angle of heel increased so fast I slid right off the bed (and then went on deck to help Kristin reef the sails). The wind went from less than 6 knots to more than 30 knots in a matter of minutes along with blinding rain. Kristin says this was possibly the scariest moment she’s ever had sailing.

In the morning, we sailed by Martinique’s capital Fort-de-France and rounded the southwest end of the island, passing close by Diamond Rock. Did you know that in the early 1800’s Diamond Rock was commissioned as a ship HMS Diamond Rock by the British (a “stone frigate”)? They used pulleys & ropes to haul cannons and supplies to the top to defend the strategic seaway.

Two Huge Anchorages

The main cruiser destination in Martinique are the sister harbors of Le Marin and Sainte-Anne on the southeast coast. In each of these harbors, there are hundreds of sailboats anchored – by far the most populated anchorages I have seen.

Le Marin is the much bigger of the two towns, with a major marina, numerous restaurants, marine service providers, grocery stores, etc. When we first arrived, we hunted for a good anchoring spot in the close-in Le Marin anchorage since high winds were in the forecast.  However, it was way too crowded for us — which usually means everyone has their anchor line too short to be effective in high winds. So we anchored in the outer Le Marin anchorage where there is much more space to have lots of anchor scope.

It was convenient being near Le Marin since there are lots of restaurants, shops, and a big grocery store with their own dinghy dock. However, after the high winds dissipated, we made the move to the more chill anchorage in Sainte-Anne.

Sainte-Anne is small somewhat sleepy town, with just enough restaurants and stores to make it a viable long-term anchorage. The town is on the same scale as Deshaies, Guadeloupe, but nicer. While Sainte-Anne has less going on commercially than nearby Le Marin, it is the center of cruiser community activities.

And Sainte-Anne has a number of popular beaches, walking paths, and a nice hike up to the local church’s Stations of the Cross hillside park.

In addition to all of the anchored boats, there is a ton of small boat activity in the bay, including dinghies zipping about, insane kite surfers, snorkelers, and the classic Yole sailing races.

The Yole is a 36 foot canoe-like sailboat with no keel. So it requires a large crew to hike out on poles to keep the vessel from capsizing in the big trade winds. Yole racing has a huge following here and is a semi-professional sport. It was great fun to watch!

Boundless Gets Social

One thing that we were lacking during our first six months afloat was significant interaction with other cruisers. Well that changed in Sainte-Anne. There is a Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning VHF radio cruiser-run English-language “net” where everyone in the Le Marin and Sainte-Anne anchorages can tune in to hear the weather forecast, ask for help with boat problems, and learn about the upcoming social events. Then the rest of every day, most people keep their radios tuned to VHF 68 so they can call each other or hear about when the International Space Station is about to fly overhead, dragging boats, drifting loose dinghies, etc. Of course there is lots of “reading the mail” going on with everyone listening to everyone else’s conversations – and sometimes breaking in if they have something to add.

Thanks to the net, we had a great time attending the beach BBQ, yoga class, lady’s lunch, and dinghy happy hour each week. While there were participants that came and went, there were also a core group of boats who spend a lot of the season in Martinique. They have all of the scoop on what to do and where to go – and they ensure that the calendar stays full.

As much as we view ourselves as accomplished offshore sailors, through these activities we were reminded that we are relative newbies, and at this point, in the “temporary cruiser” class. It is common here to meet people who have been living aboard for 10 or 20 years, circumnavigated the globe or at least crossed an ocean. And many of them keep their boat in the Caribbean year-round, dodging hurricanes by spending the summer anchored in southern Grenada or hauled out in Antigua, Grenada, or Trinidad.

It is the minority who make an annual north-south migration from the US/Canada east coast. A number of them who used to do that when they started have scary passage stories to tell about broken rudders, getting swept overboard, etc. They determined that having the boat in the Caribbean during hurricane season is the easier, and often safer choice. I am still not mentally aligned with that idea after all the hurricanes last season, but I am warming to the idea. Our visit to Grenada next month will certainly influence our thinking.

The Global Kid Boat Scene

Erin craves social interaction the most out of the Boundless crew and she was getting pretty anxious to meet other kids. She finally got her fix by making friends with a number of kid boats in Sainte-Anne. The core group included Brazilian/Irish, Swiss, and French kids – all long-term cruisers. The boat kids are quite self-sufficient and unafraid to go off exploring, interact with someone in another language, or drive the dinghy on their own. And they actively use excellent VHF radio protocol to make plans. Birthday parties, sleepovers, trips to the ice cream stand – teens are the same afloat as ashore.

Andy hung out with the kids some, but in general has a better time chatting with the adults – or more likely programming a new level for his latest video game in C#.

Yes, We Have Bananas (and Rum)

Martinique is the 3rd biggest island in the Lesser Antilles, and like #2 Guadeloupe, is an overseas department of France that produces lots of bananas and agricultural rum (from sugar cane) for export to France and the rest of the EU. So what better first big outing than to learn more about banana and rum production!

We rented a car near the Club Med, about a 20 minute walk from the Sainte-Anne dinghy dock and headed north up the east coast to Musée de la Banane (that’s right, the banana museum). Along the winding, hilly route we passed miles of banana fields, with each bunch having a blue plastic bag over it. So we were curious to learn more.

The display part of the museum was simple but well done. It highlighted the ongoing banana wars between the French Antilles banana trade (grown in Martinique and Guadeloupe, destined for France/EU) and the Central American conglomerates we know from the US (Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte). Apparently, the latter oligopoly is trying to dump their “inferior” bananas on the EU.

After sampling a local banana, we moved on to outdoor portion of the museum where they have planted numerous varieties of banana plants from around the world. Did you know that the banana plant is an herb? I always thought it was a tree! We are most familiar with the Cavendish sweet dessert banana, but they come in many shapes, colors, and sizes, including ones that need to be cooked before eating like the starchier plantain.

Next it was back south to the town of Le François and the historical plantation Habitation Clément. Dating from the late 18th century, the sprawling property includes the old Clément agricultural rum distillery, aging cellars for barrels of Clément rum, many historic buildings, and a large sculpture garden.

The distillery process for turning sugar cane into rum was interesting and nicely preserved. And boy do the cask aging rooms smell good!

One of the buildings was a display on the 1991 post-Gulf War summit between François Mitterrand and George H. W. Bush that was held at the Clément habitation. It was a reminder of the days when world leaders were more respectable and statesmanlike.

At the end of the tour, you get to taste a number of Clément rums. Our favorite was the American Cask which is aged in old bourbon barrels from the US. And yes, we did buy a number of bottles!

Climbing a Volcano

The 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée destroyed the former capital Saint-Pierre and killed 28,000 people in 2 minutes, making it the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. But what the heck – let’s climb it!

We rented another car and drove to the north end of the island to the trailhead of the Aileron trail. Aileron is the most used trail and is well maintained. It starts at 2,700 feet and runs up the east side to the crater rim at 4,000 feet. You can go beyond the rim and down into the crater, etc. – but achieving the rim was good enough for us!

At 4,583 feet, the top of Mont Pelée is often shrouded in a cloud with periodic pelting rain, as it was this day. The path was wet and muddy due to the rain, with a mixture of stairs and steep rocky scrambles. Next time we go cruising, I am bringing waterproof hiking boots!

The strenuous hike took about 4 hours roundtrip. Even with the wetness and obscured views, it was well worth it. And we were rewarded with a tasty lunch at the restaurant next to the trailhead.

More Thinking about Slavery

Having had our fill of outdoorsy adventure, our next outing was back focused on history at La Savane des Esclaves in Trois-Ilets. The “slaves savannah” is a recreated village of 15 traditional huts which tell the story of how slaves lived in Martinique. The museum is much simpler than the modern Memorial Acte we visited in Guadeloupe, but still very nicely done.

The museum again made it clear to us that we do not hear the whole story about the slave trade in US schools/society. The way slaves were treated and the complicity of government and religious institutions makes me question the goodness of humankind. Luckily I was able to snap out of that depressing thinking with a nice lunch in the Pointe du Bout area of Trois-Îlets (the birthplace of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine).

Craziness at Carnaval

Our biggest outing while in Martinique was to participate in Carnaval in the capital Fort-de-France. We left the boat at anchor in Sainte-Anne and spent two nights at the nice modern Hotel Simon, right on the waterfront in Fort-de-France. After seven months living aboard a boat, it feels pretty decadent to be in a hotel with room service breakfast, cable TV, and daily maid service!

Carnaval in Fort-de-France attracts a huge crowd over the main four days of the celebration, leading up to the start of Lent. Each day has its own theme and dress-code. We were there for the final two days: red & black Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and black & white Ash Wednesday.

After a civilized lunch at the hotel, we stopped by the costume vendor stalls along the waterfront and got our red & black attire, including tutu’s for the ladies and hats for the boys.

With some yummy mojitos in hand, we then staked out a shady spot for the 3pm start of the Tuesday “parade of the red devils”. We happened to be standing next to a bunch of cruisers with kids. So we hung out with the crews of Sophie and Ventus for the rest of the day.

The parading groups were quite impressive with many well-rehearsed percussion ensembles and all manner of flamboyant costumes, with a focus on men in drag and she-devils.

This video will give you a taste of the action:

Kristin had a close encounter with the troupe of “nègs gwo-sirop”, people coated from head to toe in sugar syrup and charcoal, leaving her black and sticky for the rest of the day.

We went back out for Wednesday’s parade, this time donning black & white attire, including Erin in some fishnet stockings.

At the end of Wednesday’s parade, they perform the incineration of His Majesty Vaval at the waterfront. Vaval is “the carnaval king”, a papier-mâché guy on a float, satirizing a politician, a public figure or an institution. It was a madhouse surrounding Vaval, so we watched him burn from the comfort of our hotel window.

Even with so many people and plenty of alcohol being consumed, I was really impressed with how well behaved everyone was. Just pure jubilation with no ugliness. Now of course we were back at the hotel by 7pm each night, so we may have just missed any later evening ugliness, other than the annoyance of purposefully backfiring cars zooming around the city streets until the wee hours.

On the way back to Sainte-Anne, we stopped by Le Galleria shopping mall in Le Lamentin to buy provisions at the massive Hyper U supermarket. Le Galleria looks like a modern mall in the US, with numerous clothing, electronics, and specialty stores. The Hyper U is one of the biggest grocery stores I have seen – and like Walmart in the US, it also sells plenty of non-food items like car tires and suitcases.

We really enjoyed Martinique – so it is on our must-return list for our next cruising adventure.

6 Replies to “Settling into Martinique”

  1. What a wonderful experience. Now that I am an arm chair sailor, I can appreciate the moments of panic that are sprinkled in the hours of boredom.
    Well done. Stay safe

    1. Yep there are some panic moments, like a couple days ago when going to anchor just before sunset, the anchor windlass stopped working 🙂 Bypassed the broken footswitch with a wire for the time-being. Working on permanent fix today.

  2. That sounds awesome. Cathy and I spent a week there on our honeymoon, but I don’t remember much about it except for beach + wine, baguettes, and cheese.

    If you have any space for cargo, rum is my spirit of choice. Just saying. 🙂

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