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The Leeward Islands

Jeez. I know it´s been a long time since I last wrote the last version of "le vie du Irie." Something about the warm trade winds and turquoise Caribbean waters. Plus our computer broke down. And I was busy. And the internet has not really caught on here in the Bahamas Out Islands.

Because our computer broke down, I don´t have any pictures to include with this segment. So for those of you who "just like to look and the pictures," sorry about that you can go ahead and skip this segment. The pictures I took are still on the hard drive, though, and when I extract them (back in the States) I´ll send an update.

When we last reported our story, we were just leaving Martinique, with our new friends Sarah, Jurgen and Hugo on Pundit, heading for the Leeward Islands. Pundit, a beautiful 40 year old wooden sloop, was heading the same direction we were, and we ended up sailing with them for most of our tour through the Leewards.

For those of you who did not read my last letter (and I know this is a superfluous statement) the Leewards are the northern group of islands in the eastern Caribbean chain, stretching from Dominica to Anguilla. You can look at the map I´m sending with this journal or at the Tim´s website.

How do you describe life on a sailboat in the Caribbean? "No rules, just right"? "It´s different out here"? "Layers and layers of spices and flavors"? Perfect temperatures, a steady cooling trade wind breeze, 80* water temperature, emerald islands rising from the depths, ringed in sand, and bathed in waters ranging from deep blue to turquoise green. Villages and towns with their own island characters set in lands with colorful histories that go back hundreds of years. Sails on the horizon by day and freighters´ lights at night. Nights full of full moons and stars and twinkling lights from nearby islands. Days full of exploration and adventure. The boat rocking under you as the island you just visited fades from the horizon. A new island looms out ahead. A new harbor to explore. Friendly people and food you´ve never heard of. And I feel like I´ve only tasted it.

A recap of our travels thru the islands:

Island hopping on Irie:


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Dominica

From Martinique we sailed to Dominica (pronounced Dom-en-ee-ca), accent on the 3rd syllable), an independent country and a rugged and largely undeveloped island. Sparsely populated and poor; many live off fruits and vegetables that grow naturally in the rain forests. There is little tourism (no international airport), and the people, though poor, live long -- one local resident is 126 and another 118 (according to our guide and local sources). The whole island is a massive rain forest blanketing rugged mountains, full of rivers and waterfalls.

We hired a guide who rowed us up a river, showing off the local vegetation. Most interesting were the "blood trees" with their twisty, surrealistic roots twisting along the riverbank. We also had a memorable night out with the locals. We wandered down the small (one street) town towards some blaring music and found a street party. Local folks just dancing in the street, feeling happy. A little later we went into the "disco", a big room with a little red light shining on one of those mirror balls, which looked like it hadn´t moved in years. We jammed to the island reggae music.

Marie Galante

Next island up was Marie Galante, a smaller French island. In complete contrast to Dominica 20 miles away, Marie Galante is low, flat, much drier and much more developed. Sugar cane grows in abundance, and distilleries have been making rum for hundreds of years (Jurgen bought a case of the local stuff for 5$ a bottle). The island has not been hit by the tourist boom, and retains a simpler charm. Our anchorage was rimmed by a mile long beach, great for walking and running, with one little hotel at the end where the kids swam in the pool. We rented a hobie cat one afternoon and had fun sailing around the bay. Another day we rented a car and drove around exploring beaches.


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Iles des Saintes

A few miles to the west of Marie Galante are the Iles de Saintes, a group of 4 small, hilly islands surrounding a small harbor. The hills were apparently not high enough to encourage rainfall, and are brown with scrubby bushes, again an interesting contrast to the lush green rain forest of Dominica, which was still visible in the distance.

At nights the lights of the town (and nearby Guadeloupe) encircle you; quite beautiful. The quaint little town is touristy (truckloads of ferry boat passengers are shipped in and out each day) but at night it is quiet. There is a restored fort on top of a hill which houses artifacts attesting to The Saintes´ role as a major base for the French West Indian fleet. In the 1700s a major battle was naval action was fought nearby against the British, in which the French fleet was demolished. I went scuba diving with Jurgen a couple times, something I hadn't done for years. The bottom is interesting because of the volcanic canyons and shapes, but as far as reef activity goes, the Florida Keys and Bahamas do not give up anything to the Caribbean as far as what I have seen. We did see some interesting sea life, including a little brown seahorse that let me pet him.

After leaving The Saintes, we stopped at Guadeloupe (part of France) for a couple days, mostly as a resting stop. Guadeloupe is the largest and the most developed of the Leeward islands. But it lacks the natural beauty and "quaintest" of the other islands.


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Antigua

The next stop on the tour was Antigua. En route, we passed the island of Monserrat. In 1995, its volcano erupted, burying half the island including its principal city. We sailed past (about 20 miles away) on an exceptionally clear day; a huge cloud of smoke drifted over the volcano´s cone, and the lava flows were clearly visible. A memorable display of nature´s power.

There are two great, natural harbours on the south side of Antigua, separated by the thin peninsula, called Falmouth and English harbors. The harbors together formed a major British naval base in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are now a cruising haven. The island is more economically developed than most, with lots of businesses, shops and services geared toward making life easier for cruisers.

They have a famous regatta there every year, and the big boys (100'+ maxi-sailboats and yachts) were in the marinas in abundance. Their huge masts shooting up into the skies looked like a weird petrified white forest.

About 3am one morning I awoke to pouring rain. Shortly thereafter Kiera got me up: the cabin was flashing on and off. I got up to find that the EPRIB strobe light was flashing. An EPRIB is an emergency radio beacon which sends a distress signal, along with identifying information and your position. Satellites pick up the signal anywhere in the world, and send it to rescue organizations. You set it off by flipping a switch, and it automatically activates if it is released from its holder and it gets wet.

At the time I wasn´t sure if it had actually gone off, or whether it was in the "test mode," or how it had happened. We were all asleep at the time. My guess is one of the kids put a damp towel on top of the transmitter (which is mounted to the wall), and when it rained, enough moisture developed to set it off. Except moisture isn´t supposed to activate it when it is in its holding case.


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In any event, I decided to call the coast guard to inform them of a possible false alarm. I sent 20 minutes looking for our satellite phone, which I normally keep in the nav station. Eileen came up and I asked if she knew where it was. "Ooops!" she said, remembering that she had accidentally left it outside the night before. I picked up the soggy sat phone; I wasn´t going to be calling anyone for a while.

Early the next morning we were hailed by a fellow in a dinghy who told us the Guatemalan coast guard was calling Irie on channel 16. I called them and they said they had been alerted to an EPIRB signal. I sheepishly told them that there had been an unintended activation. I felt bad because the last thing I wanted to do was burden search and rescue services they have enough to deal with without false alarms. But it was good to know that it works!

We spent 10 days there just hanging out (and waiting for our mail to be forwarded). The island is small, but chock full of historical buildings and ruins from its days as a naval base. English Harbor was restored in the 1950s; the buildings that line the wharf are reconstructed from those that existed in the 1800s giving the place a out of time character, kind of like Colonial Williamsburg. We had fun hiking and exploring the ruins of old forts and gun emplacements in the hills. On Sunday nights they put on a big dinner and dance party on Shirley Heights, up on a hilltop overlooking both harbors. Spectacular views and sunsets and a great time.

One of those places you hate to leave.

A memorable snorkeling experience at Jolly Harbor (west side of Antigua) when we anchored overnight en route to Barbuda: The kids and I were snorkeling on the wreck of an old steel ship in the middle of the harbor, when a curious hawksbill turtle swam up to us. It wasn´t very big, maybey 2 feet long, and very curious. It swam right next to me, and didn´t mind when I petted his shell. I grabbed its sides took a little ride, which it minded a bit more, but a minute later was back swimming with us. That was a first for me.


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Barbuda

Next up was Barbuda. A medium sized island, but with only 1400 inhabitants much of it is uninhabited. The entire western shore of the island is one long beach, 11 miles of uninterrupted sand without a building or person in site. Barbuda was put under Antigua when independence was granted from Great Britain, but apparently the Barbudians want nothing to do with commercial tourism. The last time (2001) permission was given by Antigua for a major hotel to be built on Barbuda, the Barbudians pushed the construction offices and equipment into the ocean. Still no hotel.

Besides Pundit and ourselves, there was only one other boat along the entire coast when we pulled in. That is, until a fleet of 40 Oysters (high end sailboats) pulled in for their regatta and cranked up their generators, lights and music on the beach. Plus they were snobby. Messed up the environment so we took off for the northern part of the island. That´s a cool thing about cruising on a boat. Finding isolation again, we built a big bonfire on the beach and cooked dinner and didn´t drop too many of the dogs into the embers.


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St. Barts

St. Barts (St. Bartholomy) was the next island, and we stayed in Gustavia harbor. St. Barts might have been a quaint little town when Jimmy Buffet used to hang out there, but now Gustavia looks like an upscale shopping mall with brand name stores (Chanel, Vendi, Bvlgari, Lovis Vvitton etc.) lining the main street. There were still some fun bars and restaurants, though. We rented a car and drove around the island. But between the swell and the mosquitos, we left after a few days and headed for St. Martin, 12 miles north.

Another memorable snorkelling trip. While we were snorkelling off Colombiere bay in St. Barts, I heard whales singing quite clearly underwater. I didn´t see anything; sound carries much farther underwater. But the wails and clicks were unmistakable. I later learned this was the migrating season.


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St. Martin

St. Martin is a special place for us, because my sister´s in-laws built a resort there (Club Orient on Orient beach) and Tracie and Art lived and worked there for 20 years. It was the only Caribbean island I had been to (several times) before. I remember being on vacation, sitting on Orient Beach, looking at the sailboats anchored in the bay, and dreaming that my sailboat was anchored out there in the bay. And now it was coming true!

But before sailing into Orient Bay, we pulled into Simpson Bay and cleared in through customs. St. Martin is unique in that it is not a single political entity: The island is half Dutch and half French. Each side retains its own character, though the Dutch side is very Americanized and the French side is, well, French. The borders are open in the island, but technically if you are on a boat you are supposed to clear into both sides. I´m not a very technical person.

Simpson Bay is a large, completely enclosed bay (you have to go under a bridge to get in) with room for scores if not hundreds of boats. We anchored near the marine stores in shallower water (benefit of a catamaran), and I loaded up on supplies, including new blades for the wind generator and a new lid for our head. We then sailed halfway around the island to Orient Bay, which is just over the French border.

Orient Bay changed a lot from the sleepy secluded place it had been 15 years ago. Big hotels and restaurants now line the half of the beach not owned by Club Orient, complete with multicolored beach chairs, jet skis (ack!), para gliding, etc. But most of that stuff is on the other half of the beach (it´s about a mile long), and it was relatively peaceful on the Club Orient side, where we were anchored 100´ off the beach.

It was slow season, and Art´s brother, Martin, who runs Club O, was kind enough to let us use a nice 3 bedroom air conditioned apartment. Eileen and the girls thought this was paradise, but I knew my time living on a boat was running and I intended to milk it as much as possible. I can always live in an air conditioned apartment; how often do you get to live on a boat anchored in beautiful Orient Bay?

Club O is also unique in that it is a "clothing optional" kind of place. For Club O guests, getting an all over tan is a worthy goal in life. When I first visited the place, seeing a lot of bare bottoms walking around was a bit of a shock, but after a few days you get used to it. In fact, after a while, you begin to feel a little self-conscious wearing a bathing suit, so I said to hell with it and decided to go for the all over tan look too. I got close, but never quite got rid of the tan lines. Maybe next time.

We spent a month there. Tracie owns the nearby Bayside Riding Club, a horse stables, so we saw very little of our children during this time, except when we´d pick them up at 6pm, looking a little and smelling a lot like a horse. A friend of Art´s, Mark Kaufmann, a first rate diesel mechanic, came aboard and rebuilt our starboard engine without removing it from the boat. I was quite impressed with this feat. At times we were using mirrors to look under the engine while he removed very parts holding the pistons to the crackshaft. Apparently a little water had backed into the cylinder, resulting in a bent piston rod. The fuel injectors also needed servicing (and had to be sent to Ft. Lauderdale and back) and we had to re-time the injectors, a bigger job than it sounds. But Mark got the job done, and the engines are back to full power. I diagnosed a faulty solenoid on the port engine, and when replaced, our alternators were back in full operation as well. I also refinished the cabin table and made some gel coat repairs, so I actually accomplished a few things in between the margaritas.


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St. Kitts and Nevis

During our stay, there was a annual regatta to St. Kitts and Nevis (about 60 miles) and back. I had never been in a regatta and we missed St. Kitts and Nevis (neighboring islands) on the way up, so, even though the starboard engine was still MIA at this time Art, his buddy Jimbo, and I entered. We had a great time sailing and partying. St. Kitts is a very small island, but there is a graduate level veterinarian school there, whose student body is comprised of about 80% American females. I made a note to myself to spend several of my bachelor years there if I ever go through life again.

We had a great month in St. Martin, but it was the end of May time to move on. Our new (cheaper) insurer required us to be out of the Caribbean by the end of June, and we still had the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to go through. Art and Jackie had to stay to take care of the stables, but Tracie signed up as crew. So we shoved off, and after stopping by Simpson Bay to clear out of customs, we headed for the next part of our journey.

Next: The Virgins (and some pictures).






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