Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Guadeloupe sailing trip: intermediate sailing course

Our Air Canada flight landed in Guadeloupe Pointe-a-Pitre airport, French soil, on February 6, 2010. Flying in from Toronto, via Montreal, we were to meet our fellow sailing course crew mates, not quite for the first time, but close. Having had a couple of trip planning meetings in Toronto, we discussed as a group very little, and essentially had done nothing to prepare as a team for the voyage ahead, other than a quick lesson on Caribbean mooring, a brief review of the charts, and discussion regarding the need for food like sandwiches for lunch, beer and wine. Thus was our introduction to Birgit Woods, Ian Hoar, Pamela Borges and master (captain) Clive Smith. "We" are John Wilson (me) and my wife Leigh Geraghty, recent graduates of the Queens Quay sailing clubs Basic Cruising course this past summer. The plan, to sail for a week around the islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica in order to accomplish our intermediate level cruising designation...and perhaps much more. The question, as we set off on this adventure becomes, good idea or disaster waiting to happen?

Guadeloupe turns out to be one of the more affluent and well developed islands in the Caribbean, with modern freeways that whisk us quickly to the Sunsail (sailboat charter company) dock yard. Our group, organized by Clive for the sailing club has chartered two 47 foot Beneteau sail boats. A Sunsail representative meets us at the gate, speaking only French, and then leads us to our floating home for the week. We've shared the taxi bus to the marina with with Brian, Sarah, Birgit, and Ian (Brian and Sarah will crew the sister boat on the same course). A love affair is already blossoming as our French hosts introduce us to Vriend, our beautiful sailboat for the next week. Vriend is the biggest sail boat I've ever been on, only about seven years old, she appears clean, well equipped, well organized, and reasonably spacious. Quickly we each claim our accomodations, Leigh and I sharing a double birth at the stern, Ian on the other side in the stern, Birgit in the bow birth (to be shared with Pamela), leaving the double bunk for Clive.

Food (restaurant is just behind Leigh as she sits on our boat in the photo to the left). Just a two minute walk along the dock and we have a waterfront view from a laid back bar/restaurant where we can enjoy dinner as people arrive. We've learned that Pamela and the captain of the other boat have been diverted through Antigua and will be a day late arriving. My father, Ian Wilson, crew on the other boat, has already scoped out the area having arrived a few days early and we find him strolling down to the dock upon our arrival. Ian Wilson has already started to get settled in on his boat Marilyn... twin sister to our beauty Vriend.

Day 1 - Getting ready to set sail

next three photos below by Ian Hoar
Coffee. My first night on the boat is a somewhat sleepless one as the tight quarters, noise, and dreams (nightmares?) of what lies ahead keep me rolling over and over like a wave confined to a coffin. An old but trusted habit has me expecting the worst and hoping for the best. Here we go. Shopping lists are made, planning each future meal to be cooked by each of us on our allotted day as cook. Clive says we must plan for 2 litres of water to be consumed a day as a minimum requirement... so we plan to get lots of big bottles of water for drinking. While the boat has large holding tanks for water, that is for the showers, washing dishes etc.

Apparently wine and beer can be included in our plans for sufficient water...and, we head into town, near the Marina, about a five minute walk. We find a quiet, nearly empty coffee shop on the water front and have a delicious cafe ("e" on the end of "cafe" with accent aigu... aaaay ... cafaaay) ... wonderful, and chocolate croissant. Our large groups overwhelm the quiet cafe and soon all the croissants, french bread, and jam is sold out.

Sufficiently caffeinated we head to the supermarket and load up on wonderful deli meats, fresh eggs, cheap french wine, beer, cereal, milk (uht - ultra heat treated so it need not be refrigerated...a good idea as it turns out), buns, bread, burgers, pasta...enough for an army. Pack it away in the boats fridge/freezer, cupboards, and cabinets, trudge back for a few forgotten items, and we are provisioned!

Next, getting ready to cast off, we've got to review all aspects of how to operate the boat. Clive has us dismantle all the floor boards in order to find each and every "through hull" or places where they've got pipes for taking in or exhausting water through the hull of the boat. We make a diagram of the boat and draw all these elements on the diagram so we know where everything is. Point is that if we spring a leak, we need to know how to find these weak points and potentially use the wooden plugs, under the navigation stations chair, to resolve the problem before sinking. Daily bosun duties are also reviewed including checking the diesel engine, oil levels, and starter battery disconnect switch. Next a safety check list review also includes finding where all the personal floatation devices are (and ensuring enough for each sailor), flares, noise maker (a little plastic trumpet?!), bilge pump, anchor, and heaving line (did I forget anything?).

photo below by Pamela Borges
Before we could finally get going Clive has us prepare the anchor rode (chain that is attached to the anchor) so that we'll always know how much we've let out. We mark with red electrical tape every 30 feet on the chain having hauled the entire thing onto the deck of the boat. The first 30 foot red marker has a single red stripe on the chain, the second two and so on so that we'll always be able to measure and check how much rode we have out. At anchorage we are apparently supposed to do a 1 to 5 ratio, depth to rode length, in order to ensure the anchors sits properly on the bottom to hold fast.

My first days duty is to take the helm, motor us out of the harbor and enjoy a brief sail to Le Gossier to find our first anchorage (while avoiding a few reefs). It being Sunday we will have to wait 'til Monday to clear customs in Guadeloupe at the "capitainerie". With Clive guiding me all the way I start up the monster diesel engine, get the moorings untied by the crew, and slowly steer us between the narrow lanes between docks...all 47 feet of our Vriend and who knows how many tons...we are on our way.

Our sister sailboat it turns out was grounded at the dock and so we circled once waiting for them to follow. Heading out we reminded ourselves of the rule "red right return" which means that you keep the red buoys on your right when you are returning to port. So since we are leaving port, I was to keep the red buoys on my left and green on my right. Okay, got it...important, don't want to run aground as my first experience at pressure. We've also reviewed the charts to make sure we know what to expect. As we reach the outer harbor and get beyond the last entrance buoys we prepare to raise the sails. Up goes the main...we are sailing...up goes the jib...whoa...the sheet (rope allowing us to pull in the jib sail on the right side), starts flailing around...Clive was a little pissed, bring down the sails, we'll have to motor over to Le Gossier and deal with the sheet issue at anchor. Perhaps we should have more thoroughly checked our sheets and lines before setting out...perhaps the figure eight knot was missing which might have prevented this problem. This is exactly the kind of experience I've been hoping for.

Coming in to anchor for the first time is a little intimidating. Clive has me steer up in between to other sailboats, leaving about thirty feet between us, slowly. Just as we stop moving forward Clive says to drop the anchor...estimating the depth at about 8 feet based on the depth finders reading. We let out about forty feet of rode. I reverse the engine slowly. We wait to feel the anchor catch and hold us fast. It does. We are set at anchor. Amazingly that is it. We will sway in the wind along with all the other boats on anchor. Incredibly we won't bump into each other as long as everything holds fast.

Exploring the small Ile de Gossier doesn't take too long. Sadly, our captain's hunt for the last beer on the island ends in disaster, at just 5pm all the beer is gone. Undeterred we wander around the small island, protected by a large reef, only to find a great reminder to us newbie sailors...a ship wreck. Yes, it is all good times and the easy life as the weather holds clear but as we can all see, the seas are not always blissfully calm.

Well, never mind. Sun is setting. Our anchor appears to be holding. We do what any sailors would do...sit back and enjoy the view as the days visitors are rapidly ferried off the island. There we are, Ian, Pam, Clive, Birgit, Leigh and John, enjoying our first evening on the beach at Ile de Gossier having swum over from the boat at anchor. Time to swim back to the boat for evening's cocktails and dinner.

You can see me pointing to our boat Vriend along with all the other boats at anchor (our boat is a little to the left of where I am pointing). The reef and the island provide very good protection from the waves that break on the reef. If we had wanted we could have motored our dinghy over to the main island of Guadeloupe again for further provisions.

Preparing dinner the first night is a team effort. Despite assigned duties for each day we all help each other out no matter what the task. Enthusiastic team work makes quick work of everything. All that hard team work requires sustenance which, as you will see, we enjoyed in abundance. One secret (not any more) we learned from Birgit on the first evening, is a surprising combination composed of a dried apricot, topped with a dab of blue cheese that holds a perfect little pistachio in place, followed by a swig of white wine or beer. Heavenly! Well, for some of us...definitely one of those love it or hate it combinations. All the more for those of us who love it.

Day 2 - Marie Galante

Take a look at that breakfast. Ian despite protestations of being unequal to the task of cook, turns out one of the most sumptuous spreads imaginable. Taking to heart the directive that breakfast must include a "hot" dish, we enjoy some delicious scrambled eggs, toast, cheeses, fresh fruits, and some wonderful coffee. This is going to be a good trip. Who knew this day would bring us some pretty stiff wind and a bit of wave action.

This is where the "patch" and the "non-patch" people come in. Patch people are those that choose to take the advice of cap'n Clive, who suggests the patch as a way of ensuring you don't get seasick. Non-patch people are those fools who think they'd like to find out if they get seasick on a boat. Really the question becomes where and when you will feel woozy. Patch people, like Ian, Leigh and Birgit have a little round bandaid like thing stuck behind their ear. These patches direct a mild(?) drug into the skin near the inner ear that does a very good job of eliminating the symptoms of seasickness. Oddly, the first morning after the patches are applied Ian and Leigh complain of a dizzy feeling before we've even left port. This is a side effect for some people and goes away. Birgit is not affected in this way nor are the non-patch people John, Pam and Clive. We'll see how this experiment ends later.

After breakfast we set sail for Marie Galante. I take navigator duty this morning. Clive shows me the charts, where we are and where we want to go today. He takes the parallel rules (attached by some hinges), and determines the heading we'll need to take by transferring the line we want over to the compass rose...very cool...just don't let the thing slip...or you might end up in Australia...which would be interesting. I have to admit that every now and then that old jingle from Gilligan's Island came into my head at the thought of such an adventure. We then used the divider to calibrate a nautical mile which we then placed on our course (we'd drawn it as a line with a pencil on the chart), and counted each mile by stepping the divider from our current location to our destination. Knowing that we might make about 5 knots/hour we could tell that we ought to arrive in about five hours....get it? There'll be a test one day...maybe.

After a good sail, more learning the ropes (lines?), we are slowly starting to figure out what all the winches, cleats, and colour coding of the lines are all related to. At first there seems to be so many. Slowly they all start to make sense and you begin to remember which is related to what. Arriving in Marie Galante, most of the crew headed for town to complete our provisioning... somehow we either couldn't get or forgot a few essentials. Luckily, we were able to get a few of the missing items. While most of the crew were in town John and Clive took care of the boat while enjoying a cold beer.

Day 3 - Dominica

This is the day we sail to a new country, from France (Guadeloupe), to Dominica, for which we had already made plans and preparations through the capitainerie in Guadeloupe. Wind is up to 20 knots for todays sail. Waves are reaching ten feet or so. Leigh is at the helm for what will be our fastest and most exciting sailing on a broad reach heading to Dominica. For a good portion of the sail we are able to reach 8 knots - even reached 10 knots a few times. Very nice. What a beautiful day of sailing. Felt great to fly across the water reaching Dominica relatively early in the day. Check out the video of us at the helm for just a bit as we go by the southern tip of Dominica.

During our crossing we picked up a "mayday" repeated three times, coming in over the VHF radio which is set to channel 16. A woman's voice sobs "we are in trouble, please help, my daughter is hurt, please come quickly, we are running aground, our boat is breaking up, help!" Terrifying. Other boats respond (they aren't supposed to since coast guard is supposed to be allowed to respond first). No mention of location i.e. latitude and longitude... so how would we know where she is? Remember, explain your location when sending out a mayday in the event of an emergency. Eventually a man comes on the radio to say that the woman and daughter are safely on a dinghy, and that the boat is in trouble on the rocks and needs help quickly. Things are bad but a little better. Help is on the way.

Dominica is a beautiful island. The beach and bay are gorgeous. Tour operators and fruit sellers greet us in small colourful motor boats. Swimming in to the beach we have a blast swinging out from a palm tree over the water, after getting provisions and checking in with the local police station (for a passport stamp, not required but fun).

Dinner was our first attempt at using the charcoal barbecue which is mounted off of the pushpit at the stern of the boat. Worked like a dream for some delicious hamburgers and chicken burgers, along with a fresh salad (actually we had bbq'd the night before without any difficulty, no wind, but learned here at Dominica that you can use a shield made of tin foil around the edges to get the thing lit under high winds). Our sister boat's crew had a lovely, home cooked, local meal at the two storey restaurant/bar in the photo to the right above.

Each night we would lay on the fore-deck to star gaze. We started with the basics like the Big Dipper, Orion, and perhaps Cassiopeia. Clive would then start slowly, suggesting vague answers to different constellations, and in the end basically naming the entire solar system... wow! Great for celestial navigation. Just like with coastal navigation where you need three points, you can, with some celestial points in the sky, determine your location. Each leg of the trip Ian, Birgit and Pam would use the hand compass to determine our location. More often than not they were within just a few miles...which is beyond amazing given the rocky nature of the boat, lack of any clear objects, and the need to do math below deck... ugh, talk about woozy.

Getting lunch together while under way proved that old iron stomach Wilson, wasn't quite the sailor he hoped to be. After five to ten minutes on the big wind/wave day preparing lunch in the galley, I knew I needed to get out for some fresh air. By staring at the horizon, as though at helm, I was able to slowly get back to a reasonable feeling of comfort. As the days went on, and seas remained calmer, I found little difficulty working below deck, which I hope means I was getting some sort of sea legs. The patch people would have a blast working below deck despite the huge waves tossing them around. Apparently it is hilarious... as a non-patch person I don't quite get it... but it sure sounded fun... and thank goodness they enjoyed it so much or we might not have had lunch that day.

Day 4-5 Iles-des-Saintes

Now we head back to the Guadeloupe islands in the shape of Iles-des-Saintes which are the remnants of an ancient volcano caldera (collapsed volcano). Approaching these islands, which form a circle, we pass by a string of six double blade wind turbines on the wind swept coast line of one of the islands in the chain. We review our charts carefully as the most direct course into the protected bay is a very shallow coral reef that could cause us problems. So, we circle to the left coming in beside some tourists on a glass bottom boat, on what are some of the most beautiful turquoise waters we've seen so far. There it is, a large picturesque bay full of sail boats at anchor, red roof houses on the hill sides, and a feeling like this is one of those perfect places.

We stock up on provisions and explore the town, agreeing to meet up at the beautiful little church in the centre.

Elegant shops line the mainly pedestrian streets, along which are quite a number of scooters, and to my pleasant surprise, some cute electric cars. This is my kind of place. Our first night we decide to splurge for the first time and eat out. We've picked the right spot and find a very French restaurant to enjoy some great wine, French food, and a laid back pace. We decide to spend two heavenly days in this beautiful cruising sailors paradise.

On our first full day we make the hike up to Fort Napoleon. The views are spectacular (see the photo above of all the boats in the bay taken from the Fort). Hiking up takes only about thirty minutes. Having never been in any battles, the fort is in very good condition complete with a moat in which I can imagine alligators swimming around, although there is now no water in it.

Speaking of alligator, another interesting inhabitant of the island is a large iguana which makes the fort his home. They are crafty old lizards that hide very well in the rocky hills. Only while making our way back down to the boat do we see one up close.

Later in the afternoon we make a trek across the centre of the island to the other side to do some snorkelling on the reef. The beach is quite nice with plenty of shelter for picnicking. For the entire afternoon we snorkel across the entire bay enjoying the view of beautiful colourful fish, large stringy anemone, and plenty of spiky sea urchins. What a heavenly way to spend the day, drifting, floating, diving into the coral caverns, and becoming part of this different world.

photo below by Ian Hoar
On our last evening in Isle-des-Saintes we enjoy a feast on Wilson pasta, made to perfection with the help of sous chef Borges. As we finish up enjoying fresh fruit for desert a strange feeling of gritty dust descends upon us in the dark. Leigh questions whether this might be some kind of volcanic ash to which the answer is of course "no way"! A few minutes later the VHF radio sputters out a maritime emergency message: Montserrat has erupted with a large amount of ash blown into the atmosphere making visibility difficult downwind. We are down wind. We and our beautiful Vriend are being blanketed by grey volcanic ash. We close the hatches, clear up as much as we can see and go to bed. The next morning is quite a scene of grey dust everywhere on the boat and all over the town. Red roofs are now grey. The lush green land is now grey-green. Along with the other boats in the harbour, we spend an hour or two swabbing down the decks and cleaning up all the ash.

Day 6 - Back to Pointe-a-Pitre
two photos below by Ian Hoar
Our last day is already upon us before we know it. The trip has gone by so fast as we are busy every day provisioning, sailing, navigating, cooking, learning, fixing, star gazing, dreaming and exploring. What a great way to live. Weather was perfect. Our team worked brilliantly together. We had fun. We ate like the gods. We found places that dreams are made of. We have been so fortunate to have found the time to discover this way of living. We are so lucky!

Volcanic ash has delayed flights for a day, so we are kindly accommodated by our Sunsail hosts in a sailboat that is for sale. Our last feast together is a spectacular carnivore's delight of bbq'd meat on swords. Our new friends, crew of Vriend, have discovered a new world, a life on the water, exploring, and finding adventure. What a trip!

And so the journey begins. This is the continuing story of a quest to be the first father/son family team to circumnavigate the world in a renewable energy powered catamaran sailboat. I am calling this adventure Sun Challenge (see the web site at Stay tuned to this blog and the web site for the next step towards this dream.

John Wilson


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