Friday, March 27, 2009

Turning around, waving good-bye and losing control

Road Town, British Virgin Islands
18 25.4N 64 36.8W

Dominica was our southern most destinations in the Caribbean for the season. We have made the decision to take Matsu back to the United States where she will be hauled out while we’re going to England for hurricane season and beyond. Thanks to the economic downfall, we need to replenish the cruising kitty. The UK was selected as it will give us the opportunity to spend more time with Tim’s relatives, it’s much closer than Australia, it will give Linda a new “living abroad” experience and, as a bonus we’ll earn money in a stronger currency. So it is time to turn around and head north.

The first leg of the return trip was short and easy. It took us to lovely Les Saintes in the south of Guadeloupe. We spent a few days there saying tearful good-byes to Wendy and Peter of Keesje II and also to Tracy and Ian of Loon but, as they are also returning to England during that period, it was simply an “au revoir” and promises were made to see each other again soon.

The second leg was to take us from Les Saintes to Deshaies, a little bay on the north-west coast of Guadeloupe. The trip started beautifully as we crossed the “Canal des Saintes”. The sea conditions and wind gusts are renowned to be quite fierce in this passage but, despite 25 knots of wind it was all relatively settled on that day. Just as we were rounding the southern most part of Guadeloupe the autopilot started beeping and stopped functioning. We had noticed a tiny leak coming out of the helm and thought the autopilot might just be in need of some more fluid. Taking the helm we quickly realised that we had no control over the steering of the boat and the boat was now aiming straight for the rocky shore. Ahhhhh! A series of action happened in the following 5 minutes which might not be exactly in this order … The engine was started, the Genoa furled, the emergency tiller dug out and installed, the main sheet dropped and with great difficulty the boat was put back on course. While the Captain was fighting with the emergency tiller trying to maintain a course parallel to shore, the crew was tempting to refill oil in the hydraulic steering system spilling it everywhere. Somehow it worked and once we were safely in the lee of the island we were able to motor up the coast using the helm and made it safely to Deshaies.

In Deshaies, the Captain now turned Hydraulic Technician changed the faulty seal for a spare one we had on board (thanks again Jeff & Ann!). Hydraulic fluid was added and the lines were bled of air. As we proved by the 70 nautical miles passage from Deshaies to Antigua, the steering and the autopilot were back working and the story was over … so we thought.

In Antigua, we sadly again, said good-bye to our cruising friends Michèle and Jean-Pierre of Bleu Marie. This time it’s in Canada (au Lac Noir) this summer that we will rendezvous!

The fourth leg was of only 10 miles in calm water behind a reef in Antigua. Mid way, the autopilot started beeping again. We looked at each other slightly panicked but, luckily the helm was still working and, according to the Captain alias Hydraulic Technician, the autopilot probably needed more bleeding of air. Easy enough and we did so when we arrived at destination.

The fifth leg took us to St-Barts about 75 nautical miles from Antigua. A bit unsure about the steering reliability, we put the dinghy on deck and rigged the wind vane at the back of the boat. A Sayes rig wind vane was part of the boat inventory when we bought Matsu 2 years ago. We had tried it once and had decided that it was a very good way to steer the boat on long sea passages, but cumbersome to rig for more coastal work. It doesn’t require any electrical power and keeps a good average course responding to the subtle wind variation.

Furthermore, when the dinghy is raised on the newly installed davits we can’t use the wind vane. We designed the davits making sure we would still be able to use the wind vane (putting the dinghy on the foredeck) but we actually hadn’t yet tried it. Predictably, it wasn’t quite working freely and some adjustments (involving an angle grinder!) were necessary. We were quite glad we had taken the time to make these adjustments when, 20 miles into the journey to St-Barth, the autopilot stopped working again. We made the next 50 miles under wind vane and arrived in St-Barts safely. Again, the blame was put on air in the system and, once again more fluid was added and more bleeding of air was done.

We made the sixth leg to Sint-Maarten without steering problems. Sint-Maarten being a major boat repair hub, it was easy to get professional advices. We were told the problem was most likely air in system indeed. So we started fresh, drained all the existing oil and refilled and bled the system.

Once again it was time to say some good-byes to L’Aventura, Voyageur C and Daniell Story, three boats we happily bodied with over the last 2 sailing seasons. We’ll missed them dearly and promised to stay in touch … we never know, we might cross paths again somewhere in the 7 oceans.

From Sint-Maarten, we sailed some 80 nautical miles towards the Virgin Islands. It was a gentle broad reach in calm seas under blue sky. Everything was working beautifully up to the last 5 miles when we were just about to get to a cut through a reef. The skies then opened, the wind blew a gale, the sea became rough and … the autopilot stopped working.

We are now in Road Town, Tortola, BVI. We again sought professional advice being a bit lost for words (and ideas!) - apparently the hydraulic steering system needs more bleeding of air…

Somewhere in all this we caught a tuna, saw hump backed whales and had some fun, but the steering fiasco rather overshadowed it!
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Back To Nature

Portsmouth, Dominica
15 34.9N 61 28.1W

Wow! Dominica is in the fortunate position of being so mountainous that there is only one place flat enough for an airport and that has a very short run way. As a consequence, no resorts, no development and lots of nature.

Visitors fall into 3 groups, Cruise ships tie up at the capital for 24 hours of shopping and touring a couple of the more accessible water falls, yachties and finally the eco tourists who brave the small planes.

We spent a superb week in Portsmouth, visiting a few of the sights and chatting to every Dominican we met, everyone is friendly and they all want us to tell our friends to come, but don't spoil the environment!

The first day of touring we hired a car with Jean Pierre and Michelle from Bleu Marie and drove a circuit of the north end of the island, the roads are steep, twisty and pot holed and keeping your eyes on them hard as you pass through stunning mountain scenery, lush rainforest and people going about their day.

Our first major stop was the village of Bense and a walk through the forest to a superb set of pools in the river.
The main pool is an outdoor spa, the water from the small falls tumbles into the pool and swirls around, causing bubbles and currents and making for an incredible swim. We had the whole place to ourselves for over an hour, parrots in the trees, and sunlight falling through the canopy - amazing!

We drove on from there through more wild forest and then miles of cultivated land, banana trees, oranges, grapefruit, avocados the smell wafting through the windows.
The drive took us to the only Carib Indian reserve in the world, where the remaining descendants of the original inhabitants live.
Not much to see really and the one place tourism seems to have had an effect as there was a lot of begging despite them being richer than the rest of the islanders!

Our next outing was trip up the Indian River. Portsmouth is home to a collection of locals with boats, the Boat Boys, that cater to your every need in the anchorage, they can arrange laundry, fresh bread, fruit etc all at prices much higher than if you just go ashore yourself! That said they also offer great security in the anchorage, lots of fun and tours of the Indian River.

Charlie our selected boat boy was fabulous, he picked us up and then rowed us slowly up river as we watched the birds and wildlife along the banks.
It's a narrow mangrove river and was used in Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 apparently (we're collecting set locations) the tree roots are astonishing, gnarled and clinging to the ever eroding banks. The trees themselves covered in parasitic plants like orchids and ferns - a very relaxing start to the day.
Sunday night is party night, as apparently are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, so the anchorage is bathed in very very loud music, so rather than not sleep we headed ashore for the BBQ and rum punch festival, a great night out and a chance to catch up with the locals on their day off.

Monday, a bit the worse for wear, we set off again in the car, first stop Emerald Pools, a more developed tourist spot, thankfully we were there when the cruise ships weren't, so we got a relatively unspoilt walk through the stunning forest to the pools.
Green sums up the forest - everything is green, and then the green things have other green things growing on them like moss, or lichens.
From here we went to Victoria Falls and another wow moment. The walk goes up a river bed and crosses the river 5 times, so it's bare feet and wading for a kilometre or two. The valley is great, but the end pont being the 78 foot high water fall is even better.
The day we saw it there had been relatively little rain, but still the force of the water put us off bathing there, settling instead for a more sedate rock pool. In the rainy season apparently you can't get within 200m of the foot of the falls!

The final leg of the grand tour came with a day out in the Cabrits national park that overlooks the anchorage at Portsmouth. It is basically 2 hills that were once home to a huge British Garrison and fort. Dominica is half way between Martinique (French) and Guadeloupe (French) so obviously the British were a bit concerned it may get invaded!

Today there is a restored fort, and perhaps more interestingly as you walk the trails you stumble of the parts that are unrestored, cannons, walls with trees entwined in them and all sorts of remains of days gone by.

Fascinating fact of the day, it is the British invention of the brass cannon that means we won the battles out here, plus Trafalgar, apparently. French could only get 2 shots off with their iron ones while we blasted merry hell out of them with our fancy new fangled brass ones. No doubt there was a huge argument over military funding in the budget and awarding the contract to Lord so and so's nephew but it all worked out in the end!

Dominica sadly marks the turn around point for us. We are heading back to the USA for summer, then a spell of w*rking in the UK to pay for more travels. So from here we will start the long journey north, but with plenty of time and the wind behind us it should be more pleasant than the original bash down the the Thorny Path.
We will upload more photo albums very soon, so check the link.
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Iles Des Saintes

Iles Des Saintes, Guadeloupe
15 52.1N 61 35.1W

Don’t they all look the same after a while? a friend asked one day, when talking about the Caribbean Islands - without a doubt the answer is no. Not only they look different but they also feel different.

Les Saintes, a little group of islands just south of the main island of Guadeloupe is one of our favorite places in the whole Caribbean. The picturesque setting of Bourg Des Saintes, the beautiful snorkeling around the islands, the best baguettes and pain chocolats in the Caribbean and the relaxed attitude of the people makes this place very special. Try to imagine a place where children can run free, where you never lock your doors, where the beaches are spectacular, where the weather is almost perfect and where you can get the best food and wine France has to offer.

We had a lazy and enjoyable week or so with our good friends Wendy and Peter of Keesje II. We walked all over the islands, eating, drinking, liming well … cruising. What a great time, what a great life.

We had originally planned to visit Guadeloupe and Martinique but both islands were completely shut down by a general strike. Islanders are requesting equal salaries and living standards (price of food, petrol, etc) as on main land France. Also, they are making the point that people living on the islands don’t have equal opportunities as most businesses are being run by the “Békés” , the first French immigrants to the islands, and that their control and attitude towards the other islanders is overpowering. Slavery has ended but the descendants of the same white families that owned the plantations now own the tools of capitalism, while the descendants of the slaves work minimum wage jobs in the area with the highest cost of living in France.

Luckily most of this feeling is not present in Les Saintes and it manages to both look like and be a paradise!
Posted by Picasa