Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rod & Maryhelen Do Antigua

Last year as were emailing with Rod & Maryhelen trying to figure out where and when we'd be in the Caribbean, which in cruising parlance is a "no-no."  Normally you set a date or a place but not both or you can run into difficulties if the weather or mechanical issues arise.  We ended up postponing their visit till January and set a date to meet in Antigua on January 22nd.  Fortunately, it worked out as we arrived about a week early and anxiously awaited their arrival.

Rod & Maryhelen are longtime friends. We raced T-birds against Rod and he later bought a Catalina 36 that was moored next to ours at Elliot Bay Marina in Seattle. We have so many great memories of sailing in the Gulf and San Juan Islands, as well as one of our favorite spots, Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island. (just a reach away)   What a treat to have good friends as well as good sailors aboard!

As usual, our guests Rod & Maryhelen were bringing an extra suitcase to accommodate all the boat parts, etc. we coerced them into delivering.  Luckily, Walter held off somewhat because we were traveling to the States shortly after their visit anyway.  They had packed perfectly and all their belongings fit our guest berth's vanity table.  It was all the other "stuff" we had to find a place for that is always the challenge.  We proceeded to chat-a-way and get caught up with our families and grandkids over dinner and a couple glasses of wine. 

We started putting together the week's sailing plan over breakfast and decided to spend another night at the Jolly Harbour Marina. We took a walk along beautiful Jolly Beach, relaxed by the poolside, and enjoyed the Crow's Nest restaurant for drinks and appetizers as the sun was setting.  Rod and Maryhelen were starting to really relax and get into the cruising lifestyle.

Rod and Maryhelen at Jolly Beach
The following morning we sailed south leaving Jolly Harbor and headed for Nonsuch Bay on the west side of the Antigua.  We had heard great reviews from other cruisers to not to miss the scenic bay.  The sailing was initially pleasant as we headed south but soon we were blasted with strong easterly headwinds and high seas as we headed along the southern coastline. Flying Cloud and crew were handling the seas well but progress was a slow 4 knots. The wind and seas of the Caribbean can indeed be challenging and take some getting used to especially sailors used to sailing in the protected waters of Puget Sound. Finally, after a few snoozes along the way we entered Nonsuch Bay's narrow entrance and dropped anchor near Nonsuch Bay Resort.

Later that evening we had dinner at Nonsuch Bay Resort, an absolutely gorgeous resort built on the hillside and with a beautiful outdoor dining area overlooking the bay. We treated ourselves to delicious seafood dinners and couldn't have had a more enjoyable evening.

Tuna Steak Tartar
After a leisurely breakfast we headed over to find a buoy off Green and Bird Islands.  It is a popular spot with numerous mega yachts and amazing numbers of kite surfers tacking back and forth across the bay behind the reefs.  It was our first chance to swim off the boat and we immediately snorkeled to the beach to explore the nearby island.  We all decided if we were a few years younger we’d love to try the kite surfing — looks like a blast!  We ended up stayed an extra night to relax and enjoy the beautiful crystal clear water and scenery.

Our sail back towards Falmouth Harbor was much more fun with the wind on our beam and we sailed twice as fast at 7-8 knots.  Rod had a great time at the helm and we arrived early into Falmouth Harbor, lies side-by-side with English Harbor.  We anchored just outside the marina in front of some lovely homes overlooking a sandy beach and dinghied in to check out the beautiful yachts dockside.

Antigua is a great cruising island with more protected anchorages than any other Caribbean Island.  The island is of course English and well known for attracting mega-yachts with marinas and services to accommodate cruisers of all levels.  We wandered the docks watching all the crews working to keep the yachts in Bristol condition.  Walt and Rod were overwhelmed by the wealth exhibited and the beauty and perfection of each yacht.

This yacht became an immediate favorite with its name, Go Seahawks! Note the matching red lines.
This beauty if from the Isle of Man
Historic English Harbor Dockyard was once commanded by the famous British Naval Commander Horiato Nelson.  The dockyards have undergone numerous renovations and are well preserved and managed by the Nelson's Dockyard National Park. We took a self-guided tour seeing the beautiful grounds and had a picnic later by the bay.  Interestingly,  a few ocean rowing boats racing in The Transatlantic Challenge had just arrived from the Azores and the harbor was swarming with media as scores of well wishers looked on.

Would you like to live on this boat for 3 weeks?
Two very happy English lads glad to be here in Antigua!
Rod and Maryhelen in front of The Admiral's Inn
The famous pillars at Nelson's Dockyard
We loved poking around Nelson's Dockyard as we went back in time imaging what a fully operational dockyard must have been like centuries ago and the historical significance of Nelson's Navigation Act that closed the port to all but British ships.

We had some great dinners out and I fixed up a chicken vegetable curry with rice one night.  Maryhelen was a wonderful help in the galley, which makes such a difference.  We had a movie night with popcorn and chocolates while we watched "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and of course we rallied for a "Screw Your Buddy" card game that left us both frustrated with our guests card savvy. Good thing we weren't playing for cash!

After a couple days visiting English and Falmouth Harbors it was time to head back down to Jolly Harbor Marina and drop off Rod and Maryhelen.  We had such a great time and wished the week wasn't over.  They had wisely made reservations at a nearby resort to stay on the island another couple nights with the luxury of hot showers and spacious beds.  I am sure the adventure has perked some further thought for more chartering in the tropics and hopefully they'll come and visit us again soon. 

Great crew aboard Flying Cloud

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

We would have loved to stay longer and continue exploring Iles de Sainte with Lady Hawk and Windlass but we needed to continue sailing further up island toward Deshaies and our eventual goal of Antigua.  The winds were a steady 20+ knots as we left at 7:30 am that morning. Fortunately, the wind direction was more off the beam so we had a comfortable sail.  Once we were in the lee of Guadeloupe, we continued reaching along at a good speed catching the wind from squalls and breezes off the hills.  We flew by another boat that had hoped to stay out of the lee by heading further out from the coastline. We called it right and had a great continuous sail into Deshaies harbor.

Last time we visited Deshaies we didn’t have a chance to visit the Botanical Gardens so that was number one on our list.  Deshaies is a beautiful anchorage with a huge rock wall along one side of the harbor that reflects the sun's glowing colors during sunset.  We relaxed, sipping our sundowners as we watched the spectacle unfold.  One certainty is that we"ll never tire of beautiful sunsets!

Other cruisers are always such a great resource; we learned the Botanical Gardens will pick you up if you give them a call. So that saved us a long hike up the hill or taxi fare.  We spent the next three hours trying to learn all the names of the tropical plants and flowers of the area and took hundreds of photos trying to capture natures beauty.

Koi swimming in a pond as you enter the gardens.
Heliconia from Guatemala.
Red Ginger flower.
Colorful parakeets.

Aristolochia from Antilles, Central America.
Acalypha from India.
Pink Flamingos.
Ravenala from Madagascar.
Nicolaia from Malaysia.

Walter from North Bend.

View of Deshaies Harbor below the gardens. Somewhere in the distance is the volcanic island of Montserrat.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Return to Iles de Saints

With an early morning start, we sailed north from St. Pierre across the Dominique/Martinique Channel in a very brisk 20-knot beam reach, allowing us to cover the 56 miles to Portsmouth, Dominique in a little under 9 hrs, 30 minutes, for a respectful 6 knots average speed.

Gee, I wonder why they have all those fenders out?
We quickly found an anchoring spot, well clear of other boats and got dinner going in anticipation of an early night’s sleep. Little did we know a local boat boy put a late-arriving charter boat on a buoy just abeam of us. It was a boatload of young Germans, and sure enough we swung into them later that night with a gentle tap when the wind did a 60-degree shift to the north (somewhat unusual). At four in the morning we got some strange looks from the wives/girl friends, but did shorten our anchor since we were leaving early that morning anyway.

With our tail between our legs we hightailed it out of Dodge and once again caught some great beam reach sailing in 20 to 25 knots on our way to Iles des Saints. It was only a 22-mile romp across the Guadeloupe Passage, but the strong winds had us fairly exhausted by the time we approached the headland.  We had originally planned to enter through a narrow reef (the same route we used when leaving Iles des Saints last season) but saw the waves breaking on both sides and decided it was a little too risky, so we opted to go around the south end of a small island called Les Augustines. Given the strong wind we had our hands full getting the genoa in and didn’t pay as close of attention to our navigation as we should. I had noticed a dive boat off to my right, close in to the island, and suddenly heard a very loud whistle. I looked up and could see the reef dead ahead and without thinking I spun the port about 40 degrees to port, just clearing the reef. Not sure if we would have hit anything given the depth but that was a wake-up call about entering an area that we hadn’t plotted out on our chart plotter ahead of time.

The anchorage at Terre de Haut, Iles des Saints.

The rest of the way into Terre de Haut, the small resort town in Iles de Saints, was thankfully unremarkable. We found a mooring ball, got the boat squared away, and headed into town in the dingy to clear customs using the super easy French computer check-in procedure. Walked around town a bit looking for the best (and most expensive) ice cream in the Caribbean. Got the obligatory fresh baguettes for lunch and picked up some other groceries. It was nice coming back to a town we had already visited and were familiar with.

Heading back to Flying Cloud, we noticed a couple of boats we’d last seen in St. Martin the previous season, Windlass (Dee and Pete) and Lady Hawk (Deb and Dan). We got together on Lady Hawk with all three couples later for sundowners and rehashed our respective travels over the last year.

This French artist was surprisingly friendly and funny.
The artist sold this beautiful clay fired masks for about $20, a steal at that price.

The next morning we headed over to a small nearby island, Ilet a Cabrit, with Lady Hawk to explore and get some exercise. Just by the dingy landing we met an intrepid Frenchman who had set up camp making exquisite clay masks. We talked with him at length and asked him about trails on the island. With Dan in the lead we headed up the trail through a lightly forested area passing various ruins of a French fort that once guarded the entrance to the bay.

The main fort and parade grounds at the top of the island.

We climbed around the large fort at the top, trying to figure out the construction and purpose of the various stone buildings. Dan was pretty sure the heavily-walled building was the powder magazine. Local goats wandered in and out of the various buildings with their “kids” lingering behind.

Dan enjoying the view from the south side of Islet a Cabrit looking towards Terre de Bas.

At the very top on the other side of the island was a beautiful view over to Guadeloupe. We had considered sailing up to Marie Gallant that week, but the six hours of windward sailing discouraged us.

The view looking northeast towards Marie Gallant.

Dan came back to the boat and helped hoist me up the backstay so I could get our SSB antennae reattached. I had been thinking about how to have Meryl do it, but with Dan’s brute strength it turned out to be a quick and easy job. After having met Lady Hawk and Windlass only briefly before in Salinas and St. Martin, it was great to finally spend some time together and get to know each other better.

On the 12th we all hiked across Terre de Haut to Baie de Pompierre, a nice beach on the windward side of the island, where we all jumped in and played in the waves, cooling down from the hot hike. We found a nearby hut that had some good baguette sandwiches and enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch, just like the French.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Rum a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

We left Fort-de-France at a respectable hour for the short sail north up the coast of Martinique to St. Pierre. As usual, we saw some beautiful sail boats along the way, including the classic schooner White Swan that charters in the Caribbean waters.

St. Pierre has an interesting history in that the entire town was destroyed in May 1902 when the volcano Mount Pelee erupted, killing over 30,000 people, which represented the entire population of the town along with people in neighboring villages. Today it is a sleepy coastal town and popular stopover for north/south sailing boats. It has a rather languid feel to it, reminding me of a Matisse landscape with the soft light glowing over the hills and villages.

The seaside village of St. Pierre, once devastated by a volcanic eruption in May 1902.

With little energy after walking all over Fort-de-France we just lazed around on the boat and did Meryl’s new favorite sport, noodling. This involves putting a noodle or two between your legs and doing laps around the boat. If you are Walter, it also involves bringing a scrub brush to clean the accumulated gunk off the waterline. Gives you a chance to know the local flora and fauna “up close and personal.”

The Queen of the Noodle.

Our goal was to explore around town a bit and visit the famous Depaz rum distillery. After a brief stop at the local tourist office got us only the most general instructions in French on how to get to the rum distillery (“up the road a ways”) we began what turned out to be a rather long walk through the side streets (we were almost lost) and coastal road until we found a road leading up the hill toward the interior of the island. It was a beautiful day and we had nothing else to do so we slowly meandered here and there until miraculously we came upon the distillery nestled in the tropical jungle environs typical of this area.

The old French fort on top of the bluff guards St. Pierre.

The tasting room and Welcome Center at Depaz Distillery.

Storage tanks for the cane syrup used in making Rhum Agricole.
The Depaz distillery is one of a limited number of rum distilleries on the island, and certainly one of the nicer ones to visit and tour. It wasn’t sugar cane harvest time, so unfortunately the distillery workers were focusing on maintenance and cleaning rather than rum production during our stay. Compared to the rum distillery we had visited on Grenada, this one was well maintained and modernized. They did a good job, however, of keeping bits and pieces of older equipment to give the visitor a sense for how it was done in the old days.

Huge waterwheels such as this still provide power to the rum distilleries.

This modern crusher extracts the cane sugar out of the sugar cane stalks.

The vertical Creole-type distiller using in Rhum Agricole production. I would tell you how it all works but the sign is in French.

I love this picture of an old heat exchanger since it's basically the same design used in the engine of our sailboat and for our refrigeration system. Cooler water (salt water in the case of a boat) goes through the pipes while the coolant circulates on the outside.

Dark rum is aged in oak casks, similar to wine and whiskey, while clear rum is stored in stainless steel tanks.

Rum distilleries on the island of Martinique are unique in that they are 1) highly controlled by the French Government, and 2) produce only “rhum agricole,” that is rum produced purely from sugar cane compared to the majority of rums that are produced using molasses. It gives the rum a lighter, more favorable taste in our experience.

Rather than try and paraphrase the Rhum Agricole process, I’ve quoted from a great article in the
LA Times Magazine, June 3, 2012 titled “Rhum Agricole:”

The island, some 430 square miles, is located in the Lesser Antilles, between Dominica and St. Lucia. France first claimed Martinique in 1635; today it is an overseas department of the republic, part of the European Union. The currency is the euro, and its official language is French, although Créole Martiniquais can be heard throughout the island. Its inhabitants—a mixture of African and European descendants from the colonial-era sugar trade, along with Amerindian, East Indian, Lebanese and Chinese—are French citizens.

The standard of living is among the highest in the Caribbean, and so is the cost of doing business.
Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum produced today is rhum industriel, made from molasses—a tradition that goes back to the 17th century, when entrepreneurs sought to put the waste product of sugar manufacturing to good use.

The other 1 percent is rhum agricole, and the majority of that is from Martinique. (Versions of rhum agricole are also made in the Caribbean on of Réunion and Mauritius; and in Brazil, which is known for the spirit cachaça.)

An AOC—Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or “controlled designation of origin”—is the certified geographic designation and regulation given by the French government for that nation’s cheeses, wines, spirits and other agricultural products. The island of Martinique is home to the only AOC
outside the mother country, and it is the sole unique appellation for rum in the entire world. In other words, the rhums of Martinique are protected and strictly regulated by the same body that governs the production of Champagne, Bordeaux and, most relevantly, Cognac (well, Armagnac, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

The AOC rhums of Martinique are made strictly from 12 varieties of fresh pressed sugarcane juice from four regions, and according to law, fermentation must begin within 24 hours of harvest. The unique microclimates, soils, sun exposures, altitudes and weather patterns—from the tropical rainforest at the northern tip of the island at Macouba, where Rhum J.M. is located, to the drier, sunnier west coast, near Saint-Pierre, where you find Neisson—result in one of the most terroir-driven distillates on earth. (Yes, terroir, a term generally associated more with wine geeks.)

Rhum agricole is made from vin de canne, or sugarcane wine—an approach credited to Homère Clément, a late-19th-century native of Martinique, who received a scholarship from the French government to attend the University of Paris. In 1878, Clément returned to Martinique with a passion for Grand Cru wines and Armagnac. To this day, the rhum is distilled in a Créole single column copper still, modeled on the classic Armagnac still.

In 1887, Clément bought Domaine de l’Acajou, a 300-acre sugarcane plantation outside of Le François, which he converted into a rhum distillery. While it is not known exactly who first distilled fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, Clément, along with St. James and Depaz, began to revolutionize the industry. The rhum producers of Martinique have endured volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes, economic crises, corporate takeovers, consolidation and, more recently, antitrust regulations. The once illustrious capital, Saint-Pierre, referred to as the Paris of the Caribbean, was swept into the sea when Mount Pelée erupted in 1902, wiping out about a sixth of the island’s population.

“Rhum agricole is the only thing we have to fight against the rest of the world,” says Benjamin Mélin-Jones, with an expressionless face and a thousand-yard stare. For this dedicated man, building a spirits category is a matter of honor. Mélin-Jones is a fourth-generation descendant of Homère Clément. He  represents rhums Clément and J.M., two of the island’s most renowned, yet very different, brands.

The somewhat forced smile on her face is the result of the 150-proof rum slowing making its way down. It's very strong stuff.

The height of any distillery tour, the tasting room, didn’t disappoint us. We’ve learned to judiciously sip the stronger 150-proof rums, especially when you have a 5-mile walk home in the heat of the day.

Ironically we did not buy any rum at the distillery, since we didn’t relish carrying it all the way back to the boat, but we had previously bought a liter of Clément and JM Rhum which we’re looking forward to trying, along the the tiny amount of Pyrat Rhum (reputed to be one of the best rums in the world) we and left over from St. Thomas. As my friend Rannie once said, don’t dare mix this rum (Pyrat) with Coca Cola or fruit punch. It’s too good for that.”

We had a relaxing long walk downhill and then along the coast road back to the boat, where as usual, we crashed on the cockpit cushions and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset along with a small dash of rum.

Great way to end a day.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Paris of Martinique

After nearly two weeks in Le Marin and Sainte-Anne’s hoping to get our battery issues sorted out, we realized we’d have wait nearly a month for replacement batteries to be shipped from the States to Sint Maarten.  With that decided, we sailed north from Le Marin to the capital town of Fort-de-France, about 20 miles north.  The easterly wind was brisk and with a reefed main and reefed genoa we scooted along the coast past Diamond Rock towards Fort-de-France.

We arrived in mid-afternoon and took a long time trying to find a spot to anchor in the very limited and crowded anchorage near Fort St. Louis. Ironically we anchored too close to a French-Canadian boat who came out on deck and said it was OK and that he was leaving early in the morning.

The weather was still very boisterous and alternated between blue sky and rain squalls followed by beautiful sunsets. As always following a tough passage we had a quick dinner and just chilled out down below, hoping the anchor was securely set before we went to bed.

The town features a rectangular grid of streets, and we began at one end and went back and forth from street to street.  What surprised us the most was that Fort-de-France is a fashion center of sorts in the Caribbean, with hundreds of small shops selling fabrics, findings, lingerie, and clothing. Meryl had a great time looking for the ubiquitous French bikini and other fashions in the various stores.

Like all of Martinique, Fort-de-France has a strong French influence, including the famous Schoelcher Library that was constructed in France and then completely disassembled and shipped to Fort-de-France where it was reconstructed.  The architectural detail is incredible.

We saw a large crowd of French tourists in front of a store and joined the crowd who was watching a local lady grind up sugar cane stalks into the most sugary drink I’ve ever had. Still not sure what it’s called but I’m sure it had a zillion calories.

The town features a huge vegetable/fruit market with hundreds of vendor stalls selling about any type of veggie you could desire, along with folk art and handicrafts.

We had a wonderful lunch of ham & cheese pannini's at a sidewalk cafe (of which the French do such a great job) and then straggled back to the boat for an afternoon nap.