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Friday, February 29, 2008

Back in Martinique, and the kids go bump, bash, ouch!

Martinique is excellent for provisions, we stocked up very thoroughly at the Fort de France supermarket, at decent prices too. Max and I visit the fish market and buy some mahi-mahi for dinner sometime this week. Whilst there, we see piles of flying fish which fascinate Max, so we buy a few for lunch. After that, and a breakfast of nice bread and the good old pain chocolat, we lifted the anchor again and took an hour's trip across the bay to a beautiful little anchorage called Anse Noir, a small cove with steep cliffs either side, a lovely black sand beach and apparently great snorkeling around the edge.

When we arrive, I get to work on lunch. First clean your fish. The kids love to watch as I cut the fins from the fish, descale and gut them. They take the leftover tails, heads, everything and examine it in detail. Not for the squeamish, but they have no such inhibitions. They are less interested in eating them, but we find flying fish to be delicious, fried in a little olive oil and served with brown bread and salad. Three of the fish had roe, so we have flying fish caviar!

Yesterday, before we left St Lucia, we filled up with water. To fill the spare canisters, Gesa lifted some floorboards and extracted a couple of the empty twenty litre canisters. The kids were playing elsewhere, and are pretty savvy to open floorboards, so she left them like that. Somehow, messing around, Max managed to fall through, down into the depths of the boat about three feet, grazing his leg on the way. Much tears and distress, quick first aid and a lot of feeling sorry for himself.

Today was Issie's turn. We went snorkeling, one of her favourite things. At one point I am with Max and notice a creature floating in the water in front of us. I stop and look - it's a ribbon like jelly, about an inch in diameter and perhaps three feet long, twisted on itself a bit and with a purple red centre. Having never seen this before, I call Gesa and Issie over. Issie arrives, her usual bull in china shop self, and doesn't listen to me telling her to wait, she swims right into it. Immediate yelps of pain - I felt electricity, Mummy - and we can't quieten her down. Not really realising exactly what has happened, we try to calm her but she screams all the way back to the boat, a ten minute swim. Max and I follow behind them, and she is still crying a lot as we get out of the water. Her arms are covered in bumps and in many of them are tiny little hairlike spines, almost like nettle stings. We take stock and reach for the first aid book, which does list some things but nothing very clear. I remember that lemon juice is good for sea urchin spines (it dissolves them) and we try it on Issie. It must sting like heck, as she screams even more but the spines disappear in front of our eyes. Five minutes later, all is calm and the bumps have gone down a lot. We still don't really know what it was, but it gave her a real fright. Hopefully she'll be back in the water tomorrow, but maybe a little more sensible about barging around.

Issie and Gesa stay on board to watch a movie, whilst Max and I go ashore in search of ice cream and beer. The beach is popular with locals and tourists alike, and we walk up some steep steps to the road above. This instantly goes down steeply again into a tiny fishing village on the other side. We follow more steps and come to a gorgeous white sand beach, with traditional fishing boats pulled up above the high water mark. Here there are a couple of bars, so we find our ice cream and beer. On the beach, there are two groups of people, one group at each end, pulling on a rope that goes off into the water. It soon becomes clear that they are hauling in a net. This has been cast out across the bay and is being pulled in, enclosing anything in it's path. It takes about half an hour of heavy work and finally the net tumbled into a little boat bouncing in the surf on the beach. A couple of turtles are picked out right away and released, as are some puffer fish, one of them puffed up to well over a foot across. The remainder of the catch is sardine like, small fish between a few inches and a foot long, and not that many of them given the significant effort put into hauling this in. But that's fishing, I guess. Max is fascinated and spends most of the time on my shoulders so he can see what's going on. Afterwards we walk back over to the boat. We'd been gone an hour, having said we were just going ashore for ice cream, but we've not been missed - oh well!

Back on board, the sunset is beautiful, setting just offshore of the little cape that divides the two bays. On the rocky shore, a man is casting for fish with rod and line, silhouetted by the setting sun. We all sit on deck and relax. The kids are playing on the foredeck, Issie swinging on the jib sheet, as she likes to do. Max gets involved and it gets a bit boisterous so we tell them to stop. A moment later, I'm trying to take a photo of Issie as she sits there, when through the viewfinder I see Max trying to swing, letting go, taking two steps back and plummeting down the forehatch onto their bunk. Fortunately it's soft mattress below, but he's clunked his ear pretty hard on the way down. More tears and some sympathy, but not as much as he wanted, given that he had been warned not a minute earlier.

I guess it's the nautical equivalent of tripping on the front step, getting stung by nettles and so on, but the kids have certainly been a bit in the wars these past couple of days!

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The Leaving of St Lucia

Our final couple of days in St Lucia were generally very enjoyable, in tune with our experience on that island. We spent a lovely day on Pigeon Island, packing a picnic and walking across to the Atlantic side where the waves crash on the shore. Here, the waves have piled up old boulders and coral to form a slight wall, behind which are rockpools - the first we've really seen here. Since there is very little tide in this part of the world, you don't get the daily covering and uncovering of shoreline that gives many parts of the world their great rockpooling opportunities.

Anyway, here we took the chance to explore and turn over a few rocks. At first, it looked a bit barren but as ever, the more you look, the more you find and perseverance was repaid. We'll post some photos, but we found brittle stars, hermit crabs, sea snails, urchins and some curious limpet like creatures that look a bit like big bugs, move pretty quickly but stick hard to the rocks when touched. We collected various shells and broken coral and brought it up to the picnic table, where we had a science / art lesson, sketching what we'd found and talking about how they have arisen. I sometimes wonder what people near us must think, it'll look like we're just normal tourists so "hey, these poor kids come on a weeks holiday to St Lucia and their parents make it like school"

After lunch we returned to the beach and I picked up the swim and snorkel kit from the boat and we went for some time in the water, very nice. That evening we ate out at the little cafe, Jambe de Bois, where there was good live jazz and free internet, so not only did we get fed and entertained, but caught up on email and the kids played on the cbeebies website for an hour, the first time since leaving England. A rare treat and it certainly kept them quiet!

On our last day on the island, we needed to pick up a Fedex package. This should have been easy, people we know got stuff from England sent direct to the marina via FedEx and just collected it after a few days. If only. The call centre in the UK told my parents that they didn't deliver to Rodney Bay (patently wrong) but it would be held at the Castries office. OK, that's a fifteen minute bus ride and we haven't seen Castries, the capital, before. So we look up the office on the FedEx website and head into town. It goes pretty well at first, bus is fun and cheap, but it's a hot day and tempers are a little short all round. We get across town to the office listed to find that it's for sending only, collection are from an out of town office that the bus went past two miles back. Grrrr.

We complete some other errands; sending postcards, buying fruit, but the place is uninspiring to say the least, and full of cruise ship passengers and taxi drivers trying to win their business. We are constantly harassed to take a tour of the island. We get fed up after an hour and get the bus out to the place where the FedEx office is. We are there by midday. Yes, they have our package, but customs are holding it for clearance. We need to come back between 2:30 and 3:30 when a customs officer is there. Grrr and double grrr. We all head back to the boat empty handed, I'll come back in later.

Later is much easier, Max and I treat is as a jolly adventure and he loves riding the bus. We go, wait in line for thirty minutes, the customs officer waves us in, looks in the package and says fine, you can go, all without breaking his mobile phone conversation. So we now have our new bank cards and a few other goodies from England.

The next morning we clear out with customs and irritation (immigration), fill up with water and leave for Martinique. We have a lovely six hour sail in near perfect conditions, arriving at Fort de France just in time to clear in with customs there and get some shopping.

We're northward bound now, after three months of travelling south. The wind comes from the West, so after always being on port tack, with the wind coming from the left of the boat, we now find ourselves on starboard. This gives us automatic right of way over boats coming south, according to the rules, but it also means we lean over the other way, and all the things that seemed well stowed for the last three months slide to the other side of their cupboards and show up our stowage failures! The logbook now slides off the chart table if I leave it there, but cooking's a little easier as dishes don't try and leap off the counter towards you. Max, asker of continuous questions, noted from the bus window that new houses always start with flat concrete. Why do they make it flat, Daddy? Well, if not, it would be like living on a leaning boat all the time. He understood the problems of that right away.

Onwards, to the Virgin islands in May. Oh so little time!!

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chancers, beggars and dirty rotten scoundrels.

Any waterfront where sailors come ashore and where trade is carried out has forever been rich pickings for the less morally affected of society. It is the same here, where our yacht, and even our dinghy, may represent more money than some of these men will see in a lifetime of fishing or farming. This has led to the development of numerous techniques to try and obtain ones money.

I don't mind, in fact I want to, pay a fair price for goods and services in these islands. We have things we want to do and are happy to support those who offer them. Yet the frequency with which you are offered things you don't need, or quoted a silly price, becomes tiresome and we find ourselves becoming wary and standoffish on first contact.

Outright theft is rare. There is a local sailor who collects reports of crime against yachts, and she runs a daily radio network to allow reports and feedback on events. The outright numbers are very low in the first place, and then Venezuela and St Vincent dominate the reports. ( if you are interested). Here in St Lucia, there were a couple of break-ins to empty yachts in the marina itself in January, and a similar boarding and theft down near Soufriere. The local rangers told us that the guy is now in jail. We take the obvious precautions of locking all the hatches when we leave the boat, and locking the dinghy alongside at night. Here, we have even taken to lifting the outboard off the dinghy at night and locking it in it's storage place on the rail of the yacht, where it is much harder to steal.

Violent crime is rarer still, and seems confined to areas further south and usually closely linked to drugs. There often seems to be more to the reports than first meets the eye - a dreadful sounding attack on a professional skipper who had taken his guests ashore for dinner appears now to have been at least partly the skippers fault as he has skipped the country when released from hospital and is wanted by the local police.

More common is attempted robbery dressed up as business. I've already mentioned the boat boys who hang around in anything from a smart motor boat to kneeling on a surfboard. So far we have seen:
- Giving you a mooring line as you approach a buoy. We used to keep the boat on a mooring and really do know how to pick one up. We just say clearly that we don't pay for that then they can help us if they want but it's for free. If it's a difficult pick-up and they still help, I'll donate a couple of cans of beer.
- Selling second rate goods. Offers to go get you nice fruit or fish are not worth trying, ref. my experience with the tuna! Likewise the fruit in boxes on board their boats, at least you can pick and choose but prices are high and quality still poor compared to the stores or the women who set up a stall on the streets each day.
- Arranging taxis and tours. There must be large commissions going for this, and gullible sailors who have a different perception of prices. We've never even bothered going as far as a negotiation on a taxi tour with these guys, the only one we have arranged is the Indian River Tour we plan to do back in Dominica, where our consistent 'no thanks' has brought the price down from about $200 to half that.
- Taking rubbish for you. They all want to do this for a fee and we always refuse. In Soufriere we were proved right; at the end of the dinghy dock, in a nice piece of woodland was a pile of split and festering plastic bags with rubbish that had clearly come from yachts. When I went to take ours to the skip in the fisherman's dock I got chatting to a local fisherman who said that only that morning, a boat boy had dumped a load of bags on their quay and sped off, leaving them to tidy up behind him. This one is less about saving money than making sure the rubbish goes right to the bin.

Once you get past the waterbourne salesmanship you are ready to meet those on shore. Locking our dinghy to the dock in Soufriere, we meet the well known 'dinghy watchers'. Apparently the beach is full of naughty children and nasty thieves who will abuse and remove your dinghy the minute you leave. These guys will happily chase them away and keep your possessions safe. Uh huh. 'We're in charge of the dock', says one. I chuckle, 'who put you in charge then?' 'The Hummingbird did' That's the beachside restaurant, and I know they don't employ anyone for this, certainly not these two dodgy looking characters. 'Oh good, then, if they're paying you to do that that's great'. 'No, no, you pay us.' 'Oh, so if I ask at the Hummingbird they'll say this is OK?'.'Er, yes, sure mon. Now, you go into town and we settle when you come back, yes?'. 'No, sorry, I don't pay for dinghy watching.'

Just to make a point of it, I pop my head round the gate at the Hummingbird and say hello to their security guard. He confirms that these guys are nothing to do with them, and says he'll keep an eye on it anyway, not that there's any need. A few steps further on and we get chatting to a nice Swedish family backpacking around the islands for a month. They'll be on the beach all day, they'll look out for anyone messing with the dinghy. We head off for the shopping.

As we return, we say Hi to the Swedish family. No one's been near the dinghy that they saw. One of our 'dinghy watching' friends approaches me. 'Hey, good thing you came back. There were a couple of kids messing with your dinghy, they got in it and I chased them away'. 'Really?'. 'Yeh, mon, they even got the engine started and were messing around but I sorted them good. What you gonna pay me?'. 'I'm sorry, I don't believe you.' 'No, they were', he says, putting on a hurt and wounded demeanour at my terrible accusation that he's lying. The conversation continues a bit until I say 'Look, you told me the Hummingbird get you to watch dinghies, they don't. You tell me someone's been messing, my friends there saw nothing. Why should I believe you?'. 'I don't like your style, mon'. 'Huh, you don't like my style? I catch you lying to me and call you on it, of course you don't like it.'

He's still insisting he's not lying, and I notice that the crew of Tuppence, a yacht we know, are still sitting in their cockpit just 15 metres away from the dock. I reckon they've been there all afternoon. I point this out and say they'll have seen him saving our dinghy, right? 'Oh no, mon, they won't have seen nothing, too far away.'. 'Look, I'm going to get in the dinghy now and go ask them. If they saw you, I come back and give you $20, OK.'

Now he's totally caught out and it's time not to push it any further. He asks outright for a few dollars for food (strong rum, more likely) and then says 'Which boat is yours? You going out tonight?' He knows full well which boat is ours, but his thinly veiled and empty threat is easily answered. Nope, with these kids we just get them to bed and stay aboard in the evenings. Sigh.

When we're coming back from town the next day, we're met by a different chap we've seen on the beach. He calls me over and tries to tell me the same 'kids playing in the dinghy just now' story. 'Oh,' says I, 'that's interesting. Yesterday one of the guys told me the same thing and he was either lying or a bit funny in the head because my friends were watching that dinghy all day'. He pauses, looks me up and down then just shakes my hand and says 'you have a good day now, mon.' and saunters on his way. When we're having a drink in the local bar later, he wanders in and just asks outright if I'll buy him a beer. Ah well, I'm caught in a moment of weakness, he's not been pushy and for a few dollars why not. He actually takes a double strength rum (80% alcohol!) in a plastic cup to go. It cost me eighty english pence, and I get to chat to the barkeeper about him and his friends. Apparently they're OK really, can be a bit of trouble at times but spend most of the day sleeping off the previous night.

Generally, all this is a sort of edgy entertainment that goes with being in interesting parts of the world. I get the feeling that India wouldn't be for me, but here it's fairly enjoyable to walk the fine line between doing business, fending off unwanted efforts and not being downright rude. I just wish it didn't leave us constantly on alert for being hustled - I think we miss out on a lot of chances for friendly, informative chat with the generally wonderful people who live here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Exploring St Lucia The Sulphur Springs and Morne Coubaril Plantation

A supposed 'must see' around here is 'The Volcano', as the taxi drivers tell you. And only $80 to take you there, sir. 'It's the only drive through volcano in the world, mon'.

Well, that'll be apart from the one on Dominica, then? And it's a vent and bubbling springs rather than a volcano proper, but you can't fault them for trying. We know that you can catch a local bus most of the way, for $8EC, then have a nice walk to the Springs and back down again. We plan to do this, and visit a plantation - called Morne Coubaril - on the way down, where we might have lunch.

The plan starts well, we walk to the church square where buses leave, but the bus is full. Normal practice is to wait for the next one, which we do and are engaged in conversation by a taxi driver. When I joke that he's welcome to take us if he can match the bus fare, we laugh and he offers $15EC, less than £3. You're on, and we have a nice ride all the way to the Sulphur Springs, and a good chat. He either is or recently was a policeman, so shares some truths about the boat boys (most of them are dealing drugs)

At the Springs we pay a modest entry fee and are met by a guide, included in the price, who talks us through the walk around the springs. Issie and Max are focused on the fact that it is 'stinky' until the story about the guide who fell into a bubbling mud pool jolts them into attentiveness. Apparently until the 80's you could walk around the pools until a guide, demonstrating that the ground was solid, jumped up and down and fell through a weak crust into a pool. the poor man survived with serious burns and since then tourists have been kept at a safe distance.

The guided tour is quite careful to keep you to the path that leads back past the 'tips are welcome' sign, so much so that when Max spots a path leading off, he asks 'Where does that go?' and our guide says, 'oh, just another path up higher and a little museum.' before guiding us on past.

Good old Max and his inquisitiveness. After leaving a tip, we return by ourselves and hike up a bit to a real nice interpretation centre, with video and models of the area and whats going on beneath the ground. It was really nicely done and the kids were very interested. A few tourists were taken that far by their taxi and sat in front of the video before returning to their taxi for the 200 yard trip downhill to the start of the guided walk. From the small sample of fifteen or so tourists, they could have done with the walk. People, and their kids, are getting big these days....

We dig into our rucksacks for a snack and slowly walk back down the hill past the springs, taking in a wide variety of different views and spotting banana trees, mangoes and other interesting flora and fauna as we go. At the base of the springs, the water gathers into the black Soufriere River that flows to the falls we visited yesterday. Here there is a rustic outdoor pool where you can bath in the hot black mineral water itself. We waded and soaked out feet, it was very pleasant.

Following the plan, we politely reject the entreaties of the souvenir sellers and taxi drivers and walk back downhill for about 20 minutes to the plantation. At the gate we find things very quiet, and whilst they are happy to give us a tour, they are not serving food nor is the bar or gift shop open. It's not a cruise ship day. OK, that's fine, lets tour anyway. It's a little more pricey than the other things we've done, still cheap compared to a National Trust visit but we have different benchmarks now. As we walk in it seems a little less interesting than we'd hoped and I begin to wonder if we've picked poorly this time.

Yet once again, hanging in there a bit and letting things happen and develop pays dividends. The plantation is really fascinating, our guide is very knowledgeable and we have the place almost to ourselves. If there were cruise ship visits, there would be literally hundreds of people milling around here. At one point, a car drives in being some more visitors hoping for a tour, and since our guide is also the girl who takes ticket money, she breaks off from us and lets another gentleman take over. He's a bit hard to understand but as we grow an understanding and get chatting, he's great. He's worked on the plantation for 15 years and knows all about it. He shows us how to get coconuts out of their husks using an iron spike, and opens them with his machete. Max, at last, tries a drink of coconut milk and really likes it! From where we are, we can see Ty Dewi down in the bay in town. It's a delightful spot.

we learn about how they process cacao to make cocoa beans for chocolate, and are given a couple of cacao pods. We are currently engaged in a science experiment on board to ferment the beans, then dry and roast them. Can we make our own St Lucian chocolate? Watch this space...

We see how sugar cane is crushed to extract the sweet juice, have a drink of fresh grapefruit juice, and chat a little to the other visitors, an architect and his wife staying with a St Lucian friend in Castries. Then we bid our goodbyes and start to walk downhill to town.

About halfway, the visitors from the plantation come past, and stop and give us a welcome lift down into town. We head for Camilla's, a recommended local restaurant and have a great, and great value, meal before strolling back to the boat. On the way back, we pass the bar we ate in yesterday and sitting there are the Canadians we'd talked to at the Botanical Gardens yesterday. They are here on vacation but also sail back home, and we'd half-jokingly invited him to sail to Boston with us in May. 'Hey', he says, 'I got the go-ahead for the trip if you're serious'. 'Come on back to the boat if you'd like, we can chat..' So they come with us and we have a lovely hour sharing a rum punch and chatting away. It looks like Ken may join us for the trip, so that's another great outcome from our time here in St Lucia.

We really have enjoyed this island, even with the attentions of the local hustlers, but that's the next email....

Friday, February 22, 2008

Exploring St Lucia - Diamond Gardens and hot baths

Three days since I last wrote, and we've almost finished the tuna, although I had to rescue a large amount of it when Gesa tried to skin and debone a piece before cooking it. I swear there was more good meat in the 'chuckaway' pot than the cooking pot. I cooked those bits up too and they make a good tuna mayo salad.

Anyway, it's been a very enjoyable three days, exploring inland a litle bit and seeing some wonderful places and people. I'll break with the chronology here and describe, in this post, our visit to the Botanical Gardens and Hot Baths, then find some time to write a posting about the Sulphur Springs (or 'drive through volcano' as they like to exagerate it here) and the Plantation tour. Lastly, and by promising it I'll force myself to write it, I'll try to tell a little bit about where we are in Soufriere and the ingenious ways a few of the local guys try to extract cash from you.

We read through the St Lucia sections of a couple of guidebooks, visited tourist information and made a short list of things we wanted to see. As usual, there are plenty of taxi drivers wanting to tell you that everything is a long way away and asking a lot of money for the trip there. We looked at the map and realised that the Diamond Botanical Gardens were well within walking distance so we set off out of town. As soon as you get away from the waterfront, where too many people are used to too many tourists with too much money, the town becomes quiet and interesting, and you can drop your guard a little and enjoy the scenery more. After a short while, the road forks and we climb steadily upwards beside a plantation filled with coconut, cacoa, banana and other trees. The route becomes wooded and cool, even the kids let up on their complaints about walking and enjoy themselves.

Shortly we reach the entrance to the gardens. I'd seen, somewhere in a local sailing newspaper, reference to this place, with not just the gardens, but a beautiful waterfall and hot baths. The article mentioned that there was a private baths you could use for a few extra dollars, so I chatted to the lady at the gate and yes, that's no problem. She charged us entry to the gardens just for the adults, and for the baths the kids go half price. Total cost $70EC, about £14.

We begun to walk through the gardens, beautifully laid out some twenty five years ago around the partially restored 18th century baths. These had been senselessly destroyed during the French revolution but a couple of the baths were rebuilt in the 20th century. The gardens were just lovely, and at that point fairly empty. We realised that we could walk to the waterfall, take a bath and then be ready for lunch and the bulk of the gardens after that, so we tore ourselves away and discovered the Diamond Falls themselves. The river flows from the volcanic sulphur springs higher up, and is black with mud and minerals from there. We chatted to a gardener, who told us that the water is holy, because it supports no life at all - which doesn't seem particularly divine until he elaborates that that means no mosquitos. The minerals have coloured the rock a beautiful yellow and orange which contrasts with the dark water.

We are soon at the baths, where a set of three outdoor pools look tantalising, dipping a finger in the warm water even more so, and the pools look over the rainforest valley. I begin to wonder if we've made a mistake paying extra to be inside a hut! Asking the attendent, she gives us a key and directs us up some steps, where a small wooden gate leads into a little courtyard ringed with flowers and woodland. Unlocking the door in a small building, we find ourselves in a delightful changing room with steps down to two tiled baths, each with a big valve at one end. We are about to put on swimming costumes when we realise that there's no point - no-one can see us and we don't want to carry wet stuff back down the hill, so it's a skinny dip for us all. Opening the valve in the baths gives a gush of hot, crystal clear water filtered straight from the springs. A little tap above offers some cold water if it's too hot, but we found it just perfect.

Even the presence of two excited and playful children didn't spoil the beauty and romance of these baths, and the pleasure of just sitting and soaking in hot mineral water is made all the more delightful by the fact that none of us have been near a bathtub in three or four months. (don't worry, we do take regular showers)

Once we have soaked to a suitable level of wrinkliness, we dried off and were ready to leave when the rain began to pour down outside. This was a blessing, in fact, as we opened the windows to the changing room and let the cooler air blow through, looking out at the gorgeous view of the gardens. When it finally eased a bit, we left to find other visitors huddled in the gift shop or under other shelters and figured we'd got the better deal.

We try to have lunch but find that the 'snack bar' has a very limited selection and a queue, so we opt for ice creams now and a late lunch in town. We slowly tour the rest of the gardens then stroll back down the hill, pick up some fresh fruit in town and go to a little local bar we've found quite near our anchorage. The woman who runs it opens at 9am, closes whenever in the evening, and sits all day in her nearly empty bar, serving the few who stop by and chatting to friends who pass the door. There's a pool table, where $1 releases the balls, apart from the two missing ones, and the kids play their version of pool (push the white ball around without cues!) It takes an agreeably long time for them to finish a game, so they require minimal parental refereeing in the meantime. We drink a few beers and have a good lunch before returning to the boat and relaxing before the usual bedtime ups and downs getting the kids into pyjamas, brushing teeth, reading stories and 'will you just please go to bed and leave us alone...' We're all asleep by 9pm.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Maxisms and Issieisms

A couple more from the kids. They are spending a lot more time around us now, of course, and see us in good moods and bad. As a reminder that it all gets heard and stored, both kids now occasionally use 'Oh my God' (say it in a slow, stretched, exaggerated way) and Issie has been heard to say, in a very grown up voice 'Max, for goodness sake'

When swimming, we sometimes play 'torpedoes' where Max floats with his arms in front of him and we push him through the water. The mountains here are called the Pitons. Max now calls all tall spiky mountains 'Torpitons'

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Beautiful places and beautiful people

So here we are still moored between the Pitons, St Lucia. It's so nice here that we found it hard to leave so we stayed another day. Next to us is a smart sixty foot yacht, this morning a ninty-ish foot yacht left the bay after spending the night here, and just up from us is Tenacious, the Jubilee Sailing Trust's three masted tall ship.

To prove that there's always someone with a bigger yacht, this morning a motor yacht arrived. It's biger than most warships, I guess 250 feet long, and is just sitting there, not anchored or moored. I got chatting to one of the crew. Yes, she's a private motor yacht, and yes, in calm weather they just hold her in position with computer controlled thrusters. There's a crew of 40-50 people. A door opens in the side to slide out and lower their dinghy - a forty foot motor boat. It's a different, and crazy world. As we came past this afternoon, someone on the aft deck was shooting baskets - had a basketball, hoop, and space to play without losing the ball overboard.

Meanwhile we enjoy sitting here on our somewhat more modest craft. Issie even asked to stay the extra day because she likes it here. The two Pitons tower over us like ancient sentinals and even the presence of a smart and expensive resort in the bay does little to detract from the splendour of this place.

It does detract from our wallet though - we made the mistake of ordering three ice creams without asking 'how much'. When they were bought to the beach it was $60EC, about £11 for three glasses of ice cream, which isn't bad back home in england but hurt a bit when we're used to paying a third of that.

I also re-learnt the boat boy lesson - I keep wanting to believe that these are nice guys just trying to make a buck or two and they keep just trying to prove me wrong. Today one comes by and offers us local carvings, no thanks. Anything else, he says? How about some nice fresh fish? Tuna? OK, now I could be tempted. How much? $20EC (£4 per pound) Well that's a nice try and not too over the top so I say how about two pounds for $30? OK he says, and promises to be back later. I know it won't be tuna but Skipjack, but that's OK, we're a long way from a fish market and a fiver for a couple of meals is fine.

When he gets back, he's toting a fairly large fish. Huh? I ask. Well, mon, it's all they had and I don' wan' leave you with nothing when you asked me to get fish, yeah? Hmm, I believe you. How much for that then. $90, mon. Cough splutter yeah right. Look, I asked for two pounds, we agree a price and now you bring me more than we can eat before it goes bad - what am I going to do with a fish that size. Well, mon, it's a five pound fish, that's a good price. Well, no it's still too much and more than I need. Look, I'll give you $50. Oh, no mon, it's a nice big fish. It might be, but I don't want that much fish. OK, mon, how 'bout $60 then. Alright, alright, lets do that.

So another £11 gets us a nice amount of fish, and actually it's more fresh than I'd feared so we'll get three decent meals out of it but it does mean we're eating tuna for lunch and dinner! More to the point, I don't like being taken advantage of - I'm sure he could've got us a couple of nice steaks exactly as we wanted and we'd have been happy but now I feel like I've been taken for a ride and won't do business with them again.

This afternoon we went for a lovely walk in the woods above the bay. It's an old plantation (The Jalousie - Ja Louzy - Plantation) and there are still groves of coconut trees amid the encroaching forest and we dragged the kids up the very steep road and into the forest.

After that, we went snorkeling yet again, and I can't resist adding another picture of our little mermaid as she dives on the reef. There are two great snorkeling spots just here, and even Max now uses his mask and snorkel. We've seen big parrot fish, small squid or cuttlefish, and many others. We've also seen a barracuda, cruising the reef for his dinner and looking very mean. One of the reefs has a big wall of rock, teeming with life and going down about twenty metres. Its at times like this that I wish we dived, we'll have to do our training once the kids get into their teens.

Tomorrow we'll move a half mile to the other side of Petit Piton and get nearer to Soufiere village where we can get supplies and walk up to some of the interesting things inland, like the plantations, sulphur springs, waterfalls and hot pools. I suspect that we may struggle to better this spot for a long time, this may be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. More when we next get wifi.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ty Dewi excursions - Pigeon Island

To follow up on our text, here's some pictures of our trip to Pigeon Island:

- Water taxi - Nick collects Simon, Antonella, Francesca and Rebecca from their resort. Francesca wants to drive the dinghy!
- The four kids at Fort Rodney, on top of an old lime kiln.
- The Atlantic coast of St Lucia, rolling breakers pounding the beach.
- Walking through the woodland towards lunch at the cafe.

The Pitons, St Lucia

Some photos, being:

- The view approaching the amazing Pitons, old lava plugs to a couple of volcanic cones, the cones have eroded and the plugs remain, steep pinacles of rock.
- Gesa and Issie have a midday swim, with Petit Piton in the background
- Issie snorkeling on the reef
- Internet cafe Ty Dewi, using the hotel's wifi to call home, with the tall ship Tenacious and Petit Piton behind us.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fun and games in Rodney Bay

So, where was I? Ah, yes, a very social week and an alternator problem. Well, it's continued to be very social, and we have less of an alternator problem but the last few days have seen other interesting events.

As usual, sleeping on a problem often brings new ideas in the morning light. And so it was with the alternator. We had two of these, a low power one supplied on the engine and the high power one on a custom bracket which has caused all the trouble. Thinking about the forces involved in generating our electricity, it is clear that it will be very difficult to make a mounting that will not put huge stress on wherever we fix it to the engine chassis. But technology has moved on since 1987, and I realised that the low power alternator could now be replaced by a very powerful one in the same small size. We'd lose redundancy, only one unit, but should solve all the mounting issues at a stroke.

It hasn't been quite that simple, but almost and we can now charge the batteries again at as high a rate as we used to, but with less vibration and noise from the engine, which is a plus. I've also discovered an underlying issue with the electronics that control the charging rate to the batteries, and solving that might get even more power out of the alternator, so I'll be digging into the wiring there in the next few days. Thankfully, I tend to enjoy these sort of challenges as long as they can be dealt with on our timeframe, not theirs!

As arranged, we went back to Windjammer Landings and collected our friends Simon, Antonella, Francesca and Rebecca for a day trip to Pigeon Island, a couple of hills that form the northern part of Rodney Bay. This is another of these British forts that, like on the French islands, were built at each strategic point to maintain colonial power over the caribbean. It is now a national park, with nicely kept woodland, fun walks up to the peaks and beaches facing both the calm Caribbean side and the wild, wave tossed Atlantic. It's very pleasant, and we spent most of the day there, having lunch at a quirky little cafe, Jambe de Bois, named for a French pirate (ol' wooden leg, of course) who used the island as his base in the eighteenth century. At the end of the day, we went back into the lagoon to drop them off for a taxi and have a peaceful night at anchor. Hmm.

I must sleep fairly lightly these days, for at around 11pm I head voices close by. I get up and go on deck to find a yacht almost touching us. She had been anchored upwind and dragged her anchor, being blown down towards us. Luckily they had noticed, and managed to start their engine and motor out of the way and go drop their anchor again. She was smaller than us too, so I think they'd come off worst but I'd rather not have to fix anything else this week.

Well, once is unfortunate, but twice would strike one as somewhat careless. About twenty minutes later, I'm again disturbed from my bunk (not yet asleep anyway) and go up to find that they have dragged again, are raising their anchor and have turned sideways and drifted such that the front of their boat touches the front of ours. Their pulpit (a stainless steel framework on the bow) slides under ours as they try to reverse away and thankfully there is little more than an annoying scraping sound as metal slides over metal. No harm to us but now Gesa and I are both wide awake and spend the next forty five minutes watching them try to re-anchor several times before they end up a safe distance from us and anyone else and we can settle in for the night. It's now the early hours of Feb 14th, and whilst spending the start of Valentines Day on the moonlit deck of your yacht in the Caribbean sounds terribly romantic, somehow the presence of a poorly secured and incompetently crewed yacht to windward kind of ruins the atmosphere.

In the morning, we watch with dismayed interest as they hoist up their dinghy and motor away without a word. I may be naive, but had hoped for a conversation along the lines off - terribly sorry, any damage? - no, no, these things happen, we're fine, have a good trip. But perhaps I expect too much.

We had new friends from Seabright - Dave, Jo and Beth, on board for dinner and drinks last night, an enjoyable and somewhat too rum soaked evening for me, at least, then woke up to a very squally morning, with heavy rain showers and very strong gusts of wind. We'd arranged to go back to see Simon and Antonella at their resort so we waited for a gap in the rain and headed round, leaving the boat rocking at anchor whilst we spent a very pleasant day with them. It stayed squally, probably the worst weather we've seen since arriving here but we managed to enjoy beach and pool, a nice lunch and, joy of joys, a long hot shower in their villa. In the world of small water tanks and limited heating, this is a luxury we do enjoy. We're now back at Rodney Bay, nicely anchored and rocking gently, and we'll head south to Soufiere and the famous Pitons, a pair of volcanic peaks that will be familiar to anyone who's seen Pirates of the Caribbean. One day we'll find internet access and time to post some photos, there's a bit of a backlog building up. Till then, all's well. Nick

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Socialising in St Lucia

Well here we are in Rodney Bay, St Lucia and we've just had the most active social week of our travels so far. We'd decided to take a few days in the marina here, tempted by hot showers and a swimming pool, plus easy access to services, cafes and internet, apparently.

After a rapid romp across from Martinique, three hours at top speed in big seas, we negotiated our way through a narrow channel into the Rodney Bay lagoon where there is space for boats to anchor and a few hundred marina berths. We were directed to a berth which was, sadly, around a corner and into a fairly tight space but we made it, with some help from the new neighbours who pop up as soon as you come within bumping distance of their own boats. Having survived the stress of getting into the space, we weren't all that keen to leave it so we stayed three days.

Next door was a small german boat crewed by a wonderful couple, Wolf and Elizabeth, who we got to know and shared a few drinks with. A passing dinghy stopped and asked 'are you a kid boat?' and so the kids spent an afternoon at the pool with the kids from Iceni, anchored in the lagoon. In the chandlery, I met a couple with their very talkative five year old, Beth, and we have since spent a few more poolside afternoons with them. Along the pontoon is a boat called 'Out on the Blue', who we have met before, and William, the owner, invited us over for drinks. We ended up staying for dinner and a few drinks too many - it was a lovely evening.

Today we motored a couple of miles to a bay with a holiday resort called Windjammer Landings, where some friends from London have come to spend a week on holiday. We've arranged to pick them up for a day trip later in the week (Ty Dewi excursions, first rum punch free for every customer) and spent a cople of hours on the beach with them today.

So this has been an very social few days, after a couple of months of pretty much just the four of us it's nice to get out and about a bit.

Getting out of the marina was even more fun than getting in. The wind has been blowing pretty hard all week, and we reversed out of our berth without bumping anything. But then we couldn't get the boat to turn and go down the line of berths. Every time I tried to turn, the wind would blow us back so we were across the channel. It was about 60 feet wide, we are 50 long, so we were in a situation where we could hold steady safely but to try to turn ninety degrees and leave risked being blown down onto three or four other boats - which we couldn't risk. After three or four tries, and a growing audience on the other boats, I asked Gesa to get in the dinghy and use it like a tug, to push our nose around whilst I motored the boat forwards. All credit to Gesa, she just grabbed the dinghy keys, jumped in, started the engine and did it. We, or more probably Gesa, got a heartfelt round of applause from one if not two of the boats that we avoided damaging on the way out!

This morning, I decided to look at a problem we've had with the alternator - this provides the bulk of our electricity so is quite important. It's driven by a fanbelt from the engine, and the two pulleys have become misaligned. I though it was wear in the joint between the alternator and the engine but it's turned out to be worse than that. The bracket that holds it is very heavy and hangs from four bolts in the underside of the engine. The forces on this arrangement are high, and it was now only secured by one bolt, the other three had sheared off due to the weight and vibration. Removing broken off ends of bolts is hard enough at the best of times but under the engine, with only a few inches of space, it is impossible for me to do. A trip to shore located a local engineer who also concluded that it was nigh on impossible without lifting out the engine, not something we're really prepared to do. However, we think we can make a different design of bracket to fix on a point on the front of the engine, so we need to see his boss to get a more experienced opinion and a price. We've also had the chance to fix some outstanding little glassfibre and woodwork repairs, which is good, and being in sheltered water lets me finish off the paintwork on these more easily too, so the job list is shrinking almost but not quite as fast as it grows.

Looks like we'll be in Rodney Bay for a few more days yet. There's worse places, I guess. We'll just stay here as long as it takes and sample a wider variety of rum punch.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Anyone want to crew with us?

Here's a call for interested crew - we're looking for people who might want to sail from the British Virgin Islands to Bermuda then on to Boston.

This would be towards the end of May, taking up to two weeks. If anyone reading this is interested, or knows people who might be, then let us know be emailing nick(at)tydewi(dot)co(dot)uk - replace the brackets with the right symbols!

Gesa and the kids will be flying to Boston, and I'd like two or three crew for the journey. From Europe, I think you can fly into the Caribbean and then out of Boston as a single round trip ticket on Virgin or BA which keeps the costs down. Pay for your flights, share food and drink, no other charges.

The trip could be split so people join or leave in Bermuda if they only have a week's vacation.

Pass it on to friends and friends of friends


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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Photos from the Maison de Cafe, Guadeloupe

We never posted any pictures of this amazing place, so here they are, up in the mountains of Guadeloupe, a beautiful place.

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Monday, February 04, 2008


Being in a little bit of France, we get salami sausage - the whole sausage about a foot long and an inch across. We're cutting some when Issie asks what animal it comes from. We explain that it comes from a pig.

"Did it pooh it out?" says Max.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

More Dominica pictures

- Issie at Fort Shirley
- Rainforest trees consume the Commendants mansion
-Dinner on board!
- Dominica's dramatic scenery

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Photos from Dominica

The beach at Portsmouth
- 'Our' boat boy, Raymond
- Max talks to Grandpa on Skype at the Purple Turtle Beach Bar
- The family pose at Shirley Fort, Cabrits National Park



Well, after our very pleasant time at Les Saintes, we headed South to Dominica in a flat calm sea, motoring all the way. Perfect conditions for Gesa! A couple of miles out from Portsmouth, Dominica, we we met by our first boat boy.

Now, boat boys are a feature of some of the islands here, but we'd yet to come across them. In short, they are guys with a boat who make their living offering stuff to yachties. Much as I like to support the local economy, I don't reckon it's best done by paying over the odds for things you can do yourself or buy in town. By the time we had anchored, we had been regaled by about six different guys in little boats. I'd decided to use one of them for a ride to customs, as that was a long way and it made sense versus using our dinghy, so eventually I choose one of the nicer sounding guys, Raymond. That was good, we negotiated twenty local dollars, about £4, for him to ferry me to an ATM for cash then to customs. As it happens, he took me to customs first, producing a $100 note and saying 'pay me back once we've gone to the ATM'. So far so good. I complete customs fairly easily and return to find Raymond desperately trying to start his outboard engine! Oops. Not being in a particular hurry, I sit back and watch with quiet interest as he tries all sorts of things to get it started, to no avail. Another boat brings picks up his passengers and offers the embarrassed Raymond a tow, so we are towed back to the anchorage. He's obviously a bit down on his luck today, and I still don't have any cash to pay back the $100 he lent me. He thinks the problem is a broken spark plug, and I happen to have spares of the right type, and tools, so I invite him to tie his boat alongside and try to fix it there. He's pretty grateful, and takes one of my spare spark plugs. I tell him I'll still pay him for the trip, since I did get there and back and gives me a load of passion fruit that he has on board. Later I see him in town, pay him back the $100 plus £20 for the ride and we chat about a trip up the Indian River, a local tourist favourite. I'm lukewarm on the idea, so he says he could do it for us at a discount, $45 per adult and maybe $20 for the kids. So, says I, we're talking about $100 for us all? "Yeah, I could do it for that". He's a qualified guide, which means he's been trained on the flora and fauna, the trip is about two hours and $100 is about £18 so that's not bad. I promise to get in touch when we get back from St Lucia, and I will.

So now I actually have one of the local boat boys well and truly on my side, which turns out to be pretty useful. The others soon get the message that we're not spending over the odds on stuff. I'm offered a dominican flag for $50EC (£9) and when I laugh, the price is dropped to $40. I go into town and buy one for $8. In town, I buy four grapefruit, three cucumbers and a lettuce for another $8. Back on the boat, a boy arrives offering fruit. How much for a grapefruit? $2 he says. I tell him I bought fruit in town. "What? So what does that leave for me then?" He says. Competition, maybe?

All of this is actually quite interesting and fun in a way. It's less fun seeing the poorer guys who paddle out on surfboards trying to peddle fruit. I'm told most of them are junkies who have lost their boats and everything else and are struggling to get by until the next fix. It's sad to see, but not the sort of contribution I want to make to the economy.

We're only spending a few days here on the way south, we'll suss the island out and spend longer on the way back north, so we stay around the anchorage, go to the beach, frequent the 'Purple Turtle' beach bar and marvel at the price (£1) and strength (near lethal) of the rum punches. Gesa has three, loses her ability to count and has another, then the next morning denies writing emails until I show here them on the screen. The kids enjoy the beach which is classic caribbean, palm trees leaning outwards towards the water, a rope swing rigged on one which Issie loves. There are also many sand crabs which lurk, looking warily at you and dashing off to their holes when you get too close. Follow the hole down into the sand and you can dig them out and have a closer look.

We walk up to the old British fort, Fort Shirley, which is partially restored and has a marvelous outlook across the bay. The fort was so imposing that it never saw action, the French and others took one look and kept out of the way. Some of it is very nicely restored, with original cannons still there. Walking further into the rainforest you find many buildings, including the once grand commandants mansion, now derelict with sections of wall leaning at crazy angles and trees wrapping themselves around the stonework in bizarre forms. In places it feels like a weird gothic horror movie.

I like Portsmouth. It's very underdeveloped, for the second largest town in the island it's like a moderate english village but with crappier shops. Better fruit and veg though. The place has a good feel to it, welcoming but not grabbing - poor and entrepreneurial, for sure, but you ask directions on the street and you get them, plus a conversation and without a request for a dollar. It's the last bit that differentiates it from e.g. St Johns, Antigua.

The town almost immediately backs onto rainforest wooded slopes of the volcanic mountains that make up Dominica. It's one of the most mountainous, most volcanic islands - apparently there are eight potentially active volcanos being closely watched here. Most islands have just one. The terrain looks amazing, sadly we can't hike much with the kids otherwise there would be an all day, eight hour walk to the boiling lake, where volcanic gas bubbles up through the water. We will hire a car when we come back and go find the hot spring baths and some other great places, and I think we'll try out more of the local buses to get a feel for the island. I'm looking forward to getting back there.

Right now, we've left and come back to first world frenchiness at Martinique. Fort do France is having a big carnival, which we have arrived just at the start of so we will enjoy a day or so of that before moving on and heading for St Lucia, where we want to settle and explore, as well as meeting some friends from London. More about Martinique soon, and some pictures we hope, there's an internet cafe just along the road from the anchorage so maybe tomorrow...

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