16 days in January – Days 13-16 Martinique Magic!

Martinique is my all round favourite Caribbean island, it just ticks all the boxes. For marine services it is the best. Many yachtsman like Saint Martin better and if you own a super yacht I would agree. However, in Martinique the chandleries are concentrated in Le Marin and really accessible. Plus, with hundreds of smaller cruising yachts that concentrate in the Le Marin area, as well as several large charter operations, parts are “on the shelf”. Martinique is a cruising maintenance and repairs heaven.

 

Add to that a Caribbean island that has everything a visitor could want. There is incredible geographical and botanical diversity, mouth watering patisseries, cafe’s, restaurants and markets full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Then there is the rich culture and history of the island as well as excellent airline access to N. America and Europe. Over the past 5 years I have not found any Caribbean Island or Atlantic Island that offers a comparable suite of “everything on one island” to the degree Martinique does. Martinique has everything “from the clouds to the coral” and so much more.

Oh! was sailing to Martinique to get some rigging upgrades. Yes, as much as I really enjoy Oh! she is a boat  and things just wear out. We had three days left so we would take one of those days to explore Le Marin and arrange for services, one day to work on Oh! and one to explore Martinique by car. However, I could easily spend a month exploring the beautiful island of Martinique, so a one day car tour would only allow time to visit a few highlights. 


The sail from Dominica was another overnight passage. However the magic of seeing moons rising or setting, a sky filled with billions of stars and the warmth of a rising sun had hooked Oh!’s crew and they were eager for another night sail. We left Portsmouth after dinner and sailed in variable winds as we headed south in the lee of Dominica’s tall mountains. At times we were motoring in dead calm, other times Oh! was hitting speeds of 8 knots under sail with a second reef in the main and full genoa.  The winds would come and go as we passed the mountain valleys that would focus the winds streaming down out of the mountains. The lee side of the mountainous islands that touch the clouds are wonderful because there is little or no ocean swell. So when there is wind Oh! glides through the water in a smooth and very comfortable motion. Perfect for opening the top above the helm station and star gazing, or being rocked into a deep sleep when off watch. In the wee hours of the morning we passed the south end of Dominica and headed into the darkness of the Dominica channel. The swell quickly built to 1.5-2.0m and the winds became steady at 18-24 knots. Just 4 hours later the sun was breaking over Martinique and we were out of the swell and sailing blissfully in the lee of my favourite Caribbean Island. It took all day to sail the length of Martinique and arrive at Le Marin; but without swell, it was a relaxing sail in flat waters and 15-25 knot winds. A fabulous  ending for our voyage from St Martin. By 4 pm we were tied to a mooring ball in Le Marin, by 5 pm services were arranged to work on Oh!, and a rental car reserved. By 5:30 pm fresh baguettes were on their way back to Oh! for dinner. Martinique is magnificent!


Our first full day was a Friday and since all the services shut down over the weekend it was the only day to attend to two recently added but pressing items on the “to do list” :

 

  1. Remove the broken starboard transmission cable, get a new one and get it installed.
  2. Try to get an electrician from my friends at Caraibe Greement out to track a short in the Lewmar windlass that was burning out Oh!’s main bus 250 amp fuses. Without the windlass, anchoring would have been very difficult so we had been restricting ourselves to where we could find mooring balls since the windlass failed in Guadeloupe.

Both items were crucial even though neither were the reason I had come to Martinique. The reason I had come down here was to get a new forestay.  Caraibe Greement is also a rigging shop and they can re-rig the standing rigging without unstepping the mast. That means it is quick, and far less expensive. Plus they had done the standing rigging re-fit the insurance company demanded two years ago prior to Oh!’s Atlantic circuit. My current concern was a small crack in the top swagged stainless steel eye bolt that was coroding. True to their word Caraibe was replacing it plus new wire and a new toggle at the bottom – essentially an entire forestay replacement – all at no charge.  I can’t say enough about how satisfied I have been with all my dealings with Caraibe Greement, it was well worth the voyage from St. Martin to Martinique to have them do the work. 


However, along the way the electrical and mechanical issues developed and now took top spot on the “to do list”. Oh! needs two functioning engines around tight docks, especially if there is any breeze. So priority one  – a new transmission cable. Our friends at Mechanic Plaisance  carry them in stock, all we needed to know was the length. An internet search for a Morse controls schematic diagram gave me an idea of the complexity of what a “simple” control lever looks like under its cover. The answer… they are actually very complex. So while I disassembled the control unit Tim and Marlene toured Le Marin. By the time they came back to Oh! for lunch we were all set to fish the cable out and go to Mechanic Plaisance to get a new one. Within 30 minutes Oh! had a new 8m long control cable and all we needed to do was install it. Oh! Yes!

Then, just as I arrived with the new cable, Jonathon from from Caraibe Greement showed up to check on the electrical issues. The transmission cable installation was therefore temporarily deferred – replaced by the process of opening and emptying many more lockers to help Jonathon trace wires and find the short. I am not an electrician…and a short that pulls enough energy to blow the main fuses on a 600 amp hour battery bank is something that needs to be repaired properly. Plus I do not have the proper voltmeter and skills to find it…but Jonathon did.  All we knew for sure was that the short somehow involved the Lewmar windlass. Once the lockers were emptied it took about 30 minutes of tracing and testing the wiring through bulkheads, floors and lockers as they ran from the batteries to the windlass for Jonathon to narrow it down to one segment of wire. Sure enough over time an extension to the wiring that was only 2 feet long had managed to chafe through and caused a short. Within 2 hours the repairs were made and the electrical issue solved. Fortunately, the wiring short had not damaged the windlass itself, so Oh! was now set to get back to anchoring. With the quick resolution of the electrical fault, there was also just enough time left for Tim and I to install the new transmission cable. By 5pm all that remained was to tidy up the massive mess on Oh!. That took another 2 hours, but it was very satisfying to have fixed both the anchoring and manoeuvring issues all in one day. It felt like Oh! was once again free to explore the Caribbean.

With a very full but satisfying day behind us… we were now all set to explore Martinique over the weekend, The forestay repair was scheduled for Tuesday.

The sunrise over Le Marin on Saturday morning was stunning, a deep orange sky reflecting in glass calm waters of the mooring field was a fitting start to a day of Martinique magic. We enjoyed a quick breakfast of fresh croissants, pain ou raisin coffee and fruit, then packed our bags for the day. First stop was Jumbo car rental then we were off.

Martinique is one of only three of the Lessor Antilles islands that combine both the older island arc (that are low relief and much dryer), with the younger island arc (which are made up of towering volcanic peaks, lush rain forests and abundant fresh water). However, only Guadeloupe and Martinique have large areas of each of these dramatically different, geographical, geological and botanically different terrains…which is why they are so special. With just a single day car trip around Martinique you can only see and experience a little of everything. If you have the time rent a car for 3-4 days and really explore this magical island, you won’t be disappointed. In our one day trip we drove over wide four lane highways across the older Island arc past fields of sugar cane, rum distilleries and beautiful sandy beaches. Then north of Fort de France we climbed into the Morne Rouge mountains through tropical rainforests with wild ginger, bird of paradise, huge tropical plants with giant leaves, ferns, tall bamboo and massive trees with winged roots draped in vines.

The roads on Martinique are beautifully maintained and even the winding mountain roads are a delight to drive. There are numerous trails, creeks, waterfalls and pools you can stop and enjoy along the route, as well as some serious hikes that require permits and guides to venture out on.

In the small mountain village of Font St. Dennis is one of my favourite walks. The Canal des Slaves is a national treasure where you can walk along the canal’s stone wall that is only 18-24″ wide. It runs from stream level at Font St. Dennis, along the mountainside down to the cane fields and rum distilleries near St. Pierre. The canal is an amazing engineering work, but also a monument to the difficult working conditions and impressive structures that were built by African slaves. Today, it is a beautiful walk among towering trees, vines, tropical flowers and hummingbirds with a refreshing pool to soak in at its source where it meets the river.

There was even a small but very impressive gift shop run by an enchanting young woman from London England. I was surprised to greet her in my best French and then be welcomed by a soft English accent and a warm welcome to her shop. The items were all locally made and there was a beautiful selection of colourful fabrics, beach wraps, soaps, oils and gifts. More Martinique magic.

North of the Morne Rouge mountains lies the towering volcanic peak and crater of Mt. Pele. Here you can literally hike up to the clouds. The crater is usually covered in the clouds that form as the warm moist trade winds are forced to rise along Mt. Pele’s eastern flanks and condense into clouds that drift past you as you hike. There are often breaks in the mist that reveal stunning views of steep volcanic cliff faces covered in the stunted green foliage.

There are several trails up the volcano’s flanks that lead to the trail that follows the rim of the crater, as well as one trail that takes you down to the craters bottom. The trails are steep on the ascent, but level out along the rim. If you are up for the challenge Mt. Pele is a wonderful way to experience a spectacular landscape and experience life in the clouds…all at the same time.

The next stop on our tour was the town of St. Pierre that was once the “Paris of the Caribbean”. Saint Pierre was destroyed when Mt. Pele blew its top creating its impressive crater in 1902. The town has rebuilt but is a shadow of what it once was. Still there is plenty to see, a vibrant market place, museums and exhibits about the eruption, and a nice waterfront walking promenade.

By now it was getting late and time to start the drive back to the southern end of Martinique. As we drove south along the western shore we passed cane fields, distilleries, small beach side villages and were treated to yet another stunning Caribbean sunset.

The winding coastal road gradually eventually become a four lane highway through Fort de France and on to Le Marin. It had been a long day, three hikes, many miles, and interesting stops along the way. We would like to have had more days to explore Martinique but Marlene and Tim had an airplane to catch the next day.

The final morning aboard Oh! Was going to be a relaxing breakfast while preparing to for their departure. However, as we enjoyed our coffee and croissants on Oh!, a regatta was getting underway. Once a month the traditional sailing boats get together for a race at various ports in Martinique and we were fortunate to be close enough to watch it. Over about an hour large crowds formed on the beach inside Le Marin’s large bay as 10-15 large double masted sail boats were rigged and readied for the race. The sails and boats came in every colour of the rainbow and had large, very athletic crews manning them. After breakfast we watched in fascination from Oh!’s inflatable as the start drew near. From our water based viewpoint we enjoyed a front row seat to all the action and had a wonderful morning watching these amazing vessels and the skill of their crews. What a great way to end 16 days of sailing.

Sadly, at noon Marlene and Tim caught a taxi to the airport. It had been 16 amazing days of sailing, swimming, snorkelling, hiking, touring, meeting other cruisers, and experiencing the cruising lifestyle…even the infamous “to do list” made sure it played a starring role. The voyage ended with the grand finale of the colourful race boats…truly “Martinique Magic” at its very best.

Cheers!

From Oh!

Rod Morris

Posted in Blog.

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