We’re sailing directly towards Antigua but unable to see a thing. It’s 11pm on the Caribbean Sea and it’s pitch black. The clouds are blocking out any light from the stars or the moon. We’re halfway between Guadeloupe and Antigua and cannot see any lights from either island. And without any visual clues, it’s difficult to steer a straight course. I keep over steering or “chasing the compass” as Captain Hank calls it, leaving a serpentine wake. Finally, I learn the trick. Just keep a hand on the top of the wheel and make very small adjustments. At the same time, keep an eye on the wind display and make sure the wind stays at a consistent angle for a broad reach. Now that I’ve got it, I’m ready to go below for some shut-eye before my next night watch.
This is part 3 of the story of my sailing trip from St. Maarten to Dominica on Avocation, a Swan 48, with Captain Hank and 5 other crew. Our exploration of the hurricane-ravaged island of Dominica is sadly over. So we drop our mooring and venture out for an epic sail north across the Dominica Passage under sunny skies. We’re on a broad reach, with 20 knot winds from the west and the waves approaching off our starboard quarter. We take 20-minute turns at the helm like kids who can’t wait for another ride on the roller coaster.
Hank teaches us how to steer a straight course when the large waves approaching off the stern are turning the ship’s bow into the wind. By turning the wheel away from the wave as the stern starts to rise up, and letting it spin back to neutral as the wave passes, you can keep a pretty straight line. It’s a bit harder, as I found out, when it gets dark and there are no points of reference.
All too soon we arrive at Terre de Haute, the main island of the French Iles des Saints just south of Guadeloupe. We grab a mooring and take the dinghy ashore to see what the little island has to offer. Crewmate Paul from Boulder is eager to learn French. I teach him a few words and soon he’s saying Bonjour, ca va? in his best French accent to everyone we meet. Our first stop is a waterside café, Chez les Filles, for some café au lait, gaufres (waffles), and the coveted after WiFi to send more notes and photos back to our families who support our sailing addictions.
After reconnecting with home, we set out on a short walk to the Plage de Pompierre, a beautiful beach that crew mate Susan remembered visiting in a prior trip. As all sailors know, however, things don’t always go quite as planned. The closer we get to the beach, the worse it smells. It wasn’t from the goats and chickens running all over the island. Nope, it’s from piles of rotting sea grass filling the bay. (I later learned about Sargassum: The seaweed deluge hitting Caribbean shores)
A walk back through town leads us to a much more pleasant smelling beach with colorful boats lining the shore.
Terre de Haut is a quaint little island with fabulous French wines and cheeses. That night we enjoyed some of the local cuisine at one of the many wonderful cafes and restaurants. Our waiter was from the island but must be used to an international crowd. We heard him speaking at least 4 languages, giving me a workout in French, German, and Dutch.
The next morning, before cutting our mooring, we all go ashore one last time to enjoy a final round of café et croissants, hike to the mountain top Fort Napolean, and enjoy one last swim. The views from the hike up to the fort are spectacular. We make a provisioning run to the grocery to pick up some of the essentials; cheese, baguettes, Coke Zero, and of course, some local rum. By 11am we were back aboard and cutting our mooring. Destination: St. Maarten.
Once in the lee of Guadalupe, the conditions become calm…too calm. We motor-sail, or mostly motor, up the coast. As we pass the lee of Guadalupe, it seems to take forever for the wind to build. Finally, we are able to turn off the engine and sail the rest of the way under a full jib. A pod of dolphin join us, swimming back and forth across the bow in joyful celebration of the wind and waves. As the sun goes down and we lose the glow of sunset, darkness takes over and my chasing the compass begins.
After almost falling out of my bunk a few times, I roll out of bed at 2am to get one last chance at night sailing. I join Hank in the cockpit to test out my newly-learned steering techniques. By now the lights of Antiqua are behind us and we can see lights from Nevis off our port side. After 45 minutes at the helm, Hanks took over and I go below for another nap.
We make good distance through the night, averaging around 7 knots. Everyone is up with the sun for our final day of sailing. Coffee, baguettes, and cheese for breakfast. Cheeseburgers for lunch. And a full day of epic sailing. Once again, we are back to our 30-minute rounds at the wheel, soon sailing past St. Barts and turning towards St. Maarten. We motor under the Simpson Bay drawbridge at 3pm, 28 hours after dropping our mooring in Terre de Haute and right on schedule.
It’s hard to believe our trip is over. We sailed over 400 miles, visited 3 islands, and had a blast sharing the adventure and getting to know each other as crew mates. Our sides are still aching from laughing for hours on end about a nonsensical story of finding your duck. We wrap up the trip by revisiting our favorite patisserie, La Sucriere, joined by the friendly iguanas who bid us adieu.