Newly retired school teacher Bob Hamill goes to the Caribbean in search of a boat and within days of arriving he finds himself crewing on a luxury catamaran with a colourful skipper and heading for new and exciting anchorages and cultures
If he’d have been born in another century, I’m sure he would have sailed with the pirates Blackbeard or Jack Sparro, such is his adventurous and independent spirit, but today Jages Martin manages the Moorings bareboat base on the island of Canouan in the Caribbean. I had the good fortune to meet this modern-day Scottish adventurer while looking to buy a boat in the Caribbean from the Moorings. Jages was supervising the haul-out for survey on the island of St Vincent when he asked if I’d like to join him on a delivery trip. He was taking a new Leopard 46 catamaran north to the island of St Lucia. Naturally I couldn’t say “yes” quick enough.
On the nose
We left mid-morning with a gentle 10-knot north-easterly, you guessed it, right on the nose. We cruised along the western side of the island with the twin Yanmars giving us an easy seven plus knots of boat speed. St Vincent is a rugged volcanic island with steep mountains ridges coming all the way down to the coast. The vegetation was lush with coconut palms lining the shore. The Leopard catamaran was luxury plus with air-conditioning, plush upholstery and a back verandah the West Indies cricket team could use for practice. While I am a committed monohull devotee, I had to admit this was comfortable cruising.
We all know in the cruising world that all good things only last so long. As we left the protection of the island the big Atlantic swells and wind-driven waves made for a very uncomfortable ride. The wind began to show its true colours, rising to 20 knots and the Leopard began to fight against the unfriendly and steep sea. Jages had the full main up but gave the Yanmars a few more revs. To her credit the Leopard responded and we continued with speed averaging between six and seven knots. The ride was bumpy but St Lucia Island could be seen clearly in the distance.
The most prominent landmarks of St Lucia are twin extinct volcanic peaks: the Pitons. We headed their way and as we approached the coast the ruggedness of the landform was obvious. Clouds shrouded the steep mountain peaks and very soon a squall headed our way. With the wind speed hitting 25 knots, Jages asked Zee, the West Indian crew man, to put the first reef in. Zee moves around on a bouncy deck like a cat: sure-footed and fast. The wind and sea continued to increase and soon the second reef was in place. The Leopard pounded into the steep seas with spray drenching anyone forward of the “verandah”. We were heading for Marigot Bay on the western sheltered side of the island. Jages said the entrance was hidden and would not be seen until we were right on it; a fact all good pirates would have been aware of in times past. He said an English Admiral successfully hid his fleet in there from the French some centuries ago.
Marigot Bay was picture-postcard perfect, just like you imagine the Caribbean to be with sandy beaches, turquoise water and swaying palm trees. The dogleg entrance made for a beautiful flat anchorage. Boat boys came out to meet us in their dinghies with a mooring costing about $15 per night. We rafted alongside another Moorings boat and Jages went ashore to clear us in with customs. We had only travelled about 40 miles and here we were clearing into customs for a new country, so different to our Australian cruising grounds. The Moorings office in Marigot Bay can be found in a beautiful and very tastefully designed two-storey timber building alongside the marina. The anchorage was packed with yachts of all sizes including a beautiful square-rigger.
Keen to experience the local culture, Jages, Zee and I went ashore in search of a restaurant. We walked up a steep roadway that tested my level of fitness but eventually found the local watering hole. It was more a covered verandah with tables decorated by plastic tablecloths. Across the road a local guy cooked food on a barbecue and reggae music blasted out, and I mean blasted out, at full volume. We had a few local Hairoun beers and ordered Fish Creole from the menu. Beers and fish went down well. Of course, no trip to the Caribbean is complete without trying a rum or two or three. What the place lacked in style it more than made up for in atmosphere. I noticed a few locals dancing with gay abandon about the same time I began to pick up the scent of something sweet the locals were smoking. After several last drinks for the road we headed back to the comfort of the Leopard and a sound night’s sleep.
Back into it
A little slow at getting unaderway next day, but we soon found ourselves once again pounding into the stiff 20-knot northeast trade winds. The over-indulgence of the night before was felt by all on board but nobody would admit to it. I think it was only 70nm to Martinique but it seemed longer. We rocketed along and soon the amazing sight of Port Marin came into view. Martinique is a French territory and the Port of Marin is the Caribbean’s largest yacht centre. A virtual forest of yacht masts came into view. The port has a massive marina where yachts tie up stern inwards, a haul-out facility and boating services of every type necessary are available. I walked into one shop where on one wall were arranged a collection of new Yanmar diesels and the adjoining wall had a collection of Volvo Pentas. You could buy a new diesel motor of any size off the shelf.
"The catamaran was comfortable and spacious."
After once again clearing customs we explored the town. We may well have been in France because the spoken language was French and the shops sold French food and wines. Baguettes were quickly consumed and we booked into a restaurant for the evening meal. The Mango Bay restaurant built on the harbour foreshore was a popular spot for something to eat and drink with yachties on their laptops taking advantage of the free wireless internet. We had anchored well out, meaning a long dinghy ride each way, but this was a small price to pay for such an amazing experience. Superyachts were common as were old 20-foot timber antiques. The anchorage was flat and amazingly quiet given the massive number of yachts at anchor or at the marina.
Jages had come to Martinique to pick up a French family who live in the village where Jages and his French Canadian wife spend part of the year. The two families had planned to spend Christmas and New Year together and they were arriving in Martinique direct by plane from France. Quite a life for a pirate, sailing in the Caribbean for part of the year and living in the Alps for the remainder. Some people do it tough, but this pirate had earned his time in the sun (and the snow). You learn a great deal about people when you spend time together on a boat. Jages explained to me how he had a “troubled” time at school and was eventually sent to a school for difficult students. This was the best thing for him, he claimed, because he trained as a diesel mechanic, learnt stone masonry and worked on a farm. He later added the title of electrician to his long list of skills. It seems Jages has put his stone masonry skills to good use, having built several ski chalets in the Alps. With only five years’ sailing experience behind him, he is already a very skilled sailor and boatman. Despite these numerous qualifications his greatest asset is clearly his excellent people skills. His sense of humour and zest for life is infectious. As I heard him say on board: “There are no problems in life, only solutions”. I’m sure I was not the only person to recognise this man’s talents. Someone in the Moorings bareboat organisation has recruited well.
“Before entering the harbour a giant superyacht appeared. It turned out to be Mick Jagger’s yacht. You just never know who you may run into while sailing in Caribbean waters”
The opportunity to purchase some gear for my new boat was too great to resist while walking among this maze of boating equipment. I bought a four-person liferaft off the shelf in one shop and bought a secondhand Zodiac dinghy from a French local. This purchase came with the added bonus of a pillion ride on his scooter to a nearby bank. Zooming through the streets on the wrong side of the road for an Australian, was a thrill in itself. I finished off buying a four-stroke outboard and numerous blocks and shackles, all within a short walking distance.
After two nights in Marin we got the anchor up at 4am to quietly slip out of the harbour and return to Marigot Bay. Zee and I sat up on the bows with torches to help Jages manoeuvre through the maze of anchor lines, floating mooring lines and unlit yachts. I was looking forward now to a downhill ride under full sail, and I was not disappointed. The 46-foot Leopard relished the off-the-wind work and we were soon slipping along at a steady 8/9 knots under full main and genoa in a breeze rising slowly to 20 knots. The sea was flat and building but soon Marigot Bay came into view. Before entering the harbour a giant superyacht appeared. It turned out to be Mick Jagger’s yacht. You just never know who you may run into while sailing in Caribbean waters. We tied up at the marina to change vessels and pick up another Moorings skipper transferring to St Vincent. After ice creams and more baguettes we cast off for St Vincent and the Moorings base at Blue Lagoon Bay.
The wind piped in for the return downwind ride and once again this Leopard cat sat on eight knots plus. One incident on the return journey promoted some interesting analysis. We heard a woman on the VHF asking for a tow from the rescue services for her yacht because they had lost engine power. The rescue services asked if their sails were still operating. After some conversation back and forth the rescue services said they could come and tow them in for a fee of US$2500. The radio went quiet for some time then the woman said they had the sails up again and were heading for home. Who said necessity was the mother of invention?
We slipped into Blue Lagoon Bay about 10pm in a strong 20-knot wind and rather than attempt to tie up to a crowded jetty in a cross-wind we took the easy option of a mooring. I’d experienced five magic days. We’d been to three different countries and experienced several different cultures without ever sailing very far. While a tropical island in the Caribbean looks very similar to a tropical island in Queensland, the similarity ends there. The French culture of Martinique and Port Marin had been intoxicating and the raw vibrancy of West Indian culture on the island of St Lucia was exciting. Add this to some great sailing and wonderful sailing companions and my first few days in the Caribbean were beyond my wildest dreams. I also felt I had met the reincarnation of a pirate from centuries past.
Bob is a semi-retired history teacher. Normally sailing the coastal areas of FNQ, he went to the Caribbean in search of a new boat. This will be his fifth yacht in more than 20 years of messing around in boats that includes two years as owner-operator of a charter yacht working out of Cairns.
Source: Cruising Helmsman - April 2012