I looked out the plane window and saw nothing but darkness, alleviated only by the faint glimmer of the moon on ocean waves.
We were minutes from landing when the bright lights of the tiny island emerged suddenly out of the abyss.
The plane touched down around 9:15PM on the lone runway of Aimé Césaire International Airport in Le Lamentin, Martinique.
Five virtual strangers, four students and a sailing instructor, met just one week prior during a briefing at Boston Sailing Center. Months earlier, we had all signed up for BSC’s Caribbean Cruising course and booked the same Norwegian Airlines Flight D84957 out of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, RI.
For most of us, this was a trip of a lifetime: a chance to learn the essentials of bareboat cruising on the Caribbean in the middle of January. At the completion of our course, we would have the opportunity to sit for our ASA 104 certification, the next phase in the sailing adventure that I began just last summer.
While we would be enjoying warm weather and sunshine for the days to come, this was no ordinary pleasure cruise. We were responsible for managing and navigating a large cruising sailboat across two countries, something none of us had ever done. There was much to learn. In the end, if successful, we would be one step closer to chartering or cruising our own boats for future voyages.
As we disembarked and made our way through the terminal, we shed our winter layers that we brought with us from icy New England.
We made our way through customs and latched on to our water-resistant duffel bags as they whirled around the baggage carousel. We wandered over to the taxi stand, where a man holding a sign that read “Francois A.” stood patiently.
Our sailing instructor, a Montreal native, smiled and greeted him in French, a language that none of us readily spoke. The two of them laughed, dove into conversation, and shepherded us into the van.
As the cab sped down the dark and winding roads of Martinique, we caught glimpses of our new tropical realm, the antithesis of the snowy vistas we left behind. We chatted anxiously about the upcoming journey and eagerly awaited the rendezvous with our new charter boat.
The driver dropped us off at a busy marina in the town of Le Marin, where a live band could be heard performing in the distance.
There were hundreds of boats docked with masts that filled the night sky. The atmosphere was lively, with people coming and going in every which way.
We walked for what seemed like ages across a series of docks and finally reached the sailboat Anguilla, our new home for the next seven days.
Our charter was a brand new Dufour Grand Large 460, constructed in December 2017. Forty-six feet in length overall, Anguilla contained four separate cabins with their own personal heads and showers (restrooms). On deck, a long cockpit with dual steering wheels allowed us to spread our wings, and a beautiful bimini cover and dodger protected us from the sun’s rays and occasional rainstorm.
While underway, we would have full use of a lazy-jacked mainsail and roller-furling jib, all new to us novice sailors. A fifty-five horsepower Volvo Penta diesel marine engine provided auxiliary propulsion and DC power regeneration for the many electronics on-board.
Below deck, the combined saloon and galley offered plenty of space for the five of us to prepare meals, examine charts, and catch our breath:
We claimed our berths (bedrooms), unpacked our bags, and jumped back on deck to meet Francois for a quick chat.
We sat there in shorts and sandals on a balmy, eighty-degree evening, taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling marina. It felt very surreal to finally be on our boat. Francois explained some of the basic systems on board and we went over a rough plan for the following morning.
After our meeting, we decided to explore a bit and unwind at the nearby Kokoa Rum Bar. The bartender poured us a round of locally brewed Lorraine beers and we snagged a table and chairs by the water.
It was the first time we really had a chance to talk about ourselves in-depth, and we enjoyed the time getting to know each other over cold drinks.
Francois is the head sailing instructor and sailmaker for the Boston Sailing Center. He was born in Montreal, Québec and went to school at RISD in Providence, RI to study design. He has decades of experience teaching and sailing: particularly racing sailboats, both catamarans and monohulls. In addition to his valuable role as a teacher and translator, he was also quite a nifty cook!
Monica speaks Spanish, English, and even a bit of German. She holds more than one passport and has ties to several different nations, including Argentina and Italy. She, like the rest of us, was drawn to the adventure of sailing and hopes to hone her skills and someday sail her own boat with her family.
Peter and Christine both live on the North Shore of Massachusetts and met Francois at the New England Boat Show in 2017. They followed a similar path as Monica and me, learning to sail over the summer and gradually progressing through the program towards the end of the year.
Peter grew up in the coastal town of Plymouth, England and served as an officer in the British Army. At age thirty-four, just after finishing his military service, he bought a Land Rover and took a group of strangers for an overland tour across the entire continent of Africa. He now works exclusively in the wine industry.
Christine is an E.R. nurse at a hospital just north of Boston. She grew up near lakes and always had a fondness for boating and being out on the water. Her work life is hectic and stressful, and she and Peter dream of retiring and sailing together. The Caribbean Cruising course would offer them a glimpse of life at sea.
As for me, I am a fairly novice sailor who had just begun learning in the summer of 2017. I’ve always had a love for the water, boats, and the ocean. Like much of the crew, I took advantage of the courses and practice sessions that BSC had to offer and fully committed to honing my skills throughout 2018. I knew that the Caribbean trip would be a next-level challenge and a deciding pivot point between being a dabbler and a more serious cruiser.
Day 1: Provisioning and Paperwork
We started the day bright and early (a trend that carried on throughout the week) and had a chance to explore Anguilla in the light of day. We were impressed with her sheer size, useful gadgets, and beautiful finishes, especially in comparison to the Solings and J-24s that we sailed in earlier courses.
Francois was busy inspecting the boat inside and out, as we needed to conduct an inventory and go through the checklist that the charter company, Dream Yacht Charters, provides before their boats can set sail.
Since we were the sole crew of the sailboat, we would be responsible for all of the gear and systems on board (and also for any damage incurred). After spending an hour or two running through our list, the charter company staff came by to give us a briefing and demo of the systems on board, including the operation of the motor, navigation system, and most importantly, the toilets.
We were good to go, but there was still plenty left to do before we could depart. We had another quick meeting around the cockpit table and made a rough float plan for the week:
- We would motor out of Le Marin and anchor just outside of the nearby town of Sainte-Anne for the night.
- The next morning, we would set sail for St. Lucia, an island nation about forty miles south of Martinique.
- We would spend two nights cruising around St. Lucia before returning to Martinique.
- Back “home” in Martinique, we would spend some time exploring the island’s leeward west coast and possibly make a stop in the capital city of Fort-de-France.
- We would sail back to Saint-Anne and spend our last evening anchored there before returning Anguilla to Dream Yacht Charters the following morning.
Our next stop was the supermarket, as we needed to load several days worth of food on to the boat.
Anguilla had an inflatable dinghy with outboard motor, so we could easily get to shore when needed, but we wanted to stock up on food and water while we had access to a large grocery store by the marina.
We first grabbed several jugs of drinking water, as the boat had no watermaker or potable water supply. We bought enough food to feed a large family, including packages of fresh meat and fish, rice, cereal, coffee, beer, wine, cheeses, and produce. The boat was equipped with a fairly large refrigerator and plenty of cabinets, so storage space was not at a premium.
We didn’t eat every meal on board but were glad to start many mornings and afternoons sipping on coffee and tea and enjoying fresh cold cuts on a baguette. We cooked a number of large dinners together in the evenings.
I would say that I ate better aboard that sailboat than I usually do at home, and all of the food tasted hearty and fresh. Since none of us were particularly picky eaters, we enjoyed a wide range of cuisine and gladly prepared our meals together as a group.
Customs and Immigration
Martinique is defined as an insular region of France and identifies itself with a French flag. Because we were to travel to St. Lucia, a sovereign nation, we needed to gather our passports and register with a website called SailClear at the marina before our departure.
For a small fee, our information was recorded and we would just need to stop in the local customs office once we reached St. Lucia.
When entering a new country at sea, sailboats typically indicate their new arrival status with a yellow “quarantine” flag on the starboard spreader (wire that leads up to the top of the mast on the right side of the boat). Once through that country’s customs/immigration check-in, boats are given a small courtesy flag of the nation being visited, which is then flown in place of the quarantine flag.
Typically, at the stern (rear) of a sailboat, the flag of the country that the boat is registered to is usually flown, which is known as a civil ensign. In our case, we flew the French ensign:
Finally, by late afternoon, after all of the food and drink and paperwork was tended to, we completed our final walk-through with the charter company attendant and he piloted us out of the marina into the harbor.
The pilot wished us a heartfelt “bon voyage!” and jumped into his awaiting dinghy. Off we went!
It was the first time we would be at the helm, guiding the Anguilla through a series of buoys, shoals, and boat traffic as we motored our way to Sainte-Anne.
While it was a brief journey around the block, we were excited to be piloting our new sailboat on our own. As we floated out of Le Marin and towards the anchorage at Sainte-Anne, Francois brought our attention to the anchoring procedure.
Anchoring a fairly large boat like the Anguilla required a bit of skill and some patience.
While the process seems quite simple on paper, finding an appropriate anchor location amidst dozens of other cruisers is a lot like finding a parking spot in the city.
We needed to find a spot that offered plenty of room so we wouldn’t drift and swing into other anchored boats. Our anchor rode (the line that runs from boat to anchor) was all chain and was hoisted up and down with an electric windlass (winch). Our strategy was to let out the anchor a bit forward of our desired resting position and allow the boat to drift backwards as the anchor set.
The whole operation required one or two people at the bow of the boat monitoring the windlass and chain as it dropped into the water as well as someone at the helm carefully steering and throttling the boat into position as the anchor was let out. Francois would have us let out a certain amount of rode, wait for it to settle, and then let out a bit more. Once we had an idea that the anchor was dug in, we would use a little reverse throttle on the engine just to make sure it was secure. In some shallow anchorages, we could even swim with a diving mask to visually inspect the anchor and rode.
Because the rode was all chain, we didn’t need to let out as much slack as an all-rope rode, but we needed enough chain in the water to ensure that we wouldn’t drag anchor overnight. This could prove disastrous in a busy spot like Sainte-Anne. We would get a few more opportunities to practice anchoring throughout our trip.
We arrived just in time to enjoy a glorious sunset, crack open a few beers, and prepare dinner.
For our first meal, we decided to cook pasta with sausage and a side of salad with a homemade vinaigrette. We all pitched in and helped prepare various parts of the meal in the galley and set the table on deck at the cockpit table. It was a lot of fun and we got an early sense of our chemistry as a crew working together as a team.
We sat together under the stars and enjoyed the calm, peaceful atmosphere out on the water. It was like nothing I ever experienced before.
When Francois described the class, he prefaced by explaining that the Caribbean Cruising course is less about sailing and more about managing the boat with a crew. It started to make sense as the Anguilla slowly transformed from a vehicle into our home and workplace.
Cleanup was relatively easy, and the galley was equipped with a seawater faucet, which allowed us to conserve fresh water when cleaning dishes, pots, and pans.
On to St. Lucia
We woke up before sunrise the next morning to prepare for our long leg to St. Lucia. We had talked about our route the night before and took a cursory look at the charts, which were stacked near the navigator’s station below deck.
Every day, Francois would assign a skipper to lead our crew for each leg of our journey around Martinique and St. Lucia. The skipper would be responsible for the planning and execution of the trip and would assign roles to each member of the crew.
The skipper would not always be in charge of steering the boat. Throughout the day, we would have a chance to rotate roles and get a feel for different aspects of the sail, including tending the lines, using the compass and GPS, and assuming the role of helmsman.
As we got underway, we motored out of Sainte-Anne, turned our boat into the wind, and raised our sails.
The lines, winches, and overall forces were much more powerful than what I was accustomed to in earlier sailing courses on smaller boats. As the size of a boat increases, these items and forces become exponentially larger and stronger. It took at least two people to raise the main halyard (line that pulls the main sail up the mast) and sometimes a pair of people to unfurl the jib (the small sail at the bow of the boat).
We fumbled a bit when raising the sails, especially with the high winds and waves whipping the sails and boom about. Later in the week, we learned from our mistakes and started to work more efficiently with a coordinated effort. It was always quite a relief when the sails were raised, the engine was turned off, and we were underway on our own power.
The seas were a bit fierce that morning with winds approaching thirty knots. We were sailing with the wind on a broad reach, meaning that the gusts were mostly behind us as they pushed our boat towards our destination.
As such, we were cruising along at nearly ten knots, a respectable speed for a charter boat the size of the Anguilla. Despite our downwind approach, the waves provided for a bumpy ride and we really got to practice steering the boat over large swells, which have a tendency to toss the boat around with each wave.
While I didn’t experience any seasickness, the rough motion of the boat over the four-hour journey made me a bit light-headed at times, especially if I needed to head below deck for any reason. We brought medication and ginger root pills as a precaution.
After battling the wind and waves all morning, we caught some relief as we sailed along the leeward side of St. Lucia on to our way to Marigot Bay. The water immediately became calmer, and we enjoyed a much more pleasurable sail along the coastline.
Marigot Bay: Welcome to Paradise
Marigot Bay is a beautiful little protected cove with spectacular views and calm blue waters. We dropped sail and began to motor in, at which point we were greeted by locals offering assistance and selling fruit on small rafts.
Peter and Francois made a call to the marina using the VHF radio on board and we were lucky enough to obtain a mooring for the night. As we cruised into the bay, a marina staff member approached us on a dinghy and guided us to our mooring ball.
We tossed out our bow lines and he slipped them through the mooring ball ring and passed them back to us at the bow of the boat, where we cleated them securely. He introduced himself as Kevin and welcomed us to the island with a smile.
After securing the boat, Francois went ashore to handle the customs/immigration paperwork.
It took a bit longer than expected and he got quite the runaround treatment from the local authorities. He also had to pay a fairly large fee for us to clear, which was unexpected but unavoidable.
We ate lunch and debriefed on the morning’s sail. The sailing conditions were tougher than what we were used to, so we learned quite a bit on that first day. The hardest leg of our journey was now behind us and we could spend the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the wonderful scenery that Marigot Bay had to offer.
Later in the afternoon we all crammed into the dinghy to visit the marina showers and grab dinner at one of the local restaurants.
As we motored to shore, we caught site of some impressive yachts docked in the bay. We saw flags representing many different nations, and Peter spotted the catamaran of a well-known sailing blogger that he follows on YouTube.
When we got to shore, we saw that the New England Patriots were on television at one of the bars, so we stopped to watch. We ended up staying for the whole game and ate dinner late into the evening.
Our final test was navigating the dinghy back to our sailboat in the dark. Luckily the anchorage at Marigot Bay was much smaller than at Sainte-Anne, so finding our boat was no problem.
The next morning we decided to sail north up the coast of St. Lucia to the larger and more commercial Rodney Bay. Our plan was to radio the marina once we got close and make our way through a narrow channel and into a mooring field where we would stay for the night.
Compared to our first day, this leg of the journey was a breeze and the sailing was quite effortless despite the upwind approach. It took us less than two hours to reach Rodney Bay, and as soon as we were in sight of the marina, we dropped sail to motor our way in.
The atmosphere and terrain here was much different from Marigot Bay, and we passed by huge plantation-like buildings as we motored into the marina entrance. The marina itself was expansive, almost like the one we started from in Le Marin.
This time, there were no marina attendants to greet us, and we had navigate in and grab a mooring ball ourselves.
While the approach seemed simple, we found ourselves in a bit of a bind rather quickly.
We spotted a large white mooring ball at the entrance and decided to claim it. The helmsman positioned the boat and slowly inched forward towards the ball as Francois and I moved up the side of the boat to grab hold of it.
Francois plunged his hands in the water and came up with a thick, seaweed-covered rope that he quickly handed to me. As I pulled on it, we soon realized that this was not the mooring rode but rather the line that anchors the mooring ball to the ground. I dropped the line back in the water and the boat began to drift.
Francois quickly grabbed for the mooring ball with the boat hook and snagged the ring on top. The boat, however, kept drifting and the boat hook broke in two, leaving one part floating in the water.
We had to quickly maneuver the boat so that Francois could grab the broken boat hook piece before it sank and attempt to fasten a bow line to the mooring ball before the boat drifted away further.
Luckily for us, a nearby sailor was in her dinghy and rushed over to help us out. With her assistance, we were able to secure the lines and get the Anguilla safely anchored. For the first time on our trip, we realized how something so trivial can become a bigger issue quickly and unexpectedly. It was a good exercise for us.
After this minor drama, we had our daily debrief and headed to shore to take showers, do some shopping, and explore the nearby town.
We found an overpriced grocery store to restock some of our food supplies and accidentally bought some $25 grapes. They were, in fact, delicious.
As we stopped for dinner, Francois ran into a group of Boston Sailing Center members who were on their own charter boat excursion from St. Lucia to Grenada. They had just landed that day and were ready to board their charter.
The sun began to set, and once again we relished in the picturesque scenery of the island and relaxed around some brick oven pizza at a dockside restaurant. We jumped back into the dinghy and made our way back to the boat, only to be caught in the middle of brief rainstorm. Fortunately it was a quick one!
Return to Martinique
The next morning I was to be skipper for the day and we decided to chart a course due north back to Martinique.
Francois made sure we were comfortable reading the charts and local cruising guides. We would typically plot out waypoints or take note of predefined waypoints on the chart. From there, we estimated distance, how long each leg would take, and the predicted direction and speed of the wind. Any landmarks and obstacles were noted ahead of time.
We would use these manual calculations to get a big picture understanding of our journey. On the day of the cruise, we would make use of the electronic chart plotter and GPS to help us navigate while underway. The idea was that we could make use of the technology on the boat to aid in our navigation while also having full knowledge of our journey in the event of equipment failure.
Francois referred to this strategy as “getting to the same answer multiple different ways.” It was a great way for us to cross-check and perform sanity checks throughout our expedition. It was an important strategy, as we noticed an error on one of the charts while cross-checking our sail plan for the day.
The return trip to Martinique proved easier than the initial journey to St. Lucia, largely because of our angle to the wind and protection that the leeward sides of the islands offered.
We didn’t have to battle huge swells this day, although we did encounter stormy weather and were caught in a small squall at one point. We also noticed dolphins and birds following the boat as we made our way.
We passed by Diamond Rock on our route around the southwestern side of Martinique, just before our approach to Les Anses d’Arlet. Peter, a proud Brit, explained that in the early 19th century, the British hauled cannons atop the rock to fire upon passing French ships, much to the chagrin of the French Navy!
Les Anses d’Arlet
In French, the word “anse” roughly translates to “cove.” There are a series of bays/coves all around the western tip of the island just before reaching the bay of Fort-de-France.
We found ourselves in a beautiful bay with crystal clear water and plenty of spots for swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling. There is a small village at its center with a protruding dock for dinghies and small boats.
We did a fair amount of swimming here, and I even got a chance to take the GoPro underwater for some filming:
We spent some time relaxing on the beach and walking around the town, which was much more quaint than St. Lucia. It felt like a small town or village in France:
That evening, we returned to the Anguilla and Francois helped us prepare a tasty baked fish dinner using some of the oatmeal, oranges, crackers, and lime that we picked up at the supermarket.
On to the Capital City
The next morning Francois and I took the dinghy ashore to take care of a couple of chores. Francois needed to clear customs for us now that we were back in Martinique. I had acquired a bunch of postcards in St. Lucia that I wanted to mail out, so I headed to the local post office. While I waited for Francois to return, I enjoyed a final few moments admiring the beach.
We readied the boat and made our way out of the bay. The plan was to round the coast and make a short day trip at Fort-de-France. It was a short journey, only an hour or two away. The city of roughly four hundred thousand people gave us some perspective on urban life on the small island, and we encountered plenty of locals, tourists, fellow cruisers, and even a Royal Caribbean cruise ship:
We took the dinghy ashore to take a quick walk around the city and stopped for more drinking water (it was hot and we were going through quite a bit of it). The plan was then to head back south that day to the Grande Anse d’Arlet, just on the other side of our previous anchorage.
Le Grande Anse
As the name implies, this bay was the larger of the two but with a similar small town and crystal clear water for snorkeling. We spotted a few sea turtles here while going for a swim in the anchorage.
It was here that Francois gave us all a refresher on tying knots and hitches, and we even learned a couple of new ones:
In the evening we stopped for dinner at a little creole restaurant onshore and enjoyed some of the local fare.
Back to Home Base
The following day we were to make our way along the coast back towards Le Marin. Because we needed to fuel the boat before returning it, we decided to make a pit stop at the fuel dock before anchoring just outside of the marina in Sainte-Anne, where we began our journey.
It was smooth sailing for a while until suddenly we heard a loud snap!
It turned out that our main sheet (line that holds the boom steady) had nearly severed while trimming the sail in and was dangling by a thread! Francois quickly jumped on deck to take a look at the damage.
One of the blocks (pulleys) broke and sliced the main sheet as it snapped. We had to tie off the broken piece of the sheet, jury rig a new block using a spare one on the mast, and then run the now-shortened main sheet through the new system. This would limit the range of our main sheet but still allow us to sail, albeit a little less efficiently.
Prior to this incident, we took note that our fuel tank gauges may have been malfunctioning. Throughout our trip, we had used the diesel engine on many occasions, either underway or when recharging our batteries, and the gauges still read full. Francois was suspicious and unsure as to how much fuel we really had left.
With this in mind, it was vital for us to get the sail functioning, as there was no guarantee that we had enough fuel to make it back to the marina. Once again, an example of how small incidents can snowball and lead into bigger problems rapidly.
In any case, we managed to secure the main sail and continued on our leg. On the way, we got a nice close-up view of Diamond Rock and practiced our tacking skills through a mostly upwind beat along the shore (basically we zig-zagged our way into the wind).
We reached Le Marin and navigated our way to the fuel dock. It was our first opportunity to practice docking and the process worked much like stopping for gas in a car. It’s important not to get any diesel on the boat or in the water while you refuel.
After topping off the diesel tank, we performed our final anchor routine and settled in for one final sunset at sea. It was a bittersweet moment, but we celebrated with a delicious home-cooked chicken dinner. We caught sight of yet another gorgeous sunset as we fired up the oven and poured out the wine that we had left.
The Final Day
The last morning of our trip, we packed up our gear and readied the boat for one last motor back into the marina. We navigated our way through the buoys (remember: red, right, returning) and radioed the marina once we got close.
After a week at sea, it felt strange to be on dry land and back in civilization, especially in a foreign land. I picked up my rental car and drove our crew to our respective hotels around the island (we didn’t quite coordinate this part well).
Before our final goodbyes, we shared lunch together and wished each other well on the final legs of our journey. Most of us were staying on the island for at least another day or two before our flights back to the U.S. It was goodbye for now, as we all hope to see each other at the sailing center as the weather gets warmer back home in Boston.
The Caribbean Cruising course not only enhanced my sailing knowledge and skills but also taught me valuable lessons in teamwork, coordination, and managing all of the various systems and components of a modern cruising sailboat.
The immersive experience was led by an excellent instructor who taught us how to react and adapt when things take an unexpected turn. I was really happy with the group dynamic and we all seemed to get along quite well. The crew all had interesting stories and a common desire to sail and travel around the world.
Sailing can be hard work, and I couldn’t imagine trying to manage the whole boat alone or with only one other person on board. We definitely needed all hands on deck at times. I think that with more practice and experience, I will gradually get more comfortable though. In our travels, we saw plenty of full-time cruisers from countries all over the world, many we assumed had been sailing for days or weeks on end.
I hope to use this experience and continue to hone my skills so that I can someday share this type of vacation with my friends and family.
While I’m undecided if boat ownership is for me yet, I am gladly considering a membership with the Boston Sailing Center this summer so that I can meet more sailors and get practice in my local waters. I’d like to get comfortable enough to bring friends and family members on short cruises to explore the North Shore, Cape Cod, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Maybe some time down the road I will be able to organize a charter trip down in the Caribbean!
Francois had also mentioned that many boat owners lease-back their boats to sailing centers and charter companies. In return, owners are usually offered free memberships and opportunities to sail their own boat throughout the year with the benefit of maintenance and mooring when the boat is not in use. This sounds like a great compromise if I were to choose to purchase a sailboat some time in the future.
The trip was a great way to take a vacation while also learning and practicing real skills that I could take with me.
The per-person cost through BSC was roughly $2,500, which included a paid instructor, the cost of the boat, food and drink, and any fees we needed to pay for moorings and customs/immigration clearances. The direct flights to and from Martinique via Norwegian Airlines were fairly inexpensive, just over $200 round-trip.
With that said, I had a blast filming the experience on my GoPro HERO6 and will leave you with this short video compilation that I put together from the week at sea: