Monthly Archives: January 2021

Carnival Martinique: A can’t miss celebration!

As I sit here in chilly New England, I can’t help but think about missing Carnival in Martinique that will kick off in a few weeks.  Having said that, it’s hard to imagine how an event that draws nearly every resident of the island to Fort de France, for days of riotous (but in a nice way) partying and parades each year, can possibly be safe in the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Brenda and I joined in the fun last February when we visited Martinique.  Days of parades passing by for hours beginning in the late afternoon. We enjoyed the events along with a number of other Dawgs but I’ll admit that it really feels like a thousand years ago.   After nearly a year in the clutches of the pandemic it feels like a different lifetime.  And, as I look back on our days in Martinique during Carnival, and think of all  the crowds, it’s  a bit frightening to consider what might have been.

Carnival ended on February 26th and Covid-19 was first detected on the island on March 5th, a little more than one week later.  Given the massive crowds we experienced, I can only imagine what might have happened if the virus had appeared even two weeks earlier.

Martinique has had 44 deaths from the virus as of January which is about 1/10th of the death rate of the US.   If our death rate per capita was equal to Martinique, we would have had about 44,000 deaths, a fraction of the 400,000 that we have to date.  However, had the virus been prevalent during Carnival, I shudder to think of what might have happened.

But back to Carnival.  It’s hard to understand what a multi day party of this scale is rally like but this video, posted by Playbox Limited, a developer of high quality videos I understand (I have to give credit where credit is due) gives a pretty good feel for what it was like to be there with day after day of celebrations in the street.    It was indeed a hoot! The history of Carnival in the Caribbean is interesting, arriving with colonialism, apparently originating with the Italian Catholics in Europe, and later spreading to the French and Spanish who brought pre-Lenten tradition with them when they settled in the Caribbean.  The first island to begin the practice was Trinidad in the late 18th century and it remains the largest celebration in the Caribbean.

In Martinique the celebrations take place during the days leading up to Lent and reach a climax on Ash Wednesday night with a massive bonfire in which “King Vaval”, constructed out of reeds, wood and other flammable materials is burned as an effigy in celebration.

Life in Martinique effectively comes to a standstill during the celebration as the island develops “Carnival Fever” with parades making their way through nearly every village, with the largest celebration reserved for the capital Forte de France.   The sophistication of the costumes reflects the months that go into their construction and great efforts are made to keep the details secret until the day of their unveiling.

Every day has a theme and for Saturday and Sunday everyone dresses as they wish.  It is not uncommon to see the same reveler appear in several different costumes over the days of the celebration.   We were particularly struck by this guy.  He had a lot of flair. Another day, another costume.  By the second day, dare I say, we developed a bond.  No, perhaps not. Brenda and I had a funny moment when we saw him, out of costume, sipping a cup of espresso early one morning.  He looked, well, different.   I so wish we had said hello and I had aske him to pose for a photo with Brenda.  Perhaps next year.

Monday is the day of the “Burlesque Weddings” with men dressing as brides.  Based on the enthusiasm that guys bring to this spectacle, it’s pretty clear to me that many/most guys, deep down inside, want to dress up as the fairer sex.

Some were pretty convincing.  Well, sort of.  I guess you had to be there. Some, well a little less so.  No, yes, no…  Last time I saw such high heels, was the First Lady.  And, some not quite so convincing.  Perhaps that’s the point after all. . Perhaps it was the week long stubble that gave it away.  Seems a bit heavy on the testosterone.  And the cross-dressing wasn’t limited to those in the parades.  Bystanders totally got into the moment. Tuesday is the day of the devil with everyone dressed as the devil, in red and black.    Remarkably elaborate “devils” paraded by for hours. Everyone working hard to outdo…I’ll admit that I am still a bit fuzzy on this theme, with everyone slathering themselves from head to toe with molasses, mixed with ashes.  The smell of sweet sugar fully enveloped the downtown area.  Imagine what the tropical heat mixed with sticky sugar felt like.  Good thing that the beach, and a bottle of beer, or two, or three, were only a few steps away. No rush to get cleaned up.  They didn’t rinse off until after hours of parading through the city. And devil or not, my favorite…  If it’s not obvious, her costume is made up almost entirely of beer can pulls and caps.  Forget a glass of chardonnay.  She makes me want to drink more beer. The celebration ends at the beginning of Lent, leading up to Easter, marking a period of fasting and abstinence.  Tradition dictates that one does not dance or listen to music and all weddings are postponed during the period.   After experiencing Carnival myself, I’ll bet that it takes that much time, and more, for many of them to fully recover.

Carmival Martinique isn’t the only thing that makes cruising the islands from Antigua to Grenada special but it ranks right up there as a “must” event to put on your cruising calendar.

Yes, Carnival is schedule to run this year but with the threat of pandemic everywhere, it seems like a big risk.  However, next year, I sure hope that we, and other Dawgs of course, will again have an opportunity to experience the join in celebrating this remarkable tradition.

You just can’t miss Carnival in Martinique.

Fingers crossed, Pandora, crew and perhaps you too, will be there.

Escape from Pandemic: 1,500 miles from St Lucia to the US during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Brenda and I were in St Lucia, aboard Pandora last winter when virtually every island in the Caribbean suddenly shut their borders with the arrival of  the COVID-19 pandemic.  Some cruisers abandoned their boats in the marina where we were and flew home within days but we were unwilling to leave Pandora in the hurricane zone, with no idea when we would able to return.

Recently we shared our story with members of our local yacht club.  There is a link to a recording at the end of this post.   This is a clip of the presentation title page. So there we were, in St Lucia and day by day, our crew options were evaporating, leaving us no option but to sail Pandora home alone.  Brenda is not a blue water sailor and while we have been sailing together since the 70s, she had never done an ocean passage beyond a few hundred miles and the realization that 1,500 miles of ocean lay between us and the US was a daunting prospect for her.

When we left St Lucia in late March, the only islands between us and the US that remained open were Antigua and the USVI.  Our first stop after being locked down for weeks in St Lucia, was Antigua, a 200 mile overnight run and we arrived on the very last day before they too closed their boarders.

Our initial thought was to make the 400 mile run directly to the USVI but reports revealed that hundreds of cruisers had already descended on the islands and that restrictions on additional arrivals were feared.   We had been hearing about cruisers that headed to countries only to find that they were turned away upon arrival leaving them with few options but to look elsewhere.

After weeks locked down and forced to stay aboard Pandora in Antigua, we headed 200 miles to the USVI where we took a mooring in St John. There we again waited several weeks before heading for Florida, a route of 1,000 miles that would take us south of the Bahamas, north of Cuba and to Florida.  We opted to take this route because we expected this to be an easier downwind sail verses the direct run north to New England and home.

As a member of the board of the Salty Dawg Sailing Association, I thought it best to take advantage of the near 20 shoreside coordinators helping with what was to be known as the “Salty Dawg Homeward Bound Flotilla” to smooth our return to the US in addition to the near 200 other boats that participated.

In particular, we thought that we might need to stop in the Bahamas on our run home.  That country was completely locked down and were not allowing arrivals.   Fortunately, the support team for the Flotilla was able to negotiate an agreement with the Government of the Bahamas that would let boats in the Flotilla to anchor in Bahamas waters if needed.

As we approached Great Inagua, Bahamas, the half way point of our 1,000 mile leg, tropical storm Arthur was developing off of Mexico.  Our weather router, Chris Parker, suggested that we stop and allow the low to pass, so we decided to stop, anchor and wait for better weather.

After several uncomfortable days anchored in near constant wrap-around swells, we continued on.   We had to watch our speed, staying at about 3.5kts, as instructed by Chris so that we would not enter the Gulf Stream too soon and collide with Arthur’s prefrontal squalls.

To keep our speed down in brisk winds on a broad reach, we furled the jib, put a third reef in the tightly sheeted main and towed a sturdy bucket which finally slowed us sufficiently.

Then, as so often happens, the forecast changed, and we had to quickly speed up, passing the Cay Sal Banks on a reach in 20-25kts of wind. In Gulf Stream where we were hit by squall after squall with sustained winds in the 30s, one particularly nasty squall stayed with us for more than 8 hours.

Waves slammed again and again, against the hull, washing over the decks, terrifying Brenda, who had never experienced such conditions.  At one point overnight there was a loud crash as a wave slammed into the boat and I  went below to confirm that something hadn’t broken or caved in.   It hadn’t.  Later, again in the pitch dark, a wave slammed into us with such force, we were certain that our cockpit enclosure was ripped away as water flooded across the back of the cockpit.  Fortunately, there was little damage.  Nearby, an unlucky 40’ catamaran was pooped with waves breaking through their cabin doors and  washing into their cabin.

In spite of everything we entered the channel to Ft Lauderdale safe and sound, although in the middle of a torrential downpour making for a dicey entrance.

While Brenda will not soon forget the experience, the allure of the Caribbean remains and I am already making plans to take Pandora to Antigua next fall.

Recently, Brenda and I shared our experience in a presentation on Zoom.  Follow the link below to hear the story of our trip home, short handed,  an experience we are not anxious to repeat any time soon.

The Lesser Antilles, our favorite cruising grounds.

Over the last 40 years Brenda and I have cruised much of the US East Coast from eastern Maine to Key West, the Bahamas, Cuba and for the last few years the eastern Caribbean.

While many sailors are familiar with the Virgin Islands, from years of charter vacations, many are not familiar with how much the islands to the south have to offer.

Several years ago, when we first headed to Antigua we did not know what to expect.  Based on our travels, we have become convinced that the SE Caribbean, Antigua to Grenada offers the best mix of cultures, beautiful landscape and consistent easterly winds for a winter of cruising.

Recently, I hosted a presentation highlighting what a season of cruising the islands from Antigua and south to Grenada might look like and some of the must-see places and events that await.  This presentation was the first of 40 being organized by the Salty Dawg sailing Association, focused on many aspects of preparing for blue water voyaging.

In spite of the widespread Covid-19 pandemic, SDSA was able to hold their annual fall rally to the Caribbean with 50 boats safely making their way south for the winter season.   Most of these boats headed to Antigua and upon arrival participated in more than a week of events.

This photo, taken by SDSA member Ralf of SV Flora, shows many of the boats that completed their run to Antigua.  Thank you Ralf. Over the years, I have put on many events and given talks about the areas that we have cruised and have often been asked if these events were recorded.  Until now, with the widespread use of Zoom, this was not practical.  Now it is and I am able to share our experiences more broadly.

This presentation highlights of what a “normal” winter of cruising the eastern Caribbean is like and it is my sincere hope that the winter of 2021-2022 will once again offer the opportunity to visit the many islands of the southern Lesser Antilles.

A special thanks to Ralf as well as Bill and Maureen of SV Kalunamoo and Lynn and Mark of SV Roxy for the photos that they supplied for this presentation. While Pandora is on the hard this winter, I am hopeful that I will be able to, once again, participate in the Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua next fall.

As I mentioned, this was the first of some 40 webinars on many topics related to blue water sailing.  Click here for a full list of coming topics at the Salty Dawg Sailing Association.

I hope that you enjoyed this program as much as I enjoyed telling the story.  Please feel free to reach out to me via the comment window.   I look forward to hearing from you.