We’ve been trying to make it to Dominica since before COVID. Everyone told us we’d love it – the hikes, the rainforest, the waterfalls, the mountains! Finally, this April, Dominica eased their COVID entry requirements, and Sanitas pointed her bow toward Portsmouth harbor. From sea level, Dominica looks like Jurassic park. Verdant green mountains soar toward the sky with peaks wreathed in clouds, sparkling waterfalls flowing into one of the 365 rivers, crossing black sand beaches to rejoin the ocean. We dusted off our hiking shoes, and set out to explore.
To warm up, we hiked Cabrits National Park and historic 18th century Fort Shirley. Great views from both peaks, and we pretended the harbor was filled with tall ships and Buccaneers instead of cruising sailboats.
Curious about the gorgeous tropical vegetation all around us, we took a tour up Indian River with Titus, who knows the name and medicinal or cooking purpose of every plant or flower we passed. Titus taught us about the birds, snakes, and crabs that live along the river banks, and sent us home with a bouquet of tropical flowers and a big bag of cooking herbs.
Seven volcanos make up Dominica, and there are signs of geothermal activity everywhere. At Cold Soutrière, we dipped our fingers into the bubbly, sulphuric-smelling mud pools and got up close and personal with the first volcano. It was the first stop on a tour of the northern part of the island where our guide, Winston, told us every stop would be “a surprise.” Personally, I prefer the joy of anticipation…and knowing whether I need to wear hiking shoes or flip flops for each walk. 🤣 It was a easy walk to our first Dominican waterfall of Bwa Nef, but not all of them would be so easy to find no conquer!
Red Rock looks a bit like the Flinstone’s town of bedrock. The iron in this soft, crumbly rock turns it a distinctive orange-red and allows the rain to crumble and carve it away, constantly changing the shape of the coast over time.
Capt. Mike was in heaven when we finally stopped at Pointe Baptiste Chocolate Factory. This small family business produces gourmet chocolate from organic cacao beans and cane sugar and local spices into chocolate bars and rum truffles. Oh my gosh, delicious!
I know, I know. For hundreds of years people sailed the high seas without technology, and more recently navigated with paper charts and SSB radios. But the crew of Sanitas has become very accustomed to cell phones and the data access they provide. We use our cell data for route planning, weather forecasts, researching destinations, downloading Netflix shows, and writing this blog. Oh, and Wordle. Usually, we’ve found it easy to get cell service internationally by buying a local SIM card and signing up for a pre-paid plan. But for some reason, we’ve had an incredibly difficult time getting cell service in Martinique. It’s been a real comedy of errors.
Attempt #1 – Wizzy
Capt. Mike researched a new low cost cell phone provider named Wizzy which runs on the Digicel network and advertises 70Gb for 17€. Too good to be true? The tricky part is they have no storefronts, so you communicate with them on their website and we mailed the SIM card we ordered to the post office in Sainte Anne Martinique. At first, everything went swimmingly, and Mike reveled in his ability to download anything he wanted without rationing. But…three weeks into using Wizzy, Mike’s internet access stopped working, and he received a very cryptic message about a payment problem (in French, of course). We tried and tried to figure it out but low cost internet means no real live customer service people and eventually we gave up. SIM card #1 went in the trash. For the record, a couple of fellow cruisers had great luck with Wizzy but at least one cruiser we know never even received his paid-for SIM card. It’s a real mixed bag.
Attempt # 2 – Digicel
There are two different Digicel cell phone providers in the eastern Caribbean: one that serves the French speaking islands and one that serves everyone else. Cruisers speak of the French Digicel in reverential tones “You can get soooo much data each month!” they say. “Sign up in a French island, and it’ll work anywhere!” I’ve been told. “If you ever get a French Digicel sim card, don’t give it up!” I’ve been warned. So our next stop was the Digicel store near the huge Le Marin marina. The young man working there is fantastic- he speaks just enough English to help us get our account set up and confirmed that we were good to go before we left the shop. It’s more expensive, of course, about 45€ per month. But it felt good to be back on a reliable plan with good service.
All was well on Sanitas for the next few weeks until…. Three weeks in, there’s no internet access. Again. Back on the bus to the Digicel shop and the very nice agent who tried lots of things on the computer, spoke to customer service on our behalf, and tried every credit and debit card in our wallets to no avail. Something about our “foreign” credit cards was offending them. Digicel did not want our money. So much for the unicorn of a French digicel SIM card. We were back to square one.
Attempt 2.5 – Orange
There’s an Orange cell phone shop in the same plaza as Digicel, so Mike poked his head in and asked about SIM cards. He was told emphatically “No!” Mike put on his best “I’m-a-stupid-American-who-can’t-speak-French-but I’m sorry-about-it-and-I’m-not-a-jerk” face and tried again. He was told that they’re out of SIM cards and try again next week.
Attempt 3- SFR
So I’ve been telling you about Capt. Mike’s trials and tribulations, but my path has not been smooth either. I planned to choose a different cell phone provider than the one Mike was using, so that as we moved from anchorage to anchorage, within sight of different provider’s cell towers, we’d always have one service that works for weather files and charts. I ended up going with SFR whose billboards advertise “Coverage for 99% of the population of Martinique”. The coverage area and data speeds have been great, but my in-store customer service was the opposite of Mike’s good experience at Digicel. My customer service clerk told me the 3-month promotional rate wasn’t available and charged me twice what I really owed. Then she set up my account incorrectly so I couldn’t see or pay my bill online. And SFR Caraibe doesn’t use an app to manage your account, just a slow, outdated website. There was no way I would suggest that a cruiser buy an SFR SIM card….until that was the only option left for Capt. Mike. Back on the bus to Le Marin! Honestly, Mike had a bunch better experience at SFR than I did, with a different much more helpful agent. He left the shop with a working phone, for the correct price, AND we had the chance to eat lunch at our favorite “big meals for working men” lunch spot next door. I suspected the French culture was finally rubbing off on Mike when he told me, “You know, I’m a bit disappointed in this roasted lamb with wine and mushroom sauce. It’s a tad over cooked. And the rosé is just drinkable” Zut Alors, Captain Mike!
SFR only works in the French islands. It’s been fantastic in Martinique and in The Saints, Guadeloupe. But now that we’ve traveled to English-speaking Dominica, we found ourselves back in the Digicel shop, buying yet another SIM card for the week or two we’ll be anchored here. (Apparently, this sim will only work in Dominica and St Lucia. Insane!) Our next challenge will be figuring out how to cancel our SFR plans when we head south for hurricane season…and dare I even hope to get my deposit back? As our French diesel engine mechanic exclaimed repeatedly, “The system, c’est bizarre!”
Once we got Sanitas’ engine fixed, we didn’t waste any time! Laundry, groceries, filling the water and fuel tanks, moving from the marina to the anchorage…in about 24 hours we had Sanitas ready to move. A good weather window was coming up at the beginning of April and we wanted to be ready to take advantage of it.
Take advantage of it we did! Around noon on Tuesday we raised anchor and started north. The engine purred like a kitten (or maybe more like a tiger) when we used it to navigate out of the anchorage and get ourselves on our point of sail. But as the Captain says, “We’re a sailboat!” and we didn’t use the engine for long. We had a glorious sail up the west coast of Martinique, past Diamond Rock, and anchored in St Pierre just before sunset.
We set the alarm for 4am and were underway well before sunrise. Setting off in the dark is always a bit disconcerting, but the harbor in St Pierre is wide open with few hazards, so it wasn’t dangerous. We mainly had to watch out for fishing boats and floats for lobster pots. Sunrise at sea is always glorious, and this morning we even had a beautiful bright double rainbow to welcome us back to the sea.
Conditions were perfect for a fast, salty sail. We had easterly winds pretty consistently from 90 degrees between 12 knots and 20 knots. However, we encountered a lot of variation in conditions as we traveled part of the day between the islands of Martinique and Dominica (where seas can be quite big, and winds are strong and sometimes swirl as they are funneled between the islands) and partly in the leeward protection of mountainous Dominica (where wind and waves were lighter, and we actually had to motor sail for about an hour when we had no wind at all). Capt. Mike was kept on his toes putting in reefs and shaking them out. Bringing out the headsails and furling them in. We both ended up with callouses as our soft little hands had to become accustomed to line handling again.
Seas hit us on the beam which makes for a very rocky and rolly ride. There was a period of about an hour when we experienced the worst of the wind funneling effect with consistent 29 knots and I mostly just held on for a very wild ride. Capt. Mike took a picture of me in what he calls my gecko pose. You probably can’t tell from this photo but we are heeled over about 30 degrees so I’m bracing myself with my legs and holding onto the companionway and the winch. I’m kind of huddled in the protection of our bimini because waves on the beam create a great deal of splash.
Speaking of splash! We had a huge wave hit us without warning, and Mike and I were both soaked. The cockpit was swamped – good thing we have good scupper drains – and both bilge pumps turned on, and an alarm started beeping loudly. The worst part of the chaos was that we had forgotten to close the companionway with the sliding boards. So at least a couple of liters of that huge wave ended up with in the cabin. We spilled a bit of wind off the main and once I was sure that the Captain had things under control, I went below to survey the damage. Bilge pumps seemed to be doing their job. The alarm came from the lpg propane gas sensor, so I turned the propane solinoid off at the breaker panel. Mike disconnected it back at the tank just to be sure. I mopped up the saltwater lake on the cabin sole, rolled up the rugs, and did my best to dry off the port settee. I wiped down the breaker panel and port bulkhead. It’s the first time ever that I had to wash saltwater off the INSIDE of the portlights as well as the outside. Looking back on it, we weren’t in danger, but things were pretty darn exciting for a while.
Speaking of water in the cabin, I found a new leak, or what sailors call euphemistically “saltwater incursion.” I noticed that small drops of water were landing on the cushions of the port settee. I first thought that we hadn’t closed the cowl vent well enough. Nope. Watching for a while, I observed a drop forming on the zipper of the headliner, growing, growing, and then falling onto our lovely comfy couch. Darn it! That’s a problem to investigate for another day.
All in all, we averaged over 6 knots today which is crazy fast for little Sanitas. We made it to the mooring field near Terre-de-Haut in The Saintes, Guadeloupe with plenty of time to pick up a ball before sunset. After a day and a half of very active sailing, we were much too tired to go ashore. But after taming the chaos of the boat a bit, we could enjoy a magical view of the island during dinner and then a well-deserved early bedtime.
After two weeks of recovery from Covid and two additional weeks of waiting for our fuel injector pump to be rebuilt (and a lot of stops by the mechanic’s office, asking if there was any news) our diesel engine is back together!
Monsieur Rubin of Mechabat told me that the clean and shiny refurbished fuel injector pump is “bijoux” or jewelry for Sanitas. He spent two hours contorted into the tiny engine compartment grunting and swearing, finding the parts that fell to the bottom of the space, bleeding the fuel lines… And finally telling Capt. Mike to start her up. She started on the first try! Apparently, mechanics in France have the same saying as they do in the USA, “There’s always one part left over” and Rubin explained that the one bolt remaining in the Tupperware containers wasn’t that important. I hope he’s right 🤪
We had already taken advantage of our proximity to Le Marin to buy groceries, do laundry, and take lots and lots of warm showers. All we needed to do was pay for our mooring ball (€110 euros for the month) fill up our water and fuel tanks, and we were free!!! Where to next, Sanitas?