Martinique: Bonjour la France!

Martinique surprises us. Not because the island offers special nature experiences or a particularly interesting history, but because it is a kind of mini-Southern France in the Caribbean. Already on the first evening, after we wearily anchored in Sainte Anne on November 25 and cleaned up the boat, we make a short shore leave. Behind the dinghy dock of Sainte Anne is a small park, behind it a church, in between a post office, a few restaurants and a Carrefour Express.

Cheese Paradise Martinique

And there they are: Camembert, Comté, Munster, Reblochon, Brie and all the other soft, milky cheeses from France. And next to them ham, bacon, baguette…For me, the omnivore, Martinique becomes a culinary paradise, for Alex, the vegan-vegetarian, the menu looks rather modest and consists mainly of side dishes in restaurants.

On the second day after our arrival, we drive a little further into the bay to Le Marin, a harbor such as we have not yet seen. One ship lines up next to another, there must be hundreds of them, and many that are anchored seem to have been here for months or weeks, some probably abandoned altogether.

Leader Price, a supermarket with dinghy dock

In Martinique we have primarily one goal: shopping. Besides various boat parts, which are easier to get here than on other Caribbean islands, we also want to pack the boat with food, which is cheap and good here, for the coming months. After the first day of shopping, Mabul is loaded with new fish decorated marine harness, adjustable sailor chairs and various spare parts. Then begin the many trips to Leader Price, probably the only supermarket in the Caribbean with its own dinghy dock. We can moor our dinghy directly at the wooden jetty and after shopping drive our fully loaded shopping cart to the dock, load everything into the dinghy and chug to Mabul. Not just one, but several trips over three days we do so and stuff every nook, every cranny of Mabul full: ten liters of olive oil, sixty liters of wine, fifty kilos of pasta, rice, salt, soups, tins full of tomatoes, corn, olives and peas, also cereal bars, as well as chocolate, cookies and other goodies are not missing.

We load Mabul with food for the coming months

Mabul seems to get a little thicker and a little deeper with each purchase, already the water is washing a little more over our boarding steps. Now we are prepared for the next months and only need to buy fresh vegetables, fruits and if possible cheese. Then we rent a car and drive to various dive stores to upgrade our diving equipment and to Decathlon to buy lamps, drinking cups, bath towels and a SUP. And of course the hardware stores with their tools, silicone tubes and masking tapes are not missing on our shopping tour. In the meantime, it seems to me, we have so many tools on board that we could soon build a second Mabul. The first thing Alex does with the new saw is to build some shelves so that we can safely store all our purchases.

We anchor in Sainte Anne in front of the Club Med

Our shopping tour lasts for six days, then we lift our anchor and sail back to Sainte Anne, where more and more of our friends arrive over the days: Moshe and Vered with their little dog Lychee, Horst and his Labrador bitch Zoye, Ricki and Martin and their kids, Mel and Tony and their wild Labrador dogs, Jay, Suzi, Emmanuel and their daughters and finally our Dutch friends Aagje and Jeroen with their adopted Indian son Rajesh. You can find all their stories in our BoatCast. Now our sailing family is reunited. Everyone is setting up their boats, busy with boat work and in the evenings we meet on the beach or glide slowly on the SUP through the bay.

A big depression over the North Atlantic prevents our onward journey (Source: PredictWind)

Alex and I are now waiting for a suitable weather window to sail to Guadeloupe. There we want to pick up our first guest: Alex’s mother. She is supposed to arrive on December 12, just before Alex’s birthday. But the weather does not play along. There is a huge storm over the Atlantic, which first sucks all the wind out of us, so that there is calm for days, and when the wind finally picks up again, it comes from the north and brings high waves. Our crossing to Guadeloupe would thus not only be uncomfortable, but also much longer, since we would have to sail all the way up against the wind. Fortunately Petra can change her flight and lands on December 12th in Fort de France, the capital of Martinique.

We use the days of calm to clean the propeller and to fit it with new ball bearings.

We use the days until Petra’s arrival to get some boat projects done: Alex removes the propeller again underwater, takes it apart, and we reload, clean, and grease the ball bearings, hoping that this will stop the persistent, erratic propeller noises. I use the rest of the air left in the scuba tank to once again clean the entire belly of the boat of seaweed and shells. Then we sail to Fort de France. In the few minutes we use the engine, we listen for the propeller noises – they are almost regular, but unfortunately only almost. We have to come up with something new.

Anchorage in Fort de France

In Fort de France we anchor right next to the wall of the fort. Alex takes the SUP to the beach and I prepare a wähe from the puff pastry and mirabelles I bought at Carrefour. But what should become a culinary highlight turns into a mushy mass, the dough is soft and mushy. Either I need to study the oven baking instructions more carefully or our oven also has a problem…..A boat really is like an old house: you never run out of projects. I try to salvage what can still be salvaged and re-bake the individual pieces of wähe in the pan, but this rescue attempt also comes to nothing and the wähe wanders overboard, hopefully pleasing the fish. In addition, the anchorage proves to be quite uncomfortable. Ferries pass through the bay every few minutes and the big waves they cause make Mabul rock wildly from side to side, so that anything not nailed down flies through the cabin. At night, the ferries set, but loud bass from music on the beach make Mabul shake late into the night.

Fort de France is also a popular destination for cruise ships

Before Petra’s arrival in the evening, we pay a visit to Fort de France. The small downtown looks tidy with its cobblestones and small stores, the two-story houses are colorfully painted or decorated with graffiti. In a local market we buy a few avocados, fresh vanilla sticks and some vegetables. But here it becomes visible for the first time that there is not only prosperity in Martinique. On some corners there are beggars and behind a car two junkies take a shot.

The Schoelcher Library in Fort de France

We visit the few sights of the city, including the Schoelcher Library. The building is eye-catching because it is architecturally out of the ordinary, combining Western and Oriental styles, and its dome is reminiscent of a Turkish bath. Architect Henri Pick constructed the entire building, which was the equivalent of the Indochina Pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. The library was then shipped brick by brick to Martinique and rebuilt at Forte de France in 1893. It was named after Victor Schoelcher, who donated the 10,000 books for the library. He was a politician, journalist, undersecretary of the French government for the colonies, and one of the best-known opponents of slavery in France, to whose abolition he contributed significantly. He sent his books to Martinique because he wanted the slaves and ex-slaves to have free access to a library and thus to education.

Speaking of slavery, the French settlers brought slaves from Africa to Martinique as early as the early 17th century, with the men having to work in the sugar cane and coffee plantations while the women served as servants to their French masters. In 1745, some 65,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Dominigue, the three French colonies, were slaves. In 1794, slavery was abolished in France during the French Revolution, but this did not apply to the colonies. In addition, Napoleon reversed the abolition of slavery in 1802; it is said that his wife Joséphine urged him to do so. She had been born in Martinique into a rich French family with a large sugar cane plantation and found life without slaves extremely unpleasant. It was not until 1848, after various revolts, that slavery was abolished even in the colonies. On the Place de la Savane in Fort de France, you can still see a white marble statue of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine, erected in 1850. Today her torso is headless and reminds us that Martinique’s wealth was also created with the blood and sweat of black slaves.

Alex’s mother Petra is our first guest on board. She brings many gifts from Europe

Late in the evening we pick up Petra, Alex’s mother, at the dinghy dock. She arrives with heavy luggage, most of which is for us, including a 3D printer to print spare parts, capacitors for our broken inverter, and waterproof covers for our various electronics.

The next morning, December 13, we sail back to Saint Anne once again, where a technician reprograms our MMSI number, the Maritime Identification Number. December 13 is also Alex’s birthday and we celebrate Alex 38 years with our friends aboard Mabul, with the birthday cake going back overboard as fish food….the oven…In a jovial mood we decide to continue our journey together with Aagje, Jeroen and Rajesh, the crew of my Motu. In two days we want to sail north together. It will be a small regatta and we are determined to win it. Two days later, at nine o’clock sharp, we start.

First sailing day with Petra on board

“Three minutes to go – are you guys ready?”, writes Aagje at three to nine. We are ready, the baguettes from the bakery are in the fridge as sandwiches, the lines and sails are ready to go. At two to nine I tried to start the engine, but it doesn’t make a sound. At 9 o’clock Aagje writes “Go!”. Shortly after, we see her pass us….Alex immediately gets to work on the engine and examines the usual suspects, a few corroded cables. But nothing helps, the engine remains silent. “We’re losing oil!” shouts Alex from the engine compartment, “Shit! … if we have an oil leak, it means we’ll spend the next few weeks in port. Then the entire engine will have to be removed.” Shortly thereafter, I see cushions, upholstery, bags and tools fly out of one of the aft cabins into the salon so Alex can get better access to the engine, which is located between the two aft cabins. The mood drops to zero. Does it ever stop with the boat projects? My Motu has anchored behind us by now. If we don’t sail, they want to wait too, because if we have anything, it’s time.

Beach day while Alex mends the engine once again

What I have learned in the meantime: In such moments it is best to leave Alex alone. So I set off with Petra on foot to Saline Bay, which we reach on a small jungle path. When the sun has almost reached the horizon in the late afternoon, Alex arrives with the dinghy. He has solved the problem. This time it was the corroded cable to the starter motor.

On the way north

With a day’s delay we sail off the next morning. Up to Diamond Rock halfway it’s a neck-and-neck race, but then the crew of my Motu hauls in their sails and unpacks their drone and that’s it, we pass them. Since they can only recapture the drone in a breakneck action – Jeroen has to get into the towed dinghy – we gain time and distance. With the fishing we have less luck, I pull up seaweed five times. After six hours we see Montagne Pelée, the volcano in the north of Martinique. Here in the bay, in front of the small town of Saint Pierre, we drop anchor and soon fall tired into bed. During the night I wake up because strong gusts are tugging at Mabul. I sit on deck, contemplate the dark night and the shining starry sky, and make sure that the anchor will hold us and our boat in place, then I fall back into a deep sleep. Tomorrow we plan to explore Saint Pierre.

In the prison of Saint Pierre a prisoner survived the volcanic eruption of 1902

Saint Pierre is one of those towns that once had great importance and then, through a tragic turn of events, fell into oblivion. The city was founded in 1635 by Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc (1585-1636), the first governor of the Caribbean island of Saint-Christophe, by order of Cardinal Richelieu. Until the governor’s seat was moved to Fort de France in 1692, it was the administrative and, until 1902, the commercial capital of Martinique. The last indigenous people, the Caribs, took their own lives by falling from a high sea cliff (now known as the Tombeau des Caraïbes – Carib Tomb) north of the city to avoid falling under the yoke of colonization or slavery. The sugar trade as well as the slave trade made the city prosper and thrive, so that it became the economic and cultural center of the entire Lesser Antilles and received nicknames such as “Little Paris”, “Paris of the Islands”, “Pearl of the Antilles” or “Venice of the Tropics”. Trading ships from all over the world called at the port and Saint Pierre had facilities of modern technology and important buildings earlier than many other, even larger cities. In addition to a chamber of commerce, a horse-drawn tramway, a theater for 800 spectators, an electric street lighting network and a botanical garden, Saint Pierre had one of the first nursing homes for the mentally ill, the Asile Bethléem. In 1902, there was the devastating catastrophe that changed everything.

Fruits and vegetables from the nutrient-rich volcanic soil of Saint Pierre.

Saint Pierre awaits us the next morning with a vegetable and fish market. The fruits and vegetables shine in fresh colors, thanks to the nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Volcano Pelée is also the reason why tourists pilgrimage to the small town until today. In 1902, the Pelée volcano erupted, literally exploding, leaving the town and the ships in the bay ablaze. Of the 28000 inhabitants, only three survived. The traces of that time are still visible today.

Only the staircase of the theater survived the volcanic eruption

Rue d’Enfer leads to a higher alley, in front of the old theater. The curved stairs that led up to the theater and the iron grounds are the only things that have withstood the volcanic eruption. From here you can also see the foundation walls of the former prison, which was wall to wall with the theater. Here, in a cell that defied ash and lava, was imprisoned one of the only survivors: Louis Cyparis. His cell consisted of a tiny building with a rounded stone roof and small windows. The cell is cool and damp, and the walls are thick. This was Louis Cyparis’ salvation when the city around him turned into a burning inferno.

Not far from the ruins is a low, flat building overlooking the sea. It is the “Mémorial de la Catastrophe de 1902” museum designed by Frank A. Perret. An audio guide leads a half-hour tour of the museum, which displays photos of the volcanic eruption as well as objects: melted cocoa, coffee, pasta, nails and screws. The huge bell from the sunken ship The Tamaya was compressed by the heat like a sponge. A picture shows the main street after the volcanic eruption: two rows of brick walls with curved windows and door arches are the only things that have withstood embers and fire. The town looks as it did after an air raid during World War II. The former commercial center of Martinique is completely destroyed and it will take a long time before life settles here again.

Before the volcanic eruption, Saint Pierre was the commercial center of Martinique (Source: Museum “Mémorial de la Catastrophe de 1902”)
After the volcanic eruption, the city was destroyed (Source: Museum “Mémorial de la Catastrophe de 1902”).

The volcanic eruption sank dozens of ships that were anchored in the bay. You can still dive down to some of the wrecks, but most of them are too deep. The Tamaya, a 162-foot-long three-master built in Liverpool in 1862 with a cargo of 459 tons, lies 85 meters below the surface. The Tamaya was on its last voyage from Maison Rozier in Nantes to Martinique, where it dropped anchor on February 18, 1902. The ship sank in the volcanic eruption on May 8 and with it twelve members of its crew. The wreck was found in 1983 by a French warship and identified by its ship’s bell – the same ship’s bell now on display in the museum.

While the Tamaya is too deep for us, we dive to the wreck of the Raisinier one afternoon. Since her parts are only at a depth of six to ten meters, we can dive down to her without scuba tanks. The wreck is spread all over the seabed, and large sponges and corals proliferate over the old ship ribs. I dive down several times, see a pufferfish and a long pipefish, as well as quite a number of other colorful fish. A large school of tiny fish has also gathered under the buoy where the dive boats moor. It is unbelievable what colorful life has reestablished itself under the surface of the sea thanks to the tremendous destruction.

The next morning we leave Martinique. Together with the crew of SV My Motu we hoist the sails and set course for Dominica, the largest nature paradise in the Caribbean.

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