Guadeloupe: Rhum and carnival

«Ten, nine, eight…! Happy New Year! Welcome 2023!»
A new year, a new life, a new island. We celebrate the turn of the year on SV Take 5 of Suzi and Emmanuel, together with our Dutch-Indian friends.

On the morning of December 31, we had left Dominica to cross to Les Saintes, the small group of islands off Guadeloupe where SV Take 5 and SV My Motu are moored. Dominica had enchanted us and we are reluctant to leave the island. The crossing is short, but the waves are so high that we often can’t see over the crest of the wave when Mabul arrives in the trough of it.

The crossing from Dominica to Les Saintes made Mabul dive into deep wave troughs

In addition, the wind was blowing at up to 30 knots, wind forces we had only experienced in Greece, but never in the Caribbean. Petra, Alex’s mother, proves to be extremely seaworthy even in rough seas and is not even fazed by the one or other wave that sloshes into the cockpit. Tired from the strenuous crossing, we fall into bed after the midnight New Year’s meal and a few sips of fizz. In the new year, we wake up with renewed energy, ready for the upcoming adventures that 2023 is sure to have in store for us.

On the first day of the new year, we climb a hill from which we have a wonderful view over the small bay where our boats are moored. In the distance we see the outline of Dominica and on the opposite side Guadeloupe.

The view on the first day of 2023 over the bay of Les Saintes, where Mabul is moored.

To the northeast lies Marie-Galante, visible only as a faint, flat shadow. “The strongest rum in the Caribbean is distilled there,” Emmanuel tells us, a fact that arouses the interest of Alex and Jeroen in particular. The archipelago of Les Saintes is rightly called the Saint Tropez of Guadeloupe, a baguette here costs 6 euros and women parade their hats. After the wild Dominica quite a contrast program, which can not really inspire us… We therefore decide to sail the next day with our travel companions from SV My Motu to Marie-Galante.

To sail from Les Saintes to Marie Galante means to sail in zigzag course against the wind. So the distance of 15 nautical miles that separates the two islands becomes twice as long for us. Together with SV My Motu we set sail at 11 am and off we go, off to the next regatta.

In a zigzag course we sail against the wind to Marie Galante.

With constant wind we sail the first three hours close together and talk now and then over the radio about the latest failures of our fishing attempts – both on SV My Motu and on Mabul we pull only seaweed on deck. As the wind gets a bit weaker, we take the reef out of the mainsail and shortly after make a tack. At this moment the main boom breaks loose. The pin in the shackle with which the mainsheet was attached has come loose and the boom slams to starboard, with the wind blowing hard into the full sail. Alex tries with all his might to pull the boom back and I slam the rudder in as far as it will go, but the wind is too strong and we have no choice but to Q tack and securely fasten the pin in the shackle this time.

The event cost us a few minutes and a few nerves, and SV My Motu has long since passed us by. Half an hour later, however, we see SV My Motu make a U-turn and head back on the course from which we came. We reach for the radio: “My Motu, My Motu, why are you turning?” The answer comes with some delay, “We lost our dinghy, but got it back and tied it up…” To retrieve the dinghy that had broken loose, Jeroen, secured with a vest and tied to a line, had to jump into the water, swim to the dinghy, climb in and then drive it back to the boat. The crossing to Marie Galante thus becomes for both of us a crossing with breakdown, but finally, after six hours we reach Marie Galante.

Untouched and white are the beaches of Pancake Island

We drop anchor in front of a long sandy beach lined by a dense, green glowing forest. Some distance away, we see the large loading dock of the island’s last remaining sugar factory. After we pack up the sail and furl the lines, Alex inspects the engines – and finds that diesel has penetrated under the planks of the guest bed and into the galley. Milk cartons and tomato sauces we’ve stored here are coated in a film of diesel, and Alex pumps a liter of diesel out of the boat. As always, he follows the process of elimination to get to the bottom of the problem: Are the hose clamps properly tightened? Yes. Is the filler neck dry? Yes. Do we have a leak in the diesel tank? Maybe. Or maybe the tank was just too full and some diesel leaked out? Maybe. Even if the problems on board never completely disappear – we have at least become a little more relaxed when another one pops up. After the milk and tomato sauces and the boat are clean again, we tell ourselves: wait and see. After the next crossing we check again….

Then comes the first night before Marie Galante. What appears to be a quiet anchorage in the late afternoon turns out to be a place where the waves roll in sideways and turn Mabul into a wild rocking cradle. So the next day we drop anchor just off Saint Louis, the small, sleepy provincial town on the island. From here, the next day, we begin our exploration of the flat island by car, whose southern and northern ends are only twenty minutes apart by car – twenty minutes in which ruins, mills and old plantations hide a history that tells of blood, sugar cane and liquor.

Like everywhere in the Caribbean, history would have been different in Marie Galante if Christopher Columbus had not discovered the island

Marie-Galante is 158 square kilometers, belongs to Guadeloupe and lies circular in the Atlantic Ocean which is why it is also called Pancake Island. Like all islands in the Caribbean, its history and population would be quite different today if it had not been discovered by European sailors a few centuries ago and taken over and settled by settlers. If the tourist office of Marie Galante is to be believed, the flat, round island was the first to be discovered by Christopher Columbus on November 3, 1493, on his second voyage across the Atlantic. At that time, the Arawaks lived on the island. Columbus named the island “Marie Galante” after the flagship of his fleet, and he asked the Pope to classify the indigenous people who lived here and on other Caribbean islands as godless subhumans so that he could murder and enslave them.

And like everywhere else in the Caribbean, slaves from Africa did the hard labor in Marie Galante as well

During our tour of the island, it quickly becomes clear that Marie Galante is another example of the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Europeans of that time. After Columbus dropped anchor in Anse Ballet, the entire Caribbean population of the island was wiped out. No Arawaks, but Spanish settlers were to live. These settlers were among the first to grow sugar cane in the West Indies, most likely brought from India. However, many of the settlers could not stand the harsh living conditions and died of disease or were murdered by the Caribs, as they were called, who came from other islands. In 1648, the first French colonists arrived at Vieux-Fort. For five years they killed the Caribs with wooden clubs. The “Plage du Massacre” is a reminder of this to this day. France responded with a second wave of settlers. It sent another 100 colonists to the island, built a fortress at Grand-Bourg and, under Governor Hollel, took revenge on the Caribs with expulsion, enslavement and genocide. In 1660, a peace treaty was signed between the Caribs, the French, and the British, and the French began to build the first Oxen-operated mills on Marie Galante and to cultivate sugar cane on a large scale. The work was done by African slaves who were brought to Marie Galante from the middle of the 17th century – we remember the other Caribbean islands. History repeated itself, although sometimes the French and sometimes the British, but never the indigenous people emerged victorious. In 1671, nearly 60 percent of the population was black, the rest were French, but Dutch Jews who had fled Brazil also moved to Marie Galante and helped spread new methods for growing sugar cane.

Photo sugar cane: To this day, sugar cane fields stretch across the flat island.

Sugar cane is still grown on Marie Galante today. The fields stretch across the flat island, but on the “Island of 100 Windmills” what remains of the mills where the sugar cane was pressed are mainly ruins of the windmills. As stone memorials, they remind us of former wealth and that sugar was once as valuable as gold.

Our first stop on our island tour is the Sucrerie de Grand-Anse, the last sugar factory on the island. It produces 10,000 tons of cane sugar annually and is the island’s largest employer.

Habitation Roussel-Trianon is a former estate where sugar cane was grown and rum was distilled. Today, only ruins can be seen here.

From here we continue to the Habitation Roussel-Trianon, a former estate where sugar cane was grown, harvested and processed into sugar and rum. Today, however, only ruins remain of the former mill, kiln, cattle and horse stables. They have been neatly prepared for tourists and lie spread across a short-cut, well-manicured lawn.

The next stop is Habitation Murat, also a former sugar cane plantation with a wonderful view all the way to the sea.

History was made at Habitation Murat….

History was made here. In 1770, the Breton sailor Dominique Murat had left his home to seek his fortune on Marie Galante. The then 30-year-old sailor was part of a committee of settlers committed to the French Revolution. While Guadeloupe remained loyal to the king, at Marie Galante the French military commander was hounded off the island and the islanders declared their independence from Guadeloupe and from France. The first president became Dominique Murat in April 1792. He abolished slavery, gave housing to the slaves and established a hospital. But shortly after, in November 1794, the independence of Marie Galante was over and the island was reincorporated into France and slavery was reintroduced in 1802. Dominique Murat, however, remained an important figure on the island and its largest sugar producer. In 1807, he secured a prestigious estate, the Habitation Murat. There were 114 slaves working there at the time, a number Murat tripled in two decades – ironically. It was not until May 1848 that slavery was also abolished on Marie Galante. That and a bad earthquake in 1843 lead to the slow disintegration of the island’s thriving sugar industry.

In 1901, all that is left of the Habitation Murat is a ruin, decayed and destroyed by storms, then it is restored and can now be visited again. Across a large lawn we walk to the two-story mansion, the main house of the former plantation. From here you can see all the way to the sea and over the sugar cane fields. Inside the building, a small museum tells the story of the past centuries and next to the main building is a garden with medicinal plants. The sugar factory, which once belonged to the Habitation Murat, no longer exists, it went bankrupt.

The rum distillery Bielle is one of three where rum is distilled to this day

From the Habitation Murat we drive to the center of the island and visit the Bielle distillery, a rum distillery that still produces brown and white rum. For centuries, Marie Galante has lived on sugar cane and rum. One of the strongest rums in the Caribbean is distilled on the island, with an alcohol content of up to 95%. The rum is distilled not from molasses, but from fresh sugar cane juice. In the past, France’s military ordered rum from Marie Galante for their soldiers to spur their fighting spirit.

Mabul’s boat bar is extended by two rum bottles

The Bielle, Bellevue and Poisson rum distilleries are the last of what were once ten. We taste a range of “Rhum Vieux Agricole” that are three to ten years old and cost up to 400 euros. The older, the softer and spicier the rum, which has been aged in wooden barrels, feels in the throat. We opt for a cheaper rum to mix with fruit juice to make Rum Punch, which we have come to like. A three-year-old rum for special palates also comes on board.

Not far from the Bielle rum distillery is also that of Bellevue, which seems more modern and larger and where we still test a range of heavily sweetened and enriched with vanilla, banana or ginger rum liqueur. Then it is high time to get something in the stomach, after all the rum does not miss its effect, makes the head light and the limbs a little flabby….

In the north of Marie Galante the cliffs of Caye Plate fall vertically into the Atlantic Ocean

On our way north we stop at the viewpoint of Caye Plate, walk through a small forest to the cliffs that drop steeply into the Atlantic. Wild spray splashes up the rock. In the distance, we see a small sailboat motoring along the Atlantic coast, getting shaken up until it finally gives up and turns around.

If you search the Internet for the most beautiful places on Marie Galante, it doesn’t take long to come across Anse Canot. From this beach, they say, you will undoubtedly see turtles. However, when we arrive at Anse Canot, it’s not turtles swarming, but tan and red day tourists lying cloth to cloth on the small beach. But if Marie Galante has something to spare, it is white sandy beaches and so we drive one bay further to jump into the floods and end the day with a refreshing swim.

Not turtles, but many tourists we find at Anse Canot, but there is no lack of beautiful, deserted beaches on Marie Galante

After relaxing days in Marie Galante we get ready one morning to sail to Pointe à Pitre, where Petra will leave us after more than three weeks on board and fly back to Munich. Just before we leave Marie Galante, I want to buy a baguette for the crossing, but as I sit in the dinghy ready to go, the dinghy engine won’t start. Fortunately we have found wonderful sailing partners in the crew of SV My Motu and regularly we help each other out with work, tools or dinghy rides. While I go ashore with Aagje, Alex disassembles our dinghy engine. But when he wants to clean it with the carburetor cleaner, he has to find out that the can of the cleaner is corroded…we will be rejected again in Guadeloupe to the dinghy of SV My Motu to buy a new can. The sea, as lovely and beautiful as it presents itself some days, is also the greatest enemy of cans, tins and electronics, which it slowly destroys with each salty breath.

The crossing from Marie Galante to Pointe à Pitre is a stone’s throw from astern in good winds

The crossing from Marie Galante to Pointe à Pitre in high waves and good wind is extremely fast, we need just two and a half hours and make up to 8.6 knots of speed, so fast we were still. At the beginning whole sea grass carpets pass us, so that it makes no sense to cast the fishing line, but the closer we get to Guadeloupe, the less the sea grass becomes. We overtake SV My Motu, who soon fall behind us. They, however, catch a Mahi Mahi, a dolphinfish, which we all eat together in the evening – once again only seaweed hangs on our fishing hook. After dropping anchor, we first look under the bottom boards and are relieved. This time no diesel has leaked out, a good sign.

In front of Guadeloupe’s capital Pointe à Pitre we anchor next to gigantic cruise ships and a container port.

Anchoring off Pointe à Pitre is not nice, but you only do it because there are boat stores here to buy some screws, ropes and spare parts once again and because the airport is close. We steer through the wide channel, which is also used by freighters and cruise ships, towards our anchorage, which is close to the marina. A huge container port, where ships are loaded with containers until late in the evening, is on the other side of the channel. Also anchored just off Point à Pitre is the MSC Seaside, a cruise ship with an outdoor water slide, zipline, several pools, restaurants and a spa, and unlimited shopping. With its twelve stories, the ship towers over the largest townhouses and lights up like a Christmas tree in the evening. Early in the morning, I’m awakened by a dull roar, and as I poke my head through the hatch, I see a container ship just leaving through the channel toward the sea, dragging a gurgling water channel behind it.

Point à Pitre looks run down in many places, the buildings are crumbling.

The next day we want to visit the Mémorial ACTe Guadeloupe, a museum about slavery, which is located like a shimmering foreign body right at the quay, but due to a technical defect it is closed and so we set out to look at Point à Pitre. The town looks run down and neglected. Many buildings are dilapidated, their windows boarded up and the Hotel de Ville in the center of town looks as if it hasn’t hosted a guest in decades. And yet the city seems colorful and lively, I have never seen so much street art in any city.

Only street artists bring color and life to the city

Many of the facades are painted with colorful portraits, oversized cat heads, or skeletons that span several stories. Two windows that are now just bare, dark caverns in a dilapidated house served as the eyes in one artist’s face of a distorted grimace with pink painted lips, with which he painted the entire facade of the house. The street artists have turned the city into a large open-air gallery. We have already seen something similar in Marie Galante: an island in a state of twilight, but the walls of the dilapidated buildings are bursting with life and color thanks to a talented artist’s hand. What is it about this town, this island? Who are the artists who conjure up so much color and life on the house facades? Find out the answers in our podcast, in which the artists have their say and in which we take a tour of a theater that was once supposed to be the pride of the city before it ran out of money and artists occupied the building.

The drums of the carnival in Pointe à Pitre make us dance through the night

The podcast about Marie Galante and the art scene in Pointe à Pitre also vibrates with the rhythmic sounds of the carnival. The carnival is taking place in the city just as we anchor off Pointe à Pitre. Its energy and music sweeps us away into the night and lets us dance through the streets of the city….

More photos from Guadeloupe can be found here. On top you can find underwater pictures in this gallery.

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