How to make your own island

If there is one thing that is synonymous with the Caribbean then it’s rum, or rhum, as they say here. Every island, if not every bar, has their own concoction and the local history often revolves around the sugar plantations of yesteryear. We visited the Depaz distillery, located in the foothills of Mt Pelee, Martinique. The earlier sugar plantation on the site dated back to 1651. The Mt Pelee volcano spectacularly erupted in 1902, killing all 30,000 inhabitants of the nearest town, St Pierre, except for three people. The entire Depaz family perished with the exception of a son who was away at school in France at the time of the eruption. He subsequently returned to Martinique and rebuilt the distillery in honour of his family. One of the more novel aspects of this site is the steam driven machinery which is still in operation today.

Another activity that’s been going on over here just as long is fishing. There are plenty of fish around and it’s not uncommon to see the local fisherman selling his catch of the day at a roadside stall. But if it’s pizza that you’re craving then look no further than the pizza boat that floats around Le Marin area, complete with oven on the back. We didn’t try it, but we did get a couple of excellent takeaway meals from some French cruising guys cooking awesome gourmet meals on their yacht. Plenty of good food choices in Martinique.

From Martinique we headed on down to St Lucia and the oasis that is Marigot Bay. We’d heard there’d been some problems with multiple dingy thefts up at Rodney Bay, so went for the safer option of Capella Resort. You can take a berth in the marina which provides 24 hour security and gives you access to the resort facilities and pool. Hiring a car and driving around the island was interesting. The volcano on this island is billed as “the world’s only drive through volcano”. One of the fumeroles is somewhat disturbingly named after a guide who some years ago fell into the boiling mud up to his waist, suffering severe burns. Luckily he was pulled out by quick thinking people and managed to survive. We drove to the main southern town of Soufriere, which was quite an eye opener, as it seemed incredibly poor and in very stark contrast to both the nearby Sugar Bay Resort and Capella. Yet another example of the massive disparity between the haves and have nots. No photos at Soufriere I’m afraid. It just didn’t seem appropriate to pull out a camera out there (not even an iPhone). We actually didn’t even get out of the car to stroll around.

We opted to sail straight past St Vincents, not feeling the need to stop there. So our next port of call was the delightful island of Bequia. The shoreline around the bay is dotted with some cute gingerbread buildings, a whalebone bar and a sandy beach. The locals are all super friendly. There are lots of Rasta guys with serious locks, including Brian and his “rosemary” (that’s what he calls his calf length hair). He told me he spends $100 per week on various shampoos, oils and spray – who’d have thought, a high maintenance guy!) They also have some weird looking sheep with no wool, which I thought were goats, that graze along the roadside. It’s all very chilled in Bequia.

We took the opportunity to stay here for a bit and brush up on our SCUBA diving skills, completing the Advanced Open Water Diver course. Diving in Bequia was an absolute delight. Great visibility, plenty of fish and coral, with the water temperature a balmy 26 degrees.

We then hot-footed it down to the Tobago Cays when the breeze backed off a little bit. The marine park here includes five small reef-fringed islands that are surrounded by wonderfully clear waters full of fish and turtles. It’s a bit like snorkeling in a giant fish tank made from an enormous bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and once again we were lucky enough to swim with turtles. The locals run a terrific BBQ dinner ashore with fresh lobster which or course we availed ourselves of.

You really start to feel old when you’re travelling around and you hear about an event of historical significance and realise that it happened in your lifetime. We visited the remains of Fort George atop the capital of St Georges. It was here that the revolutionary leader and Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who led a bloodless coup in 1979, was executed. His death sparked events that lead to the US invasion. He was a British-trained lawyer who was subsequently placed under house arrest by hardline communists. However, Bishop was popular with the people and thousands of them freed him then marched with him to Fort George where he, along with a number of his supporters, was subsequently shot by firing squad in 1983. In the courtyard of the Fort there is a plaque that commemorates these events. Apparently the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States appealed to the US for assistance, along with the Grenaden Governor-General. President Ronald Reagan then sent in the troops. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing happening today, or is it? It was in Grenada that we welcomed Dean and Sue aboard Loki. We hired a car to take a look around the island and visited the Nutmeg Processing Cooperative. It was interesting to see how much of the sorting, grading and packing was still done manually. No automation here. There was even a guy hand-stenciling the destinations onto sacks, whilst another was sewing them up by hand. Nutmeg used to be the main crop on the island before Hurricane Ivan wiped it out in 2004. These days it has been replaced by cocoa so of course we also felt compelled to visit the Diamond Chocolate Factory where you can see the whole process from raw beans to finished product, complete with sampling at the end!

From there we travelled north again stopping at Carriacou and Union Island. We’d heard from other yachties about a small island made out of conch shells that some bloke had built a bar on. Thought we had to see that. So we made our way out to “Happy Island” where we met Janti, it’s creator. He told us he’d landed a government contract to clean up the conch shells discarded by fisherman that littered the local beach. In 2002 he started piling up the conch shells on a shallow part of the reef, from where he proceeded to sell rum punches to passing yachties. The locals all thought he was a crazy guy. He kept on bringing in more conch shells and before long there was a working bar, a deck complete with tables and chairs, palm trees and dingy landing area. Janti seems like quite a character and he also makes a damn fine rum punch. Good luck to him!

Even before arriving here we started to see the beginnings of the massive seaweed problem they are experiencing all over the Caribbean this year. About two thirds of the way across the Atlantic we saw large areas of seaweed that we had to avoid from time to time. You really don’t want this stuff around your prop or fouling your engine water intake. From island to island we’ve seen the sargasso seaweed everywhere. It washes ashore on beaches and in harbours giving off a nasty hydrogen sulphide gas as it decomposes. There are a number of health risks associated with the gas such as: nausea, headaches and spontaneous abortion in pregnant women. This gas in the water was also responsible for destroying the desalination system at Virgin Gorda during the 2015-2016 season. There’s also a risk to turtle nesting beaches. Researchers are developing techniques to track and predict the weed masses, but the causes of the sargasso blooms is not yet well understood. Increasing weather extremes of heat and/or additional nutrients are thought to play a role. In the meantime we continue to pluck it off the deck every now and again.

Having spent the last three and a half months cruising through the West Indies it’s now time for us to head west. Tomorrow we sail for the Dutch Antilles, some 430nm away, or about two and a half days sailing.  The forecast is looking good, so we should have a pleasant trip.

I hope everything is good with you and life is treating you well.