16th February to 20th April 2021
I’ve been here in Martinique for two months now. But before I tell you of life in Martinique, here’s a quick postscript for Saint Helena – that tiny isolated island of some 4,300 inhabitants in the South Atlantic, where Henrietta was not to linger and I was not allowed to land.
Skip the next few paragraphs if you want to read only of Martinique.
I did at first write rather a lot about Saint Helena, several pages in fact. I’ve deleted it. It’s best not to upset too many people. In any case no one really wants to read too much horrible stuff (that’s what the newspapers give you).
The British Overseas Territories are a formidable topic for study, Saint Helena is just one of those Overseas Territories. So, prudence being the better part of valour (is that what people say?), I’ll spare you the the first draft.
The good news is that Saint Helena reopened to visiting yachts at the start of April.
The sad news is that in having looked more closely at the island’s recent history, decision-making and funding, I seem to have uncovered a can of worms, several cans in fact. I hesitate before telling you…….actually I shan’t tell you much. If interested, you can find out more and ask your own questions.
One of two matters worth a look is the new airport. At best it is an amazing project completed despite its complexity, at worst it’s a serious “embarrassment” and a ”fiasco” – according to the UK Public Accounts Committee (Airport Report )
The other matter is Lord Michael Ashcroft, a keen advocate and lobbyist for Saint Helena. He might be wealthy philanthropic angel or self-serving villain, or simply one of those rather powerful misguided missiles. It all depends. He’s perhaps all three. In any case his influence and involvement with the island is interesting. (Lord Ashcroft) (Ashcroft on St Helena Covid )
As for British funding for Saint Helena, for 2020/21 the UK taxpayer pays “up to £34.3 million”, around £8,000 per inhabitant.
Cost of the airport to the UK taxpayer “up to April 2016” was £238.9 million (over £55,000 per inhabitant). Further work on the airport is ongoing. I’m waiting for a further reply from FCDO (UK Foreign Office).
That’s enough about Saint Helena….moving on to Martinique………
First I’d like to sing my praises for the French. Just look at what they’ve come up with.
After the Eiffel Tower there’s camembert, good wine, exotic underwear, Tour de France, Pasteur, Flaubert, fine perfume, the guillotine ……You’d perhaps consider the French to be creative, inventive, cultured, sexy and adventurous. But you’d not think of the French as particularly sensible; well I wouldn’t. They’re often charming, generous, adventurous, outspoken and beautiful…but not notably rational.
Yet, when it comes to the tiny little business of how to treat long distance cruising sailors in the time of Covid, France, at least outside mainland France, is one of the world’s most reasonable and considerate of nations.
If you’ve been isolated at sea for an extended time (and you’re still alive), the odds on your being a carrier of the bug are virtually non-existent. This is understood by the French – in Réunion and Martinique anyway (the two French island territories I have visited in the past few months). I have been allowed to come here, to stay, do boat repairs, go shopping, walking, swimming and subject to local rules, carry on with life. Good sense prevails. They’ve not forgotten the importance of liberté.
There’re not many places where decisions are so sane. The list of countries that have treated long-distance yachting folk as insufferable and unwanted is surprisingly long – countries which you’d normally think of as sensible. I shan’t name them. But I shan’t forget them.
It’s always good to reconsider our preconceptions.
Countries that are accepting yachts must be benefitting financially from the business we bring. Certainly in Martinique and Réunion (and in Cape Town) boatyards are busy, and skilled workers are fully booked up.
Martinique is French territory. This delightful Caribbean island let me in. I needed to do repairs, and after six weeks at sea needed food and water. They check papers and passport to confirm where I’ve been, ask if I feel well, then I’m free. As I say, I’ve been here two months.
Given that movement around the Caribbean islands is now troublesome (though perfectly possible) with ever-changing rules and restrictions (plus spells in quarantine, testing costs etc), I’ve taken the easy option and stayed in Martinique, sailing all over the place, while fattening up on good bread, cheese and wine, and making more effort to learn more French.
Time passes fast and easily enough. Among the hundreds of boaters anchored in the main anchorage of St Anne are some of those wonderful and indispensable human organisers who arrange small social events, activities and self-help. We’re an international crowd, understandably dominated by the French and, as always with the cruising community, overwhelmingly friendly, good humoured and supportive.
To help keep moderately sane and fit, and to fight-the-flab, I join others for aquarobics (they call it ‘noodling’, the long tube of colourful plastic being a noodle – a frite in French). And often walk a few miles along the coast or up a mountain, kayak ashore for shopping or a meal, go snorkelling and attend occasional mini- parties.
But busy anchorages are not really my cup of tea, so I’ve spent most of the time, a few weeks, sailing slowly around Martinique stopping wherever looks sheltered and pretty, exploring lesser known, out-of-the-way places.
It is a mountainous volcanic island, three times the size of the Isle of Wight (Southern England). This ‘island of flowers’ is pleasingly spectacular with towering peaks, fine forests and exquisite beaches. Coral and fish life is poor alas, though turtles and rays are plentiful; and there are many pelicans, frigate birds and other sea birds.
The highest peak here, Mount Pelée, is a bit higher than Britain’s highest mountain, 1,397 metres. It’s a volcano which exploded in 1902 and was the most deadly volcanic eruption of the 20th century – the entire town of St Pierre (which was then the capital) was destroyed; nearly 30,000 people were killed (the sole survivor a prisoner in his heavy stone-walled cell); and the ships anchored offshore were sunk (now popular dive sites).
There are dozens of anchorages up the sheltered west coast, most with a few boats bobbing about. The capital, Fort-de-France, a thriving and colourful hub of activity (somewhat suppressed by global bug), a very active sailing school at Schoelcher giving hours of entertainment. My favourite stop, Anne Couleuvre, a so-called ‘day anchorage’, a bit rolly (overnight just me) and at the start of an especially beautiful forest walk in one of several Nature Reserves. And there are many peaceful anchorages along the east coast too, nestling behind the reefs which give protection from the Atlantic swell.
Recently further restrictions have been introduced. Even small gatherings are no longer allowed, cafes and so on only give takeaways, many shops have shut.
So in a few days I’ll head for the Azores. It is another big hop, about 2,300 miles, perhaps two or three weeks’ sailing. It’s what thousands of sailors have been doing for a very long time. It’s roughly what I did myself a few years ago.