Thursday, 4 April 2013

Roseau, Dominica

The passage to Dominica wasn’t the most relaxing of sails.  We got away at 8.30 and waved goodbye to the guys on Spirit of Argo.  The wind was fluky in the lee of Martinique, in strength and direction, but it was calm and we sailed as much as we could.  We took some photos of a larger boat which passed close by as we came near the north end of the island.  We were becalmed for a while and started the engine, but we could see a line in the water ahead where there was definitely more wind.  Passing it, we heeled well over. Getting up on deck to put the third reef in was slightly dramatic, but with less sail we felt much more under control.  Even so, we were still beating straight into a gusty force 5 to 6, with a beam swell.  Not exactly the sailing you dream about. Fortunately, as is common, the wind came round to the east a bit more as we got further out, and the last few hours heading towards Scotts Head on the south end of Dominica were a fast beam reach – much better!  We had some strong gusts off the hills as we approached, then the wind died almost completely in the lee of the island.



The approach to Dominica was dramatic.  It’s a very unspoilt, craggy, green island which rises to a height of 4000 feet. There are only two main anchorages, Roseau in the south and Portsmouth in the north, and the island is high enough to block the trade winds so it’s not great for sailing – but  Dominica has waterfalls, jungle, lakes and mountains and no large hotels or resorts (and not many beaches). I’d wanted to come back since visiting on my trip 14 years ago, when I didn’t get a chance to see the island properly.

Roseau, the capital, has a deep anchorage with poor holding, so we decided that taking a mooring would be well worth $10US a night.  There’s nothing resembling a protected bay, more of a slight indentation in the coastline, meaning that swell can easily roll in – as we were to find!  We called up ‘SeaCat’ on the VHF, following a tip from Amorosa, and a boat zoomed out to us as we approached with a smiling man shouting ‘welcome to Dominica’.  

Roseau Anchorage
In Roseau, as in Portsmouth, there’s an association of yacht helpers which works really well: it ensures you aren’t hassled by lots of people on arrival, as they take turns to approach boats, it provides a security patrol at night (yacht safety used to be a real issue in Dominica) and means that you tend to be dealing with someone reliable and friendly.  The guys at Soufriere in Saint Lucia could learn a lot from this… We followed our man in and at 1700 were safely moored just off a colourful guest house among a few other visiting yachts.  Perfect timing for fitting in sunset drinks once we’d got the awning up. 

Roseau felt completely different to any of the other anchorages we’d been to.  We were only a couple of boat lengths from the shore, where several houses and bars backed right on to a very narrow strip of stone beach.  Reggae came from a makeshift shelter on the shore nearby and the air felt windless and sultry.

We walked into town the next morning for the inevitable visit to customs and immigration.  Roseau proper is about half an hour’s hot walk along the shore road, a bustling street with lots of little shops and bars.  It was obviously a poor place, with a makeshift feel to it (particularly evident in some of the shop signs!). 

We found the customs office by the cruise ship dock. So far, I’d been pleasantly surprised by how straightforward and our visits to customs had been, even if they often involved the absurdity of providing exactly the same information on three different forms and handing them to (at least) three people sitting in adjacent offices.  The Dominican government has taken the progressive step of introducing a one-stop clearance procedure for yachts, which means you only have to visit customs once and can forego clearing out, providing you don’t stay more than 14 days.  It’s just a shame that the customs people in Roseau don’t actually know how it works. The uber-stroppy female official we dealt with claimed that it only applied if we didn’t move from Roseau and, what was more, if we were going to move to Portsmouth we had to come back 24 hours beforehand to obtain a cruising permit.  Once in Portsmouth we’d then have to visit customs again to clear out.  Great – three visits instead of one!  It  wasn’t a great welcome to the country and left me in a bad mood for most of the day.  (In the event, we decided we couldn’t be bothered to play these stupid games and simply headed up to Portsmouth without a permit.  When clearing out there, we were asked if we’d been given a cruising permit in Roseau and just said ‘no’; no further questions!).

We wandered around Roseau for a bit and found the botanic gardens, where we saw some of the local parrots in an aviary and followed a trail (‘Jack’s Walk’) up a cliff to a viewpoint across the town and out to sea. I read somewhere that these botanic gardens are unique in that they’re far less lush than most of the surrounding area! Back near sea level, we looked in a few shops fruitlessly trying to find a replacement for a hat I’d lost (it later turned up) then headed back to Limbo feeling a bit jaded. 

On SeaCat's dock
It was time to arrange a trip inland.  Most of the boat guys offering moorings do tours as well, and SeaCat (real name Octavius) came round in the evening to talk to us about what we wanted to do.  He’d been recommended to us by a couple of different boats, so we were really looking forward to a day with him.  The next morning we set out in his strangely upholstered minibus (chintz seating!) with a couple from another boat, Fiona and Matthew.  It was much cooler away from the water, and the clouds had built up over the island.  It rains a lot in Dominica!  We drove through an incredibly green landscape up into the hills, SeaCat randomly pulling over at intervals to jump out of the van and show us something interesting to look at or to eat.  We sucked the sweet pulp from cocoa beans (‘jungle M&Ms’), tasted red berries whose name I’ve forgotten, rubbed arrowroot and bay leaves between our fingers to smell and saw what cashew nuts look like on the tree. We drank from waternuts, young green coconuts, scooping out the white jelly, and sucked on small ripe mangos.  Our hands smelt of the jungle.























Rounding a corner into a small village, SeaCat sung out ‘Moonshine!’ before pulling to a stop outside a makeshift bar. Inside, an elderly lady set out several bottles with well-known labels, but with far from standard contents: some held brownish liquid with what looked like twigs in it, others were clearer.  We tried each one, the home-distilled rum as powerful-tasting as it looked!  Feeling suitably fortified, and with SeaCat still calling out ‘Moonshine!’ we continued on our way. 

Moonshine with SeaCat


Our next stop was the Zandoli Inn, a stunning guest house set above Grand Bay where, the American lady owner explained, they have resident humpback whales.  We relaxed there for a while, watching the antics of Drumstick the kitten and taking in the views across the water. Definitely a place to return to if the chance arises…

Grand Bay

The main event of the day was our walk to Victoria Falls, the highest in Dominica, and inaccessible without hiking.  We changed our clothes for the route along a fast-flowing river, crossing and re-crossing several times with the chalk-coloured water thigh-deep.  We saw the thick, gnarled roots of buttress trees, vines hanging across our path.
River crossing
After an hour or so we heard the falls themselves, and clambered up across large boulders to reach the pool underneath.  There were a few people there without a guide, and – unaccountably – they didn’t go in swimming.  So we had the pool to ourselves, the water from the falls thundering in our ears.  It was cool and refreshing, and even more refreshing when SeaCat showed Matthew and me a way to get right under the falls themselves, swimming blindly through the spray before grabbing a hidden handhold in the rock, then diving down under the falls to reach the calmer water again.  We climbed the rocks by the side of the falls and looked down at the turbulent water below.  Only then did I realise that we were supposed to take the quick way down, and we jumped into the water – even more exhilarating! 

Victoria Falls (note figures onthe left!)



Elated, we headed back down the river for lunch at Moses’ brilliantly named ‘Rastaurant’, a shack set in gardens leading down to the river where Moses serves Rastafarian food in calabash bowls with coconut shell spoons. 

Heading back down the river
View from Moses' Rastarant
We headed back along the eastern coastal road, the waves crashing ashore after their journey across the Atlantic, and stopped off at the Emerald Pool: a clear, cold pool under another, smaller, waterfall just a short walk through the jungle.  Although it’s a standard stop for tourists, and has a car park, it was late enough in the day to be almost deserted. 
Emerald Pool

Back at the anchorage in Roseau, Fiona and Matthew invited us back for a drink on their friend’s 48 footer ‘Aqua Deus’.  Sadly they were only out for a couple of weeks, and left to head north early the next morning.

We had a slow day on board before heading off for a day walking on our own.  We caught a minibus down to Scotts Head, the distinctive headland we’d rounded on our way up the coast, which has great views out to sea and across to Martinique.  It looked off-puttingly rough out there…

Obligatory 'sitting on cannon' shot at Scotts Head
After a cold drink in a little bar looking out over the bay (where, sadly, some cruise-shippers who’d invaded the island for the day bobbed about on electric pedalos) we found the trail winding uphill to a village called Galion.
Trail view
We reached the top and, laden with some windfall mangos, headed back down through a quiet and attractive valley to Soufriere, back on the coast road.  I found a coconut under a tree and was determined to get it open.  This job really needs a machete - getting the husk off is tough – but I finally did it and we were rewarded with a drink of coconut water and some flesh to take back to the boat.    

In the valley
Don't try this at home
A disproportionate amount of effort later..
We’d had an email from Phil and Sara a couple of days before and it was great to see Lochmarin in the anchorage, having jumped north to Guadeloupe before working back south.  We felt very at home having sunset drinks on board, but couldn’t stay late: tomorrow was the day of the long-awaited hike to the Boiling Lake…

Soufriere, near Scotts Head






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