Dominica – the Nature Island – and lessons in life

Like a stranger on a train, Dominica nearly slipped right past us. We dropped anchor on a Thursday afternoon in March in Prince Rupert Bay, Portsmouth, a vast open field of an anchorage. Our plan was to catch some sleep before proceeding to Guadeloupe and then Antigua the following morning.

Time is slipping through our fingers and we need to be out of the hurricane belt before the end of May. We have two months to cover over 2,000 miles up to the US and we need to get our skates on. With this in mind, we thought we didn’t have time for Dominica, this little island of nature between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Dietmar hadn’t visited on his last tour of the Caribbean with Cesarina, and I hadn’t paid it much attention in the guide books. Friends of ours, though, were intending to stop for a few nights so we followed them up from Martinique, a happy little caravan of boats for a bumpy ride between the islands, and looked forward to one more evening all together before going our separate ways the following day.

I’m not really sure how it happened. As is often the way, one sailor’s plans bleed into others’ – little flotillas are formed. This can be a lonely life, solitary, challenging. You’re always moving on, leaving people behind. It’s good for the soul to stop for a while. We decided we might hang around a couple of days before heading north again.

Cesarina underway from Martinique to Dominica

We sailed into the bay in the afternoon sun (after a pretty wild ride up from Martinique) and were greeted by an incredibly friendly man in a brightly painted wooden boat who offered help. We explained that we already had an agent and he wished us a wonderful time in Dominica. It was the most unusual and warmest welcome from a ‘boat boy’ ever.

We dropped anchor in the quarantine area in the north of the bay, just south of a large and apparently empty red-roofed hotel complex and near a large wooden pier that serves as a dock for the cruise ship tenders. Check in would not be until between 9am and 11am the following morning, so we hoisted our yellow quarantine flag and made a cup of tea. It was windy but there was no swell. We jumped in for a swim in the dark water over black sand, swam over to our Swedish friends on SY IdaLina for a welcome beer and dinghied back later for supper and games. SY Daisy and our Danish friends arrived a little later. We were all set for an adventure or two the following day.

The next morning, our first adventure comprised of getting off our dinghy at the cruise ship dock. Some ‘dinghy docks’ seem to have been designed without any thought whatsoever for dinghies and this is surely one of them. A dock on stilts so that our little dinghy could easily slide completely underneath if we attached it in the wrong place, coupled with a big swell rolling into the bay, made getting off – without getting a top-to-toe soaking – more of an adventure than we expected at 9 in the morning. I scooped up my dress, timed my step up with the next wave and was pulled onto the rough-hewn dock by the boys on Daisy. Good morning!

Then it was time to slip into my shoes, unhook my dress from my knickers, pull on a mask and meet the officials. This can be very time-consuming in the Caribbean (checking in, I mean…). I always put on a dress and a big smile, and remember that the officials are at work and we look like lousy tourists, so showing a little respect goes a very long way.

I had been corresponding with Nikel, an agent from the organization P.A.Y.S. (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services) because having an agent here makes life a whole lot easier and also puts some money into the local economy. I had sent our various paperwork and vaccine information to her via WhatsApp and in return had been told where to drop anchor and where to meet. We had to clear in with the Health Authorities first, then she would deal with Customs & Immigration on our behalf.

She was there waiting for us when we arrived. With eyelashes like butterflies and charm that would slay a raging bull, she eased us through the check-in process, introducing us to the doctor, organising another antigen test straightaway for us as ours was one day too old, and getting us our required sign-off from the health authorities. After relieving us of 80US to check us in and another 80US for two more COVID tests (1), she took our passports and paperwork off to customs and immigration for us and sent us back to our boats to await the all-clear. Not cheap, but very quick, easy-peasy and delivered with a big smile. If check in on every island in the Caribbean ran this smoothly, it would be a dream!

A couple of hours later, we got the all-clear and it was time to go ashore, collect our paperwork and see what Dominica had to offer.

On the beach

Another dinghy dock later (this time solidly built but also treacherous, this time because the swell pushes the dinghies under the concrete dock and the half meter of rising tide can wedge them under there – not ideal – so a kedge anchor for the dinghy is a very good idea) and we set foot on a white sand beach edged with fluttering palm trees and smelling of weed and wood smoke. Men of all ages, some with waist-length ‘locks, were sweeping and carrying and looking industrious. A few were sitting in the shade, smoking and observing. Everyone greeted us kindly.

Pig Snout in broth

The adventure had already begun. Over the next few hours, we had a local lunch in the Purple Turtle restaurant (I’ve never seen pig’s snout served before…that was an experience I won’t be rushing to repeat) and when the bill came (140 dollars for 6 of us), I went to query whether it was US dollars – it wasn’t, it was EC dollars, so less than £10/head for lunch and drinks, and were serenaded by Roxana, a very pretty violin-playing Romanian solo sailor in a floor-length ball gown playing popular classical music with an iPhone orchestra. We met some of the other P.A.Y.S. agents in their smart polo shirts, went for a walk through Portsmouth town (I could have acquired several new husbands on the way, had I been single and in the market for a handsome Dominican. OK, so not all of them were all that handsome. And some were, to be honest, very under the influence, but still charming with it. I’ll take the compliments though – the older I get, the more grateful ?), and eventually made it back to the P.A.Y.S. office and the calm and watchful eye of Mr William McLawrence, part-time administrator-in-chief and, it seemed, Number One Safe Pair Of Hands.

It turned out that we had arrived right at the beginning of an annual event called the P.A.Y.S. Yachties’ Appreciation Week. I never did really work out whether it was the yachties being appreciated, or doing the appreciating, but there was a whole schedule worked out for the week, with tours and events and dinners and all manner of excitements. And so, before we knew it, we had all decided – all four boats (the fourth was our Dutch friends on the Swan 65 ‘Peak’) that we would stay for the whole week. The only hard decision to make then was – what do we want to see and where do we want to visit?

On the following day (Saturday), Dietmar went diving with our friends on IdaLina and Daisy and I stayed on board to load my new collection of Wild Swimming paintings onto my website. (Much like Roxana the Romanian solo sailor, my art partly funds our sailing adventures so I have to fit in some work time sometimes!)

Dietmar came home full of stories about his adventures that day too. He had had a fabulous day.

The first item on our group adventure agenda was the Sunday Night BBQ. Roxana the Romanian violin player was back in another voluminous ball gown (her boat is only small so I am very curious to know where she keeps all these dresses! They’re almost big enough to be used as sails in an emergency!) and played to great applause. Another cruiser stood up, made an impassioned speech on her behalf and her violin case filled with donations. Then a local drumming group took the stage and delivered a virtuoso rhythm performance. Dietmar took their basket round for them to gather tips.

Organised by the ever-competent and efficient Eddison (known locally as Blacky on account of his very dark skin), the food was fantastic – chicken and freshly-caught fish cooked over a wood barbecue, accompanied by local vegetables and salad and copious quantities of rum punch. I stuck to beer. I know about the rum punch. I have several islands’ worth of experience with it now. It’s dangerous stuff… you think you’re fine and having a wonderful time and it slips down soooo easily… and then suddenly, in the space of five minutes, you go from a bit tipsy to absolutely hammered drunk as it hits you like a tidal wave and you have to go and lie down. I’m never drinking it again 😀 We had a wonderful evening and met lots of other sailors from Europe and North America, some of whom had been in Dominica for a little while and others who, like us, had serendipitously arrived for this week.

It was a beautifully warm evening, full of music and laughter and positivity. Later, I spent some time chatting to Danny, a local guy selling his woven baskets made of palm tree leaves. I found out that his house had lost its roof in Hurricane Maria in 2017 and that he had not been able to afford to put a roof back on it yet as his father had died. He was older than he looked, also a musician, and has dreams of escaping to somewhere else and away from ‘all this shit’, as he put it. He has lived on other islands. Life is not easy here. First there was Maria, and then there was COVID so all the tourists stopped coming. It would be so easy to give up. He gave me a lot to think about.

We were going to have a lot to think about by the end of the week. You’ll have to read the next instalment to find out …

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