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TRIGGER WARNING – Bereavement, loss, terminal illness
It’s felt like a long journey to get to this blog. It was.
This looks at our last week onboard pre-Mirounga, when we took a week-long bareboat charter out of Guadeloupe in 2019.
If it reads a little differently, it’s because it was a very different week. It’s hard to even know where to start.
2019, in context
2018 had been a great year for us. Until the last 5 weeks.
Ailsa will someday write it all down, but this isn’t the place. In short, we’d very suddenly lost a best friend after a cancer relapse. Almost simultaneously, Ailsa’s mum Shirley had been diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma.
We started the year confused, scared, and grieving. We still vowed to make sure we took our annual sailing trip though. By mid-January, Shirley had settled onto a treatment course and things weren’t seeming too dire. We booked a trip for July, to Guadeloupe.
Guadeloupe was somewhere we had fallen in love with through watching Death in Paradise. It was one of Shirley’s favourite shows, and a place she had always wanted to visit. She wouldn’t be travelling for a while, so she urged us to go so we could tell her about it. We were to have 8 nights in an apartment near Deshaies, a week on a yacht, and 4 nights on land near Le Gosier.
Never use wifi on a plane
The weekend before our holiday, we had a day at Ailsa’s family home, helping her brother store boxes. Shirley was tired but happy to have her children at home. She’d just celebrated her 67th birthday with her Grandsons sat on either side of her.
A few days later, on 4 July, we flew to Paris, as our flight to Guadeloupe went from Charles de Gaulle Airport. We stayed, for the first time in years, in Montmartre. The sun on the Sacre Coeur was beautiful.
The next day we set off on our first-ever budget airline transatlantic flight. It was fine. It even had wifi. Ailsa couldn’t resist.
Waiting on Facebook Messenger was a message from her dad. Shirley’s condition had deteriorated. It had, in fact, done so before we set off. Ailsa’s parents had decided not to tell us, for fear of ruining the trip. They only decided they had no choice when the doctor said that it was unlikely she would be there to greet us after our 3-week trip.
Nothing really prepares you for being in a metal tube already thousands of miles from home and finding out that you will never hug your mother again. We had a decision to make when we landed. To stay, or turn back?
Dazed in Deshaies
In the end, we listened to Shirley’s wishes. She was moving to a hospice the next day. There was no guarantee that even if we turned around the next day we would make it in time to spend meaningful time together. She asked us to stay, and to send photos and videos. To video chat and tell her about our day. To visit the sights she’d wanted to see.
We fell into a routine. We would visit an attraction in the morning and then wait for a video call from home. Shirley smiled back at us, often with family by her side. We threw ourselves into making the most of our time. Shirley loved seeing the photos from the zoo, and the botanical gardens. One day she was too tired to speak, so she just asked Ailsa to talk. Having something to talk about was a relief. The time difference, in the end, meant that Ailsa could be there for her dad during the lonelier moments. We celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary with a treetop adventure tour – the adrenaline was cathartic.
On 10 July, only 5 days after we found out how ill Shirley was, she died. Ailsa’s dad, her partner of 50 years, was holding her hand. We spoke to him on the phone soon after. Then, as we were there, we went on with a visit to a park. Riding a sky bike in a rain shower is a strange way to process. The sunset was spectacular that night, as we drank a toast of beer on the beach.
The show must go on
Sometimes half the difficulty of losing someone to terminal illness is the uncertainty. The wait. 8 months of feeling a constant weight of fear was lifted. We continued, and Guadeloupe was magnificent. We loved Basse Terre, though we were often glad that Ailsa had been brushing up on her French.
After 8 night in Deshaies, we drove to Pointe-à-Pitre to start the next part of our trip. This is where we pick up Ailsa’s diaries. These are, as one might expect, uncharacteristically short.
A different kind of yacht
At the marina, our first priority is to find a panini for lunch. This means driving along from Dream Yacht’s offices to the commercial centre of the marina. There are plenty of cafes and bars, but in true European style they clearly don’t open up fully until later in the day. Luckily I catch one just as it opens.
Meeting the Big Big
Picking up and going over our boat is very straightforward. We had booked a monohull, but had discussed an upgrade to a small catamaran as we’re keen to try one out. Just before the trip, however, we had been given a choice. We could take the 36′ Mahe catamaran, which was quite old, or we could have a 2018 Dufour Grand Large 42′ monohull. We’re suckers for a deal – we went for the monohull, as we knew how unlikely we would be to ever stay on such a new yacht again.
The decision pays off – the yacht is beautiful, and HUGE. She couldn’t be further from the cramped, run down 1999 Sun Odyssey 35′ we had the year before. Without a distinct name, we call her the ‘Big Big’, translating the model name literally.
As we get our belongings on board it rains torrentially, and we’re soaked through more than once. There’s a decent supermarket at the marina and some larger ones nearby, so we provision quickly with the use of our hire car. I then unpack while Colin takes the car back to the airport.
We had planned to move around to anchor near Îlet du Gosier, but its well after 5 by the time Colin returns. It’s also still raining heavily so we decide to stay put.
Laurie, who works at Dream Yacht, has recommended dinner at Le 9 in the marina. We enjoy one of the best sharing plates ever, and I’m delighted to get an Aperol Spritz. We’re glad to have had the recommendation as we would have been overwhelmed by choice otherwise. We do note that the marina feels a little seedy around the car parks and on the access road, we don’t love the walk back.
Back at our pontoon (which has very good security), we encounter a little too much naked Frenchman. The group on the yacht next door has decided that all men should shower fully naked on deck. When you’re moored side by side, rather than on anchor, it’s a little close for comfort! Still, we enjoy sitting on the big comfy deck enjoying a beer before bed.
Day 1 – Pointe-à-Pitre to Marie-Galante
We’re awake before 8, and straight into pottering about. In between getting things ready for our passage we eat bread and cheese for breakfast. Once we’re mostly ready to leave, we walk around the harbour master to clear out as we plan to cross to Dominica on Monday.
We set off at around 10 am. It’s a completely different experience compared to leaving the Marina in Pelican Pete in 2018. On that trip, we were fully escorted with deck-hands on board who even hoisted the mainsail for us. This time we’re not even seen off from the pontoon!
We get out easily enough despite the tight squeeze. Leaving this way means we can have a leisurely motor before deciding to put up a well-reefed mainsail (with a couple of false starts). It’s much nicer being able to take things at our own pace. Once we’re ready we pull out the gib. Again, there’s a bit of a false start, but we’re not panicking.
Crossing to Marie-Galante
Once the sails are out it’s a rolly single tack, close-hauled the whole way to Marie-Galante. We’re often managing 7kts. I’m marvelling at how safe, happy and comfortable I’m feeling. In Pelican Pete I was terrified on a heel. I’m really comfortable. The same can’t be said for Colin, who calmly announces from behind me that he’s busy throwing up. It looks like the Cinnarzine tablets I take out of precaution have worked.
We get to Anse Canot at around 2 pm and anchor, slightly less securely than we would have hoped. Lunch is bacon and Camembert sandwiches. We decide that with the anchor as it is we don’t want to go ashore or swim. Instead, we press on to our night stop. It’s a short motor, which I do most of.
To moor or not to moor?
What follows is over an hour of trying to get on to a mooring ball. They differ in each country, and these ones are just too difficult for me to reach with a boat hook from the deck.
We end up anchoring to decide a plan of action. Next, we get the dinghy into the water and fail to start the outboard. We’re close to deciding we’ll have to just anchor. Colin then has the bright idea of walking the dinghy round to the bow to attach a line to a ball. After a few goes, we’re finally secure at around 5 pm. I’m glad it’s a quiet anchorage – we must look ridiculous!
Beers are opened within minutes, and snacks obtained. We realise the outboard didn’t work because the kill cord wasn’t attached. Doh.
I shower and wash my hair, which is always a complicated process. We sit reading, nodding off and thinking until after sunset. Eventually, we eat a simple dinner of sausage and tomato pasta at around 8:30.
We had discussed giving the boat a better name as it’s generic name is Barbuda, and ‘Big Big’ is a little daft. Colin, mid-meal, accidentally kicks out the table support and spills a full glass of fizz on deck. We think then, that our yacht has decided on a new name, she becomes Shirley. After washing up we head to bed at around 10 pm.
Day 2 – Marie-Galante to Dominica
We wake up at around 8 am. When we were staying in Basse Terre we enjoyed going to get a fresh breakfast each morning. Being at sea is no different – we dinghy over to Saint Louis to visit the boulangerie and the supermarket. We can’t find WiFi anywhere – apparently, a local mast is down taking the internet out in the town. This means that the supermarket’s card machine is out of action. Likewise, the ATM is not working. We have very few euros to spare so need to be careful until we find a working ATM.
We’d planned to set off at 10 am. It’s only a quarter past by the time we’ve eaten breakfast, hauled out the dinghy and prepared sandwiches for lunch so we’re happy with our timekeeping.
Our first solo border crossing!
After dodging fishing floats around the shore we get out to sea. We start by pulling out the foresail to test the wind, then the reefed mainsail. We’re on a single tack again, this time a beam-reach, and making good time. We watch lazily as hundreds of flying fish fleet away from our bow. It’s a peaceful crossing, and just what I need.
The wind gets a bit erratic once we get close to mountainous Dominica. It’s a relief to take the sails down even if it’s not been too stressful. The water on our approach to Prince Rupert Bay is a perfect cobalt. We call ahead to Cobra tours letting them know we’ll need help mooring.
By 14:15 we’re on a ball with the help of Bonto. He tries to sell us his tour but we know Cobra is coming out. We’ve just started on a beer when he does – he lets us know we can do a tour of Indian River with another group if we’re ready quickly. We throw things in bags and head straight off to meet the rest of the tour. We also pack up our paperwork to hand to Cobra who will check us into Dominica – this feels strange but we trust the knowledge in our Doyleguide!
The tour is a beautiful row up the wide mangrove river in a traditional fishing boat. We learn all about all the plants and trees, and the wildlife, on the banks. Along the banks, we see three types of heron, and the rebuilt “Tia Dalma’s hut” from the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. We had no idea it was here, but having seen various filming locations in St Vincent and the Grenadines it’s no huge surprise. After a while, we stop at a garden and bar where we drink a peanut punch and get eaten alive by bugs before heading back.
After a very brief swim, we shower before our customary sunset beer. Once it’s dark we dinghy over to The Purple Turtle for WiFi and a tasty dinner of tuna and all the starches. A very vocal, demanding cat and her kitten enjoy much of our tuna.
After dinner, we stroll along to the main area of Portsmouth to use the ATM. It’s a quiet, lazy evening and we feel safe, wishing a few people good evening and befriending dogs as we go. One of the dogs has the waggiest tail we’ve ever seen. Once we’ve walked back we use the tap at The Purple Turtle to fill a 5l water bottle with drinking water.
After some time on deck checking emails it’s close to 11 pm when we get to sleep.
Dominica has already wowed us, and we’re excited for more.