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Date: 27 Feb 2011 02:08:00
Title: Exploring the Saintes

Bay Sous Le Vent, Iles Des Saintes, Saturday night

We've had a really full-on day today and it feels like we've made the most of this wonderful place. We set off for the wet tender ride over to Terre-de-Haut after breakfast with all our gear. We were wearing our full waterproofs for the trip plus Andrea had her computer so she could do some work on the internet and then Kali and I had all our diving gear. By the time we arrived in town, we had about 2 inches of water in the tender and looked like we'd just crossed the Atlantic.

We dropped most of our stuff at the dive shop and walked up to Fort Napoleon on the top of the northernmost hill on Terre-de-Haute. Kali was expecting it to be a pile of rocks but it's actually in great condition. It's built like the British forts of that era with a dry ditch outside a tall masonry wall. We entered through a narrow gateway and then we were in another dry moat with a central citadel in front of us. The outer walls of the fortress are maybe 20 meters thick and covered in earth with batteries all around so they dominate the entire sea around the island.

The earth banks are now planted with hundreds of cacti, some of them as big as trees and patrolled by a platoon of iguanas. It takes a while to spot them as they don't move around much but they're amazing creatures. We saw one beneath some cacti and another high in the branches of a tree. He was motionless except for occasionally raising his head to show off his magnificent throat decoration.

Having walked all around the ramparts, we crossed a drawbridge into the central building which houses a museum of the islands. It was quirky, to say the least, but had some fascinating exhibits. I loved the two huge model ships. They were from the late 18th Century when the British and French fought the Battle of Les Saintes with the British victory setting our boys up for a century of domination and the French for two centuries of resentment. There were also models of Columbus' ships and even some model people for Andrea.

Once we'd had a good look around the exhibits, Andrea and I visited the gift shop where we encountered a fabulously surly French woman who clearly thought that selling us anything was an insult to her dignity. It cheered us up no end. We walked back down to town laughing about it and thinking about how most of the visitors to the island are French. As the people of France don't (or won't) speak another language and nobody else is daft enough to learn theirs (except the Brits), they can only really go on holiday to other French speaking places. I think that's what keeps this place so particular as they don't make many concessions to non-French speakers.

Andrea and I had lunch in a tiny restaurant by the sea and I got progressively more nervous about going diving. I knew I'd be OK once I was in the water but I was worried about whether the equipment would be OK and if I'd forget anything. In the end, it turned out that the Pisquettes divers are very well organised. They sorted Kali and I out with all the gear we needed with a minimum of fuss and then we all walked down to the beach, into the water and out to the boat. Their vessel is properly designed as a dive boat with a central bench with places to attach tanks, a rear ladder and non-slip floors. We roared of across the bay and past Saxon Blue, sitting serenely just off the beach. Outside her, there was the familiar shape of Todd and Robin's Nordhavn so that gave Kali and I a good laugh. Further out still was the low, sleek shape of a 120 foot Wally super sailing yacht which even the dive guys wanted to have a good look at so we circled that before heading over to the point just West of where we're anchored.

Kali and I were going to dive with the instructor, Cyril, and another chap who was doing only his second dive. Cyril gave me a kilo weight with the idea that it would be enough as I had a steel tank rather than the aluminium ones we'd used on Antigua. I did a test and I seemed to float at eye level so I thought it was correct although, when we agreed to descent, it was clear that I was still too light so he gave me another kilo to put in the pocket of my BCD. That did the trick and we got going. It took me a while to get comfortable as I tried to remember all the stuff I'd learned and look around at the wildlife. The area had fewer fish than where we'd snorkelled from Saxon Blue but the other life was amazing. There were huge barrel sponges with tiny fish swimming in and out of them. The sea fans were huge - one in particular must have been two meters across.

Cyril swam to the bottom of some smaller rocks and pointed into the space beneath them. I maneuvered myself down there and saw a spotted Moray Eel eyeing us warily. A little while later, Cyril pointed again, this time to what looked like just a pile of boulders. It took a while until I could see the huge but beautifully camouflaged turtle that was casually exploring among them. I reckon he was four feet from front to back of his shell. He looked at us without any great interest and carried on with what he was doing. After satisfying himself that there wasn't anything worth eating there, he casually waved his flippers and shot off into the distance. He was definitely the most impressive thing I've seen so far under the water and I think it calmed me down a bit as I felt much more relaxed from then onwards. I got my mask sorted better, got into reading my gauges and felt altogether more at home. Cyril picked up a rock and popped that in the other pocket of my BCD so my buoyancy was better. Apart from getting a bit cold and envying Kali her thicker suit with its full-length arms and legs, the second half of the dive was really enjoyable.

We surfaced at the boat after I'd been down for 50 minutes - my longest by a good margin and I suspect that's because I'm more relaxed now so using less air. We all got sat in the boat, me in the sun trying to warm up, and headed back for town. On the way, we very nearly ran over a snorkeller who was way out in the bay - perhaps on his way out to the Wally. I didn't see him but Kali reckons we missed him by about a meter so that's a good lesson to both look out for people in the water (which we always do) but also not to snorkel away from the boats where people aren't expecting it. It's another good reason for carrying a buoy or something to show where you are which Andrea does all the time anyway.

We got all our stuff back to the dive shop and washed in fresh water then Kali and I went off to find Andrea. She wasn't yet in our rendezvous cafe so Kali had a cold drink and I wolfed down a hot chocolate to warm me up. Andrea found us just as the proprietor decided it was a good time to practice her piano-playing. She was terrible so we paid up and left to find another cafe to have a drink all together. As we were finishing that, we could hear a live band start up so we went up to the main street just as a parade started.

First came a bunch of guys dressed in zombie type clothes and masks, each of them leaning on a single crutch. They chased a herd of little children who were also in fancy-dress but mostly as princesses. I've not idea what that was all about but it was enjoyably exotic so who cares. Behind them came a Council lorry with a pile of speakers on it. The tailgate was down and two guys had keyboards on there so they could walk behind playing them. Another chap had a microphone. Behind them were about a dozen guys with drums. The first three were 50 gallon oil drums which they just beat, the others doing the fiddly bits. It was a kind of crazy mix of samba and reggae with a bit of accordian music thrown in for good measure.

Behind them came the women. They were dressed in vivid coloured dresses, layers of fabric everywhere and massive hats, swinging their hips to the music. More kids capered about and a few guys giving it loads. The little group made its way up the main street and we followed for a bit, wondering whether it was a regular thing or an annual fete. We couldn't stay long, though as it was nearly dark and we had to brave the channel to get back home. Once again, we got all our gear on and then did the same trick of heading upwind in shelter and crossing over at an angle. It worked well again so we soon found ourselves alongside Todd, saying hello and welcoming them to our anchorage. They complimented us on our choice of anchoring locations and then it was back onboard and time to get a nice hot shower before a delicious prawn curry for dinner.

Needless to say, I'm tired right out now. It was a great day, though. We all love the Saintes and I think it'll be a few days yet until we feel like moving on.

Harvey

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