The trip to Martinique was a repeat of the passage from St Vincent to St Lucia with the same strong winds north of the island and 3-4m swell. Brimble did a similarly great job and apart from the odd dollop we had a good fast sail to Le Marin in Martinique.
We had planned to haul out in St Lucia but couldn’t because the marina was closed for 2 weeks whilst they did some maintenance on the yard. Our plans changed accordingly and we booked in with a yard in Le Marin in Martinique where facilities were said to be excellent. We arrived on Sunday with haul out arranged for the following afternoon. First thing the next day we dinghied round to the yard to check all was well and discovered quite the reverse. Martinique was pretty much shut down due to a country wide strike which had spread from Guadeloupe. The marina staff were really pleasant but were in the hands of the strikers and couldn’t haul us out as planned but were hopeful for the day after and booked me in for 0800. Very slowly, the extent of the problem dawned on us. All shops including supermarkets, restaurants, bars, banks and garages were all shut, in fact the only shop that was open was chemists and as luck would have it we were all healthy! We hadn’t realised the problem on Sunday because of course we expected everything to be shut anyway! The locals were (and still are as I write this) striking along with other non-mainland French colonies over the price of a long list of staple products.
Despite the strike we had been given an 0800 am slot for haul out which we were keen to take if possible. The next day I thought I’d just check that the slipway was clear and dinghied across to the yard again; sure enough, wedged in the crane berth were two boats who were demanding to be hauled out and who said they weren’t moving. That was it. Even if we were hauled out we could get stuck out of the water until the islanders decided to return to work and that would have been the worst of all worlds with all shops shut (including Chandlerys) and food and other essentials becoming scarce.
The strike in Martinique dominated our stay and soured our view of the island. The cause of the strike was the cost of living and the strikers who were well organised were demanding reduction in prices for basic grocery items but it to be honest it rang a bit hollow for us. The standard of living that the French citizens of Martinique and Guadeloupe enjoy is much higher than those elsewhere in the Caribbean who just crack on and enjoy life so supporting such radical action was difficult; whether this was a fair view of the situation is difficult to say but as visitors that’s how we felt.
Once we realised we were not hauling out we decided to move on and took a trip up the coast to a small fishing village called Anse D’Arlet. The village itself was lovely and it was simply France in the Caribbean but once again the strike and the atmosphere the strike was creating took the edge right off so after a day we moved round to the capital Fort De France where we hoped there may be more open.
This passage should have been an easy couple of hours but was in fact a wet and wild slog to windward with winds up to 50 knots on the nose; it was really quite choppy. We arrived in the capital at 1300 anchoring in the shadow of the Fort after which the town is named. Seconds after safely securing the boat after a fairly grizzly sail the engine stopped. Seconds earlier and we would have been forced to quickly put the sails up and then set the anchor under sail in a near gale so some good timing by the faithful donkey who had obviously been holding on for us. I duly carried out the standard checks for fuel, air or water and found that the fuel feed was blocked. After ten minutes with a length of seizing wire I gave up and accepted that this required urgent mouth to mouth attention; with some trepidation I puckered my lips up, clamped them firmly to the diesel coated fuel line and blew. With a gentle belch the blockage cleared and diesel shot out of fuel line but by then I was well clear, oh yes. We bled the engine and after a few more coughs she started up again; the next day I filtered the fuel in the tank in search of debris but didn‘t catch too much - still, so far so good.
Back on land and perhaps predictably the capital was far worse than anywhere else we had been so far. The streets were covered in rubbish which was piling up everywhere; marches, rally’s and drum beating was taking place all over the town and we also heard several reports that the day before our arrival there had been fighting and dinghies left on shore had been slashed and yachtsman stoned (with rocks as opposed to the Caribbean norm).
As we only heard the last bit after we had left we only judged by what we saw and on that basis did actually stay a few days. In hindsight I’m not quite sure why; the town was quiet, but it was incredibly depressing with rubbish everywhere, people desperately trying to get in the ‘back door’ of supermarkets and a real underlying tension. Some shops opened but they did so with shutters kept down for fear of the strikers attacking them. Despite all of this it was an interesting experience for us and the kids. We had intentionally used up our supplies as we approached Martinique because we expected to be able to restock there easily and cheaply - now we found the absolute reverse. We were low on gas, petrol, diesel, water, rice, pasta and fruit and vegetables so our days were spent searching round the back streets looking for shops where we could build up supplies - quite good fun really and surprisingly quickly we started to find different places where we could buy the essentials. In any case it was never a great issue for us because we could always have simply sailed off but it was good for the children to experience an environment where you can’t simply have what you want when you want it. Something ironically the local residents will now be very aware of!
After a few days in Fort De France we’d had enough and decided that the strike wasn’t going to end in the immediate future and it was time to ‘leg it’ and so on the 11th February we sailed up the coast to St Pierre for an overnight stop before crossing to Dominica.
St Pierre is a lovely little town with a great history. In 1902 St Pierre was a thriving port and the unofficial capital of the island. Overlooking the town was a large and increasingly active volcano, Mount Pelee. Despite local landowners and livestock being occasionally roasted by minor eruptions the Governor at the time refused to evacuate the town on the basis that it was bad for business; this, however proved to be a modest error of judgement. On 8th May the volcano erupted killing all bar two of the 30,000. One was a prisoner in the local jail protected from the heat by the thick cell walls and the other a cobbler working in his cellar, no doubt thinking how warm the day was! In addition seven merchant ships in the harbour were instantly destroyed . The new town was built on the ruins of the old and you can clearly see some of the charred remains of old buildings destroyed in the eruption and imagine the volcano going off. The museum was shut by the strike but it didn’t matter too much because after we had walked round most of the town we discovered an open supermarket stuffed with French goodies so promptly gave up on history and bought cheese, wine and chocolate spread instead. We left French Martinique on 15th February.