Flying Fish and Pounding Cats

"Mike, are you going to catch dinner for us?” Mom asks as my brother pads barefoot down the docks of The Moorings’s base in Marigot Bay, St. Lucia, toward our Leopard 4300 charter catamaran, a rented trolling rod slung over his shoulder.

“You know it,” he says, his excitement over spending the next week cruising St. Lucia, Martinique, and Dominica obvious. As we wrap up last-minute preparations, I marvel at the steep, craggy hillsides, lush with mango trees, palms, and tropical flowers of every color, that spill down to the sheltered bay.

In addition to being a popular jumping-off point for charters, St. Lucia offers a diversity of culture and nature that makes it a cruising paradise. Mountains and dense rain forests in the center of the island separate the lush western flanks from the wind-battered Atlantic shoreline on the east. The Pitons, the island’s iconic geological formation, rise sharply from the southwest coast. Banana plantations pepper the lower elevations, and small towns cling to the surrounding craggy hillsides.

When everything is ready, we exit the bay’s narrow mouth and turn north, toward Martinique. I spot the first flying fish as we enter the St. Lucia Channel, between St. Lucia and Martinique, just as the seas and wind spike. I point at the little flyers, but Mom and Mike are slow to turn. Looks are thrown my way: Flying fish? Yeah, right. While Mom certainly knows that flying fish exist, neither she nor Mike has ever seen one. Months earlier, on promises (mine) of fine weather, flying fish, and French wines and cheeses, we planned this cruise for early April, but now, as I drive into 25-to-30-knot northeasterly winds and 6-to-8-foot seas, I feel my credibility receding.

I think back to that morning’s chart briefing. Jens Kuesthardt, The Moorings’s Marigot Bay base manager, told us, “I’ve been around here for years, and this is by far the rainiest, windiest ‘dry’ season I’ve seen.” I see what he means as we motorsail farther offshore into the building weather—compliments of a massive high-pressure system that has stalled off Florida, sending unusually strong winds down the Caribbean chain—and our catamaran starts bashing along a west-of-north route that’s normally a fast reach.

The seas ease some hours later as we sail into Martinique’s lee. Flying fish sporadically appear, inevitably disappearing before Mom can confirm their existence. I glance at Mike, our unlucky fisherman, and we share a quiet smile, as he, too, has come up shy on his promises. Just then, Dad catches a glimpse of a menacing storm cell cascading down a mountainside and issues a warning; Mike and my wife, Coreen, quickly shorten sail as I drive. First come the winds, then lashing rain, which erases the day’s heat before abating.

Three hours later we’ve sailed up the western side of Martinique and anchor off St. Pierre, at the island’s northwest end. Now a quaint town of around 5,000, St. Pierre was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean” until Mt. Pele, which looms above it, erupted in 1902, killing all but two of the 30,000 inhabitants.

That night we discuss the steady parade of squalls and the stiff northeasterly winds and decide that another long beat to Dominica just isn’t in the cards. Instead, we’ll explore Martinique, slowly cruising back down the coast and eventually back to St. Lucia.

Clearing customs the next morning at a cybercaf’s self-check-in station is memorably casual (my passport stamp reads “Welcome to Paradise—Good Forever”), and we spend the morning wandering the town’s colorful cobbled streets. Our English is fairly useless in this overseas department of France, so we buy cheese and baguettes by pointing and smiling, and we happily learn that good French wines cost only three or four euros. Trs bien, indeed.

Coreen, Mike, and I spend the afternoon hiking in the hills above the town, past the Stations of the Cross to the Virgin Mary statue that keeps watch from an exposed mountain shoulder. The sweeping views of the anchorage, the town, and the surrounding mountains are impressive, as are the rhythmic squalls.

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