Tuesday, September 2, 2014

St. Laurent, French Guyana


Dear friends and family,

We last wrote to you as guests of the municipal marina in Belém, Brazil. The employees and boat-owners there were exceptionally kind. From the second-story of a huge shed where boats were parked we occasionally had a free wi-fi signal. Mosquitoes were a problem and the bathrooms left much to be desired, but we had a safe, secure place and were never asked to pay anything. Thurston was parked on land next to where a rowing club had its boats. The rowers came every morning to work out. We became friends. They always checked in on George and asked, “Are you going to row today, Jorge?”

We repainted parts of the boat, made a new way to hold the oars when not in use, and filled more holes in the bow, where five years of plowing onto things had taken a toll. New friends drove us around town. While not keeping George out of mischief Ginny taught Steve how to use the software for mapping and photography. Steve researched navigational problems, including the dreaded pororoca, the tidal wave that terrorizes certain areas around the mouth of the Amazon River at times of extreme tidal flux. People surf it! Fortunately it is only extreme in February and March.

The city had over a million inhabitants. The waterfront was mostly dangerous slums but it got cleaner and more prosperous inland. We sometimes walked around the old business district under the scortching sun on some boring errand or another. Perhaps looking for a little hat for George or some new bowls to eat out of. Ginny memorized the shops in town offering free tiny cups of coffee and we made our rounds accordingly.

Brazil wanted so badly to win the 2014 World Cup of which they were hosts! The people prepped for astronomic celebrations, but their star player got injured while playing Colombia so they lost to Germany and Holland. The Brazilians took their defeat in stride and we missed out on the party of the century.

On July 17 came the separation we had been dreading. Ginny and George flew to Los Angeles. Ginny kept her homecoming a secret from her mother and grandmother, and scored a big surprise. Since we ran away together in 2007 we had never been apart for more than a few days. We love each other deeply. Can we handle it? My job now (Steve writing in the first person) is to sail back as quickly and as safely as possible.

Suddenly the boat was super-roomy! I felt guilty re-arranging everything to my liking, in all our former battlegrounds of space usage, but if I have to be lonely I might as well be comfortable. With George and Ginny no longer in residence I was also able to turn Thurston upside-down, fill dings in the bottom, and add a layer of fiberglass. Then I improved stowage in the forepeak by making a triangular box for boat-repair chemicals, on the lid of which I stow the heavy anchor and rode.

Belém is on the Pará River which, like Argentina’s Rio de la Plata, is not so much a river as a common mouth for several rivers. The Pará is connected to the Amazon by the tidal streams that form the western edge of Ilha de Marajó, which is 170 miles from east to west and 120 miles from north to south. The Pará’s mouth is southeast of Marajó Island, the Amazon’s is northwest of it. Yet the entire complex can be considered a single delta.

From Belém I planned to travel west around Ilha Marajó then exit via the Amazon. That way I would stay in rivers as long as possible and delay entering the Atlantic. But I changed my plans upon talking with my Russian friends, Anton and Julia.

Their boat was the Scalawag, an old 37-foot fiberglass cutter built in the U.S. They had already tried twice to leave via the Pará mouth and each time were defeated by engine problems and strong currents. The second time they were attacked by pirates to boot. They were ready to try again. This time they would leave at the half moon, when the tides are in neap and the are currents slower.

I liked the idea of catching the neap, which was only three days away, but from Belém to the ten-meter contour outside the mouth was 170 nautical miles, the latter half among treacherous shoals. I could never stay awake long enough to clear the danger zone, so I asked if they would tow me out the mouth. They agreed. I got a clearance for Trinidad. My hosts launched Thurston for me, and early on the morning of August 6, 2014 the Scalawag towed Thurston out into the Pará River.

We were still within sight of Belém when the Scalawag lurched to a halt. We had ran aground, though the chart showed two meters. The tide was falling so we had to wait. By noon she was high and dry on a ribbon of sand. We set out anchors and dug a pit to facilitate turning the keel. As the water came up we winched her around until the bow faced deep water. Finally the keel lifted and we motored off.

Where solid land ended we waited for the tide to change again. A three-knot current pulled the anchor chain straight as a rod. During the night a new sound brought us up on deck. A fishing net had gotten draped over the chain. While we wondered what to do a boat came close. They did something, and the net slipped away. Back to bed.

In the morning favorable currents helped us get out past the critical zone where navigable channels are interspersed with shoals that break at low tide. When we reached the ten-meter depth contour we turned northwest, toward French Guyana. But the sea was too rough to separate so we continued together through a third night.

I had slept much of the day so at 9:00 p.m. took the helm. I sailed Scalawag through fleet after fleet of fishing boats, knowing each had a net several kilometers long that could catch on a hull appendage. Whenever I thought I had passed the last boat more lights appeared on the horizon. Innumerable small wooden fishing boats were working these shallows fifty miles from land.

At 3:00 a.m. Julia came on deck. The wind and waves were high. We were completely surrounded by fishing boats. She spoke no English, I spoke no Russian, so we got Anton up. They started bickering about something. Suddenly Scalawag stopped dead in the water while Thurston streamed ahead until arrested by the tow line. We had snagged a net.

A long net is the ultimate sea anchor. It doesn’t move, whereas Scalawag and Thurston wanted to be blown downwind. The matter seemed to resolve itself when the net slipped free of Scalawag’s hull, but then it caught on the tow line connecting the two boats. Now the net was upwind, the boats downwind side-by-side. I swam to Thurston and untied the tow line, hoping Anton could pull it through from his end, but it was stuck. So I sat on Thurston’s bow and pulled hand-over-hand until I reached the net. The strain had caused it to snarl around the tow line. The best I could do was cut the line – actually my main anchor rode - on either side of the snarl and save the two halves. By this time Scalawag had snagged again, but the wind and waves were dying. In a couple hours it would be light, so we all went to sleep.

At dawn we freed Scalawag. It was a good time to separate, so I got my things and departed. By the time I had put Thurston in order and raised her masts Scalawag had disappeared.

The down-side to having exited via the Pará mouth was that I now had about 250 miles to travel before I would find a safe refuge, further than any of my previous passages. I would spend three nights adrift, difficult in Thurston because she rocks so violently.

The wind soon built to twenty knots from the east, an ideal angle. I positively flew all day, deeply reefed, the waves hissing as they slowly overtook me. At sunset I dropped my sea anchor, a cloth parachute attached to the bow by a stout line. The GPS now showed that a current was pulling me west at five knots. The speed and direction varied during the night as the tidal waters swirled. The wind stayed strong. Thurston oscillated once per second, to such an angle that the gunwales sometimes dipped under the water, obliging me to leave the cockpit drain open so water wouldn’t accumulate. Laying normally was impossible so I curled up in a fetal position transversely to the narrow hull so the roll would act on me longitudinally instead of laterally, and slept fairly well.

The next day I sailed fast through alternating green ocean water and brown river water, still about fifty miles off-shore. Suddenly the GPS said I was going east, though the compass said I was going northwest! What current could possibly do that? After a half hour it disappeared and I was going northwest again. Without the GPS I’d never have perceived the deviation. I fought drowsiness by singing songs. I heard voices, but knew they were from the dreams I kept falling into and shaking myself out of.

My second night at sea anchor went badly. The sea anchor dragged me over a shoal only five meters deep according to the charts. The strong wind running contrary to the current created short, steep waves, like in a river. So at 9:00 p.m. I got back underway. When I regained the ten-meter contour I stopped, but after a couple hours fishing boats got close so I had to sail again. I slept little.

On my third day alone I saw no boats. At times I was able to adjust the controls to make Thurston self-steer, and got some blessed sleep. This was fortunate, because my third night at sea anchor was also nearly sleepless.

On day four I was anxious to reach the shelter of Cabo Cassiporé. When the wind became light I cranked up the motor and added its propulsion to that of the sails. Low jungle became visible to port. I passed schools of large, silver fish that swam close together on the surface, their gaping round mouths open as if ingesting water. Some bashed against my boat. When I finally reached the cape, scores of scarlet ibises and flamingos took flight from a wall of verdant trees, then re-landed. I tied to a snag in the bay behind the cape. There was no real land, just sea-level swamp and mudflats. The ebb tide laid Thurston down in bottomless muck, but the flood tide lifted her back up again. High tide at sunset is a blessing because you have it again at dawn and can leave. When low tide is at sunset you have to stay further out, and get less protection.

The next day I sailed around Cabo Orange, often sitting in the shadow of my mizzen sail to escape the broiling rays of the sun. I stayed a couple miles from land but it wasn’t enough. I kept encountering muck only a few inches below the surface of the sea, and had to steer further out. These capes are merely deposition sites for the immense volume of silt coming out of the Amazon River.

Rounding Cabo Orange I left Brazil and entered French Guyana. In a small river mouth I found the village of Ouanary, with a population of under one hundred. Street lights and flowering shrubs adorned the lane running into town! Black women wearing colorful, flowing garb said “Bonjour” as I passed. There were no cars or motorbikes, just a few quads running on paved tracks. The school teacher, a huge man with a booming laugh, let me use his computer so I could email Ginny that I was okay, out of Brazil and in a fascinating new country.

Sitting in his empty schoolroom I spliced my anchor line back together. I washed my clothes, and hiked to the top of a small mountain. The view was of endless virgin jungle. At the teacher’s house the TV played the news from Paris. French Guyana is actually part of France, like Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the United States. Everyone had decent homes and lived well with generous welfare benefits. The people spoke French Creole, and to a lesser extent French. There were also a lot of Brazilians mining the rivers for gold and coming into Ouanary for government assistance. Though illegal they were tolerated.

Two days later I reached Cayenne, French Guyana’s largest city though its population is only 50,000. I anchored in the harbor and got rides to the wharf from Venezuelan fishermen on a nearby boat. The town was full of Gallic charm, with two- and three-story buildings, wood or masonry, in old colonial styles. The public infrastructure was excellent, the streets clean. Less sanitary was a narrow channel into which fishing boats of several nationalities squeezed to sell fish, refit their boats, and replenish their provisions. Here Creole, French, Brazilian Portuguese, Venezuelan Spanish, and Guyanese English were spoken equally. I chose not to stay there because the water was full of fish offal. I bought groceries at a modern supermarket stocked with goods from France. On top of the hill was a fort with a plaque telling how in 1647 Dutch attackers captured the fort, but the French valorously won it back.

On August 20 I sailed to Devil’s Island, where the Papillon story took place. Actually it is a cluster of three palm-covered islands. The prison colony is now a resort/nature preserve. Several excursion catamarans were there with tourists from the nearby town of Kourou, site of the European Space Agency’s Guyana missile center. As luck would have it, an Ariane rocket was due to launch that evening so everyone had to leave. The authorities cleared the area lest the rocket blow up, showering the area with fragments. So I sailed into the mouth of the Kourou River and slept there.

A couple days later I reached the Maroni River, the boundary between French Guyana and Suriname. Fifteen miles upriver lay St. Laurent, on the French side, and Albina, Suriname. There was no bridge. Traffic between them was via a multitude of wooden canoes thirty to forty feet long. This boat consists of a dug-out bottom to which freeboard is added by attaching thick slabs of wood on the sides. At the bow and stern the bottom bends up to form large spoon-shaped appendages. Their two-stroke outboards created a constant buzzing sound.

The shores on both sides were busy with people and merchandise coming and going, but in Albina I found a house with a beach in front where I was allowed to stay. I laid a stern anchor and tied the bow to a tree. At high tide I was afloat and able to wade ashore. At low tide I was beached.

The people of Albina presented a confusing mix! They mostly spoke an English-based Creole language unique to Suriname, but everyone also spoke Dutch, the official language. Most people understood some English and French. As if that weren’t enough, Amerindians spoke their own languages, as did the mysterious “Bush Blacks,” who in English are called Maroons. In addition to the usual European, Amerindian, and African blood lines, one saw Asian Indians and Indonesians as well, from other parts of the former Dutch Empire.

Albina was garbage-strewn and drab. The people were rather poor, Suriname having had a difficult history since separating from Holland in the 1970s. Rastafarians hustled aggressively along the waterfront. Many of them had dreadlocks tucked into voluminous knit bags and pants worn so as to display their fine buttocks. I was warned not to go out after dark.

It was a good place to work. I made new holders for my GPS, the previous device for holding it at eye level on the mizzen mast having broken. The house in front of which I stayed doubled as a sort of restaurant. They had no sign, but in the evening a few people would come around to drink beer and dance to music that sounded vaguely Caribbean. They served me roti, a meal of chicken and potato wrapped in an unleavened slab of bread.

I stayed in Albina until August 27 then crossed over to St. Laurent. It was a lovely town, with clean streets, wide sidewalks, and charming colonial architecture. The town began as another penal colony, and the old prison, hospital, gendarmerie, etc. were still in good condition. Despite newer additions the historic ambiance has been maintained.

There were half a dozen cruising yachts anchored in front of the town. Some had stayed for years. I anchored next to a wrecked ship that has become an island due to trees growing up inside it, and each day tied up at a nearby floating dock in order to go into town. It was so pleasant I decided to stay and write this email there.

After this I sail to Paramaribo, capital of Suriname. In the meantime after spending a month in Los Angeles with Ginny's mom and Grandma Ginny and George are back home in Bremerton, awaiting my return impatiently.

New photos may be found at: https://picasaweb.google.com/ginnygoon/FrenchGuyana

Lots of love,
Steve, Ginny, & George