Dominica was baptized ‘nature island’ by travel agencies as it is famous for its bird life, lush vegetation, rainforest, waterfalls, and hot springs. Geologically, it is the youngest island in the Lesser Antilles. It is still being formed by geothermal-volcanic activity, heating up the Boiling Lake, the world’s second-largest hot spring. In the heydays of discoveries, its ruggedness and steep mountains protected it from European settlers, urging them to build ports, refueling stations and agricultural settlements on other islands. In more recent years, government set out to conserve the natural heritage by actively discouraging the type of high-impact tourism which damaged nature in other parts of the Caribbean.
Dominica’s name stems from the Latin for ‘Sunday’ as Columbus passed the island on a Sunday in 1493. Its original inhabitants were called the Kalinago, of which a small percentage remains on the island in the Carib Territory. Dominica was colonized by French loggers in the late 1600s, then passed to British hands, and gained independence end of the ‘70ies. Most of the inhabitants are descendants of African slaves.
Bump a rib
Exodus set out from Martinique’s Saint Pierre, heading for Roseau on Dominica. Our hull speed was mostly over 7 knots, with a northeast wind between 15 to 22 knots. Sailing from squall to squall kept us on our toes. At some stage the wind dropped to 9 knots and then picked up to 25 knots in a whiff, pushing Exodus strongly sideways, with the genoa scooping water. Time to reduce the genoa! While furling the genoa in the swell, Arthur landed on his favorite winch, the one that cracked his ribs on the way to Madeira. Back to sporting a nice bruise, painful movements and bad sleeping.
Getting closer to Roseau, a pod of Pygmie killer whales waved at Exodus from a distance and disappeared as shyly and quickly as they came.
Roseau – before and after
Dominica is located in the hurricane belt and is extremely vulnerable to them. In 1979, David (Category 4 hurricane) wrecked the island. In 2007, they got visited by Hurricane Dean (Category 1). In 2015, Tropical Storm Erika caused extensive flooding and landslides across the island. In 2017 the Atlantic experienced a real active hurricane season with Irma, Jose and Maria causing wreckage in rapid succession. Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck Dominica in September 2017.
Exodus neared Roseau in a squall, and the overcast sky fit perfectly with the scene of demolition and wreckage unfolding before us. The ferry and cruise line terminal had been completely swept away. The mountainous rainforest landscape looked grazed. The beaches were covered in logs and wood pieces assorted. Houses are colorful, just like Cabo Verde, but void from roofs. Blue, green, red plastic tarps replace ripped off roof tiles or corrugated iron sheets opened like a sardine can.
In Dominica, there is a mooring system for the yachts, where the locals install proper mooring buoys and provide basic services with it (security, trash removal, water delivery, …) at a certain price. We moored onto one of the buoys, and just as we were about to have lunch we got chased off. A guy named ‘Binz’ arrived on a local motor boat with 2 big outboards, alerting us that this specific buoy is reserved for the dive boat which is due back in the afternoon. We must follow him immediately to another buoy. His buoy, it turned out. He charged us 40 ECU per night. During our 2 night stay, we did not see any dive boat. Not only did he rip us off, he also had a bad attitude and a huge chip on his shoulder. Fortunately, he was the only person on the island we didn’t like. All others were extremely friendly, good natured, and welcoming. Clearing in was a pleasure.
A stroll through Roseau city demonstrated a beehive of activity. The waterfront is being rebuilt by throngs of worker bees in fluo jackets and hard hats. The sound of concrete mixers, jack hammers, drills, sawmills hum from morning till evening. Buildings are reconstructed. Jetties are rebuilt. New roofs are being put on. The whole city is in the process of being rewired, with new power lines sagging down whilst the old ones remain suspended in their ripped off state. The sheer amount of detritus to clean up must have been tremendous, as even though most roads have been cleared, you can spot dented cars, overturned boats, broken household goods, metal sheet pieces, damaged logs strewn in piles alongside the roads or in the gardens, forming some type of sick artwork.
We had a long stroll through town, concluding that pre-Maria the town must have been quite quaint. Our walk landed us at the Ruins Rock Café, a characterful pub in an old ruin and popular hub in the cruise-ship days. Apart from snake skins, flags, walking bridges and a toilet shack, there is a spice shop boasting tiny packets of spices, jars of local jams, but most impressively racks and racks full of any type of bush rum your imagination can conjure up… Ranging from chocolate, exotic fruits to snake and centipede!
On the local vegetable market we discovered that Maria destroyed 90% of agriculture, resulting in tomatoes being worth their weight in gold! This announced the start of tomato rationing on board of Exodus. Luckily we had stocked up on bulk food in the Leaderprice in Martinique and would therefore not suffer too much…
On September 13th 2017, one or two tropical waves, pressed on by weather systems, got gradually organized as they travelled over the tropical Atlantic. Brewing up more and more pressure, deep surge building on itself, until curved bands emerged. These bands were fueled on by hot sea surface temperature, favorable winds and abundant moisture. A convective burst launched the rocket and hurricane Maria was born. Rapidly growing bigger and better. Baby Maria jumped in one day from a painful nuisance (category 1) to a full blown psychopath (category 5). An explosive intensification. Sustained winds increased from 130km/h to 260km/h and central pressure fell 53 mbar (one of the fastest rates on record) just before she struck Dominica.
Heavy rainfall alerted the inhabitants of Dominica that something was up. Water levels rose all over the island, causing big landslides. Maria hit the island with 260km/h winds, pulling at every roof, damaging 98% of them and destroying half of the houses’ frames. Cities were inundated, cars stranded, residential areas flattened. Yet she raged on, reducing roads and bridges to fragments of flooded asphalt, plucking out and downing virtually every power pole and line. Her ferocious winds defoliated nearly all vegetation, splintering, bending or uprooting thousands of trees, stripping their leaves off, ripping the branches, and therewith decimating the island’s lush rainforests. The agricultural sector, a vital source of income for the country, was completely wiped out: 100% of banana and tuber plantations were lost, as well as vast amounts of livestock and farm equipment. In her wake, houses caved in or slid into rivers, blew off cliffs, or were ripped from their foundations. Widespread floods and landslides littered neighborhoods with the remnants of schools, stores and houses. All of Dominica’s 73,000 residents were affected in some form or way, with a large percent of houses becoming uninhabitable. The mountainous country was blanketed in a field of debris.
This roaring raging rampage reduced her hunger a tiny bit. She left Dominica as Category 4. Yet she recovered quickly, building up more rage, peaking to 280km/h on her way to Puerto Rico. Seeing the ravage her sister Irma left sipped some of Maria’s energy, striking Puerto Rico as a ‘mere’ category 4. After feasting on this already struck, poor island she peaked again in the Atlantic. Only when she passed over cooler sea surface temperatures her inner core collapsed, leaving her to wind down to as tropical storm and blow out at October 3rd.
This behavior earned Maria the following titles:
- Number one hurricane of 2017
- most intense tropical cyclone worldwide in 2017
- ‘deadliest storm’ and ‘most destructive and devastating hurricane on record for Dominica & Puerto Rico’. At least 112 people were confirmed killed by the hurricane: 64 in Puerto Rico, 31 in Dominica, and the others in the surrounding areas. Dozens of others were reported missing and can safely be assumed as fatalities as well.
Roseau to Portsmouth
On the way from Roseau to Portsmouth Exodus enjoyed nice winds picking up to 22-24 knots and nearly bumped into a whale. Our ever watchful captain managed to circumvent a collision. A bit later some dolphins came to play along the bow.
Portsmouth has a large, less inhabited bay, displaying Maria’s effects on the natural and built environment quite clearly. The cruise liner jetty was completely ripped apart. The terminal was empty and deserted. The nearby hotel was missing roof tiles. Fort Shirley, in the Cabrits National Park, overlooked the turquoise bay and Portsmouth’s sad growth. The green foliage we got so used to in Martinique (like a lush Afro haircut, thick and dense but made of rainforest) now shows dull grey and brown patches and is seriously thinned out. Dominica’s hairdo is thinning, see-through with the scalp shining through.
While approaching the bay and seeing some turtles swim past, a local guy Anthony on his boat Seabird, sped towards us. The PAYS logo was painted in bold on the boat as well as VHF 16, in case we need assistance. PAYS stands for Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services. It is a non-profit organization that provides security and yacht services to boat cruisers anchored in Prince Rupert’s Bay. Members have received a basic training in security and tourism/ guiding. In Portsmouth you can either use one of their buoys or just anchor. There are several outings on offer that the PAYS guys can organize for you.
PAYS had rebuilt their jetty, but the remnants of other jetties were still sticking out as solemn reminders. Some cruisers got involved in rebuilding. Of the many beach bars only two were left standing. The Madiba and the Purple Turtle Beach Bar & Restaurant. Both seemed equally attractive for the yachties, always a few other white faces around.
Sunday afternoon at the Purple Turtle things were cooking, with all the locals getting ready for a big party, sitting around the dance floor, looking at one another expectantly. While we discovered the local beer Kubuli, and the Carribean Carib and President, Gitane met Verlon, a 6 year old boy whose mom works at the Purple Turtle and whose dad Vernon does security at the school. Vernon related what the encounter with Hurricane Maria felt like, to wake up after a scary sleepless night and discover your roof is gone, to go out and see utter devastation. Everything covered in leaves and branches, all trees either stripped, uprooted or carried off elsewhere. No power, streets and houses gone. Yet the Dominicans sounded very resilient, taking the cow by the horns, immediately joining forces, securing the best houses, lending each other a hand, determined to overcome.
Several strolls taught us there is still a lot of rebuilding to do. Exodus was comfortably anchored so we took 10 days to explore the area.
The first outing we did was take the dinghy to the Cabrits Nature Reserve and enjoy a nice snorkel. Most big fish had been taken out by the locals. But it was still nice enough to look at the different types of corals (brain, tube, fan) growing on the rocks and the fishlife they attracted. Gitane even spotted 2 trumpet fish.
Another post-Maria effect we observed from the water was that the battered foliage had removed the natural predator of butterflies. The tree stumps were teaming with these winged beauties!
Pirates of the Indian River
In the Portsmouth area, one of the things to do is have a boat ride on the Indian River. After clearing the streets and the biggest part of the town, the PAYS people set to work to recover their livelihood. Chainsaw teams were sent up the Indian River, to make sure tourist outings could continue as soon as possible.
Guidebooks rave about the Indian River as a unique manner of observing the tropical rainforest and its wildlife from the comfort of a local row boat:
Be transported in minutes from the urban environment of the town of Portsmouth to the warm embrace of nature by taking a tour up the scenic Indian River.
Experienced boatmen in hand-oared river boats will take you up slow-moving river at a leisurely pace, so that you can appreciate the many types of wild life and plant life along the swampy river bank.The 1½-hour boat ride along this shady mangrove-lined river has you gliding past buttressed bwa mang trees with a chance to spot egrets, crabs, iguanas, hummingbirds and other creatures. See for yourself where scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed. Up the river you can visit the renowned ‘Bush Bar’ and try our signature rum drink, smoked fish and a variety of other drinks, juices and tasty local cuisine!
Much of Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (Dead Man’s Chest) and some of Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (At World’s End) was shot on location on Dominica.
We set up with Anthony to go there early morning, at 7am, as to enjoy the birds waking up. Very quickly it became clear that Maria devoured most of the vegetation. What was supposed to be a trip where your small boat wades through the overgrown jungle now resembles more an obstacle course through a huge clearing with flattened and ripped off trees covered in all types of shoots, where nature desperately tries to repair itself. Most redwood trees only had their strangely sculptured roots left. Especially coconut palm shoots could be seen everywhere.
The advantage was that birdspotting became a child’s game, they were all visible to the naked eye: the White heron, Red Heron, Grey Heron, ChickenHawk, Jaco bird or red-necked parrot that looked more like a Kingfisher to us. There were about 10 different types of crabs, and some pretty flowers.
We did not see Dominica’s national bird, the Sisserou parrot, but that might be because they prefer mountainous rainforest as habitat, of which there was very little left post-Maria. Another reason might be that our guide told us that all animals that live in and around the river cannot be touched, they are sacred, part of the heritage. But as soon as they wander out of that area the hunt is on. He testified all animals were good for eating. Especially the iguanas (‘he taste like chicken, mam’) and the larger crab species were described as very tasty.
Overall we were happy with the experience, until the very end where there was a miscommunication about the fee. Felt like being back in Africa. For all clarity, the standard cost is 50 ECU per person or 20 USD. Guess there are still Pirates in the Indian River…
Minibus ride to Marigot
Dominica’s road network runs primarily along the coastline and river valleys, winding up and down along scenic landscapes and views. Private minibuses form the major public transport system. The minibus stop is found on the edge of Portsmouth town, in the main road and along the soccer field.
Our plan was to visit the northeast sandy beaches in the Calibishie with the minibus area, to hop on and off if we saw nice places. Several scenes of the Pirates of the Caribbean 2 were filmed there. It soon became very clear that the damage is wide spread. Hallucinating to see how much still needs to be cleared up. Huge piles of debris where once human settlements were. The same sad tree stumps everywhere. Many of the once pristine, picture perfect beaches are still strewn with roof sheets and wood pieces.
Very sobering. We did not find our ideal beach and ended driving the whole way to Marigot, walking around and returning the way we came. On the way back some of our attention was taken by a very vivid conversation between a government official/ politician and a farmer woman. The farmer lady was very vocal, had well pronounced views on the current domestic political controversy, and did not shy away from frying the politician. She did not take ‘no’ for an answer and could hold her own debating the scam around the economic citizenship program and the slyness of Lennox Linton. Pretty impressive.
Roseau before Maria
Yet, driving through a hurricane swept country felt a bit like disaster tourism, where the visitors have a weird fascination with observing other people’s misery. And even though the trip itself was still beautiful and very educational, it also left us feeling sad. It dawned on us that probably all the great hikes in the national parks to the hotsprings, the emerald lake, the boiling lake and the many waterfalls would at this moment display the same sad décor of destruction. Luckily nature has this incredible ability to repair itself, especially in this tropical climate.
We are glad to have visited this beautiful island with its friendly people and hope more sailors and adventurous travellers will follow suit so that this important source of income can assist in Dominica’s recovery.