April 2018 - French Guyana to St Lucia

1 April 2018   Brazil to French Guyana (Day 9)
Yet another squall came through just after dawn with torrential rain and 28 knot winds.  They’re getting bigger and uglier.  Once it had passed through, the skies were grey and unsettled with more black clouds surrounding us.  We already had 1½ reefs in the main, so I decided to roll away the main and continue on the broad reach with just the genoa, which is a lot easier to reef in and out

At 07:00, we had 220 miles to go, so if we could average 6.5 knots, we’d make it to the anchorage before dark tomorrow - with a knot of current helping us, there was a good chance. The weather forecast showed similar rainy weather for today and tomorrow, but it looks like it might brighten up the following day.

Lots of Sargassum Weed

I had another hard time getting the weather forecast.  I sent off my “at sea” blog email and a weather request.  Outlook Mail thinks that the emails went okay, but the Iridium server timed out on the incoming emails. The next connection yielded nothing.  I re-sent the weather request and finally received the 18Kb GRIB file.  It took 4 connections and 9 minutes to get it.  There has to be a problem with the Iridium service in this area.  It’s annoying that it’s costing me three times as much because their service is bad.

During the morning, the wind decreased and I had to pull the main sail out again.  The clouds became brighter and we stayed dry for the rest of the day.  We gradually turned downwind as we approached land and by sunset, we were 130 miles from our destination sailing wing-on-wing doing more than 7 knots over the ground - a very good chance of being at Iles du Salut by midday tomorrow.

We had a mixed night. The wind was mostly NE 12-18, sailing on a broad reach, sometimes with the moon and stars shining through breaks in the clouds.  At other times, black clouds would overtake us bringing rain and stronger winds. We made good time with a 2 knot current pushing us along at 8-9 knots.

2 April 2018   Brazil to French Guyana (Day 10)
Dawn brought us a miserable day with low clouds scudding across the sky.  We’d made good progress overnight and in 24 hours we’d covered 190 miles, which is an average of 7.9 knots - maybe our fastest 24 hours ever.  Just before breakfast, a large squall came through with rain for ½ hour and then it sucked the wind away, forcing us to run the engine for ½ hour.

At 10:30, when we were only 6 miles away from Iles du Salut, we were hit by another huge squall system, which gave us torrential rain and veered the wind by 180°.  The area around the islands is less than 15 metres depth and I wasn’t sure of the accuracy of the charts, so when the visibility dropped to less than 100 metres, I seriously considered going straight past and carrying on to the Maroni River.

Anchored at Iles Du Salut

However we decided to push on.  When we were 2 miles from our destination, the squall fizzled out, so our first sighting of land was three small islands slowly appearing out of the ghostly gloom.  The rain held off as we rounded the south side of St Joseph Island.  We briefly looked at the anchorage to west of St. Joseph, but there was a lot of swell, so we carried onto the south side of Ile Royale, which was much better protected.

There’s a short breakwater on the south east corner of the island forming a small harbour with a floating dock and a half a dozen big moorings. The moorings are used by tourist boats that come over from the mainland every day.  There were two private yachts on large yellow moorings, which I later found out belong to the Customs and aren’t used very often.

We decided to anchor at 05°17.07N 52°35.36W in 5 metres of water over soft mud.  There have been reports that the holding is not good, so we did our normal soft-mud technique of only pulling back lightly on the anchor and then letting the anchor sink into the mud.  This seemed to work because we didn’t have any problems.  There are some underwater obstructions marked on the Navionics charts, so we made sure that we kept well away.

After lunch, we dropped the dinghy into the water, fitted the outboard and then lifted it up on the davits ready for tomorrow.  We then had a well earned afternoon nap.  In the evening, we had a curry while watching the classic movie, Papillon, which is all about the notorious French penal colonies of French Guyana including Devil’s Island – one of the three islands that we’re anchored off. The anchorage is a little rolly, but it didn’t stop us getting a good night’s sleep.

3 April 2018   Iles du Salut to St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana (Day 1)
Just after 09:00, the tourists started to arrive on large catamarans and were unloaded at the floating dock on Ile Royale.  Before following them ashore, we called in at “Kisbar” to have a quick chat with Jean-Marie and Aldo, a couple of Swiss guys, who are heading in the same direction as us.  After tying up our dinghy on the inside of the modern floating dock, we walked up to the restaurant at the top of the hill where we picked up some literature and a map of the island.


The islands were part of a penal colony from 1852 onwards for common-law criminals of France. The main part of the penal colony was a labour camp that stretched along the border with Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname). This penal colony was controversial as it had a reputation for harshness and brutality. Prisoner-on-prisoner violence was common; tropical diseases were rife. Only a small minority of broken survivors returned to France to tell how horrible it was. 

Devil's Island and the associated prisons eventually became one of the most infamous prison systems in history. While the prison system was in use, inmates included political prisoners and the most hardened of thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the Devil's Island prison system never made it back to France. Many died due to disease and harsh conditions. Sanitary systems were limited, and the region was mosquito-infested, with endemic tropical diseases. The only exit from the island prisons was by water, and few convicts escaped.

In 1854, France passed a new law of forced residency. It required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of sentence for a time equal to their forced labour time.  If the original sentence exceeded eight years, they were forced to stay as residents for the remainder of their lives and were provided land to settle on. 

The Devil's Island facility was the last to be closed in 1953.

The islands lie directly beneath the trajectory of the rockets launched from the French National Space Centre, which is based at Kourou on the mainland only 9 miles away.  Since 1965, the Space Centre has owned the islands and over the past 30 years, they have managed the restoration work and expansion of tourism on the islands.

Isolation Cells

We were surprised by the size of the restaurant and the number of people staying in the various forms of accommodation.  It’s possible to stay in hotel rooms, converted guard’s houses, bunk rooms and there’s designated campsites – not quite the run-down island that we’d expected.

The old buildings of the penal colony are in mixed condition - some have been restored; others have been stabilised, but locked up; and some are just ruins.  It was pleasant to walk around the many paths on the island and explore the buildings.  

There’s a small museum, which has some interesting paintings of prison life by a previous inmate called Francis Legrange, who also helped decorate the large chapel.  The most interesting buildings were the various cells especially the individual solitary confinement cells rooms, where prisoners were incarcerated in total darkness for weeks at a time. 

We took the dinghy over to St Joseph Island, where there are more buildings, but there’s no floating dock and the swell was bouncing off the sea wall and ramp, so we decided not to risk ourselves or our dinghy.

After lunch, we decided that we’d seen enough of the Iles du Salut and, as it was a rolly anchorage, we might as well move on.  It’s 80 miles to the entrance to the River Maroni, which meant that we had to sail overnight, so I put the dinghy on the front deck and we upped anchor at 16:00.

We motored upwind, going close the west side of Devil’s Island to have a look at (no one is allowed to go ashore).  An hour later, we were clear of dangers and in 30 metre deep water, so we turned left and headed parallel to the coast.  We had at least 1.5 knots of favourable current, so we only needed to pull out the genoa to sail at 6 knots over the ground.

Devil's Island

We were heading for Saint Laurent de Maroni, which is a small town 25 miles up the Maroni River.  Ideally, we wanted to be going up-river on a rising tide, so that we could take best advantage of the possibly strong current.  Another reason for going in on a rising tide was that if we went aground, we would just need to wait for the tide to lift us off.

Tomorrow’s tides at the entrance were - high tides at 08:00 & 20:20, with a low tide at 14:20.  Our initial plan was to sail slowly to arrive at the river entrance at 13:00 and then motor directly up the river.  After sailing for an hour, it was obvious that with the strong current, we were going to get to the entrance much earlier.  

Rather than struggling to slow down, we continued to sail at a comfortable speed, aiming to arrive at the river entrance at 07:00 – one hour before high tide.  We would then have two hours of fairly slack current in the river, which should enable us to get to an anchorage 10 miles upstream, where we could wait for the tide to change before finishing off the last 15 miles.

It was a lovely night sail.  The moon came out at 22:00; we had clear star-lit skies and a consistent 15 knot wind.  Even with just the genoa, we were sailing along at 4.5 to 5.5 knots, plus we had the 1.5 knot favourable current all night.

4 April 2018   Iles du Salut to St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana (Day 2)
Amazingly, we arrived at the outer fairway buoy at 07:06 – only 6 minutes behind schedule.  It’s a long time since we last had such a complex channel to follow, but it’s well buoyed with a minimum depth of 2.4m chart datum.  The buoy positions on the Navionics charts on our Android Tablet were pretty accurate.  The outer fairway buoy was correct at 05°51.80N 53°51.75W. The only major discrepancy is that the critical M2 & M3 buoys are 0.25 miles further north-west than on the charts.

Approaching the Fairway Buoy

We had a good 15 knot north-east wind, which allowed us to sail all the way into the river.  The water was extremely murky, so there was no visual reference for the water depth.  The route was complicated by a strong north-west setting current that was pushing us sideways, giving us 20 degrees leeway, so I had to keep looking back at the previous buoy to make sure that we were on track.

At 09:30, we’d entered the main river and were out of the ocean swell.  It was now 1½ hours after high tide and we already had 1 knot of current against us, so we decided to anchor to wait for the tide to turn before carrying on the remaining 15 miles.  We anchored off the channel at 05°43.7N 53°57.3W in 4-5 metres depth on mud.

We hung around for 4½ hours watching the current, which increased to 2.5 knots even though we were a long way out of the deeper channel, where I guess that it would be stronger.  Low tide was at 14:20, so we were expecting the current to slacken off at 13:30 and then turn to push us up the river.  At 14:00, we still had 1½ knots of current coming out and only 4 hours of daylight to go 15 miles, so we decided that we had to start heading up the river.  

We started to pull up the anchor, but it was caught on something on the seabed.  For five minutes, we tried to motor left, right, back, forwards and in a circle, but the damn thing wouldn’t budge.  The depth was about 5 metres and the chain had snagged on something at about the 20 metre mark on the chain.  I thought about my options.  The river was brown with sediment.  Even if the current wasn’t ripping along at 1½ knots, I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face - the prognosis wasn’t good.

For the next ten minutes, we let chain out, pulled chain in, motored around in circles with a growing feeling of doom - would I have to dump the anchor and chain?  Suddenly, the chain freed itself and we were able to pull up the anchor - Phew!  The anchor had been set in thick mud, but I suspect that there was a rocky patch and the chain had jammed under a rock.

Moored at St Laurent

There was a 10-15 knot wind helping to push us up the river, so we let out the genoa and motor-sailed. We had a 2 knot current against us initially, so we were only making 4 knots over the ground.  The first five miles was very easy with at least 6 metres of water.  The next 1½ miles was tense because the channel goes within 25 metres of the shore line and the depth dropped to 3.2m (2.6m LAT).  The channel is supposed to be maintained at a minimum of 2.2m, but hey, we’re in a jungle river.

The remainder of the route was fairly deep and the Navionics charts on our Android Tablet were surprisingly accurate.  The damn current stayed against us all the way up river, varying in speed between 1 & 2 knots, so we didn’t arrive in St Laurent De Maroni until 17:30 - one hour before sunset.  If we’d simply carried on up the river in the morning, we’d have had deeper water, no trauma with the anchor snagging and it would have probably only took us an hour longer.  You live and learn.  

It was very choppy in the mooring field because the tide was still going out and the wind was blowing strong against it.  We cautiously motored around looking for a spot and were grateful that Roman, who works at the marina, came out to help us tie up.  There are no pennants on the moorings, just a ring on top, which is impossible to get hold of from the deck.  Our mooring was at 05°30.43N 054°01.85W in 4m LAT.

We collapsed with a cold beer and had an early night. 

5 April 2018   St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana
The marina consists of about a dozen moorings spread around a bizarre wreck called the SS Edith Cavell.  It’s a British cargo ship, which ran aground in the shallow part of the river in November 1924.  Over the years, as the river has flooded, mud and silt have accumulated in the wreck and now it is covered by 40 foot trees and jungle plants.  It looks just like an island until you look closely and can see the hull sticking up a couple of feet out of the water. 

Most of the old buildings (and the bricks) were made by prisoners

The marina office is a café at the end of the public floating dock.  Roman gave “Kisbar” and us a lift to the Immigration Office, which is at a small ferry terminal about a mile away.  It only took five minutes to get our passports stamped.   Roman then took us for a quick tour of the small town and then back to the marina, where he filled in and emailed off the relevant form to the customs - a very easy clearing in process.

Glenys and I then walked into the small town to stretch our legs and bought a couple of nice fresh baguettes from the boulangerie.  We had a quiet afternoon and then invited Stein & Yvet from “Amuse” over for a few drinks.  They’ve just come over from Europe and interestingly went hundreds of miles up the Gambia River - sounds like they had a great time.

6 April 2018   St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana
One of the services that the marina offers is a lift to the supermarket at 11:00 every morning.  It’s a nice, big Super-U French supermarket, so we were able to restock our French cheeses and luxury items.  We dropped off a big bag of laundry at the marina office, which they washed for us, but their drier is broken.  Of course, it threw it down for the rest of the day, so we had wet clothes hanging down below and in the cockpit for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon, I did a couple of dinghy runs ashore to get water.  The river has so much sediment that we can’t run the water-maker here.  The hose leading down to the dinghy dock has been broken by a local pirogue, so I had to lug the jerry cans 100 metres from the café  - the cruising life is so glamourous sometimes.

The River Maroni is the border between French Guyana and Suriname.  It’s only about ½ miles wide and there is a constant stream of local pirogues heading to and from Albina, a small border town in Suriname.  There’s a border control at the little ferry port, but the pirogues land everywhere else, where there’s no immigration or customs.  Smuggling is rife and blatant.  For example, fuel is a lot cheaper in Suriname, so pirogues bring over 45 gallon drums of fuel, which is loaded into white vans, within sight of the ferry terminal.

Borderless Commerce

We’ve been told that the pirogues also bring pregnant Surinamese women over to St Laurent de Maroni – they time it so that the mother arrives at the hospital already in labour.  When the baby is born, it is automatically given French citizenship and the parents can claim benefits.  The children are eligible to go to French schools and a large percentage of school children live in Suriname and catch a pirogue over to go to school. 

7 April 2018   St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana
It absolutely threw it down last night and all day.  We were planning to go to the Saturday market, but the gaps between downpours were so short that we gave up and stayed in. Fortunately, we were able to get a decent internet signal on the boat, so we had a relaxing day on the internet and playing guitar.

In the evening, a loud band started playing over by the dinghy dock and it continued after we went to bed - foot-tapping loud reggae mostly.

8 April 2018   St. Laurent de Maroni, French Guyana
The loud music didn’t stop until after dawn, so we were a bit tired in the morning, but thankfully it had stopped raining, so we went for a walk around town.  St Laurent de Maroni, was the main landing place for the prisoners coming from France, so we wandered about looking at the old colonial buildings mostly built by prisoners.

On 22 November 1850, Napoleon III declared: "Six thousand condemned men in our prisons weigh heavily on our budget, becoming increasingly depraved and constantly menacing our society. I think it is possible to make the sentence of forced labour more effective, more moralising, less expensive and more humane by using it to further the progress of French colonisation."

Street Vendors

The first batch of prisoners left the Breton port of Brest for the Îles du Salut on 31 March 1852. The prison at St-Laurent-du-Maroni was established on the banks of the Maroni River on 21 February 1858. All the prisoners sent from France were taken there before being transferred to other prisons or camps. The town of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni proper was founded on 16 March 1880; it was a penal town whose inhabitants were nearly all guards or liberated prisoners. The 400 bed hospital was built in 1912, and the prison itself closed in 1946, the same year the whole colonial penal system was abolished.

Our master plan was to have leisurely Sunday Lunch at a nice restaurant, but everywhere was closed because it was a Sunday.  Fortunately, the boulangerie was open, so we were able to buy a baguette for lunch.  We also bought some Rambutan, which is a fruit from Southeast Asia and very popular in French Guyana – the streets of the town are littered with the discarded outer skin.  The fruit has a pleasant, slightly acidic taste which resembles a mix of mango, lychee and kiwi.

It was another miserable rainy afternoon, so I messed about with my guitar and Glenys read a book.  We went over to “Amuse” for evening drinks.

We’ve been living on Alba for exactly seven years today, so I worked out a few statistics.  In the past twelve months, we’ve sailed 9,832 nautical miles bringing our total to 41,171 since we moved aboard.  We’re now at 53 degrees West, meaning that we’ve done 98% of our circumnavigation.  In the last year, we’ve run the engine for 440 hours, which at 5 knots equates to 2,200 miles and means that we’ve spent 22% of our time motoring.  If you add in the four years that we spent living on Glencora in the 1990s, then we’ve been living on a yacht for ¼ of our adult lives - where did the time go?