French Guyana

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.

Hospital

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.