Sailing to Desirade (also Iles de la Petite Terre and Marie Galante)



(Originally published in Multihulls Magazine around 2003. Since then the shoal has been removed from the channel into La Desirade and yachts with a draft of two meters can get in. Walking on the northern island in Iles de La Petite Terre is no longer permitted.)

I was in the Saintes, just south of Guadeloupe, when I decided to visit the small islands of Marie Galante, Iles de la Petite Terre, and la Desirade in my cat, Ti Kanot. The approach to la Desirade is so shallow that it was out of the question in my old monohull and I was eager to include the island in the new edition of my Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands. (The other islands are already there.)

The morning I set off from the Saintes to Marie Galante was sunny and fine. Only puffy trade wind clouds filled the space above the island hills and the wind was blowing at a steady 14-18 knots. Perfect weather for a singlehander! I took off in high spirits. Now it should be said that this not exactly an epic voyage: it is only 16 miles, but it is straight into the wind, sea, and current. Reason enough to avoid it in my old monohull. It would have been excruciatingly slow and bouncy, and I probably would have ended up using the engine. My cat, Ti Kanot, on the other hand, never feels slow, even if you sometimes do take one step back to make two forward, plus she sails upright, and it just felt like a great day to sail to windward.

I headed out on the starboard tack and decided not tack again till I was close inshore off island of Guadeloupe. But I was still some way off when I noticed a large bank of black clouds rapidly moving in. I changed my tune and tacked offshore to allow plenty of space to deal with the wind that would accompany the squall – and it did not take long. Soon sheets of rain and 30 knots of wind were pounding Ti Kanot. Since I was on my own and beating, it was easiest to pinch like hell, slow the boat down, and let the worst of it go by. The common wisdom on an overpowered cat – to fall off – works well and is the only thing to do if your speed is out of control. But if you are hard on the wind, and not yet moving too fast, luffing works just as well on a cat as on a monohull, and if you are single handed it gives you time to think out your next step at a moderate speed, rather than on a screaming reach.

By the time the squall had passed, I was quite well out in the open sea, so I took short tacks over to Marie Galante, in the hope that I would reach smoother water as I closed the island. The squall had left, but the winds were still up to 25 knots. I love having the Garmin map-reading GPS on board. The track indicates just how you are doing, and often helps show you when to tack. However hard I try, those tracks get laid down at about 60 degrees to the wind, but at 9 to 10 knots it does not take too long to get where you are going. We (Ti Kanot and I) sailed about 30 miles to make the 16 miles in just under four hours, a straight line average of a bit over 4 knots. Not unduly shabby against wind, current, and sea. Arriving made up for it. The wind stayed strong but the sea quieted down and for the final half hour we were swooping over smooth turquoise water in long fast tacks.

From afar Marie Galante looks flat as a pancake, but when you get close you realize this is an illusion: it rises to 600 feet and is quite hilly, with dramatic cliffs around the southeast coast. Sugar is still the main agricultural crop. At one time the cane was all crushed by windmills, and over 600 of them were dotted around the island. Most are now in ruins, but the government did resurrect one, so we can have an idea of how it must have been. I rented a scooter and found lots of tiny farm roads that took me through the heart of the countryside. The next morning I was ready to move on.

Iles de La Petite Terre

Iles de La Petite Terre lie northeast of Marie Galante, They are two small low islands lying parallel to each other and pointing east. A barrier reef closes off the eastern approach, creating a delightful protected anchorage between the islands.

I couldn’t get there in one tack, but at least it was not into the wind’s eye. I did much of my windward work along the coast of Marie Galante so I could admire the cliffs around the southeast coast and watch big waves smashing into them.

Iles de La Petite Terre are so low lying that you cannot see them till you are within a few miles, and the first thing to come in view is the lighthouse, appearing to stand alone in the open sea. Not long after it came into view, a big squall came by and once again I found myself trying to go straight into 30 knots of wind. I was beginning to get tired of these squalls. The seas here were particularly steep and nasty, progress was slow, and I was impatient to arrive. Since it was only a couple of miles away, I dropped the outboard and puttered in.

The anchorage is as beautiful as ever, but since my last visit it has been turned into a marine park with a long line of moorings spaced about 80 feet apart. Picking up a mooring single-handed is not my favorite activity, especially when, as then, the current was running about a knot. The closeness of the moorings also made it tight, for you could be quickly taken back onto the boat behind. I always feel the main thing is to get attached and not worry too much about how. It is easy to tidy up the lines after. To help I have one of those big hooks that attaches to a line on your boat and then to your boathook. If you do it right, it closes over the loop, drops off the boathook, and leaves you attached to the mooring. The first time I came up I misjudged the current and did not even get close. The second time round was better, but unfortunately the rope on the mooring was so thick the hook would not go over it. I returned a third time and a French group on a nearby boat spared me further embarrassment by passing my rope through the mooring for me.

These islands are a truly wonderful anchorage for a cat. The approach is from the west and you have to cross a bar that is only about 8 feet deep. Add to this swells that almost always build up to some degree over the bar and most monohulls give it a miss. The water in the anchorage is turquoise, azure, and pale gold; the snorkeling on the reefs is good. I scrambled across both islands to look at the hidden beaches. On the north island many iguanas scurried under rocks as I went by.

Several large sailing catamaran day charter boats make regular runs here from Guadeloupe. By late afternoon they leave and you often have the place to yourself overnight. It is a great place to wake up in the morning.

La Desirade

The next morning’s sail over to La Desirade was delightful: a good breeze, sunny weather, and no squalls. La Desirade stands out from afar: a 700-foot slab of rock rising from the ocean, five miles long and about one and a half wide.

I had never been here before and did not have a detailed chart. I didn’t know if a chart of the island existed. I marked a waypoint to the entrance buoy and dropped the main just outside. Power and jib was the safe way to approach. Should the engine fail, I could sail in under jib alone at a reasonable speed. Half a mile of reefs lay in front of me, but the channel was clearly visible between the reefs and I could see another buoy closer in. I set up my computer to plot and record the depths as I went in. The depths dropped rapidly as I approached the harbor wall – the shallowest being about 6 feet – and small swells washed over this, so I would not suggest attempting this entrance with more than 4.5 foot draft; another good catamaran spot. The harbor is pretty small and built mainly for the benefit of the ferry, which forms the only link between this island and Guadeloupe. I later learned that about 40 years ago the only link was a 35-foot sloop, which sometimes took days to beat back against the wind.

Safely at anchor in a good spot just inside the wall, I started playing with my Garmin and found to my surprise that as I enlarged the island on the chart plotter, a more detailed chart came up on the screen showing the entrance. I had had a chart after all. Some of the walls were wrongly placed, but it wasn’t bad.

I took the dinghy ashore and learned a little about the island. Most of the 1200 people here live in the coastal fringe along the shore. A road of sorts has recently been built all along the top of the mountain, with access to both ends. Big modern electric generating windmills have been built on the summit.

The next day I rented a scooter and took off for the highlands. The road twists and turns sharply up the mountainside, and then at the top it changes to dirt. It runs almost in the middle of the flat mountaintop, so the only view is of dry scrubby terrain. But there are numerous places to scramble over the rocks to the cliff edge for a precipitous look down. The view is so good that I took a photo for an aerial approach shot for my guide.

The windmills are arrayed all along the edge of the cliff, standing tall and looking magnificent. The compound gate was open, so I drove in and soon found myself talking to a French technician who had a big open box of wires in front of him.

"We have about 50 windmills operating right now," he said, "and they generate more than enough electricity for the whole island, so we sell the surplus to Guadeloupe via an undersea cable." He explained that if the wind drops, they have to buy a little back, but on balance La Desirade comes out way ahead. He pointed out that there are two types of windmill: the older ones have wind vanes and face the wind, while the newer ones do away with the vane and the blade itself keeps them aligned with the blades downwind.

I was impressed with this clean way of producing electricity, and it brought to mind the days of long ago when most islands were covered in windmills built to crush sugar cane. True, these new ones are a little noisy, but they are well placed up here on the top of the mountain, away from the houses below. The noise is quite steady and not too unpleasant: not the dreadful up and down whine you get from the worst of the small yacht wind generators.

I carried on to the end of the mountain and followed the road that wound down the other side, returning along the coast. Here I found several delightful palm-backed beaches protected by a barrier reef that runs most of the length of the island. Fishing is obviously a valued source of employment and small fishing boats were anchored in several sheltered spots behind the reefs. Tourism is just getting started. Visitors arrive in the morning on the ferry, stay for the day, and leave on the last ferry out in the late afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised to find a good supermarket and a couple of restaurants. I am happy to add La Desirade to my book – but only shallow boats will be able to make it.


 11-14, 620