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When the Volcano Blew

It would be easy to blame the flogging batteries on the arrival of our friends from the U.S., but after talking with some other seasoned sailors, we learned that there might be other causes. True, we had an unusual stretch of rainy, calm weather. And had we had a functioning generator (which we were offered after we returned from St. Pierre), we would have been able to efficiently charge the batteries. But we also learned that AGM batteries last longer if they are equalized, a process of overcharging in order to burn off the sulfides that accumulate on the glass mats, inhibiting the charging process.

But that was all pushed to the backs of our minds as we set off for St. Pierre, on Martinique’s northwest coast. We immediately encountered the island’s legendary traffic as we approached Fort-de-France, and a two-hour drive lengthened. Everyone was disappointed that there would be no sailing on Camino, but we were excited to visit the next hidden gem.

St. Pierre was formerly the capital of Martinique, the first stop of trans-Atlantic voyagers arriving in the Caribbean. Trade in rum and other agricultural products created a thriving community of over 30,000 inhabitants, and St. Pierre was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean.” That all ended in May, 1902, when Mt. Pelee, the active volcano that dominates the mountainous backdrop, exploded, sending a pyroclastic flow that covered the region. All but three people perished; ships sitting out in the bay spontaneously exploded into flames, and their wrecks still litter the ocean floor.

Now there is a museum and memorial in St. Pierre dedicated to the disaster, and that was to be our first stop. But first there was another rum distillery to visit. Neisson Distillery is known for its white rhum agricole, and when we arrived we had the good fortune to witness the harvest and processing of sugar cane. In a scene that would make OSHA officials tear their hair out, we were able to witness the harvester up close, as it shredded and spit the cane into following container dragged by a tractor. In fact, visitors were able to wander freely around the property, walking right up to the machinery that pressed the juice from the cane and began fermenting it.

Another tasting in the books, we headed for the museum. Headphones and English narration were provided for us, enriching our understanding of the tragedy. Mt. Pelee didn’t just explode on one day; it had been erupting and sending out flows for almost a month. Officials had time to order evacuations, but chose not to. It was a grim reminder that we will always be at the mercy of our environment, a lesson sailors learn well.

We found our condo rental, which was located near the downtown. While there were air conditioning in the bedrooms, the main room and kitchen were stifling. But the internet was fast, and those of us with work to do were grateful for a couple of hours of uninterrupted access. Plus, we had plenty of cold beer.

We explored the city on our way out to eat, and discovered a vibrant, living community full of shops and businesses, with a spectacular daily market that was a feast for the senses. The fish market was also full of tuna, mahi, and other big fish. Since we did not have a grill, we skipped it and headed to the restaurant La Vague for dinner. The owner was also the owner of the condo we were renting, and he proved to be a gregarious, if eccentric, chap. When we ordered a round of Ti’ Punches, they delivered a bottle of white rum to the tables and instructed us to make our own drinks. Didn’t they know who we were?

The food was excellent, and after the meal, the owner invited us for a drink, one we probably didn’t need, but which we accepted. While we sipped a variety of obscure rums, he hacked up a sugar cane stalk with a machete and offered us slivers of cane to chew, extracting the juice. The stalks were like tougher pineapple cores, woody, but juicy with sweet nectar.

The next morning we were remarkably spry, which we were coming to learn was the result of drinking such excellent rum. But we wanted to get a good start on climbing the Mt. Pelee trail, and we hoped that the morning overcast would lift, giving us a view into the caldera. We hit the trail at 0930, and soon found ourselves scrambling up slick rock faces and muddy footholds. A couple of hours later we emerged onto the rim, where the clouds had not lifted, and the wind blew at a steady 25 knots. The temperature had dropped to 16C (about 60F), and being of thin blood after months in the Caribbean sun, we quickly chilled and decided that the walk around the rim was not worth the hypothermic risk.

After we made it down the trail intact, we stopped to visit our final and most impressive rum distillery: DePaz. Here we were again able to witness the processing of the cane, following a lovely self-guided tour of the grounds, and ending in yet another tasting. This time, our delightful hostess broke the rules and gave us a second taste of the rum we were buying, while she enthusiastically filled us in on its delights and qualities. We buzzed our way back to the condo.

The afternoon was spent at the beach, then at work (for me), before another dinner at La Vauge. Having mentioned the eccentric but sincere owner, it should be explained that this revolved around the requirement that all diners show proof of vaccination. The first night Chantal and I showed our Passe Sanitaire and were admitted without problem. But when our friends showed their U.S. vaccination records, the owner balked, and made us agree that we would pay any and all fines if incurred. This was silly as St. Pierre is fully of American visitors, but we agreed. And the next night when our Passe Sanitaire gave him an incomplete message, he went through the same antics. Yes, we’ll pay. May we eat?

The next morning, a Saturday, was departure day for our friends. The original plan had been for them to drop us off back in Ste. Anne. But now they were concerned by the traffic, so they offered to buy us a cab ride back from the airport. Nonsense, said the crew of Camino, who are nothing if not intrigued by mastering the bus system of a foreign country. Three buses and two hours later, we alighted in Ste. Anne. Not having arranged for a ride back to our dinghy, we plopped ourselves down in the village square and waited. Before too long our friends from Sanitas arrived back from shopping. Wine was exchanged and we were soon back on board Camino.

We looked around cautiously; the bilge had not refilled with water. No leaks. I quickly broke out my Victron Battery Monitor app and waited while it connected. Batteries: 100%. Chantal and I exhaled in relief. But we remained vigilant, making sure that they had in fact recovered. Research suggested that this probably with the type of batteries we had, and we resolved to remain conscious of this going forward. The next day, we isolated the water maker from the freshwater system, installed a new pump, and pressurized the system. It held.

We know we have not avoided completely costly repairs, but we have learned more about our batteries and our freshwater system. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned the role of rum in the culture and history of Martinique, one sip at a time.

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