Les Saintes is a small group of islands just to the south of the main island of Guadaloupe. It’s a lovely, peaceful and charming place that is easy to be in. We visited it twice for a few days each time, once on our way north and again on our way south. There are some places its nice to come back to, and this is one of them.
The first time we arrived at the end of a 65nm sail and a 6am departure from Martinique, bypassing Domenica. The moon was almost full and providing good light as the sun started to come up. We hoisted the main with one reef and one in the genoa as well. The wind and swell were on the beam of course as we are heading due north. We have 18-22kts with some stronger gusts and a few rain squalls. Once we get into the lee of Dominica we get some relief from the swell but eventually we get a wind shadow as well. We motor for a while and then sail a little more with the reefs shaken out, getting some pressure coming through one of the bays. That was short lived so the motors went back on again. Out of the lee of Dominica and the breeze returned, hitting the high teens again as we approach Les Saints. We check out Anse Fideling for our first night. It is on the less developed island of Basse Terre so it sounded like our sort of thing, but it is not particularly nice. The water doesn’t look really clean, its crowded with older boats that probably don’t have holding tanks and think they own the place - we are getting the death stare so we move on. We pick up a mooring ball at Anse Cointe, €14 per night, which is reasonable. The anchorages here are deep and the bottom is weedy so mooring balls help protect sea grass for fish and turtles to enjoy. It’s a really pretty spot with a couple of small beach resorts ashore and overlooked by a headland called Pain du Sucre (literally sweet bread).
nWe head ashore to check in the next morning. It’s a really pretty town but very touristy and as it’s a weekend, there are a lot of day trippers. Plenty of shops and bars too. We can use the internet for a while at the LSM office as part of the mooring ball fee. After lunch we go looking for “No Worries” some fellow Aussies who we heard were here and find them over at Ilet a Cabrits. We have a few mutual cruising friends - such a small world but there are always Aussies out there!
On Sunday we hired a 50cc scooter and toured around the island of Terre de Haut. It was a bit like riding around on a lawn mower, particularly interesting going up the steep hills. First stop was Fort Napoleon just after opening time. Great views from the top and a lovely garden area with many different cacti and some iguanas hiding in the bushes. We visited the various beaches around the island. Marigot Bay looked like it could have been good to anchor in but having seen it from above, it looks a bit nothing. Lots of weed. We stop at Plage de Pompier but again huge piles of weed (Sargasso) on the shore and along most of the beach. It has been a huge problem in this area and when it blooms, large volumes end up rotting on the beaches which is very bad for tourism. We watch a pair of pelicans doing synchronised diving for a while, before moving on.
Grand Anse is a long beach on the windward side of the island, which is too rough for swimming and again has lots of weed. We take a quick look at the tiny Anse Roderique, which looks a bit like Little Bay at South West Rocks. Each time we try to go to another bay we seem to have to drive back into town and get stuck in the one way street system trying to find the next turn off. We swing by Anse Figuier and then back into town again to drive down to the western end of the island, near to where we are anchored. We stop along the way for some scenic photos back to our anchorage, you can never have too many pictures of your boat! Anse Crawen on the southwest tip is the last beach we visit and probably the nicest, although the cloud has come over and we don’t feel like a swim. We visit to the colourful cemetery, where a number of graves are decorated with huge conch shells. It looks like rain so we decide to grab a baguette and head back to the boat for a late lunch. We have pretty much done the island so we return the bike early. We departed the next morning to Pointe a Pitre on Guadeloupe but returned to Les Saintes 2 months later on our way south.
Our second visit we picked up a buoy at Ilet Cabrits (or Goat Island) having arrived from “Mainland” Guadeloupe which is just a short distance away. The skies are getting dark and menacing as we arrived and we had some heavy rain just after we picked up the mooring ball. There are a lot less boats here this time than when we were on our way north. Dinner is a BBQ on board and we put out lots of buckets out to catch the rainwater that drips off the back of the boat. We use that the next morning to have a big boat washing session, tackling the cockpit area with soapy rain water. We don’t just sit around drinking cocktails in exotic locations you know!
Mid-morning we went ashore to Ilet a Cabrits and walked up to Fort Josephine. It was abandoned in 1903 and now is just a collection of ruins, inhabited by goats. From the top we can see across to Terre de Haut and Fort Napoleon that we visited before. After lunch I go into town (on my own in the dinghy, out of sight of ITIKI!) and try to connect to the internet, however they have changed the password since our last visit and as its Sunday the office is closed! Anyway some good practice in the dinghy and I have booked a restaurant for tomorrow.
We go ashore mid-morning to spend some time at the internet café but it is frustratingly slow! We also check out as we are leaving tomorrow. Our anniversary lunch (its Anzac Day!) is at Au Bon Vivre and it was the best meal we have had in a long time. French with a Creole twist and a lovely bottle of Rose. Just perfect! And a lovely way to finish our time in Les Saintes & Guadeloupe, as we head to Dominica tomorrow.
More Fun Times in Martinique
Now that we have a functioning autopilot and 2 new MDIs we can finally leave the Le Marin area and enjoy the rest of Martinique. Keith’s shoulder is still a work on progress and physio is helping. Our spinnaker is awaiting an inspection by the sailmaker so we can get a quote to repair it, so we leave it in their safe hands.
Finally we cut the umbilical cord and leave the south of Martinique after morning coffee. We are heading north on the leeward side of the island. The breeze is coming from behind us as the Easterly trade winds that brought us across the Atlantic are wrapping around the bottom of the Martinique. We goose-winged the Genoa and head away from the coast as the breeze shifts. Eventually gybed back in and reefed as the wind strengthened closer to the shore. Our next stop is only 13nm away and somewhere that we visited when we hired the car - the lovely bay of Petite Anse D'Arlet. We anchored in the south (Anse Chaudiere) and it is a great spot, a little bit away from the busy town. It’s a popular anchorage and one of those where everyone ends up facing opposite directions when the breeze drops and swirls around the bay. Sadly anchoring has since been banned in that spot, to protect the sea grass that the turtles love to feast on.
I went for a snorkel - the bottom is sea grass over sand and there are a lot of sea urchins and starfish as well as some soft corals and small tropical fish closer to shore. There are also a couple of large, diving pelicans here. They are brown and a little smaller than their Australian cousins. In the late afternoon we watch a fisherman in a small wooden boat throw sticks into the water, then cast a large net in a wide circle. Pelicans come out of nowhere seeking a free feed. The fisherman beat the water with an oar as they pull the net in. He seems to be getting quite a few small silvery fish and tossing them into the boat. A couple of times he jumped into the water, fully clothed and with goggles on. Not sure what he was doing but it was interesting to watch. A tough way to earn a living.
The next morning went ashore in search of bread and found a nice little bakery, one of the best things about being in “France”. Of course we had to have a Pain au Raisin as well as a lovely fresh baguette for lunch. Had a wander around town and along the town beach past the pink mangroves swamp (the water is pink not the mangroves, hopefully a natural phenomenon). There are some lovely, brightly coloured buildings here and local fisherman have their colourful boats up on the beach. Looks like there is some sort of swimming carnival happening as there is a DJ setting up and some extra buoys ready to be placed in the water. The town beach is quite popular and lively with lots of cafes and well as a reef for snorkelling off the beach. We will come back later for that.
We took the dinghy around to the next bay to our north, Grand Anse d’Arlet. The town is not as pretty and the bay is full of mooring buoys. On the way back we have to take a detour around a group of swimmers, the carnival is now in full swing and those brave souls are heading out around a buoy and back to shore. After lunch we go for a snorkel on the reef in the bay. It’s quite interesting and the water is reasonably clear. Lots of colourful fish around despite the number of tourists. We have had a few rain squalls today and ITIKI has turned every which way. When we get back from our snorkelling we take a look at the anchor and decide to reset it now that the wind direction has changed.
We move on the next morning after breakfast intending to head into the main harbour of Martinique and anchor opposite Fort de France, but sometimes things just don’t go to plan. We put the main up to first reef and full genoa initially, but ended up reefing it as the breeze kicked in. Quite strong winds and swell coming out of the bay at FdF so we soon go to second reef, we crossed the bay and continued north as we had the water maker on and wanted to top up the tanks. It seems to be a bit slower than normal. Also conditions are a bit rough with strong winds funnelling out of the FdF bay. Maybe we have gotten soft since our Atlantic crossing but we can’t quite face turning right and banging into it. We spotted a few boats anchored to our north in Fond Boucher and decided to take a look, maybe stop for lunch. Well anyway it was quite nice so we decided to stay the night. We are only 12nm from our previous anchorage. Some local fishermen came into the bay and again were tossing sticks in the water to attract the fish to the surface. We had a chat to them in broken French/English and they offered us some of their fish that was floating around in the warm, dirty water in the bottom of their dinghy (we politely declined) but we gave them some beers.
After breakfast we head off and motored all of the 10nm to our next anchorage at Anse Mitan. We are in a wide bay and due south of Fort de France. Having changed the sediment filter in the water maker it is now much quicker so we could finish topping up the tanks.
Anchored near some Aussies - Karen and Neil from Perfect Timing who have been cruising in Europe for quite a few years now and finally took the plunge to head home. Took the dinghy ashore to check out the beach and town. We did swing by here in the rental car but only visited the touristy Creole village, which at least has yummy ice cream! We dinghied to the next bay, Anse l’Ane (=donkey bay). A nice anchorage but a little more developed and crowded but no sign of any donkeys! Went for an afternoon snorkel under and in front of the boat. When we anchored I saw what looked like a big flat squarish rock under the water, we managed to avoid dropping the anchor on it, but it turned out to be a submerged pedalo boat! There are some other small “wrecks” close into the shore and reasonable coral and fish around, but nothing spectacular.
Fort de France
For something different we took the ferry across the bay to Fort de France, which is the capital of Martinique. It is lively and clean with a bit of street art and plenty of shops. We visited the beautiful and unusual cathedral, checked out the covered markets and a number of the old colonial style buildings. The Bibloteque Schoeler is another amazingly decorative building, although not open to the public to go inside. As always we visit the any half decent supermarket we pass by and Keith had an incredibly bad, and very short haircut here as well. This one is going to take a while to grow back! Had lunch in town to commiserate before taking the ferry back to our anchorage.
The following morning we motored across to FdF and anchored under the Fort St Louis in the Baie des Flamands. It’s not a particularly nice anchorage, which is why we visited by ferry. It’s quite crowded and with boats swinging every which way, you get the glare from the incumbents as you arrive and start motoring around with intent, looking for a spot to drop the pick. We went ashore for a few more errands before heading further north to St Pierre, on the north west coast.
We raised the main with 2 reefs and Genoa with 1.5 reefs. Saw gusts of up to 30kts at times, before we came into a wind shadow approaching St Pierre and its down to 2.5kts! Finally put the motors on after we involuntarily tacked a couple of times. The anchorage fairly large and spread out along the beach, but it is packed and difficult to find a space between other boats, many of them on local moorings. It’s also a narrow shelf with a steep drop off to the west. This end of the island is dominated by Mt Pelee, the highest peak on the island and also a volcano. We took our time to make sure we were dug in well and positioned so as not to swing into any other boats. Its uncanny how just as you come to anchor you get the day's strongest gusts. We had repeated, short, sharp squalls come through as we anchored and me on the foredeck got a bit wet!
Sainte Pierre was the first town established in Martinique and was once a thriving shipping hub of great significance in the Caribbean. This all changed in 1902 when a volcanic eruption all but wiped out the town, leaving one lone survivor. This was a prisoner who had the good fortune (!) to be incarcerated in a very thick walled prison cell adjacent to the town’s theatre. I went ashore and checked out the memorial to the “Catastrophe of 1902”. Hundreds of boats were lost in the eruption and wrecks are still strewn around the bay today. I also visited the ruins of the Theatre de Petite Paris and the Cachot Cyparis where the lucky prisoner was held. We spent the afternoon watching boats coming and going and trying to find space and then we are twisting and turning on our anchor as the wind dropped out. We put lots of fenders out just in case things go bump on the night.
Well it is almost time to leave Martinique so in the morning I went ashore to do the check out. It’s such an easy process in the French islands. You find a computer in a café, tourist office or marina and fill in a one page form, get it printed, stamped, pay a couple of Euros and voila! You are ready to go. On the way back to the boat I got some lovely fresh tuna from the fish markets, we still haven’t managed to catch any ourselves, and of course some fresh bread from the bakery.
We left around 11am and headed north, motoring all the way as it was a relatively short distance and the wind was wrapping the north end of the island and coming at us on the nose. The bay we have chosen for our last night is only 9nm from St Pierre, but as we are bypassing Dominica on our way to Guadeloupe it gives us an extra hour and a half of sleep before we set off early morning to arrive in at our destination daylight. Anse Couleurve is a stunning place, a small bay with a little beach surrounded by steep hills and thick jungle. One other cat arrives just as we did, Keith had met them in St Pierre. Went for a snorkel to the north of the bay and it was pretty good. Lots of fish and coral. We are treated to a beautiful sunset over the sea. As advertised in the guide book it is a very rolly place and we swing around on our anchor but we are really well dug into the sand. There is a lot of hull slapping from the waves during the night but we sleep through anything these days. We wake early the next morning to leave at first light. There have been some rain squalls overnight and we make our way towards a lovely rainbow, passing along the west coast of Dominica towards Les Saintes a small archipelago just south of the main island of Guadeloupe. Check out our YouTube video below for more on Martinique.
Our time in Martinique is divided into before and after Le Marin / St Anne, before and after we got Ellie the Autopilot back to her old self again. Having not managed to fix any of our problems in Barbados or St Lucia we were confident that Le Marin, Martinique would be the place. After all it’s a huge yachting hub with all manner of boatyards, workshops, chandleries and where all the major marine equipment suppliers have agents. It has a great reputation for quality work and service. Provisioning here is really good as well with several markets and supermarkets to choose from, and reasonable prices too. We spent close to 3 weeks in and around Le Marin waiting to get things fixed, with a little bit of touring and sightseeing in between. Martinique is part of France so we are flying the French courtesy flag, speaking French (well I am trying to…) and spending Euros (lots of them!).
The morning of our departure for Martinique we go into Rodney Bay in the dinghy to chase our PCR test results and complete our formalities to check out of St Lucia, leaving the anchorage about 9am. Full main and Genoa for the reach across, 15kts windspeed except for a short squall that drove the apparent wind up into the 26kts! Had a large flock of frigate birds flying around and swooping close to us which was lovely except when they started taking aim and crapping all over the bimini! The wind squall also brought some rain, but unfortunately not enough rain to wash off the bird crap. The wind built as we got closer to the island so we reefed the main and genoa. Hand steering the 22nm from St Lucia to Martinique was a piece of cake, relatively speaking, now that we are getting used to it!
As we get in sight of land we are gobsmacked by the number of boats anchored here. Both outside the port area at St Anne’s anchorage and inside the port where the marina and services are. There must be thousands! We head to the inner port area “Le Marin” anchorage which is a huge bay, lined with mangroves on one side, and marinas and boatyards on the other side. There are many boats on mooring balls as well as on anchor. This is also a hurricane hole, although given the number of boats (and wrecks) here, I am not sure how safe I would feel in a blow. Many of the boats here look like they never go anywhere, judging by the growth on their anchor chains and hulls.
We looked for a spot in close to the marina but came aground, mixing the Martinique mud with our prop wash! At least we now know what is on the bottom here when we come to anchor. There are lots of shallow patches throughout the anchorage and we managed to find one! We plough forward through the mud, leaving a huge plume behind us, it just wasn’t feasible to reverse out. A guy in a dinghy saw what had happened and led us out between the moored boats. We ended up anchoring around the middle of the bay, a little too close to a local boat who came and had a chat to us. Went ashore after lunch to check in, nobody looked at our Covid tests - what a waste of money that turned out to be! We found the Ludovic at Inboard Diesel Services (the Volvo guy for our MDIs) and made a plan for him to come over and replace both of them. Volvo have already agreed to extend the warranty, but we will need to pay for the labour costs. Feels good to line up a solution to one of our problems, at least!
All the workshops here are so busy with all of the ARC boats and others like us who crossed the Atlantic and broke stuff. The sailmaker has a 5 week backlog to even look at our kite, so that repair won’t happen for a while. We managed to track down Jacques from DigiNav (the autopilot guru) and as soon as he heard about our issues and error message he felt confident he knew what the problem was - and more importantly how to fix it. He sends us back to the boat on a mission to remove the AP drive motor unit and bring it back to him. He gives us instructions and loans us some tools, it sounds so simple! Needless to say it proved to be a really difficult task – working in a confined space did rather challenge Keith’s yoga skills. Jacques had warned us that that a few drops of hydraulic oil might leak out… Well it seemed like it haemorrhaged several litres and a few choice words leaked out of Keith’s mouth as well!
Notably one of the power wires connected to the unit it did not need cutting - it just slid out of the crimping sleeve!! Hmmm, could that be the source of our woes? Keith got the unit back in to the workshop just on 4pm as it was closing, so we are not sure when we will hear back. (If you want to read the full gorey details of our Autopilot saga, click here)
And now we wait… Well we can’t go anywhere as our hydraulics are in pieces so we have no steering. We are now anchored just to the east Point Le Marin, the spit that separates the Le Marin anchorage from St Anne anchorage. We are to leeward of the entire anchorage (and at the mercy of their holding tanks, or lack thereof…) so swimming is off the activities list! Fortunately we can take the dinghy around to St Anne and visit some of the smaller beaches that line the shore.
We have a few hiccups with the Volvo MDIs and some to-ing and fro-ing with head office around the warranty so that ends up being another week’s delay. When Ludovic (Inboard Diesel Services) finally comes to fit the new MDIs our engine hours on both engines are back to zero! He adjusts the idle speed to 850RPM and recommends fitting temperature gauges to the engines (we didn’t because they were too expensive!). He also recommends replacing the fan belts due to wear and adjusting the tension. He recommends disconnecting the batteries if we are not going anywhere for more than 2 days, or in a marina etc. – I guess that means NOW! He also recommends removing the MDI from the side of the engine and placing it nearby – this could reduce the heat and vibration that contributes to failure. Keith can move the starboard one to the shelf where the batteries used to be but in the port engine bay there is no handy spot nearby. Great to have an expert come and proactively look at your stuff!
We spend the next few days doing boat jobs, soaking lines, cleaning, sika-ing etc and chasing people! Being French, work hours are strictly adhered to and of course all the workshops are closed over the weekend. The good news leading into the weekend was that Jacques had identified the problem with our autopilot and will have the rebuilt component back to us next week!
Although we can’t move ITIKI we spend the weekend getting around in the dinghy. We checked out the anchorage at Sainte Anne. Its calmer around here, a bit more protected and water is probably a bit cleaner as its more open to the sea, however so many boats and beach resorts. We tied up at the crowded dinghy dock at Sainte Anne and walked around the small, quiet but colourful little town. The church dominates the town square and there is some interesting street art. It’s a Saturday so not much is open but there a few tourist shops and bars as well as a fish market and a few fruit vendors. It’s a pretty laid back vibe. We come back on Friday we talk a walk along a trail that follows the shore past several small beaches and bays, its lovely and shaded and we can stop and swim. We find one particular bay that we need to come back to in ITIKI, there is only one boat anchored here today. On the way back we stop at a beach bar for beer and ice-cream.
On Sunday we go for a picnic to one of the tiny beaches around near Sainte Anne and have a swim. On the way back we spot a FP Elba with an Aussie flag and drop by to say hi to Cheng and Ying, from St Ives. They know all the Aussie MHS team of course and are in the process of bringing their boat back from La Rochelle to Australia. They pop around to ITIKI later for a drink as they are off to St Lucia tomorrow.
Off to see the MD
One of “our” problems to try and solve in Martinique is Keith’s shoulder. After a fall in Mindelo and advice from the local Dr there (via Google translate) that he would need an operation, we decide to try and seek a second opinion in a more “advanced” country – we are in France after all! Our travel insurance has recommended we go to the local University hospital (CHU) which is on the outskirts of Fort de France, the capital of Martinique. Its an early start to catch the 7:30am bus to the interchange and then on to a tram and then another bus to get to the hospital 2 hours later. Keith gets a free Covid test and an opportunity to wait in A&E. I get the opportunity to deal with hospital bureaucracy and practice my very rusty French. In the end Keith doesn’t get to see the specialist today, but gets a referral to see an orthopaedic surgeon next week and a request for a MRI. Unfortunately the hospital MRI is unavailable so we take a taxi to a private MRI place but it only takes appointments over the phone and only up until 1pm (and its after that by now!) We grab a quick bite to eat and head back to Le Marin. It’s an epic journey and we are exhausted, getting back just before 4pm. Keith goes to see Jacques at Diginav and he confirms he has rebuilt our autopilot drive unit and will give it to Keith to refit it before he comes back to do final checks. Small steps forward.
Marooned in Le Marin
The days start to run together as we wait for stuff to happen. We run small errands from the disabled mothership, back and forth to chandleries, workshops and markets. It’s a good place to re-provision and we are slowly re-stocking the pantry with those non-perishable items. No one supermarket or shop has everything we need so we end up going back and forth to 3 different ones. If only we could remember where we bought that nice chardy… We are anchored about a mile or so from the action and Keith makes a point of ensuring I get plenty of dinghy driving practice going back and forth. By the end of our stay I can launch and retrieve the dinghy from ITIKI, get along at a reasonable pace, land in the general vicinity of a dock and start the motor after only 14 tries! I must remember to pull the right face when I pull the cord!
As we have spent so much time in the one spot we have had time to observe the comings and goings, as well as those that don’t seem to go anywhere. In particular, the traditional wooden sailing boats catch our eye. At first the single square sail looks like a Bunnings tarp, but on closer inspection they do carry a North’s logo! These boats get along pretty quickly and involve one or more crew hanging precarious over the side on a hiking board. Here is a selection of photos of some of more interesting sights of Le Marin.
Le Marin Boats:
Motoring around Martinique (in a Picanto...)
We are dab hands at public transport now so we caught the bus up to the airport and picked up a hire car for a few days. We headed north up through the mountain area of Martinique. This is an area of high rainfall and thick tropical rainforest. Our first stop was Jardin de Balata, a lovely botanic gardens. After a bit of drama explaining our Covid vaccination status we were able to visit these beautiful, lush gardens with its stunning collection of tropical flowers and some amazing encounters with the local hummingbirds. Next we stopped at a riverside park with a couple of short nature walks through the rainforest, which was living up to its name as it was raining (again). We missed the turn off to a gorge and went in search of a water fall instead but gave up when we had to start walking along a riverbed. Headed down to Basse Pointe for a lovely and very filling 3 course Creole style lunch before driving back along the east coast. There are some anchorages around here that are well protected, and it seems somewhat of a novelty to head down the windward coast, however we decided they did not look that spectacular so we won’t visit them in ITIKI.
The following day we started with a bit of a hiccup as the tyre on the rental car was flat when we arrive. How long since you have had to change a tyre? Keith managed to do it quickly enough though and then spent 5 minutes wandering around the car park trying to find somewhere to wash his hands. We spent the day touring around the peninsula at Trois Islets, between Le Marin and Fort de France. We stop at Anse Diamant and from here we can see the famous Diamond Rock. We visited the Memorial Cap 110, a memorial to the many slaves that have lost their lives in this area. Next we stopped at the view point directly overlooking Diamond Rock – it’s a spectacular and imposing landmark and we will sail past it as we head north. Diamond Rock has an interesting history, having (allegedly) been commissioned as the “sloop” HMS Diamond Rock (a stone frigate…) in 1803. The British were able to hoist two 18 pound cannons to the summit of the rock and for the next 17 months used it as a base from which to harass French ships trying to enter Fort de France, before it was finally recaptured by the French.
Our next stops were at the small bays of Petite Anse and Anse d’Arlet. The latter is a lovely bay, colourful little village and a nice, quiet anchorage - a great spot to come back to in ITIKI.
We drove out to Pointe de Bout which is on the southern side of the bay facing Fort de France and checked out the very artificial “Creole Village”. Its bars and cafes were packed with tourists, so we move on. One of our other tyres needs a bit of air so we stop at a petrol station but the “gonfleur” is en panne (out of order). Fortunately we spot a bakery next door so we stop there for a lovely, simple lunch and pick up some yummy bread.
From there we drop into the pottery village but most of the shops are closed on a Sunday so no pottery today. We backtrack to the Cane Museum to learn a bit about the history of sugar cane production and the relationship to the slave trade in this area. It’s a similar story in many of the islands, where the production of sugar boomed to meet European demand, as well as local rum production, and then declined as Europe turned to other sources of sugar including sugar beets, and the slave trade, which supported production, was abolished. From there its back to ITIKI, via a gas station to inflate the tyres – all this talk of sugar - rum cocktails on the upper deck, a great way to finish the day.
And back to the MD
Our last day with the car is an early start to drive up to CHU (hospital) for Keith’s meeting with the orthopaedic surgeon. Parking at hospitals is the same the world over – packed! And needless to say, lots of bureaucracy to get through, more bad French from me and a fair bit of waiting. Finally we see the specialist and fortunately he speaks good English! After hearing how Keith acquired the injury and without even examining him he seems to know what he is dealing with (a bit like Jacques without autopilot!). He prescribes physiotherapy to manage the pain, improve mobility and potentially mitigate surgery. It’s a common injury in someone of Keith’s age (which he keeps telling me he isn’t). It’s a relief that we don’t have to rush back to Oz for an op. As a reward we have a trip to Mr Bricolage (French Bunnings) and a lovely lunch at the pottery village.
We decide to leave the Parasailor with Incidence sailmakers, here in Le Marin. They have a big loft and are agents for IsTec, the manufacturer. We will be long gone by the time they are even able to give us a quote for the repair, but what else are we going to do? Jacques comes back to the boat to help with the hydraulics and provide further advice. Keith has also had a few physio appointments which have been helpful.
After replacing one more part and doing a final bleed of the hydraulics we are able to cut the umbilical cord, albeit temporarily, and leave the Le Marin anchorage. It’s a welcome relief to be able to hold a course on the AP, although we still have some fine tuning and recalibration to do.
Over the next few days we are “hanging around” the lovely beach anchorages to the south east of St Anne and Le Marin, namely Anse Meurnier and Petite Anse de Salines. This means we can come back and forth into Le Marin in case we need to, and also do our final provisioning. We re-inflate the paddle boards and enjoy time swimming, walking on the beaches and exploring the lovely bays and beaches in the dinghy, trying to get back into cruising mode. We visited Les Salines, the lagoon tucked in behind the beach at Les Salines, sadly no flamingos…
We continue to work on fine tuning the autopilot calibration to the point that we are confident it is working well and set the way it should be. Finally we can settle up all our workshop bills and head north to explore the north of Martinique. Lynda, Keith, ITIKI and Ellie are back in action! Stay tuned for the rest of our Martinique adventures…
Where did it all begin?
Well, that is a very good question. I recall writing in one of my first blog articles, going back to our Biscay crossing, that the AP sounded like a sick hydraulic wildebeest calling its young. It was loud! It was constantly working back and forth and made it difficult to sleep in our starboard bunk (the autopilot motor is just behind our bed head). You could even hear it over the top of the starboard engine and creaky window when lying in bed and it is a sound you really fixate on. We assumed this was normal though, and maybe it was. It’s a brand new boat so there couldn’t be anything wrong with it, right?! Also, we had nothing to compare it to. But looking back now, we wonder if everything really was perfect.
After not missing a beat since we started cruising in August 2018, the first sign of a glitch in our autopilot (AP) was on the way from Gibraltar to the Canaries. In relatively benign conditions, It just quietly, and without any warning or error messages, still displaying “Heading Hold” on the GHC20, the AP stopped holding a course and started wandering off in an alternative direction. This rather surprised the person on watch who quickly hit “Standby” and hand steered back onto course before re-engaging heading hold. Hmmm...
This happened again a couple of times on our trip down from The Canary Islands to Cape Verde – the AP was having to work very hard in the rough conditions, with the confused sea and 3 different wave directions constantly knocking us back and forth, smacking us on one hull and then the other. We blamed the conditions for the issue as we have never been in such bad sea state before. A couple of times we even restarted the instruments (the old “turn it off and turn it on again” trick), which seemed to help but in hindsight was probably coincidence. Then on our Atlantic crossing, about halfway across, it started happening with increasing frequency. Several times during every 3 hour watch was becoming the norm, which did give us all some practice at hand steering. Getting the AP to re-engage was not always straightforward either, hand steering in rough conditions, manually holding a course sometimes without a visual datum and often trying 2-3 times before it would engage in heading hold. Finally on our last day, after one last gasp mid-morning, the autopilot gave up completely and we had to hand steer the final 20 hours to Barbados. Gruesome! But at least it happened on the last day and not earlier!
Once we got to Barbados we spent a lot of time on the phone to Garmin US. They were really good, going through all sorts of trouble shooting, recalibration and eventually agreeing to replace our heading sensor (Reactor 40) under extended warranty (thanks Covid!). Getting it to us would be the difficult part, but as luck would have it Keith’s niece was coming over to St Lucia from the UK and, long story short, we were able to get her to bring a replacement unit with her (thanks to Garmin UK for stepping in). This meant hand steering from Barbados to St Lucia, however this was not too bad in the end as conditions were much smoother and we were prepared for it. Sadly though, replacing the part did not immediately solve our problems. We fitted it and promptly performed all of the calibration wizards but alas, still not holding a course. The course computer was simply not engaging with the AP motor which drives the hydraulics and moves the rudder. The only good news that came out of this exercise is that we finally got an error message – Drive Unit Overload – this (eventually) turned out to be GOLD!
More time on the phone to Garmin and they had agreed to replace the ECU, the computer that drives the hydraulics. Having failed to solve our problem so far though, we were beginning to wonder though whether electronics was indeed the issue, and again we have the hassle of getting a part to us with no fixed address. Garmin US did not even have an agent listed in the Caribbean at all. We decided to head to Le Marin in Martinique where there are a huge range of yachting services available, including a company called DigiNav, that had great reviews on NoForeignLand.
An answer at last!
We made contact with Jacques at DigiNav shortly after arrival and as soon as he saw our error message and heard the background he immediately identified the problem. The drive motor was overworked and had worn out. He told us (well Keith actually) how to remove the drive motor for the autopilot and lent us a couple of tools that we would need to do it. He explained what he expected to find and how he would fix it for us when we brought it in to him. He inspired confidence from the start, although we still had some “homework” to do ourselves. This would probably be a good learning experience.
Keith set to the task of removing the drive motor, which was no easy feat, but he was up for the challenge despite having never touched hydraulics before. In the first place, getting to the motor is very difficult. It is in the starboard engine bay, on a shelf forward of the engine with everything you need to access facing forward (ie away from you) and its surrounded by stiff hydraulic hoses. Oh and it’s up against the bulkhead at the top so you really have limited space to work with. We are wondering if they built the entire boat around this particular part!
The steps for extraction went something like this
1.Disconnect the tiller cross bar, to give you access to the electric motor behind the hydraulic pump, leaving it to swing back and forth as the boat moved at anchor, while you continue working around it.
2.Unbolt the whole drive unit (motor & pump) from the shelf in the engine bay to manipulate it into a position that you can access the 4 bolts holding it the two components together.
3.Unbolt the motor from the hydraulic pump. To do this you need a special ring spanner ground down on one side to fit the narrow space available to access the bolts (Jacques loaned us his). Oh and the hydraulic pump has 4 very stiff hydraulic hoses coming into it restricting access to the bolts.
4.When removing the electric motor, which has the connection to the hydraulic pump’s impeller, you need a plug to stop the all the hydraulic oil draining out of the hydraulic system where you have just removed the motor from. Jacques said to expect a small amount to come out, but it felt like we lost a couple of litres at least! The engine bay resembled an episode of MASH, with the blood soaked surgeon calling for more paper towel!
5.The final step in removing the electric drive motor was to disconnect the two power supply wires. Usually these need to be cut to as they should have been crimped firmly in place, however one of them (the positive) slid cleanly out of its crimping sleeve. It had never been crimped properly. It was a smaller diameter to the wire it was connecting to, and the crimping sleeve was for the larger size wire. By contrast, the negative wire needed to be cut to remove it. Could this “loose” wire have been the source of or at least a contributor to our problems? Intermittent loss of power while it worked its way loose would be consistent with the pattern of behaviour we experienced as it failed.
6. Once the motor had been disconnected it was obvious that there had been a lot of strain on the drive arm as the sleeve that has a cotter pin holding it in was very badly elongated and the pin itself was heavily gouged and nearly sheared through. This would have made the autopilot work even harder, as there would have been a lot of slack between each movement.
Feeling as if he had just extracted a living organ from a reluctant donor, Keith proudly presented the drive motor to Jacques for him to perform further surgery, or some kind of miracle. As soon as Jacques saw the worn sleeve and cotter pin and heard about the lose wire, his suspicions about our problems were confirmed. Of course the brushes on the motor were also shot from working too hard and would also need replacing. With the vital organs now in the workshop we are in Jacques capable hands! He would rebuild our drive motor!
It was a nervous wait over the weekend and although our anchor was well dug in after a week in a very protected and calm anchorage (actually a hurricane hole) it’s unsettling to know that you have no steering and if you dragged anchor, resetting it would be interesting. It would also be difficult to take evasive action should one of the thousands of other boats anchored in the bay, to windward of us, dragged towards us.
A few days later Keith dropped in to pick up our AP motor, duly rebuilt and ready to be re-installed. The photo above shows the old and the new parts for comparison.
To re-install the drive motor, repeating the steps above, but in reverse order, with a slightly different combination of swear words, and haemorrhaging of another couple of litres of hydraulic oil. We refilled the hydraulic reservoir and tried to move the oil through the system but had missed the vital step of opening the bypass lever, so the rudders were stuck on one side. Fortunately Jacques was coming to the boat to rescue us the next day! He showed us the bypass, quickly got the fluid moving and most of the bubbles out, but there was still some air left in that was causing a problem. He explained what we needed to do and later provided the poly tubing we needed after we dropped him back to shore.
We started early the following morning with the tubing leading from either end of the hydraulic pump into a jar half full with hydraulic oil. Keith held this as I moved the steering wheel back and forth so the oil (and air bubbles) flowed out into the jar. We could then refill the reservoir at the helm station with it. We repeated this process 3 times until we were happy that all the air was out.
And now finally the moment of truth… Oh wait no, one more thing
Jacques had noticed a bit too much lateral movement in the ram of the autopilot, 2-3mm is tolerable but we have over 1cm! He suggested that the nylon bearings on the universal joint are probably worn and that these needed replacing, this along with residual air in the hydraulics would be causing the excess movement. He provided the part and instructions. He has a lot of faith in Keith’s mechanical prowess by now!
Needless to say replacing this bearing was not a straightforward task either. Again, access to the part was hampered by the jungle of stiff hydraulic hoses surrounding it. The entire unit had to be removed so that the top half of the flange could be accessed from under the hydraulic hose fitting. The bolts holding the flange were way too long and had to be ratcheted all the way out to undo them (ie could not be hand turned once loosened). Then of course this needed to be reversed to put everything back together. Unfortunately, Keith cross threaded one of the bolts in the aluminium flange in the reinstallation process and had to pause the process, go ashore and drop it into a workshop to get it re-machined before continuing on. In re-fitting it he decided to reverse the direction of the bolts to make them easier to get out if we ever had to do this again (heaven forbid). Now that all of this is done, however, there is absolutely no movement in the arm! Jacques is impressed.
Putting it all together
Finally we take the plunge and lift the anchor, heading out of Le Marin with our refurbished drive unit and a fresh carpet of green growth decorating the hull and the anchor bridle. We go through the now familiar Garmin calibration exercises which involves setting the compass by turning in circles, setting the rudder gain and counter gain by doing a series of zig-zags. Once that is complete we check the AP responsiveness with some course changes to ensure she goes straight to the heading and stays there. A few days latter we reset the rudder sensitivity to lower it, so the rudder is not working too hard.
Root Cause Analysis
So in true “Air crash investigation” style we are keen to know what caused the problem? Was there a single issue/error/mistake that had a series of knock on effects? Or, as is often the case, were multiple factors at play?
A few options to consider
1.The loose wire to the AP motor has to be a prime consideration. Losing power intermittently would have explained the loss of heading hold without error message. It would also lead to the motor working too hard.
2.Air in the hydraulic system – many people have this issue and we may have as well.
3.Rudder settings – we had never adjusted the gain and counter gain or rudder sensitivity/responsiveness from the factory settings. Once we have completed the auto-calibration we set the rudder responsiveness to the lowest level. The difference is noticeable, the autopilot is working a lot less now but still functioning quite well in terms of holding us on course. Was the higher sensitivity setting working the hydraulics too hard? Particularly in the rough, cross current of the ocean crossing.
4. Rough sea conditions on the crossing from Canaries to Cape Verde and on to Barbados making the AP work too hard?
5. Other (intermittent) electronics issues or glitches with the ECU and/or CCU?
What do you think? Leave a comment if you think of any other possible causes.
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.