Tropical Jungle Rivers

February 21st2020 – Fitz Roy is anchored in Baje de Cocotiers on Ile Rojale in French Guyana. We sleep in and wake up dreaming of French bread. We heard that there is a restaurant on the island so we hastily deploy the dinghy, count our last Euro bills and get underway to the dinghy dock. The Amel Supermaramu that was anchored in front of us is getting underway and waving to us. I would later find out that on board the Amel was Serena who would later sail across the Atlantic back to Europe aboard New Dawn with Paul and me.

Baja de Cocotiers, Fitz Roy anchored close inshore,
Ile Royal in the background

The three island archipelago

Stepping on land feels strange and exciting. We walk under big palm trees up to the restaurant that is situated in the former prison guards house. The three islands have been a French overseas prison that was only decommissioned in the 50ies. It is the famous place of Albert Dreyfuss imprisonment and subject of the book and movie Papillon. Today Ile Royale is home to the auberge, the restaurant, a police station and a space administration facility that is manned during rocked launches from nearby Kouru (the European Space Administrations’ rocket launch site) twice a month. The rest of the island is covered in dense vegetation as are the other two island. The neighboring Ile Diable is inaccessible and was connected to Ile Royal trough a cable car in the old days. Ile de St. Joseph today is home to a French military post run by Albanian mercenaries. Their fort is more of a tropical shack and they have all sorts of fishing gear and stuff laying around. Also the island hosts the old prison cells where the prisoners where in solitary confinement. Ile St. Joseph was a feared for being a brutal place, with lots of violence between inmates and most of the prisoner did not survive here.

Walking around Ile de St. Joseph after 11 days at sea.

First on the list was the French baguette so we climbed the steep steps up to the auberge where the restaurant was. And yes they had beautiful baguettes with butter, ham and cheese and cucumber. We also took a straight rum each to celebrate! It was way too strong and way too much for the early hours of the day. We strolled around the island a bit longer visiting the church and the lighthouse before returning to Fitz Roy to do some tidying up. 

Ile Royale

We heard rumors that there are still sharks around the islands, that where originally attracted by the bodies of the prisoners that where dumped into the sea and on top of that there was word of crocodiles! The water was very murky and we did not see a thing. Nadine was the first one to go swimming and every time we saw a floating coconut or a palm leave there was alarm and everyone got out of the water quickly. We later learned that this is all bogus and went swimming happily ever after.

My favorite spot, black rocks, green palm trees and a constant wind

My favorite place on Ile Royal was a trail that goes around the east coast. It has a nice view of the neighboring islands. The shore is exposed to the constant waves of the Atlantic and is lined with big black rocks that stand in beautiful contrast to the green vegetation and the red earth. The Tradewinds blow steady and the leaves of the tall palm trees are rustling in the wind constantly. It’s a peaceful place and I would sit there after the tourist boat left reading Humboldt and contemplating life. I could have spent many more days here especially so after the long crossing on the ocean.

Ile de St. Joseph with its nice cemetry

On day three we visited Ile St. Joseph and walked thought the isolation cells that were taken back by nature and were completely overgrown. The road around the island is very beautiful and lush leading to a cute little beach on the north shore where we also find a cemetery, is the most peaceful and epic cemetery I have found anywhere in the world. It’s unmarked graves are set into a clearing in midst of the tall palm trees with the ocean nearby and a constant breeze going through.

The Maroni River

The days fly by and soon it is time to move on. We have not yet cleared in and are still flying the Q flag but the Island police does not seem to mind. They are more concerned about styling their hair, sporting their camo pants and driving the quad, very French. Next stop would be Saint Laurent du Maroni, it’s a 18h sail away and some 20 miles up the Maroni river which forms the border between French Guyana and Suriname.

Crique du Vaches

In order to make the river bar at daylight and with a rising tide we have to leave Iles de Salut just before midnight. We take a nap in the evening and get up around 10pm to prepare for departure. The stern anchor is stuck in the mud and it takes a bit of effort to get it up, it’s a very dark night and we are anchored very close to the shore. First I’m a bit angry, the Danforth (anchor Type) in mud is just brutal to get out.. but then some good teamwork solves the issue quickly. The wind is blowing with around 20 knots as we shoot across the shallow waters of the continental shelf and trough the pitch black night. Nadine is on the helm, I try to spy any fishing boats or nets and Alexandra is sleeping. It’s a bit hectic as we are beating into the wind and have not much information on the local fishing situation. All goes well and around midday we reach the river delta of the Maroni. The water had a beautiful turquoise color as we sail in about 10 meters over sand along the coast. But it gets murkier fast as we come closer to the river bar. It’s a bizarre place to be and I feel far away from home. I understand why people want to sail to the Caribbean or the Pacific but why do we want to sail up a murky jungle river? Rivers mean adventures!

Saint Laurent Du Maroni

Our routing and predictions work again very well and we arrive at exactly the right time at the bar, the tide is changing and we ride it up. The first 15 nautical miles we can sail and the last stretch we have to motor. The sun is low as we turn around the Edith Carvell, a sunken wreck in the river that is completely overgrown by trees and forms the northern boundary of the anchorage at Saint Laurent.

Davide the owner of the yacht club is a very welcoming and nice guy. He gives us a ride to customs and immigration and takes us on an interesting tour around town, explaining a bit about the place and the people. Saint Laurent is a border town and is a bit run down. The local population lives of social benefits (France pays 400€ per child and the families have more than one) or from drug trafficking. There are a few Chinese stores, that sell groceries and make millions in revenues washing money for the drug cartels. The population seems generally very young and many of the young guys drive a M3 (BMW) or a Q7 (Audi) or a Golf all tuned like nuts and payed for by running drugs to France. The rest seems rahter poor and be living a very basic life. Non the less the place has it’s charm and the people are very friendly!

Ayawande seen from the air with infinite jungle in the back

We spend 5 days in SLM before we continue into the criques (side rivers) of the Maroni river and I wish we had more time to explore these. We spend two days motoring around these narrow river arms and spend one night anchored in the middle of the river using a bow and a stern anchor as it’s not wide enough to swing. We dig out some Lagunitas IPA (my favorite beer from California that was oddly sold in the French supermarket) and enjoy a nice evening in the unexpectedly quiet jungle. The next morning we leave with the rising tide to negotiate the only shallow spot of 3m in the otherwise mostly 10m deep river.

The indigenous village of Ayawande

Around midday we drop anchor just off the Maron village of Ayawande. The village sits on a sand dune and is merely a small clearing in the otherwise dense jungle stretching to the horizon. It was thrilling to pull up to an indigenous village in the midst of the jungle with our own boat, going ashore a bit shy first. I found some people in the back of one of the houses and and ask them if I can come over to talk. They seem very friendly and invite me, one of the kids brings a chair and I sit down in their midst. I quickly find out about their way of life, their view on the world and what keeps them busy. No translator no tourguide no tourists. We talked about fishing, logging, schooling, the jungle, local trails, cayman eating their dogs, moving into bigger communities, the night sky and a lot more. When I left the elder gave me some homegrown veggies as a gift and I gave him my swiss pocket knife. We left Ayawande with the setting sun to get out into the main river for dinner and a nap before exiting the Maroni river at around 22:00. Again all would have to be well calculated in order to get into the Paramaribo river in daylight and with the rising tide. The next hours were a rather uneventful night passage with some fishing traffic but nothing troubling. I stayed up the whole night and let the girls sleep in. We switched shifts in the morning and I dosed off in the cockpit. The water changed it’s color once again to turquoise and we made good speed towards the Suriname river bar. The beautiful Atlantic trade winds were super steady at 15 knots TWS and 110° AWA producing a good average of 7 knots boat speed. On this and the previous passages I was worried to be too optimistic about my calculation of the currents. But having heard from some sailors underestimating the current, I calculated with an average of 8 knots over ground which was actually very accurate and we always arrived at the correct and planned time at the river bars.

The Suriname River

Aproaching the Suriname river was the moment when it struck me. I always talked about sailing to Suriname and even tough our Atlantic crossing was completed when we arrived to Iles de Salut, the real moment of “arrival” was entering the Suriname river. Suriname was the country that I had heard of and was thinking about, off the beaten track for the average Atlantic sailor and with friendly people all around. As we sailed up the river the sun was setting and we were breaking rule number 3 (no alcohol when underway) and with a beer in my hand I was trying to imagine what this places has in store for us. We fetched a buy at Domburg Yachtclub in the dark (remember we are experts at night navigation). We launchd the dinghy and go straight into the River Breeze, the yacht clubs restaurant. Well we rowed against the current for 10 minutes as our engine is still broken. We sat down and talk about what we want to eat and Alexandra has a cigarettes emergency and by the time we are ready to order, the kitchen is closed. We walk across the square and into the street where there was a big political rally and of course some food stands. It’s a tropical evening and the smell of spices is in the air and some politician is talking strongly trough big speakers everybody is cheerful, how could it be any better. Writing this I feel sorry that I only spent 7 days there. Iles de Salut was beautiful and I could have stayed there longer as well but I had seen it and it was ok to leave. In the time I spent in Suriname I did merely scratch the surface of what would be there to discover.  I seriously was thinking of staying there for a while and dig for gold (just one crazy example).

What followed was a week of exploring the town of Paramaribo, the Jungle with Rudi the fun guide and saying goodbye to my beloved crew that sailed with me for more than two months.