After a month in Virginia, Mom was healing like a champ in rehab, and Dad had food in the freezer. It was time for me to head back to St. Thomas, where Scott and I would point Sea Life toward Grenada, where Sea Life would spend hurricane season.
Soon after I returned, the wind forecast was favorable for an almost three day leg to Martinique (a hop, skip and a jump, after the hellish 6.5 days from Cartagena to Puerto Rico…ugh!). After two over-nights, and zeroing in on hour 50, we caught sight of the beautiful, volcanic island.
We made our way down the coast, admiring the steep, deep green slopes, dotted with small villages and bright green fields.
Our destination was the small town of Saint Pierre, not far down Martinique’s west side. I found this great geographical map online, marking Saint Pierre, and also showing how mountainous the island is.
We approached the quiet town, and anchored at the south end. Local children played in the sand on shore, and we had views of Mt Pele in the distance. In the evenings, the sounds of tree frogs in the hills just off shore was music to our ears. It was relaxing, peaceful and beautiful.
Howard immediately liked Saint Pierre, heading outside as soon as the motor shut off.
He and Scott spend time relaxing on the side deck, taking in the sights and “smells,”
Scott enjoyed a celebratory, end-of-passage/arriving-at-a-new-island cocktail, while Howard enjoyed a post-passage scratch on the dock lines hanging nearby.
Knowing that this doesn’t thrill Scott, Howard will look back, to see if there’s a reprimand coming.
Later, there was play time on Howard’s “jungle gym,” aka our inflatable dinghy. For one reason or another, and always on passages, the dinghy get’s stored on the side deck, and Howard cannot resist jumping up on it.
It is free for cruising boats to clear in and out of the French-owned islands…big plus; cheap wine, bread and pastries…even BIGGER plus! There are usually several locations on the islands (stores and shops) who have a computer on site, and cruisers just have to enter their boat information, etc. and click “print” for clearance papers. There is even an option of clearing in an out at the same time, if you enter your expected date of departure.
The morning after arriving, we went to a local restaurant just a block from the town dinghy dock, to use the clearance computer. With the online form in French, the obvious language barrier made filling in our information a bit challenging at times, but the owner happily helped us. He spoke English, and helped me better pronounce a few key phrases (most important: Please forgive me, I’m just learning, and my French is horrible!), and served us cold, Lorraine beer while we finished our check in form.
Now that we were official, it was time to wander through town a bit.
Scott was also thrilled to once again be able to buy Orangina (still another French island plus), which he’s come to love.
We learned that Saint Pierre used to be known as the “Paris of the Caribbean,” and was culturally and economically the most important city on the island. Unfortunately, this town has taken quite a beating over time.
A hurricane pummeled Martinique in 1780. Known as “The Great Hurricane,” it produced a storm surge of 25 feet, which inundated the city, destroying all houses and killing 9,000 people. The devastating storm is the deadliest Atlantic Hurricane on record. Between 20,000 and 22,000 people died throughout the Lesser Antilles Islands, when the storm passed through them from October 10th–16th of that year. Specifics on the hurricane’s track and strength are unknown, because the official Atlantic Hurricane database only goes back as far a 1851.
The town was destroyed again in 1902. when the volcano Mount Pelée erupted. It’s destruction dubbed the Mount Pele Eruption the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. The eruption killed approximately 30,000 people with a pyroclastic flow (a dense collection of fragments and gases, which is much more dangerous than a lava flow).
Mount Pelée sent a cloud of super-heated gas and dust racing toward the city. Within a single minute, the 1,075 degree pressure wave flattened nearly every building in the city of St. Pierre. Anyone unlucky enough to be in its way would have instantly caught fire and burned to death. Even those in shelters suffocated, as the super-heated wave burned up the oxygen and replaced it with deadly gases; lungs were incinerated from the inside, with even a single breath (gross).
The deadly eruption completely destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre (which was, at that time, the largest city on the island), within minutes. Approximately 30,000 people were killed instantly; the entire population of the town, as well as people from neighboring villages who had taken refuge there for safety. The city burned for days afterward.
Apparently, there was considerable eruptive activity in the two weeks prior to the fatal blast, but since pyroclastic flow was not yet understood, the danger was thought to be from lava flows. It was believed the lava would be stopped by two valleys between the volcano and the city.
The main eruption left only two survivors in the direct path of the flow: a prisoner in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell, and a man living on the edge of the city, who escaped with severe burns.
Mount Pele is currently in a dormant state, but is registering seismic activity.
The city of Saint-Pierre was never fully restored to its former self. However, it is now referred to as a city of art and history. There were many reminders of the eruption’s damage, as we walked the streets.
The cathedral in town was rebuilt after Mount Pele’s destruction, and the “new” cathedral looks much different. Only its lower floor, spared by the pyroclastic flow, was preserved in the reconstruction.
The large cathedral was undergoing a current reconstruction when we visited.
We walked along an upper road, and came to the remains of the Theater of San Pierre.
Able to seat 800 people, we read that it was often booked to capacity, with plays ranging from classical to vaudeville, as well as operas. On evenings when there were productions, the stairs and entrance railings were crowded with vendors, selling oranges, pistachios and sweets. The theater also hosted political meetings, and even balls during carnival time.
Due to economic reasons, the theater was closed, just a year before the Mount Pele eruption. The staircase is still pretty well intact, offering views back out to the Caribbean, but not much remains of the great theater’s interior.
On the other side of the theater wall, and down the hill, are remains of the prison, and it’s cells.
On May 7, 1902, a day before the Mount Pele eruption, Louis Sylbaris, the town troublemaker, ended up in solitary confinement here. Since all records were destroyed, and all witnesses killed by the eruption, what Louis was being imprisoned for is a matter of speculation. He later said it was because of a fight, but the cell he was in would have been where someone accused of a more serious crime, such as murder, may have been held.
Trapped in his cell when the volcano erupted, Sylbaris felt the intense heat from the 1,000-plus degree pressure wave, as ash came flying in through the tiny slot in the door. Suffering from burns and desperate to cool down, he urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the opening. It was just enough to save him, and four days later, rescuers freed him.
Having survived the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, Sylbaris became a celebrity, and toured the world with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was billed as “The only living object that survived in the ‘Silent City of Death.'” While the eruption was doomsday for the town of St Pierre, it may have been Loius Sylbaris’ savior.
We made our way back to the high road in town, to an overlook area with views of the sea. Fisherman cast lines off the docks below, to the north, and Sea Life was contently at anchor to the south.
Immediately below us…more of Mount Pele’s devastation.
Maritime commerce increased through the eighteenth century, and by the mid-century, seven eighths of all the island’s trade came through St. Pierre, as well as that of St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Grenada. With such a high volume of commercial activity, there was a great need for warehouses and shops along the waterfront. As a result, Quartier du Figuier was developed.
Scott and I went down some steep, steep steps, to the road below, to get a closer look at the remains of the buildings.
Warehouses along the Quartier du Figuier held merchandise that had just been loaded off of ships, and also goods waiting to be loaded. Shops stocked items that ships traveling through may need, such as ropes, hoists, anchors, etc. Most of the buildings had upper stories, which were used for residences.
With a full day of wandering behind us, we stopped for a pizza to go, and enjoyed cold Lorraine beer while it cooked. Then it was back to Sea Life, traveling along the historic town’s shoreline, as we made our way in the dinghy.
Tomorrow’s plan…..a day of rum! Here are many more photos, of our stay in Saint Pierre.
“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”