When an Atlantic crossing left their boat in need of repair, Lou and Tom Luddington were drawn to the most southerly of the Leeward Islands and discovered a paradise teeming with natural wonders

The French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe is the most southerly of the Leeward Islands. Shaped like a butterfly, it is split into two halves, the wings forming Basse-Terre in the west and Grande-Terre to the east. Its varied coastline provides curiosity for sailors and land explorers alike.

In the south-east we cruised over sunlit seagrass meadows roamed by green turtles and stingrays, and out west we dived the deep blue waters and coral gardens of the Cousteau Reserve, serenaded by humpback whales. Squally winds kept us alert on passage and made for adventurous journeys between anchorages, on a leisurely partial circumnavigation that we measured in weeks, then months.

Essential boat repairs from our recent Atlantic crossing drew us to Guadeloupe; a broken bobstay chainplate meant we needed a chandlery and a boatyard with a lift, neither of which were available in Dominica, our first Caribbean landfall. Heading to Pointe-à-Pitre, the main port that lies deep in the southerly cleft of Guadeloupe, we learned there was a four-week waiting list for the lift.

We booked in and resigned ourselves to a few weeks of exploring nearby – we had broken the chainplate on the third day of our 25-day Atlantic crossing, rendering our genoa unusable. We could, however, manage a few more weeks’ sailing without the big headsail.

The route

South coast

After two nights in Bas du Four marina at Pointe-à-Pitre we set off south-east for Iles de la Petite-Terre, a tiny group of low lying islands off the far south-east corner of Guadeloupe. Tucked in a sheltered lagoon between the two islands, the anchorage is reached by a shallow pass in the reef that surrounds them. Arriving on a calm day we breezed through, shepherded to the lagoon by a lone bottlenose dolphin that burst through the water at our bow, took a breath through its blowhole, then vanished.

Lying 10 kilometres from the nearest coast of Guadeloupe, these two uninhabited islands and surrounding waters were protected as a national nature reserve in 1998. The government recognised their importance as a stronghold for lesser Antilles iguanas, as a nesting area for three species of sea turtles and home to a stand of guaiac trees that have otherwise disappeared from the lesser Antilles.

Since that time, hunting, fishing and collecting or harvesting of animals from both land and sea have been forbidden, whilst mooring buoys for visiting boats prevent anchor damage to the seabed. With a land area of less than 2km2, and protected surrounding waters of 8km2, it is a reserve of modest size, yet it is positively teeming with life.

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We stayed for four nights on one of the 10 mooring buoys provided for visitors. Positioned in the shallow lagoon between the two islands, we could hop over the side into calm, clear water for a short swim to the reef and seagrass meadows.

When it comes to the variety of wildlife on offer, the seclusion and adventurous access, these tiny islands turned out to be one of our favourite locations in the entire eastern Caribbean.

The lagoon

On our first afternoon we explored the lagoon, swimming hard against the current surging in over the reef. Though bustling with life, much of the reef and lagoon bottom is a coral graveyard, a derelict jumble of toppled elkhorn and staghorn coral skeletons overgrown with seaweed. Both species once dominated the shallows of Caribbean reef systems but are now rare and critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Lou scans the horizon. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

Bleaching events, disease and ferocious hurricanes have torn through reef systems worldwide making scenes like this commonplace in tropical waters. Sadly recent studies have revealed that 50% of coral reefs worldwide have been lost in the last 40 years.

There is still much life to marvel at though, sponges, fan worms, an octopus squeezed into a hole, clouds of fishes and sea cucumbers lying on the sand. Losing ourselves in the details, we swim to the far reaches of the lagoon where the waves wash in from the open sea, then back to the calm, bright shallows of the inner lagoon where goatfish forage and chunky palometa fish rest. When a chill creeps into our muscles we head for the island to warm up.

Our timing coincides with the departure of tour boats bringing day trippers from Guadeloupe. The whole island empties but for a few fellow yachties so we walk barefoot to the lighthouse. Iguanas litter the paths and scale vertical walls. Each is decorated in faded colours, with big scales and a crest of spikes along their backs. Endemic to the lesser Antilles and in severe decline due to habitat loss and hunting they are also critically endangered. Yet on these uninhabited islands they thrive in good numbers.

Heading ashore on Noctiluca’s inflatable dinghy. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

Back on the beach ruddy turnstones rummage in the strandline of seaweed and seagrass, and seaward royal terns plummet from the sky, firing themselves at tiny fish just below the water surface to land with a splash. In the shallows young lemon sharks patrol back and forth parallel with the shore, the tips of their fins breaking the surface.

Sunset underwater

Swimming back with the sun low in the sky, we experience the magic of sunset underwater. Stingrays hunt the seabed in a cloud of rummaged sand, green turtles outpace us as they row for deeper water and shoals of surgeonfish pour back and forth across the reef, glowing blue-violet in the sun’s rays.

Beneath our boat a sand tilefish tends to its mound of coral fragments then slides into its hole when I dive down for a look. It was enchanting to have spent the afternoon in another world and I am so thankful for this liveaboard life.

On our third day we consider leaving but a glance out to the exit passage shows a wall of white water breaking across the reef. The swell had picked up, we weren’t going anywhere despite several tour boats arriving. I was delighted to be trapped in paradise!

Guadeloupe was one of their last stops in the Caribbean. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

On day four, the swell appears to have dropped and we set off but soon realise our mistake. Faced with breaking, shoulder-high surf we reach the impact zone as the first wave of a set begins to feather and breaks clean over the bow, pouring into the cockpit and soaking us both. We brace as our home lurches and bobs wildly through the rest of the set, just managing to hold our line to reach clear water.

We certainly don’t have the horsepower to manoeuvre a 10-ton yacht through a reef break and feel lucky to have made it. Though a little traumatised we agree later our dramatic exit made the memories of the islands even more golden.

After leaving Iles de la Petite- Terre we head for St-François, a small coastal town on the south coast with a marina and sheltered anchorage. Ideal for a short tender or kayak trip to town for grocery supplies, boutique browsing and café time.

From here we edge back west towards Pointe-à-Pitre, stopping to anchor at Plage de Petit-Havre and Plage de Salines, the latter sheltered by a reef with good holding on seagrass, then finally to the popular and sheltered anchorage at Le Gosier. We arrive on a Sunday to see jet-skis zipping about and a party on Le Gosier island with loud music, which is normal for Caribbean weekend parties.

Thankfully Monday brings peace, and we settle into a week of snorkelling over luminous seagrass meadows and swimming to the island.

Tom settles into Caribbean life in the cockpit. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

A few days later, we decide to be proactive and show our faces at the boatyard. With some gentle persuasion they find a spot for us the next day and suddenly it’s full steam ahead to get Noctiluca lifted.

During our four days in the boatyard we complete a long list of jobs including fitting a new bobstay chainplate and wire, removing our 100-litre water bag (that also burst on the third day of our crossing), tackling a cockroach infestation, cleaning the hull and replacing the anode. It’s an incredibly sweaty, noisy few days and we are glad to be afloat again and on passage to the west coast.

Flying along at 6 knots, with two reefs in the mainsail and our genoa full and pulling us along for the first time in three months, we feel as though we’ve been set free.

Bathed in whale song

The Cousteau marine reserve is another highlight of Guadeloupe. Dropping anchor off Plage de Malendure, a short dinghy ride to Pigeon Island gets you to the protected waters of the Cousteau reserve. Popular with tour boats and dive operators, we find our own space, and dive over deep drop-offs that are teeming with life.

Terre-de-Haut island, Les Saintes. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

The variety of sealife is incredible and the reef impressive. Despite some heavy hurricane damage in 2017, I was heartened to see critically endangered elkhorn and staghorn coral growing here under the protection of the reserve. Dominating the view, as with most Caribbean reefs, is the giant barrel sponge. Described as the redwoods of the reef due to their colossal size and astonishing lifespan of more than 2,000 years, they play an important ecological role in reef systems, filtering large volumes of sea water, maintaining coral health and facilitating reef regeneration.

The reserve and adjacent waters of the Guadeloupe National Park are well set up for snorkelling, scuba and freediving, with mooring balls at dive sites that mark wrecks and spectacular volcanic features at a range of depths. Our many freedives were often accompanied by a soundtrack of whale song – the unmistakable squeaks, groans and rumbles of male humpback whales singing. These whales are part of the north Atlantic population that undergo seasonal migrations of 4,000 miles between their summer feeding grounds in Norway and Iceland, and winter breeding grounds in the south-eastern Caribbean.

The islands provide superlative snorkelling. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

It was incredible to bathe in their melodies, to soak in their vibrations and wonder at the sentiment of these sensitive ocean beings.

Protected waters

In the north of Guadeloupe the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protects a huge area of seagrass, coral islets and mangrove and is teeming with life. Sailing there from the west coast and navigating its shallow water was an absorbing and exhilarating experience.

With a short trip to the north we completed a patchy circumnavigation of Guadeloupe, discovering secret spots and exploring others that brought home the reality of development and human impact on the ocean. We felt blessed to have discovered this diverse French-Caribbean gem, whose finer corners took our breath away and left us with lasting memories.

A hawksbill turtle swimming gracefully in the sunlight. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

Tips for cruising Guadeloupe

Choose the best time – The best period to cruise here is from December to May.

Choose a charter – The nearest yacht charters are available from Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, at www.12knots.com and www.dreamyachtcharter.com.

Use a guide – The Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands, Antigua to Dominica by Chris Doyle and Lexi Fisher covers Guadeloupe.

Chart of choice – Admiralty chart 593 shows approaches to Guadeloupe. We used Navionics charts which appeared to be accurate for Guadeloupe.

Utilise Navily – Navily is a great for finding anchorages. www.navily.com

Iles de la petite-terre – This was one of our favourite anchorages with mooring balls in the marine reserve.

Noctiluca anchored at Iles-des-Saintes, Guadeloupe. Photo: Dr. Lou Luddington

Magical Malendure – This is a popular anchorage with a dock for dinghy access to the beach and fishing harbour just south of the beach. Gas and petrol are available from the garage and there are supermarkets, a pharmacy, hardware shops and an artisan French bakery. There is a good bus service to access hiking trails and other parts of the island. Pointe Pigeon, just to the south of Malendure, offers a little more protection from swell and a lovely trail up and over the headland through the forest. There’s good snorkelling here too.

Find a good marina – Marina Bas-du-Fort, at Pointe-à-Pitre, is a big, well-serviced marina. Booking by phone or email is recommended. The staff are friendly and there are good facilities. Customs check-in is easy and costs €5. It’s a busy boatyard with a lift and excellent boat services.

Marine de Riviére-sens – Located at Gourbeyre on the south-west coast of Basse-Terre, this is a friendly marina with a few facilities. Fuel and water available.

Be wary of squalls – Squalls are the main consideration when considering the weather in this region and tend not to show on forecasts. During the day you can see them coming in the form of towering cumulonimbus clouds. Reef early and err on the side of caution as the associated wind can be particularly fierce.

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