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Devil’s Island, parrots and mining towns

Feb 29, 2016

Visiting the coffee-brown rivers of the Guianas in South America

The authors’ cutter Nine of Cups anchored near a tree-infested wreck on the Maroni River in French Guiana.

The authors’ cutter Nine of Cups anchored near a tree-infested wreck on the Maroni River in French Guiana.

We recently cruised to a place that sees few voyaging boats. We sailed our Liberty 458 cutter, Nine of Cups, to the three countries of the Guianas on the northeast coast of South America. How did we choose such an offbeat location? Fate and curiosity came together in an exciting way. 

Our original plan had been to cross the Atlantic in March and arrive in the Chesapeake ahead of hurricane season. Unexpected repairs in Cape Town had us leaving South Africa in June, very late in the season and well behind schedule. Though the South Atlantic is spared the hurricane season, we were up in the air as to where to go once we got to the other side of the Atlantic. Since the Caribbean hurricane zone was out of the question, our options were limited. We could head to Trinidad and Tobago or Grenada, or perhaps Brazil. After a bit more research, another option became not only apparent, but reasonable — the Guianas. 

There were several reasons for our choice. The ITCZ at this time of year moves further north, so there was less chance of getting caught in the doldrums. There is a favorable equatorial current and, of course, no hurricanes. Less important, but certainly a consideration, the Guianas were the only countries in South America that we’d never visited. Noonsite, other cruisers’ blogs and an Internet search provided lots of information to pave the way.

After a 27-day, 3,400-nm uneventful passage from St. Helena, we made landfall at Iles du Salut, the location of Devil’s Island, the infamous French Guiana penal colony. We anchored off Ile St.-Joseph for three days, recouping from the passage and regaining our land legs with hikes on the islands. We passed by the entrance to French Guiana’s Kourou River with its limited facilities in favor of heading to Saint Laurent on the Maroni River.

Prison ruins in French Guiana.

Though we were motoring only 10 miles offshore, there was little to see. The land here is flat and low, fringed in mangroves. Beyond Kourou, there are no other cities or towns on French Guiana’s coast. Based on our previous experience with unlit fishing boats at night and heeding the advice of others who had sailed this route, we opted to do the 110-nm trip in two days, traveling only during daylight hours. Our goal was to position ourselves near the entrance to the Maroni River in order to catch the morning flood tide and head upriver. We anchored just off the entrance as the sun was setting and endured a rolly night with wind against waves and current. At first light, we saw the St. Laurent sea buoy.

We lost the ocean swell as we headed into the river. The water began to change color from turquoise green, to gray-green, to khaki brown to coffee brown. We heard howlers roar and monkeys chatter. The hum of cicadas provided constant background noise. Snowy egrets, perched on low branches, watched us pass. A raptor circled overhead, dove and flew off with a fish clutched in his talons. Earthy smells and smoke replaced the smell of the ocean. The shoreline was thick with mangrove and dense tangled foliage.

The Maroni River is a natural border between French Guiana and its neighbor, Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), but the deep water is on the French side. We clung to the shoreline as we followed the buoyed markers upriver. Some markers were as noted on our charts, others had been moved to account for silting and changes in the river flow. We tracked our route to ensure an easy exit when it came time to leave. About 323 miles long, the Maroni is the longest river in French Guiana.

The river was busy. Fishermen plied their nets. River taxis — long, open pirogues with big outboard engines — ferried people up and down the river. Passengers held colorful parasols over their heads to keep off the blazing sun. Every once in a while, there would be a small clearing and a house on stilts would appear with a small boat moored at the river’s edge.

A pirogue school bus picks up kids from a beach with a longtime shipwreck.

We rounded the bend some 30 nm upriver and the town of St. Laurent-du-Maroni appeared in the distance with a small group of masts visible just off the river’s edge. A small new marina offered moorings and we picked one up quite close to a wrecked vessel. As the tide turned, the brown muddy river became a torrent, the current rushing past us at several knots, nearly drowning our mooring buoy.

Arriving in a new port after a month at sea is always a momentous occasion. St. Laurent du Maroni (SLM), French Guiana’s second largest city, was a welcome sight. Even its name conjured up lovely thoughts, though when we found out its association with the penal colony it altered our perception a bit. It’s a sleepy little river port that sits just across the river from Albina, Suriname. The 19th-century buildings are dilapidated. The roads are pot-holed. Open storm sewers border the streets, a reminder of the torrential downpours that frequently occur during the rainy season.

The first thing we noticed when we came ashore was a large bronze statue of a shackled prisoner. SLM was the arrival port for all French prisoners. Convicts were processed at Camp de la Transportation just across the street, and then assigned to one of several prison sites in the area, including Devil’s Island. 

Things don’t happen quickly in SLM. It took us three days to get settled on an appropriate mooring, four days to have our passports stamped at immigration and another day to check in with customs. It’s relaxed and decidedly more Caribbean than it is South American.

The authors’ route along the Guiana coast took them up three of the principal rivers, the Maroni, the Suriname and the Essequibo.

SLM offers pretty much anything a cruiser might need — other than repairs and parts. There’s a marché (fresh market) every Wednesday and Saturday morning that is an experience unto itself with lots of unidentifiable fruits and veggies that require further research, inquiry and tasting. There’s an ATM dispensing euros, a large modern well-stocked supermarket and several wonderful French boulangeries offering fresh croissants and breads. There are restaurants and cafés, dentists and doctors, car rentals and a tourist info office. Everyone speaks French, but many speak English as well.

There are several nearby creeks to explore, many deep enough for big boats and others perfect for dinghy excursions. Locals are happy to provide rudimentary charts and mud maps.

Up the Suriname River
After three weeks in French Guiana, we headed for Suriname. It was approximately 150 nm to a safe anchorage at Domburg, about 35 miles up the Suriname River.
 
Once again, the tides dictated boat movement on the river. We waited for an ebbing tide during daylight hours to carry us down the Maroni back to the Atlantic, and then waited for a flood tide at the mouth of the Suriname River to get us upriver to Domburg. Luckily, the total distance is only about 150 nm and there are anchorages in the rivers if it’s necessary to wait for the tides. The tide tables provided on our Navionics charting software were reliable and good indicators for planning departures and arrivals. We followed our inbound track 27 nm down the circuitous Maroni, making the outbound trip a bit less stressful than the upriver trip had been. The wind picked up to 20 to 25 knots on the nose about halfway down causing short, square, muddy brown waves to smash against the bow, wind against current and a bumpy ride. With the ebbing tide to carry us, however, we were spit back into the Atlantic just three and a half hours later. After a toast to Neptune, we headed west on a beam reach. David lowered the French courtesy flag and raised the Suriname flag.

Tree branches fouling Nine of Cups’ mooring line on the Suriname River.

The winds petered out before midnight and we made the decision to motor when our speed dropped to less than 4 knots. Though we were eight to 10 miles offshore, the water was still quite shallow at 25 to 35 feet. Fishermen were out in great numbers. Some boats were lit, some not. They laid out great nets with a strobe to mark the end, then waited downwind a mile or more. Knowing which side of the net to pass was the challenge. If we could spot the boat, just a tiny point of light in the vast darkness, it wasn’t difficult. If the boat was unlit or too far away, it was a crapshoot. Neptune was looking out for us and we managed the 80 nm avoiding all problems. 

We were at the mouth of the Suriname by 0530. It was still dark, but the flashing channel markers and the light of the gibbous moon guided us up the channel entrance. The fishing fleet was just returning to port as well, and we followed along in good company, waving at the homecoming crews. The sun rose at 0615 and we began to see river sights.

The Suriname River was just as muddy and brown as the Maroni, but it was wider and deeper. The channel markers were more frequent, the coastline less wild and forbidding. We reached the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne Rivers when the current was at its peak and felt the conflicting pull of the current, eddies and whirlpools as we veered to starboard up the Suriname. We looked for the notable pink freshwater dolphins but saw none. Yellow butterflies flew over the aft deck. We heard the high-pitched chirp of welcome swallows as they flitted around the boat. 

Fishing boats were lined up on wharves and piers. Beautiful riverfront homes sprawled along the banks. We approached Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital city. It stretched scenically along the foreshore, the spires of its cathedral and a stately clock tower dominating the skyline. The Brug Surinamerivier (Suriname River Bridge) loomed before us, spanning the river, connecting Paramaribo with points east.

The waterfront at Paramaribo.

The shore became less busy as we progressed up the river and the channel markers disappeared. About eight miles south of the bridge, we spotted some masts and knew we’d arrived at Domburg and the Marina Suriname. We headed for a mooring, lassoed it on our first try (no one was watching, of course) and tied up. It was 24 hours from anchorage to anchorage and about 142 nm.
Though the small marina is pleasant enough with a good dinghy dock, restaurant, showers and pool, there’s nothing else around Domburg other than a few small groceries. We rented a local car and headed for the capital, Paramaribo, for some provisioning and inland touring. 

Guyana and the Essequibo River 
Though we would have been perfectly happy to remain moored in the Suriname River for another month or two, it was time to move on. We concentrated on following our track back down the Suriname River to the Atlantic, along the Suriname/Guyana coast and then headed up the Essequibo River about 50 nm to the small town of Bartica. The total charted route is about 260 nm — about three days from anchorage to anchorage, depending on currents, winds and tides. 

We were off to a slow start. While waiting for the mid-day ebb tide at Domburg, we heard the incessant chirping of welcome swallows, but couldn’t locate them anywhere on the boat. It seems they had perched beside the boat on several very large tree branches that were all tangled up in the mooring lines. We tried to remove the branches with the dinghy, but the current was too strong. An hour later the current had subsided enough, but it took nearly an hour to rid ourselves of the unwanted forest.

We cleared the mouth of the river in four and a half hours, hoisted the main, let out the jib and had a perfect beam reach sail till late evening, wind and current in our favor. Then, the wind died, the dark enveloped us and little fishing boats with only black flags identifying the end of their vast mile-long nets were in great numbers. We opted to stop for the night, drop the hook, get some dinner and sleep and continue in the morning. We lit up Cups like a Christmas tree, set the anchor, radar and AIS alarms and tried to get some sleep. We were seasick almost immediately. The boat rolled and pitched, but the thought of hauling anchor and negotiating our way through the maze of fishermen and nets was even worse. We toughed out the night, awaking sore and unrested — and still no wind.

Kaieteur Falls at Kaieteur National Park in Guyana.

The wind remained below 8 knots and we dawdled for most of the day, a favorable current pushing us along. We were enjoying the clear green water for a few days before it turned muddy brown again. A late afternoon wind finally came up and, all sails full, we cruised along at 7 knots for the rest of the night on a beam reach. A buttery half moon rose. The stars were out in vast numbers. The 15- to 20-knot wind was absolutely glorious — warm on our faces, but cool enough to be refreshing. 

We chocked up great mileage during the night and by mid-morning, we were entering the mouth of the Essequibo, Guyana’s largest river, in time to catch the tail end of the flood tide. We tried to cut a few miles off our course, but were impeded by rows and rows of fishing piles, stakes with nets between them set out by local fishermen that seemed to go on forever along both sides of the channel. It seemed prudent to sail around them. The Essequibo sea buoy was missing.

We had downloaded Doyle’s free Cruising Guide to Guyana before we left Suriname, along with its associated updates and had read it from cover to cover. The Essequibo River has few navigational buoys or markers and the Navionics charts are known to be a bit off. Doyle’s guide provided waypoints, hints and info accumulated from previous cruisers. Of course, it’s a river and things change, but the guide provided a good navigational aid when used in conjunction with caution, common sense and eyeballs. 

The water turned a familiar muddy brown and churned with the tidal motion. The low-lying, mangrove-fringed shoreline finally came into view with dark rain clouds hovering above. We let the tide carry us as long as it could, then dropped anchor about 10 miles upriver. We stayed the night quite comfortably. Smoke, sawdust and rich earth smells filled the air as we caught the early morning flood tide that would carry us the remaining 40 nm upriver to Bartica, our check-in port.

A toucan in a treetop.

The passage up the Essequibo was interesting, but required lots of concentration. We had what we assumed were good waypoints (23 of them!), but even the few navigational aids shown on the chart were missing. In the entire, circuitous 50-nm trip, we saw only three markers. To add to the challenge, our charts were off by about 700 feet north/south and 300 feet east/west, making it appear, at times, as if we were sailing on land.

Sights along the river were colorful and diverse. We saw an array of Hindu prayer flags on a beach and lots of abandoned rusting hulks. Several large motor vessels were high and dry on the sand, hopefully using the low tide for repairs and maintenance. 

The largest port on the river is Parika and the wharves there were busy with trucks and boats loading and unloading market produce. Fishermen, in tiny open boats, worked hard pulling up their nets in and around the channel. We watched men wrestle fuel barrels off riverboats and onto small launches. Fast river taxis, crammed full of passengers, whizzed past and slow heavily laden barges nudged forward by tugs shared the river with us. Logging is a big industry in Guyana as evidenced by the number of sawmills, mountains of sawdust and volume of cut logs piled along the shores. The distinct pleasant smell of freshly cut wood permeated the air. 

A thousand shades of green
We passed Fort Island, location of the British Guiana’s first capital city, and could scarcely make out the ruins of the 18th-century Fort Zeelandia, built while the Dutch still ruled the colony. The foliage ashore was thick and verdant. There seemed to be a thousand shades of green, accentuated by random streaks of yellow, red and purple blossoms. Brightly colored parrots and macaws squawked and flitted between trees. A pair of toucans perched high on a dead tree.

A view of French Guiana’s infamous Devil’s Island.

The current provided about a 2.5-knot push. The further up the river we progressed, the later the high tide and we ate up the 40 nm quickly. A few sharp turns, an adrenaline moment as we transited Rattlesnake Pass and saw the depth dip quickly below 9 feet, and there was Bartica. We motored past the Bartica Stelling ferry terminal and anchored comfortably off the town. 

Very few yachts visit Guyana. It has a rough reputation and minimal infrastructure to support tourism. Visiting Bartica was an experience in itself. It’s a kind of 1950s-ish scofflaw cowboy town. The residents are mostly miners or purveyors of supplies and services for miners. The roads are unmaintained. There’s trash everywhere — on the streets, in the gutters and vacant lots and along the shore. There are bars and drinking establishments on every corner and several in between. There’s a plethora of weathered old dilapidated houses throughout the town that should probably be condemned but appear to be occupied with laundry hanging on the lines and rain barrels in position to catch fresh water. There is no potable water available from the town taps and effluent drains into the river. Cars and trucks park haphazardly anywhere there’s room ... and sometimes where there’s not. Big olive green mining trucks, full of fuel barrels, equipment and supplies take up all of the width of the roads. The narrow pot-holed streets are jammed with pedestrians and traffic, but it all seems to work. 

Despite the trash and the potholes and the inconveniences, there is a definite third-world, Old Wild West charm to Bartica that we appreciated. Folks are friendly on the streets, look you in the eye, smile and say hello. People are rugged and self-sufficient here, living in wild isolation, but their friendliness shows through their hard exterior.

There was plenty to see in the area. We headed a mile across the river and anchored off the Grass Islands, aka Parrot Islands, where hundreds of orange-winged amazon parrots return each night to roost. There are two river resorts in the area, Hurakabra and Baganara, that are close to Bartica and afford a touch of luxury in the middle of nowhere. Cruisers are welcome to anchor off and take advantage of their amenities for a modest fee.

Nine of Cups anchored off Hurakabra in the Essequibo River in Guyana.

Traveling on the Essequibo is via fast river taxi or ferry. We enjoyed a three-day stay in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital and only large city, which lies 13 feet below sea level at high tide. A sea wall and an early Dutch canal system keep the town from flooding and provide drainage. We also arranged a tour to Kaieteur Falls, a must-see in Guyana’s Kaieteur National Park. 

Of all the Guianas, surprisingly, we enjoyed Guyana the most. In retrospect, our only misgiving about visiting the Guianas was that we didn’t allow enough time to explore them as thoroughly as we would have liked.

Marcie and David Lynn have lived aboard their Liberty 458 cutter Nine of Cups since 2000. They’ve put more than 80,000 nautical miles under the keel and visited 35-plus countries on five continents. They completed their first circumnavigation at Cape Town in 2015 and are currently back to the U.S. Their website is at www.nineofcups.com.

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