Brian Major | August 22, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Pushing Boundaries in a Martinique Yole Boat
I tend to get seasick. It doesn’t happen especially often, but it’s a distinct risk when I’m aboard small sailboats.
Years ago, I covered the cruise industry, and colleagues would laugh at me because as part of the job I’d take a cruise at least once a month. I guess they appreciated the irony. A cruise reporter who gets seasick is like a travel writer who’s afraid to fly.
Yet, as I would explain to colleagues even then, cruise ships are no problem. In more than 100 cruises, I encountered many days and nights in rough water. In all that time I became seasick maybe twice, and I think those instances were as much due to excessive wine-drinking at dinner the night before as anything else.
It’s aboard the small sailboats where I’ve faced challenges. I have no idea why. Something about bobbing around on the sea under sail sets off a countdown clock in my stomach.
I faced seasickness’s grim specter again recently in Martinique.
During a week-long tour of the island, I learned Martinique Promotion Bureau officials had arranged for me and another writer to join a sailing excursion aboard a yole boat.
Yole boats are found only in Martinique. These painstakingly crafted sailboats move very fast and utilize no fixed rudder, just a long aft paddle operated by the captain. Deck hands use long wooden poles to balance the boat literally hanging overboard at times to steady the ship and utilize the wind. If they stop moving, yole boats capsize quickly.
Each year near the end of July, top professionals stage a much-anticipated yole boat race around Martinique. The course runs in a counter-clockwise fashion in seven stages. Crews compete fiercely aboard sleek and colorful boats powered by huge sails emblazoned with sponsor branding. Each day’s race is accompanied by shore-side celebrations with live music, dancing and food and fun. Hundreds of yachts, catamarans, speedboats and personal watercraft trail the racers, partying along the way.
Of course, I wasn’t competing in any race. In fact, I’d witnessed the series' last day of racing aboard a motorized excursion boat the day before. Now, I was standing on a beautifully serene Martinique beach next to a yole boat lying quite unobtrusively under a tree.
There was no doubt I’d join the excursion. The yole is unique to Martinique, meaning few people outside of the country (including me) have ever seen a yole boat much less sailed aboard one. I’d be doing something only a handful of people have ever done. There was no way I wasn’t going out there.
I decided have to take whatever came (maybe a poor choice of words).
The captain was bailing rainwater out of the yole as we approached and now used his smartphone to summon a crew. Meanwhile I tugged at the boat. It didn’t budge one iota. It must have weighed 500 or 600 pounds, and was about 50 to 100 feet from the water’s edge. I wondered how all this would come about.
PHOTO: Our captain (center) tied the sail together prior to departure. (All photos by Brian Major)
Presently the captain directed everyone present to set long wooden poles out on the sand leading to the water. He took another, slightly longer and larger pole and began tying the sail to what was to be the boat’s mast.
The tying was detailed and intricate but by the time he was done 15 minutes later a crew of friendly, French-speaking 20-something men and women appeared to help us get the boat into the water and perform as crew.
Next the captain directed us to position the boat in the water. We dragged it across the poles placed in the sand in a sort of rolling maneuver. Everyone pitched in. The boat was every bit as heavy as I’d imagined, but in time we had it floating in waist-deep water.
Then our troop carried the long and heavy wooden poles out to the boat, placing them carefully into position. The captain mounted the sail, tied it into place, got onto the boat’s rear with his rudder/paddle, and one by one had us climb aboard. Very quickly we were out on water.
It’s amazing how fast a sail-powered vessel can go. When I looked back to shore for the first time the beach appeared small and distant. It was a warm, beautiful day with blue skies and puffy white clouds and it felt great to glide along the water.
The crew was smiling and cheerful and although I couldn’t understand most of what they said, it was clear they were having a great time. I had the unmistakable feeling that even they were enjoying a relatively rare pleasure. In time an experienced crewmember invited me to mount one of the poles and try my hand (and legs) at sailing aboard a yole in traditional style.
PHOTO: I tried my hand.
It was great. Balancing on the long wooden pole, moving strategically out and in at the captain’s orders (at times translated by our guide, Martinique native Dimitri Choux), all while perched feet above the deep blue water was a physical challenge and I was up for it.
We sped along seas that varied from quiet to moderately choppy.
Later, I took a photo of the captain and later realized he was giving me a thumb’s up. That was cool.
PHOTO: Thanks, captain!
We sailed back and forth along the bay, traveling toward the shore at times and at others moving quickly away. I guess it was around the third time we started back for shore that I began to get that old familiar feeling. The countdown had started.
I progressively felt…not as good.
By then, we were just about done, and heading to the shore. We made it in without incident but as soon as we reached shore I lie down right on the sand and stayed very still in an earnest effort to stave off nausea. It worked. Sometimes, travel is all about challenging your own boundaries.
More by Brian Major
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Hotel & Resort
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship
Features & Advice
Airlines & Airports
Features & Advice
Airlines & Airports
Destination & Tourism