Pirogue Sailing to Île aux Bénitiers: Our Second Lesson with Christopher

This happened on Tuesday the 18th of January, 2022. We took our second sailing class with Christopher, this time in his yellow pirogue. The main photo was taken by Christopher.

Click the menu in the top-left corner so you have the “pirogue” layer on. This map contains the approximate routes of all 3+ sailing classes we took with Christopher.

Christopher’s Yellow Pirogue

We received the message that the wind was good for sailing a bit later than last time. Christopher asked us at 10:15 if we’d want to go sail and if we could make it at 11:00. Barely, but we did. This time, we drove straight to his home instead of the weird side street we took last time. He opened the gate and we parked our scooter inside his property with a nice piece of shadow. Immediately, an adult dog and a tiny puppy came up to sniff us and bark at us. Mostly happy barks.

Christopher showed us the way to the shore and we encountered two more dogs who were less enthused. He first went into the water to free his monohull and drag it a bit closer to shore. Meanwhile, we put on our hats and gloves. And I decided last minute to put socks on to cover the bit of ankle between my long pants and my water shoes to protect against the relentless sun. My outfit had changed quite a bit based on the previous lesson’s learnings, which resulted in a bad sunburn. Jonas only had a mild sunburn on his hands from the last time, so I’d given him my old kayak gloves for slight sun protection and mostly hand protection for the sheets (i.e. ropes).

We walked through the water to the boat, put our backpack inside near the rudder, and climbed in. It was much more difficult to climb into the pirogue because the edges are quite tall, but it was doable. Could I do it if I couldn’t stand in the water? I’d like to believe I could, but I’d probably be toast.

Christopher sailed us out of the mooring spot and then it was our turn. I told Jonas to go first since he doesn’t have any monohull dinghy sailing experience (just a big yacht). I asked Christopher if this kind of boat is a pirogue and he confirmed.

What’s a Pirogue?

Whenever I don’t know what to write about, I write short articles about places I’d love to visit, gathering the type of information about them that I like, basically so that I have this information saved for later. One of these is about French Guiana. When researching French Guiana, I stumbled upon the word pirogue a lot.

In those pictures, it’s often a dugout boat, more like a canoe. But the word doesn’t refer to one specific boat, but more to the many native boats the French and Spanish (piragua/periagua) colonizers stumbled upon while they were trampling the world and lumped them all together. Today, it can be just about anything—I think, though it should probably not be a plastic molded boat like I took from Perú to Ecuador. It can be a canoe from one tree or a big boat made of multiple slats of wood like Christopher’s.  The modern pirogue can even be fitted with an outboard motor.

Christopher’s pirogue has a mast with a sprit (or gaff?) made of bamboo. I’ve been looking up terminology for this sail plan but I’m not sure if I’m getting this right. The sail is triangular and has no boom, which means it’s not a leg-of-mutton spritsail but… something else. The muzzle is about 50 centimeters above the tack of the mainsail. I’ve seen it could be called a boomless loose-footed mainsail like in the first image on this page. It has some similarities to a boomless Bermuda rig, a boomless Gunter rig, and a near-vertical gaff like in this picture. The throat/muzzle of the gaff/sprit can switch sides of the mast. I haven’t even mentioned the jib on a bowsprit, which I guess could be a genoa because it overlaps in area with the mainsail. I clearly do not know what I’m talking about, but it’s a very cool setup.

Christopher makes the sails himself. He said the pirogue is due for new sails soon. Instead of a boom, the foot of the sail attaches to a stronger rope. It wouldn’t hurt as much to get hit in the face with this as a proper boom. He says it takes him one or two days to make new sails. He’ll also repaint the boat in different colors if he changes the sails. Right now the pirogue has a Rastafari/pan-African color scheme (green, gold, red).

My Turn: Past Crystal Rock (Once Again)

The wind was good and we were going diagonal enough for me to sit on the edge of the boat and provide some counterweight to the heeling motion. It felt a little uneasy at first; I haven’t done this in years and falling out of the boat would be a bit dramatic and just prove my abs are jelly. And since the pirogue doesn’t have hiking straps, I had to find a purpose for my feet. I found a solution I was comfortable with, which was sticking one foot beneath the seat and one foot on top, squeezing them both as I leaned back.

3 stacking out hiking out sailing Mauritius La Gaulette adult course

Then it was time to tack. In the catamaran, a tack or jibe meant an entire captain change; the upwind person becomes the captain. That’s easy in the cat because two people can hold the rudder at the same time. That’s not the case in the pirogue. We struggled to loosen the jib, switch over both the mainsail and the jib, and switch positions for the rudder. And then we still had to tie the sheets to the cleats. I looked at the starting position of the sheets on the cleats and tried to copy what Christopher had done. Then I remembered how to make the loops of rope snag on themselves to stop them from slipping.

I scooted in from the downwind-turned-upwind position but there wasn’t a lot of space to do this because the rudder was where I was going to sit. But we managed and assumed it would get easier with every tack (it didn’t). I immediately had to sit on the edge so I could see anything in front of me. Helming the pirogue was a different feeling, much more familiar to me. The rudder was pulling hard on my arm, wanting to turn us into the wind and coming to a standstill. I had flashbacks to being a very small and weak-ass child fighting with the rudder in an Optimist. Good times.

5 Iris captain Le Morne pirogue sailing boat yacht Mauritius

I sailed us to the edge of the reef, closer than we’ve ever been before. I saw the waves crashing onto the outer reef and decided either I’d have to make the call or Christopher would send a cue that now is the time. Apparently, I pushed it and he said maybe get ready to tack. So tack we did. This time, I stayed captain while Jonas adjusted the jib.

I sailed our way to Crystal Rock and I aimed to pass it by really closely, thinking I could always aim for a more downwind course if need be. What I didn’t take into account was the current that pushed the boat more downwind as well. There are several buoys around Crystal Rock to ‘protect’ it from the boats and I still managed to sail inside the buoys, just not as close to the rock. Any closer to the rock and I would have lost the speed by going too hard at the wind. But whatever, it was good.

6 sailing to Crystal Rock at Île aux Bénitiers Mauritius

There were also several other dinghies on the water that likely originated at the resort at Island’s Toe. Several small catamarans were doing their thing and also some lasers. Generally, we were faster than all these lightweight boats, probably because of our bigger sails. One laser with two grown men in it capsized in front of Île aux Bénitiers—likely because one of the guys stayed put on the downwind side of the boat and didn’t switch sides when tacking. I had some flashbacks to that time I flipped in a Laser 2000.

Coconut Water at Île aux Bénitiers

After a jibe, Jonas was captain again. We were about to make a stop on Île aux Bénitiers for our lunch break. I had asked before if the pirogue is also beachable just like the catamaran and Christopher had confirmed this. I think I would have been comfortable to beach the boat but it was really Jonas’ turn since during the last class he neither beached the catamaran on Island’s Toe nor moored it against the wind at Christopher’s home.

What we didn’t know is that Christopher had a specific place to moor at Île aux Bénitiers where a friend’s business is at. So while I would just have beached it wherever there were no other boats around, Christopher told us to keep sailing past this minefield of moored motorboats till he said park between these two boats. Christopher was sitting all the way in the front, so we were discussing in the back which two boats he meant since they all look the same.

I’m sure we didn’t end up in the spot we intended, but eventually, we made one last sharp turn and faced the boat towards the beach. We tried to aim it between two crowded souvenir shops that were close enough to the water for us to ram one of the supportive poles. But we didn’t, of course. And the boat actually ran aground much earlier than I anticipated because its draft is deeper than the catamaran.

Once on land, Christopher anchored the pirogue while pointing us to a little shop owned by a friend named Mario.

île aux Bénitiers had changed into something completely unrecognizable to us. The last time we were here during our one-paddle kayak trip, the skies were overcast and there were only a handful of tourists here. It was also much earlier in the day. Now, there were endless souvenir shops. We even saw the lady who tried to sell us some bracelets the last time walking up and down the beach again. There was music coming from a speaker. The shops sold rum cocktails and other booze. There were souvenir stands made out of surfboards to sell people stuff from inside the water. And it was just so, so busy.

We received some plastic chairs from Mario to sit on and we ordered two coconut water. Jonas got the food box with our pizza slices out of the backpack. There were two other guys sitting at Mario’s shop, one German and one Italian—not sure if they were traveling together or just met. The German guy seemed very much in the trinity of 1) the enchantment phase with Mauritius, 2) the it’s-so-nice-to-travel-again-post-pandemic stage, and 3) coming from German winter to Mauritian summer mode. It takes a few seconds for me to adjust to that much enthusiasm.

We started talking about our trips and how he also stayed in Mahébourg for a few days before coming to La Gaulette. He was staying for about three weeks and of course, he asked us how long will be staying. Right now, our initial four-month stay has increased to six months and perhaps longer with the Mauritian premium visa. That’s when he already knew we were working remotely, which is something he also dabbled in on his longer backpacking trips before covid.

Then he left to also buy a coconut with flowers while Jonas returned our coconuts to get one of them chopped open so we could eat the coconut meat inside. They returned speaking German but switched again to English. We talked about how we got to Île aux Bénitiers and we told him about the sailing classes we’re taking with Christopher. That was, of course, very cool. Because everyone else had come with a loud motorboat.

After our cold pizza plus coconut water + meat lunch, it was time to head out again. Christopher had taken down the sails on the pirogue.

Sailing Off: Knots + Jibes

We walked back into the water. Christopher hoisted the sails—hopefully, we’ll learn how to do that next time. When sailing away from the shore, Jonas and I were dicking around with the sheets until we were going at a good speed. We hadn’t discussed this, but suddenly I’m the captain. Okay. It was really cool to see how quickly we were far away from Île aux Bénitiers. And when the sun came out the color of the water changed from blue-green to a powerful turquoise.

I was sailing us southwestward towards Island’s Toe when Christopher suggested teaching Jonas some knots while I was at the helm. I overheard they were making a figure-eight knot and something else. That something else turned out to be a bowline. Makes sense to start with these two. I’ve also learned these in sailing class as a child. I’m not sure if Jonas was aware, but during the kayak trip down the Danube, I made a bowline every day on the front and back of our boat so we could moor it. After Jonas and I switched positions, I also made a few, though I didn’t like where the end of the rope was because I think it’s supposed to go on the inside of the loop (I think it might be called a ‘cowboy bowline‘).

Anyway, I was looking forward to Jonas’ renewed interest in knots so we could practice this at home. The method Christopher taught him was very different from what I learned at Zeilschoolde Vuurtoren. Meanwhile, we were cutting through the water like butter with Jonas in charge.

We were sailing between La Gaulette and île aux Bénitiers now going upwind to prepare for jibing back home. Some vendors from Île aux Bénitiers were returning to the mainland, having sold all their coconuts. They trailed these surfboard tables behind their motorboats.

We were aiming for some church and going quite far upwind parallel to the sandbank of Île aux Bénitiers. When close but not that close to the mainland, we jibed to travel back southward. I was captain at the time and noticed we were actually touching the sandy lagoon floor, but barely. With each small wave, the boat lifted a bit, and then we did another small touch. It was soft, not scraping, but still not great. We headed back into the deep again.

One thing we had to do these hours with the pirogue that we hadn’t needed to do in the catamaran is bailing out the boat. The monohull collects quite some water from somewhere and there are cut-open plastic bottles lying on the floor and sponges to mop it up and throw the water overboard.

We were approaching Christopher’s home and this time it was Jonas’ turn to sail the boat to its mooring spot. He had to sail us around the catamaran to end up facing against the wind while I loosened the sails. It’s delicate work because the water gets quite shallow there. Once it was good, Christopher hopped out and anchored the boat. We got out and he took the sails down.

Back on the shore, the tiny puppy came to greet us again. Christopher said their name is Farata, which is a really fitting name. The puppy is highly energetic and took a liking to the smell of my sailing gloves. There were playful bites while we washed the mud off our shoes. Farata left us alone once we turned on the engine of the scooter. We said goodbye to Christopher and were looking forward to the next sailing class.

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