Fifty intrepid sea warriors set out at dawn on Easter Saturday morning in two huge Carib war canoes, paddling south from Madiana Beach in Martinique. Their faces were set, their resolve firm, their destination Sainte Luce, a quiet coastal village some 25 hard nautical miles to the south.
But this was no war party bent on conquering a neighbouring tribe. These were modern day sea warriors, no weapons in hand, just long Carib paddles and a determination to recreate history, the history of the Kalingo people; Carib Indians who gave their name to the Caribbean when they conquered these islands over 1,000 years ago.
The KARISKO Association of Martinique is in its second year of a seven-year project to recreate the sea travel of the Kalingo people from their ancestral lands in the South American Amazon Basin up through each of the Caribbean islands to what is today Puerto Rico. On the 2nd May 2008 they will initiate the first major phase of this ambitious project by setting out from Grande Riviere in the north of Martinique to brave the heavy seas of the Dominican Channel, paddling their two authentic 25-man Carib war canoes for over 10 hours of gruelling muscle power through the high waves and sea spray to arrive finally at sunset on the lush shores of Scotts Head in Dominica to a lively traditional Koné Konla Welcome Fête. All are invited to the all-night village welcome party by the sea which will begin as soon as our sea warriors arrive.
But first our 50 Sea Warriors had to test themselves earlier this week in the seas off the coast of Martinique, their tough journey a mere half the distance they would have to paddle to reach Dominica on 2nd May 2008, one month after th[e] Easter weekend first trial run.
And so they set out on Easter Saturday morning with Rémi, the French military officer from Tahiti, sounding out the rhythm in his deep voice. The 50 carved paddles dug deep into the calm waters of the Schoelcher Bay as the two heavy wooden canoes began to glide across the mirror-like surface of the protected bay. Twenty minutes later however they entered the deeper waters of the grand Fort-de-France harbour, cutting across international shipping lines and heading south towards the huge foreboding outcrop of "Le Diamant" rock island. They knew that three full hours into the punishing trip, just when their shoulder muscles would start to feel the first real pain and some soft hands would begin to blister, the real trial would only then begin; the fight against the double whammy of the powerful Diamant North Current and the strong head winds from the south.
The larger canoe, 60 feet from stem to stern, began to pull ahead of its 50-foot sister and the two security support boats had to separate as the first canoe pulled faster ahead. In each canoe was an international team of adventure lovers; men and women who had been inspired by this project to begin training together six months ago. The 50-man team included French, German, Austrian, English, American and Tahitian members as well as a special 15-member contingent from the final destination island of Dominica: Amerindian Kalingo tribesmen; men and women, young and old, students, fishermen and sailors all, who had been training together as a team in the rough Atlantic seas off the east coast of the Carib Territory in Dominica since January, 2008.
Launching the canoes
Now the two war canoes had lost sight of each other as they passed point after rocky point heading south to Sainte Luce. The seas were choppy, the breeze stiff as the first, larger war canoe rounded a new point some two and a half hours after the dawn departure. The sea spray came horizontal now as the wind picked up, and then suddenly, there it wasan enormous tower of stone rising precipitously from the sea, a full half mile off the coastal cliffs; Le Diamant. The war canoe seemed to stall, unable to advance as the current abruptly swirled around the last point between the shore and the distant stone pillar. The wind whipped past and the sea warriors hearts for the first time sank a notch as they paddled into the rough Diamant Channel. Brusquely one paddle snapped in two, and then another, but both were quickly replaced with spares. Rémi, the Tahitian shouted out the rhythm again and the canoe inched forward, again and the canoe inched forward, again and the canoe inched forward. Foot by foot, yard by yard the sea warriors conquered the current, fought the wind and finally two long hours later came up under the towering stone of Le Diamant for just a few calm smooth lengths there at its very feet before emerging again from itís majestic protection back into the wind and the current for another hourís rough crossing back towards the rocky coast. Ste Luce was now in sight and the final seventh hour of the gruelling ordeal was easier to bear knowing that the town was now at least in view.
Finally, after more than seven hours of uninterrupted synchronised team paddling, to the applause of waiting well-wishers, French media and a group of surprised tourists, the 60-foot war canoe, the "Youmoulicou" glided into the Ste. Luce Bay under pure muscle power and gently rammed its wooden nose into the soft white sand of the Ste. Luce Beach.
The sister canoe would arrive two hours later, towed part of the way by the support boat after losing its battle with the unforgiving Diamant winds and current.
The canoes return
The two exhausted teams soon recovered, set up camp on the beach and had a quiet feast under the light of the Easter weekend full moon.
The next morning, Easter Sunday, a combined crew from the two canoes, the strongest men and women of the A Team, manned the larger "Youmoulicou" war canoe and resolutely set out to paddle it back north to its Mediana Beach home, arriving in a record five hours this time rather than seven, thanks to the help of the winds and current on the return trip, favourable now when going in the opposite direction. The 50-foot sister canoe with a skeleton crew of four was unceremoniously towed back by one of the support boats.
Both Carib war canoes however will be remanned and ready for the real challenge this coming month on May Day weekend when on Friday 2nd May 2008 they will set off together at dawn from Grande Riviere in North Martinique. Ten long, gruelling hours later the intrepid sea warriors, honorary Kalinago all, will glide into the calm waters of the Scotts Head Marine Reserve in Dominica and the Koné Konla welcome celebration will at last begin.