MARTINIQUE - Laughter and a few expletives sounded across the water as we parked our gear on the beach.
The boat's long hull was heeling under a massive rectangular sail while 10 men scrambled to balance it, bailing furiously with plastic bleach bottles and hiking out like acrobats on wooden poles.
"The yole," a fisherman mending his net smiled, nodding in their direction.
As an overseas department of France, Martinique is as certifiably French as a warm croissant. But in summer, when temperatures are only five degrees above winter's norm, the island's top sporting event, Yoles Rondes, expresses its ebullient, West Indian side. Racing around the island from July 27-Aug. 3 will be boats whose design is based on the oldest vessel on earth: a hollowed out tree.
"Nowhere else on earth do you find this kind of sailing. It's the greatest tradition of our country," said Alain Dédé, president of Société des Yoles Rondes, when we met in Fort-de-France, the capital. Spreading a map of Martinique on a table, he traced the Atlantic coast from La Trinité to Le Vauclin. "Long ago the fishermen in these shallow bays used an elongated hull propelled by oar and sail. On their days off they raced to see whose boat was fastest. The tradition began here."
Today, yole racing is as hotly contested as an America's Cup and as beloved as Carnival. As the teams sail counterclockwise around the island, finishing each leg in a different community, thousands of spectators gather on water and land. Music and television cameras roll. You might see performances of local talent or working bands maintained by the towns stepping out in salsa style.
This year's race starts and finishes in La Trinité on the Caravelle Peninsula. "The yole is round-bottomed with no keel. Like a shark, it has to keep moving, or it will capsize. The peninsula's rugged topography is a formidable challenge," Gustave Honoré Lavaly, race committee director, said.
It won't be hard to find the beach near the marina: It will be mobbed. Here and wherever the yoles stop, vendors set up tents dispensing delicious and inexpensive grilled treats. While you're in the area, hike the bold headland and bask in the ruins of Château Dubuc, an 18th-century castle.
The first leg ends on the black sand beach of Saint-Pierre (the former capital) beneath cloud-swathed Mount Pelée, whose eruption in 1902 ended a belle epoche. A museum displays artifacts of the event, like the most unforgettable, a preternaturally warped church bell. There is much to love about this town besides the grilled lobster lathered in homemade mayonnaise. Inviting storefronts have risen on ancient foundations. Distillerie Depaz welcomes visits to its beautiful and historic home. Treks depart north to wilder beaches or into the lush mountains. (Make sure the trails you want are open; Hurricane Dean damaged many last year.)
In Fort-de-France, all the nearby streets will be closed as the yoles finish leg two at the beach in front of the fortification, and the Maleçon will be lively into the night for people-watching and ice cream. Here travelers diverge according to their budgets: the emporia of Rue Victor Hugo, or the markets of fish, flowers, fruits, and spices along Riviére Madame.
Swooping around the south of the island, the yoles won't stop at Anse Noir and Anse Dufour where we discovered two thumbnail-sized beaches connected by a staircase of 136 stone steps. This year the third leg finishes in Anses d'Arlet, where fishermen still exert an influence, and waterside restaurants might offer special fixed-price menus. An interesting historical note is that the area is also home to the "gommier," an older cousin of the yole that remarkably is still made (and raced) in the Caribe way.
The beach in Le Diamant looks across to a telephoto op as the yoles pass its namesake rock rising 500 feet from the sea. Among those you might see here is American expat Robert Segelbaum, founder of the travel site Airhitch (airhitch.org), who explained some of the race's finer points, including that women participate, too. "Their association is called Les Femmes à la Barre, roughly translated, the Rudder Gals," Segelbaum said.
The next stop is Saint-Anne, beside the Baie du Marin. New this year, Club Med Les Boucaniers bundles five nights with a private boat to follow the yoles, a north country excursion, and VIP tickets to after-race parties. Another option lies on the opposite shore where dozens of charters offer the experience of circling Martinique with the race, provisioning for meals in fresh markets, and hitting less-traveled beaches and ports.
In Saint-Anne's town square, look for an elder woman selling guava pies and other baked delicacies from a small house in front of the vegetable market. From La Salines, Martinique's beach-beautiful, hike to the bird and mangrove sanctuary of Baie des Anglais.
Rounding Pointe d'Enfer, the yoles race up the Atlantic littoral to Le François, where lovers of luxury on a large scale will find a table at Le Belem in five-star Cap Est Lagoon Resort (capest.com). We found Îlets Oscar and Thierry, two tiny islands owned by Jean-Louis de Lucy, a wealthy descendant of early French planters. On Oscar, after an appetizer of soudons - tiny white clams dashed with chile and lime - an American sharing our table beneath a thatched-roof paillot leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and said what we all felt: "I could stay here forever."
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.