Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Confusion of Nautical Names - Guadeloupe Explained

If leeward and windward always seem unnecessarily complicated to landlubbers, then pity the poor visitor to Guadeloupe.

The two ‘wings’ of the ‘butterfly’ of Guadeloupe are called Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre. Logic would tell you that ‘Basse’-Terre, meaning ‘low’ ground, would be the lower one and Grande-Terre (‘big ground’) the larger. Not so! Basse-Terre is a hulking volcanic colossus that soars to nearly 5000 feet, while Grande-Terre is physically not really that impressive at all. Mysteriously Grande-Terre is actually smaller in surface area than Basse-Terre too, so it is hard to see the justification for the name.

As it turns out Basse-Terre is the French equivalent of windward because it is the ‘lower ground’ with regard to the wind. Leeward is generally ‘capesterre’, so why Grande-Terre is called so is another mystery - until it becomes apparent that it is ‘grande’ by comparison to the two tiny Petit-Terre islands just offshore.

But in all of this linguistic confusion there is one shining light of oddity. One of Guadeloupe’s offshore islands is called la Désirade. Why? Because it was the first land that sailors would see on the old Atlantic crossing. After anything up to three months at sea they would be scouring the horizon, longing for any sight of land. La Désirade was literally ‘the desired one’.

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