Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sint Maarten, West Indies - Mass Email

Dear friends and family,

Steve speaking. I last wrote to you from Trinidad, southernmost of the Caribbean island chain. I was there for three weeks at a marina, fixing things, writing, and mapping.

On October 13, my work finished, I launched Thurston, cleared customs, and motored west around the mountain range that caps the island’s north end and extends west as a peninsula, not quite reaching Venezuela. Passing through the Dragon’s Mouth, northern gate to the Gulf of Paria, Thurston re-entered the Caribbean after an absence of three years. My first passage would be to Grenada, eighty miles north. The wind and current would be carrying me west, so I travelled east along Trinidad’s north coast twenty miles to better situate myself for the jump-off. To minimize my exposure to the contrary Guyana Current, wherein sufficient water enters the Caribbean to match that which exits it via the Gulf Stream, I followed the cliffs closely and dipped into amphitheatre bays. Cactus and palm trees grew on rocky shelves. At one headland, following the example of a fishing skiff, I cut through a gap between the mainland and a craggy island taller than it was long or wide. The vertical walls of this marine alley were ten paces apart. A heavy ground swell was running through the gap, occasionally breaking white against the walls. The swells reeled, tipped, and rolled through the chasm. I stayed in the center, not to be dashed against a wall. It reminded me of a carnival ride I went on as a child where you walk down a long, revolving tube.

I reached Maracas Bay after dark, anchored in its most protected corner, and rested a bit. Then at midnight I turned on my navigation lights and steered north toward Grenada, the motor at half throttle. There was no wind. A half moon illuminated sea and clouds. Heat lightning played in the sky ahead. Later enough breeze stirred to allow some sailing, but not enough to turn the motor off. The sun came up and I fought sleep. In 1992 I got a ride across this strait with Squeak aboard a freighter. This time, with a motor, I did it on my own.

At 4:00 I entered Prickly Bay on the south coast of  Grenada. Hundreds of yachts were moored there because it was hurricane season and Grenada, like Trinidad, lays south of Hurricane Alley. I found wi-fi ashore and told Ginny I was OK, then anchored in shallow water off a swimming beach. A sign said No Anchoring, but I got away with it.

In the morning I visited with a wraith-like French Canadian live-aboard I had met the evening before. He sold art to support himself, but had only earned $30 in the past three months! He was skinny as a rail and his feet were swollen from malnutrition. I gave him some potatoes, which he ate raw because he didn’t believe in cooking food. He claimed to be learning to live without food and water altogether, based on some alternative-spirituality theory. “Then I won’t have to worry about food anymore,” he said. His boat was a worthless hodge-podge. The bottom hadn’t been scraped for ten years. He had taped and twined a framework of plastic pipes onto the bow of his dingy, like a projecting prow, and intended this evolving sculpture to become his new main boat, in a logic I couldn’t fathom. He had made it all the way down from Montreal, but what would he do now, starving, hardly able to walk, with a boat that could barely move? As I worked my way up the chain I would meet others who had followed a dream but reached dead ends.

I got some East Caribbean dollars at a cash machine, and in the following days revisited islands along my 1992 route. In Bequia I ran into Andy, whom I wrote about in Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat, and swam a stretch of coast looking unsuccessfully for an underwater tunnel I found back then. I stayed only a day or two each in St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Martinique. Everything seemed smaller and closer together than I remembered, but as beautiful as ever, so lofty and emerald green. If only Ginny and George could have been with me! But they were with in Los Angeles with Ginny’s mom, Lois, helping her get through a surgery on her pancreas.

On the west coast of Dominica I found the Layou River unchanged. As in 1992, it was just deep enough, and I and the available little boys were just strong enough, to pull my boat up a 200-yard-long natural spillway through a gravel beach to a limpid lagoon behind the impoundment. “Tie up good, the river goes strong she rain,” said a local guy whom I joined on the bank for conversation.
“Did you clear in at Roseau?” asked another.
I waded back out into the water. “I don’t have to clear in because I’m not on land, see?”
My interrogator laughed. “Don’t worry, I am not a policeman.”

Hustlers hassled me in the towns of these poor islands, but here in the countryside my curious acquaintances left when they saw I was ready to retire. No one bothered me as I slept afloat in that fresh pond, nor in the morning half-light when I tied a line to Thurston’s bow and lowered her stern first through the river’s swift final rush, wading upstream of her, leaning back against her resistance, pulling left or right to steer her. Where fresh and salt water joined, in a minor confusion of conflicting waves, I got in and continued north.

Since leaving Belém I had travelled 1,570 nautical miles, averaging 18.5 miles per day including days in port. At that rate I would reach Florida in early January. The separation had not been easy for Ginny or me. She sent me lots of pictures and videos of George. He was always being cute and doing new things. I ached with saudade, as the Brazilians would say.

I constantly looked for free places to sleep in calm water and get ashore without a dinghy. Sometimes I found places to wade ashore unopposed. Other times I stuffed clothes and fanny pack into a waterproof bag and swam in from an anchorage, then changed on the beach. In Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, I thought I had hit the jackpot when I found, behind a mega-yacht marina, on a shoreline adjoining the main road, a line of cheap and abandoned boats. Those boat owners obviously weren’t paying much, so I pulled in there too. My self-congratulation waned when a black man angrily approached. “What you doing coming into my marina without permission first?” he demanded. He had built a couple of flimsy wooden platforms over the water, probably without permission, and in his mind this made him the owner of a marina, albeit on a smaller scale than the real marina. I might have contested his right to charge me except I hadn’t cleared in and needed to avoid the authorities. It didn’t make sense to legally enter island nations where I only stayed a day or two. The processes are time-consuming and they often want money now. And every island, or pair of islands like St. Kitts and Nevis, is a different country!

Martinique and Guadeloupe differed from the English-speaking islands in that they were part of France. White or black, the people were French, and financially secure. They used euros. The English speaking islands were more independent, and poorer.

Around Martinique the winds came back. I sailed more as I rounded the curve of islands, my northing done for now and a lot of down-wind sailing to look forward to. I tethered myself in for the crossings in case I fell overboard. My course was a succession of open crossings then a coastal run up the island’s lee. They were old volcanoes, bulky enough to shade me from waves and the harsh morning sun. At an island’s north end I passed through a zone of unpredictable gusts and wind veers before enjoying the undisturbed trade winds again.

North of Guadeloupe I left my 1992 route and went to Antigua instead of Montserrat. During the crossing one squall after another plastered me. They were areas of darker cloud mass with white or grey rain tendrils, visible well in advance but mercurial. They often dissipated before hitting, or intensified, so what looked like a flimsy shower became a big downpour forming right over me. You never know how much wind they will contain. I reefed in advance but it wasn’t enough, so I removed the main mast altogether in order to point into the wind, and kept the sea anchor tied to the bow, ready for quick deployment if all else failed. “What can go wrong?” I often asked myself, because as the wind crescendos it finds a weak link and breaks it, then a sail goes out of control. The squalls slowed me down because I could make little progress until they had passed.

At Antigua I stayed in Falmouth Harbour on the island’s south shore. It is a haven for English ex-pats that had sailed there long ago and stayed, and a focal point for high-end yacht racing, but it was the off season now. I met some fellow sailors at a yacht club bar and several times sat with them at their accustomed table. Two weeks before the eye of Hurricane Gonzalo had passed right overhead, catching everyone completely by surprise. Over a hundred boats had been lost there and at St. Barts and St. Martin. Upon my arrival the satellite weather image showed a formation identical to that which led up to the recent disaster, so everyone was prepping their boats for a repeat. I moved Thurston to the island’s best hurricane hole, English Harbour. It has been regarded as such since at least 1627, because I found a letter of that date containing that affirmation, posted in a display at the old English Harbour shipyard, which has been restored as a national park. (Horatio Nelson commanded the post for a while, so they call it Nelson’s Dockyard.) Had a hurricane hit I would have been safe, but we didn’t even get a good storm.

I sailed to St. Kitts, a sixty-mile crossing. At the capital, Basse-Terre, I found a fishermen’s harbour behind a short jetty and passed a tranquil night. The following day being Sunday no internet could be found in the old town, so I continued, past Dutch Statia and Saba, to St. Barthelemy, another French island. Gustavia, its principal town, showed sophisticated urban design in its modern yet historically sensitive architecture. A low sea-wall and esplanade encompassed the clean harbor. Boats lay tied to mooring buoys, one to bow and one to stern so no one swung, or med-moored, with one line to a buoy and another to the sea wall. The roofs were red like tiles but actually of some sheet material. Development had crept up the surrounding amphitheater of hills, but the green peaks were still sacrosanct.

I stopped at Anguilla, a British overseas territory, and used up the last of my East Caribbean dollars because they wouldn’t be any good further west. Here the expatriates in the resorts and new homes were Americans, and the development was auto-oriented with little sense of history.

On November 4 I reached St. Martin, the north half of which is French, the south half Dutch. (The Dutch spelling is Sint Maarten.) During the crossing Thurston’s mizzen mast step cracked. Part of the tube the mast goes into broke off in my hand. The fitting had been leaking on-and-off throughout the voyage. Also the engine would have to be removed from the outboard again to fix a slipping clutch. These things would take a while to fix, so I cleared into the French side, where the fees are lower. Then I cruised around Simpson Bay, a large internal lagoon, looking for a good place. With no dinghy I couldn’t anchor out like the other live-aboards. While working on the mast step I couldn’t erect the awning so I needed a place with shade and shelter from the rain.

I found it under a new bridge that crosses the lagoon, by the main live-aboard anchorage. On the east end, in shallow water next to its abutment, I tied to overhead utility conduits. Then I found a heavy plank and propped it on the abutment rip-rap, weighting it with rocks so it projected toward Thurston like a diving board. Thus I could step ashore without getting my feet wet. I had to crouch under the bridge’s massive concrete beams but could stand upright between them.

I would need certain things, so I explored the highly developed area around Simpson Bay. Upon tying up at Lagoon Marina’s dinghy dock, on the Dutch side, a husky blonde man in his thirties said to the older man next to him, who turned out to be his father, “You know what this boat reminds me of? Remember that really little wooden boat that stayed here a while a long time back?”
“Was it around January, 1993?” I asked.
“That’s about right.”
“Did you have a big map on the wall back then showing hurricane tracks?”
“That was me!” The blonde guy, Bernard, was only fourteen at the time but he remembered me. Then he was the son of the owner, a Dutchman. Now he managed the marina but his mother and father were still with him. They dug up a photo of me sailing Squeak. The marina had changed entirely, but the same family still ran it.

As in 1993, the boat owners were of many nationalities, the most numerous being English, French, South African, and American. St. Martin was the hardest hit in Hurricane Gonzalo. Dozens of boats lay wrecked along the shore of the Lagoon and in the saltwater bays. Little recovery had been done. No one felt responsible for disposing of the totaled boats. They will probably remain as nuisances. Many had saved their boats but sustained damage. Masts were broken off, topsides holed, stanchions bent. One live-aboard drowned. I listened to the survivors. The mayhem was fearful. The wind clocked around to the west and blew a hundred knots for three hours. Many boats dragged anchor, and many that were holding were swept away when boats dragged down on top of them. They smashed into the bridge and got their masts sheared off. Those tied to docks beat against the concrete until they sank. The wind worked the roller-furling sails loose and tore them to shreds. Some planned to fix their boats. Others lacked the money, or thought their boats weren’t worth it.

In the cool dry space under the bridge I broke out the old mast step, gouged out rotten wood where the mast passes through the deck, and waited for the remaining wood to dry before installing a new tube to accept the mast. A ten-minute walk from my private dock there was a modern supermarket that accepted guilders or US dollars. Another fifteen minutes along a congested road brought me to Lagoon Marina, or I could boat there. A live-aboard with a shop there helped me with the motor. I became a regular at the marina bar, which had two-for-one beers from five to six.

The Amazon and Caribbean have their rainy seasons at opposite times of year. I left Brazil just before their monsoon hit, but here it was still in force. Few days passed without a good shower. Again, the people were a fascinating mix. One occasionally heard Dutchmen conversing in their native tongue, Sint Maarten being a quasi-independent nation within the Netherlands kingdom. Anyone who had attended public school in Sint Maarten could speak Dutch. But mostly one heard West Indian English. Most of the black people had come from other islands or from Guyana looking for work. On the buses the principal language was Spanish, because the laborers were largely from the Dominican Republic.

Pretty soon I will cross over to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. I will have more stories for you then.

Steve Ladd
 Lots of photos to be found here: