Wednesday, January 23, 2008

10 Things I Love About St. Martin (Maarten)

I visited St. Martin (Maarten) with my mom 8 years ago, and though we had a wonderful time, I didn't think the island was all that great. It was too full of cruise ships and more than a bit run down , especially on the Dutch side. I certainly couldn't have imagined returning, much less compiling a top 10 list of the reasons this place is awesome. Ahh, how one's priorities change when living on a boat....

1. Free and easily accessible garbage disposal--On many of the islands, it can be difficult and expensive to dispose of trash accumulated on board. You usually need to find a marina willing to take the trash and pay between $2-$5 dollars per bag. Here, our boat is anchored near a dinghy dock that has a large (and free!) dumpster near by.

2. A multitude of dinghy docks--sometimes, when heading for shore trying to find a close, safe spot to put your dinghy is like trying to find a parking space at the mall around Christmas. In St. Martin, just about every restaurant, marina and boat-related business has a dock to tie up to and while we have heard some reports of theft, it doesn't appear to be as rampant here as it tends to be further south.

3. Milk for less than $16/gallon--As we've traveled south, groceries have become increasingly expensive. In the BVI's, we saw UHT milk (which is all we drink these days) priced at $4/quart or $16/gallon!! At the market near the marina here, prices for milk (and everything else) are close to, if not less than, what you'd pay in the states.

4. French immigration and customs--As I'm sure most of you know, St. Martin is actually split between the Dutch and the French which means that arriving by boat, you can check into either side of the island. On the advice of a fellow Island Packet owner, we checked into the French side. We were in and out in less than an hour, were told we could stay as long as we wanted and were charged a whopping 8 euros. By contrast, many islands charge $50 dollars or more, limit your stay, and require you to visit several different offices (both customs and immigration) before you're officially cleared in.

5. Shrimpy's, the bar--Shrimpy's is the unofficial cruisers bar in Simpson Bay, home to delicious $3.50 sandwiches, free beer on Sunday's and most importantly, free and mostly reliable internet access.

6. Shrimpy, the dog--The aforementioned bar is also home to an adorable and friendly dog named Shrimpy. As we had to leave our basset hounds back on land, we've been missing canine companionship. Though Shrimpy could never take the place of Sammie and Annabelle, it's been nice to have a dog around again.

7. French bread, French cheese, French desserts--As half of the island is French, we've been able to get fantastic bread, wonderfully stinky cheese and gooey chocolaty pastries whenever we want. Kevin has been in heaven since we arrived.

8. Marci's Mega Gym--French food aside, Kevin and I do try to make an effort to lead a somewhat healthy lifestyle, so it was great to find a gym right near our anchorage with weekly rates right around $20/person. Now, there's no A/C, so the experience has been a bit like lifting weights in a steam room, but it's been really nice to get in a proper work out.

9. Al and Linda--We first met our Canadian friends Al and Linda in Cape May, New Jersey and have kept in touch ever since. The last time we saw them was in Hampton VA in early November as they prepared to travel to the BVI's by way of the Caribbean 1500 rally. Given our different schedules and plans (at the time, we were still thinking we'd go all the way down the intracoastal and then work our way down into the islands), we weren't sure we'd ever meet up again, so it was great to run into them here. In addition to being great company, they've also been great guides to the island, as they've been here for about a month now.

10. FLAT calm anchorage--I didn't rank order this list--but if I had, the absolutely protected anchorage that is Simpson Bay might have made the top of the list. I've mostly found a means of managing my sea sickness, but nothing makes for a less restful night (or more cranky morning) than sleeping on a boat that's rocking back and forth as its buffeted about by wind and wave. In the BVI's we dealt with more than our share of bouncy, rolly nights, so this has been a very welcome change.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Photo Essay

With our limited internet connectivity over the past weeks there have been a couple of noteworthy places and events and their associated pictures that haven't earned mention in any of our posts. I thought I'd round them all up and post them here.

Up the Mast

In San Juan we had an ideal anchorage for going up the mast - calm and protected. I had purchased spare halyards (the lines you pull the sails up with) and sheaves, and so up the mast I prepared to go. Not willing to spend $300+ on a new type of bosun's chair that lets you climb the mast yourself (rather than be winched up), I had purchased a mountain climber's harness and learned a couple of climber's knots that would allow me to do the same thing. Fifty feet doesn't sound like much, but damn it was a lot of work getting up there. Lizz and I worked together to get the new halyards threaded through the mast, and none too soon. I don't know how mountain climbers do it. Those harnesses aren't the most comfortable things in the world and they sqeeze a bit too hard in all the wrong places. As it was, by the time I got down my personal private region was just about blue.


Culebrita is a small, deserted island about 3 miles east of Culebra - our favorite spot to date. On a calm, warm day we decided to dinghy over to check it out. It is absolutely spectacular. Riding over in the dinghy we could easily see the bottom in thirty feet of water. On the north side of the island is an open bay with a beautiful, wide, soft sand beach. It was like swimming in a very large swimming pool! At the northeastern tip of the bay is a large rock formation with natural baths. The baths are filled with crystal clear water and life - fish, sea slugs, snails, sea urchins. We relaxed on the beach, swam in the water, and hiked over the baths. Unfortunately we had to leave earlier than we wanted - we didn't realize the island was completely deserted and we didn't bring any food.

Fish on...Wahoo!!

The passage from Culebra to St. Thomas is a short 18 miles in a straight line, about 30 or so when you take into account that we had to tack our way to windward to get there. As continued evidence of our new found fishing prowess, a mere 30 minutes after dropping our lines in the water we had a fish on the line. At the end of our hand line was a 24" Wahoo, a type of tuna. What a beautiful creature! No scales, just smooth irrredescent skin with a marbled patern of dark blue, light blue, and pink on his upper half. We felt bad about killing him, like the blackfin tuna, but not an ounce of him went to waste. I did a much cleaner job of cleaning him than the tuna, and we got what seemed to be about four pounds of filets off of him. Unfortunately, in most of the British territories you can't fish without a license so we haven't been able to get the lines in since then, other than our passage to St. Martin which we did at night.


In October while in Annapolis, MD for the boat show we took a trip out to a Bacon's, a marine consignment shop that specializes in sails. We were looking for a spinnaker (a light-air, downwind sail), and we found a good one. Unfortunately we didn't get it rigged for a while, and since then we've not had the right conditions to fly it, largely because we've been spending most of our time working to windward against the trades. Last week we were leaving Anegada, the norteastern-most of the BVI's to head back to Tortola and had light wind at our backs. We flew the spinnaker two days in a row. The picture at right is in 4-6 knots of air, barely enough to lift the 1300 square foot monster of a sail. Even in air this light, we were moving along at 2.5-3 knots. The next day in 8-10 knots of wind, we were moving at 6-7 knots! For those of you unfamiliar with sailing, getting our 30,000 pound boat moving that fast downwind in that little wind is truly impressive. I was like a kid at Christmas, grinning ear to ear.

Moray Eel

With our friends Mike and Dina we snorked a reef off of Salt Island in the BVI's. We saw some great fish, decent coral, a ray, and this moray eel. He was hiding down in a rock crevice, mouth open and facing up. The open mouth wasn't because he was waiting for prey, apparently that is how they breathe. Armed with our new waterproof camera that was a gift from my folks, I was ready to snap his mug shot. I got pretty close to him, certainly close enough to see that he was vivid green. I did not get close enough to notice at the time that his eyes were a bright, clear blue (click the picture for a larger image). It wasn't until we got back to the boat and I uploaded the pictures from the camera that I noticed. It also wasn't until later that I learned that these are among the most dangerous creatures in the water. Apparently they sit in crevices with their tails inside, and when threatened strike out but expand their bodies so that they can't be removed from the crevice. With long backward facing teeth, whatever is bitten can't pull away and can't pull out the eel. Divers reaching into the wrong hole looking for lobster find more than they bargained for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Subject to Whim and Weather

Just three days ago we were planning on being in Dominica by today and to Trinidad in less than three weeks. Instead, we've just arrived in St. Martin, over 100 miles north of Dominica and will most likely stay here for a week or so before heading further. Now, we may or may not get to Trinidad and if so, it won’t be for at least a few months.

This new change in plans marks the third major departure from our original itinerary since November. It’s finally becoming clear to us that in sailing, when plans and realities align, it is the exception and not the rule of life. Of course, our cruising friends (including Kevin’s parents) have been telling us this for some time, and the ones who’ve been doing this the longest tend to formulate plans that go something like this… “Maybe we’ll go to X next week, but if not, then Y—or possibly Z if the wind backs to the north—but otherwise, we might just stay here until we decide to go to Q. Now that I live on a boat, this approach makes perfect sense; you never know if you’ll like a place (or its anchorages) before you arrive and more importantly, your means of transportation (and your safety) depend singularly on the weather—which to this point, we haven’t figured out how to control. Cruising reality dictates that plans (and people) stay flexible.

Before moving aboard, however, I couldn’t have conceived of life as a largely unplanned series of adventures. Sure it’s fine to keep options open for the short-term (as in maybe I’ll have a turkey sandwich for lunch….or maybe I’ll have soup), but who keeps schedules vague for months at a time? Not many people I know, to be sure. Before moving onto the boat, it seemed like everyone’s weekends were laid out weeks in advance, their holidays and vacations scheduled for many months and that they had jobs that required them to plan events and deadlines a year or more in advance. Life on land seems to require this approach (or at least that’s how it felt to me) so now I feel incredibly lucky that I’m being required think in a totally different way. No doubt, it will take some getting used to.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Just Another Day in Paradise

We spent Christmas day in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI, along with 18,000 of our closest friends aboard the six cruise ships that were in port. We spent the day performing an experiment: if we drink more, does St. Thomas get better? Sadly, no. Fortunately rum is only $4.59/liter, so it was an inexpensive exercise. Experiment failed, we consoled ourselves with holiday gifts of new sunglasses capped off with a traditional holiday dinner of tater skins and conch fritters.

Adult Swim

We picked up our good friends Mike & Allison in Charlotte Amalie and then high-tailed it out of there to spend the night in Christmas Cove, a beautiful little island right between St. Thomas and St. John. The next morning I attempted to kill our good friends by taking them (both beginners) snorkeling on an open water sea-mount (underwater hill that comes to just under the surface) in enormous swells. Between the swells and his faulty equipment, Mike nearly drowned (Just to be clear, I'm referring to his snorkeling equipment. I have no knowledge of his other "equipment"). Death cheated, we motored the mere two miles over to St. John for a lovely day exploring, a good nights sleep, and some more reasonable snorkeling the next day at one of the park beaches. St. John is 80% US National Park land, and there are no cruise ship docks, two reasons we highly recommend it.

Please Lady, Don't Hurt Me!

Our plans for New Year's Eve were to go to Foxy's on Jost Van Dyke for what is supposed to be the largest New Year's party in the Caribbean. Each time we had told that anyone that we were heading there on our own boat for New Year's they began, in a rather obvious manner, to question our sanity. It is reputed to be a mad house; too many boats in too small an anchorage, mixed with too much alcohol. There is even supposed to be a "dinghy-swapping" party on New Year's Day so that people can reclaim their dinghies, them having been swiped by some inebriated neighbor at some point the previous night. So we put on our game-faces and sailed over to Jost Van Dyke.

Rather than brave Great Harbour, where the Foxy's party is, we opted to stay in White Bay, home to Ivan's (of Kenny Chesney fame) and the Soggy Dollar Bar (birthplace of the Painkiller). Mooring balls were as scarce as Dodo's, and with the hard-packed sand bottom and WAY too many boats in the Bay it took over two hours to get two anchors down and set. Having now finally left the United States, the next day we headed over to Customs & Immigration for our first experience clearing in. With no idea what to expect, we walked in and presented ourselves for approval. The first lady pleasantly directed us to a second, less pleasant lady who instantly began yelling at us unintelligibly. All I could understand was "I no checkin' in 'tis damn boat wit'out a permit. I sick o' dis bullshit, an' I not gonna do it no mo!" SHITE!! I gingerly stepped up told her I didn't know we needed a permit, and she said "Wuz I talkin' to you? NO! When I talkin' to you you'll know." Whew!

Hurry up, Buddy!

New Year's was an all day/all night affair that, in the end, was worth the effort. One of the folks in the group we met there smoked too much of a stranger's weed and got so paranoid he wigged out, so we had to call it a bit of an early night at Foxy's and head back to Ivan's and our boat. We spent the next couple day's exploring the BVI's before dropping Mike & Allison off in Road Town (thanks for coming guys!!). We promptly headed over to Nanny Cay Marina to meet up with our other friends Micheal and Dina, who had far-too-graciously rented a slip for us for two nights at the marina! As we're pulling in to the slip Lizz barks out to Micheal, who is walking leisurely down the dock, "Hurry up, Buddy, I've got my spring-line ready...". Which would have been great, except this wasn't Micheal. This poor nice Aussie guy was nice enough to help us into the slip anyway.

The Fat Lady Rocks!

With Micheal and Dina we've been exploring Virgin Gorda, including the Baths, which has been great! Virgin Gorda (Fat Lady) was named such by Columbus because from sea the island looks like a fat woman lying on her back. From here we head to Anegada before returning later in the week when we'll leave Mike and Dina and depart for Dominica! The current weather forecast is good, and we'll send an update when we get there.