Monday, March 16, 2009

The Downfalls of Cruising

To get from the British Virgin Islands to Saint Martin, we had to cross the Anegada Passage. After anticipating this event for almost a week, we decided to go for it, late afternoon of February 15th. Karl, who had a flight out of St. Maarten on the 17th, joined us during the 80 mile night crossing. It was all but fun. The wind was straight on the nose and blowing more than 15 knots. The seas were a bit higher than ideal, making for an uncomfortable ride. First, we motor sailed a bit off the wind. When the wind turned more south, we had to adjust to that and ended up too much off course. The last six hours we opted to follow the shortest route to our destination, banging dead into the waves and taking on lots of salty spray. Irie wasn’t very happy and neither was the crew.

The trip took 20 hours and we managed to check into St. Martin, the French side of the island, early afternoon on the 16th, giving Karl a few hours to explore the area, before leaving the next morning. Once our visitor was gone, Mark and I moved Irie into Simpson Bay Lagoon, to hide for the arriving cold front and to sit in a comfortable anchorage for a few days. We ended up dragging for the first time (as did a lot of other boats in this funky weather) and stayed more than a week off a tiny island in the bay. During that time we caught up on sleep, got our bearings in the huge lagoon area and ran plenty of errands. I worked online for a few days and Mark relaxed.

St. Maarten/St. Martin is a very confusing place to be. On the Dutch side, people speak English and pay with dollars, even though the prices in stores are marked in Antillean Guilder. This side of the island has its own flag and license plates. It is built up with resorts and condos and mega yachts crowd the marinas. On the Dutch side of the lagoon and in Simpson Bay, boaters (35 ft) pay a $20 fee per week to anchor. To get through the bridge here, one (35 footer) has to pay $10. On the French side, people speak French (and often English) and pay in Euros (or dollars). The flag is the same as France and so are the license plates. The building code is stricter, but traffic is as bad and congested as on the other side. When you pay in dollars, you look for the signs 1 dollar = 1 euro, to keep life affordable. In all other places, they accept dollars, but you pay the exchange rate. Boaters have to pay to anchor in Marigot Bay, but the French bridge and the French part of the lagoon are free. The buses are paid in dollar. Confusing?

Overall, the Dutch side is cheaper and they have attractive “happy hours”, a concept that is less heard of on the French side. There, the bread, pastries, wine and cheese are affordable, irresistible and oh-so tasty! The capital Marigot has more charm and is more dog friendly than its counterpart Philipsburg on the Dutch side, but there are a few bad elements, like weird homeless people, the smell of urine and the presence of dog poop everywhere. After spending a month on this side of the island, we are ready to change sides! If only we could…

A few days before my parents arrived from Belgium, Irie and crew spent two nights in Grand Case, the food capital of the island. We met up with Nini and enjoyed our little “vacation” out of the lagoon, happy to be in clean water again. Back in the lagoon, we had to fix two engine parts and then it went wrong. While trying to install one of the two welded and “fixed” parts back on the engine, another, bigger part of the starboard engine broke. The heat exchanger happened to be corroded and when Mark tried to clean it up a bit, he poked a hole in the casing and all the coolant leaked out in the engine room. Apparently, all that was left to attach the part on was corrosion and the metal was gone! It was too risky to weld the hole and we needed to order a new heat exchanger!

The timing couldn’t have been worse. This was our first big boat problem and it appeared the day before my parents arrived for a week’s cruise around the island. We were done. With one engine we couldn’t go through the narrow bridge, let alone pick up anchor and drop it again, seven days in a row. Research taught us that the cheapest way to obtain this rare part was to have Mark’s parents bring it with them on their visit to us, a week later. My parents arrived and lived with us on the boat in the lagoon. Luckily they are very flexible and we spent our time doing day trips by bus, dingy and rental car.

The wind and the swell turned bad as well, so we were happy to be stuck in the lagoon and not outside during all these weather spells. We haven’t had much luck with anything so far, but hopefully all that will change soon!

The engine part has arrived and both sets of parents are safely settled in their respective hotels on opposite sides of the lagoon. They met for the first time (in over four years of our relationship) and that was a highlight in itself! Mark and I are working out the logistics to see everybody and to fix the boat. In the meantime, we reflect on how nice it was to have working engines and to be free to move around. One of these days we will be able to enjoy the fun part of being cruisers again!