Monday, February 21, 2011

St. Martin: Comings and Goings

Simpson Bay Lagoon in St. Martin feels to us a little bit like being home (as far as that’s possible thousands of miles away from our respective home countries), since this is the third time in as many years we have dropped our anchor in the familiar weedy bottom. Over the last two years, we have spent a total of nine months in the protected waters of this massive lagoon and coming up are another three or four. Not much has changed. There is a new road around the airport extension, our friend and net controller Mike opened his new business “Shrimpy’s Laundry” and the Wednesday Cruiser’s Meeting is moving from Turtle Pier to the friendly and conveniently located Barnacles.

Other than these changes, the distances in the lagoon are still huge with a variable degree of wetness depending on the amount of wind and a considerable usage of fuel based on the destination, prices have been stagnant (bus to Philipsburg: $2, beer during Happy Hour: $1), the bridge openings are still the same and most of the locally known “boat residents” are still here. Unfortunately, one thing that doesn’t stay the same - in contrary to our “old homes” - is our circle of friends…

Life on a boat means “change of plans”, “new horizons” and “other challenges”. While it always feels good to see old friends again, that feeling gets intensified when you haven’t seen them for a while or when you have anticipated the reunion for months. But, as big as that feeling of joy is, the moment you hug “hello”, easily as big is the feeling of sadness when you say “goodbye” once again, maybe even for the last time. “When will we see him or her or them again?” is a recurring thought that crosses our minds when the vessel’s name is called during the departures section of the Cruiser’s Net in the morning.

While we hoped to see Nic and Michele from SY Irony again on our way north, they were on opposite corners when we were in Antigua and then picked up speed, arriving in the British Virgin Islands when we reached St. Martin. It was wonderful to see our friends Tom and Karmen from SV Ellida again, after never catching up with each other over the last year. They made new plans and are on their way to the United States at the moment.

Last but not least, we had to say goodbye - hopefully not forever- to our good friend Dave of SV Tatia. Over a span of three years, we united and separated in multiple harbors, to hang-out for the season together here in St. Martin. As a single hander, he got a bit bored with things (how could he not have enough boat projects to do to fill his days?) and accepted a job as IT engineer on Le Grand Bleu, one of the largest privately owned yachts in the world. His cruising life is on hold now and we saw one of our best friends go.

While our current circle of friends is getting smaller these days, there is room for positions to fill up. New friends will be made and the wonderful thing about St. Martin is that many paths cross here, in the middle of the Eastern Caribbean. When one befriended cruising couple leaves, another one is bound to arrive. Very soon!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

St. Martin: Home away from Home?

Barbuda was our last real stop before arriving in St. Martin, on February 3rd. As always we enjoyed our pretty and peaceful environment in Low Bay. There seemed to be more sailboats than last January, but we didn’t feel crowded. Once in a while, we took a break from work, for a walk on the 11 mile beach, sinking into the soft sand up till our ankles. Darwin loved it here, we missed his joyful presence, and this time around, the weather was just wonderful, even a bit chilly to swim.

One afternoon, I convinced Mark to join me in the dinghy towards one of the reefs. He remained in the rubber boat, bopping around, enjoying the sunshine, while I braved the cool water and snorkeled around for a bit, seeing multiple colorful fish on the damaged reefs and two stingrays. On the way back to Irie, we passed over large patches of grass. We could see big white spots from above the water and I joked that they were probably all conch. Mark urged me to put my mask and snorkel back on to check it out. Indeed! Tons of conch!

Within seconds, I donned my fins again and went diving for dinner, only picking the adult ones with a big lip. Twenty minutes later, I found enough sea creatures for a few meals. We felt happy and successful to finally find some food in nature. Every fishing attempt this season has failed miserably. Even worse: we lost all our lures in the progress! Once back aboard, Mark cut the animals out of their pretty shells and cleaned them up a bit. They would turn into delicious meals over the following weeks.

Now we are back in St. Martin with mixed feelings. It is the third time we will be spending four to five months in Simpson Bay Lagoon, focusing on our business and other work. The Wirie “factory” is back in production. The list of boat projects is long again and so are the chore and the grocery list. On the other hand, it is great to see all our friends again and spend some fun evenings together.

Mark and I also have a wedding to plan and our friend Karmen, who is an aspiring travel and wedding photographer ( is practicing on us, as we speak. So, just like previous years, it is all about finding the perfect balance between work and pleasure. St. Martin is not a bad place to achieve such a thing!

Friday, February 4, 2011

French Clash

“I wonder whether that boat sees us” Mark remarked when we were sailing along St. Barth’s west coast nearing the capital Gustavia. A small boat under full sails was heading our way. As a matter of fact, he was on a collision course pointing straight at us and coming closer by the second. Irie was (also) under sail and on a starboard tack, which meant we had right of way. But, he was flying a French flag. And as far as stereotypes go, some of them are pretty close to the truth when it comes to the French. They don’t like to speak English, they anchor right on top of you when there is plenty of space in the bay and they don’t seem to follow (or know) “the rules”…

“I can’t believe this. He is not making any moves to avoid us!” Mark started considering the options. We had been fine and peacefully on course with nicely trimmed sails for 11 hours! Frantically, I reeled the fishing line in. Even if the boat cut behind us, he would snatch our line and our last lure would be forever lost. Mark fell off and got out of the way. The Frenchman must have seen us, because he sat on the high side of his boat. When he came within a few yards, just missing our stern and waving with a big smile on his face, Mark yelled at him, in English. He basically explained how we had to change course for him, that we were on a starboard tack and he was on a port tack, that this was inconsiderate of him as a sailor. The guy did not quite understand what was going on, didn’t feel any guilt and did not speak any English. Until… he caught the word “idiot” coming out of Mark’s mouth. Now, that he did understand (the French word is pretty much the same) and he yelled: “I’m coming back for you!”

The next instant, he turned his boat 180° and came after us. Gulp! Luckily his boat was a bit smaller and a monohull. And, the wind picked up which sent us (and him) flying in the right direction, at least for us. He kept up pretty well and actually shortened the distance between us in his pursuit. Now what? Mark was getting nervous and demanded the jib to be perfectly attended to while he took care of the main sail. While it normally doesn’t matter too much that our sails are trimmed to perfection, all of a sudden we were part of an important race. With the least change in wind, I adjusted the jib and Mark did the same with the main. Back and forth, in and out, slightly so.

A big vessel that looked like a cruise ship was entering the harbor to Gustavia, while all around us mega yachts were peacefully lying at anchor. We couldn’t afford going behind the giant and we had right of way, so we stuck to our course, passing in front of him, just in time, thanks to the consistent wind. Nobody seems to like giving way to others and our day was all of a sudden coming to a more exciting end than anticipated…

By this time, Irie had gained quite a bit of distance and our pursuer shrunk in size. He was still following and we contemplated sailing to our planned anchorage in Anse de Columbier, or making the already very long and tiring trip three miles longer by shooting for Ile Forchue. When we saw how busy Columbier Bay was, we chose for the rough, inhospitable but quiet island further away. We made it safely there, having shaken off our chaser, but we were kept awake all night by incredibly strong and loud wind gusts. Take note: you do pay a price for calling somebody and idiot, even when he is just that!