Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Ten Day Gap

When Mark and I arrived in Martinique after our long and exhausting sail over from St. Martin, Mark asked “Now, what are we going to do for ten days?” Since we played it safe and the weather agreed with us to get to our destination well in time before my cousin Griet and her family arrived, we all of a sudden “faced” an unplanned gap of ten days. The thought of being able to “relax” for over a week was exciting and daunting at the same time! When was the last time we didn’t have a deadline or a full day of events, work and jobs planned out?

First, we had to rest. Which we did the day after our arrival. Luckily, we picked up wireless internet, so that covered the following days, dealing with the business, some writing and our social network. We learned that three hours before we arrived in Grand Anse d’Arlet, our good cruising friends from SV Alianna and SV Imagine had just left to Rodney Bay, St. Lucia and that a whole bunch of friends had spontaneously congregated there, about five hours south of us. So close, but so far away. My excitement rose to see them again and to go on a mini adventure across another part of ocean. The problem was the weather, our tiredness and convincing Mark that this was a good idea when we finally had some peace…

Four days of heavy winds went by, we did a little bit here and there, snorkeled with sea turtles and then, about a week after leaving the lagoon in St. Martin, we left our safe, quiet and comfortable haven in Martinique already again. We truly can’t sit still… The plan: hop over to St. Lucia for two days, not go to shore, not check into the country, just spend some time with our friends on boats and return to Martinique a couple of days later. The passage across was close on the nose again, but pleasant and fast. We managed to sail all the way into Rodney Bay and were welcomed with waves and shouts of our friends, who recognized Irie after realizing our funny baggy wrinkles were absent. That’s another project, one day.

Sim and Rosie dinghied over to say hi. We hadn’t seen them since the wedding and had a lot to catch up on. Soon, it was 3pm and time for a late lunch and customer support. An hour later, our friends Bob, Christine and Angie came over for a chat and some information about our new product and then we were expected on SV Alianna for a cordial evening of drinks and food, including our other friends Sam and Jon. The word of our presence in the bay had gotten out and the next morning started with a VHF call to provide information about The Wirie and hours of testing something about our new product for Mark. Because of all this activity, I decided it was better and more appropriate to go to shore and check into (and out of at the same time) St. Lucia, so we didn’t have to worry about anything or feel uncomfortable with being there.

By mid-morning, Sim came over to help Mark with an engine issue and at the same time, three (other) WirieAP customers showed up, creating a very busy morning for the Irie crew. We assembled a few upgrade kits (not really expecting to get into the whole business already), Mark and Sim managed to fix the engine part and the rest of the afternoon was spent doing business and boat work. In the evening, our group of friends gathered ashore for the Friday Jump-up in Gros Ilet. We walked over there from the marina and indulged in affordable and tasty food, soaking up the local atmosphere.

The weather wasn’t cooperating for us to return to Martinique quite yet, so we spent another two – quieter- days in Rodney Bay, before saying our final goodbyes to Imagine and Alianna. We are hoping to see them again in Grenada at some point, when our paths cross. Of course, we enjoyed each other’s company, but for us, it was time to get back “on track”. Another close hauled sail (where is that summer SE wind when you need it?) north lead us to Martinique’s boating capital Le Marin for more shopping and a three hour sail, just under the jib, brought us back to our beloved Grand Anse d’Arlet. When the family arrives in Fort-de-France, we are ready for a different kind of adventure!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bye Bye St. Martin, Hello Martinique!

After 4.5 months in St. Martin, Mark and I were getting antsy to leave and join the big cruiser’s parade south, to safer waters and more pleasant environments. Mid June was approaching and Irie was about the only cruising boat left in the lagoon, where all the other sailboats were slowly turning into “temporary residents”. But, we couldn’t leave yet. Not as long as our rigging project wasn’t totally finished, not as long as we hadn’t received all the packages for The Wirie and personal use… Luckily, the weather hadn’t been cooperative to head south either, so we didn’t have to feel too bad about missing out on a departure yet.

The weather forecast had some northeasterly winds in the coming week or so and we started to prepare our departure, while frantically trying to locate a professional rigger to tune and check all the wires and fittings. So far, we had been unsuccessful, going from a rigger on the French side leaving us with a bent mast, to presumably straightening it all back out ourselves on a hot Saturday, to having another so called expert tweak it all out of shape again. A more detailed report about this massive rigging project will follow in the near future.

Mark and I rented a car to provision and pick up heaps of packages and we buzzed around collecting some diesel and necessary boat parts. We kept a close eye on the weather predictions and everything favorable had moved forward, quite a bit, all of a sudden! To make and take this one and only weather window, we would have to leave… the next afternoon. Our bodies and minds spun in an even higher gear and I started driving around the French and the Dutch side to locate a professional rigger, while Mark tried to wrap up some business stuff for the next few days.

When Thursday came around, we whole heartedly hoped that the booked riggers would show up in the morning, our only chance of leaving that day. I picked up a few items on shore and bought 24 gallons of water, Mark dealt with a WirieAP customer and to my biggest relief, two extra men were on Irie’s foredeck when I returned around 11am. Our standing rigging was adjusted, the mast straightened out and before noon, the biggest weight fell off our shoulders. I ran back to the French side to check out of the country, buy dinghy fuel and swing by Shrimpy. After a quick lunch we sold our mooring ball, ran to the grocery store for a week’s worth of food, made sure our friend Ed’s boat was OK and paid our rigging bill. Before we knew it, 4pm arrived, and we headed for Simpson Bay Bridge after a fast scrub of our underwater keel cooler and log. At 4:30pm, we said “goodbye” to St. Maarten/St. Martin. We were very happy to finally be “outside”, but felt a bit rushed and sad to not have been able to say goodbye to friends we might never see again.

The weather forecast called for 48 hours of east-northeast winds at a speed of around 20 knots, which is on the strong side for a trip heading southeast. We didn’t have much choice, since northeast and even east winds are rare this time of year and we had a deadline/family to meet in Martinique at the end of the month. This was the first time we consciously set out in relatively strong winds and this was also the first time we would cover a distance greater than 80 miles or longer than 20 hours. We were shooting to sail “straight” (without hitting any islands along the way) to Martinique, a distance of 250 miles and an expected 42 hours to windward. Our friend Angie on SV Kibe followed us through the Dutch bridge and hoped to reach St. Lucia a few days later.

And so our trip “south” started, initially with a big grin on our face, my face anyway; Mark was still a bit dazzled by the rate our life had been going and the accumulation of recent events. The first couple of hours passed by uneventfully. We started with one reef in the main sail, making it a double one when the sun set. An easy meal of soup and baguette was had, not much for me, since my stomach was already starting to feel funny in the motion of the ocean. Once we had cleared all land and the waves were in their full swing, it didn’t take long before I was hanging over the side with my life jacket and harness on. Three hours into the trip and I felt unbelievably sick. Mark took the first shift, while I retired downstairs, being thrown around by the violent swell and wind chop. When it was my turn to take care of Irie, I went back into the cockpit. But, the slightest moving around, had me puking again. Mark felt sorry for me and sent me back to bed, dealing with the elements himself. Around 2am, he was totally exhausted and soaking wet and I was on night watch for three hours, switching between being seated at the helm station to hanging over the stern of the boat, inspecting the waves up close. It was a bit terrible indeed, with confused seas, steep waves and heaps of seawater drenching the cockpit. The swell was only about 6-7 feet high, with a massive one every few minutes, but the period in between was a meager 6 seconds…

The following day went by pretty fast, with hours of rest for both of us, plenty of speed and progress between the islands and a struggle to keep moving in the lee of Guadeloupe. I was in charge of Irie during the calm periods, while Mark took care of her on the passages. For a moment we hoped to pull into Dominica for the night, but the >1 knot of current against us, made our progress over the ground much slower than over the water. With a reef in, we were still doing 6-7 knots, losing 1 knot to the current. By the time, we approached the lee of Dominica, it was 10pm and we decided to continue, dodging many container ships in the shipping lanes, 5 miles off shore. Thank you, AIS!

The passage between Dominica and Martinique was a rough one again. The sea was a bit more regular, but the wind was howling above 25 knots, constantly. Mark wanted to take a long night shift again and with two reefs in the main and a reefed jib, we were doing 8 knots… With 1 knot of current against us, still. Our new rigging was getting tested! Once in the lee of Martinique, gone was the wind and a bit of motoring had to be done.

Our initial goal was to drop anchor in the capital, Fort-de-France, but the memory of the more calm and pretty anchorage of Grand Anse d’Arlet enticed us to spend another hour under sail. We also hoped our friends from SV Imagine and SV Alianna would still be there, but as it turned out, they had just left three hours before our arrival! Friends or no friends, Mark and I were very happy to have arrived in a safe harbor after an exhausting sail of 44 hours and couldn’t wait to sleep and relax the next couple of days! We wished we would have been able to do a test sail with the new rigging before we left St. Martin, though…

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ladies Night in St. Maarten

About two years ago, the concept “Ladies Night” was introduced to me, here in St. Maarten. A friend of mine and I had seen some signs around, promoting this special and free night for the females amongst us. The night of this weekly event was Wednesday and soon enough, Christine and I found out the scoop. Sunset Beach Bar on Maho Bay offered free drinks from 10pm onwards, followed by Tantra and Bliss. During the rest of the season, we tried to convince other cruising galls to join us for some fun and entertainment one Wednesday or the other.

Back then, and last year, all the interested parties would gather during the “Wednesday Cruiser’s Meeting” for happy hour drinks and in preparation of the late night out. Once the scene there mellowed out and the other halves went home, our group of ladies would walk to Maho Beach and share a pizza or eat a Subway sandwich if the stomachs hadn’t been filled at Turtle Pier. We hung out on the beach until 10pm came around and hopefully were sober enough by then to actually start drinking. 10pm is very late for the average cruiser, especially when happy hour starts at 5!

10pm is very early for the non-cruiser, aka vacationer and partier. Our group would move to the Sunset Beach Bar, which was still empty, and order free light beers, mudslides or frozen margaritas. It was the moment to exchange juicy stories or share female knowledge, since the DJ played music in the background. Around 11:30pm, we moved on to Tantra for some free sushi and cosmopolitans or champagne until the place started to fill up. Conversation was hard, but manageable and some of us got on their dancing shoes.

After midnight, we would reach the last and most spectacular club in St. Maarten, Bliss. The dance floor would be filled up by then and while we grabbed our free pink champagne, we would watch the handsome roller blade guy and attractive female dancers move around their little podiums. Whoever was inclined to dance to the club music would do so and the others would lounge in the comfortable sofas near the water’s edge or the pool. We all would have a great night out with enough girl time to last us a week or two. Once back on Irie around 3 or 4 am, I had to haul up the heavy dinghy by myself and the following day was a bust. Last year, I stuck to a less frequent Ladies Night program, not wanting to lose a whole Thursday. Work had to be done.

A couple of months ago, a few girlfriends and I would try this Ladies Night scheme again. We killed the time between the Cruiser’s Meeting (at Barnacles now) and 10pm sitting on a picnic table by the beach drinking alcohol bought at the Maho Beach supermarket. When going over to Sunset, we heard the disheartening news that they don’t do Ladies Night anymore, so we checked out Tantra. There, the bouncers pointed out that we were too early. The night started at 11pm. Back to the beach we went, to return an hour later. Ready for some famous sushi, we climbed the steps and entered the dance club. No sushi. Ever again. A whole array of tasty (frozen) drinks was still available for free and in no time, the place was booming with nicely dressed women on the dance floor and anticipating guys staring at them.

After a little while, we anticipated the awesome ambiance and environment of Bliss and moved our tired bodies over there. The once bustling dance club was dead. The pink champagne was still present, but the (professional) dancers weren’t and our little group wasn’t even allowed on the comfy couches anymore. Because of the late start of the night it was basically morning again when we all hitched to our dinghies and returned home. We had been deprived of most of the goodies and I decided that the Wednesday Ladies Night was not really worth my time, energy and loss of a day’s work anymore.

We had heard of another Ladies Night in the area of the lagoon. This one takes place in The Alley on a Thursday Night, starting at 10pm. Our first try failed, because a live band was performing that night and therefore the drinks had their usual high price tag. A couple of weeks later, we tried again, with a small group of women. This time, Ladies Night was honored and we enjoyed delicious frozen passion fruit margaritas, all by ourselves. Apparently this concept is not very popular or known amongst the St. Maarten residents or visitors and I expect it to die out completely one of these years. The five of us still had a nice night with lots of Ladies Talk, but what is keeping us from doing that at a more convenient and respectable time of the day? We are cruisers, after all. We live with the sun and go to sleep before 10pm. I’m afraid this lady is getting too old for a good ol’ Ladies Night!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Sunday in the Lagoon

Just like every Sunday morning, Mark and I lay in bed, being woken up by first light. Last night, we had dinner on a friend’s boat and today, we’d like to sleep in. The radar cable in the mast is rattling and the bed is rocking with the constant wake created by speeding power boats. A fisherman buzzes by to check his traps nearby Irie. A plane noisily takes off from the airport. It is not even 7am. We keep our eyes closed, try to ignore the persistent hum of mosquitoes, try to find a dry spot on the sheets that’s not soaked with our sweat. The sun penetrates the window and beams onto our faces. More sweat trickles down on the pillows. It is 7:30am and time to get up! Another day in “paradise”!

It would be nice to take the day off and go to the clear and pretty water “outside”. But, we took our sails and the boom down for our upcoming rigging job. Not that we would have been able to sail anyway. There is no wind. There hasn’t been any wind for weeks now and life has been very uncomfortable, what with the heat and the high humidity. Mark deals with some difficult and corroded cables that run up the mast (everything has to be disconnected, cleanly), I write a bit. Not too long, however. Because of the lack of wind and presence of clouds, Irie’s batteries are constantly depleted. I allow myself one hour on the computer, then move on to other things…

I do the dishes, fill the sun shower with fresh water out of one of our jerrycans, clean up a bit and help Mark measure and arrange a few things for the upcoming project. The sun is gone already and humidity hangs heavily in the air. When we look at the hills nearby, the tops are covered by a gray, hazy mess. On days like this, we barely know what to do with ourselves. Jump in the lagoon water, while all kinds of debris is just hovering on the surface? I see a dead pelican floating on its belly, beak facing up. The idea of a dead bird in the water doesn’t entice any swimming. I first thought he was still alive, trying to upright himself and felt totally awful. Mark didn’t want to touch a water bird not being able to get out of the water, in fear of some kind of disease. I wanted to save the animal and bring it to the little island in front of us. The ripples in the water make it look like it is still alive; Mark assures me it is not. When it floats closer and I point the poor thing out to Mark, he laughs out loud and says it is a stick. Yep, having a closer look, it is indeed a stick! Now, every time he sees a stick, he asks me what kind of bird it is…

Instead of hanging out in the cockpit all afternoon, we decide to take a long trip with the dinghy and check out Cupecoy Beach. The weather is not very nice, but a dip in the clear ocean will do us good. All the way on the west side of Simpson Bay Lagoon is Porto Cupecoy, a fancy marina and shopping center. I immediately wish we could stay here and use the pool in its tropical and lush surroundings. A short walk across the street brings us to Cupecoy, a beach we have never checked out in those three seasons we spent in St. Maarten. Surrounded by nudists, we find our own little spot of sand and go for a swim. Later we explore the area a bit. It is indeed a very nice and un-touristy coastline, with little beaches tucked away into the cliffs. Locals and westerners alike enjoy their Sunday afternoon in one or another sandy cove, with or without clothes.

When we have enough of it, Mark and I return home, watch the planes take off, yell at the speeding pleasure boats just missing ours, get annoyed by the huge wake created by multiple weekend ferries, frown upon all those loud jetskis resembling irritating mosquitoes, are engulfed by the humidity and wish it were Monday!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pre-wedding Episodes: The Bachelorette Party

It had been a very busy month, with all the wedding preparations, a visit from Mark’s best friend and his family, our usual jobs and maintenance and our planned move to the villa. My good Belgian friend Rosy was about to arrive with her husband the following day and our heads were spinning. The boat was still a mess, needing a good cleaning and more organizing had to happen. We would move to shore on Thursday in anticipation of our wedding party, it was Monday. The previous week there were some rumors about a bachelor/ette party for Mark and me, but we had always changed the topic and discarded all that “nonsense”.

Our morning of fudging around was interrupted with a visit from our favorite cruising friends Sim and Rosie (yes, all my best friends are called Rosy/ie!). “All of us have been thinking and concluded that you two should have a bachelor/ette party!” Now, every bride-to-be would be totally excited about such a proposal of free fun and enjoyment, organized by dearest friends. I just looked at my dearest friend with big, questioning eyes… “Why? When? Why now?” I mumbled excuses about too many things going on, good friend arriving soon, not liking the idea of Mark spending his night in one of the many strip clubs on the island of St. Maarten. Mark really didn’t care, but wanted me to have a good time, a fun night out with the girlfriends. We settled on Wednesday night, so we could spend our first evening with the Belgian friends on Irie and attend salsa night in La Bamba.

Wednesday evening came along. Rosy wasn’t feeling great, so she stayed on Irie, while her husband Peter was all ready to go and joined one of our cruising friends to shore. Mark and I had a few things to wrap up and joined the crowd at the Yacht Club around 6pm, where the party had already started. A cold beer and a big rum&coke were waiting for us to initiate the night. After the usual chit chat, our big group divided into men and women and both sexes went their own way to get reunited later at La Bamba beach bar. My girlfriends decorated my head with a string of fake flowers. Job well done, except that all the plastic roses had huge thorns. We decided to move the string around my waist instead, so I wouldn’t look like Jesus Christ, dripping blood all over my face. Now, I just got poked with a needle every step I took. One has to suffer a bit on her bachelorette evening, or hen do as the British call this event.

The girls made their way over to Jimbo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Simpson Bay Marina. Right in time for happy hour and soon enough, two grand mojitos in wonderful tall glasses filled my hands. The girlfriends splurged as well with signature cocktails. We found a quiet table outside and talked about what only women on a group date talk about. Some balloons got involved and the scene turned quite rowdy. We blamed it all on the alcohol content in our drinks. The “big man” Jimbo swung by our –by now- loud table and we (I) assured him that we would not steal his pretty glasses…

When the time was right, all of us moved to one of the dinner tables for an assortment of Mexican dishes. Wine was ordered, but I moved on to ice water, a smart choice. No matter how hard anybody would try, this one never gets drunk beyond remembering or puking! Not even on her bachelorette party. Luckily nobody was really pushy, rather drinking the stuff themselves! We all had a good time and then around 11pm or so, joined our other halves at La Bamba, where they already resided.

Unfortunately (or funny) enough, it was karaoke night in the beach bar… Enough alcohol had entered our bodies, to get every one of our group on the dance floor. Even Mark! Bad music or not. Peter and Liz sang a song and the atmosphere was high up there! Our whole gang of friends had a really great night out, and I’m sure the others enjoyed it at least as much as the two of us. Now, at 2 am, the biggest challenge was to get out of bed in time to pick up our rental car six hours later.

(Photos courtesy of Rosie Burr and Sam Frampton)