The month at Sint Maarten: exploration and signing out

Sint Maarten in sunset

(This blog post is a compilation of a series of posts that were written while on the spot)

Usually when people travel, they know where they are going. They have probably bought a travel guide book, or checked the place out in the travel agency colorful magazines – or on the internet.

I hadn't. When you sail, you cannot keep all that stuff in your head, or bring all the books (apart from on the hard disk, but they do not seem to be read either). So you just come to a place and explore it - without Lonely Planet, without anything. I didn't know what the Atlantic trip would bring me or how everything would work out, and didn't know anything about Sint Maarten before being halfway there.

I did not really make detailed plans for afterwards either. Only upon arrival did everything start to fall in place. I would stay at the boat for some time - moored up to a wooden pontoon at Turtle Pier in a Caribbean bay, with a small very local bar just a few steps away. The pub is surrounded by lush palms, and they keep some monkeys, turtles and parrots there.

I would be looking for a boat to buy at the Caribbean, also try to attend some regattas, and festivals. During the first days though, I wanted to take it easy (like the locals seem to do and hey, it works!). I spent some time getting to know the island, checking out the boat market, designing tattoos for crew and locals, doing some painting, and making connections to book charter for the boat I crossed the Atlantic with. Helping out with work on the boat also meant an assignment as executive chef during charters.

The pier is facing this very large lagoon called Simpson Bay, with the perimeter framed by a great number of small marinas, shipyards, bar shacks, bungalow hotels, petrol stations, night clubs with or without adult entertainment, food shops, restaurants, and marine stores.

Entrance to Simpson Bay. Photo taken almost 10 years after me arriving there - on another trip.
In the lagoon, a lot of yachts are swaying on anchor; some very luxurious, other more usual, and some that are complete wrecks (literally speaking! Sometimes you can only see the mast sticking up from the water!) One of the sides of the lagoon coast belongs to the French side, but I live on the Dutch side. There is no border, so one can take a car, a taxi or a bus to the other side without a problem. The most usual kind of transport is dinghies though, everything from RIBs to usual rubber dinghies, going in all possible directions across the Simpson Bay, slalom between the yachts. The high and lush green mountains are on one side of the horizon, and on the other one there is the Princess Juliana airport, with every kind of plane lifting - from jumbo jets to small private planes. Apparently, it's the 4th of the world's most extreme airports, see link with info. I went to the runway, which starts at the beach, where you can feel the immense blowing force of a jumbojet lifting, standing just at the fence, and having a 100% view of both the engines and the landing strip. It was amazing, like standing in a hot typhoon, sand and stones and everything flying around, and the air is so fast you have to hold on to the fence to stay upright.

Usually, I spent the days looking for the boats, having a look at whatever the brokers at St Martin can offer, and looking at websites to find boats everywhere else in the Caribbean. The cheapest places seemed to be Tortola and Trinidad/Tobago. Florida and the rest of USA were also very inexpensive after the crisis. But there are several problems with owning a US built and registered boat. Also, it would be good to find something locally, so I won't have to travel around too much, wasting money and time. There are a few potentially interesting objects and probably a lot more to come, when the ARC boats arrive to the islands, also later when the season will be finishing.

I rented a car for a few days, went around the island, visited some beaches (beautiful but unfortunately no good for snorkeling), bathed, visited the highest mountain at the island, looked at the tourist magnets in the big cities - casinos, jewelry stores, shops and so on. St Martin is a tax-free island, with luxury items for sale everywhere, from jewelry to Harley bikes. Generally, it's quite expensive here otherwise, compared to what I imagined would be in the Caribbean. But this is a place for the rich French and Dutch with fancy holiday homes with an ocean view, big fat cars and a lot of butlers. The stores are filled with everything to suit their taste - European and US food, French wines, vegetables that are imported from the continent (there is almost no agriculture on the island). So the prices are comparable to Europe.

The island life is not only relaxing. Once, I suspected a potential tsunami. It was a late night, we were drinking G&Ts at the boat, and suddenly noticed that the boat's water level had dropped about half a meter against the pontoon's level. This was something new, as we haven't noticed any tidal changes during the weeks that we have been there. I looked at the jetty, trying to remember whether it was a floating pontoon or a fixed one. If it's floating, then the boat is sinking (and why haven't we heard the bilge alarms in that case?) But if it's fixed, which it was, then it’s nothing else than a tsunami surge.

I told the crew to get the grab bag ready, and checked the Tsunami Warning site. Nothing for the Caribbean, good to hear... But there was one in Japan - an earthquake of 7,4 on Richter scale, 10 km below water surface. Some of the islands were evacuated, and there were warnings of water level changes along coasts. The tsunami itself turned out to be tiny, but the warnings were still at force. Surely it could not have affected this area so much, it must have been low tide anyway, neaps and low pressure and what not. But it was a strange coincidence anyway. So we got some action at least, as we were ready to run into the mountains. We took another Gin and Tonic instead.

After a while, the skipper’s wife arrived, and there was a sailing charter to be hosted. The guests from Italy were very pleasant, however the group dynamics involving skipper, his wife, and crew were not working out at all, with a lot of micromanagement and unpleasantness. The other Swedish crew got sick of how we were treated, and suggested we would leave the assignment immediately. I do not give up easily and said no at first. He was however persistent, so at the end we signed out. Today, I would not have done it – I believe he gave up too easy, and was just not used to the hard work that hospitality business usually is. Also, it’s better to approach group dynamics problems in a constructive way by talking and discussing first, and he was unfortunately not used to solving problems by speaking of how he feels and what he needs. Nevertheless, I had to respect the fact that he did not want to stay a minute longer. We made arrangements to leave the island, which was OK since there were no boats for sale here that were good enough and had a reasonable price. But there were several in the British Virgin Islands.

I did come back to Sint Maartin again, but this time being a skipper myself. With a newly purchased yacht from BVI I sailed from there to Saba and then to Sint Maarten, to equip the boat for continuing the circumnavigation.