St. Martin to the BVI


dest-caribbean-stmarton_to_bvi-largeOur overnight passage from the island of Barbuda to St. Martin had been boisterous. The easterly winds had built through the night so that by the time St. Martin came into view, bright green and mountainous on this mid-January day, we had a reef in the mainsail and had changed down from our 135% genoa to our sturdy little self-tacking jib. Distant Shores, our Southerly 42 sailboat, charged along in the confused seas her variable draft keel down the full 9-feet keeping her motion steady and comfortable.

Although the building cross-seas did their best to slew the boat around; our self-steering gear, a powerful Raymarine STG autopilot, kept her right on tracking. As a result, all onboard were in fine shape, enjoying the ride, and looking forward to continuing tropical adventures in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean.

Joining us on this leg of our voyage were friends from Port Credit Yacht Club on Lake Ontario, Bill and Camille Bohnhardt, and British cruising friends, Wayne and Angie Attwood, who had been aboard since we’d left the Canary Islands in December and had sailed transatlantic with us to the Caribbean where we’d met Bill and Camille in Antigua. On this leg of the voyage we would be visiting the islands of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

With the north end of St. Martin in sight, our thoughts turned to images of the fresh pastries and fine wines we’d find on the French side of the island (in the north) and the duty-free shopping and excellent chandleries awaiting us on the Dutch side of the island (to the south). Even when sudden squalls hit us rounding down the west coast to Marigot, we were not deterred. We had made reservations at the Marina Port La Royale which is safely tucked inside Simpson Bay Lagoon, a large enclosed body of water and favoured anchorage of cruising sailors that spans the border between the French and Dutch sides of the island. The only entrance to the Lagoon on the French side of the island is in Marigot at Sandy Ground Bridge, a bridge that only opens three times a day; we had timed our arrival carefully to make the 2:30 p.m. opening.

We arrived in good time and after passing under the bridge, we were greeted by Madame Regine, the charming but no-nonsense captain that runs the marina and also operates the lift bridge. On her instructions we dropped anchor and backed stern-to the quay, Med mooring style, at Port La Royale and soon we were enjoying laundry service, hot showers and the first of several dinners out at the fine restaurants surrounding the harbour. Being part of the French Antilles, the official currency on this side of the island is Euros but US dollars are accepted.

Clearing in was easy. With the boat secured, it was a quick walk of a couple of blocks through town to a small Customs and Immigration office across from the ferry docks in Marigot. Once you are cleared in, you are free to travel back and forth across the border into the Dutch side of the island by car and by dinghy, however you are not allowed to take your boat from the French side to the Dutch side without first clearing it out from one and then clearing it back in to the other. Most boaters clear in one side or the other; its cheaper on the French side, however you are closer to chandleries, sailmakers, etc. on the Dutch side. Everyone stays put at anchor or at one of the marinas, but drives or dinghys around freely wherever they want to go on the island.

The main airport, the Princess Juliana International Airport, is on the Dutch side of the island so the next day we all piled into a taxi van to take Wayne and Angie across the border to catch their flight and say our goodbyes. This airport is a main hub for the Caribbean so a great place to have friends fly in or out of – another reason the island is a popular stopover for cruising sailors.

If you love airplanes, and even if you don’t, there is a unique bar we recommend you visit located at Maho Beach right at the end of the runway. The Sunset Beach Bar posts the arrivals and departures of the major international airlines and while you enjoy a drink and the tropical version of pub fare (conch fritters, fried shrimp, cheeseburgers, etc.) at the beautiful beach there, you get an astonishingly close-up view of the aircraft landing right over your head! It’s quite a sight to see a 747 flying low straight at you while you’re taking a swim and even more exciting when one is taking off since the jet blast can send you tumbling into the sea if you’re standing in the wrong place. The bar is safely out of the blast area so, don’t worry, you won’t lose your drink if you watch from there.

While we were on the Dutch side of the island, being sailors, we could not pass by the incredibly well-stocked chandleries here, so we had the taxi driver drop us off at Budget Marine and after a good hour of perusing and purchase-making there, it was just a quick walk around the corner to Island Water World for more of the same. Both are located on Simpson Bay Lagoon and have dinghy docks for the steady stream of water traffic that comes and goes from dawn to dusk. Within the same neighbourhood are good hardware and marine electronics stores plus every other imaginable marine service facility. Paradise.

And this end of Simpson Bay Lagoon is also the home of the mega-yachts with several mega-yacht marinas located here. When you’re tired of airplane-watching at Maho Beach come and see the mega-yachts here. Simply incredible!

We were all missing Wayne and Angie so the next day to cheer ourselves up Bill, Camille, Paul and I, treated ourselves to breakfast at Sarafina’s, a divine pastry shop, bakery and cafe on the waterfront of downtown Marigot. Chocolate eclairs and cappuccinos are a great way to cure the blues! We watched the comings and goings and then purchased fresh baguettes to take back to the boat for our lunch. The main market is located here too so Camille and I had fun learning about the exotic tropical fruits and local spice mixes from the vendors there, then loaded our men with the full grocery bags to take back to the boat while we investigated the numerous craft stalls. They were only too happy to oblige! When Camille and I returned to Distant Shores much later, we found Paul and Bill happily up to their elbows in grease doing boat maintenance and having fun doing it. À chacun son goût!

Bill and Camille had visited St. Martin/Sint Maarten on previous occasions and since we were planning to return here later in the season to cruise around the island more, we decided after a couple of days to move on to the British Virgin Islands with a stop in Anguilla en route. The weather was looking good for the passage so the last day in St. Martin was spent provisioning and stocking up on duty-free items such as wine and liquor that would be expensive in other islands as well as delicious European cheeses, sausages, and other products that would be difficult to find elsewhere. Paul walked back to the Customs office and did the clearing out.

We had just gotten everything stowed and had finally picked up our laundry when British cruising friends, Nigel and Elizabeth Pattison, arrived to say hello. The sailing community is a small community and distance doesn’t seem to make a difference. You are always running into friends who not long ago you saw on the other side of the planet! Nigel and Elizabeth, of SV Chantal, had waved us off when we left England with our new boat a few months before in the fall.

Delighted to see them, we invited them aboard to join the four of us for lunch and a catch-up of news and, like always, Nigel soon had us all in stitches with his stories. The time flew and suddenly it was time to catch the bridge opening. We said hasty goodbyes, threw the unpacked laundry bags on the bunks, untied our stern lines, raised anchor and set off. We just made it! We waved goodbye to Madame at the bridge and set a course to the northwest to the British island of Anguilla and the port at Road Bay nearly 20 nm away.

It was good to be underway again and we had a pleasant afternoon sail, then beat our way along the north coast to Road Bay, tacking back and forth along the last few miles where we got to show Bill and Camille the benefits of our self-tacking jib. Bill took the demonstration one step further by losing his hat. It was his special hat and it blew into the water in the strong breeze.

“Time for a man overboard drill!” said Paul.

And it became a game to see how fast we could save the hat under sail using the self-tacker. We succeeded but it took several attempts, and even though it was a bright sunny day it was sobering just how easy it was to lose sight of that hat in the waves. And how often we drove over it trying to get close enough to haul it out. We all could image how difficult it would be to retrieve a person from the sea. A good lesson before we did another passage.

Anguilla is a low island surrounded by spectacular white sand beaches, and although the population of 7,000 relies on tourism as its major source of income, it is a peaceful quiet place where tourism is elegant but low key compared to bustling St. Martin/Sint Maarten. Many celebrities have homes here and there are plans for a mega-yacht marina.

Road Bay is the main port of entry and you must go there first before stopping anywhere else. A cruising license is required to anchor and explore other bays around the island. The islanders are working hard to protect the coral reefs surrounding their lovely but fragile island so there are many restrictions which make cruising here a bit frustrating even although for a good cause. Unfortunately as a result we decided to just stay for the night. Next morning we went ashore to clear in and out, enjoy a nice walk, an amble around town, and a drink at Roy’s Place, a well-known beach bar. We relaxed at anchor for the afternoon and set sail that night for the BVI.

The passage between Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands is called the Anegada Passage and has a reputation for being a bad body of water. There are strong currents and often confused seas, but once again, Distant Shores handled the confusion with grace and dignity. Paul had chosen a good weather window so we had favourable conditions with an breeze of 15-20 knots ESE from behind for the 86 nm passage to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. For most of the way we had the headsails out and were sailing wing and wing. Bill and Camille got another overnight passage under their belts. Part of their desire to join us for this leg of our voyage was to get more offshore experience. We love being at sea – the sunsets, the moonrises, the incredible display of stars, the miles clicking past by wind power alone, the dolphins that so often come to play at the bow ­ it was a joy to share this with them.

There was only one incident that cast a bit of gloom on the passage. We finally got around to unpacking the laundry we’d had done in St. Martin and discovered on our way to the BVI that we were missing about a quarter of our stuff. There must have been another bag that we missed and in our rush to get the bridge in St. Martin we never checked.

“Oh, no!” cried Bill, “My special T-shirts! We must go back!”

But Camille refused. Paul and I were going back in a short time so would contact the laundry service and have them hold the missing clothes for us. We only hoped that the bag hadn’t been given to another boat by mistake or, knowing we’d set sail, given the clothes away. (We did eventually retrieve them.)

We arrived in Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, a port of entry for the British Virgin Islands, in the late afternoon of January 24th. There is a good marina there with a well-stocked small grocery store, bakery, liquor store, scooter rentals, restaurants, dive shop and several gift and clothing stores. So Bill was perked up with the purchase of new special T-shirts.

Spanish Town is also a good stop for making a visit to one of the BVI’s main attractions – the Baths, an area at the south end of the island where huge granite boulders have been forced up from deep below the earth forming a giant’s playground where you can climb, explore and swim around these blocks of stone the size of houses. Warm shallow grottoes have formed between and under them, hence the name, the Baths. It’s just a short taxi ride from the marina. You can go there with your boat but it’s always a fight to get a mooring. Anchoring is restricted and you’re not allowed to beach your dinghy there so we always find it more relaxing to secure the boat in the marina at Spanish Town and go by car, scooter, or taxi.

The British Virgin Islands are a popular cruising and charter boat destination. But the charter boats are restricted from areas of tricky navigation that you are free to go to with your own boat. When you have the opportunity to spend longer in the British Virgin Islands you discover there are many lovely bays and beaches off the popular routes that you can have all to yourself since they’re one bay down from the popular bay with the great restaurants. And hey, we like good restaurants ourselves once and a while, although the pleasure of cooking onboard at anchor with friends is hard to beat.

The islands themselves are mostly uninhabited except for the main islands and a few scattered towns. Their natural beauty has been preserved and there are so many anchorages and bays with good swimming and snorkelling.

Boating with friends is very bonding and we find the BVI is a great place to have friends fly in to get a taste of the cruising experience in the protected waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel. After Bill and Camille flew home we spent several weeks entertaining other friends and neighbours in good weather and bad in the BVI and no one went home disappointed.

As boaters we get a special view of the world living in nature, moving in harmony with the winds and tides, slowing down to a healthy pace of living when we are on the sea, getting special insights into different cultures and attitudes as we travel to foreign lands. Sharing these things is one of the joys of cruising.

Next issue we’ll continue the adventure with a voyage through the out islands of the Bahamas.

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