Wednesday, May 29, 2013

St. Martin à Deux

We had heard about St. Martin for years: sugary white sand beaches, scantily clad European sunbathers, patisseries selling fresh baguettes, sidewalk cafes featuring the best of French cuisine. Well, after the last four months, we are ready for it. The island is a dichotomy in many ways, one half is French (St. Martin) and one half is Dutch (Sint Maarten), and each half reflects the customs and idiosyncrasies of each nation.

The view of Marigot Bay from Fort St. Louis.
We initially anchored at Marigot Bay on the French side and dingied in to clear customs. With typical Gallic indifference, you simply went up to a dedicated computer terminal in the marina office, filled in the blanks (ignoring the fact that their keyboard is not a QWERTY which makes for some interesting spellings, and their dates are in a different format - more on that later), pay your 7 Euros and get a printed receipt. Voilà.

A row of little French restaurants peaks the taste buds.

We walked around for a while trying to track down a cash machine to get some Euros (after later finding out the everyone readily accepts US dollars). We then tried one of the sidewalk cafes for our favorite cheese and jamon on a baguette. Not bad, but not great.

Local vendors provide a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for local cruisers and cruise ship passengers.
We finally found the "shopping street" and Meryl got a great deal on a French bikini, and we later found a patisserie with fresh baguettes. So far so good. We even ran into an open-air market with semi permanent stalls set up to cater to the cruise ship crowd. Prices were very attractive and we stocked up on presents for the grandkids. Best of all were the food stands selling a wide variety of local fruits, vegetables, and fish. After The Bahamas with their one-room grocery stores, Meryl seemed to be in food heaven.

Nutmeg and the surrounding mace.
I'm always amazed whenever I see the nutmeg/mace combination in an overseas food stall, with the spidery mace surrounding the nutmeg nut.

That's not a spaceship, it's the experimental Turanor-Planet Solar catamaran.
On the way back to the boat we ran across the strangest boat I've ever seen; it looked even too wild to be in a James Bond movie. Looking a lot like a spaceship that landed on the water, the craft was called Turanor-Planet Solar and it was based in Basel, Switzerland. It was circular in shape and about two stories tall, and if we could have seen the top level it was the size of a soccer pitch and covered with solar panels. My understanding is it's a solar demonstration project that is cruising around the world to promote solar energy. Pretty neat.

On Sunday May 19th we decided to explore over on the Dutch side of the island, entering a little canal under a swing bridge off of Marigot Bay. Just at the end of the canal was Timeout Boatyard where our buddy boat, Field Trip, who we'd last seen in Salinas, Puerto Rico, was hauled out having new bottom paint installed. It was weird to climb up a ladder to visit them, but it was great to see everyone again, even if the boat was in a little disarray with all the work being done. Sara had made friends with two other "kid boats," Ulydia and Seashell, and Elizabeth and Michael were enjoying having kids their own age to play with. After a short visit we continued on across a very shallow inner lagoon called Simpson Bay, under a new bridge being built on the Dutch side, and over to Sint Maarten.

Paul and Shery Shard on Distant Shores.
We were surprised to see a rather well known boat called Distant Shores at anchor ahead. We thought, what the hell, and just dingied over and called out their name. Paul and Sheryl Shard are well know in sailing circles for the sailing videos and TV shows they produce for Canadian and US cable TV channels ( We've watched many of them and they are a great introduction to overseas cruising. They shoot, produce, and edit all the shows right on the boat as they travel. Their boat is a somewhat unique British-built Southerly 49, which has a swing keel with an anchoring depth of 3 ft. and sailing depth of 10 feet. Best of both worlds. They graciously invited us on board for a tour of their beautiful boat and brought us up-to-date on their travels.

The Sint Maarten Yacht Club where we moor our dingy.
We tied the dingy up at the Sint Maarten Yacht Club and walked around a little, finding some incredible grocery stores with every European delicacy you could imagine. Had lunch at a nice waterfront café and scored some Internet time, and checked out other businesses, etc. along the road. It was essentially a one street town, a little less fancy than I had expected, but with enough variety of shops, bars, etc. to make life more interesting. We'll come back later for a more thorough exploration.

On Monday the 20th we decided to move the boat from Marigot Bay inside to Simpson Lagoon. This is more complicated than it sounds. It turns out the lagoon is very shallow in spots and you need the "secret" map sold by Shrimpy's Laundromat to navigate your way in. We caught the 8:15 am swing bridge opening on the French side and very carefully motored along the waypoints on the map. Luckily the shallowest water we saw was around 6 ft. 5 inches compared to our 6 ft. 1 inch draft. We anchored near the new Dutch bridge that's under construction near a point of land called Witches Tit, along with about 100 other boats. The advantage of this area is it's right on the border between the French side and the Dutch side. If you anchor on the Dutch side, you will most likely get visited by the efficient Dutch Coast Guard and have to pay a daily anchoring fee. On the French side no one seems to care much about anything.

One of the negatives about anchoring in the French side of the lagoon is a serious security problem with theft. It seems that about every other day on the morning radio net there is a report about a dingy or motor being stolen. Our friend Mark on Field Trip is especially security conscious and we were surprised one morning to hear him on the net telling about the attempted theft of his dingy while they were having drinks not more than 100 ft. away. According to local lore a gang of young thieves, working for older gang members, steal the dinghies to get the outboard motors. The dinghies are taken out in the harbor and sunk and the motors sold on the black market. The local police or gendarmes seem apathetic about tracking down the thieves. On the Dutch side, however, the Dutch police are very diligent and theft is a much smaller issue.

A 3/8" stainless steel chain and a state of the art outboard motor lock will only slow down the local thieves.

As a matter of course we have a large circular tempered MotoLoc steel guard that covers the locks for our outboard, and we always chain the dingy (even when it's hanging on the davits on the boat) with a 3/8 inch stainless steel chain. I noticed that they sell the biggest bolt cutters I've ever seen at the local ACE Hardware, so maybe even all that is not enough.
The next day we just lazed around on the boat and then went in and walked around the other half of the Dutch side. The cool thing about the Dutch side is they have not one, but two huge marine supply stores, Island Water World and Budget Marine. For sailors like us who have been cruising for almost two years, between the two stores they had about 90% of the replacement parts we had been looking for. Over the two weeks we were in St. Martin, I must have visited the stores daily. The availability of groceries, parts and supplies made St. Martin one of our more favorite islands.

We had a serious problem, however, in that my iPhone 3GS (a very old iPhone) finally died. I tried all the tricks I could think of but couldn't get it to work. Since I eat, work and breathe with my iPhone, my life had ended as far as I knew. While visiting an electronics store I found out that they sold iPhones. I made the impulsive decision to buy a new unlocked iPhone 5 (major $). Once I got back to the boat I transferred everything that was on the old iPhone via iTunes to restore all the apps to the new phone. I was a whole (but much poorer) person once again. We then found a Telcell office where we got a local SIM card (hence the need for unlocked phones) and we finally had reliable phone and Internet accessibility. The only downside was days later while trying to get Meryl's iPhone 4 unlocked, I found out that the electronics store had an in-house whiz kid who could fix anything, including my old iPhone. Turns out the battery I had just had installed in Hong Kong a year earlier had failed. Oh, well, now we have a back up phone.

Barnacles, a local cruiser bar, is home crews from the visiting sailboats.

That night a group of cruisers met at Barnacles, the local Greek cruisers bar with $1.25 beers, and we finally met the crews off of Ulydia, Escape Velocity, Field Trip, Macushla and other boats. It was great to just get together with everyone to relax and enjoy the ambiance of the island.
Beach at Philipsburg where cruise ship passengers enjoy the sun.
On the 23rd we decided to visit Philipsburg, the port city of Sint Maarten. This involved standing by the side of a very busy road and looking for a mini van with a "P'burg" sign in the front window. There is no reliable public transportation so these mini van entrepreneurs were the way to go anywhere on the island. Philipsburg was a little bit of a disappointment to us. It's the cruise ship port and everything is geared to the hoards of cruise ship tourists, lots of duty free stores, jewelry stores, etc.

The open air market at Philipsburg.
The Georgia McRae honorary t-shirt.
This t-shirt caught my eye and I immediately thought of our friend Georgia McRae. I emailed the photo to Georgia and she got a laugh out of it.

As a side note, having been brought up in the world of building codes, OSHA, etc. I'm always amazed by what passes as building standards in foreign countries. Hong Kong was my favorite, but I think this plumbing in Philipsburg is in contention for first place.

Sue from Macushla and Jack from Escape Velocity celebrate Sue's birthday.
That night we were invited over to Macushla, along with Escape Velocity, to celebrate Sue's (from Macushla birthday. Both, Mark and Sue and Jack and Marce (on Escape Velocity) are all vegans so we shared some incredible vegan-based foods.

This began a social whirl that included dinner at Flying Cloud the next night, then on to Escape Velocity the fifth night for some incredible sushi.

I'm not a vegan but I sure like having dinner with them.
It was great to finally get to know Jack and Marce since we had literally been trading tacks with them since Block Island last August. We were anchored next to them in Oriental (I don't think we talked since I felt self conscious for having anchored so close to them in the tiny harbor). We sat three tables away during Thanksgiving Dinner at the marina in Oriental, and saw them on and off all the way down to St. Martin, but never got to know them. Turns out they had become friends with Mark and Sue in Charleston right after we left, so we finally met them through that connection. The cruising world is very small, and very, very tight. As I said in an earlier post, we all depend on each other out on the high seas. It's these friendships that are the true value of a cruising lifestyle.

The offical Sint Maarten "man-bag."
In the 25th we made our final run to Island Waterworld to buy the required "man bag." Both Mark and Jack had these Overboard waterproof backpacks and I soon learned why they are the only way to go. While returning back to the boat we got hit with a horrendous rain squall that soaked everything in the dingy, except the yellow backpack. We heard from other cruisers that they use the backpack when beaching their dinghies in heavy surf since many times the dingy will overturn soaking everyone and everything. A great product.
I can't tell you how great is is to have a well stocked chanderly nearby.
We had heard rumors of a super grocery store rivaling anything back in the US. After some research, we learned you land your dinghy at a resort nearby, sneak past the security guard, walk around the back of the tennis courts, then up the long grass lined entrance to the resort and around the corner to the right. Le Grand Marche certainly lived up to its reputation with long refrigerator cases of European cheeses, and to Walter's delight, over 50 different types of European chocolates. The wine selection, as you might image, was wonderful. The only problem was carrying all the bags of groceries the one mile back to the dinghy.

This has to be one of the most photographed spots in the Caribbean, especially when the planes are landing from the opposite direction and just 100 ft over the beach.
The Sunset Beach Bar lists the arrival times for local flight on a surfboard outside the bar.
One last thing on our list was a visit to the famous Sunset Beach Bar. This is situated at the end of the runway for Sint Maarten airport and offers a view unmatched anywhere else in the world for "up close and personal" with the landing and departing airplanes. The post the arrival and departure times of flights on a big surfboard by the bar. Unfortunately all the big planes had already taken off, but even the smaller regional planes gave cause for excitement.

A walk on the beautiful white sand beach at the end of the runway with Marce and Jack off Escape Velocity.
Had Painkillers at the bar with Jack and Marce and heard tales that guys stand next to the runway fence and when the big jets spool up for take off, they get blown 50 ft. in the air from the 60 to 100 mph winds from the planes engines. Must be a sight to see.

Drinks at the Sint Maarten Yacht Club.
As if we hadn't had enough socializing that day we all headed down to the Sint Maarten Yacht Club to meet Mark and Sue from Macushla for more drinks. The yacht club is right next to the Dutch bridge and at 5:30 pm it opens to let in all the yachts from the ocean side. Some of the bigger catamarans have only a few feet of clearance on each side to squeeze through.

The inner lagoon near Marigot Bay on the French side of St. Marten.

The next day we decided we needed some exercise so we dingied the long distance across the lagoon to the French side, where we had to check out with Customs anyway, and hiked up to Fort Louis on the hill overlooking Marigot Bay.
Overview of Marigot Bay on the French side of St. Martin.
The fort was the idea of a French knight named Descoudrelles who as a one-man chamber of commerce, proposed the fort to French authorities as being very beneficial to protecting the port and residents of the area. It was finished years later in 1789 and provides stunning views of the surrounding ocean and harbor. We actually ran into the crew from Seashell, a young couple from Vail, Colorado who was a former pro snowboarder and now lives with his wife and three kids aboard a beautiful Gulfstar 52. I can't imagine cruising with three kids, but they have been doing this for several years.

A local saluting the French for their fabulous service in local restaurants.
I love this photo since it epitomizes the French attitudes towards Americans. Mark Owen had the best description of a French waiter (you have to say this in a French accident): "We're not happy until you're unhappy. No truer words ever spoken. Having said that, we absolutely love listening to the French radio stations. They could be singing "...and I had to weld the hypoid gear on my transmission..." and we would think it was a great love song. We did have lunch at a wonderful patisserie called Serafina and bought some of their tasty artisan breads.

Despite their lackluster service, the French do make some of the best food in the world.
Having stayed a week longer than we anticipated because of adverse weather, we finally headed out of the lagoon on May 31st carefully retracing our exact route through the shallow lagoon, and only managed to run aground a few times before we tried a different route that proved to have a little deeper water. Although the weather wasn't perfect, it was time to leave St. Martin and we had heard favorable comments about a large bay about 5 miles up the coast of St. Martin called Grand Case, which is our next destination.

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