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Stress in St. Martin

Nick Ward

Ty Dewi
Young Sun 43 Pilothouse
May 29th, 2017

As the Ty Dewi crew work their way up the Windward Island chain, they head on up to St Martin, finding a few challenges along the way…

So this is the get-away-from-it-all, carefree cruising lifestyle; hanging out in beautiful places, enjoying the tropical sun and testing rum punches up and down the length of the Island chain. In which case, why have we been hunkered down on the boat for four days, buffeted by near gale force winds and torrential rain from time to time? Struggling with narrow, shallow channels and incorrect charts and, horror of horrors, running out of milk…

We only stayed a night in St Barts, wanting to beat the weather forecast and get safely to St Martin. We sailed around the top of the Island, which is strangely partitioned into the Dutch, southern half, and the French part in the north. In the middle is a shallow lagoon, which is dredged to allow yachts to enter and anchor, and both nationalities have their own lifting bridge to let us in.

Only the Dutch have got all mercenary recently, and started charging a lot of money to be in their side. The French either did a Gallic shrug and ignored it; or are being a bit slow to catch up, but the simple fact is that to come into the Dutch side and stay a week would be $100US, with another $40 a week thereafter. Via the French side, we paid $8 to clear Customs and that’s it. We’re now anchored 55ft (according to the chart plotter) north of the border, along with most of the boats in the lagoon, strangely enough. Almost all the mega-yacht berthing is on the Dutch side, and they are paying upwards of $1000 each time they come in or go out, which is where it becomes a big deal for the authorities. You get the feeling that us mere mortal cheapskates are little more than a “pain in the butt” bunch of paperwork for them in comparison to the big bucks. Given the current state of the US economy, they may have picked a poor time to start being so choosy.

Ticonderoga romps past us on a perfect sailing day

So we sailed an extra five miles and saved ourselves a bunch of money. The twenty-five mile sail from St Barts was lovely, made even more so when the seventy-two foot classic yacht Ticonderoga overtook us, just twenty metres away, looking absolutely gorgeous and with a friendly wave too. We can only aspire to such levels of paintwork and shiny varnish. We checked in with French Customs, a simple process but it left us too late for the afternoon bridge opening into the lagoon, so we sat and bounced up and down in the bay until the evening opening. At 1700h, we joined a small group milling about in front of the bridge. There is a shallow area on one side of the approach, but our electronic chart disagreed with our Pilot book about exactly where, so I cautiously followed everyone else, with a wary eye on the depth sounder, whilst Gesa went between the two charts with increasing confusion and concern. Max, meanwhile, has been waiting all day for this event and keeps asking ‘but WHEN will the bridge open, Mummy?’. Mummy is a bit stressed, so this doesn’t really help.

The bridge finally opens, to Max’s delight, and we head on through, breathing a sigh of relief as we pass unscathed between the fairly narrow steel and concrete margins of the channel. We relaxed too soon. At the end of this stretch is a sort of T-junction, where it meets the main deep water channel into the lagoon. According to the Pilot book, you have to look out for the markers and turn at the right time. Except that the markers were not as described, and there were lots of boats actually anchored in the deep water, making it hard to see where we should be. I followed another boat, but others cut a corner. They were right, and the boat I was following must have had a shallow keel because as we took the corner, we ran out of water and onto the mud. Thirteen tonnes of boat carves a lovely deep furrow in the mud and sticks in a nice, gloopy sort of way.

Through the Lifting Bridge into the Lagoon

Engine full ahead, full reverse, we make little impression. A chap in a big dinghy comes past and without even being asked, offers to help. There are soon two more, all with big outboard engines, and they push together on one side and another as we use our engine and slowly, ever so slowly, we twist free and back into the channel. We thank them profusely and they refuse our offer of beers with a cheery wave. We go on our way, slowly progressing through the channel until we locate our friends on Iceni and anchor near them. We get the anchor to set, although it is notoriously bad holding in here, but we end up very close to an empty mooring buoy. It doesn’t look like anyone will be on it tonight, so we resolve to stay there and move a little in the morning. The crew of Iceni come over for a beer and chat and we relax a bit after a pretty stressful afternoon.

As forecast, it blows quite hard in the night, but we sit tight, thankfully. The forecast is bad for the whole week, meaning that we need to be set in very firmly and the lagoon will fill up with others seeking shelter. We move after breakfast, set the anchor again and reverse against it. We’ll stay on board for a couple of hours until we’re happy, then start off into town and explore. The wind is gusting hard and all the boats are swinging quite wildly, putting a big strain on anchors and chains. Unknown to us, under the water a hundred feet ahead, our anchor is tightly entwined in the ubiquitous lagoon weed, but not dug through into the sand beneath. The weed has immensely strong roots, but with each gust a few more strands are parting and after about an hour it gives up the fight. Thankfully, Gesa glances up out of the window and says ‘er, aren’t we further back than before? Shit, we’re dragging…’ We race on deck and start the engine, as we are not ten metres from a boat behind. A helpful neighbour has already jumped in his dinghy and come over to warn us, but turns back when he sees that we’ve noticed too. I thank him later. We manage to set the anchor again and this time, I reverse against it for longer and with more revs than we’ve ever done before. Whilst it holds, we’re still not confident and all plans for going ashore fall by the wayside. We set a tighter anchor alarm (the GPS system now squeals if we move sixty feet)

The wind blows harder. The forecast says it’s going to increase tomorrow. We discuss it and decide to lay a second anchor, just to feel a little more secure. This is getting silly, in most anchorages I would trust our main anchor up to and beyond forty knots of wind; here we are laying out a second for twenty-five knots, gusting thirty. It’s a bit of a struggle, but we set out a spare anchor on forty metres of chain and feel a bit better. Through the night, we’re still up on deck with every big gust or wild swing, but we haven’t moved at all. Thirty six hours later and we’re still in the same place, so we’re a bit more confident now.

Today it has blown a near-steady twenty-five with gusts to nearly forty knots in the shelter of the Lagoon. There’s only, according to the miracle of GPS, 950 feet between us and the shore; but this is space enough for waves of over a foot in the big gusts, with spray being blown off the tops and along the surface like pictures from the weather book of ‘severe gale, Force nine’. Despite this, we got on with life more or less as usual today, with Gesa doing some very successful school lessons, whilst I went ashore on an internet / email connecting and general fact-finding mission. We plan to stay here a bit to lift the boat out to clean her rather dirty bottom and paint it all nice and shiny again, so I need to reconnoiter the local boatyards for the best location and prices, as well as locate all the important things like supermarkets, laundry, fuel and, of course, the preferred bars.

By the afternoon we are happy enough, and stir-crazy enough, to leave the boat and take the kids to McDonalds. This sounds like a dreadful sell-out when in an island paradise, but there’s method to our madness. McD’s has a playbarn for the kids and free wifi for us to do email and browsing, so we sneak along and buy a milkshake and a couple of large fries for the kids then hang out for two hours. Seems to work well for all concerned.

Now that we’re in here and the boat seems content not to go wandering off on her own, we can relax a little and look forward to much calmer weather after the weekend. I think things should go OK in here, but we’re looking forward to not being on edge so much. It’s nice to know your house isn’t going to start sliding down the street, taking out other houses on the way and stranding itself on the hillock at the end of the road!

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Caribbean

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  1. David says:

    Love your articles…. keep them coming!