27 January 2017

Saba - Incredible and Impossible

When you approach Saba, you are deceived by scale.  It looks like a small round island with some cliffs and mountains.  Then you realize that you are still 5 miles (not 200 yards) out and as you get closer, the sheer cliffs around the perimeter of the island tower above you.  And on top of those towering cliffs, are some very tall and very steep mountains - a dormant volcano, actually.

Bob Damiano

We departed Simpson Bay in St. Maarten and headed Southwest toward this tiny Dutch island 30-ish miles out in the distance. We stayed in St. Maarten a little longer than we planned because of my collar bone incident, so we were on the fence about hitting Saba or just going directly to the BVI. We're both glad we did as Saba was one of the most unforgettable experiences so far.

On approach to Saba from the northeast. That cloud was over Saba the whole time we crossed from St Maarten. This is common with mountainous islands in the trade winds. The trades run up the windward side of these mountains, cool and condense.

Saba looks absolutely uninhabitable from the water (save for the houses you can see on slopes of the Northeast side).  And, don't come here for the beaches. There are none. Well, I mean there are usually none. Apparently an occasional beach washes up on the western (leeward) side of the island near "the steps" (more on those later) and remains for a few days to a few weeks. Sabans take advantage of this beach whenever it appears. The lack of a beach is a selling point to me. Since breaking my collar bone at Maho Beach in St Maarten, I can say with authority that beaches are dumb!

Besides the lovely scenery, villas, hotels and great restaurants, Saba is also a major diving and snorkeling destination and lots of people come here just for that.  We didn't have a lot of time to play in the water (and with my shoulder...) but we found some of the clearest waters so far here.

Sure, lets build a town, and an airport on that thing!

Jagged, dramatic cliffs along the entire perimeter of Saba. One would think that Sabans do not want to be bothered with visitors, but the opposite is true. Saba has an extremely welcoming culture.

There are two main places to grab a mooring at Saba: Well's Bay on the northwest side and Port Ford pier on the south side of the island.  The latter is where you must go first to check into customs. Neither place is especially protected - or to be exact - protected at all.  One of the reasons we decided to come here was that we were in for a spell of very light winds and calm seas. Saba can be a miserable place to sit on a mooring in any sort of weather. As it turned out, we were perfectly comfortable in both mooring areas.

The view from Port Ford is not so inviting. There is a commercial pier surrounded by sand mines, an auto graveyard and very steep cliffs. At this point, you are maybe questioning why you came. It gets better.  Anyway, we grabbed one of the free (and very well maintained) moorings and took our long-ish dinghy ride to the customs dock.

The commercial pier.. and sand.  LOTS of sand.  It is Saba's main export.
Aside from the occasional cruising sailboat who wants to brave the conditions, Port Ford also is a cruise ship destination - for tiny cruise ships, that is. Apparently there is one that comes once a month with about 40 passengers and it actually arrived the 2nd day we were there.  She dropped a very large anchor a few hundred feet out (too big for the pier) and a shuttle boat brought passengers to Customs, a "welcome" station and of course the waiting fleet of cabs.  Besides that, there is ferry service from St Maarten.

Pop's Bar near the pier and dive center

Some of the sand mining operation and a bit of the junkyard can be seen too.

Customs and the harbormaster office.

After Customs clearance, there is not much to do right in the immediate area (unless you are into sand mines and junk yards).  While passing the harbor on the way to the moorings, we caught a glimpse of one of the settlements up in the hills.  It didn't look that far and we wondered if we would just walk it.  Well, it's not that far in 2D but the Z axis is a killer here.  We wandered into Pop's Bar (the only bar near sea level on the entire island) outside of customs and asked about a taxi. Two different taxi drivers happened to be drinking in the bar at the time (Hey, it's the Caribbean, mon!) and we had our ride. (We think that the driver who had had less alcohol volunteered to drive us.) All four wheels had all lug nuts - a bonus as we have been in some interestingly maintained vehicles among islands.

Wider shot of Port Ford harbor. The beginning of "the road that could not be built" can be seen as well as a bit of The Bottom settlement.

Long and Winding Road (that could not be built)

Prior to 1950, the only way for people and goods to get on and off the island was from Well's Bay (completely exposed) up crazy steep stone steps and with no sort of dock... only a thin strip of rocky, surf battered shoreline at the base. We wanted to go ashore here but even with our mild conditions, beaching the dinghy was untenable. It is hard to imagine the dangerous conditions that residents must have had to deal with for hundreds of years.

These 800 winding, steep steps lead up to The Bottom. This was the only way for people and goods to arrive/depart the island until the harbor and "the road" were built in the 50s.

Another shot of the steps

Warning: Any pictures in this blog that attempt to capture the insane steepness and height of these roads and structures fail miserably to do so. I suggest you read the blog while up on a wobbly step ladder standing on one leg. That might help.

Today there is a semblance of a harbor (Port Ford on the south side) and an actual road connecting the harbor to the small capital of The Bottom and on to the other town of Windward Side. After quickly ditching ambitions to walk up the mountainside, our driver, Willum, started up the steep road from the harbor.  Very soon you realize the absolute insanity of building this road. Within the first half mile there is a "S" turn that is incredibly steep with very sharp, tight hairpin turns.  They also happened to be resurfacing this part so one lane was out. At this point in the road, you've gone less than a half mile from the sea but are 617 feet above it. (This link has a great topographical view of Saba and you can see elevations at any point by dragging the marker around.)

"The S" from our taxi.

"The S" from space.

In fact, until the 1950s, this road did not exist and conventional wisdom held that it would be impossible to build a road that could transit this island.  Sabans are a very stubborn and proud people and telling them something can't be done is apparently a sure way of getting it done. A man named Josephus Lambert “Lambee” Hassell took a correspondence course in Civil Engineering, designed and led the building of the road that couldn't be built in the 1940s and 50s. Needless to say, he was hero and remains a legend among Sabans.

Generally speaking, the well-maintained roads in Saba do not look wide enough for two vehicles to pass - yet they do and with a friendly "toot toot" of the horn because of course everyone knows everyone here.

The Road as it cuts across the south of the island. The huge retaining walls remind one of "the great wall".

A plaque in honor of Lambee - the builder of this road. The house he lived in is still in Windward Side

Eventually you get to a somewhat flat area of the island, and it is here that the lower settlement called "The Bottom" is built. The Botttom is a mere 917 feet above sea level (about .9 miles inland).  This is a fully equipped small town with government offices, stores, shops and a restaurant or two. The Bottom is situated in the crater of the dormant volcano.  By the way, on wikipedia, Saba's volcano is classified as "Potentially Dangerous".  It has not erupted since 1640, but in geological time scales, that is like yesterday. I would say Sabans worry about the volcano about as much as Americans worry about Yellowstone.

Looking down on The Bottom (and the medical school) from the roadside en route to Windward Side.

We stopped briefly in The Bottom but had our taxi take us on up to Windward Side. On the way up, we passed the Saba University School of Medicine (yes, you can go to med school in Saba) and picked up a student who was hitch hiking up the hill so she could watch Sunday night football in one of the bars. Windward Side is the big city of Saba.  Here, you will find a few hotels, restaurants and bars, art galleries, museums, churches, markets and the hospital and pharmacy. Windward Side is over 1300 ft above sea level and about a mile inland from the southern shore.

This graveyard is solar powered.
The next day, we hired "Lollipop", a local jack of all trades and lovely woman who not only runs a taxi/tour, but a laundromat, guest houses and student apartments. She also does home visits to take care of an elderly woman on the island. Lollipop is what you call a good person. She acquired her moniker from one of her elderly clients who thought he was "as sweet as a lollipop". Lollipop gave us an excellent tour of the whole length of the road explaining lots of local trivia and telling us about her family as we went. Later we ran into her again in Pop's bar of course.

Lifelong Saban "Lollipop" - our taxi driver and excellent tour guide.


Looking south east from the road. On this very clear day, we could see Eustacia, St Kitts and Montserrat.  It's very rare that they can see all the way to Montserrat

Another view of The Bottom.
Lollipop dropped us off in Windward Side for a few hours so I could log in to work for a while (using restaurant wifi was the only option here), and we could explore a little on foot. It was here looking out over the Caribbean so far below and seeing these incredibly steep, high mountains all around that the whole thing started to feel like a strange dream. This beautiful, vibrant picturesque town in the middle of this totally forbidding environment. It just seems impossible. But there you are.

My office for the day at Scout's Bar.  We're probably 1500 feet above sea level here.  Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Netherlands, towers above this area rising to 3,000 feet.
Linda and our new friend, Picky.

Still on the mend from my broken collar bone enjoying some local medicine.

View over some hotels and homes and the blue Caribbean far below.

And churches too.

A very good pizza at Long Haul in Windward Side.


We started appreciating how incredibly clean and well maintained everything was. And we noticed more than one person outside of their home or business with a broom sweeping the street. Lollipop explained to us that this type of pride in their community is ingrained in all Sabans from a young age and it's just part of the culture now. There is also reportedly virtually no crime as all of the less than 2000 inhabitants seem to know and support each other. A real community.

A resident out painting his fence and generally keeping things beautiful.  As you do in Saba.

Signs like this are for us tourists (and maybe newly arriving American medical students).  Locals would never have to be reminded not to litter.

By Air... on the shortest runway in the world

Saba is challenging to visit by sail boat.  You really need a good weather window to be there. You will either need to stay in Well's bay which is in the lee of the island, but a very long dinghy ride to the port, or near the port which is completely exposed to the easterly trade winds (and still a relatively long dinghy ride).  Another thing they said couldn't be done was to build an airport here.  So of course they did. We met a pilot in St Kitts who described Saba's airport as like landing on an aircraft carrier. Apparently you are not allowed to land there until you've co-piloted with someone else who has.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (IATA: SAB). Not a lot of margin for error there. The runway is the shortest commercial airstrip in the world at only 400 meters long with a steep mountainside on one side and cliffs at both ends.
There was a flat enough spot on the Northeast corner of the island that, with clearing lots of rocks and boulders, was just big enough to build Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. Flying in to this airport on one of the small Winair planes is said to be quite the thrill. The road to the airport is also full of sharp winding s-turns as it rapidly climbs the mountains.

SAB airstrip from space and the extreme road connecting it.

Moving On...

We moved Argon from the Port Ford mooring up to one of the balls in Well's Bay.  It was from here that we would depart at midnight for the British Virgin Islands under a moonless but star filled night.

The much more picturesque, albeit intimidating and isolated, northwest coast. Thankfully there are a handful of well-maintained moorings (all were vacant, we were the only boat in sight) as it would be impossible to anchor here due to the depths and likely rocky bottom.

21 January 2017

Sailing the French Caribbean

Argon visite de superbes isles francaises... Argon visits beautiful French islands (I think that's what I said)...

Captain Linda Perry Riera

We have explored most of the French Caribbean islands over the past couple of months.
Listed in order of most French to least French (according to me):
  • Les Saintes (29 Nov - 4 Dec)
  • Guadeloupe (4 Dec - 14 Dec)
  • St. Barthelemy aka St. Barts (6 Jan - 9 Jan)
  • St. Martin aka Sint Maarten in the Dutch south (9 Jan - 22 Jan)

Martinique is another French Caribbean island but we did not venture this far south.
Disclaimer: I am kind of cheating by grouping Saint Martin with our French Island experience... the northern part of this island is French and the southern is Dutch. We anchored and moored in the Dutch section but there is clearly a seeping of cultures across the border and we enjoyed exploring the entire island a bit by car. 

Impressions - Positive and Not So Positive

Beautiful Water, Beaches, Anchorages, Hiking, and Sunsets

The sailing to these islands was sometimes calm and other times rigorous. Often we did short hops from one harbor to another as well as plenty of exploring on land. Each of these islands is abundant with gorgeous water and beaches. Some of the anchorages are well-protected, while others are more open to the elements.

A hilly, rigorous walk one morning to the northeast portion of Les Saintes is rewarded by an expanse of protected beach loaded with coconut trees: Baie de Pompierre. Later in the day the crowds from the day ferries from Guadeloupe arrive. 
View after a long climb up to Fort Nepoleon on Terre-de-Haut Island, Les Saintes. This fort was never used in battle and instead became a prison. It is now a museum of the history of Les Saintes and is surrounded by a botanical garden.

Hiking along a trail in the rain forest of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe.

A short steep hike up to Fort Oscar yielded this view of Gustavia Harbor, St. Barts. St Barts was probably our least favorite island on our trip thus far. Although the water surrounding is beautiful, the anchoring is difficult (see below) and the overall feel of the island is that of a playground for the wealthy with endless high end shops and mega yachts.

Port of Dehaise - French for "Wind Tunnel Anchorage" apparently

One of our stops along the north western shore of Guadeloupe was Dehaise. This is a very popular anchorage and has a vibrant and busy downtown and restaurant scene.  On our second night here just about dinner time, the wind picked up into the low 20s. No problem - probably a passing squall.  An hour later, it was clear this was no quick squall as we were now sustained in the 30s.  This was going to be a long night. We experienced several gusts into the high 30s with one hitting 39 for a few nervous moments. It was not until about 0500 the next day after a sleepless night on high alert that winds fell back to the low 20s (a relative relief but normally what we would consider a pretty windy anchorage). The forecast was for mid to high teens.

Our anchor slowly dragged "only" about 25 feet overnight. Other boats struggled much more with holding having to re-set many times with one catamaran eventually giving up in the middle of the night and taking off southward in search of more protection.

Our most uncomfortable and tiring anchorage was in Dehaise on northwestern Guadeloupe. Although absolutely gorgeous, the cliffs and hills surrounding are known to act as a wind tunnel accelerating the easterly trade winds.

During one of our days here, the wind was low enough that we felt comfortable leaving the boat and renting a car for the day. We got a 5 speed Ford Festiva and Bob had way too much fun driving around the steep and windy mountainous roads of Guadeloupe. It was Bob's first time driving in months and his first time handling a manual transmission car in decades.

St. Barts presented another beautiful but difficult anchorage. The water was spectacularly clear and inviting but there was scare room among hundreds of mooring balls and fairly deep water requiring a lot of scope.

Deceiving picture of our anchorage outside of Gustavia Harbor in St. Barts... Although the water was spectacularly clear (with many sea turtles all around) and the scenery beautiful, the conditions were very exposed (rockin' and rollin'). It was difficult to find a good place to anchor given the hundreds of private moorings that fill the anchoring area and less than ideal depths (mostly around 30 feet) requiring generous scope. One may notice a bit of a pattern with beauty sometimes going hand in hand with challenging.

Anchorage in Les Saintes.

We have been blessed with so many beautiful sunsets. This never gets old.

Most of the waters in the French Islands have been clear and inviting. Water temperatures continue to be welcoming at 80-81F. Our best snorkeling to date was in Guadeloupe at Pigeon Beach and Jacques Cousteau Marine Preservation. The video below starts off with us snorkeling with several docile sea turtles next to where Argon was anchored, then out by Pigeon Island where we ventured on the dinghy for a really impressive underwater show.

Note: An exception to the pristine waters in the french territories is definitely in marinas and other waters that are somewhat landlocked. Unfortunately there is rudimentary water and sewage treatment on these islands with some harbors being literal dumping grounds. Upon some google searching, there seem to be some efforts underway in Saint Martin to upgrade water treatment. Let's hope this happens before the conditions in harbors progress from just gross to toxic.


Delicious Food

The French sure know how to do food well. Whether it is a restaurant for a sit down meal, a cafe for a coffee and pastry, or provisioning at a grocery store, it is a pleasure to eat and shop for food on these islands. The prices seem to be strangely reasonable too. I have enjoyed getting all sorts of pate (Bob calls this cat food), bechamel sauce, creme francaise, different cheeses, delicate packaged crackers of different sorts, etc.
A fantastic French bakery in Saint Martin became a quick favorite. Awesome breaks and croissants!

Charming streets in Les Saintes lined with dozens of small restaurants where the food is always deliberately prepared.

Deedo at Rum and Peas in Saint Martin mixing up a Rosemary Ginger Martini and a Mint Rum Fizz.

Attitude and Service

The food may be terrific but sometimes getting and/or paying for it can be challenging. I am trying to be culturally open minded and not overly American; however, the service, particularly in French restaurants, continues to puzzle. It is often as if we are an imposition. It feels like once your food has been brought to you, they are done with you. One experience (of which we have experienced several permutations) was at a restaurant in Guadeloupe near Bas du Fort where we sat with empty glasses and clear plates for an enormous amount of time while our waitress sat in a corner gazing up in the air puffing cigarette after cigarette. (Smoking is still a thing on these islands.) Am I supposed to approach her and ask for more water or the check? Do I try to get someone else's attention? I wish I could say this was a one-off experience. I will be sure to seek guidance and understanding from my French friends when back home. Oh, and, we normally enjoy hopping between restaurants... getting a quick app and drink at one place and moving on to the next to perhaps share an entree, etc. That does not work in these territories. Once you enter a restaurant, you have entered a long term commitment for your evening. There is no hopping!


Other Stuff


Crime / Dinghy Theft

Although we have not had a problem ourselves, we have heard from more than one source (mostly French people) that one should always lock their dinghy up (even in daylight and even when at your own boat) when in any French territories in the Caribbean. Maybe our lowly A/B dinghy with its scrawny 6hp outboard is less desirable than a french Zodiac with more manly power (which is fine by me). Many people lock their dinghies up with serious chains probably bigger than their anchor chain; we use wimpy steel cables hopefully a deterrent for the unmotivated thief. We are not used to locking up our dinghy and find it pretty sad that we should need to. If we come to a dock and all other dinghies are locked, we lock ours too. We don't want to be the "easy one".

The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the large marine supply stores on St Martin hire people to steel dinghies. We attended a seminar to help our fishing skills and I could not help but notice all the lovely new dinghies on display ready for purchase.


Well-Stocked Chandleries

We made a concerted effort to stock up on spare parts of all sorts prior to leaving Boston having heard that it can be challenging to get needed parts on many islands. Unfortunately, we somehow missed securing spare zincs.

We were like kids in a candy store when finally discovering a real chandlery in Guadeloupe after searching across several islands. We noticed back in Antigua that our prop zinc was in dire need of replacing. After searching in vain for a new anode in Antigua, Dominica and Les Saintes, we were in heaven to finally find a well stocked chandlery near Marina Bas Du Fort in Guadeloupe.
We would eventually learn that Saint Martin, which was visited many weeks later, is the super island for marine supplies in the Caribbean. We paid several visits (cha-ching) to Island Water Works in Simpson Bay during our stay there.


Puzzling Business Hours

Hours of business operations were challenging to adjust to on Les Saintes and Guadeloupe. Many businesses close around noon to three and most restaurants close around three to seven. It was sometimes maddening. It's not okay to be hungry at 4 or 5 pm or to need something from the hardware store at 2 pm. We eventually learned to plan our trips ashore better.

On this day we had skipped lunch and were starving for dinner by 5pm. But no, no, no... dis is not allowed to have dinner or even an appetizer so early. We found a market open, which of course all sell very good yet inexpensive wine, and parked ourselves on a bench drinking wine out of the bottle and munching on peanuts at 6pm. Gawdy, eh?


Not completely unexpected, given well known French pride, it was sometimes difficult to explain a needed boat part or secure directions being a typical American fluent in only our native tongue. Of course we tried using common phrases such as s'il vous plait, merci beaucoup, bonsoir. And unsuccessfully attempted to get a bit more complicated by asking puis-je parler anglais (but my pronunciation was so poor the dockhand at Marina Bas Du Fort did not understand me so I resorted to the more standard parlez-vous anglais). Most menus, especially in Les Saintes and Guadeloupe, were only in French; I could decipher if something was duck or fish or with cheese and eventually if it had mushrooms or eggplant, but not much more. It was sometimes a "surprise meal". Saint Martin was an exception as it is quite American compared to the others.

Uh, yes, sure. Completely clear.

This we can understand.

Comfortable Nudity

Commonplace was lots of naked cruisers of all sizes and ages comfortably washing themselves off their sterns or just generally hanging out (bah-zing!)
"Bonjour, Argon" we hear from the water behind the boat as a man swam up to us. Upon inviting him aboard, I was relieved to see he had swimming trunks on (usually he did not). We enjoyed a nice chat with Michele from the catamaran anchored next to us before he jumped off and swam back. Michele is a pilot in France and showed us some very interesting weather applications that he uses both while flying and sailing.


First the cool part... There is a really fun beach at the beginning of the runway in Saint Martin. Maho Beach is a popular place to hang out and watch and listen to the roar of the arriving and departing aircraft. Bars flank this section of the beach where one can hang out watch the action from a safe distance.

Maho Beach is a popular place to hang out and watch and listen to the roar of the incoming aircraft approaching the nearby runway. And... people purposely stand in line with the runway (in the danger zone) to get blasted down the beach by the jets as they take off. (Not me! And that's not quite how Bob got hurt.)

Signs warn of the dangerous jet blasts, but many ignore.

Here is a very short video of some of the action at Maho Beach:

The white sand beach and turquoise water is quite inviting. Sometimes, however, the surf really picks up such as when we were there. We decided to play in the water any way which ended up being a big mistake. A big wave picked Bob up, turned him over, and he was pummeled in to the sand landing his shoulder. He said he knew immediately that he was really hurt. After struggling to crawl away from the continued waves in excruciating pain, it was clear he was more than just bruised.

Feeling a bit better post Xrays and with a bit of pain medication. The medical centers on Saint Martin are very modern. Bob was efficiently evaluated, diagnosed with a broken collar bone and treated at a nearby hospital and followed up the next day with an orthopedic surgeon (no surgery needed, just several weeks of no right arm). Bob was still blowing sand out of his nose two days later.

We revisited the site of the accident the following evening when the water was much calmer and enjoyed a glass of wine from the bar deck. We stayed out of the water.
I have also been struggling with a foot injury for weeks. (We are sounding like a couple of old people talking about our aches and pains these days.) Thank you to our brilliant friend, fellow sailor and Physical Therapist, John Murphy of Core Physical Therapy who kindly confirmed the diagnosis (plantar fasciitis) and gave us instruction on how to treat.

Pictured here is split prototype #1 using a knee pad, sail tie and belt which was soon upgraded with a thick velcro strap from our Dan Buoy to attach at the knee per feedback from John. A few days later, when at a pharmacy to fill Bob's pain medication prescription, I was able to purchase a proper night splint.The foot is doing better now, but still mending.

Cruising Friends

We have greatly enjoyed meeting the Wallace Family from Fairfield, Connecticut initially in Bermuda back in early November, then in Antigua where we enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving at Pillars, and now in Saint Martin. We hope to meet up with them again in the Bahamas around April.

The Wallace family is on a 10 month sailing trip aboard their lovely 49 foot Bavaria, Celeris. Pictured are mom Cindy with kids Jack and Emery. Dad Geof is busy working on a boat project.

Preparing to Depart - Bonjour French Islands

We tucked in to a marina earlier in the week to escape some vigorous winds out in the anchorage but extended our stay a couple of nights after Bob's accident. Although Simpson Bay Marina was great, I was very happy to be moving to Simpson Bay anchorage for a few days for Bob to continue his recuperation.  

Bob piloting Argon through Simpson Bay Bridge. We anchored outside the lagoon in Simpson Bay for our remaining days in Saint Martin. Bob now has to be the brains and Linda the brawn for a while.

Some final boat chores were tackled as we prepare to depart for our next destination. We will aim for the petite, steeply mountainous, less traveled island of Saba just 30nm southwest before turning northward on a run to the British Virgin Islands later in the week.

Cleaning and waxing the hull from the dingy. The salt really bakes on in this Caribbean sun so I have had to use a light compounding cleaner wax combination with lots of elbow grease. But at least I can jump in the water and cool off when needed.
After spending almost a week (and too much money) in the lovely Simpson Bay Marina due to both high winds and then Bob's broken shoulder, we moved out to Simpson Bay where we can again enjoy swimming, paddle boarding (well, I can; Bob can't) and sunsets.