Sunday, February 10, 2008

To charter or to own - the Leewards...

Cruising the Leewards…This is the second leg of the "charter or own" trip, which follows six weeks in the protected Disneyland like British Virgin Islands, the log for which appears below this in this blog. I've pretty much decided to own. This is not Deborah's choice, though. She'd rather pay the charter costs so that she'll never have to worry about maintenance and breakdowns and boat failures. So, when we return we'll be doing some negotiating over our partnership boat, Spindrift.

I'm stretched to own 1/2 of Spindrift, my Islander Bahama 28 Dog Days, and then buy my own cruising boat for the Caribbean. I could sell Dog Days, but that's the boat I know I want to sail until I can no longer sail - easy to single hand, just the right size for one person - so selling her is off the table. I could sell my half of Spindrift and then buy another cruising boat, or Deb could sell her half of Spindrift to me, but then she would have no boat at all.

Meantime, I'm buying a condo and having surgery on my left ankle, which will totally occupy me until mid-summer and probably longer. So the partnership on Spindrift continues through this sailing season. ... but on to the Leewards adventure.

02/01 – The first day of February was a day of travel. It is a fourteen to seventeen hour sail from the British Virgins to St Martin, which we chose not to do. Instead, we flew from Tortola on Liat Airline to St Maarten (the Dutch side), which took us about seven hours – long waits at the airport, a delayed flight, and lots of traffic from St. Maarten to the Sunsail base at Oyster Pond in St Martin. After a late lunch at Captain Oliver’s, we check in and moved aboard Big Foot, the same Beneteau Oceanis 393 we’d chartered a year before. She appeared in good shape, although over the course of our charter we discovered she had the same weak battery problem that had existed the first time we were on here, and this time the heads really had been abused and had smells that just wouldn’t go away.
02/02 – Provisioning! We caught a taxi down to the market with four Dutch fellows who were the provisioning detail for their all-male ten-person bonding charter on a large catamaran. Really nice, fun guys, and we kibitzed through the ride and for an hour and a half of shopping at the market. Back at the boat, we stowed all the supplies, checked out all the systems, and finally declared the boat ready at about 14:00. We decided to spend the rest of the day at Oyster Pond, relaxing, eating, and seeing off our new Dutch acquaintances.
We had a great buffet dinner at Captain Oliver’s and then adjourned to Niko’s Yacht Club Bar. He remembered us well from last year and was filled with apologies for not having emailed the photos they’d taken. He invited me to play piano and we had a wonderful time listening, dancing, and performing! I finally got his email address – he’s moving back to Nice at the end of the season (in May), where he and his partner and new child think they can do a bit better.

St. Barth…
02/03-02/05 – We departed St Martin for St Barth at 09:30, Deb at the helm, a double reef in the main, following the Sunsail chase boat out the channel behind the hidden reefs and directly into ten and twelve foot seas. It was a wild ride, which photographs unfortunately do not capture. As the chase boat literally leapt three or four feet above the water going over swells, Deb motored along at 2500 rpm and the Beneteau almost seemed to leap free of the ocean as well.
Once beyond the reefs, the seas settled to perhaps ten foot swells. I got some jib out and we sailed the 14.1 nautical miles to St Barth in about three hours. The winds were between 15 and 20 knots and sometimes fell off substantially, and as we neared St. Barth the seas settled. The anchorage was quite full. We anchored in Anse du Corossol, on the north side of the bay outside Gustavia, but we weren’t happy with the breadth of our swing, so we weighed anchor and anchored a second time, which proved equally unsatisfying. In the midst of our second effort, a French fellow on an adjacent boat pointed out a mooring adjacent to him that he said was free and we could use it, which we decided to do. A bit later, after we were secured, he dinghied over to let us know that it was his mooring and he’d be pleased if we used it for the week, if we wished. (A day later, we dropped by his boat, astern of us, and thanked him with a good bottle of St. Emillion Bordeaux.)
St. Barth is a lively island, well-off, and filled with megayachts. But we arrived on Sunday, and when we went into immigration at 16:00, there were few people about the streets. We finally found a place to get something to eat, across from Le Select, the bar that Jimmy Buffett frequents, and determined that Monday would be the day to explore the town.
One thing about the Leewards is that the wind blows. This is a sailor’s paradise with long, beautiful passages on moderate seas. But anchorages are often quite roily, as was ours in Anse du Corossol. The next day we were actually pretty tired, so we ended up having a long midday meal at the Bistro, which is on the water at the inside end of the Gustavia harbor – lovely French food and bread. We spotted Jimmy Buffett’s classy little French day sailor Groovy on the quay, wandered around the harbor a bit, and then retired to Big Foot for an early night.
Tuesday was Carnival! (Click here for photos) We went ashore early, thinking it would be super crowded, and we probably jumped the gun. But we enjoyed counting the megayachts (over twenty med-tied at the quay), and climbed up the hill separating the harbor from the sea. We considered two or three other restaurants, but ended up back at the Bistro, where we saw that Jimmy must be in town because Groovy was all ready to be sailed – covers off, bottom cleaned, flag flying.
The Carnival parade started around 15:00 – great fun to watch, even more to be a part of – and it lasted well into the night. Over by Le Select we spotted Richard Spindler, publisher of Latitude 38, and said hello. He seemed genuinely pleased to see some Bay Area sailors and asked all about our trip and took our photos, which he said he’d put in ‘Lectronic Latitude, the online presence of Latitude 38 - it appeared on February 15th as "Testing the Waters."

02/06 – We got up early and departed for St Eustatius (Statia), almost 30 nautical miles to the Southwest. We had a beautiful sail with 17-20 knot winds deep off the beam, averaged 5.5 kts and actually hit 9.9 kts coming down off one swell. It took us five and a half hours, and we found a nice spot to anchor just above the commercial dock. Statia is a small Dutch island, which the Dutch government has put quite a bit of money into for historical restoration. Most visitors come by air and stay at hotels. There is a medical school and a big oil industry presence. Overall, it’s quiet and an enormous opposite from St Barth.

We walked up the steep “slave path” to the town on the cliffs above the harbor, wandered about the town and the restored Fort Oranje, and then found our way down the vehicular road to the harbor. Along the way we met John and Kathleen from Eden Prairie Minnesota, who were staying for a couple of weeks at the King’s Well hotel. They’ve been coming to the Caribbean since the mid-1980s, for years aboard the Windjammer wooden sailing ships, which just went out of service this season. We stopped the Old Gin House for a drink and were soon joined by Aaron and Bobby, also guests at the King’s Well. We had such a good time that I went back out to Big Foot, with Aaron in tow, to get a flashlight and warmer shirt so we could stay at the Gin House for dinner.

We also witnessed our first “green flash” while standing on the deck of the Old Gin House. Of course, even with my digital camera on motion-picture setting, I couldn’t capture it for posterity, but it was definitely there!
On to St. Kitts…
02/07-02/08 – Statia was a roily night, and we decided to move south to St Christopher (St. Kitts). Although it seems quite close to Statia, it was a 22.2 nm journey down to Basseterre, the main anchorage and main city of St. Kitts. It was a close haul the entire way, on which we averaged 4.4 kts and managed to hit 7.5 kts at one point. It was a long five hours.
Basseterre – what a shock. We’d hoped to get into the marina and get a good night sleep, but it was full up and we headed over to the deep water port to anchorage in its lee adjacent to the coast guard station. A cruise ship was in dock, jutting out to the center of the main bay, separated the yacht marina and the deep water port. We anchored easily enough, as there was lots of room, and, after failing to find a spot near the cruise ship dock to tie up our dinghy, found our way to the deep water port dock.
What a strange feeling to tie up at a seemingly derelict dock and climb up into a working commercial port surrounded by trucks and containers being unloaded and stacked. We finally found customs and immigration (they now have a new office down at the cruise ship docks, but if you aren’t at the marina or anchored in the small, roily spot adjacent to it, you wind up at the commercial port). The customs officer was very nice and, after he’d checked us in, gave us a ride into the marina and town center.
We were pretty tired and mostly hungry, so we had an early dinner at Ballahoo, a restaurant overlooking the Circus that was recommended in Doyle’s cruising guide. Speaking of Doyle’s guides, if you could find another one, you’d be well served. His 2006-2007 Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands is poorly written, contains many small errors, and really sends you on the wrong track. He’s certainly no food critic, often applauding really mediocre places. Deb suggests that I should write one when I’m down here for the long extended stay I’m planning in the coming few years. Maybe so…at least an addendum of sorts.
A taxi to us back to the deep water port, and we spent an uneventful evening aboard Big Foot. At least we got an internet connection (there is a free Linksys network of Wifi in the islands, which we’ve found fairly good, and we usually can get on from the boat with a booster antenna), and we had a snack dinner.
Next day we took a taxi into town, shopped and had lunch at the Circus Grill, also overlooking the Circus (town square). It was a much better meal than Doyle’s choice, which he mentions almost in passing. I suppose that we might have stayed longer if we could have gotten a spot at the marina. The Sunsail folks told us about a couple of spots on St Kitts that we should visit, but somehow it just didn’t strike our fancy. After lunch, shopping, and checking out of immigration for Nevis (leaving the next day), we went back to the boat and enjoyed a sundowner, a beautiful sunset, and a fun evening of talk and crosswords.

Sail down to Nevis…
02/09-02/11 – Nevis is not far south of St. Kitts and part of the same nation. We motor sailed to the Narrows, which separates the two islands, then sailed on the jib across the final five miles to Charlestown (we actually hit 6.8 kts closing reaching on the jib). The trip took a little over two hours, and we decided to anchor just below the dinghy dock in the Charlestown harbor. A little further north is Pinney’s Beach, with the Four Seasons Resort and Sunshine Bar on the north end and the Double Deuce on the south end (adjacent to Pinney’s resort, which is undergoing refurbishing). There are over sixty brand new moorings along Pinney’s, laid out in three long rows along the coast. They are free (for the moment), newly placed by the Nevis government. The problem, of course, is there is no dinghy dock along Pinney’s (except at the Four Seasons, and that’s private), so one has to drag their dinghy up on the beach. Not that it’s so bad, but I suspect the moorings will never be filled unless some shoreline development follows. We just found it a lot easier to anchor near town and immigration and use the dinghy dock.
Nevis is laid back. A nice town, very friendly people (just as in St Kitts), and we found a great little restaurant, the Café des Arts. Guess I need to give Doyle credit for this one, because he said it was wonderful and it was. After lunch we walked up Pinney’s to the Sunshine Bar – we skipped the “Killer Bee” drink – and then through the Four Seasons, where we caught a taxi back and spent a nice night in a not so roily anchorage. The next morning Deb slept in until well after 10:00, and I caught up on writing and internet connections.
Nevis, like St. Kitts, is working hard to try and attract tourism and is capitalizing on preserving their natural environment. One of the efforts to this end is to try and eliminate anchoring by visiting boats, and to this end the government has installed over sixty brand new white mooring balls laid out in four long rows off Pinney’s Beach. They have also put in five yellow quarantine mooring balls just off the town dock. The mooring field off Pinney’s is lovely, but there is no dinghy dock along, except at the Four Seasons, which is private. One can pull their dinghy up on the beach at Sunshine’s or at the Double Deuce, but if you want to stay dry, the dinghy dock in town is a bit of a ride. Since we wanted to stay dry and use the dinghy dock, we decided to anchor in the roomy harbor at Charlestown, where at least one other boat had dropped the hook.
When we went in and cleared customs on Saturday, the agent said nothing about the mooring balls and also failed to tell us that we also had to clear immigration, despite the fact we had a boat pass from St. Kitts immigration to visit Nevis. When we went in to town on Monday, we were stopped as we walked off the dock by a local harbor police officer, who asked if we’d come in on the ferry or by boat and then if we’d cleared immigration. We told him what we had done the day before, and he directed us to the little immigration office, which was closed the day before, although the immigration officer assured us he had been there.
While Deb waited behind another skipper to check in with him, I walked over to the tourist office where I was assured we could get a weather report. There I picked up a fancy and clearly expensively produced color brochure that described the new mooring system on Nevis. The tone, frankly, was not very welcoming, but it did make clear how to pick up the moorings, the check in procedure and so forth. It also said one could not anchor in swimming areas, but it did not say anchoring was prohibited.
When I arrived back at immigration, Deb was just finished, and when I showed her the brochure she laughed because the immigration officer had explained that anchoring was forbidden now but had nothing in writing to show her. He’d been looking all over his office for some document, which most likely was the brochure. In any case, Deb said we were well anchored, had been well anchored for two nights in the same spot, and she was not inclined to move to a mooring ball off Pinney’s Beach. He charged her for one night on a mooring ball, and left it unclear as to whether we would move or not. We stayed on anchor, and no one said a thing.
Clearly, Nevis is trying to change things, but as is so often true in the bureaucracy of customs and immigration and tourism, not everyone is talking with one another all the time.

Back to Statia…
2/12-02/13 – The sail back to Statia was a great downwind venture, 30.8 miles at an average of 5 kts. We decided just to sail on the jib, since it looked like there might be some gusty conditions. From Nevis to just above Basseterre on St. Kitts, it was smooth and sunny. “Otto” the autopilot performed flawlessly, and even Deb used it when she was at the helm. Then we were hit by a squall – I was at the helm and Otto kept the boat right on course through a couple of gusts of a little over 25 knots. I was wet as was the cockpit (we had no dodger on this boat), but the sun came out and quickly dried things off. A few minutes later a second squall hit us, and this time a gust of over 30 knots was more than Otto could handle. By the time I got auto off and had the helm in hand, we’d rounded up, done a 360, hit 8.6 knots and were merrily on our way again.
When we arrived in Statia, the close in anchorage was too crowded, we thought, so we managed to get one of the four or five Marine Park mooring balls a bit further out. In the process, I dropped the boat hook, Deb tried to maneuver the boat to get it two or three times, and I finally got in the dinghy to retrieve it. Once secured on the mooring ball, we didn’t linger long aboard. It was terribly roily, so we decided to go ashore and get a drink and perhaps dinner.
We ended up at the Old Gin House for a drink – we had to wait for over an hour before we could eat – and while sitting there watching the harbor churn, Deb decided to see if we could get a room for the night. She was successful, so we went back to the boat to get a couple of necessities, settled in the room and then had a gourmet meal cooked by the new chef who started his career as a chef in Los Angeles and had just arrived a couple of months before on Statia. Then we adjourned to watch a movie on the TV and sleep soundly.
The next day the seas were up and winds high. Thursday looked like the best day in the next four for sailing to St. Martin, so we decided to spend another night ashore. We had a lovely time wandering around Statia during the day, and that night had a wonderful barbecue with live music and dancing at the Gin House, joined by our new acquaintance Marit Dijkstra and her father, who were on holiday from St Maarten.
To St. Maarten…
02/14-02/17 – We re-discussed the weather and finally decided to leave Statia around 09:00. We motored out of the anchorage and through the oil tankers to the north end of the island, and once beyond the gusts coming off the island put out not quite a full jib. The seas were six to eight feet with an occasional ten-foot swell, and the winds the predicted 14-18 knots between a close and beam reach. It turned out to be one of the nicest sails we had. We made 39.9 nm in a little over six hours, averaging 5.6 knots and hitting 9.3 coming down off of one swell. And, we decided not to use Otto, so we took turns at the helm.
We found a nice spot to anchor in Simpson Bay, checked in at customs, and found dinner at Picante, a restaurant right off Simpson Bay run by Felipe Gomez, a Colombian who spent a long time in the San Francisco Bay Area. His cousin Chia was there as well, and she actually lived on Koch Lane in San Jose, not more than six blocks from my old family home, and she lived as well in Morgan Hill, where I had lived, and a brother owned a restaurant in Gilroy, which I had eaten at more than once. What a small world!
After a lovely sleep aboard the boat in Simpson Bay, we started the next day with breakfast ashore and a check of email at an internet café. Ironically, our email connections from the boat were the best in Statia, St. Kitts, and Nevis, islands with few people and few WiFi spots. In St. Barth and in St. Maarten there are so many wireless networks operating that we get interference and either cannot get a connection, get knocked off frequently, or can’t connect to web sites.
We took a fifteen minute dinghy ride through the Simpson Bay Lagoon to Marigot on the French side. There we visited shops, had lunch at the marina, and wandered the town. At 17:00 we dinghied back to the St. Maarten Yacht Club at the Dutch entrance to the lagoon. There we got a drink, watched some beautiful boats come into the lagoon at the 17:30 bridge opening, and met Jim Gibbon.
Jim came to the Caribbean in the 1960s and soon became a charter captain in the nascent industry. He ran charter boats for almost forty years, finally retiring on St Maarten, where he could easily be a chamber of commerce or tourist bureau spokesman. We had more than another drink with him at the yacht club and then, at his suggestion, walked a couple of doors over to the local’s pizza parlor – the best pizza ever! There we met Andy (the Dalai Lama) and Melissa van Assen, husband and wife and professional captain and cook on a 120 foot private one-off sailing yacht. Wonderful people, and we discovered we both knew Richard Spindler publisher of Latitude 38. Before the night was out, Jim made arrangements for us to meet him before noon and he’d show us around and we’d join Andy and Melissa for lunch.
Next morning we slept in – I’d definitely had too much to drink the night before, and Deb was a bit upset with me – but we finally managed to find an even keel and dinghied into the yacht club to meet Jim. We actually arrived just as he did, so we tied up our dinghy and locked it and climbed in his 12-foot inflatable. We cruised down mega-yacht row, counting perhaps 50 yachts over 120 feet. It’s truly the largest single collections of mega-yachts I think I’ll ever see. Then we went over to Andy and Melissa’s sailing yacht and were invited aboard to look about. It is a twenty-year-old boat, but it has every imaginable luxury you could want. Envy, envy! After the tour and a photo on the foredeck, we returned to the inflatable and with Andy and Melissa following in their inflatable, we raced across Simpson Lagoon to the inner harbor in Marigot (French, St Martin), where we had lunch at one of the eight or nine French cafes surrounding the harbor.
We spent a couple of days wandering about Simpson Lagoon, relaxing and enjoying the polyglot culture. Finally we decided to check out of St Maarten and go on up to Grand Case on the French side of the island for our final anchorage.
Grand Case…
02/18-02/21 – We took our dinghy in and checked out of St Maarten first thing in the morning, then dinghied across Simpson Lagoon to Marigot, where we walked through town and checked in to St Martin. We had lunch and then went back across the lagoon and out to Big Foot in Simpson Bay, where we weighed anchored and motor sailed around the southwest end of the island, thence up to Grand Case on the west side of St Martin. We traveled 16.1 nm in three and a half hours under just the jib partially with the engine running, arriving in late afternoon.
Grand Case is a beautiful sweeping beach with a main street running parallel. Along the street are more than a dozen excellent restaurants and a number of nice little shops. It reminds me of Cane Garden Bay, but with a lot more class. The anchorage was a bit roily, but not intolerable. The first night there, however, the winds gusted up to 40 knots and everybody kept anchor watch. In the morning we saw a couple of boats pull anchor and reset where there was less danger of boats coming close.
Tuesday nights in Grand Case is a street party. All the shops are open and vendors set up tables along the streets, there is live music at several locations, and parading Caribbean musicians. People come from all over the island, and it is great fun. We had dinner at a little restaurant on the north end of town, a bit away from the crowds, and it was one of the best French style meals we had anywhere.
We lounged about aboard the boat on Wednesday, and started thinking about packing and getting ready to end the trip. Frankly, we were pretty tired at this point, and going home was looking good, although we didn’t want to leave either.
Oyster Pond…
02/21-02/22 – We motored the two hours into the wind and building seas from Grand Case to Oyster Pond, only about 10 nm. We got through the entrance channel into the pond without mishap, though it was a bit of a ride with ten foot swells pushing us in. Then we fueled up the boat and Sunsail’s staff met us and med-tied the boat in its spot.
We still had one night aboard, which we’d planned so that we could spend the afternoon packing and have a chance to drop by the Nikko’s Yacht Club Bar that night for some wine and music. There are always people readying to leave on charters, and as we packed up leftover food and such, we decided to present a bottle of rum we’d not finished and some gin to a group of fellows on two boats just down the dock from us. They turned out to be a group of Canadians, Deb was soon entranced in conversation with one of them, and we ended up spending much of the evening with them – at the Dinghy Bar (a little hamburger joint), the Yacht Club Bar (I got to play piano again), and then finally on their boats. We finally all crashed around midnight.
Next day, we finished packing, got our things up to the Sunsail office, and finally the Canadians got underway around noon. We caught a taxi and headed off to St Maarten and the airport, where we flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
San Juan to California…
02/22-02/23 – We arrived in San Juan around 16:00 and per our plans had a hotel room awaiting us near the airport. We figured breaking up the return flight to California was a smart thing to do. We went into the old city of San Juan for dinner, and then wandered around and ultimately found a nice little place to have desert and coffee outside. It was a nice break in the travel and we had a chance to reminisce about the sailing, which was already beginning to seem like a memory. Next morning we flew out to L.A., and eventually back home to the Bay Area.
Along the way, I was already thinking about the next trip to the Caribbean – a long one, on my own boat, truly living the cruising life. Deb said I’d better bring her along as crew on at least one leg of my journey, and we cast our eyes on future sailing adventures….

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