Pre-Pandemic Predicaments: St. Martin

On the flight to St. Martin in mid-February, 2020, for the first time ever I wiped down my seat area with an antibacterial wipe. Reports of a nasty virus in China had heightened my awareness that I had no idea where that airplane had been, who had been in my seat before me, or what they’d left behind.

COVID-19 was far from the most pressing matter on my mind as I jetted off to St. Martin for a long-planned (and paid for) week of sailing. On January 30 my employer had informed me that January 31 would be our last day together. This was not a huge surprise. Changes in the organization over the previous six or so months had signaled my reduced value to them, and to be honest, I’d been reacting poorly. I don’t believe this was a case where I could have adopted a “can do” attitude and salvaged my position. I had fundamental disagreements with how new management was operating. I didn’t want to be there, but I had not quite reached the “send out my resume” stage.

Needless to say, on January 31 I sent out my resume–to a consultant who updated it and my LinkIn profile. My resume was twelve years old and full of dated language. Fly High Coaching resurrected me as a modern agile software development expert just in time for me to leave on vacation.

As I said, a vacation that was paid for. Also, five people–my crew–were depending on me to be their skipper. So there I was, wiping down a tray table for the first time ever.

Marigot Bay

Once on St. Martin rendezvoused with former members of St. Barts Sailing who I’d lured to The Sailing Club. We were booked into a hotel in Marigot Bay, where I joined them by the pool for a welcome beer and a swim. That evening we strolled through the neighborhood, which is near the hospital and not much on night life. The first restaurant we approached was having a private party. But the next one welcomed us. The French creole menu suited us just fine. Dave and Hallie were a little perturbed that they did not have tonic for the gin, but they managed with a fruit soda alternative. Lisa and I stuck to wine. As our dinner wound down, the skies opened up outside. Our host appeared with a round of brandy, on the house. That occupied us until the rain stopped and our tab was paid.

French sentiments expressed in Marigot Bay

In the morning we set out on foot to visit the Marigot market, which I remembered as being great for fresh produce. We’d deferred pre-ordering produce and other perishables because of this. We stopped along the way for croissants and coffee, of course. Sadly, the market was dismal. The abundant carts of fruits and veggies I remembered from past visits (I have photos! I didn’t imagine it!) were absent. We bought a few things from what was available, and then made plans for how to get the rest of what we needed. I had to go to the charter company office. So the others found a taxi to take them to the Super U.

I had time for another coffee at a cafe near the office before my noon appointment. I was joined by Skipper Steve there, and we walked together to the office where we found Skipper Bob. We received our paperwork and signed forms, then set out back through town to Marina Fort Louis to find our boats. Two of the three were not ready.

The first day of a charter sailing trip is always chaotic. The skipper and first mate must check out the boat, testing all the systems and asking for things to be fixed or missing gear replaced. The crew has to mill about waiting to board, or, as in our case, go get provisions. Waiting for the boats to be ready to start this process is particularly tiresome. We could stand on the dock in the hot sun and look at the boats, but the charter staff doing final preparation would not welcome us to set foot on them. They also wouldn’t give us a clear remaining duration for their work, so we did not want to go too far away. Finally I joined several others for lunch just outside the marina. I had been considering Burger 12 because I set a scene there in my novel Too Much Trouble. In fact, Marina Fort Louis is a well used setting in that book, and I was privately tickled to be hanging out there like my characters. In any case, we ate at The Wine Bar where, it turned out, the charter company staff was also enjoying a leisurely repast.

Baguette sandwiches make everything all right. Note the salt and pepper serving method.
Nardis, our floating home for the week

We foolishly thought they’d get things wrapped up right after lunch. Nope. The waiting continued. One thing we three skippers accomplished during those hours was the official paperwork to clear out of St. Martin and in to Anguilla, the island to the north. This entailed visiting the port office in the building between The Wine Bar and Burger 12 and standing in the hot hallway outside waiting our turn in the small, air conditioned office. Once allowed in, we entered our boat and crew information into the computer ourselves–which was probably faster than having the agent do it, but still tedious. Home city, birth date, nationality, passport number–I got close to memorizing everyone’s details, but not close enough to skip checking it on my printed list.

Finally, after the pre-ordered food was delivered and stowed, as well as the fresh stuff my crew got at Super U, and the luggage was aboard, it was close to 3:00 p.m. As all three boats set out into Marigot Bay and north toward Anguilla, the wind kicked up and the swells were close and choppy. I believed that the base manager had hoped we’d decide to delay departure until the morning, knowing about the sea conditions. But since our official paperwork was filed, we felt we had to go. We also knew we could make it to the north side of Anguilla before dark.

Anguilla

Which we did, after a fun reach between islands and then a slower beat along Anguilla’s north coast. Safely anchored after the long, hot day, with rain showers pattering on the decks, our shoppers produced the pre-made paella they’d bought for dinner.

Not to be a negative Nellie, but I’d suspected the plan to go to in the morning to Prickly Pear Key for snorkeling, then sail back to St. Martin, was ambitious. If we’d planned two nights at Anguilla we could have made that a day trip, but as it was, the wind was still howling, so snorkeling might not be great, and we wouldn’t have that much time for it. We hauled the anchors mid-morning and sailed right back to Marigot. No, nothing was wrong with the boats. We had to go back to the port office to check back in to St. Martin.

Marigot Bay

We anchored in the bay and Bob collected Steve and me in his dinghy for the rough ride in. My shorts got soaked.

When it was my turn to enter my data in the computer, and I sat down on the office chair there, the agent–a severe woman–told me I may not sit because I got the chair wet. Okay, she had a point, but it was not a welcome one. I sat on someone’s jacket to finish. Sure enough, the next skipper came in while I was paying the fees, sat down, then got up and stared at the chair. Sigh.

Officialdom appeased, we returned to the boats, hauled anchor, and motored to Grand Case, the next bay to the east.

Grand Case

Snorkel stop at Tintamarre

I was kinda done. For the day, anyway. I told my crew they were welcome to dinghy in to shore for dinner, but I wasn’t up to it. They elected to stay aboard, so our crew missed the fun dinner the other boats enjoyed and exploration of Grand Case. It looked charming, based on the pictures.

I had not told anyone of my employment situation. I did not want it to be a topic of conversation, either with me or behind my back. I wasn’t embarrassed at being laid off, in today’s world it happens to all kinds of people. I just didn’t want to dwell on it while on vacation. Who knew if I’d be able to afford the next trip–at the time it was to be a week at Mallorca, Spain–in September? But my mood definitely reflected my inner turmoil and concern, and my energy.

Tintamarre

I’d sailed around the east end of St. Martin years before and remembered it as a fun passage. Today we were doing it again, with a stop at the rocky island off the coast — Tintamarre — for lunch and snorkeling. But first we had to get there, and the wind was still howling from the east.

I had a great time driving us on a close reach through rolling swells. It was my kind of steering, and it took my mind off of everything other than the boat. Our course took us north east close to Anguilla before I called for a tack. My crew looked sharp adjusting the sails as we came about and headed toward the gap between St. Martin and Tintamarre. We found the tiny stretch of Tintamarre’s west coast where free moorings were available for day stops. Hoping we correctly deciphered the color coding–which indicate what size boat they can handle–we picked one up.

Others said the snorkeling wasn’t good there. It wasn’t spectacular, but the water was refreshing and I enjoyed it very much. We had lunch, and battened down the hatches for the passage back to St. Martin and Orient Bay.

Orient Bay

The entrance to Orient Bay is between two reefs. It’s a great anchorage because of these protective reefs and a couple small islands. It is not a great place to try to enter when the wind is howling from the east and has driven the sea swells into mountains that are crashing onto those reefs.

I read the cruising guide. I studied the chart. As I approached the entrance I studied the wave patterns. I could sort of tell where the channel was because there was less white water there. But the swells were enormous, growing as the bottom rose up to them on the approach. My depth gauge was my primary tool for the half hour or so it took to approach and pass through that mess. My crew sat in silence, staring at the white water to either side, or astern at the next swell rolling in under us. At one point I saw the depth getting too shallow and was able to adjust, turn a little off shore for another boat length or two, then turn in again and stay in the channel. Once again, I had no room to think if anything but my boat.

Once we were inside the water was as calm as a bathtub. We turned north toward the anchorage behind Ilet de Pinel. There were quite a few boats there. But the chart showed a very shallow channel to get to the deeper already crowded anchorage. I didn’t like it. My depth gauge told me we were close to touching the sandy bottom well before we got into that channel.

Depth gauges can be miscalibrated and often are on charter boats. but I couldn’t know how off it was. I had to take its advice.

Steve was following me, and he turned around when he saw me do so. We had a quick radio consultation and agreed to go to the southern end of the bay next to Caye Verte. Bob caught up with us there and we found a calm anchorage. Fortunately for some who disapproved, we were far enough away from the famous nude beach to see anyone.

What we could see was the daredevil kite boarders crisscrossing the bay. The conditions were perfect for them–lots of wind and flat water. We were lounging in the cockpit drinking cocktails and watching them when we became aware of a man in the water a couple boat lengths away shouting. We could not tell if he was shouting at the kite boarders or us. He could have been swimming and felt harassed by them for all we knew. But after a few minutes I decided maybe something was up. We’d put the motor on the dinghy earlier, so I climbed into it. Seeing me, the guy in the water swam over and, no sooner did I have the motor on than he was climbing on board.

Okay then.

“Where is your skipper, why did he not come help me?”

“I’m the skipper. And we could not tell if you were yelling at us, or someone else.”

“Can you take me to the island? My board is there.”

Sure. Why not. Even if you are a sexist jerk.

“I was photographing my son on his board, and I saw a shark swim beneath me. I did not dare swim or splash, but when I see you get in the boat, I took the chance.”

“There are sharks in this bay?” I could not stop myself from thinking of the nude swimmers.

“Usually they come in at night. But sometimes they are seen during the day.”

Shark boy, risked swimming the last few yards once we got close to the beach.

Sharks. Huh.

There was a party aboard Bob’s boat–the catamaran–that evening. We packed up our appetizers to share and our drinks and climbed into our dinghy. I held the boat while my crew boarded the cat, then I climbed out and tied off on a cleat.

For my crew this was the first time to visit with the others since our busy departure day. We had fun socializing, and the evening was punctuated by a round of happy birthday and serving of one of Linda’s amazing rum cakes. When some of my gang were looking beat, I went to get the dinghy ready for a run back to our boat.

It wasn’t there.

Years ago, sailing Bright Star with Stewart on St. Barts Sailing trips, I had copied his compulsive habit of always tying a safety knot in the dinghy painter. You cleat it, then you tied the end of the line in a bowland around a stanchion. The catamaran did not have a handy stanchion near the cleat. There had been nothing to tied to, so I hadn’t bothered. And the slipper floating nylon line had slithered loose from the cleat.

I found Steve in the party and said, “I need some help. My dinghy is gone.”

Beached dinghy

Word spread throughout the gathering. I felt awful, a failed skipper who can’t keep track of her tender. Someone wanted to go looking for it, they were sure they could see it out there in the dark. Someone else said “yeah, and there’s a guy sitting in it reading.” I knew he was joking. We skippers vetoed any such action in the dark. There was little hope of finding it, reading man or not, especially since we had no idea how long it had been gone. Steve ferried my crew back to our boat in his dinghy.

The one saving grace that I clung to the rest of the night, was that there was only once place it could go–onto the beach to leeward. My crew came up with stories of other, worse, disasters, working hard to make me understand that they didn’t blame me. Bless them.

I was in the cockpit before dawn with my telephoto lens and the ship’s binoculars. Lisa joined me soon after with her binoculars. The beach was a half mile away. The dinghy was grey. I couldn’t find it.

I could see that Bob’s boat was dragging its anchor. And when the sun was fully up, so did he. He roused his crew and hauled the anchor up, then motored over toward the beach. I wasn’t sure if he was planning on leaving–heading toward our next stop, St. Barts, as he turned north. Then he called on the radio to tell us his crew had eyes on our dinghy. He described where to look–further north than I expected.

We found it.

We hauled our anchor, and so did Steve, and we moved the boats across the bay to the shallows off the nude beach. Bob anchored there as well. Now we could clearly see the dinghy being washed around on the sand by the small waves, its motor’s prop shaft anchoring it so that it couldn’t be pushed further up the beach. Steve came over in his dinghy and offered to take us ashore. Our position was tenuous, our anchor was possibly not holding. I knew I wouldn’t be much help hauling the dinghy around. I delegated to the men in my crew, which seemed to puzzle Steve. But he took them into his dinghy and headed for the beach.

As anyone who plays with dinghies knows, it’s far easier to get them on the beach than to get them off. Steve headed for a spot further south where a row of rental windsurfers suggested it was better for landings and launches. We watched from our cockpits as they landed and secured the dinghy, then started down the beach. It was still quite early, but there were some early joggers and walkers out. It was a lot further than it looked, and took them several minutes. When Steve was still a hundred yards away a man approached the dinghy. We saw Steve pick up his pace and call out to the guy, who had picked up the red plastic fuel tank. We later learned he said he was just putting it back in the boat, it was floating next to it. The tank was attached to the motor by its hose, the only reason it wasn’t long gone.

We watched them bail the dinghy, a process that seemed to be taking an awfully long time. While they were at it, we determined that our anchor was not holding, so Lisa, Hallie, Corry, and I hauled it, moved into slightly deeper water, and re-anchored. It gave us something to do other than stare at the beach.

Finally they started dragging the dinghy south. They had to keep it floating in the shallows to move it. But every few seconds a wave would roll in and push it onto the sand. They’d shove it back into the water and carry on. Sometimes one of them would get knocked over by the wave, or the boat. It looked exhausting. I felt awful. More than one fully nude stroller walked by both during the bailing and the dragging.

When they got it back to Steve’s dinghy, they secured a long line to it, leaving it on the sand at the edge of the water. Launching Steve’s dinghy proved to be very difficult. He’d get it into deep enough water for the motor, but it would get pushed back before he could start it. Both Dave and Jerry had trouble getting in the boat once it was in deep enough water for the motor. Dave had worn an auto-inflate life jacket which, of course, had triggered during one of his dousings.

Yes, he is

Finally a guy who was setting up the rental windsurfers swam out and helped them keep the boat afloat while everyone got in and the motor got started. Then, at last, they were able to two the other dinghy off the beach and out to us.

I’d made bacon and eggs, toast and coffee during the last part of the effort, so that when my crew returned they were rewarded with a hearty, well earned breakfast.

Unbelievably, it was still morning.

The dinghy was undamaged, but one of the attached oars had broken–I could imagine it flopping outside the oat, digging into the sand, and then the boat being shoved by a wave. One blade of the propeller was bent a little. But the worst of it was that the vent on the top of the fuel tank was open–it has to be open to run the motor, and it’s normal not to close it when you’re going to use it again soon. This was a concern because it was very likely seawater had gotten inside.

We lifted the motor from the dinghy back up to its mount on the stern of the big boat. And then, while the crew was preparing for departure, I held my breath and yanked the starter cord. It started, running on the tiny supply of fuel in the engine. So relieved I almost wept, I shut it down. We couldn’t use it, not with the fuel in the tank possibly contaminated–that would destroy it. But at least we did not have to pay for a dead engine.

That would turn out to be the least of our worries regarding damages on this trip.

Gustavia

St. Barts is a highlight of any trip to this island group, but Gustavia has its pros and cons. Once years ago on a St. Barts Sailing trip we’d actually gotten space at the wharf. I barely remember med-mooring there, but I know I did it, long before I knew I should be terrified of it. On another trip we’d gotten moorings inside the harbor. But these days, the first option is not allowed by the charter companies, and the odds of finding a free mooring inside are slim to none. The visiting yachtsman must hunt for one in the extensive outer mooring field and when that inevitably fails, must anchor outside of the mooring field. The options outside the mooring field are exposed and rolly.

All three of our boats weaved through the moored boats, eagle eyes scanning for a free mooring, or signs that someone was preparing to leave, with no luck. After an exhaustive search we looked for likely spots to anchor. Mooring lines are much shorter than anchor lines, so if you anchor among moored boats, your boat will swing differently from them. Also, you could foul your anchor on the mooring ground tackle. Neither outcome is good and both are likely. I found a spot nestled between a shabby catamaran that looked abandoned and a tidy little sloop. Anchor chains fed from the bows of both of them told me it was okay to anchor.

Bar de L’oubli

So we did. Steve found a spot on the other side of the catamaran, and Bob ended up further back, close to Les Gros Ilets. Bob launched his dinghy and picked up me and Steve for the requisite visit to the harbor master’s office. Once again, we entered crew and boat data and paid our fees. We were able to enter our departure information, too, so at least we didn’t have to come back–although the spacious air conditioned harbor office with its attractive French officers is pleasant.

I had to remind Steve that my dinghy was inoperable as we made arrangements to shuttle crew ashore, but both he and Bob helped get my gang back and forth. I made a point of having a beer at Le Select, then joined my crew across the street at Bar de L’oubli–the bar of forgetting. How appropriate.

With the wind from the east, the anchorage was not uncomfortably rolly. With the weather so fair, I slept in the cockpit. Until a little squall rolled through before dawn. I stood in the middle of the cockpit under the bimini to wait it out. And I noticed that the tidy sloop was suddenly much closer to us, and getting closer. I scrambled out of the cockpit and along the side deck, desperate to fend us off. I was too late. Our bow bumped against the other boat forward of amidships.

Lisa was up through the forward hatch in an instant, and settled there in her foul weather jacket for the duration. I returned to the cockpit and, started the engine, using it to keep us away from the other boat in the shifting winds. That roused the crew, who started on coffee while I explained what happened.

Once the sun was up, a young woman emerged from the cabin of the other boat. She went forward to inspect the damage. Then she climbed into her dinghy and came over. Seeing her intention I warned my crew that company was coming. They gathered in the cockpit. If we’d had popcorn they would have been eating it.

The woman asked permission to come aboard, a good start. Once seated she explained that she would make a report to the harbormaster and seek an estimate for repair of the damages to ehr boat. I was not surprised that she wanted us to pay, I was surprised about the official report. This wasn’t going to be friendly. Forewarned is forearmed. She wrote out a report, describing the incident and including my comments and observations. It was a fair description. During this process, she mentioned that her boat was not anchored, but on a mooring. She realized we might have thought she was anchored because she takes the mooring ball off and puts it below. Something about it getting dirty. I was astounded–both at this practice and how it deceives other boaters, and that she told us. I told her I had specifically chosen this spot because her boat appeared to be anchored and she agreed, it did look that way.

The damages

Off she went to the harbor master’s office to file her report. I got on the phone–not the radio–to Bob and Steve.

By the time she came back with a local man in her dinghy, the full complement of skippers was in my cockpit. She had her man examine her boat from the water and from above, then they sat and chatted for a while. And then they came over.

She handed me a copy of the report, stamped by the harbor master. Then she introduced the man as from a local boat yard. He would explain the cost of the damages. I introduced Bob and Steve, and that among the three of us we represented a fair portion of our club’s board of trustees.

She wanted 600 euros. We had no intention of giving her anything. We’d paid a safety deposit on the charter boat for exactly this eventuality. She complained that she’d dealt with the charter company before and they were difficult. I wondered if this was a regular scam, but I did not say it out loud. She took photos of the charter contract and the boat’s information, received my assurance that I would report the matter to the charter company, and went away unhappy.

It was still morning.

We pulled our anchor and motored to Colombier, a bay on the northwest shore and one of my favorite places. Arriving before noon, we found the mooring field nearly empty. I happily drove us to the same mooring in the northern corner that I’d used the last time we were here. The rest of the fleet arrived shortly after us and Steve kindly shuttled people to the beach. I geared up and went snorkeling. It was as interesting as I remembered, and I watched an octopus going about its business for quite some time before getting chilly from floating and not moving.

Late in the afternoon, after I’d rinsed off with fresh water, the life jacket we had tied astern as a float for swimmers came loose. The swimmers watched it, but did nothing. Seeing yet more dollar signs floating away, I dove in after it. It was a couple boat lengths away, drifting toward Steve’s boat, when I caught it. With an arm through one of the straps I doggedly swam back.

“You’re a strong swimmer,” Dave said as I climbed back aboard. His simple complement was a real boost. I began to think maybe I should have gone ashore on the dinghy recovery mission.

Marigot Bay

We sailed around the west end of St. Martin the next day, enjoying the view of the Dutch side’s harbors and the airport, where the runway is right next to a beach. Steve sailed further offshore, and Bob too the catamaran on a fun sail around the other end of the island. I reached the marina first, and, after radioing for instructions, motored slowly in toward the fuel dock. A charter company employee met us via dinghy and took over. But there was a boat at the dock and no room for us, so he held us there, maneuvering in the narrow marina channel until the dock was free.

Hallie in one of the costly life jackets

Then he had us tied up there and left us, saying he’d be back after we refueled. The problem was, the attendant had left too. Lisa checked to see if it was self service, but the pump was locked up. So we waited. We radioed the rest of the fleet to stay out of the marina until further notice. Eventually the attendant returned and filed our fuel tank, and the charter company man turned up to dock the boat, wiggling her stern first in between other boats. The lines were secured, the wooden plank was laid from the dock to the cockpit and we were done.

Well, not really. When the charter company guy came by to do the debrief, I told a very careful story. I showed him the report filed in Gustavia and gave him the woman’s information. He did not seem surprised. He said “we will take care of this.” I reported that our dinghy fuel tank had gotten swamped and we were concerned that water got in, so we had not used it after that. He made a note. And I explained that we’d lost one of the dinghy oars. In fact, the remaining part had, um, slipped overboard somewhere south of Phillipsburg earlier that day. The only thing that surprised me was, when they counted the auto-inflate life jackets and found two had been fired (Dave’s, and another one when Hallie dove overboard to retrieve the dropped boat hook), they said we had to pay for them. Not for replacement cartridges, but for the entire life jacket. Some things are not worth arguing.

Weeks later, when the world had changed and we were all stuck at home, and I had a job offer, the charter company returned two of our three security deposits. We’ll never know whether the woman in Gustavia harbor got her 600 euros.

The official account of this trip can be found here.

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