23rd January 2012 - Mega Yacht Land

Jon & Carol Dutton
Mon 30 Jan 2012 02:02

18:01.92N 63:05.90W


23rd January 2012 – Saint Martin/Sint Maarten


The sail to St Kitts started at 0740 on Saturday 14th January.  It was a little slow to start with but developed into a brisk downwind run in 20 -25 knots of breeze (Force 5-6) under one reef in the mainsail and poled-out full yankee.  There were a few squalls with accompanying downpours to liven things up but we made it by 1750 (before sunset) to anchor in Whitehouse Bay, about 5NM SE of the capital, Basse Terre.  We’d been a bit irritated by some noises being given off by the steering gear throughout the day. 


On Sunday morning we again rose betimes to see what could be done about this and having done what we could, set off at about 0800 to complete the approximately 55NM passage to St Martin.  Having rounded the western coast of St Kitts the course to our destination was due north in a 20-25 easterly wind.  The wind and sea did get quite a bit more challenging for a while as we cut between St Kitts and Statia (AKA Sint Eustatius) as the Atlantic trade winds funnelled through the 7 mile gap and the depths decreased from around 650m to something like 30m.  And, we had a few squalls and a constant NE 2-3m swell.  But, very largely, we had blisteringly sunny weather and a cracking reach with the apparent wind at about 60 degrees off the starboard bow whilst we trucked along very happily at 7.5 to 8 knots.  Thank you, weather gods.  We’ll have more of that please.  Again, we adopted our pretty well default Caribbean sail plan of a single reef in the mainsail and the full yankee.  


Having arrived in Simson Baai in Sint Maarten (the Dutch half of St Martin – the northern half is French) at around 1600 on Sunday we anchored for the night just outside the bridge.  The views from the anchorage were a complete contrast from those in Guadeloupe!



      Starboard View - Pelican Resort                                Port view – Princess Juliana Airport


Our intention was to go into the lagoon the next morning but it was all a bit of a mystery, the charted information was contradictory (apart from the fact that all acknowledged that it really wasn’t very deep – at least if you draw 8 feet) and inconclusive (helped by the statement on the Admiralty charts; “Inadequately Surveyed”).  We couldn’t get hold of any marina offices and blah, blah.  So, given that we had about 2 hours before sunset, we launched the dinghy and motored into the lagoon for a recce and to see if we could get any sense out of the marina office we wanted to contact by battering down the door.  No luck on the latter quest – it was a Sunday and this isn’t the Solent.   As we returned from our recce the bridge to the lagoon opened and in poured a host of yachts.  Fearing being run down, we tied the dinghy up to the yacht club dinghy dock, adjacent to the bridge and nipped ashore to join the crowd oggling this lot coming in from the yacht club veranda.  Honestly guys; this is absurd.  At least half the stuff coming in did not qualify, by any reasonable interpretation of the English language, as being a ‘yacht’.  Although, you may be interested to note that, in these parts, a piddling little bit of nonsense like a Swan 46 is a ‘sail boat’ whilst a ‘yacht’ is something rather different.  A ‘yacht’ hereabouts is a socking great, diesel guzzling, gizmo-cluttered, smoked-glass patio-doored stinkpot.  Overall length of around 300 feet is not untypical.  It may have a heli-pad; it may merely have a huge boot at the stern that opens to reveal a toy cupboard full of RIBs, jet skis and the like.  It’s almost bound to have a token swimming pool.  It’s about the size of a Solent ferry.  It has a permanent crew of about ten times that of a Solent ferry.  And, they all wear uniforms.  For the girls (and very young and pretty they are too), these will include mini skirts.  And, most (less the several chefs, stokers and under-parlourmaids, I suppose) line the sides of the vessel as it comes through the bridge to take the accolades of the onlookers.  The ‘yachts’ sound their whistles in acknowledgment of the appreciation of the crowd.  Each is accompanied by several RIB-mounted outriders. 



Squeezing through the entrance to the lagoon                    This is a ‘yacht’, apparently.

Anyway, that was entertaining for a bit.  We returned to Arnamentia for a pretty uncomfortable night aboard.  Despite no indication in the generally excellent Doyle’s Cruising Guide, the anchorage was very rolly.  No real problem – come what may we were going into the lagoon on the morrow.


Monday morning dawned and Jon dinghied ashore to clear customs & immigration and pay the harbour authorities the $61 (US) required by them for the privilege of entering their territory.  That’s before we start talking about any marina charges.  Oh, and the charges for getting out again.  Comfortingly, passage into the lagoon costs the mega yachts upwards of $500 a time.  Quite right too.  Anyway, all was fine until, having brought the dinghy alongside the dinghy dock, he dropped the boat and dinghy keys into the water.  Shouldn’t have been a problem since these were attached to a big cork on the key ring.  But it was because, not only were the keys attached to this but so was a rather attractive metal gizmo that meant he could easily identify which set of keys were his.  So, the whole lot sank like a stone.  No drama – the water was only about 4 feet deep – but recovering it did involve his stripping off to his underpants on the dock outside the customs & immigration office window, jumping in and then hanging about trying to dry off before dressing and presenting himself to a slightly bemused immigration official.  (Regrettably, no photos available! – Dep Ed)  We’ve removed the metal gizmo, you’ll be glad to hear.            


At 1130 the bridge re-opened to allow boats in.  By this time we’d rung the selected marina office to establish that they could take us, precisely how they wanted us to berth and how we got there given the paucity of information about channels that would take our draught.  Well, the guy on duty wasn’t usually on duty and didn’t really know and . . . So, off we went.  We thought to trail behind the behemoths but were shooed ahead by one of the bridge marshals.  We have no idea what he was thinking but we narrowly avoided being squished in the attempt at overtaking one of these things when it decided that it didn’t like the idea.  But, we got through behind him and ahead of another similar monstrosity heading for the deep water mega yacht berths.  Conscious of our draught (and the fact that we were not going for a deep water mega yacht berth, readily accessible from the entrance to the lagoon), we took matters pretty steadily, navigating with great care and at no more than about 3 knots.  That was all a little too steady for one of the RIB outriders for the maritime block of flats behind us.  He encouraged us quite robustly to get a move on.  Fortunately, Jon was a bit busy at the time so Carol dealt with the exchange of information and views that was required.         


We followed the marked channels to the marina.  They weren’t marked on the chart in much detail but they were on the ground – as it were.  We followed them faithfully.  We have been here long enough to understand ‘red right returning’.  For non sailors; most of the civilised world understands that as you come into harbour you leave red buoys to port and green to starboard.  However, in waters under US control or influenced by it, the opposite applies.  Well; it would, wouldn’t it?  When returning to harbour, leave red to your starboard (right) side.  The one thing the man in the marina office had known was that RRR was something he should ensure we’d taken on board.  We had.


We touched bottom several times and went aground firmly twice in the soft mud (the last time within 20m of our intended berth).  It rather reminded Jon of Thorney Island days and the book he never got round to writing: “Careening Sites in Chichester Harbour”.  Our first grounding required the help of a passing RIB to push us off.  The second sorted itself out once we’d tried everything we could be bothered trying for the time being and told it we were bored and weren’t going to try any more for a bit.  A very considerate Dutch couple (but, aren’t they all?) had seen what was going on and had gone to the marina office rather before this to tell them we needed a bit of a hand.  But, of course, the man who was usually there (and who would have understood that the most convenient thing would have been a RIB with a powerful outboard engine) wasn’t there.


Once alongside, we got to the mundane business of hooking up to the shore power electricity.  Attention non-cruisers; this is going to get a bit technical so you may want to skip to the next paragraph.  Naturally, we hadn’t got the necessary US style plug.  Naturally the marina hadn’t any to lend us.  Fine: off to the local marine electrical store to procure the necessary bits and pieces to cobble together something to make our shore power line work.  So; US style male at one end and a European female at the other end of a short bit of cable.  The European terminal has 3 connections which we all understand; live, neutral and earth and European wire is colour coded brown, blue and green/yellow respectively.  US three core wire is colour coded black (live), white (neutral), green (earth).  But, there is a complication; the other colour for live in the US is red.   The plug Jon bought (the correct one) had 4 terminals; black, white, red and green.  So, how does that work if you want to connect that lot to the European set?  A trip to the marina office.  Answer “Dunno – I’m not an electrician”.  Recommendation to ask at the electrical specialists opposite.  Answer “Dunno – the man who might know isn’t here just now”.  Trog back to the boat and put a multimeter across a few terminals.  Establish that we can get 125v between the white terminal and either the red or the black.  Can’t see how we get 240v.  Well, can kinda imagine but a bit hesitant about trying it.  Seek out another specialist electrical company locally and ask them. “Ah” they say.  “We don’t use the white wire here.  If you want to get 240V just connect one wire to the red, one to the black and the earth wire to green.”  Did that and it works.  But my magic plug that tells me all about polarity and suchlike tells me that, in fact, I have no earth.  Ho, hum.  The other nugget of information my advisor passed on to me was that were we to cross the lagoon to the French side of St Martin we’d have to alter the wiring inside the same plug because the logic is different.  Ho, ho hum.  It’s what keeps you interested!


On our last day there we hired a car to take a look around the island.  The French (north) side is rather different from the Dutch (south) side.  Think French cuisine and Dutch night life.  The largest town, Philipsburg, the Dutch capital, was not to our taste.  A half hour drive around the place taking in the tat juxtaposed with the bling on bling of the main street given over to selling duty free jewellery (sorry; jewelry) to cruise ship passengers was all that we felt moved to give it.


The fact that our stay in Sint Maarten had lasted longer than a week required us to cough up another 60 odd USD for the privilege.  Well, you see, a day is a week or a part thereof.  The pain of this was eased by the fact that it took only about an hour and a half for Jon to check out of the island and pay the authorities their blood money in preparation for the next day.  Apparently they’d got new software (well, a couple of months old) and were grateful for our support in their valiant efforts to make our payment visits as quick and efficient as possible.  Give me a bod with a form and a couple of sheets of carbon paper any time.  Not that our views would have counted, of course; we were but a couple on a poxy sail boat.


So, our views on Sint Maarten?  It is unlike any other Caribbean island we have visited, as it is so geared up to mega yachts.  What is sad, is that there are rarely any signs of life around them; their owners must be so wealthy that they can afford to keep them in a state of gleaming readiness for the odd day or two that they are able to jet in (and, indeed, there is a pontoon only a hundred yards from the airport to make the transfer as painless as possible) and then motor off to another location that can accommodate them.  The place is great for provisioning with most goods coming from the US but there is the occasional bizarre find such as small bottles of Ty Nant Welsh water.  The prices are in guilders but the tills automatically convert the total to US dollars though you can pay in Euros as well!  The cashpoint machines give you the choice of all three currencies.  A very strange world and we can’t say that we would recommend a stop there unless you needed work doing or boat bits picking up.  You also need to be immune to bites from the small buggy things!  And, the water in the lagoon is absolutely not something in which you would wish to swim.  Felt rather sorry for Arnamentia’s bottom really.