LAGOONIES, COASTGUARD TO THE RESCUE, AND DOWNWIND TO BVI
POSITION: N 18:26.78 W 064: 32.02 TRELLIS BAY, TORTOLA, BVI
SIMPSON BAY, SINT MAARTEN 19-21 Feb 2013
The anchorage in Simpson Bay was not good. Quite crowded, with a 'no anchoring' channel through the middle, it suffered from not one but two swells coming in at right angles to eachother. The main, southerly, swell I couldn't figure out, as it appeared to come from the very reef that guarded the entrance, which was impossible. Thats what reefs are good at, keeping swell out. But not this one.. So we rolled in the swell.
At this stage of proceedings I was unfazed by it as I had my secret weapon - the kedge anchor. Time to dig it out of the lazerette and drop it off to one side of Pinball from the dinghy, from where I could haul the stern round 45 degrees into the swell, effectively stopping the rolling. But it didn't, and it didn't because the other swell then took over. So I had to settle for that, still rolling but not so much. Next day it occurred to me that the swell coming from the reef was probably 'bouncing' off it, having 'bounced' off the beach once already. I had first noticed this in St Lucia in the wonderful Rodney Bay anchorage, how swell coming in the bay actually bounced off just a shallow beach somehow and ricocheting back out again, presumably by surging up the beach and then back out again.
The no anchoring channel leads to a narrow inlet with a lifting bridge, which is the way into the huge lagoon that St Martin is famous for. Half of it is in fact French, and they have their own narrow, shallow entrance on the northern side. Inside is a lot of shallow water that is dredged in marked channels to keep it open, and this is where the Superyachts live. Loads of them.
I had hoped not to have to go inside as I dont really like running aground that much, but when our own water levels dropped to one remaining tank it was time to tank up whilst it was available. It was available, my cruise guide book said, at Island Waterworld who specialise in serving the cruising fraternity, so that was good enough for me. So whilst R and K were off exploring I took Perky in on a long chug round the lagoon, ending up first at Island Waterworld, and then a little further on, at the wonderfully named Lagoonies.
Lagoonies is a waterside bar/restaurant that caters for people like me, the driftwood of the ocean. Cruisers live on their boats, at anchor whenever possible, and spend what money they have in places like Lagoonies. Coffee, snacks, beer, sandwiches, plus a full menu handwritten on a blackboard, and free wifi ensure the place is always busy. My meal of pork with rice in a fabulous sauce was excellent.
The Superyachts are shepherded in by bossy Marina staff who whizz round in smart RIBs shouting instructions to anyone who'll listen. There's not much room coming through the entrance if you're a superyachty, so huge expensive fenders dangle both sides, whilst the spectacle of the six bridge openings a day is ogled by goofers in a packed waterside bar overlooking the bridge, all hoping for a collision to liven things up a bit - rather like the crowd that gathers at the pub by the hopelessly small Potter Higham bridge on the Norfolk Broads, famous for taking the coamings off many a rented vessel. But I am getting ahead of myself..
As always, Customs and Immigration have to have their pound of flesh, and here it is dispensed in a police station on the west side of the narrow entrance to the lagoon, with its own dinghy dock. Unusually, both Customs and Immigration are dealt with by the same person - a lady of memorable proportions who clearly takes full advantage of the McDonalds next door. But then you have to go see another lady of memorable proportions in the Port Office, six feet away, and pay your harbour dues. $20US lighter, for just two nights at anchor outside the harbour, and we were legal and I could go back and bring the girls in. (The Captain alone is allowed ashore to do the clearing in.) I brought them to the dinghy dock where they jumped out, locked the dinghy up and then realised the key was half a mile out to sea on Pinball. Now I'm very careful with keys; never lock the companionway without sighting the key first, and they’re clipped to me. Trouble was I hadn't locked the companionway today, so hadn't done the key check, and wasn't in the habit of checking the key when locking the dinghy as I would normally have already checked it. A systemic error. Dick.
The chain is 8mm anchor chain, padlock similar, and would need a fair sized set of boltcroppers to stand a chance, but whilst I was beginning to start to think what to do, Krisha was already up on her feet waving like only girls can at the Sint Maarten Dutch Coastguard all-black RIB cruising past with its six black uniformed armed boot-faced thugs on board staring dispassionately back. 'Excuse meeee...' she wheedled perfectly, 'could you HELP us?'
Now you and I know that if it had just been me, I'd still be there now. Only the Officer in Charge spoke English, the rest just carried on staring in that particular way that say's 'WOT a PLONKER' in Dutch, as we raced out at 40kts just to show me, and then back again with the key. The price for this assistance, the one stripe Officer informed me, would be a boarding and inspection when we were alongside taking on water. Cant wait.
Inside the lagoon we followed the buoyed channel right round the Superyacht marina, waving to the waiting thugs in their RIB shadowing us, and found our way to Island Waterworld pontoon without grounding. The lines and fenders were set for a port-side-to arrival as Pinball likes that best - a touch of reverse in the final stages and the prop walk brings the stern in a treat - but changed my mind when we got there due to lack of turning space, but the girls swopped it all over in time and we tied up. Then we were boarded.
In the end I offered to write my home address on the boarding form for him, as we were getting nowhere fast. 'No, ToLLer, two 'L's' PorCORum'. Waste of time this. 'You have many bags' he said, looking into my stuffed full forepeak, a bit later. 'Kite surfing gear. And sails' I offered defensively. I checked that he wasn't too close to the Argentinean short sword too - last time we were boarded, in French Martinique, the Customs Officer was actually standing on it for ages.
The thing about owning a Superyacht is its all about show, and there were as many here in Sint Maarten lagoon as in the whole Mediterranean seemed to me. These highly polished dazzling white motor yachts with their young crews all in uniform shorts and badged short sleeved shirts were neatly parked all along the edge of the lagoon, and moored in order of size - biggest one end, smallest the other. Obviously, the bigger the better, the more show right? I almost felt sorry for the owners of the small ones, what a put down it must be, parked at the wrong end of the line. But then I noticed an interesting thing; they were all the same height, no matter how short the length. So they just got stubbier and stubbier, until they were as tall as they were long, and slightly ridiculous looking, like bath toys. But just being imposingly high wasn't enough, you had to have satellite domes. Lots of them. No one had just one, that was no good, wouldn't impress anyone, you had to have six. One for each cabin I guess..
Dreamt my dinghy had deflated, a right mess it was. Hmm.. not a very good omen...
SINT MAARTEN TO BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS 21-22 Feb 2013
The course to BVI is an easy NW - well off the wind and hopefully swell too, giving an almost downwind run that promised to be very much more pleasant than the leg to Sint Marten, especially as the forecast obtained through satphone using GRIB files - a binary based system of weather reporting and forecasting run by the Americans and free to use, worldwide - was for a pleasant Force 4.
And so it was to be.
We set off at dusk and for the first time since the Atlantic crossing, poled out the big genoa to port and smaller staysail to starboard and that was that. The mainsail stayed furled and zipped up as this would just unbalance the boat and also steal the wind from the two foresails anyway, but set the mizzen to help. Once set up, PW sails very nicely with the windvane steering doing the work, and easterly swell helping us on our way, but attaching the poles to the sails in the first place is the fun bit - get it wrong and its a nice whack round the ear to serve you right. With the two foresails set like this, they really do look like a large hanglider up-ended on the bow, with the poles making the crosspiece. My favourite rig! Gives a steady 5 knots too..
When I came back on watch at 0400 the winds had died back a fair bit, and the seas were just delightful for once, with speed back to 4.5 knots. No rush. 3 hours to dawn. But by then the wind had died back even more and backed round to NE so with the crew asleep below it was time to unrig the downwind sails and hoist the main with the dark outline of Virgin Gorda now visible ahead. By midday we were abeam the delightful looking Necker Island but Richard had clearly not been informed we were coming, which was disappointing. At least, I couldn't see him waving. But I could see the blackened shell of his burnt out megahouse, now being rebuilt - well, he can afford it I guess. Right next to it was another equally impressive house almost identical to its neighbour, so I guess he won't be camping out. But anyway, I'd see it all when I get the invite..
There are a lot of reefs in the Virgin Islands, which is why once you are there its so pleasant as the easterly swell is non existent between islands, cut out by the reefs. Which was also why I was a bit nervous approaching as I was not totally convinced I'd chosen the right passage to sail through to get to Gun Creek, and Customs. Yes the chartplotter - which has proved incredibly accurate to date - said it was right, but I wasn't convinced. All these channels look very similar from six feet up. I really must build a crow's nest atop the mast and send one crew up to reef spot. So, now downwind again under main only, eyes glued to the depth gauge, we entered smack bang centre channel at 3 knots in beautiful sunshine.
Chartplotter 1, Skipper 0. The crew slept on..
Gun Creek I had no information on at all, other than Abes had told me to go there as it was more friendly less hassle than Spanish Town on the west coast. Now less hassle is most attractive to a cruiser, and I will go many miles to achieve it, but that expensive Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands by Nancy and Simon Scott - the ‘Complete Guide for Yachtsmen’ - hastily bought in Martinique, made no mention of it as a Customs entry place, which was a bit odd, as that IS the most important bit for a cruiser. Not that complete then Nancy.
The Creek was small, unremarkable, and home to just a few buildings and small jetty. Surely this can’t be it? Customs are invariably right smack bang in the centre of busy ports! I checked the Lat/Long position Abes had given me. Yes, it was.
Customs were shut. Open at 1330. But nice loos...
‘How long you staying?’
Ah! The usual friendly Customs greeting delivered like a slap.
‘Good morning,’ I said pointedly, ‘Not sure yet, but maybe around about a couple of weeks? That was my first mistake...
After an hour of form filling, in quadruplicate, requiring things like the home addresses of my crew which I didn't have and had to blag, he gave me 2 ½ weeks, stamped in the passports.
I remonstrated. 'Can't you give me 30 days?'
'You said two weeks' he said flatly.
'No. I said it could be around two weeks. Might be more..'
I was lucky. He grudgingly overwrote the dates.
Back on board, the girls were looking forward to a good coffee nearby and a swim when I gave them the bad news.
'Sorry ladies, we haven't quite finished yet. Just a quick hop over to Beef Island, Tortola. Abes is waiting for us in Trellis Bay. Hour and a half, thats all.
Rebecca drove all the way, flat out under engine only - that Yanmar really sounds good cranked up, just humms - and my horribly optimistic time wasn't far out when we turned into the massive boat park that is Trellis Bay. I have never been in such a crowded anchorage, almost all charter boats, and all on mooring buoys at US$30 per DAY! Skip on the wheel now, we weaved in and out of boats working slowly clockwise round the bay looking for a ray of hope. On the other, western side, is Tortola's International Airport with its extended runway now jutting out into the bay, beneath the climbout of which it is forbidden to anchor, but I was hoping to find a space before the no parking area after a conversation with a Canadian cruiser in Gun Creek. 'Thats where people usually anchor' he'd said. We dropped ours after a false start and abort in the only spot in the whole bay with just enough room - eagle-eyed Krisha had spotted a large rock nearly under the bow in the middle of proceedings, requiring the old man to go and have a look, but we worked round it. Lucky! US$00 per day!
BVI had always been a focal point in the voyage plan, and for various reasons had taken 17 months to get to, and 22 hours overall for the 100nm from Sint Maarten! Ah well, better safe than sorry. But that was the best sail yet, in perfect conditions.