Position: 17:38.396N 63:15.333W
Date: Saturday 18th January 2014
We had really enjoyed our short stay on Statia. The weather was still holding good so we decided to take the opportunity to make the short trip across to Saba, as we knew that we would not be able to stay there if there was any sort of sea running.
Saba is another small Dutch island about 17 miles northwest of Statia. It is small (about 5 square miles), mountainous and very green. The coastline is mostly steep sided and the centre rises to just over 3000 feet. It doesn’t have a well-protected harbour and it was only few years ago that it acquired a small airport. This has left the islanders very self-sufficient, and the island gloriously unspoilt (i.e. undeveloped). Until fairly recently cargo had to be landed by small boat on one of the very few stony beaches, unloaded by hand with the porters often having to wade waist deep into the surf and then carried manually for hundreds of feet up steps carved into the precipitous cliffs. One of the exhibits in the museum is a piano carried up the steps supposedly without help by one such person, a woman, who was also mother to a large number of children. I guess they didn’t mess with her.
The lack of a harbour is a bit of a problem for visitors such as ourselves. The western shore is protected from the prevailing wind and there are a number of mooring buoys there to be used. But if the seas start to build at all then it becomes almost impossible to get ashore and you either have to wait rocking and rolling around on your boat for things to improve, or sail away.
We arrived off Fort Bay, the small port below the hamlet of St Johns on the islands south coast in the early afternoon. This is the only place to check in on the island. The port was too small and shallow for us to get inside so it would have been convenient if we had been able to anchor off and dinghy ashore to complete the formalities. However the seas were a little too rough and the wind a little too strong to make this a simple exercise. A small number of visitors buoys had been provided but only one seemed to be free. As we approached it upwind a small boat sped out of the harbour and quickly got to a point just a few meters away from the buoy we were trying to reach. He then held station and plopped a diver into the water very close to us as we were struggling to get a line on the buoy. The wind and waves were trying hard to push us down on top of both the boat and diver and the situation was getting a bit dangerous, so we gave up and went around to the west side of the island where it was much more sheltered.
Below is a view of Fort Bay with the houses of St Johns above. You can just make out the buildings around the small harbour at the bottom left of the picture.
We found a mooring buoy just off Wells Bay on the north west side of the island and hooked up. As it was now late afternoon we decided to stay put till the morrow and then go ashore in the dinghy to complete the formalities and take a look at the island from shore side. The evening was spent taking in the magnificent cliffs just a short distance away from the boat.
There was a strange noise rather like a number of distant football referees all blowing their whistles at the same time. After a while it became clear that the source of the noise was the tropic birds chasing each other around the cliffs, with their beautiful white plumage and streaming tail feathers.
In the morning we set out in the dinghy for Fort Bay to check in and go ashore. It was about 2 miles away, which was considerably further than we were used to travelling in our small and rather old dinghy. The first mile and a half, under the cliffs on the western coast was protected and went smoothly, but once we reached the south-western point and had to turn east into the wind and waves things started to get a bit more exciting. We were now on a lee shore facing open sea in a very small rubber boat. It wasn’t an experience I would like to repeat but after struggling on for about 15 minutes we reached the shelter of the small harbour, maybe a little more salt saturated and white knuckled than we had expected.
The small and only partially protected harbour at Fort Bay looking towards the west.
The check in process was conducted by very friendly officials, although they still went through a formal process of customs, immigration and port authority paperwork; quite a difference from their sister island of Statia. Once finished we were free to explore the island. We told the harbour authority officer that we would like to take a taxi tour of the island and he told us that he could see the last taxi in the car park getting ready to leave, so if we wanted it we had better be quick about it. We ran out to find a beaten up old jitney with a very relaxed driver chatting away to some fellow islanders. We could see that he already had some passengers in the bus. I poked my head through the window and asked him if he could call for another taxi, to which he replied that we should just get in the bus and let him take us for a tour.
So we jumped in, still a little out of breath from our run across the car park and took a look at our fellow passengers. They were mostly elderly, they were staying in various resorts in St Maarten and had booked a tour through their holiday company. They’d taken a ferry earlier that morning from St Maarten and had specially booked the bus we were now sharing with them. Even though it subsequently became clear that they didn’t know each other, some of them gave the impression of being a little resentful that we had piggy backed on to their tour. Now if we were travelling in a rare luxury vehicle I could maybe have had some sympathy with that point of view, but as we were travelling in a bus as beaten up as any we had seen anywhere else in the Caribbean, and we were paying a full fare, this all seemed a bit farcical.
There are two main settlements on Saba. The capital is called Bottom, even though it sits several hundred feet above the coast. The other village is called Windwardside because it is, umm, on the windward side of the mountain. Until the 50’s there was no road between them, just a mountain track. Engineers from Holland had declared that the land was too steep for a road to be built (the Dutch are of course well known for their experience of mountain terrain). So a Saba man called Joseph Hassel took a correspondence course in road building and together with local labour they hand built the road themselves, finishing around 1958. There is a similar story about the airport which the Dutch declared could not be built. So the locals found a rare but small area of flat land and hand built a tiny (and quite scary) landing strip, as you can see from the picture below.
The bus took off up the hill towards Bottom, with us all clinging on as it negotiated the twists and turns along the way. As it climbed higher the drop offs on one side of the road became quite precipitous and some of the passengers became a little nervous. Eileen was sitting at the back of the bus next to an elderly gentleman from somewhere in the mid-west USA who was anything but relaxed. Unfortunately for him he was on the side nearest to the precipice and every time there was a bend in the road he would whimper a little and move away from his seat ending up almost sitting on her lap. Occasionally he called out loudly to the driver asking him when he had last had his brakes checked. Although this did nothing to enhance the equanimity of his fellow passengers when you considered the run down state of the bus you could see that he probably did have a point.
However the views were spectacular, the villages were enchanting and the hillsides quite beautiful.
A view from above the village of Bottom.
The settlements were incredibly neat and tidy with mostly small houses with red roofs, whitewashed walls and well-kept gardens and they all sat quite harmoniously with the natural vegetation that covered the mountainside. The overall effect was far more northern European than Caribbean.
Eileen has decided that she wants this one:
One interesting but perhaps ghoulish observation was that many of the houses had a considerable portion of their small gardens partitioned off as a graveyard. The householders didn’t have to go very far to find where great grandma was and I guess that it all helps to make the rhubarb grow well. Unsurprisingly this made it quite difficult to find buyers when the time came to move house. We were told that the governor had only recently made an order banning this practise in the future.
We spent some time in the local museum. This was a small house that had been set up to look like the houses of a hundred years before with many exhibits of latter-day island history. Again it was very well kept, maybe a little too feminine for my tastes, but with some excellent examples of local needlework and other household skills. We were the only visitors and the curator spend a couple of hours describing each of the exhibits and giving us a fascinating run through of the recent island history. There were many photographs and memorabilia of local people from the last century including a number of master mariners that the island had produced. Having them described so well by the curator gave them a life that would have been lacking had we simply viewed them as objects.
Below is the famous piano, mentioned at the beginning of this log entry that was carried by hand up from the port by a local woman.
Saba is unique and has a very special charm all of its own. It is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable places that we have visited so far.