Cutter Loose has now been in French St. Martin for a week and counting. One thing is certain. It is much easier to arrive in these tropical islands than it is to leave.
On Sunday and Monday, more and more boats enter Simpson Bay Lagoon from Marigot Bay and Simpson Bay, seeking protection from the robust winds and northerly swells that have been forecasted. For some cruisers, visiting St. Martin is a perpetual dance…anchoring in the Lagoon during periods of unsettled weather and returning to Marigot Bay or Simpson Bay when the north swell has dissipated. Hundreds of other boats become paralyzed by the comfort and convenience of the Lagoon, making it their permanent home for the season or until the boat is no longer habitable.
Sunday is the first of three days of Carnival celebration here on the French side of St. Martin. During this period, many shops and services are closed. Parades are scheduled for each day of the holiday, beginning in mid-afternoon and extending well into the evening. The procession consists of a series of live bands or disc jockeys performing on flatbed tractor trailer trucks. These mobile stages consist of giant amplifiers and a mountain of speakers, all powered by huge diesel generators mounted on the flatbed trailer near the cab of the truck. From a distance of three blocks, the pounding reggae and calypso rhythms are unmistakable. The volume of the music is overpowering, the bass line reverberating deep in one’s chest. Musicians dispense small trinkets, toys, candy and beverages to an appreciative audience. Behind each flatbed trailer is a troupe of young men and women dressed in colorful costumes, gyrating to the pulsating music. Street vendors tend their barbeque grills, selling food and beverages to the hungry crowd. This is a family celebration. Everybody is enjoying the procession through the streets of downtown Marigot.
As predicted, brisk winds from the northeast arrive before daybreak on Tuesday 2/12. The wind speed here in the Lagoon tops out at 27 knots, making dinghy travel bouncy, wet and generally uncomfortable. We spend the entire day aboard Cutter Loose, appreciating the sound of the parade from a distance. In subsequent days as the weather moderates, we resume our exploration of the island, including a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner at Cafe de Paris in Marigot, complete with sidewalk magicians.
Sooner or later, every cruiser that passes through French St. Martin meets Mike, the amiable and able Austrian proprietor of Shrimpy’s . Shrimpy’s is a laundry service and Internet café geared to cruisers. Shrimpy’s dinghy dock is conveniently located on the canal that connects Marigot Bay and Simpson Bay Lagoon. Mike is the fount of local knowledge for all things nautical. He also facilitates the local cruisers net every day except Sunday on VHF 14 at 7:30 AM. The net begins with the weather report, then moves on to other subjects of interest to the cruising community, including a report from local merchants announcing daily specials and boat-related businesses describing their services. This is followed by social events, items for sale and safety and security concerns. After tuning in for a week, we feel as if we are part of the permanent St. Martin cruising community. Following the morning net, cruisers and merchants scramble to connect with one another on other VHF channels. In fact, most of the cruisers in the harbor monitor channel 14 to listen for calls from buddy boats and to eavesdrop on the conversations of others. The variety of languages and dialects on the VHF radio reflect the broad diversity of this international cruising community.
Here in French St. Martin, there are noticeably fewer US flagged vessels than in the Virgin Islands. In the harbors and the Lagoon, there are roughly equal number of boats from the US, France, Canada and the UK, along with a smattering of German, Swiss and Dutch boats thrown in for good measure.
Another subtle difference in St. Martin is the need to be more conscious of personal safety and security issues. Dinghy theft is reported from time to time on the daily cruiser’s net. Missing dinghies normally show up at the Gendarmerie a few days after their disappearance, absent their outboard engine. The standard operating procedure amongst cruisers is to lock one’s dinghy to the dock and to the boat at night. The occasional purse-snatching is also a public safety concern, especially during the evening hours. Certain areas of Marigot should be avoided after dark. However, it is generally safe to dinghy into a well-lighted marina or restaurant at night. According to Mike at Shrimpy’s, street crime in St. Martin is simply a matter of “haves” versus “have nots”. The problem is exacerbated by drug use, which quickly transforms its victims into “have nots”. When an incident involving boater-related crime occurs, it is reported on the morning cruiser’s net so that everybody in the harbor is made fully aware of specific streets in town to be avoided at night.
Smoking at open-air restaurants, sidewalk cafes and bars is yet another difference between St. Martin and the Virgin Islands. US residents have come to expect smoke-free public places. Here in St. Martin, however, smoking is still quite popular, especially amongst Europeans. An otherwise pleasant dining experience can quickly be thwarted by insensitive smokers.
The nasty northerly swell dissipates on Friday 2/15, enabling Cutter Loose to escape from the Lagoon. There are a dozen pleasure boats jockeying for position in advance of the 2:30 PM Sandy Ground bridge opening. Cutter Loose strays slightly outside the unmarked channel where the water depth falls quickly from 9 feet to 4 feet. We are firmly aground. Fortunately, a French Customs vessel passes nearby and offers to be of assistance. Within minutes, we are back in deep water. By this time, however, the bridge has already closed. We must drop the hook and wait patiently for the next bridge opening at 5:30 PM. By 6 PM, Cutter Loose is finally liberated from the Lagoon and anchored securely in Marigot Bay for the night.
Weekend plans call for a visit to the nearby village of Grand Case, this time by boat. Tom and Cary of Dragon’s Toy are guests aboard Cutter Loose for the weekend while their boat is under repair in Simpson Bay Lagoon. An escape from the Lagoon is not complete without getting back in the water. Our snorkeling expedition to the reef at Rocher Creole is limited today by residual high surf on the ocean side of the island. We opt for the more protected water on the Bay side of the island. The clothing-optional beach at Grand Case is full of spectacles, including a parade of young equestrians.
Following dinner on board, we dinghy ashore to sample the night life on Main Street in Grand Case. The restaurants are packed with customers and the shops remain open until late in the evening. The lively and talented band at Blue Martini provides an interesting mix of reggae, blues and soul music, fulfilling our appetite for upbeat entertainment on Saturday night.
On Monday 2/18, we retreat once again to Simpson Bay Lagoon in advance of gusty winds and 10 foot swells out of the northwest during the first half of the week. St. Martin is feeling the effects of a cold front stalled over DR that is churning up the Atlantic hundreds of miles to the northwest. The Lagoon is filled with whitecaps on Tuesday 2/19, making travel by dinghy a soggy proposition. The day passes quickly aboard Cutter Loose, tackling chores, reading books and playing board games. The weather gradually moderates on Wednesday, which permits further exploration ashore via dinghy, particularly of the Dutch side of the Lagoon. The grocery stores, restaurants and shops on the Dutch side feel more American and less foreign that Marigot and Grand Case on the French side. Quite by accident, we stumble upon Caribbean 1500 boats Comocean and Escapade near the dinghy dock at Simpson Bay Marina. It feels good to reunite with acquaintances from our ocean passage in November.
The weekend weather appears favorable for another Friday escape from the Lagoon. The plan is to sail to Anguilla with Island Packet friends from Lenna Mae and Dragon’s Toy.