A Singlehanded Look at the Leewards
by Angelika Grüner
This was my first major solo voyage since my husband, Richard, died.
I left Trinidad in the beginning of December 2013, bound directly for the Virgin Islands. After 15 nautical miles of motoring, 12 knots of wind appeared from the east. With a reefed mainsail and full genoa, Angelos was doing seven and sometimes eight knots. It was fantastic; I guess because of the new moon I had some current with me. At five the next morning I passed the southwest corner of Grenada. It was dream sailing with the wind slightly south of east.
Unfortunately the weather forecast predicted a change, with strong wind on the nose and sea up to four metres. I decided to stop in St. Kitts to let the bad weather pass.
About 35 nautical miles south of St. Kitts the genoa suddenly fell apart in 12 knots of wind. Really, it fell apart in bits and pieces. Richard and I had bought the sail in 1989 in Guadeloupe and during our sail around the world it was always used. I don’t know how often I had patched it. This old sail had really done its job. But somehow the fact that I now needed a new sail caught me by surprise!
I reached St. Kitts along with two cruise ships, and hundreds of tourists strolled along in the tiny city of Basseterre. Check-in was easy and cost EC$30 EC or US$12. There were no forms to fill out; the officer just typed the ship’s name in the computer and all the information came up. He only had to fill in the date and print two copies. I signed and was ready to go. The Saturday market had fresh fish out of an icebox at the beach and good-quality fruits and vegetables, mostly from Dominica, were displayed on old wooden tables nailed together from pallets, just like we had seen it done 20 years ago.
Rather than continue to the Virgins, I decided to sail to St. Martin, hoping to find a sail loft and order a new genoa there. In St. Kitts I had been told that the Dutch side charges for the bridge opening, plus a weekly fee of $20 for anchoring on the St. Maarten side, so I went around the west end of St. Martin to anchor “in France” on the north side, at Marigot Bay. The clear turquoise water was amazing. Asking other cruisers, I was told that check-in at Marina Fort Louis would cost 23 Euro. But if I would walk a bit and check in at the capitanerie at Port La Royale, I could do the whole process on a computer provided, and it would cost only 5.20 Euro. Of course I went to the capitanerie. The staff there was extremely friendly and I could use their WiFi for 1 Euro as well. Later I used their internet quite often.
The genoa shreds were badly entangled around the roller furler, and it was impossible to unroll it to get them down. I needed someone to hoist me up along the forestay to clear the mess and retrieve remnants of the sail for the measurements to get quotes on a new one. But the wind was too strong to work on it.
After some days I went into the lagoon, looking for calmer conditions. Before taking Angelos in, I had asked on which side the newly installed green markers have to be. “Port side” was the answer — twice. After the bridge I turned to starboard and promptly “parked”. It turned out that I should have left the green markers on starboard! With the help of dinghies, and finally a powerboat with twin 250-horsepower engines, Angelos came free. But it was a hassle.
In the lagoon it was blowing like hell as well, and I had to wait a whole week to finally get the sail down. Where I had anchored in the lagoon, I quickly realized during my search for sail lofts that the distances to either side by dinghy were quite far. With my little 3.5-horse outboard it took me half an hour to get ashore and, of course, it seems I was always going against the wind, which was constantly blowing 20 to 25 knots. It nearly drove me crazy and I was always soaked. If I went to the Dutch side, to Cole Bay, that was all for the day. To visit the French side, Port La Royale, was for another day.
Meanwhile I found Mike at Shrimpy’s, on the French side in the canal before the bridge, just opposite Budget Marine. He runs the net each morning except Sundays at 7:30AM on VHF channel 10. He and his wife, Sally, are a real source of information and very helpful. They run a laundry service, you’ll find lots of second-hand stuff, they offer a good book swap and unlimited time on WiFi for US$3. If you buy his T-shirt for $10, you get free WiFi whenever you come in wearing it.
Because I could easily leave the dinghy at Shrimpy’s or at Port Royale, with the little town of Marigot behind, where I liked to stroll along the shops, I felt more comfortable visiting the French side. The supermarket Simply, a two-minute walk around the corner from Shrimpy’s, is very well stocked, especially with the famous French patés, terrines, cheeses and wine.
I soon discovered that St. Martin/St. Maarten is very commercial. Big money seems to come easy from all those mega-yachts, and hardly any businesses are looking for “peanuts” from cruisers in comparison to what mega-yachts might spend. Lots of cruisers have caught on and now sit like spiders in their webs, waiting to offer their workmanship to other cruisers — sometimes for horrendous charges. Unlike in other places, where a fellow cruiser would have volunteered to hoist me up to clear the genoa, here it was not free. I was looking for an electrician, too, because the alternator wasn’t charging. The first one I asked said he would not come out to the boat at all; the next one gave me a price of US$80 an hour, and I’d have to pick him up and take him back ashore. With my little outboard, it would have taken a billable hour to drive him to the boat and back! (Speaking of outboards, always lock your dinghy and the motor here, day and night.)
Before I went to St. Martin/St. Maarten, I had always heard that things would be much cheaper on that duty-free island. That might be true for electronic gear and items purchased at the big chandleries, Island Water World and Budget Marine. But things such as labour, workmanship, etcetera, are much more expensive than in the Windward Islands. For provisioning I spent a lot more than anywhere else because of all the goodies I found in the supermarket Simply; I could not resist. In the end, I ended up spending a lot more money in that “cheap island” than anywhere else in the past ten years.
By the middle of January 2014 the weather finally was acceptable to leave the “paté island”. Now there is a causeway through the lagoon on the Dutch side. (The opening times for all three bridges are available at http://stmartinblue.com/st_martin_island_info/bridge_info.php and www.smyc.com/content/new-simpson-bay-causeway-bridge-opening-hours.) I used the two bridges towards Simpson Bay: both are much wider and deeper than the French-side bridge.
Next stop was Ile Fourchue, where I really enjoyed anchoring, although there are ten free moorings. The scenery is better than ever: there are no more goats, and in January lots of greenery was thriving and the cacti were in bloom.
From there I went to St. Barth’s, entering the bay at Colombier, which is quite large. Here I had my first — and for sure last — experience with picking up a mooring ball. With the friendly help of another cruiser I got the mooring attached to the boat, but at the stern. It took me one and a half hours in 12 knots of wind to get the line to the bow. To make the experience complete, the line got entangled around an anode, and I had to dive before I could get Angelos properly settled. Anchoring takes ten minutes! But the beach there is of fine sand; the water is turquoise clear. What more did I want? A nice walk leads along the hill to the next village, Flammande, where I found an epicerie to get bread. From that village a road goes over the mountains to Gustavia. There is no public transport, but hitching a ride was easy and I saw some of the countryside. The roads are steep, narrow and full of bends.
Gustavia is a very busy and glittery place. If you want to see all the famous designer shops in just one street, that is the place. Don’t forget your plastic: in one shop I saw a pretty hammock woven out of fine leather, which caught my eye immediately — for just 25,000 Euro! Check-in/out in the capitanerie was easy, for eight Euros. You have 24 hours after check-out to leave. Anchoring in front of Gustavia costs nine Euros per day; anchoring in Colombier is free.
St. Kitts & Nevis
A weather window let me sail down to St. Kitts and farther on to Nevis. It is possible to check in at St. Kitts and check out in Nevis (or vice-versa.) Basseterre on St. Kitts seems to be generally a rolly anchorage. The small spit of land at Ballast Bay in the south of St. Kitts is now cut open and a passage is dredged into the Great Salt Pond. Big developments are underway to turn it into a huge harbour for mega-yachts with hotels and so on.
Nevis has a nice long sandy beach in its lee. There are at least 25 mooring balls south of the Four Seasons Hotel towards Charlestown, and they are free of charge. But no more mooring experiences for me! I went much closer to the beach and anchored in two metres in front of Sunshine’s beach bar, close enough to swim ashore with my watertight box in tow keeping my clothes dry. I had come to realize, now that I was a single-hander, that the nine-foot Caribe dinghy is far too heavy for me to lift up and down in wind and swell conditions. I can’t maneuver it alone, and when it swings above deck and bangs around it is quite dangerous for me. And once launched, a dinghy often has to be pulled up on the beach, which I can’t do alone either. Therefore, now I try to anchor very close to shore and swim out. Maybe a kayak would do the job; I have to think this matter over.
Charlestown in Nevis is a pleasant little old town with stone-and-wood buildings. People are very friendly. The only internet access I found was one computer in the public library, in the old government building. Even if you don’t need the internet, the building is worth a visit inside. (Unfortunately the clock up on the roof with its huge weights is no longer working.) Provisioning is much better done in St. Kitts; fruits and vegetables there are much fresher. I had the impression Nevis gets the leftovers from St. Kitts.
For EC$3 a local bus brought me “close” to the Botanical Gardens in the south of Nevis. Close meant a 20-minute walk through the countryside. The Gardens are nicely maintained and seem to be in Thai hands; even the restaurant serves only Thai food. The boutique is well stocked. (Unfortunately some signs on the plants are missing, especially the ones I was interested in! Later I found a few of the names in books provided to me in the library.) Only one of the various fountains in the gardens was working. But the garden is well worth a visit to enjoy such beautiful and relaxing surroundings.
While in Nevis the weather did not permit me to head to Guadeloupe and I was getting fed up with waiting for weeks for the wind to moderate or go north of east. One morning I got out an old Compass to wrap something and noticed an article by Don Street in which he expressed the opinion that “anyone who is not able to sail in 25 knots shouldn’t be sailing in the Caribbean!” This hit me in the face, and I again had a look at the chart. I abruptly decided to sail down to Tobago in one step; the wind angle was much better. Skip all the islands — leave them for the next time!
The wind and sea improved a bit the next day, and I checked out on a Saturday; no overtime fee in St. Kitts & Nevis! Even without a genoa I had a decent sail as far as St. Lucia. I easily motorsailed eastward along St. Lucia’s south coast in calm water and then sailed down the windward side of St. Vincent toward Tobago. Sailing down the windward side of the Grenadines with a steady wind was much easier than sailing in the lee of the islands. It took me a bit more than five days.
Now in Tobago, I’m waiting for the arrival of the new genoa.
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