7 April – 1 May St. Maarten to Montserrat
In St. Maarten we completed the installation of our new wind generator. This was a bit of a disappointment. For those sailors amongst you, we installed the Air-X, the latest model from Air Marine, which replaced their previous model, the Air-403. The 403 is the most popular wind generator on the market, but also has a reputation for being very noisy. For this reason we never wanted one on our boat. The Air-X claimed to be 80% less noisy. Well… it wasn’t. It was so noisy, we had difficulty hearing the jumbo jets that took off from Juliana airport and passed over our heads barely missing our mast (OK, I am exaggerating a little bit). I still have one or two ideas about how I could reduce the noise that is transmitted down to the aft cabin where we sleep. However, this would be another project, and Tania made it quite clear that it was time to do some more sight seeing, rather than fiddle with the boat. And I agree. In the meantime, we switch off the wind generator during the night.
So we set sail to St. Barth, a brisk three-hour sail to windward. St. Barth is a French island, and has a reputation for being an island for the rich and famous. Well, us simple folks enjoyed it very much. One of the main attractions in St. Barth are the excellent restaurants. And if you check out the menus beforehand, you can have a very pleasant meal for a reasonable price. Needless to say we went out for dinner quite a few times. We also rented a car and toured the island. The island is small, and in one day you can just about cover every road on the island. There are interesting cliff side roads with beautiful views around each bend. Some of the roads are also very steep and narrow, and on one occasion I needed four-wheel drive to back out of a difficult spot, even though the road was surfaced. It is exciting to see the airplanes land at the St. Barth airport. Only small twin-engine propeller planes can land here. I would estimate about 15 seats. Most of them come from St. Maarten. They come in between two hills, and then have to descend very steeply to the runway below. At the end of the runway is a beach and then the sea. We have a picture in the gallery.
From St. Barth we returned to St. Maarten once more, hoping that we could exchange the wind generator for a different brand. Unfortunately, the other brand was out of stock and besides, we spoke to a cruiser who owned one, and he did not sleep in the aft cabin either because of the noise. So we decided to stick with what we have got. I will try to reduce the noise problem at some later date.
The next destination was Saba. Saba is a Dutch island. It is the smallest island in the kingdom, but also has the highest mountain. Saba is rarely visited by cruisers, because it can be difficult to go ashore, and the anchorage can be very rolly. Well, as we found out, the island is well worth a visit. The trip from St. Maarten was a beam reach in 15-20 knots of wind. We averaged almost 8 knots. We arrived well before closing time of the customs office, but nobody was there. Later we found out that this wasn’t exceptional. During our stay we went to the customs office four times without finding the officer. So we proceeded to the anchorage without checking in.
The next morning we woke up to find our rubber dinghy floating upside down with the outboard engine still on it. I suspect that due to the fluky winds in the anchorage the dinghy got caught underneath the stern of the boat as she was pitching up and down, and so Alegria flipped it over. I had promised Tania that any further "projects" would have to wait until Grenada. Unfortunately, this one had to take priority. According to a DIY book I have on board, you have to get the outboard running within hours rather than days, otherwise it would probably never run again due to the corrosion. Fortunately, after flushing the cylinders with fresh water, draining the carburettor, cleaning the electrical contacts and what more, I got it going again. By this time however, it was too late to go ashore.
The next day we took the dinghy to a tiny beach at Ladder Bay that was covered in big pebbles. This is a difficult landing, and is only feasible when the sea is calm. At a corner of the beach, a steep stairway cut out in the rocks led via very picturesque vegetation to "the Bottom", the administrative centre of Saba. The story goes that at one time a piano was brought ashore here and carried up the steps. In "the Bottom" everything looked very well cared for. The houses are white and green with red roofs. The streets are clean. The tranquillity was overwhelming. Hitchhiking on Saba is easy, and we took a ride to the other main village on the island, "Windwardside". The last few weeks we had had a lot of uncharacteristic weather for the Caribbean, with low clouds and occasional showers. At this altitude we were in fog. This, and the green hilly terrain made the place feel like Scotland. We wandered around the village, and visited Jobean, an artist from the USA who makes glass jewellery. Saba attracts a lot of artists. Strangely, there is also an international medical school. In addition to the 1200 permanent residents there are some 300 medical students on the island.
Saba is a hikers paradise, as well as a divers paradise. The next day the cloud cover lifted a bit, and we hiked to the top of Mount Scenery, the highest point in the kingdom of the Netherlands. The hike is very steep and most of the way up there is a stone staircase, a total of 1064 steps. The views were simply breathtaking, and Tania just couldn’t stop taking pictures. Unfortunately, nearer the top we were in cloud again.
The next day we went snorkelling, and saw a turtle. The last day on Saba, we decided to do another hike. The Sandy Cruz trail goes through beautiful lush tropical rainforest. We saw lots of (harmless) snakes along the trail, as well as lizards, birds and flowers. It was probably the most beautiful hike we have done so far. At the end of the trail we stopped at the home of Heleen Cornet, a Dutch artist who now lives on Saba. She showed us her home, set amongst tropical vegetation and overlooking the sea. She also showed us her work. We will remember Saba as one of the most special islands in the Caribbean.
The next stop was Statia, another Dutch island. Back in the eighteen hundreds, Statia used to be a free port and the main trade centre of the Caribbean. Amongst the "merchandise" were, unfortunately, a lot of slaves. In those days, the island had about 11,000 residents. Now the island has a large oil transfer terminal. Super tankers come here to load and unload their cargo. The landscape is spoiled by a large number of oil tanks. Like Saba, Statia also has an international medical school. The total number of residents is now down to about 2200.
What made our visit to Statia very special, were the people we met. We stayed only about 40 hours, but it almost felt like we had become part of the local community in that time. Jan and Mia are a couple from Belgium. They run the Old Gin House, a nice hotel in a historical setting. Jan is a gourmet cook, who received a Michelin star back in Belgium. They now have a gourmet restaurant, and a beach bar restaurant, as part of the hotel. In the beach bar restaurant we enjoyed delicious food for a very reasonable price. Hendrik-Jan and Jutta are from Holland. Hendrik-Jan is a medical doctor (general practitioner) who gave up his practice in Holland to run the small hospital on Statia. Jutta makes dolls, which look just like real babies. Kees and Pauline are a couple from Holland who came to Statia to enjoy their early retirement. They built a beautiful house on the hill overlooking Oranjestad. Sjors, the harbour master, is a Dutchman who came to the island 10 years ago, and never wants to leave again. We heard the latest gossip about the governor and his expensive Mercedes.
During our short stay we also managed to go up and into the "Quill", the crater of Statia’s volcano. The volcano has been inactive for a very long time, and inside the crater we found a tropical rainforest, inhabited by many land crabs. Panorama point, on the rim of the crater was another nice photo opportunity.
Next we continued our journey to Montserrat, with an overnight stop in the lee of Nevis. Montserrat’s volcano, Soufriere, in the southern half of the island started to become active 1995. A major eruption occurred in 1997. The capital, Plymouth was completely covered in volcanic ashes. Most residents were evacuated in time. Sadly, 19 people were killed in this eruption. Today, the volcano is still active. Some 5,000 residents (out of 11,000 before the eruption) have returned to the northern half of the island. A small bay in the north (Little Bay) is now the official port of entry. We checked in in the morning. It seemed to me that a large percentage of the 5,000 residents were employed by Customs and Immigration. I had to go to Customs, then the Port Authority, then Immigration, then a person whose function was unclear to me, then back to Customs. They were all very friendly. At the end of this journey I had filled in the same information on about seven different forms, but was in the proud possession of a clearance form for the next port.
Next we made a deal with George, a taxi driver for a tour of the island. He took us to the exclusion zone, which can be visited only during the day, and only when the activity of the volcano is low. It was sad to see the devastation. The whole town of Plymouth was covered under a layer of volcanic ash, some 3-4 meters thick in places. We saw fancy houses with swimming pools that must have been beautiful before the eruption. George told us how people are still paying off mortgage on some of these houses. It was very impressive to see the power of nature.
The government offices, post office etc. are now situated in the north part of the island, in a number of porta-cabins. These were built with subsidy from the UK. Montserrat is still an English crown colony. The north part of the island has lush tropical vegetation and beautiful mountainous terrain. Tourism was the main source of income for the island before the eruption. Cruise ships used to visit the island regularly, and there were some very fancy hotels. Now, cruisers like us and occasional tourists from Antigua who make a one day side trip to see the volcano are just about the only tourists.