The Panama Canal - Thoughts for Other Cruisers
11 April 2019 | Panama City, Panama
Barbara Johnston & Craig Johnston | Hot, muggy, overcast
With our Outbound 44 sailboat, we transited the Panama Canal in the southbound direction, on April 7-8 2019. We started at Shelter Bay Marina at the north end of the canal, and finished at La Playita Marina, Panama City.
Much of this narrative relates to dealing with agents. We elected to hire an agent. Other people did not. Since I don’t know much about doing it on your own, this narrative doesn’t cover that situation.
Our agent was Erick Galvez, email firstname.lastname@example.org. He certainly did an acceptable job, although we never met Erick, and his employee, James, didn’t speak enough English to be able to answer many of our questions. We saw James 3 times: for the initial sign-up when information is gathered, when the lines and fenders were delivered (one day before the transit began), and when we redelivered the lines and fenders at the end of the transit. The last two times there was no conversation; he was merely one of the people carrying lines and fenders. The reviews on Noonsite for Erick are much more positive than this. Apparently Erick used to show up at Shelter Bay frequently. Now not so much.
For Sequoia, a 44 foot boat (which with all projections measured out at 46.59 feet), we paid a total of $1469 (April, 2019). That includes tolls of $800, $54 inspection fee, $130 “security fee” (I have no idea what that’s for), $60 bank charges (the cost of using a credit card), $350 agency fee, $75 lines and fender rentals.
We have heard about much more personalized service from “Stan”. On the downside, Stan wants to be paid cash or by wire from your bank; Erick accepts a credit card and charges a $60 fee for “bank charges.”
We emailed Erick for the first time 5 days before we arrived in Panama. He asked for additional detailed information, which we provided by email. (Never mind that we were asked for all that information again when we arrived in Panama).
Whoever your agent is, be aware that once you are anchored out awaiting the arrival of your transit authority, you are completely in the hands of the Panama Canal authorities and not your agent. Your agent collects information from you, gets you a slot in the system, answers some of your questions, and provides you the lines and fenders you will need. If you are unable to find line handlers on your own, your agent can line up some or all of those people for you. But don’t leave it until the last minute (and by that I mean 3-4 days before), or your agent may have already committed all his available line handlers. (More about line handlers below)
In that initial meeting with your agent, you will be asked to make some choices, and we wish we had been more informed at that time. The biggest questions: (1) when do you want to transit, (2) do you need the agent to provide some or all line handlers, and if so how many and (3) which transit configurations are acceptable?
It turns out the first two questions are interlocked. You may have agreed with another boat or boats that you’ll serve as each other’s line handlers. If so, you’ll have to coordinate dates to make sure that you’re not scheduled for the same or overlapping transit time. The transit (at least southbound) takes two days. From experience, it’s completely exhausting to do a 2 day transit on one boat followed by a 2 day transit on another boat. You should consider scheduling a day in between. Don’t forget that on your own boat you will have to provide sleeping accommodations for 4 line handlers plus yourselves, meals and snacks for 4 line handlers plus your transit advisor plus yourselves, plus one of you will have to serve as skipper.
There’s something to be said for having the agent provide at least one line handler. That person will be local, will speak Spanish, will likely be young and relatively physically fit, will be completely familiar with all the canal procedures, and can assist in directing your less-experienced line handlers as to what they ought to do and not do. You’ll pay $100 for each line handler hired through your agent.
Other cruisers would be our first choice for the other three line handlers. But there are also people out there who will serve as line handlers for a fee, and/or for transportation reimbursement. We engaged a couple of teenagers from a Shelter Bay cruising boat, who are doing line handling to make some money. That worked out fine. We also engaged a local expat who wanted to do it for the experience. That also worked out fine. We reimbursed him for his transportation.
Land transportation across the isthmus can vary widely in cost and effectiveness. A Panama City taxi will charge $75-100 for the trip to Shelter Bay Marina, and they most likely will not know how to get to Shelter Bay. (It involves either a ferry or a trip across the locks when the gates are closed between ship transits). (When the new bridge opens it will become much easier. We are told it will be “May, but we don’t know what year.”). For now the much better option is to take the express bus from Albrook Mall in Panama City ($3.15 to Colon) and then a taxi for $25 to Shelter Bay Marina. The Colon taxi drivers know the way to Shelter Bay. The only downside of that is that Colon is a very run-down city, and the bus station is located in a dangerous district. Much better to get off at an earlier stop (Avenida 13 is the last stop before the station.) There will be taxis everywhere. I have learned from another cruiser that Uber is a bit cheaper than a taxi for cross-isthmus travel, but they are also unlikely to know the way to Shelter Bay.
The third question, acceptable configurations, is important. Your agent will show you four diagrams of how you might be placed in the lock. You are allowed to reject one of the configurations, but you have to accept the other three. The configurations are (in no particular order) (1) by yourself, tied to the side of the lock; (2) tied to the side of a tug; (3) by yourself in the center of the lock; and (4) in a “nest” (raft-up) of 2-3 yachts in the center of the lock. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each (that I can think of).
(1) Tied to the side of the lock. Advantage: not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. Disadvantage: In turbulence, if your boat rocks or rolls, you could be subject to spreader damage against the side wall. Also sliding contact up or down wall of the lock. This option is probably the one to veto.
(2) Tied to the side of a tug: Advantage: Tug is presumably very knowledgeable about being secure, you’ll have no lines to the wall, and you’ll be protected from most turbulence once you’re attached. Disadvantage: the tug will be at work, and there will be times you’ll have to wait, tied up to a wall or to the buoy until the tug is ready for you. Potentially much more work for the line handlers.
(3) By yourself in the center of the lock: Advantage: Not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. One boat is easier to control than three. Disadvantage: All four of your line handlers will be fully engaged with receiving the monkey fist from the canal workers, attaching the line, and adjusting it during lock operation.
(4) In a “nest”: Advantage: One of the boats (the center of three) will be in charge of moving, and a superior transit advisor will be aboard that boat, directing all three as to engine and steering state. If you are an outside boat, only two out of your four line handlers will interact with the canal workers. Disadvantage: Interacting with lots of other personalities, possible conflict between your own transit advisor and the controlling transit advisor. A mistake on one boat could affect all. This is a common configuration.
Thoughts about the transit:
The start of the transit will be a trip out of the Shelter Bay Marina and anchoring in “the flats”. (Be sure you have your wash down pump ready to go when it's time to up-anchor. The bottom is obnoxious mud infused with petroleum and sewage.) If you’ve been through the canal before, be aware “the flats” have moved. Erick had us out there 2 hours before the anticipated time the transit advisor would be brought out by pilot boat. But as it turns out, we were out there for 4 ½ hours before our transit advisor arrived. I believe the agent has no control over changes of schedule. We were told right away, upon our arrival in the flats, by “Cristobal Control” (Channel 12) that our pick-up time would be 1730, not 1500. On Craig’s first transit as a line handler, s/v Julia Max was told to be out there prior to 1630, but at 1545 the advisor came aboard saying “go, go go!” On that trip, the second day was scheduled late and they entered the last two locks at sunset and had to find the La Playita Marina in the dark. On Sequoia’s transit we got finished in daylight.
The overnight accommodation is tied to a large buoy in Lake Gatun. You’ll likely be sharing the buoy with one or two other boats. All need to be tied together and to the buoy; the transit advisor will help you figure that out before he leaves by pilot boat. Periodically you’ll get a wake from a passing freighter and all the boats will bob or roll at a different rate, stressing the lines and the fenders. Your transit advisor for the second day will show up at 8:30 or 9:00 am the next day.
Your friends may enjoy watching you go through the canal. There is a webcam in the highest Gatun lock, and even on the darkest night it’s possible to make out a yacht under the brilliant canal lights. There is also a webcam in the higher Miraflores lock. If you are paired in the Miraflores lock with a very long freighter, they may put the sailboats so far forward in the lock that you won’t be visible to the webcam. In the locks on the way up, the sailboats go in behind the freighter; in the locks on the way down, the sailboats go ahead of the freighter.
Webcams are found here: https://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html
If you do have friends watch, you might consider having them take lots of screenshots of you and save them for you. I’m not aware of any way to obtain those images after the fact.
Thoughts about lines: 4 lines of 125’ are required, and most cruisers rent them and fenders from the agent. The lines they supply are 7/8” 3-strand polypropylene blend. They need to go through cleats or chocks and the pull will be upward to the top of the wall. It is more convenient if they are led to a big winch, as they will need to be continuously taken in (going up) or let out (going down.) Two other lines may need to be supplied for springs to adjacent boats if rafted; these should be strong and low stretch, ½” double braid at an absolute minimum. On Craig’s first trip, as line handler, they were rafted to a larger boat with a marginal skipper who seemed unable to apply small fore/aft propulsion corrections, and he moved too hard astern, causing a poorly cleated spring line to slip free, then with several feet of slack overcompensated with full throttle forward, fetching up hard on the other spring and breaking his mid-ships cleat clean off. (It was aluminum, old and corroded.) Fortunately no one was injured.
Re the fenders, even if you have lots, renting their big ball fenders is recommended. You will end up with all available deployed.
If you are lucky and keep a sharp eye out, you may see alligators on the banks. This should perhaps discourage swimming in Lake Gatun while tied to the mooring buoy there overnight.
Panama - the Atlantic Side
04 April 2019 | Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama
Barbara Johnston | Hot and windy
Our passage from Jamaica to Panama took four days, just as planned. At this time of year the winds and waves are strong off of Colombia. Even though our route would not take us close to Colombia, that didn't stop the large waves from reaching us. So it was a fairly rolly passage: a decent amount of wind, and too much wave action, especially during the last 24 hours. We had many of our glasses and other dishes packed in socks, but that didn't stop the clank-clank that happened with every wave. We have a couple of wine bottles stored under the floorboards, and I think those were the worst. Their bubble wrap must have come off, so they clink gently together with every movement of the boat. (Boat project #1, for tomorrow: find the clinking bottles and re-stow in a silent way. Or maybe just drink the contents.)
Once again we made the passage with George and Sue Stonecliffe aboard Julia Max. Julia Max's hull speed is just a little bit slower than Sequoia's so they left about three hours ahead of us from Port Antonio, Jamaica. For the first day or so we both proceeded at about the same speed, but mid-passage there was a wind change and our sail set became more efficient. At 8 knots or more of speed, we quickly passed Julia Max, and each boat got some great pictures of the other (it's pretty hard to get mid-passage photos - so unusual to pass close by each other). (See photo at the top of this post). We made such progress that ultimately we had to take desperate measures to slow down so we wouldn't arrive in the middle of the night. We reefed the main down to three reefs, dropped back to staysail, then reefed staysail, then no jib at all, until we were only making 3-4 knots. Unfortunately with such shortened sails the rolling became worse, and the last 24 hours was not fun. Fortunately, all the pre-made food was helpful, and I didn't have to deal with cutting up round objects on a counter sloped at 30 degrees.
For entertainment or pathos, a barn swallow showed up on the boat when we were about 80 miles from the end of the passage. We were amazed at how a barn swallow could fly that distance, but obviously birds are able to do much longer annual migrations. The poor little bird perched precariously on rounded surfaces, and before long was inside the boat, where he took up residence. We thought he'd left in the late afternoon. But in the dark of the middle of the night I felt for a handrail and got instead a piece of moving fluff. I'm sure it startled us both. In the morning there was no sign of him, just a couple of small feathers and a pile of bird poop. (Which does not come out of the cushions easily, I'm sorry to report).
The last 24 hours the ship traffic increased substantially. We passed a number of tankers headed for Houston, and several 800 foot long, 140 foot wide container ships loaded as high as we've ever seen with shipping containers. Several times the ships were heading right at us, on a reciprocal course, and we had to change directions to allow them to blast past. As we approached the entrance to Limon Bay (the canal approach), dozens of giant freighters were anchored and others were moving in various directions. A way was open for us, though, to go straight ahead, past the breakwaters and into the bay. We took the sails down and found our way into Shelter Bay Marina - easy and straightforward.
The marina is located on the former Fort Sherman military base. The US turned the base over to the Panamanian government in 1999, and it appears about the only thing that was done was to create the marina. Dozens of other buildings are in the vicinity; they've all been looted and the jungle is growing around them, on top of them and through them. It's about 3 or 4 miles by road through the jungle to reach the perimeter gate, and then at least that far again to reach the nearest decent grocery store in Colón. We took the marina bus into Colón to the Rey grocery store. The roads are simply appalling, full of potholes. Once you get into the City of Colón, it becomes apparent how run down everything is. Old buildings, with small trees growing out of the roof, missing windows, peeling paint and sagging balconies are nevertheless festooned with satellite dishes. The Rey grocery store is in a run down shopping center. Most shops, including Rey, do not have signs; they just have peeling paint. You have to look in through the door to figure out what's there. There are areas of the city which, we are advised, are very dangerous. This includes the area around the bus station and the train station. There is construction going on, but it appears to be primarily to repair the worst of the decaying infrastructure, and not for any new construction.
By contrast, we crossed over the Gatun locks, and everything there appears to be in good condition. The 1914 original construction is still in good shape and in full operation. New, bigger locks opened in 2016, and now the canal can accommodate ships up to 1200 feet long and 160 feet wide.
Before we got here, we had contacted a canal agent, Erick, to set up our transit of the canal. In addition to the usual immigration and customs papers, there were a lot of additional hoops to navigate. First, an official inspector had to come inspect and measure our boat. We didn't know when exactly the inspection would happen, but it was clear that we couldn't leave the boat, because if we missed the inspector's visit, we'd go to the bottom of the list. We finally saw the inspector on Friday (we had arrived Tuesday), and we have been given the date of April 7 for our transit through the canal. One or two days before then we will receive a detailed email with all the instructions, plus a delivery of four lines and many large fenders.
By then we'll need to know whether we should hire line handlers - we're supposed to have four, and it's sometimes possible to use other yachters or friends as line handlers. In addition, we will have an official "transit advisor". The TA is someone like a pilot with knowledge of all conditions and procedures who will "advise" us as to where to go and what to do. We are instructed that we must have "good food" for the advisor. No cans, no sandwiches. And we must provide bottled water. No tank water. (Our mission to avoid plastic bottles for environmental reasons has hit a temporary wall...)
The facilities at the marina are good - a swimming pool, nice restaurant, small grocery, small chandlery and a laundry. But after a couple of days, boredom does set in. So we decided to take the bus over to Panama City (on the Pacific side of Panama) and see some sights. Our friendly marina bus driver, Ranger, took us right to the bus station, with clear, insistent advice not to dawdle, and get right on that bus, over there. It was a nice enough bus, and it didn't leave until every seat was full. Then for the next 10 miles the bus made numerous stops, picking up more passengers until the aisle was completely crammed full of standing room passengers. The TV screen at the front was playing a Christian football movie, which was completely full of violent language and violent football footage, interspersed with prayer meetings. The volume was turned up to blastissimo and there was no escaping. As we arrived in Panama City, Billy Graham was giving some kind of closing sermon.
(On the way back to Colón the next day, the movie was Apocalypto, an extremely violent Mel Gibson movie about pre-Columbian Central American tribes torturing, enslaving and slaughtering each other. At least the sound wasn't turned up quite as loud. Yikes! I'm not a fan of Panamanian bus drivers' taste in movies.)
Upon arriving in Panama City, the first thing we did was catch a taxi to the Miraflores locks visitor's center. We wanted to have a look at sailboats going through the locks, just to look at the procedures and evaluate the degree of turbulence those boats were experiencing. We've been told that due to the huge volume of water passing through the fill/drain tunnels of these locks, there can be a high degree of dangerous turbulence. We were able to watch as a rafted-together "nest" of three sailboats proceeded down through the two lock chambers in the Miraflores locks. We didn't see much evidence of turbulence, and they did have to wait a mighty long time for the tanker behind them to get positioned for the lock-through.
We spent the night in a nice hotel in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City. Lots of renovation is going on in this district of substantial old apartment buildings. On any block, you're likely to see a beautifully renovated building side by side with a rubble-filled lot, and the shell of another old building being held up by substantial bracing blocking the adjacent sidewalk. We enjoyed eating in a new restaurant called "Lo Que Hay" (Whatever's Available) where the flavors were unexpected and different, but quite delicious. That evening, and the next morning, we walked along the streets and enjoyed the occasional view into the interior of buildings, or the rubble of one that didn't quite make it.
We took in parts of several museums and viewed the murals of Van Ingen documenting the canal construction, and charcoal drawings that may have been preliminary sketches for the murals, at the Canal Administration Building. All in all a good visit to an interesting City, and I have no doubt there is plenty more to see. We'll have a second chance at it after we make our canal transit this coming Sunday and Monday.
So we're back now to the Shelter Bay Marina, with a long list of chores to do before our transit. Chief on my list is making that "good food" that the Transit Advisor needs. I'll do a beef stew and a chicken/rice, both heavy on the meat. We also need to rearrange our stuff so that we have comfortable sleeping spaces for six (us plus the four line handlers). And of course, laundry, cleaning and various other boat-keeping chores. Tomorrow Craig will sign on as temporary crew/linehandler aboard Julia Max, helping George and Sue Stonecliffe make the transit tomorrow and Saturday. This will be a great way to preview the whole process.
If you'd like to catch a glimpse of us locking through on Sunday and Monday, there are two webcams.
We'll expect to go through the Gatun locks on Sunday, April 7, between 3 pm and 6 pm local time (UTC minus 6 or same as Mountain Daylight Time), and through the Miraflores locks sometime Monday afternoon. You can probably find out where we are by checking this website
. If that doesn't take you right to a map showing our boat, try inputting our MMSI number into the search box. Our MMSI number is 366806740.
Best wishes to all - See you on the other side!
Craig & Barbara Johnston
22 March 2019 | Jamaica
We are departing this morning from Jamaica for Panama. We've been on the northeast side of the island, so I'm counting on a couple of hours of cell phone signal as we go around the island toward the south. Maybe I can get a blog post done?
The last couple of days have been the usual rush of provisioning, cooking, and getting everything back in its place. This time we added socks around the glasses and cups - they were so noisy on the last passage! We are all set with 2 dinners of "Cape Horn Chicken" from Amanda Swan-Neal's book, Cruiser's salad (cabbage, almonds, hard boiled eggs, a bit of onion, a can of chicken and some salad dressing), Bean-corn-tomato salad with cilantro, lots of lime juice, a bit of oil, garlic, and Carrot-raisin salad, with a bit of added fresh pineapple. The settees in the main cabin are all set up with their lee-cloths to prevent us from falling off, and the watch schedule is set. I'm actually on special dispensation from the watch schedule to get this blog done before we lose our signal!
Jamaica was an amazing, delightful place. We docked the boat in Port Antonio, definitely not a tourist resort, but a great window on Jamaican life. As we have been doing for some time, we are buddy boating with George and Sue Stonecliffe, who are aboard their boat, Julia Max. Sue and I have enjoyed seeing the street market several times - it seems to be open every day and the best looking fruits and vegetables happen at 7 am. The only things we couldn't find here were celery and cilantro. No call for those, I guess. There is a call for garlic, which is plentiful for local cooking, but all comes from China. I recognize those little mesh bags, with tags like "Beauty Garlic".
In part to find those slightly more exotic groceries, we made a trip over the Blue Mountains to Kingston. We hired a driver who took us through the mountains, to a coffee plantation, and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before hitting the "Mega Max" grocery store just before we headed back. The roads are good along the coast, but once you head toward the mountains they become very bad AND full of traffic. Some places are too narrow for two cars to pass, much less the frequent big trucks. Lots of potholes. Some sections are unpaved. Bridges that made me close my eyes and hang on for dear life. There are coffee bushes and banana trees interspersed among them, primarily to provide shade. The beans on the coffee bushes seem to be at all stages of ripeness. After an hour or so of this we stopped at Dennis's coffee shop and farm. I think this exists primarily for the tourists, but is still an indication of how everything was done before the factories came along. They have pickers as well as area farmers who bring in bags of beans, year round. The beans are dried and then pounded in a mortar and pestle that look like they belong in a museum. The pestle is about the size of a baseball bat, but quite a bit heavier, made of a local dark hardwood. The mortar is simply a hollowed out log. Once the shells/skin are removed by the mortar and pestle, they are put in a heavy cast iron pan over a campfire, and a guy stirs the beans for about 45 minutes until they're dark brown. Of course they have a classy looking old crank grinder mounted on a heavy wood counter. They gave us some coffee, and it was indeed excellent. We bought a bag of roasted beans which we'll probably crack open on this passage.
I'm not much a fan of Bob Marley's music, but it was indeed interesting to learn about his life and his political importance to Jamaica. The Jamaicans attribute their present democratic government to his "peace and love" campaign which culminated in two opposing political leaders joining hands over his head during a huge concert.
The Mega Max had the celery and cilantro, but the prices for everything were astronomical. We got out of there quickly and returned to Port Antonio via a slightly better road that skirts around the Blue Mountains.
Quite the opposite of the Mega Max prices was what I had to pay for my haircut: $700 Jamaican dollars which is the equivalent of about $6 US. I got a nice haircut (quite short) although done 95% with electric clippers. Sue watched the whole thing, although she didn't screw up her courage to have her hair done the same way. Throughout the process I watched a guy across on the other side of the salon having his long hair put into multiple braids. We have seen such gorgeous, elaborate hairdos, for men and women, throughout the Caribbean, but this is the first time I have seen part of the creative process.
Yesterday, for an interruption in the passage preparation, Craig, Sue and I went out on a diving trip. I've been opting out of diving, and just doing snorkeling, simply because it's so much less trouble and you can see almost as much. In this case, I saw something the divers didn't: Four spotted eagle rays, seemingly out for their afternoon stroll, flapping gently across the sand. At one point they did a beautiful circle, going around 2 or 3 times like synchronized swimmers, then heading off on their stroll again. We were in an area which has been declared a sanctuary, and the fish and coral are beginning to come back. I saw lots of huge elkhorn coral. A solitary barracuda followed me for about 15 minutes (apparently a normal behavior for them). I didn't much likely his slightly open mouth bristling with sharp glinting teeth. But I saw other beautiful fish in many colors. One of them was turquoise blue on the front and grey in back. I described it as the color of that motor catamaran we saw in Guadeloupe - "Rock Star" - which turned up in Port Antonio while we were there. The color was like those early-sixties turquoise appliances. Not complimentary, to my mind, on a boat, and absolutely startling on a fish.
Well, we'll head out to sea and away from the cell signal soon, so I'd better wrap this up - See you all in Panama, maybe about Tuesday?
Best wishes to all
Craig & Barbara
Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
11 March 2019 | Zar Par Marina, Boca Chica, Dominican Republic
Barbara Johnston | Hot and muggy, with occasional squalls
In the Dominican Republic, everyone loves to have their music REALLY LOUD! Yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, about 50 motor boats were anchored in shallow water, a few hundred feet from us, most pumping out their own favorite music – salsa, merengue, rap, what have you. Several of the boats seemed to have ranks of speakers mounted above everything else, competing to drown out their neighbors.
Saturday afternoon at the same time there was some loud music, but mostly it was jet skis, back and forth, back and forth, sort of like motorcycle gangs. They stirred up the water into huge confused waves. We bounced around, pulling hard on our dock lines. I vacillate between amazement that people would choose to get their fun this way, and anger that it’s sometimes so loud I can’t think. Fortunately, most nights, it quiets down after dark.
One of the boats in the marina here supposedly belongs to the professional baseball player, Robinson Canó. Sometimes a huge crowd of people gathers on the docks – beautiful young people – we wonder if it’s the baseball player or some other celebrity that’s attracting their attention.
The boat next to us gathered a huge crowd of beautiful young people this morning and started pumping out loud rap music at 10 am. Security guards stood by on the dock. We asked, and it’s a merengue band, “Negrito Dolar”. We feared they’d stay all day and into the night, but as of right now it’s pouring rain, and they all seem to have left.
We have read or heard in several places that the Dominican Republic is known as “La Bella Isla” (the beautiful island), but this part of the island – the streets adjacent to Marina Zarpar – are not beautiful by any definition. The marina staff tells us we shouldn’t walk in the surrounding neighborhood after dark. There’s garbage everywhere in the streets and vacant lots. Fires burn at night; I think they’re burning plastic bags and other sorts of garbage, we sometimes find the ash on our decks in the morning. One morning Sue and I decided to walk east toward Boca Chica, along the beach. We left the marina grounds at 7 am (well after sunrise) and the first thing we saw was two guys with rifles, seemingly guarding the beach. We didn’t feel very good about proceeding, and indeed, the marina staff told us that we shouldn’t go that way until after 9 am.
Yesterday – on a noisy Sunday afternoon – the beach was packed with swimmers, sunbathers and trailers for jet skis. Something louder than all those boats was coming from the direction of the distant beach. Thumpa-thumpa.
We did, indeed see parts of the island that definitely meet the “Bella Isla” description. On Thursday we had signed up for a tour to Saona Island. It turned out not to be what we had signed up for, but we did see some very beautiful beaches. Friday was much more interesting and to our liking: we took a van north to the Samana peninsula for a whale-watching expedition. The countryside becomes much more lush, with beautiful plantations of rice, sugar cane and oil palms. Sadly, the whale-watching boat went too close to the whales, to the point of what seemed like harassment, and I couldn’t help feeling a bit of outrage on their behalf. These were humpback whales, in a location where the females give birth in February. Not long from now they’ll start their migration back to northern waters. After the whale watching excursion we spent a few hours on Bacardi Island, another beautiful beach.
Our driver for the whale-watching excursion was a maniac. He drove that 11-passenger van faster than any other vehicle on the road. He passed everything in sight, whether there was enough sight-distance or not, whether there was oncoming traffic or not. Villages with speed limits of 25 kph he took at not less than 60 kph. One picture that is burned into my memory: our van is passing a fully loaded pick-up truck. There’s oncoming traffic. A motor scooter with a young couple aboard zooms up between us, the pick-up driver shoots his hand out the window holding a coke bottle; the motor scooter driver grabs the bottle and they drop back as our van zooms past the whole affair in sufficient time to miss the oncoming traffic. Yikes!!!!
We met an interesting Italian guy (Matteo) aboard the speeding van. He said that his counselor advised him to travel in the Caribbean to reduce stress. With the maniacal driving that was happening, I asked him how that was coming… He said they have crazy drivers in Rome, too. He and his partner were interested in our sailing travels. At one point he asked whether we had kids, and weren’t they worried about us? Matteo has an office job for his day job (no doubt the source of his stress), but he’s really an artist. He showed us photos of some of his artwork – He paints religious iconography in the Byzantine style – quite amazing to all appearances. Judge for yourself, his Instagram page is piermatteotortorella.
Yesterday was our third day of touring – we visited the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, the capitol city of the Dominican Republic. Lots of beautiful old buildings to see, as well as a cave complex with crystal blue lakes – cenotes, similar to what occurs in Mexico’s Yucatan Penninsula. We saw the Christopher Columbus lighthouse, which our guide described as a spending boondoggle, wasting vast amounts of money, much to corruption, which could have been spent on education. Despite the monument’s name, it is not a lighthouse and not close to the ocean. They moved the supposed ashes of Columbus from the Cathedral to this new monument. In fact, apparently, Spain claims it has Columbus’s remains, as do Italy and several other Caribbean islands.
We saw the Cathedral – the oldest in the Americas, with many parts built in about 1520. We saw the house where Hernan Cortes (one of the conquistadores) had lived – it’s now the French Embassy. Other old buildings were both rough and beautiful – plenty of old and new art.
Now we’re planning for a three-day passage to Jamaica, starting on Tuesday. We had originally hoped to go to Cuba, but that is not to be. Just not enough time, and too many unknowns.
But let me back up a little bit – I haven’t told you yet about our very interesting time in Puerto Rico, nor about the overnight trip to get here. Since I’m going generally backwards, we’ll start with the passage from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. George and Sue aboard Julia Max departed from Ponce at 6:30 am, since their speed tends to be a bit less than ours. We set out at 8:30 and set off downwind in what is becoming a familiar sail pattern: Genoa and staysail both deployed from their respective forestays, staysail on a pole and genoa free-flying. If the wind is at least 12 knots we are able to keep both sails full and make 5-6 knots. If we have 15 knots of wind, the speed increases to 7 knots. We were in and out of that range all day, but at dusk the wind lessened and we were back to motoring. By that time we were in the Mona passage, with no sign of Julia Max. In the middle of the night we finally heard from them, about 3 miles north of us, near Mona island. Gradually we moved past them, mostly motoring until our arrival at Marina Zarpar at about noon the next day. It was a somewhat exciting arrival because part of the entry channel was narrow and only about 7 feet deep. We slid in and found a spot in the marina.
We figured Julia Max would only be an hour or two later, but the afternoon continued with no sign of them. Finally in the late afternoon we received a text message and then a phone call. They were having engine trouble and were traveling at slow speed, not expecting to arrive until after dark. We talked to them on the radio and persuaded them to come in and drop anchor, even if they couldn’t make it to the dock. It was a real relief to see their navigation lights come into sight around the end of the island guarding the entrance. We talked to them as they made their way through the sets of approach buoys and then finally through the very narrow, shallow channel. They ended up anchoring about 100 feet away from the dock in 9 feet of water. Big sigh of relief! I’m glad to report that the engine troubles were at least temporarily resolved the next day by a local mechanic.
One of the things that has been very much on my mind over the last week or so is a French traffic ticket! We had rented a car in Point a Pitre, Guadeloupe, back in January. Craig was the designated driver since I had my purse (and license) stolen back in November. Imagine our surprise when our housesitter forwarded an official notice from the French government, accusing Craig of speeding near Point a Pitre on January 16. No doubt a tricky radar camera. But as we started wading through the dense French of the notice, we realized that our last day in Point a Pitre was on January 12. I started dragging out receipts and looking for photos, and it soon became apparent that the rental agency had given Craig’s information to the French government for a time and a car he hadn’t been driving. At the time of the supposed infraction we had been at the Botanical Gardens in Deshaies with our friends the Szekelys and the Stonecliffes.
So I went into lawyer mode and started preparing declarations and then translating them into French (thank-you Google-translate and Alliance Francaise for the classes that enable me to mostly spot the Google-translate deficits, and thank you to Sue Stonecliffe, whose French is way better than mine!) Everything finally came together yesterday and I was able to get the documents uploaded to the French website. So that’s what I was doing when all that music chaos was going on with the boats anchored out in the shallows.
Now, let me take you all the way back to where the last trip report left off. Our first stop in Puerto Rico was the island of Culebra, which I wrote a bit about in our last trip report. It would be an interesting place to spend more time. The people are very friendly, but their resources are somewhat taxed by the 2017 hurricane damage. They are still running on generators and many buildings are heavily damaged or destroyed.
From our anchorage we went ashore to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant, tying our dinghy to the dock and then sitting at a table a few feet away. Fish are prominent on the menu, and the custom is that you empty your plate of fish bones into the water, where a large school of tarpon fish are waiting to go into a frenzy over your leftovers. These fish are 2-3 feet long, and a bit off-putting when it’s time to get back into the dinghy.
The next day we joined George and Sue in a dive trip – they dove while we snorkeled, all with a commercial divemaster with a small boat. There are lots of tropical fish to see, as well as plentiful sea fans, brain corals and sea urchins. The divemaster told us that there are probably still unexploded munitions in the area (from years of US weapons testing), but no one was touching anything… Coming in after the dives we zoomed through a big rain squall, actually getting cold. (Haven’t been cold for almost a year!) One of the other divers aboard the boat was a local who is a big supporter of local music programs. He invited us to a fundraiser where local children would perform various types of music (including classical). Sadly, our schedule required us to move on before the fundraiser.
From Culebra we went a short distance, past multiple small islands, to the port of Fajardo on the big island of Puerto Rico, where we stayed at Sun Bay Marina. The fairway between the docks is fairly narrow there, and a big barge with crane turned out to be occupying 2/3 of the fairway as we approached our assigned slip. The wind was blowing 20 knots, and it was a real fire drill coming in. We had the help of at least six people on shore taking lines and helping us turn the boat into the slip without actually damaging anything.
The slips in this area of the world seem to have pilings at the entrance, so that you can actually tie your boat up from all four corners against sometimes very strong winds. We had been assigned a slip with a 16 foot width available (our width is 13.5 feet), so we had to line up fairly straight to get in. We didn’t know about that custom or this piling, so its appearance added considerably to our frustration. Most local boats here are power boats which, with their usual two or more engines, can turn on a dime. Sailboats here often have bow thrusters – something that’s not common in our home cruising grounds – so they can also turn almost on a dime. Both those things probably contribute to the narrow fairway configuration of most marinas.
We did get successfully docked. Craig went up to talk to the marina owner, venting his anger, but finally calming down and having a very nice conversation with her. Olga is the local SSCA and OCC port officer, and over the course of the next several days, she proved to be a most helpful and sympathetic host. She has several rental cars parked at the office, and the marina enjoys the high-security advantage of having the local US customs and immigration office right across the parking lot. We rented one of those cars and were able to to do a lot of shopping for groceries, boat parts, and almost anything we wanted. Hey, this is the United States – there’s a West Marine store – wait, there are TWO of them!
Craig launched into the fix-the-toilet project (the pump was now leaking a cup of water over the course of a few hours), and determined the pump needed to be replaced. Of course there wasn’t a pump assembly to be found in Puerto Rico. We briefly considered sending Craig by short air flight to Florida, where there are an amazing 58 West Marine stores, but then we determined that for less money we could buy a complete replacement toilet, pump assembly and all, in the San Juan West Marine Store only an hour’s drive away. Our boat is now 18 years old, and that’s the original toilet, so it’s not an unreasonable plan.
Together with George and Sue Stonecliffe, we made a couple of outings to the old, colonial part of San Juan. During the first outing we met up with Brian Abel, who had crewed for us in the South Pacific, back when he was about 20. Brian is now working in Puerto Rico as an engineer for Crowley Maritime. The day before he joined us for dinner in San Juan, he was at the christening of a giant Crowley container ship (called the Taino) built for the mainland US-to Puerto Rico run. Brian is in charge of the design, construction and maintenance of onshore facilities for Crowley’s port in San Juan. Perhaps I’ve stated his job wrong, because he seems to travel quite a bit in the Caribbean, presumably to other Crowley facilities. Anyway, it was really great catching up with him and finding about all the interesting turns his life has taken.
We toured the two forts which formed the almost impregnable defense of San Juan during the nineteenth century. The design and construction of these forts is quite amazing, in part because the walls are not conventional or rectilinear. Instead they are at odd angles, designed to confuse an enemy. There were a number of exhibits about the history of Puerto Rico, and particularly its relationship to the United States. From the highest point of one fort, we watched a group of crazy kite surfers in the 25 knot wind, jumping off the top of waves and staying in the air for perhaps 20 seconds.
Puerto Rico has sprung back from the 2017 hurricane damage somewhat better than some of the other islands we have seen. But we were looking only at the urban parts, and reportedly things are much worse in rural areas. Puerto Rican drivers are somewhat crazy, and the rule seems to be “whatever you can get away with.” Many traffic lights are non-functional, perhaps due in part to hurricane damage. But we also had people tell us that the traffic lights were out long before the hurricanes.
We stayed several days in Sun Bay Marina, and then sailed south and west to the city of Ponce (named after Ponce de Leon, the sixteenth century fountain-of-youth guy who thought he was going to find it in Florida). We stayed at the marina operated by the local yacht club, which had very nice facilities (nicest shower yet in the Caribbean, with actual hot water!) The big deficit (there’s always a deficit, isn’t there?) was that across about 500 feet of water was an arcade/amusement park/music venue. It was fine during the day when the kiddies were there, but after dark they brought in live bands and turned up the volume to an earsplitting level, even inside our boat. The music went on to at least midnight, and one night until 3 am.
On Friday night, the first day of Carnival, George, Sue and I went into the City to watch the parade. There were a few floats, and a few vejigantes (people dressed up as very scary critters), but mostly the focus was on young people. There were little girls in beautiful dresses and local officials riding on the back of convertibles, but the bulk of the parade was bands from local middle schools and high schools. The parade got started about an hour late, so we engaged in a lot of people-watching as onlookers gathered. The bands stopped at every intersection and performed music, drum routines and a bit of dancing before moving on. We would like to have seen more Carnival events, but boat chores and a relentless schedule to get through the Panama Canal are driving us on.
Like other Caribbean cities, Ponce suffered quite a lot of damage in the 2017 hurricanes. Many of the museums and tourist attractions seem to be closed, notwithstanding the websites and public notices saying they were open. We had particularly wanted to see the museum of Puerto Rican music, which reportedly had a collection of instruments available to pick up and play. But it was closed, so we chose a local history museum instead. It was a beautiful old building with elaborate mosaic floors and stained glass windows. Exhibits – all in Spanish – focused on all periods of history, with very complicated explanations of the political situation and unrest in the 1930s.
I think I’ve come full circle and brought us back to the passage between Ponce and Boca Chica, which I described above. So with apologies for the length of time since my last blog post (I blame the French traffic ticket!), I’ll leave you here with us in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Tomorrow, we’ll set sail for Jamaica, a likely three day passage. Best wishes to all!
Craig & Barbara Johnston
Westward to Puerto Rico
18 February 2019 | Culebra Island, Puerto Rico
Barbara/Windy, not quite as hot as it's been!
We left you last in Sint Maarten, the Dutch southern half of an island shared with French St. Martin. The two halves of the island get along well enough that there is essentially no land border. No need to go through any sort of immigration or customs. It no doubt helps that both mother countries are EU members, and the EU famously has minimal borders for immigration and customs. But no such luck for the boats themselves; they have to clear customs just to go from one side of the island to the other. For that reason, we decided to leave Sequoia in Sint Maarten and make a dinghy trip to St. Martin. Dinghies seem to escape the customs rule, although apparently not explicitly; it’s just a wink and a nod thing.
Our newly arrived guests, Mike and Kelly, went in the dinghy with us. We passed through the lagoon, under the causeway, past the airport and into French waters. We wanted to see a bit of French culture, especially a French grocery store and all its good cheese and bread selections!
Somewhat unexpected were all the hulks of boats and pieces of boat that remain from Hurricane Irma’s devastation in September 2017. The eye of the Category 5 hurricane passed directly over St. Martin. There are disabled boats everywhere. Sailboats are mostly dismasted but many are still floating. It seemed particularly sad to see a mast sticking out at an odd angle from underwater. Ashore many buildings are missing their roofs or doors or facades; a few have been reconstructed.
At the northern end of the lagoon we found a dinghy dock, a few restaurants and souvenir shops, and a cigar store. We walked away from the lagoon and found the supermarket, indeed full of French cheeses and other good things.
The next day we headed out of the Sint Maarten Lagoon, through the raised Simpson Bay Bridge at the appointed hour, and headed north a few miles to Anguilla, anchoring in Road Bay. Anguilla was a British Crown colony, granted “internal autonomy” in 1967 and placed in a confederation with St. Kitts and Nevis. St. Kitts and Nevis are right next to each other, but far away from Anguilla. The Anguillans didn’t like that, and wanted to continue to be ruled directly by Great Britain. It’s a somewhat convoluted story, but the Anguillans put together a small force and invaded St. Kitts, demanding severance of the confederation. No blood was spilled, the politicians revised the relations, and Anguilla is now a British overseas territory.
We went ashore in Road Bay and caught a launch ride to Sandy Island, right offshore. Reportedly it was a good snorkeling spot, which actually turned out not to be the case. But they have a beautiful sand beach, renting beach lounge chairs and umbrellas. A steel drum band of three came ashore and played along with a recording, which made it sound like there were many more of them, including some invisible singers. Expensive drinks and meals were available and more or less mandatory.
It was a truly lovely place, and we only felt slightly ripped off by all the charges. No doubt all their structures are ripped apart periodically by hurricanes in the summer, so they undoubtedly have higher than usual infrastructure costs. In fact the infrastructure was failing a bit in the rest rooms: salt water pumped ashore to flush the toilets ran out by midday. And one does wonder how they do a septic tank or other sewage disposal on an island that’s basically just sand.
The next day we went to Shoal Bay beach, not by boat, but by taxi. We first tried to hire a driver recommended by another cruiser, but he turned out not to be licensed. A cruise ship was in port, all the island taxi drivers were there trolling for customers, and they threatened to turn him in for being unlicensed. In the end he told us we should use a licensed taxi, because otherwise he’d get in trouble. It was an interesting bit of drama, but we did make it to the Shoal Bay beach. It was far more beautiful than the Sandy Island beaches, with much more reasonably priced food. We had some good swimming and snorkeling with Mike and Kelly, then lunch. Midway through lunch an iguana came into the restaurant. One of the locals captured it and brought it around table by table to show the tourists. In the end he took it out and deposited it in one of the stunted trees that had survived Hurricane Irma.
The anchorage of Road Bay was, in itself, quite interesting. There was a group of sailing dinghies that came out every evening, just before sunset, whooping and hollering and ululating. They chased each other all over the bay and obviously had a grand time. Mike swam over to the side of the bay, where there appeared to be a beach. He came back and reported that what appeared to be sand was, in fact, a carpet of conch shells. Was someone illegally harvesting the conch meat and depositing the shells there? It’s certainly true that these Caribbean islands seem to offer a lot of conch fritters…
The other boats in the bay came and went, and finally we were also ready to go. We left just at sunset for an overnight passage to the British Virgin Islands. A distance of more than about 70 miles is too much to accomplish in daylight hours, and we never want to come into a strange harbor in the dark. But this passage wasn’t much more than 70 miles, and we’d have to go a bit slowly to avoid arriving in the pre-dawn hours.
This was the first overnight sail for Mike and Kelly, and a real thrill, especially for Mike. At one point Kelly said she’d go below and read before going to sleep. I should have immediately realized what she was saying, because reading is about the worst thing you can do if you want to avoid seasickness. But I didn’t catch it, and Kelly quickly felt seasick. Fortunately, she was actually able to get to sleep and felt fine when she woke up in the morning.
We entered the BVIs and went through customs at Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda. The marina was obviously badly hit by the 2017 hurricanes, and most of the commercial enterprises were no longer in business. The guide books we have are pre-hurricane, so it’s often the case that things are not as described. Because we bought fuel there, the marina gave us several hours free tie-up. Michael and Kelly walked some distance to find a promised grocery store, but it wasn’t there.
We sailed a bit south to “The Baths” at Virgin Gorda. There were plenty of mooring balls available, so we took one and several of us went snorkeling. This is the first place we’ve come to since Portugal that I’ve actually been to before. When our kids were young we did a couple of charter boat trips in the BVIs with my parents. “The Baths” is one of the places I remember. There are large boulders heaped onto the beach – and by “large” I mean as big as a small house. In between and underneath the boulders are tidepools of clear calm water – quite beautiful with the turquoise color of the water, and shafts of sunlight reaching through in places.
Mike had indicated before they joined us that he’d like to do some scuba diving, and one specific place he had in mind was the wreck of the RMS Rhone. We checked available dive companies and found one that was operating out of Cooper Island, nearby the Rhone dive site. So we decided to head that afternoon for Cooper Island, where we able to pick up a mooring ball, fairly close to the beach. Cooper Island proved to be a charming destination, with low buildings, several low-key businesses and recently installed artistic landscaping. Of course the prices reflect the care that obviously went into restoring the place after the 2017 hurricanes.
We arranged with George and Sue Stonecliffe, aboard Julia Max, to join together for a diving/snorkeling trip to see the Rhone. Julia Max arrived at Cooper Island later that afternoon, and the next morning we all went ashore for the grand expedition.
A big powerful dive boat took us to the site of the wreck. The RMS Rhone, a supposedly “unsinkable” British mail ship, had foundered in a hurricane in 1867. When the ocean water reached the hot boilers, there was an explosion which broke the ship in half. The stern portion is shallow enough for snorkelers to see, and the bow is much deeper. The divers (Mike, George and Sue) geared up for their dive first, and then the rest of us (Barbara, Craig and Kelly) got ready for snorkeling. Both groups had a fantastic time, seeing the wreck spread over several acres and its recognizable parts like the rudder socket and an 18 foot diameter bronze propeller. There were lots of interesting fish as well, and the dive group was able to see more varieties of fish than the snorkelers.
Mike had just acquired a “GoPro” camera, but the dive was going to be too deep for it. Kelly, though was able to use it to take interesting pictures of the stern portion of the wreck. When we got back from the dive trip, Mike and Kelly took off with the GoPro camera, and began to create long videos of their snorkeling explorations. They found a number of sea turtles, and the videos are astonishing. The next morning Mike went in the water right by Sequoia and found a group of three sea turtles on the sea floor there. We all went in and had a look. Astonishing!
We traveled next to Road Harbour, Tortola, across the channel from Cooper Island. The hurricane devastation there seems to be universal. Half sunk boats are everywhere and most of the docks and buildings around the bay were either destroyed or severely impacted. We found a marina with an available slip but no electricity. There are a lot of repair projects going on, but little progress being made. We had the sense that there is a lot of will to spring back from the damage, but not enough workers and not enough money.
Mike and Kelly had to leave the boat in Road Harbour to head back home. I think they are newly inspired to get their own sailboat – a recently inherited Ranger 22 – fitted out and into the water at home.
We met George and Sue again in the Benures Bay anchorage on Norman Island. The attraction there is a spectacular snorkeling site on nearby rocky islets called ”the Indians”. The BVI park service has placed a number of mooring buoys around the snorkeling site, for day use only, and we joined up with George and Sue aboard Julia Max to take up a buoy and go snorkeling together. The Caribbean snorkeling sites are actually few and far between, compared to how it was even a few years ago. The big hurricanes do a lot of physical damage to the coral, but more than that the phenomenon of coral bleaching, due to higher sea temperatures, kills the coral outright, leaving a boneyard of dead white coral. Since only the live coral attract the colorful reef fish, there is not much to see in many formerly vibrant places. Sites such as The Indians, Cooper Island and the Rhone Wreck are now the exception. See them while you can!
Our boat project for Benures Bay was the replacement of the three zincs on Sequoia’s underside which prevent electrolysis. They gradually are eaten away and have to be replaced with new ones every 4-6 months. Craig put on his scuba gear and gathered all his tools (each zinc has different types and different sizes of fasteners, and each requires a different tool). George and Sue came over from Julia Max. George was a tremendous help to Craig through his 90 minutes of diving, handing tools and dispensing advice. Sue and I did computer research and route planning inside, taking advantage of the better internet access we have aboard Sequoia.
From Benures Bay we headed north through “The Narrows” to the island of Jost van Dyke. It’s a small island, with only a few hundred year-round residents. But during “the season” (November to May) population triples or quadruples with boaters and tourists. The big attraction is seemingly Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant. Several publications have named it the number one or two place to be in the world for New Years Eve. We did try it for dinner – although on a less popular night than New Years Eve. The prices were spectacularly high. The food was good, but not worth that much! Foxy’s has a nice atmosphere, with tables set in sand, and license plates, club burgees and national flags nailed to the ceiling.
Jost van Dyke has a customs clearance office and we used it the next morning to clear out of the BVIs and head toward the US Virgin Islands. It wasn’t a long way, across the channel, to the USVI entry port of Cruz Bay on the island of St. John. We found the US customs office in a FEMA trailer at the head of the harbor. We also visited the National Park headquarters (80% of St. John is actually a national park), where we paid for a couple of nights on a mooring buoy. Back at the boat, we did swim ashore to check out the fish (we did see quite a few). But there were so many small motorboats and dinghies speeding by, we felt pretty vulnerable. (At our next opportunity, we each purchased fluorescent swim shirts to wear while snorkeling).
The next stop was Crown Bay Marina at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. It was mostly a provisioning and boat chore stop – fill the tanks, top up the batteries, stock up the refrigerator and take some good showers. On our last day there we did go into town to check out the old streets, museums, shops, restaurants, catching a local open bus for $1 per person. This town probably symbolizes the USVI for many tourists. The colorful old colonial-style buildings all had heavy doors and shutters for storm protection. But it was Sunday and most everything was closed, there being no cruise ship in the harbor.
This morning we sailed from the US Virgin Islands westward, toward Culebra Island, a part of Puerto Rico. Our island-to-island sails have evolved from the northward trajectory starting with St. Lucia, to a now westward direction, as the chain of islands curves around to the west. All along the wind has come mostly from the east. So what started out as a close reach (wind from nearly ahead) has changed into a downwind run (wind from behind). We now find ourselves using the same sail combination we used crossing the Atlantic: No mainsail, but two jibs in the front, sheeted to catch the wind from both sides. We usually put one of the jibs on a pole fastened to the mast, but the distance today was short enough (20 nautical miles) that we didn’t bother with the pole. As is often the case, there were big wind waves which made the boat roll from side to side – not the most pleasant sort of sailing.
Culebra is shaped somewhat like a baseball catcher’s mitt. The opening between the thumb and hand is a large bay known as Ensenada Honda. There is a reef nearly all the way across the entrance, but with a narrow entry for boats. Once inside the waves nearly disappear, although the wind continues. We sailed north about two miles to the town of Dewey, which most people call Culebra. We’ve now anchored in the bay there and have cleared in through customs and immigration, without leaving the boat, all through the magic of CBP’s new app. We were “interviewed” by means of a phone conversation and a couple of photographs, and have now been designated as “Verified travelers” with assigned numbers. Yay (?) I hope it helps with TSA’s airport security lines! This afternoon we’ll enjoy the windy (and therefore cooler) anchorage, and tomorrow go exploring ashore.
In the next few weeks, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica!
St. Kitts and Sint Maarten
31 January 2019 | Simpson Bay Lagoon, Sint Maarten
Barbara/Sunny with showers
On January 22, we set sail from English Harbour in Antigua and headed for St. Kitts. It’s potentially a long day’s passage, about 60 nautical miles, so we got up at 6 am and prepared to leave at 7:00. We knew that rowboat #6 of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge was expected to arrive within a few hours of 6 am, so we did have some hope we might get outside the bay and watch them come in. But just at 7:00 am the rowboat came in and crossed the finish line. Flares went off, horns of super yachts sounded and crowds roared their approval. We cheered, waited an appropriate amount of time and then cast our lines off, heading out the harbor mouth.
It was a fairly uneventful passage, with about 15 knots of wind, mostly from behind. We anchored in Ballast Bay, near the south end of St. Kitts. It’s a relatively undeveloped part of the island, with good holding for the anchor and not much in the way of waves or swells, despite plenty of wind through the night. We were later told that this part of the island used to be completely inaccessible except by hiking or boat. There was a high hill (now with a tunnel drilled through) which made road-building impossible. The land was bought up for pennies by various foreign investors, who now are starting to rake in the profits.
At the head of Ballast Bay, in Port Christophe, there is a superyacht marina under construction. A number of monster boats are already there, but the shore facilities have a way to go. We did inquire about whether they would allow us to tie up there, and, yes they would, but the charge would be $150 a night for a boat our size. We’re just as happy anchoring.
We did go in by dinghy and have a look at the boats. A gigantic metal-gray one is named “Odessa” and I imagine that it, and a number of the others, are probably owned by Russian oligarchs. We later learned from “Arnold” (more about him later) that St. Kitts & Nevis (which together form one country) offer citizenship for purchase. It started out at $400,000.00 USD but they’ve now lowered the price to $100,000.00. You’re expected to invest that money into a business or a house on the island. Those giant concrete docks in the Port Christophe marina are for sale – I didn’t find out the price, but I’ll bet it’s at least $100,000.00. That might just get you your new citizenship. If no one else will have you, come to St. Kitts! (Russian oligarchs welcome…)
Our friends, George and Sue on Julia Max, arrived in St. Kitts the day before we did. They had gone up the coast to the capitol, BasseTerre, to check in with customs and immigration and do a bit of shopping, and they invited us to come and join them. So the next morning we upped anchor and moved the few miles north. BasseTerre may be the center of things on St. Kitts, but it has a number of negatives. First, it’s not as well protected as Ballast Bay, so modest swells come in. It’s somewhat disturbing to the activities of daily life on the boat and makes sleeping difficult. We persisted for a couple of nights there, and then returned to Ballast Bay.
Of course, the visit to Basse Terre was mandatory because of the need to check in with customs and immigration. That in itself was quite an adventure. We launched the dinghy and motored in to the small marina. The primary tenants of the marina are various tourist boats. They cater primarily to the tourists who pour off the cruise ships docked next door – thousands of them every day. One of the interesting things we saw in the marina was a set of lobster traps, just submerged and chock full of live lobsters. Presumably these lobsters are destined for high end restaurants and/or cruise ship kitchens. Never mind that they’re all crowded together without food, and perhaps without sufficient oxygen, in a marina with dozens of petroleum burning (and perhaps petroleum leaking) boats. Troubling.
The cruise ship docks have space for two cruise ships, of the sort that carry 5000 passengers each. Every day we were there, two different cruise ships occupied the docks. They come in about 7:00 in the morning and depart again about 5:00 in the afternoon. More cruise ships often anchor just offshore. One day we saw three cruise ships offshore in addition to the two at the docks.
We found the customs office adjacent to the marina. As we entered, a Swiss couple was leaving, and they advised us to “be really nice to her.” We found the customs official behind a closed door in a very air-conditioned office. She did try to smile but was obviously not having a good day. She inserted carbon paper into the necessary forms and Craig sat down to complete them. He was instructed to reverse the carbon to fill out the other side. All in all only about 15 minutes but then she directed us to continue on to the immigration office, outside the marina complex and over toward the cruise ships.
There’s a shopping complex surrounding the exit from the cruise terminal, with hundreds of tourist shops – jewelry, souvenirs, spa services, fast food restaurants, liquor stores and dozens of touts who come up and shove brochures in your hands, wave posters and offer to find taxis, book tours, and give any kind of advice they think you might need. Craig said it reminded him of an adult Disneyland.
Regrettably, the immigration office is in the cruise terminal complex. We had to push our way through the tourist crowds and past the touts and through the security gates to find the office. As it happened, they were just closing up (one person suggested to us that between 11:30 and 1:30 the immigration people all go onto one of the ships and have a sumptuous lunch). In any case, they directed us to come back at 2:30 or 3:00. We went off into the hordes of people and found a Shawarma restaurant which was not bad.
When we came back, it seemed the officer in the immigration office was having a really bad day. She directed Craig to sit down at a computer and fill out a form. She said we should have used that form, and that computer program to check in to every Caribbean island (except the French ones) since our arrival in St. Lucia in December. She said all those islands are doing it wrong to allow any other way of checking in. The authorities want to be able to track us through the islands. She said we ought to go back to those islands and tell them that they were doing it wrong.
The form asks for what port we left from, what port we arrived at, and where we were going next. But you couldn’t type in “English Harbour, Antigua”, instead it is some obtuse code (which I’ve now forgotten). There’s no cheat sheet to tell you what the codes are; instead you just have to ask the immigration officer.
As we were processing through at the immigration office, they were also issuing visas or permits of some sort to some of the deck hands on the cruise ship. In addition, random tourists came in and asked for stamps in their passports. (It’s a thing…)
We checked out a couple of grocery stores, but by then we were totally exhausted and went back to the boat. We checked in with George and Sue and agreed that the next day we’d go see the fort at Brimstone Hill, do some grocery shopping and then return with our boats to Ballast Bay, where the water was so much more calm.
The next morning, Sue, George and I left the anchorage in their dinghy at 6:30 am. We had been told that the Farmers Market is the best at that hour. As it turns out, despite that advice, there was no farmers market on Thursdays. Instead, small stands were set up on both sides of the road, selling local produce, and in some cases cooked meals. We found what we needed (limes, papayas, watermelon, cucumber, tomatoes) and then went in search of the bakery for baguettes and breakfast pastries. As it turns out, I was planning on celebrating Craig’s birthday that evening (inviting George and Sue), and had planned to make a cake. But here, in the bakery, was an elaborate, colorful baked birthday cake, fairly expensive, but there it was, and I wouldn’t have to turn on the oven in this heat. I bought it, and we made our way back to the dinghy, back to Sequoia, and the cake was still intact.
Later in the morning, we all went into town and found a driver with a large van (“Arnold” – he called himself “the governator”) and asked him to take us to Brimstone Hill Fortess. This hilltop fortification is the largest British fort remaining in the Caribbean. The historic battle there was between the British and the French (of course) and involved a months-long siege where 1000 British soldiers held out against 8000 French. The British finally surrendered, and then they got the fort back a year later as the result of a peace treaty. It’s partially restored with a nice museum showcasing historic artifacts and illustrating the way of life in such a fort in the early 19th century. Arnold drove us up to nearly the very top and then we walked the very strenuous road to the top of the fortress and admired the views in every direction.
That afternoon we moved the boats back to Ballast Bay and George and Sue joined us for a very nice birthday dinner for Craig, followed by a session of a board game based on sailboat racing. It’s a favorite of George and Sue’s, but we’d never heard of it. Great fun.
We arranged with Arnold to pick us up at the Christophe Marina (that superyacht marina in Ballast Bay) for the trip back to Basse Terre to check out of the country with customs and immigration. It was a duplicate effort to the check-in – same forms, same amount of time, same prickly civil servants. After that, Arnold took us to his favorite grocery store, one of his favorite places for lunch, and then for some sight seeing. That’s when we learned about the previous inaccessibility of the southernmost part of St. Kitts, and the opportunities now on offer for citizenship for anyone who can pay. He took us to a view point which was previously the end of the road, and we could see Sequoia and Julia Max in Ballast Bay out in the distance.
St. Kitts is altogether an interesting place. The country, consisting of two islands, is called St. Kitts & Nevis. Nevis was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. St. Kitts is the ancestral home of Thomas Jefferson’s family. The scenery is beautiful, and the people are quite interesting. But I don’t think we’ll be buying any citizenship there.
The next day we sailed north to Sint Maarten. It was somewhat of a wild ride, with swells of 6 to 8 feet. We got rather wet and were glad to finally reach our destination. We anchored in Simpson Bay (another rolly anchorage like Basse Terre in St. Kitts), and then waited our turn the next morning to get into Simpson Bay Lagoon. They open a bridge inbound 4 times a day, and you’d better be on time or you won’t get in.
Sint Maarten is home to an even larger collection of superyachts than we saw in English Harbour. We saw one boat that had a 30 foot sailboat on its back deck (the dinghy, perhaps?).
Quite a lot of damage was done here by Hurricane Irma in the sumer of 2017, and they are only just now springing back. There are still ruined hulks of boats in the lagoon, and apparently it’s worse to the north in the French part of this island. We found a little marina with space for us, Lagoon Marina. They’ve only just gotten their electric service installed for visiting boaters, and it is certainly flawed. An outlet that looks like a US 50 amp/120V outlet actually gives you 220 volts. The dockmaster told us “Oh you can have 110 or 220, whichever you want.” Our circuit breaker saved our electrical gear, and after testing with a voltmeter Craig reset the isolation transformer for 220V and everything worked. Woe to other North American boaters who expect that outlet to be 120V!
Sint Maarten is the Dutch half of an island with the French department of St. Martin occupying the other half. You are allowed to travel freely by land between the two parts, but if traveling by boat, you must do the whole check-in check-out business for going back and forth. So far we’ve chosen to stay on the Dutch part. We biked over to the customs office, adjacent to the Simpson Bay Bridge (where we entered) and jumped through all their hoops and paid all their fees. We’ll have to go back again when our next guests (Mike and Kelly) join us and we depart for the next island.
The whole island is billed as being duty free, so there are a lot of businesses here catering to the boating tourist trade – especially the super yacht trade. There are huge chandleries (stores for boat parts and accessories) on both sides of us. The prices are not super high, but they are no bargain, given the amount that has to be paid for shipping. Liquor, however, is super cheap. Too bad we aren’t strenuous drinkers!
Here’s where I’ll leave you this time. Hope you are enjoying our tales of our various destinations. Best wishes to all!
Craig & Barbara