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