Blanc du nil: Sailing to St. Barthelemy

in Life at Sea / Sailing the World / Sint Maarten / St. Barthelemy
st. barthelemy caribbean sailing

The crazy thing about flying into the island of Sint Maarten is that there’s a dinghy dock near the airport where your friends can pick you up with no shoes or shirt on, throw your luggage into their Mercury inflatable and motor you back to your boat just in time for happy hour. Which is exactly what happened when Ryan and I arrived back to Sint Maarten after my dad’s funeral in New York.


dinghy ride to hideaway st. martinYou know you’re a cruiser when you travel to and from the airport in a dinghy.

We came back with a vague change of plans to get Hideaway packed up and ready to sell, then return to New York for a while to help my mom adjust to living without my dad. Which, disappointingly, meant we wouldn’t be sailing onwards to St. Barthelemy with our friends like we’d planned. We’d be staying on board in the lagoon, doing work on Hideaway. But we’re used to plans being more like hazy puffs of smoke trailing off in a vague direction, sometimes disappearing altogether.

There is a long and growing list of things to do on Hideaway, but at the moment my head is floating in an unproductive fog. There is a brand new boat — a Fountaine-Pajot Helia 44 — in our near future, which we should have celebrated when we put down a rather hefty and non-refundable deposit at the beginning of April. But two days later, my dad took a turn for the worst, darkening any sense of celebration with a cloud of gloomy uncertainty.


30/08/2012, Cogolin (FRA,83), Chantier Fountaine-Pajot, Helia 44The Fountaine-Pajot Helia 44 is the circumnavigation boat of our dreams.

Besides the work we need to do on Hideaway to get her cleaned up and sold, there is a dauntingly detailed spreadsheet of orders we need to approve for our new boat, which is being commissioned in La Rochelle, France, with a deadline for us to move aboard at the end of July.

Yet I am struggling to focus on any one task. We need to pack up Hideaway, wash her, remove the canvas and make her pretty for potential buyers. We also need to let our Fountaine-Pajot broker know what size generator we want on the new boat (something large enough to handle Ryan’s ice-maker, sound system and extra blue lights), whether we want a parasail (um, YES) and what size Garmin chart plotter we want (the largest one possible, please).

As we busy ourselves cleaning the boat, Ryan catches me sitting in the cockpit just staring out at the water and asks me what I’ve got on my mind.

“Are they leaving today?” I ask, looking towards the lagoon exit.

“Senara and Pelita? Yeah, they should be heading out this morning. “Why? You want to go with them?” Ryan asks.

I stare out at the water again, trying to anchor myself in the present and forget for a moment the terrible weeks before, or the stressful weeks soon to come. I picture us pulling up our anchor, motoring out of the lagoon, unfurling the sails and making our way towards a turquoise bay in St. Barths then going to shore for pain au chocolat in a cafe where everyone is draped in loose white linen, drinking French wine.

“Yeah. I kind of do.” I say.

“Well, why don’t we go, then?” Ryan says. “St. Barths is only 15 miles away. We can leave tomorrow and catch up with Morgan, Pearly and Francois in Colombier by tomorrow night. Why not?”

Ryan is beaming, reveling in his role as hero, the source of a brilliant idea that overrides all gloom with fun, spontaneous adventure. And I can’t help but smile and nod my head.

Just like that, we change our plans again. Instead of spending a week in Sint Maarten doing boat work, we will spend a day in Sint Maarten running around in a rental car, getting the cats their travel documents, stocking up on supplies, filling up our water tanks and finding a marina to put Hideaway in upon our return. Suddenly, we’re prepping to go cruising again and planning to spend 4 days, sailing, swimming, snorkeling and enjoying the delights of the little French island of St. Barthelemy. Who wouldn’t smile at that idea?

Changing plans on a whim is something Ryan and I are really good at. The repercussions of changing our minds so often, though, is that we have to be fast on our feet when it comes to remapping all the logistics of those changes.

The logistics of leaving Sint Maarten are slightly complicated and fairly stressful, if you’re trying to do a lot of things in a hurry. Which pretty much describes us 100% of the time. As good as we are at changing our minds, we’re even better at turning calm, leisurely hobbies into high-stress, goal-oriented challenges. And the challenge we have set for ourselves is to be in St. Barthelemy by tomorrow night, dropping anchor next to our friends just in time for sundowners.

The only obstacles standing in the way of us leaving in the next 24 hours are these items on our to-do list and a sluggish 3.5 horse-power dinghy engine:

  • Wrestle the cats into their carriers, dinghy them to shore, take them to the vet and get their international health certificates
  • Find a good, cheap marina to put Hideaway in
  • Figure out why our engine is overheating
  • Fix the overheating engine
  • Pick up the custom-made canvas sun-shade we ordered when we thought we were sailing south with our friends
  • Clear out of customs on the French side
  • Buy food provisions that make up actual meals, not just snacks
  • Fill up our leaky water jugs at the marina and rush them back to the boat before they empty themselves into the dinghy
  • Book flights out of Sint Maarten and reserve cabin space for the cats
  • Find out bridge opening times so we can plan to get all of the above done before we depart

Some might argue 24 hours is not enough time to do all this back-and-forth when we’re anchored a 25-minute dinghy-ride from the nearest dock. But we have a knack for setting impossible deadlines and then killing ourselves to meet them.

As far as we can tell, the biggest potential problems to plan around are the infrequent bridge opening times (there are not one, but two bridges to get through to get out of the lagoon in Sint Maarten) and the small pesky problem that we can’t figure out why our engine temperature suddenly spikes and sets off screaming alarms within a minute of starting her up.


s:v banyan sint maarten turf to surfOur friends s/v Banyan going through the lagoon bridge in Sint Maarten.

The screaming engine is a problem, yes. But all the other items on the list have to be checked off during Sint Maarten’s operating hours of 9 am to 5 pm, so the engine repairs will just have to wait until after hours, and we will just have to exit the bridges when we can. But even still, with businesses closing down from 12 – 2 pm for lunch every day, our window to get everything done in is closing quickly on our desperate fingers. Even with a rental car, which we hired to expedite our mission, fitting all our errands in to island-time hours (a schedule that is impossible to wrap my New Yorker brain around) proves to be a stressful challenge of Amazing Race proportions.

The first challenge is to figure out when the Simpson Bay Bridge and the Simpson Bay Causeway Bridge — two adjacent bridges with infuriatingly similar names — open for outbound traffic while also remembering which rules apply to which bridge. (Note: The web site for Simpson Bay Bridge Opening Times is a big help.) With the infrequent opening times, we decide the only way to get to get all our chores done in 24 hours is to exit the Simpson Bay Causeway Bridge at first opening (8:15 am), get through the Simpson Bay Bridge at 8:30 am and then anchor outside the lagoon so we can dinghy back to shore to do one last water run and return our rental car. By getting outside the bridge early, it gives us just enough time in the morning to run our last two errands, dinghy back to the boat, weigh anchor and get to St. Barths before sundown.

Once we’re back on the boat after a day of running errands and after all the stores have closed, the next big challenge begins: fix the overheating engine. We have devoted some time to Googling “diesel engine overheating” and have come up with some possibilities that might explain what is happening. So, armed with our Google info, we clamber back on the boat, open up the engine compartment and stare at it for a while.

This is always the first step when anything new goes wrong with engine: open up the engine compartment and stare.

The next step, after a few minutes of clueless staring, is Ryan and I start reminiscing about problems we’ve had in the past.

“Remember that time we overheated before Hurricane Irene?” I say. “And it turned out we sucked up some reeds through our intake. Remember?”

“That was after Hurricane Irene,” Ryan says. “And we’ve been on anchor for weeks now. I don’t think it’s reeds.”

“A plastic bag?” I say.

Ryan shakes his head.

The next stage, after we’ve run through all the things that have gone wrong in the past, is to move on to synthesizing new information we’ve read but don’t understand.

“Nigel Calder says it could have something to do with the hoses that send water through the engine. He suggests removing the hose to the water heater and doing something with that.” I say.

At the mention of water hoses, Ryan suddenly remembers that the mechanic we had on board recently removed a hose to get to the alternator, which wasn’t working at the time, instigating an “ah ha!” moment.

“Maybe we need to bleed the hoses?” Ryan suggests. “Maybe the water isn’t cooling the engine because there’s air trapped in the hose?”

Which is an idea that results in a whole lot of disassembling and some use of makeshift tools, including a large syringe we’ve been using to feed our sick cat, which works perfectly for squirting water into the end of our disconnected hose before reconnecting it to the water system. The whole bleeding and reassembling process takes about 2 hours.

Once that is all done, I start the engine and then stare at the temperature gauge obsessively. After ten minutes of the gauge needle barely moving, we high-five, jump up and down in the cockpit and scream, “St. Barths here we come!”

After an easy-going four hours of sailing, we pull into the remote, white sand bay of Colombier and are greeted on Channel 9 by our friends Pearly and Francois on s/v Pelita, inviting us over for cocktails. Immediately, I have no regrets about trading a few days of boat work to come to St. Barths to live like a retired French islander. Even if it means I’ll have to do more boat work to make up for it later.

But just sitting around staring at the sand and the water is no way to see an island. So, the next morning, I convince Ryan we should take our sneakers ashore and run to Gustavia. I look up the distance on my iPhone Google map and declare it will be a fun, 3.5 mile running adventure to town.

What I don’t look up is the elevation change of those 3.5 miles.


turf to surf running st. barthelemy sailingJust a mention: Ryan HATES running up hills.

Halfway through the run to Gustavia, I am smiling and sweating at the top of a hill, clapping and cheering Ryan on to keep going until he gets to the top. He pauses on his climb up a particularly mean and winding road and shoots me a look that says he’d like to shove my enthusiasm down my throat. So I stop clapping and instead hand Ryan my water bottle as he reaches the top panting, his shirt drenched and his head an overheated shade of red. He looks hot and miserable now, but he’ll be happy once he’s done with the run, I tell myself.


Ryan turf to surf st. barthelemy running viewsThe best thing about this view is it’s a downhill run from here.

Slowly and steadily, we traverse the hills to Gustavia, jogging past gleaming mega yachts and running to the famed “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” bar of Jimmy Buffet’s song. We slow down to walk the narrow, cobbled streets lined with pink bougainvillea spilling over the balconies and fences. Tanned, muscular men and slim, bra-less women draped in loose white linen sit at outdoor tables, smoking and sipping chilled glasses of white wine. French bakeries display their buttery pastries in the windows, making me wish I wasn’t running back to the boat so I could take a box home with me.


gustavia st. barthelemy turf to surf sailing

We have arrived. And I have forgotten everything but the present. Like the island heaven of my dreams, this place smells of flowers and macarons and no one wears anything but white.


  seashell beach gustavia st. barthelemy turf to surf Sunset cocktails at Do Brazil on Shell Beach, St. Barths, are expensive but worth it.


riding scooters in st. barthelemy turf to surfScooters are quicker than running as a way of exploring the island of St. Barths.


colombier anchorage st. barthelemy turf to surfOur heavenly anchorage in the bay of Colombier, St. Barthelemy.