SAILING ST. MARTIN - February, 2007


I don’t go to many post-race parties. Usually, I find all the post-mortem chatter tedious. But the party following the Hospice Cup regatta held on a beautiful September Saturday in 2006 on Annapolis’ Severn River waterfront promised to be better-than-usual, with good friends, good food, and good drink, so I was persuaded. By the time Rick and I arrived, the party was starting to swing, but no so much that there were lines at the bar. Properly fueled by Mt. Gay and ginger ale, Rick and I made the rounds.

One of the highlights of this charity event was the live auction. We checked out the auction items and had a good chuckle at the offering of a week’s charter in the Caribbean aboard Donnybrook. Donnybrook is a well-known sailboat in the Chesapeake, and at 72+ feet, it looms large in Annapolis. But it is purpose-built for racing, not comfort (even with a “cruising mode”), and we couldn’t imagine spending big money for a week aboard.

As the evening went on, we ran into friends from our sailing club, Michael and Julie. Michael joked about looking for investors for the Donnybrook week, but we declined. However, as more Mt. Gay was consumed, and the auction went on, we decided to go for it, and by the end of the evening, found ourselves handing over our credit cards to pay for a to-be-determined week somewhere in the Caribbean. The tariff was steep, but it was for a worthy cause and we got our winter sailing trip (which had been in the planning stages) settled in one fell swoop.

Michael took the lead in planning. We had to fit our week in during the Caribbean racing circuit, which left us with few choices. We ended up with a destination of St. Maarten a couple of weeks before the Heineken regatta. Michael visited Donnybrook in Annapolis, and concluded that while we could spend a few nights aboard, given the relative lack of creature comforts, it made sense for us to have a simple land base. After much research, we reserved an apartment in Grand Case called Paradis Caraibes.

Admittedly, I was not thrilled about using St. Maarten as our base. We had honeymooned there in 1989. While enjoying it, we didn’t find the island to fulfill our dreams of what we wanted out of an island vacation, especially since we’ve since found our version(s) of paradise. At the time, we found the crowds of (mostly American) tourists, the traffic, time shares, cruise ships, casinos, franchise restaurants (their mere existence!) to be too much like what we were trying to escape. We didn’t expect any of things to have improved in the ensuing 17 years, but we set our expectations of this trip so that anything beyond a week of rail-down sailing and gourmet dining would be a bonus. We got what we wanted, and then some!

Eye-Opening Experiences

Our arrival at SXM on February 10 did not bode well for our trip. It was everything we disliked in 1989, and it wasn’t helped by a long day of travel from BWI. It started with the passengers from our American Airlines flight pushing and jockeying for position to get on the bus to take us to the terminal, many of them feeling the need to stake out their position at the doors so as to ensure that no one else could get off the bus before them, but neglecting to consider that the rest of us had to get on first. It only got worse in the arrivals hall, in the line for immigration, as the same pushy passengers were multiplied, since several other jets had arrived within minutes.

Once finally through that mass of entitled humanity, and having collected our bags, we grabbed a taxi to Grand Case. The ride through the Maho Bay area, with its glitzy hotels, construction, casinos and all-out commercialism, was not promising. Moreover, though our driver was informative, he groused constantly about the French side; it was clear he was not pleased to have to go all the way to Grand Case. His mood was not improved by the traffic, which was further snarled by a 10K road race on the French side. Our trip took about an hour.

My mood lifted a bit as we crested the hill overlooking Grand Case bay. We spotted the distinctive black mast of Donnybrook at anchor in the bay, and knew we were almost there. It was a bit disconcerting to see this boat, a familiar sight in the Chesapeake, nearly 1,800 miles from “home,” but none of us had ever sailed it in its home waters (a privilege not otherwise available to the likes of us), so there would be no basis for comparison.
Donnybrook, by itself, at anchor in Grand Case bay.
When we arrived in Grand Case, we saw a village that had seemingly not changed much since 1989, when we drove in and drove right back out, intimidated by the promise (threat?) of haute cuisine in a rather ramshackle setting. Fortunately, over the years, we have gotten wiser, and our tastes have grown more expansive. Now, my more experienced eyes saw a town maintaining a razor-thin balance. On the one hand are the forces of nature (hurricanes, the corrosive marine environment) and economics (lack of funds) and humanity (island time), which threaten entropy and decay. On the other hand, pushing back with equal force, are the pride and creativity of the inhabitants. The balance struck results in a charming, quirky, and appealing – albeit weathered -- village reminiscent at times of New Orleans (pre-Katrina), San Pedro in Belize, and Key West.

Pulling in front of our apartment, we found Julie (she and Michael had arrived several days before) in the lobby with our landlady, and we gratefully climbed up stairs to the most pleasant of surprises: the front of our 2nd and 3rd floor apartment was all sliding doors and windows, giving out to a drop-dead view of
the creamy sand beach, turquoise water, and green hills of Grand Case bay. The sound of the waves would lull us to sleep every night we spent there; the rest was lagniappe. OK… expectations exceeded!

We took a little while to settle in. The apartment would be a bit of a squeeze for two couples on a more conventional vacation, but for us it was not much more than a place to crash between sails. The upstairs loft area has a king bed and a bath (no door), with a spectacular view. The lower level has a bath, a small kitchen area, and a living area furnished with two futons. Rick and I swapped upstairs for downstairs with Michael and Julie midweek, so that we could at least share a bed with our partners for a few nights. Paradis Caraibes would be idea for a couple, with as many as 2 kids. It worked for us, but might not work for other pairs of couples. It was clean, efficient, airy and superbly located at the south end of the beach.

The south end of Grand Case beach is rough, rocky and empty; further north, the view from our apartment invites a dip in the water, day and night.
Though we had modest expectations about St. Martin, we had high expectations for Grand Case dining, and those were never at risk. That first night, after a few glasses of wine, we hit the street (traffic can be a bit hairy for pedestrians) and decided to stop at the first restaurant that caught our fancy. That was Le Tastevin. I will note that despite our education, travels and knowledge of other languages, none of us spoke creditable French beyond basic phrases and a little bit of what I call “menu French.” This was not a problem in the least, and service was friendly and professional. Three of use chose the 3-course prix fixe menu (€45), while the fourth went a la carte. The lobster bisque was fabulous, dark with roux and seafood essence and loaded with lobster, a meal in itself. Michael had foie gras, which was large enough to share (thanks!) and sheer decadence. Entrees of fish and pork were similarly satisfying. A dessert trio of cremes brulee (chocolate, pistachio and sublime violet) capped things off. It would be a challenge to equal our dining experience at Le Tastevin, but we were game to try!

Sailing Away

Sunday, we began our sailing adventure. All four of us are experienced sailors. Rick and I own a Sabre 38 and Michael and Julie a Sabre 402, and we spend the better part of May through October weekends sailing the Chesapeake Bay, with many nights at anchor. Rick and I also have been chartering – mostly bareboat with a few crewed trips -- in the Caribbean for nearly 15 years, with sails in the Abacos, BVI, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada on our resume. But sailing aboard Donnybrook would be another matter altogether.

Donnybrook is a Santa Cruz 70, custom-modified to have added an additional 2+ feet of length overall. She is normally set up for serious racing, with such features as two wheels, a carbon fiber mast, coffee grinder winches, and sophisticated instrumentation. She lacks such cruising amenities as a windlass, autopilot, and generous water tankage. In racing mode, she flies Kevlar or carbon fiber sails, has a minimalist, stripped out interior, and requires many hands to crew her. In “cruising” mode, the serious sails are replaced with more conventional Dacron, and the interior is fitted with a few more cushions in the berths, as opposed to bare pipe berths.

Even in tamer cruising mode, we simply lacked the experience and hands to sail such a machine on our own. Luckily, the professional crew of the boat, Captain Guy and First Mate Eric, were terrific. Guy is man of action and few words, an experienced sailor who’s been with Donnybrook for five years; he has a sly sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of movies – especially some of the trashier ones I tend to like (he can quote “Captain Ron” quite convincingly). Eric is more animated, but has a great rapport with Guy and clearly knows the boat’s routines. He had the additional duties of serving as dinghy captain and cook, as our charter included breakfast and lunch; with all of those wonderful French baguettes available to him, whatever he served up for lunch was a treat.

Our first sail was a circumnavigation of St. Martin. This was our chance to learn the routines of the boat (like hoisting anchor without a windlass) and how to use the equipment. My only prior experience with a coffee grinder winch was during a contest sponsored by Lewmar (Rick and I won the mixed doubles), on land at a Sabre regatta; that is nothing compared to the real thing, under the heavy loads generated by the huge sails carried by Donnybrook, heeling at 20 degrees. One of these winches can take off a fingernail – or hand – if the appropriate care isn’t taken. Rick, Julie and Michael readily took the helm (I hate being in charge of a vessel, and would much rather take orders than steer, so since I was on vacation, I politely declined taking the wheel). For the most part, Guy and Eric let us handle the routine sailing, though Guy took charge of navigation and they both took over when things got hairy.

At one point, as the winds died down and Donnybrook was making a mere 4-5 knots, Guy offered to crank up the motor. We all chuckled a bit, since 4-5 knots on the Chesapeake, on our relatively small sailboats, is good progress – especially in the summer when winds are notoriously fickle. But 4-5 knots on a machine like Donnybrook is sloooooow going. Since speed is a function of waterline, Donnybrook’s having twice the waterline of our boats means it’s capable of generating twice the speed. Indeed, as the week wore on, we saw speeds in excess of 12 knots even with the heavy cruising sails (something which our boats can only generate with hurricane force winds while surfing down waves – just before they submarine…), and got to be blasé about cruising at 8 knots. Speed got to be intoxicating.
Rick takes the helm, while I take shelter by taking the path of least resistance -- hiding on the low side while heeling.
Speed and comfort, however, do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. So, when we were going upwind, heeling at steep angles, it could be an effort just stand or sit. Usually, for comfort, one sits on the high side. But at one point, when we were beating north along the west coast of Anguilla, zooming along at 12 knots with a reef in the mainsail, I got tired of climbing up to the high side, just to watch the 6 foot waves rise up behind us. I just plopped my butt on the cockpit sole on the low side and closed my eyes. (After all these years, I can still get seasick, and the trip back from Anguilla got me as close to sick as I’d been in years.) These are not the gentle seas of the Drake in the BVI, or the Sea of Abaco; in the winter, the wind can kick up boisterous conditions. This can make for great – but not easy – sailing.

After the St. Martin circumnavigation, we made a two-day circumnavigation of Anguilla (stopping overnight in Road Bay/Sandy Ground), a day trip to Tintamarre, a two-day trip to and from St. Barth, and on the last day, a long trip to Simpson Bay on the Dutch side. On the last day, expecting lighter winds and a downwind sail, we arrived aboard Donnybrook to find spinnaker sheets rigged up. As exciting as it had been to sail aboard Donnybrook all week, the ultimate treat was to fly her familiar black spinnaker with a green shamrock, using spinnaker pole and strut. A fitting end to our sailing “fantasy camp.”