First Timers on SunSail 39i St. Martin
Over the winter my wife and I decided that we would like to go back to the Caribbean this summer. We felt like we were getting quite overdue since we haven't been on vacation in 3 years. When I mentioned the idea of chartering a sailboat, I got a rather tepid response but I didn't let the idea die since it has been one of my dream vacations for many years. My wife's first question was along the lines of "are you serious, do you realize how long it's been since you went sailing?" Good point, it had been more than 10 years since I went out and even longer than that since I have been on a bigger boat. I assured her that it was like riding a bike, it would all come right back to me and after all, I did have a USCG Master's license (back in the day). After several other questions such as "what about pirates" (I assured her that it was very unlikely that we would run into Mr. Depp), she seemed to start warming to the idea. Next hurdle was to find some willing co-conspirators. I initially approached two other couples, and they both jumped at the idea so the real planning was begun. The first question for me was would the charter companies be willing to let me charter without a captain. A quick phone call and online Sailing Resume let me know that there would be no problems on that front. Next up was picking a date. Since two of the couples have school age children, it was going to be either Spring break or end of School for us. The June time frame seemed to offer better sailing conditions, cheaper rates and more flexibility, so that aspect was settled. Somewhere along this time, one of the couples let me know that they were no longer interested, so I focused my research on a 4 person charter. After reading every article, blog, and trip review that I could find, I decided that we needed to go with a Moorings 35 or the Sunsail 36i out of St Martin. These boats seemed big enough to be comfortable and I liked St Martin because of the opportunity to visit a variety of very different islands. After talking to reps from both companies, it seemed like a real tossup, I really like the rep from Sunsail, she was very helpful and knowledgeable, but the Moorings had offered to basically match prices and the boats are virtually identical. The only other factor was that Sunsail could offer a 39 footer that had 2 heads for only $300 more for the week. The women jumped all over that idea, so the decision was made for me! and the boat and airline tickets were booked.
We flew USAir direct from Charlotte which worked perfect for us since we had to drop the kids off in the Charlotte area anyway and the other couple (henceforth know as Allen and Steph) flew out of our hometown of Fayetteville and met us in Charlotte. Our flights were uneventful, all the baggage made it and George was waiting to take us over to Oyster Pond. I have to make a special mention for George, he was the most helpful, friendly and informative driver that I have encountered in all of my travels. He let us know that our boat was ready and waiting and when I asked about a provisioning trip, he offered to wait while we checked in and unloaded before taking us shopping. I have to say that shopping in a French grocery store for the first time was something of an adventure, but in the end we ended up getting what we were after (minus peanut butter for my wife). Before our next trip, I'm going to try to learn a little French vocabulary so that I can read the labels! Then it was back to the boat to unload and get everything stowed away. While the rest of the crew handled that duty, I went through my precharter boat checklist (thanks Bill Hartman on TTOL) and found the boat to be in excellent condition. With everything stored away, we wandered down the dock towards the Dinghy Dock Bar for the first of our ritual "Sundowners". We got so relaxed that we decided that the burgers and fish sandwiches would make an ideal dinner and then we all retired early to get a good nights rest.
Monday morning as we were finishing up our coffee and breakfast, Alcid, the Sunsail rep, made an appearance to schedule our boat and chart briefings. He was more than happy to go ahead with the boat checkout since I had already gone through the list and filled out the paperwork and he quickly remedied the one minor problem that I had found (broken spray nozzle on shower). We then went up to the facility to go through our chart briefing which was handled quickly but still provided all the info we needed, Alcid is a great resource for knowledge of the area! After grabbing some snorkel gear and topping off the water tanks (they were full already), Alcid took the boat out of the dock area for us, helped with raising the main and then hopped in a chase boat to guide us out of the harbor. Upon reaching the entrance buoy, we waved goodbye, turned toward the North and had a beautiful beam reach up the east coast of St Martin in about 14 knots of wind. First destination was Road Bay, Anguilla. We arrived at about 5 in the afternoon after a wonderful, easy day of sailing and dropped anchor amidst 15-20 other boats. Shortly after we got settled, the Anguillan Racing Yachts came into harbor in very high spirits. They are definitely a unique design and seem to perform very well! After they passed through, we enjoyed our next "Sundowner" drinks along with one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed. We all took a quick shower on the transom with the newly replaced shower head, consulted the Doyle Cruising Guide and decided that dinner would be at the Barrel Stay. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting the bartender who had been a crew member on the winning racing yacht that afternoon along with the owners Jill and Graham. My pan-seared wahoo was absolutely out of this world, and Graham was more than happy to explain to me in great detail how it had been prepared! This was definitely the best meal that I had for the week! After a short search for wifi service (unsuccessful) we decided to call it a night and headed back out to the boat. Every Monday should be so tough!
Tuesday morning we all enjoyed a lazy relaxed breakfast, island time is definitely taking hold of the whole crew! Eventually, we lifted anchor and headed out to Prickly Pear Cay on a nice beam reach under full sail. When we pulled into the mooring area we found newly refurbished mooring buoys and only two other boats. This was Allen's first experience with picking up a mooring, he had a little trouble understanding how I wanted the bridle rigged but with a little help and a second approach to the ball we were soon secured. A short dinghy ride around the corner showed a couple of day trip catamarans anchored with a fair number of people on the beach. We all explored the east end of the island away from the rest of the folks then the girls decided to take advantage of the great beach for a little sunbathing while Allen and I explored the rest of the island. It was a great day followed up by a pleasant upwind sail back to Road Bay. We had planned on overnighting in Crocus Bay, but we heard that the race crowd was headed that way and we preferred a quieter evening for ourselves. Once we were securely anchored it was time once again for showers and Sundowners and another unbelievable sunset. We opted to go to Roy's Beach Bar for dinner and I discovered his truly world class hotsauce! I liberally doused my plate of ribs and the first taste was a wonderfully fruity mango sensation which was soon followed by the kick in the pants, eye-watering heat of habaneros! Don't get me wrong, I love hot sauces and this was right up my alley. Roy's also had a good wifi connection and bag ice available. After dinner, we headed back out to the boat where it took several nightcaps to reduce the fire to a level that would allow a good nights sleep.
Wednesday morning saw an early start to the day for longest passage of the week. We wanted to head around the east side of Anguilla, passing through the Scrub Island pass on our way to Orient Bay in St Martin. The voyage along the north coast of Anguilla started as a close reach in about 15 knots of southeast breeze. As we continued up the coast the wind picked up to around 18 knots close hauled and we put the first reef in the main. Scrub Island pass was dead into the wind so we furled the jib and motored through. Once we were through the pass the wind had picked up to over 20 knots and we put the second reef in the main. From there it was a spirited close reach toward Tintamarre Island. Just as we had passed the island we spotted our first bad weather of the week, a nasty thunderstorm barreling down on us and coming quickly. The previous days lesson at rigging a bridle and picking up a mooring were put to good use as we ducked into the mooring field at Tintamarre to sit out what turned out to be three quick storms. After the storms we motored across to Orient Bay in very calm seas and dropped the anchor in behind Green Cay. Due to the lateness of our arrival and the earlier storms the beach was deserted, but we took the dinghy in to walk the beach and ended up in the Bikini Beach Bar were we renewed our acquaintance with Corine (aka Bubbles) and were able to get a good internet connection to check in again with the real world.
We were enjoying the atmosphere so much that we stayed on for dinner (Mahi sandwiches all around) and a nightcap. I got up at about 3am for my nightly anchor check and discovered that we had dragged pretty bad in the previous couple of hours. We seemed to be holding well but I wasn't comfortable with our new position so I rousted the crew and reset the anchor closer up to Green Cay. We put out plenty of scope and had no more problem.
Thursday morning brought a big decision, SSE to St. Barts or head around the N side of St. Martin. When we poked the bow out of Orient Bay we found a stiff 18 knots out of the SE meaning St. Barts would be a very long day of upwind work. After the long sail the previous day, we opted to head for Friar's Bay on the N coast of St. Martin and a relaxed day on the beach. With the nice breeze the trip only took about 2 hours and we truly enjoyed working on our tans and doing a little snorkeling. This was Allen's first time snorkeling and he loved it. Lot's of fish to see in and around the rocks and coral. I'm sure that we will be doing a lot more of it on future trips. We also managed to score a very large bag of ice from the beach bar, hitting them up at closing time seemed to be the key! Having that problem taken care of for the night we motored next door to Grand Case for dinner and our night anchorage. Grand Case is a very nice anchorage, good wind to keep things cool, bottom that holds well, and a nice dinghy dock that is centrally located. After walking all the restaurants and looking at menus, we opted for Bistro Carriabes. The girls enjoyed some really nice red snapper and I had a mediocre tuna steak. A great chocolate torte and cup of coffee soothed my disappointment with the meal. After enjoying our coffees and after dinner drinks we again called it a night.
Friday morning was once again a relaxed start and a short sail down to Marigot for lunch on shore and a little shopping. The anchorage was fairly crowded but we managed to find a nice spot close in to the shore. Once ashore we wandered around the downtown area, dang it was HOT!!!!, and picked a nice sidewalk cafe for lunch,which consisted of an outstanding club sandwich for the guys and salads for the girls. From there we headed over to the mall to enjoy the air conditioning and a little light shopping for gifts. We arrived back on the boat at about 4pm and quickly decided that we had no desire to spend the night in a hot crowded anchorage. Up came the anchor and after an hour and a half of motor sailing we dropped the hook down in Anse Marcel along with a couple of other cruisers. Dinner was a very lite affair on the boat using what food we had on board. I learned a lesson this night about using (or not using in our case) a stern anchor. The wind was shifting back and forth through 30-40 degrees and we were getting a little swell coming into the bay which either hit us on the bow (not so bad) or the stern quarter (ugh) depending on which way the boat had swung. Next time I'll not hesitate to put out a stern anchor to hold the bow into the swell. The hills around bay really sheltered us fro most of the wind and it was very warm down below. I spent the first half of the night sleeping in the cockpit until a rain shower chased us down below. Not the most restful night of the week, none-the-less we were up and out fairly early for a much anticipated day on the beach at Orient Beach.
Orient Bay was just a short sail around the corner and by 11am we were securely anchored tight up to Green Cay once again. With a beach bag and a soft cooler of water bottles we took the dinghy into the beach and found chairs to rent. Great relaxing day and nobody got burned! The wind today was about 18 out of the East and Orient was fairly bumpy and lumpy. The dinghy ride out to the boat was fairly wet but we arrived in good shape and enjoyed our final round of Sundowners as we cleaned up and dressed for dinner. I told the crew that I was confident that we would have a fairly dry ride back to the beach but the ride back out to the boat after dinner was sure to be wet! Little did I know the adventure that was coming. The ride in was successful and we enjoyed a great dinner at La Piment. The service and the food ranked right up with the Barrel Stay in Anguilla as the best of the week. Afterwards we stopped by Bikini Beach for a nightcap and final email check. Upon heading back to the beach to retrieve the dinghy we found that we hadn't pulled it up quite far enough and we had boat full of water and sand, OOPS. A quick bail job and we're good to go again, but darn it's rough now. Ashley appears to be covered from head to toe in sand, what the heck happened? No time to worry, get the girls loaded just as an unusually big wave comes in and Ashley ends up head first in the bottom of the dinghy. After making sure she is okay, we head out for the boat with just about every wave soaking us. We arrived at the boat, wet but fine and everyone is anxious to get out of their soaked clothes. We mix another round of drinks, but not before I knock a glass over and cut my heal on a broken piece. Fortunately it wasn't too bad and we all kick back for another nightcap, no one wants to our last night to end! Eventually we did head off to bed with no further adventures. Sunday morning brought a short trip down to Oyster Pond and the Sunsail base. We had no problems navigating the channel and tied up at the fuel dock, I was surprised how little fuel we had burned, only 40 some liters. The check-in with Alcid was quick and easy and we confirmed that George was on hand to get us back to the Airport.
A couple of observations. First, I hated to miss St. Barts, but the north coast of St. Martin is way underrated, we loved that part of the trip. Second, get more ice everyday, whether you think you need it or not! The electric refrigeration unit seems to be designed to run continuously but without a generator it draws too much power to run on batteries for long. I really prefer the engine driven compressor that we used to have on the family boat. It would freeze everything solid if you ran it too long. Third, I really wish the anchor rode had been marked. Next trip I'll do it myself if it isn't. I also didn't like the Raymarine GPS unit that was on the boat, the programming was more difficult and not as user friendly as my handheld Garmin. I used the onboard unit a moving chart and used the handheld for all my course routing and navigation. If I hadn't had the Garmin I'm sure that I would have figured out the Raymarine unit, but it was very nice to have a unit that I was comfortable with. Thanks to all the research and suggestions that I found beforehand, we did a really good job with our packing and provisioning. Next time I'll try to be more careful to get a solid night of sleep in the middle of the trip, either in a marina or on a good mooring ball. I don't sleep very solidly at anchor and always get up a couple of times to check on things, especially in new areas and on a strange boat. Unfortunately, none of the places we overnighted had moorings so we were on the anchor every night and I ended up being a very tired (but happy) camper! All in all, this was a trip that I have wanted to do for a very long time and it ended up exceeding all of my expectations! A great deal of the credit goes to the compatibility of our crew and I can not emphasize that enough. We all started the trip as good friends and ended it as even better, special friends. Needless to say, we have already started planning next years trip!