Crossing the Simpson Bay Bridge

After almost a week anchored in Marigot Bay on the French side of St Martin, I started to see some ominous weather reports. Marine forecasts predicted a huge north swell, using words like “biggest event of this year” and “unprecedented”. And on the morning cruisers’ net on the VHF radio, local boaters strongly advised moving to a more protected anchorage. So, even though we really like the town of Marigot, and had already successfully weathered a big blow there, we decided better safe than sorry. We cleared out of the French side of the island, raised anchor, and motor sailed ten miles down the west coast of the island to Simpson Bay. Now, boaters can anchor in the open bay for free. Or…for a measly $7.00 round trip, we could travel through the Simpson Bay draw bridge and anchor inside the massive, protected Simpson Bay Lagoon. Pretty much a no-brainer, right?

The Simpson Bay bridge is kind of famous among boaters. It only opens a few times a day, and when it opens all traffic on one of the main roads on the island comes to a standstill. It’s quite narrow, and dredged to 15 feet only in the middle (storms and tides perpetually attempt to fill it back in). The mega yachts that are the bread and butter of St Maarten tourism are a very tight fit!

Our little tiny Sanitas had no problems fitting through the bridge during its 3:00 opening. We could tell the word about the swell had gotten around – there were at least eight boats lined up and waiting to go through with us. After anchoring in the bathtub calm lagoon, we dinghied over to the St Maarten Yacht Club for a happy hour drink with sailing friends and to watch the 5:00 bridge opening. It was so much fun, it became our daily habit. The yacht club patio is right next to the bridge, and it’s full of tourists at happy hour. Beer in one hand, camera in the other, everyone is excited to watch the beautiful sailing vessels and massive gleaming mega yachts pass through.

I think there’s also a glimmer of hope that one of the boats will add a bit of excitement by getting stuck, or even by running right into the bridge. That may sound crazy, but MV Ecstasea did just that last December – hit the bridge tender’s station, sending the poor man jumping to safety and ripping the cement structure right off the side of the bridge!

YouTube video of bridge collision

We didn’t see anything that exciting, thank goodness. But one mega yacht made it halfway through the bridge when they drifted too far to starboard and had to throw it in reverse really fast to get the heck out of there. Since they were the last boat in the afternoon’s parade, the bridge tender lost patience and closed the bridge with the yacht still inside the lagoon. After letting traffic across, he reopened the bridge about ten minutes later so they could escape. (I looked it up later – requesting a special bridge opening costs $1000! This massive yacht looked like they could afford it)

Capt Mike and I would stand next to the land lubbers tourists and say something like, “glad the wind was calm when we sailed through this morning” and next thing you know, we’d have a new best friend, listening to sailing stories, asking us about boat life and exchanging cards. Come to think of it, I wonder why no one ever bought us a drink?

Even more fun than watching the bridge opening is listening to it on the VHF radio. The bridge tender does get a little feisty from time to time. Usually, he tries to encourage his little flock of boats to get through the bridge as quickly as possible so he can get the road reopened and clear traffic. You hear lots of “Come on Captain , pick up the pace!” and “Full speed ahead Captain, the bridge is closing!” On one 10:30 am opening, the bridge tender was really having a bad day. The last boat wasn’t moving fast enough, and he closed the bridge on him, trapping the boat inside the lagoon until the next outward opening at 3:00 pm. The captain hailed him on the radio in heavily accented English and asked if he could go out during the inbound opening at 11:30. The bridge tender read him the riot act “You know the schedule! You should have planned better. You got a problem, you call my boss. You don’t complain to me mon!” One of our buddy boats was entering the lagoon at the 11:30 openings and I warned them that the bridge tender was not to be trifled with today. We eavesdropped on the VHF and sure enough heard, “White sailboat, where you going? Don’t sail away! The bridge is open now, and you gotta get yourself through it, or I’ll close it on you!” Lol. Good fun! I’m going to miss the entertainment when we move on to quieter anchorages!

A little too close for comfort at Sint Maarten’s airport

Have you heard about the Princess Juliana International airport on the Dutch side of Sint Maarten? If not, please finish reading my story first 😘 and then search for it on YouTube. You’ll thank me, I promise.

The runway at this international airport starts just across a narrow road from Maho Beach. That mean you can get REALLY close to some REALLY big planes. I’m not that into airplanes. Or danger. Or loud noises. So I didn’t think a visit to the beach would be much fun at all. But it’s something you’ve absolutely got to do when you visit St Martin. And once we found a parking space, and walked down to the narrow coarse sand beach, I quickly got hooked! Here’s how it works:

Tourists hang out on the beach in bikinis, holding beer bottles, and keeping one eye on the single short runway less than 100 yards to the east, and the other on the horizon to the west. Arriving flights first appear as a small speck on the horizon. Once they’ve lined up for that oh-so-close runway, the speck grows into a plane fast! If it’s a commuter plane from nearby St Barts or tiny Saba island, it’s still impressive to see a plane roar by directly over your head and touch down RIGHT over there.

But if it’s one of the big 737s from Toronto or New York…. well then it’s just crazy! The speck turns into a little plane then into a huge plane, and next thing you know you’re looking straight up at a bright blue plane belly labeled Delta. The engine noise roars in your ears. You can clearly see the landing gear and the all the details of the bottom of the wings. Approaching planes clear the fence by only 100 feet – less if they need a last minute course correction or encounter a cross wind. A tour guide told us that the beach changes constantly due to wind and weather conditions. A few weeks ago, a rare west wind had built up a seven-foot drift of sand. Visitors who stood on the drift were almost even with the top of the barrier fence. Phew! No way! Just standing on the beach was close enough for me.

Departing planes taxi toward the beach, then slowly turn east toward the interior of the island. The assembled beachgoers wave, which I initially thought was a little bit hokey. But… the planes are so close, you can actually see the faces of the pilot and co-pilot. Pretty soon, I got caught up in it all and started waving wildly at each departing plane. And if you’re there between 2:00 and 4:00, you’ll see the big ‘uns. The fence that separates the airport from the road is painted in red and white warning stripes at the middle of the runway. Traffic in both directions stops (on one of the main roads on the island) because drivers don’t want jetwash to scour the paint off their vehicles. The jet engines ramp up. The roar gets louder. When the big plane starts rolling, the jetwash across the road and across the beach is fierce! Hats blow off heads. Towels and toys bags blow into the ocean. If you’re crazy enough to stand right against the fence, you’d get blown backwards. No way! I was satisfied just watching the chaos around me.

48 Hours in Anguilla

We left the British Virgin Islands at least a week earlier than planned, because weather forecasts predicted very strong trade winds for the next few weeks. As Chris Parker from the Marine Weather Forecasting Center said, “Head east from the BVIs on Sunday January 5th – or don’t count on leaving until some time in February.” Yikes! That got our attention!

So we got everything prepped, staged ourselves in the north sound of Virgin Gorda, and took off on our first big passage of the season the next day. We left the sound around 1:00 pm and sailed 20 hours into wind, waves, and current. Uncomfortable, but never unsafe. The trip was soooo bouncy, that both Capt. Mike and I had wacky dreams when we tried to nap between watches. Mike dreamt that gravity no longer worked, and he kept floating away. I dreamed that we’d gotten into such shallow water that we were plowing Sanitas through mud, and then I had to jump out and push her up a dirt road. Obviously we didn’t get much rest, lol! Our buddy boats Tanda Tula and Willful headed straight to St Martin and it was comforting watching their mast lights all through the night. But Mike and I decided to squeeze in a quick visit to Anguilla before the big winds show up.

Visitors to the British island of Anguilla will find two main pastimes: going to the beach, and eating delicious food. Sometimes these pastimes are combined – eating delicious food while sitting on a beach! It doesn’t get much better than that! With 33 beaches to choose from you’d sure need more than two days to visit them all and to find a favorite!

We anchored in Road Bay and after a brief nap, cleared customs with the nicest customs agents in the world. It’s free to clear in for little boats like ours. I’m pretty sure they figure we’ll spend the money we saved in the restaurants! Road Bay was a nice change from the forced merrymaking of the BVIs in high season. The beach is made of the softest sand ever and is lined with beach bars and restaurants. There were only about four charter boats and a handful of cruisers in the anchorage. And the town of Sandy Ground is right there – so it’s a dynamic mix of visitors and locals.

After a long walk around the salt pond, talking to the ducks, we had one of Ivy’s famous rum punches at Dad’s Bar and Grill. Reviews from other cruisers said they have the fastest WiFi on the beach, so it was worth the price of the drink to catch up on our podcast downloads and to edit photos. For dinner, we had tapas at The Sandbar. You’d never guess by looking at this beachside shack during the day that after sunset, it turns into a world class restaurant and cocktail bar. After a plate of seafood fra diavlo and cumin crusted pork loin, we understood all the rave reviews.

The next day, we hiked from Road Bay on the north side of the island to Rondezvous Bay on the south. Google maps said it would take us 2 hours, but we found some shortcuts and shaved off 20 minutes. Whatever the distance, it was worth it! This beach has the softest, whitest sand I’ve ever seen.

I meant for us to walk the whole length of the longest beach in Anguilla before stopping for lunch. But the quirky Sunshine Shack beach bar pulled us into its orbit. We just stopped for a cold beverage, but the plates of ribs coming off the grill looked and smelled amazing. So we broke down. Ribs for Mike and whole grilled snapper for me, and it was every bit as delicious as we’d hoped. That’s the best thing about Anguilla – whether you eat it a high-end resort or at a beach barbecue, the chef takes great pride in her food, and stakes her reputation on every dish.

We FINALLY made it to Bankie Banx’s Dune Preserve just before the music started. It’s a bit different than your usual beach bar – a rambling wooden property built a bit back from the beach, with sea grape bushes and other dune vegetation growing through the gaps. And there’s definitely a pirate theme. Capt. Mike felt right at home. Bankie Banx is a world-renowned musician, so even though we’d planned to be back at the boat before dark, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see him live. Besides! All the celebrities come here on their visits to Anguilla. The bartender showed us where Cuba Gooding Jr signed the wall last summer. And he regaled us with stories about when Justin Bieber arrived unannounced and asked to perform. (Bankie Banx had never heard of him 😜) We thoroughly enjoyed Bankie’s set, which ranged from raggae to blues to soul, and we’d have stayed much later except that the wind picked up sending a thick cloud of that sugar-fine white sand through the bar, and chasing us out. I’m pretty sure we fit as much into our short stop in Anguilla as we possibly could!

Old Year’s Night at Foxy’s

On the day after Christmas, we made the short hop from St John to Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. Along with our friends Zach and Lindy on Holiday, we planned to find the perfect spot to wait for New Year’s Eve. The annual party at Foxy’s bar and restaurant is legendary. This year’s theme was “Aladdin” with costumes encouraged, and we’d learned that Foxy had already sold over 100 VIP tickets at $600 each. Yikes! Way above our cruisers’ budget, but we could hang out with the little people for free (or at least for the cost of a couple of rum punches).

We picked up a mooring ball for $30 per night – sort of like paying for a spot in a campground on land – and settled into the neighborhood. Great Harbor is the biggest “town” on Jost van Dyke, but that’s not saying much! One sand-covered road follows the curve of the bay, there’s the ferry dock and customs, and a few restaurants and bars. It’s the only place on the island where you can clear into the BVIs, so there’s plenty of boat traffic and comings and goings.

Just around the corner is the famous White Bay – home of the Soggy Dollar Bar and inventor of the painkiller cocktail. It’s named the Soggy Dollar because power boats anchor just off the beautiful sandy beach and their passengers hop in and wade ashore – ending up with wet wallets in the process. It’s a beautiful beach for a float!

One beach bar over from Soggy Dollar is Gertrude’s where, as the sign says “You are allowed to pour your own drink.” For $10 you get a cup, a pitcher of painkiller mix, a bottle of rum, and a nutmeg grater – get to work! Our buddy Zach might have had a bit of a heavy hand with the rum bottle. Gertrude gave him a stern look and said in her best mom voice, “I tink that’s enough now.”

As New Year’s Eve approached, the harbor got steadily more crowded. In addition to the usual cruiser and charter boats, a small cruise ship, a handful of mega yachts, and a triple masted schooner showed up and anchored just outside the bay. The theory that there’s always room for one more made for some interesting situations. We watched a moorings charter boat that had run aground on the shoal at the edge of the harbor get towed off the rocks. And a 54 foot monohull tried to anchor in the middle of the mooring field but their anchor kept dragging. Mike and Zach had to leap into action to rescue it when, unattended, it dragged quickly during a wind shift and almost ran into a huge catamaran. As Mike started the motor and put the boat in forward and Zach worked the anchor, the captain of the catamaran kept yelling at them, “I told you not to anchor there!” Capt. Mike finally had to set him straight, “It’s not my boat man! I’m just keeping it from hitting you!”

Finally, the night of the party arrived! There’s a term “Cruiser’s Midnight” which roughly equates to 10:00 pm. Maybe earlier on some boats! We’re kind of a rise with the sun sort of crowd. So I wasn’t quite sure how we’d deal with a social event that required us to actually stay awake until real midnight.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the party’s not only at Foxy’s. Instead, the whole town is one big street fair, with pop-up bars, barbecue restaurants, and little shops lining the one main street. In the crowd overflowing from Corsair’s we met the skipper of the boat Mike and Zach rescued earlier. He was very nice and thanked them profusely, even buying us a round of VooDoo cocktails.

Eventually we did make it over to Foxy’s where the band was fantastic and the crowd was sparkly and in a great mood. It was a super fun night and a great way to ring in 2020. I even made it past midnight!

My Favorite National Park

While St Thomas is cruise ships and duty free shops (and beautiful beaches, let’s be honest), St John is its more laid back, hippy cousin. So guess which one appeals to this Boulder, Colorado chick?

When we learned that SV Wilfull and SV Tanda Tula were spending one last night in St John before heading to the British Virgins, Capt. Mike and I raised anchor and hurried over to St John to see them one more time. Heading east means upwind, but we’re in no hurry, so we kept the motor off and enjoyed the sail tacking as close to the wind as our staysail would allow.

Once we’d settled in on a mooring ball in Maho Bay we could start to appreciate all that St John has to offer. About 2/3 of the island is National Park with protected rainforest and coastal waters. And it’s kind of hard to get there – no airport, a ferry ride away from Red Hook, only one big international resort. Which means the beaches are lovely, but not covered with lounge chairs. The waters are perfect for swimming, and the giant sea turtles aren’t the slightest bit afraid of us inconsequential humans. Independent travelers rent a van and pack a cooler and circle the island, exploring the differing delights of each bay just around the next corner or hiking the steep trails from the island’s mountainous spine down to its beaches.

Maho Bay is sea turtle paradise – small agile turtles, big turtles with remora fish clinging to their shells, and huge ancient turtles that stare back at you placidly when you dive down to their level. Mike and I never got tired of calling out, “Look! Turtle! Look! Turtle!” from the cockpit. And when we got tired of snorkeling, usually coincidentally right around happy hour, we’d head ashore to the new Maho Collective. This combination tiki bar, food truck park, paddle board rental, and boutique has an inviting island vibe and feels like a backyard barbecue at your cool friend’s house. The owner, Dave lived in Vail for a while so we sat on a wicker sofa after closing time and told island stories and mountain stories. Fabulous guy that he is, he even bought all six of us a round of drinks!

Once our friends moved on, Capt. Mike and I set out to explore all the new and happening spots on St John – well, at least all the spots that the weather conditions allowed. After hiking St Francis bay, we dropped our national park mooring ball and sailed east to Hansen’s Bay just outside the park boundaries. Being outside the park, we were able to anchor for free, rather than spending $26 per night for a mooring ball. Hmmm… what to do with that extra money? Spend the afternoon at a floating taco and cocktail bar, of course!

Lime Out is a lime green barge, only accessible by boat, kayak, or paddle board. Tie up, jump in the water, and drift over to one of the huge floats or to the swim up bar. Look over the short menu of gourmet tacos (think seared tuna, shrimp with pesto, or surf and turf) and craft cocktails. Place your order with one of the cheerful, efficient young waitresses who can answer any questions about ingredients and allergies. Even when the place is jammed with people, your order will come out super fast – drinks served in insulated stainless steel mugs, so no trash or single-use plastics. Tacos come in these cute little divided take-out containers made of compostable material. If you’re sitting on a yellow float, they’ll place your order on a pool float and give it a push to drift across the water to you. Finished, and have empty taco containers? The waitress reaches out with one of those long handled swimming pool skimmers to collect your trash. They’ve got this whole thing figured out. And speaking of trash, if you eat your scrumptious tacos at the swim up bar, a few scraps of guacamole or lettuce are bound to fall in the water. Never fear! A school of fish hang out under the barge just waiting to swoop in and snatch up your scraps. I have to admit, it’s a bit unnerving the first time it happens! When you get hot, slip into the water and borrow one of Lime Out’s swim noodles or floating chairs. When you get chilly, clamber up onto one of the sectional-couch-sized floats and chat with your neighbor. All in all, spending an afternoon at Lime Out is tons of fun.

After the Lime Out restaurant raised anchor and motored away on Sunday evening, Sanitas was left alone for a quiet evening. The next morning, we ducked around the corner to Salt Pond Bay, back inside the park. The beach here is a bit off the beaten path, and it’s quieter than on the north shore. From the beach, there’s a lovely easy hike to Ram’s Head with wonderful views. The trail meanders through clusters of barrel cactus with bright red blossoms. If you look closely, you’ll find a few with bright pink fruits shaped like chili peppers that grow right out the top of the cactus. Very cool! If you’re visiting St John, the hike to Ram’s Head is a must!

After all this traveling around, somehow the holidays snuck up on us. Southerly winds drove us away from St John’s south coast anchorages, so we turned the corner to the west coast and ducked into Cruz Bay on Christmas Eve. Cruz Bay is the “big city” on St John, with all the services we were missing after our stay in the park – grocery stores, hair salon, restaurants, and strong free wifi at the ferry dock. We certainly took advantage of all these things, and soaked up the tropical holiday atmosphere. As an added bonus, we caught up with Carina on Northern Star who we met back in St Petersburg, FL in 2017. At the time, she and her husband and two adorable dogs were in the process of moving from Texas to the Virgin Islands on their sailboat. Lots of fun to check in two years later to find out how it went, and how much they are enjoying their new island home!

I hope all of you had happy and healthy holidays! Here’s to the best for you in 2020!