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!

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