Sunday, January 1, 2012

Stupid Perfect Wind

We left St. Lucia early Monday, December 26th hoping to reach the French chain of islands, Les Saintes that are just south of Guataloupe, by Tuesday morning. I could smell the cappuccino as we roared right past, two hours ahead of schedule. For the first time in a very long while we had perfect east winds on our beam at between 15 and 20 knots and Alberta Crewed was flying. Since we have a few miles to cover in the next few weeks, we decided to keep going. I was rewarded for my coffee and croissant sacrifice with a meteor shower over Guadaloupe during my shift on night watch. One fire ball was so bright it left its tail dripping for a few seconds. We learned that the currents were with us, adding one or two knots of speed on the south parts of the islands, and taking away those gains for a mile or two on the northern ends. We slowed down substantially in the lee of Martinique’s Mt. Pelee volcano as its shadow blocked out the stars. Napoleon’s Josephine was born on Martinique and it is the last of the Windward Islands, the southern Caribbean island chain running north-south and perfect for island hopping with the east trade winds. 
The Leeward Islands start to arc to the west, beginning with Dominica and splitting to either Antigua and Barbuda in the northeast or Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts on a northwest path. We took the shortest route past Montserrat where for the first time we had to do a volcanic activity check as part of our sail plan. The island’s active Soufriere volcano last erupted in 2008 and there are sea areas that are out of bounds to boats. The island is a contrast of stark volcanic ash deltas in the south and lush green fields in the north. The residents should receive medals for fortitude and stamina as the volcano looms menacingly in the south over homes that are precariously hanging on the northern rocky cliffs, completely exposed to heavy east winds. It doesn’t look like there is any protection from hurricanes. 
We expected to reach our final destination, St. Maarten, by early Wednesday morning but the stupid perfect winds got even better. We lowered the main and furled in the genoa a few wraps to slow ourselves down but 6 knots was as low as we could go. Another catamaran with full main and genoa passed us but had to work to do so. We are sometimes asked with skepticism about how well Alberta Crewed sails. Some sailors think that catamarans don’t sail as well as monohulls believing that because cats are much wider without a deep keel, they don’t bite into the water enough to point into the wind. This particular evening I think we could have made 6 knots with our courtesy flag alone which meant we again arrived hours ahead of schedule, in the middle of the night. It was a glorious sail. 
St. Maarten is a busy mega-yacht and cruise ship harbour so we bobbed around just outside the bay until dawn waiting to anchor permanently. What at night looked like dozens of tall communications towers turned out by day to be 5-spreader (we have 2 of these structural supports for the mast) high luxurious sailboats with masts reaching over 100 feet into the air. Usually sailboats have a white light at the top of the mast but these are so tall they need red as beacons for the nearby airport. As the sun rose, we found ourselves with half a dozen 200+ foot yachts on one side of us and St. Maarten’s famous airport on the other. Check out youtube for some harrowing video of planes landing almost on spectators’ heads while touching down on the short airstrip. We’ve spent the last few days watching commercial jets and private Gulf Streams scream up into a steep bank as they take off to avoid the mountains at the other end.
Our mega yacht neighbours that have dinghies bigger than Alberta Crewed are often anchored waiting for the Simpson Bay drawbridge to raise, allowing them into the mega-yacht dock in the protected lagoon. The Yacht Club bar overlooks the drawbridge passage and the oversized yachts squeezing through the narrow abutments make for great entertainment as patrons line the bar rails to watch and gawk. There is a big chunk of the concrete structure torn out by one poor captain whose boat didn’t make it. Rumour has it he was fired on the spot. 
The southern Dutch side of St. Maarten’s commerce is built for mega yachts and cruise ships with expensive hotels, casinos, and dozens of duty free jewelry and liquor stores. The northern side is a walk through France with cafes, patisseries, and boutiques.  It is quiet and has the chic french air of sophistication and Parisian tastes of imported wine and good cheese.  I finally savoured my long awaited espresso and pastry.  It was worth the wait.

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