Last Fall, good friends (Caliber 40 Owners) invited us to share a charter with them and another couple (now new friends) on a crewed Festiva Sailing Vacations catamaran sailing out of St. Maarten. “Yes,” was not a hard answer to come up with! With all three couples having been involved in project management during their careers, the plans and details came together quickly, and then we waited for the date.
The 0500 hrs start was painful (even having practiced for it for a couple of days ahead), though the pain was eased by Devon, our excellent limo driver. The travel went smoothly — for modern travel — and we stepped aboard the boat, a Lagoon 44, “Smitten Kitten,” crewed by Patrick and Pascale at 1730. We were actually moving toward the boat in Simpson Bay Marina for five hours and thirty-five minutes. The other ~ seven hours were spent in some form of waiting — queued or otherwise.
Patrick and Pascale, a multi-decade, husband & wife charter team from the SW of France, quickly showed themselves to be in the top drawer of their profession, and they reinforced that view throughout the charter. We particularly appreciated their willingness to answer endless questions (more about the food a bit farther down). They were a major part of our most excellent experience.
Our first night on board we stayed in the marina surrounded by high quality cruising boats similar to our own boats and grander. Quite a few were there to race in the 37th Annual Heineken Regatta. Dinner (more about the food a bit farther down) provided a clear demarcation between travel and charter. Light squalls provided a lullaby. Lights were out early…
OK, about the food. Janet and I felt we were continuously dining at a Michelin Three Star* Auberge. Pascale’s menu took full advantage of their culture and the Caribbean context. Patrick’s grilling revealed a kindred spirit. [* “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage.)]
Pascale’s willingness and inventiveness at working around food allergies and dislikes was most welcome. Our meals were plentiful, creative, wonderfully seasoned and playfully plated. Dining starts with the nose followed by eyes and palate. Pascale and Patrick addressed all three with skill and aplomb — especially on the days when we were on a rolling reach in 25 knot winds with 10 foot swells [11-12 sec period] topped with three foot seas.
Mid-morning, we left Simpson Bay for Anguilla and were sad to watch Symmetry, a 96 foot German Frers apparently lose all power in a crosswind and current. Even with the help of a swarm of inflatables, she rammed the bridge at the Bay exit channel. The delay bothered us far less than it did the land traffic that couldn’t see what was happening. Symmetry almost went on the rocks before the Coast Guard arrived. Instead, it appeared she might have gotten away with just a new anchor and roller ($$$$$).
Putting the excitement behind us we headed for the Prickly Pear Cays off the SW tip of Anguilla for the first snorkeling. By rule, the anchorage we used is only accessible to captained yachts — bareboats are prohibited. After seeing the sinuous, shallow, swell-full passage we know why.
From there, it was up to Small Bay with its cactus-covered and bird-filled cliffs and then south to Crocus Bay for the night. It was very quiet and quite calm. The Tradewinds were pushed up by the cliffs and soared over us, leaving only intermittent post-midnight sprinkles. We noted that not having the concerns of boat operation and meal preparation left us all chillaxin sooner and more thoroughly than usual. Will we ever go back to bareboating?
Monday morning (already?) found us back at the cliffs of Small Bay for a snorkel before leaving for a sail back through the Prickly Pear Cays and up to Rendezvous Bay. The wind — absent the week before our trip — was coming back with authority! We were sailing! …and what sailing!
Rendezvous Bay was nearly vacant, gin clear, and had maybe six inch swells. We swam to the beach and chatted pleasantly with some folks who needed more sunscreen… The sun here, even in great 76-80 degree day temps, was merciless when it came to UV. We slathered on 70 and 30 and wore SPF 50 long-sleeves when diving or up at the more exposed steering cockpit.
On the way in we saw Casa Blanca another Caliber 40 with a crew known to our friends. Patrick and Pascale offered to host them for cocktails and appetizers, and they joined us for a while once we had anchored.
The nightly routine was settling in. Generous cocktails, generous, tasty appetizers, tropical breezes, NO bugs, generous memory-making meals, inspired desserts, intermittent short-lived squalls, hours (upon hours) of boat talk, and quiet sleeping ended by scrumptious aromas to go with Bonjour…
We wandered Marigot the next morning and said hello to our friend Christophe, the Maitre d’ at Tropicana, our favorite bistro from 2007 & 2008. From there it was watching the world go by from a harbor bistro til Patrick picked us all up in the RIB for the next lunch and sail.
We asked Patrick and Pascale to join us, and we made our way to Le Cottage which translates with some difficulty to “The Cottage.” This was an exceptional dinner. The menu was similar to Pascale’s and Patrick’s — French with Caribbean grace notes. The service was like theirs as well — attentive, but unobtrusive, and they did together what four took care of here. All the while, the Carnival marchers drummed and paraded along the street fronting the restaurant. Thankfully, we were seated at the very back in a semi-banquette that allowed for air flow but kept the parade noise down enough we could converse. The food and wine (a light and fruity Pouilly Fumé) and company were excellent. Bravo, Le Cottage!
Bravo, Grand Case! — It was so jammed Gendarmes were turning people away at the highway turn-in. Leaving Le Cottage, we joined the marchers as far as the dinghy landing to head back out to Smitten Kitten before the next line of squalls put a damper on us.
Again, squalls sent us to sleep, and the edges of tradewind swells rocked us gently.
The next day, it was clear if we didn’t bolt for St. Bart’s we wouldn’t be going there this trip. The wind speed would be manageable but waiting a day would put it on the nose. Catamarans like this one don’t like wind on the nose. So, it was up, eat, and away for Anse Marcel and the marina there where we took on ice and water. Going in and out, we watched and were cautiously regarded by dozens of iguana of two species. It was interesting the way they segregated themselves by size but not by species. They were on the rocks and in the trees and moving slowly between one and the other.
Even with a favorable wind direction, this was sailing you need to be a sailor to enjoy. It was pitchy, rolly, sometimes wet and a blast. We reached along at 10 plus knots the whole way. The cat had a motion unusual to us monohull folks, but we adjusted pretty quickly. It might have been a bit more comfortable in a monohull, but it sure would have been slower and a lot less level. It changed my mind about the sailing qualities of a catamaran.
We reached Gustavia in time for our appointed tour of the island with taxi driver Florian. We saw far more of St. Bart’s this time. It’s much more developed than we realized — perhaps the magazines that advertise the high-end watches (you know the ones) tell the story in just a few words. When were were here last, they were in French and English. Now they are in French, English, and Russian. The tour was really worthwhile.
For comfort’s sake we moved the boat around to Anse Colombier (Columbus Bay) where the Rockefeller’s first Caribbean mansion decays. The swell all but disappeared but the trade-winds squeezed between two peaks and strengthened and eddied. This was our most restless anchorage yet — for the boat. It moved to and fro in the gusts, and we scarcely felt a thing.
Come morning, however, it was simply too agitated to snorkel safely along the rocks, so up anchor and off we went for St. Martin. with a stop at Isle Fouroche for snorkeling with turtles, snapper, blue tangs, angelfish and lots of fire coral.
From this volcanic cone we headed for Isle Pinel. Patrick offered me the wheel, and with a little instruction for the differences between catamarans and monohulls, off we went. My large catamaran (a Rudy Choy) experience from Hawaii started bubbling up bringing a lot of memories with it. With the freer and stronger wind we were clipping along at 12+ for most of the way. Yeehaa!
The first reef entrance was too confused and so Patrick opted for the second, and we were in a scenic lee in quiet waters in mere minutes. Some of us toured Isle Pinel. Janet and I opted to veg aboard, watching the kite surfers in the adjacent bay.
Here the night squalls came earlier.
The plan for the next day was to ghost the 37th Heineken Regatta Round Island Race fleet which ever direction they were going.
This ended up being clockwise, and we hooked up with the last third of the fleet largely among the bareboats chartered for the race. Some of the seamanship we saw was a bit dodgy. I don’t think some of the crews had a feel for the sea conditions or the boats they were sailing (or the rules of the road for that matter). With our speed few boats passed us, so it was a scenic return to Simpson Bay. With one exception.
A catamaran around 36-40 feet came slashing up through the fleet under plain sail at around 25 knots. We could hear the rigging humming. The spray from the wave piercing hulls flew fifteen feet into the air to be misted off to leeward — and then they put a Code Zero or Screacher? up, and they were g…o……n………e! Patrick was actually grinning! We got a pic, but they were gone before we could manage getting a vid.
It felt funny to slip back into Simpson Bay Marina under conditions nearly identical to our arrival evening. Not deja vu (we had been there before), but still it had a familiarity almost like returning to our own slip. Racers chattered around us. Other charterers headed up the dock as if escaping. We lingered till we had to go to dinner. We ate at Lee’s Roadside Grill. No place would have fared all that well after Smitten Kitten and Le Cottage.
Breakfast the next morning had a tad of regret mixed in with the juice. Even so, as Patrick and Pascale move on with their lives we will be looking for where they crew as Polynesia calls to them again.
One thing which worked especially well was the Atrium hotel has a financial relationship with Festiva, and so we could kill time there until we got caught back up in gears of modern travel. We ate lunch at the Greenhouse, next door where the sound checks from the Heineken party musicians kept our food hot with mere acoustic energy — very good food actually — better than Lee’s? Perhaps.
Our cab driver proved the power of his brakes at least fifty times during our 12 minute trip to the airport. Where, after the high tech-low stress process of getting to the boarding gates was done, things became old fashion Caribbean again — jammed, hot, loud, delayed, multiple gate changes, passengers ignoring boarding order… We found a cooler slightly quieter place to hang out til time to board. When we returned to the meelee, we were told the plane hadn’t even arrived yet (but they had just called it for pre-boarding).
And the plane pretty much ran out of food the row behind us. Man, when did Pringles get so thin?
All told, I think I shed a couple of years even as my birthday awaited just after our return. We remembered something this trip. We may be boaters, but we are first and foremost, sailors. That’s important as we go forward.
It’s about the sailing.