I was stuck in a fake tropical village built at the cruise-ship docks near Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. Four huge ships were parallel-parked, each spewing thousands of passengers into the gated duty-free jewelry stores and rum bars. I had two hours to kill before boarding Sagitta, the 120-foot three-masted sailboat that would be my home for twelve days on a tour of some of the Leeward Caribbean islands. Time for a tab of Dramamine.
Sagitta (pronounced “Sa-GEE-ta”) is actually a motorized yacht with sails, a former commercial vessel refitted to work as a cruise ship while masquerading as a 19th-century windjammer. Its dinghy transported some other passengers and me across the harbor. We clambered up the ladder where the captain and crew of nine welcomed us aboard. Many of the passengers, twenty Americans and Canadians, had cruised with Island Windjammers before. A good sign. (The company Island Windjammers is not associated with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises which went out of business in 2008.)
I stowed my gear in the closet-sized solo cabin, a single bunk with just enough room to stand next to it. A coffin, one passenger called it. The standard cabins are much larger. The anchor was hoisted and we motored for a few hours through wind and drizzle to Saint-Barthélemy (Saint-Barth). The swells were ten-feet-high and occasionally splashed over the deck. My dose of Dramamine did the trick although it made me drowsy. A few of the others were not as fortunate. The captain strolled through the cabin of queasy passengers, wickedly humming the theme song of Gilligan’s Island: “A three-hour tour …”
Eventually we anchored at Gustavia, Saint-Barth’s capital, and enjoyed dinner on deck under the stars. Tarpon swam around the boat, attracted by the lights. Saint-Barth is an overseas collectivity of France (equivalent to a state in the U.S.). Nine-thousand residents populate its ten square miles. Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in 1493 and named it for his brother Bartolomeo. Saint-Barth was settled by the French in 1648, but its control shifted back and forth between the French, Carib Indians, French pirates and the British. In 1748 it was sold to Sweden in exchange for trading rights. France repurchased the island in 1878. Today it is famous as a playground for the wealthy. The locals speak both French and English and accept euros.
Day One: The ship is named Sagitta after the arrow-shaped constellation of the same name (not Sagittarius). In Greek mythology, Sagitta was the name of the arrow Hercules used to kill the eagle (Aquila) of Jove.
I slept surprisingly well in my coffin although I was afraid I’d fall out of it. At 8 a.m. the bell rang for breakfast, poached eggs and corned-beef hash served on the main deck. Four cooked meals are served every day on a regular schedule, including lunch and dinner on the upper deck under the stern tarp, weather permitting, and a snack at 5 p.m.
When in harbor, the crew runs a dinghy into shore every hour on the hour. I took the 9 a.m. ashore to tour Gustavia. The ship’s chef, another passenger and I set out to hike across the island to the beach at Baie de Saint-Jean. Along the way, a rider on a motorscooter slid sideways on the hilly road, nearly hitting the three of us. He appeared to be okay except for a couple of likely broken toes. (He was wearing sandals.) We helped him back on his scooter and he sped away.
Halfway across the island is a saddle between two hills that pilots use as a landmark. The town of Saint-Barth is one side; the airport runway is the other. Pilots aim to barely clear the saddle before diving to the tarmac on the far side. Meanwhile, cars drive the road that traverses the saddle while planes lose altitude just a few feet above their roofs. It makes for some close calls.
Back in Gustavia, I walked around the harbor and up to the old prison and bell tower for a wonderful view of the town and Fort Oscar on the other side. For the 5 p.m. snack, the ship provided a selection of cheese and pâte from the French market on the island. A full moon floodlit the deck.
Day Two: After breakfast, we circled the island and anchored in the bay at Anse du Columbier. Four others and I hiked a steep rocky trail for the view down to the bay and the ship. On top, a security guard allowed us down a drive to the former home of David Rockefeller in order to take photos of the bay. We continued our hike on roads through the village of Flamands and back around to a lower trail, returning to the beach. Saw two tortoises along the way. Snorkeled for an hour until the dinghy picked us up. As in French Saint-Martin, many of the beachgoers sun themselves minus their tops.
The ship raised its anchor and set off for Anguilla, a British overseas territory, with sails up. Sagitta‘s sail-raising theme song is “Knee Deep,” recorded by the Zac Brown Band with Jimmy Buffett:
Knee deep in the water somewhere
Got the blue sky breeze blowing wind through my hair
Only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair
The sail was a bit choppy in places but better than the day before. I took half a tab of Dramamine at breakfast and the other half at lunch. Still drowsy in the afternoon, I fell asleep on deck–until a wave drenched me.
Day Three: We were anchored in Road Bay, Anguilla. Anguilla has a population of approximately 16,000 spread over 35 square miles. The interor is flat and non-descript, but the perimeter is lined with stunning white-sand beaches and coral reefs. Anguilla was first settled by prehistoric tribes from South America around 1300 BC. The English colonized the island in 1650 AD, followed by the French. As throughout the Caribbean, slaves were brought from Africa to work on sugar-cane plantations. In 1980 Anguilla became a separate British Crown colony and is now a British overseas territory. The currency is Eastern Caribbean dollars (ECs). As Anguilla has no taxes to speak of, it is a popular financial haven and home to many offshore banks.
Once our passports cleared customs, the dinghy took us ashore. We were met at the Sandy Ground dock by taxis, which transported us to Shoal Bay, the two-mile white-sand beach the guidebooks call the prettiest in the Caribbean. It would be difficult to argue. Not too crowded, the beach was clean and the waves gentle. We rented beach chairs and umbrellas for $5. The boat provided sandwiches and a cooler of drinks. I ran the length of the beach a couple of times. In town, we passed a school building carefully painted, the top half in pink, the bottom in burgundy. Its students wore matching pink shirts and burgundy trousers or skirts.
Ships at sea are tracked by the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which exchanges position, course and speed data with nearby ships and ports. The information helps manage traffic and avoid collisions. On Sagitta‘s wheelhouse computer, the captain showed me info on the vessels nearby.
Sea turtles paddled on the surface of the water around the ship. Bait fish jumped out of the water, scared by larger ones. I took a half-tab of Dramamine in preparation for tonight’s crossing of the Anegada Channel to the British Virgin Islands (BVIs). After dinner, another passenger and I identified constellations with binoculars from the deck.
Day Four: After the overnight run, we anchored in St. Thomas Bay near Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda in the BVIs. It took half of a day to get through customs. Our operations manager took our passports ashore, but returned with paperwork for us to complete. These forms had to be returned to shore and approved before we were allowed to disembark. After lunch, we dinghied in. A shuttle bus delivered us to Baths National Park where huge granite boulders formed by volcanoes lie in piles on the beach, forming scenic grottoes. It’s a natural Neverlandish waterpark. I hiked a fantastic trail of rocks, caves, pools, rope bridges and ladders to reach Devils Bay National Park. Snorkeled at the foot of the boulders and saw a few colorful fish. Hiked back on the trail, then shuttled to the boat in time for dinner on deck.
Virgin Gorda, at eight square miles, is the third-largest and second most populous of the BVIs. Christopher Columbus thought the island’s profile resembled a fat woman lying on her side and named it “The Fat Virgin.” Pirates, such as Bluebeard and Captain Kidd, used its reefs and coves as a base for attacking Spanish treasure ships. The British established successful slave-powered sugar-cane plantations, starting in the late 17th century.
Day Five: Breakfast of saltfish, bake and plantains, Western-Indian style. (Bake is fried bread. You slice it in half like a bun and spoon a warm mixture of flaked saltfish, onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and parsley into it. Delicious!) The ship’s Nevis-born chef treated us daily to island flavors, cooked with local produce: lamb curry, jerk chicken, mahi mahi, bbq-ed ribs, coconut shrimp, saltfish, plantains, kale, sweet potatoes, jicama, mango, rice and peas, seaweed salad, green-banana salad, calliloo soup, tamarind chutney and more.
The ship moved before breakfast to the North Sound of Virgin Gorda near Prickly Pear Island. Passed the home of Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, on Necker Island. We dinghied into the Bitter End Yacht Club, where I ran for a couple of miles. After lunch on deck, we motorsailed to Marina Cay, an island apparently owned by Pusser’s Rum, near Tortola, where we watched the sun set.
Life on board has its own schedule. I can only access the internet on shore, usually for only a few minutes every other day. I wake, drink coffee, eat, dinghy ashore, hike or go to the beach, eat, snorkel, nap, play games, eat, read, maybe shower, identify constellations, go to bed. I have acquired my sea legs. I have lost touch with the world.