Thursday 14 March 2013

St Martin

St Martin is a curious place, part-French, part-Dutch. The apocryphal story is that rather than fight over the island, a Frenchman walked in one direction, a Dutchman in the other, and where they met they drew the border. The island has embraced tourism wholeheartedly and is full of hotels, casinos and duty-free shops. The Dutch capital, Philipsburg is a major cruise ship terminal and as we sail past into Simpson Bay there are no less than four huge liners in the dock with thousands of eager cruisers pacing down the dock in white socks and training shoes, armed with cameras and US dollars, the national currency.

St Martin has also become one of the main yachting centres in the Caribbean, largely because of Simpson Bay lagoon, almost 12 square miles of landlocked water accessed by two channels, one on the French side and the larger one on the Dutch side. The lagoon is home to hundreds of boats and a medley of super yachts which only just squeeze through the channel with inches to spare. A lifting bridge opens twice a day to give boats access in and out of the lagoon and it's fun to watch super yachts bristling with uniformed crew, vying for position in the queue with twenty foot sailing boats.

We decide to avoid the hustle and bustle of the lagoon and instead we anchor our in the bay. Clearing customs here is a lengthy process. Unlike the French DIY system on a computer that takes about five minutes, this involves filling out forms with carbon paper, visiting the immigration booth, then the customs booth and then back to immigration again. This is a busy customs port but fortunately our timing is good and by the time I leave there is a long queue behind me, caused mainly because the customs officer is on the phone to a friend and her mind in elsewhere. We all smile politely and thank them for letting us in to spend our money in their country.

Fatty and I take the tender into the lagoon and motor to Marigot on the French side. It is run-down and dirty, with shops boarded up and others obviously in decline. The comparison with St Barths only 10 miles away couldn't be more stark. After a quick breakfast we return to the Dutch yacht club where we have fast wifi, good coffee and a great view of the lifting bridge opening. We try and buy a jerry can of diesel but we are told that the minimum spend is thirty US dollars and no, we can't just pay them thirty dollars because then their book wouldn't balance. Frustrated by the whole experience we are glad to leave for Anguilla, another ten miles north and our last stop before the BVI.

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