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The Two Captains

Electronic Bookshelf

Tackless II - 44' CSY 5'Draft - June 1999
Subject/Area: Saba, Netherlands, Antilles

Dear SSCA:

Saba is not an easy cruising destination, and very few people seem to make it part of their itinerary heading south through the Caribbean. We have been here a week and have been the only boat here most of the time. But when I read articles about cruisers who will sail for weeks to spend a night or two at Pitcairn Island, Easter Island or the like, I wonder that so many people let themselves miss the rewards of Saba, which are primarily superb diving, superb hiking, and a very different Caribbean community.

The island thrusts up abruptly from the sea to the clouds with no gentle slope down to the sea anywhere and the only realistic anchorages are against the cliffs of Saba's West face in Ladder Bay, where four (yellow) moorings are provided by the Saba Marine Park for over-night use (the other moorings are for diving and snorkeling), and Wells Bay, tucked in behind Torrens Point and Diamond Rock where one can anchor in sand in as little as 15'. In June, which is the month I seem to get here ('92, '97, and now '99) as an early stop in our summer migration south, the basic wind comes hard on the bow, which usually points NNE as the easterly trades split around the round island, or it blasts in gusts down the cliffs. If the winds should ease, then the boat will clock around in circles exposing itself to whatever swell is present. For this reason I really recommend taking one of the moorings, rather than anchoring. On my first trip in '92, I anchored in Wells Bay where I was quite happy until a down gust in the middle of the night sent the only other boat in the bay sailing briskly forward on its rope rode into my stern! In the middle of the night, of course! The moorings, on the other hand, being well apart from one another (and well off shore) ensure you keep clear. The moorings are well-maintained by the Saba Marine Park, and are available at no charge.

The Marine Park Office, along with Customs & Immigration, the gas station (gas, diesel and water available by jerry jug only), two dive shops, a really nice lunch spot called In Two Deep and the road to the rest of the island are situated in Fort Bay which can be a hard slog (about two miles) by dinghy. No matter how warm or even-tempered the sea seems when you leave your boat, wear your foul weather jacket (or bring a change of clothes), put everything important in a dry bag, and bring a handheld VHF. We started our visit this year with a misadventure with the dinghy (about six things going wrong with it two weeks after complete servicing!) that served as an excellent reality check. We managed to get back to the boat, but were loathe to try leaving again. There's nothing to fetch up against before the Yucatan, and, with the demise of Saba Radio, there is no one to hear your radio call from the anchorage! Our solution was to wait for the dive boats (specifically Marilyn K and Fanny Mae of Sea Saba) to come around in the morning and get them to relay a message to the Marine Park Office, whose manager, Percy, came out in their patrol boat Sabena and gave us a tow in. We felt this warranted an unsolicited donation to the Marine Park, which was warmly received. If you are divers, you will want to purchase their Guide to The Saba Marine Park, with it's detailed description of the 26 dives available and its explanation of park regulations on page 19. One of the most important rules is to clear any moored dive boats well to the outside. Despite the added distance on your trek in from the anchorage, this is a rule they take seriously, as witnessed when Percy sternly dressed down a bare-boater trying to sneak by. If they hadn't been leaving, I'm not sure they would have been allowed to stay!

Fort Bay is an example of the Sabans' renowned determination to create what Mother Nature made unlikely, in this case a manmade harbor big enough to accommodate the small freighters bringing supplies, the power boats bringing day-trippers from St. Martin, the dive boats loading and unloading divers, plus an assortment of small boats and dinghies belonging to the local fishermen, whose boats remain outside the harbor on moorings. It is not a yacht basin, although you can with permission from the harbormaster bring your yacht to the dock on a time and space available basis. I wouldn't, unless it was an emergency. Cruisers can leave their dinghies at the dinghy dock on the northwest side of the harbor, but be sure to set a stern anchor.

The rewards of visiting Saba are her dives and her hiking trails. Although we have gear, tanks and a compressor on board Tackless II, a change in regulations now requires that everybody dive with one of the local operators. Although it pains us (a former dive/sail charter yacht ourselves) to PAY for diving, we can understand the thinking, especially here in Saba, where the depth of many dives exceeds the experience of most divers. (There is a recompression chamber in Fort Bay ; $1 of your dive fee goes to the chamber operation.) We signed up for several days of diving with Sea Saba, operated by John Magor and Lynne Castanero. (John and I have crossed paths a number of times in the diving business, and it may have been that relationship that prompted him to take over the repair of our outboard or it may just have been his natural orientation to helping out for which he is well-known. ) We made two pinnacle dives, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, both profiles 110-120', at different ?corners? of an offshore plateau that dramatically drops away to nothingness. Our second dives each day were at different parts of the coral garden that stretches the length of Ladder Bay, about 150 yards behind the yacht moorings. Here the coral has grown in labyrinthian ridges from 40-80' deep. Other favorite Saba dives are Diamond Rock (80'), Man of War Shoals (70'), Shark Shoal (120'), and Tent Reef (120' or 50'), plus the pinnacle dive I'd hoped to do this time on the third corner of the plateau called Close Encounter (120') with its spire known as Eye of the Needle. Oh, well, next time.

Hiking Saba does not go hand-in-glove with diving Saba, in particular the requisite climb up Mt. Scenery at nearly 3000'. Due to the deep computer-based dive profiles that load the body up with nitrogen, it's best do your hikes on separate days. After years of avoiding it, we finally trekked up the 1067 steps from the base of the trail in Windwardside to the radio tower in the clouds. The lower section was a bit disappointing with the vegetation, palms and tree ferns showing damage from Hurricane Georges (which hit Saba hard), but the summit?!!!!! It was like entering a place outside of time and man! I'm sure there was storm damage here, too, (in fact the side trail to the cloud forest appeared barred), but we were entranced with the thick jungle-like vegetation - elephant ferns, philodendrons, tannia, spectral mahogany trees draped with moss and orchids, all dripping in the cool mists while the roar of the wind sounded like pounding surf over the last rise of the trail. We had no view from the tower due to the oft present cloud, but we were not disappointed. The trail is rated at 90 minutes, each way, but we made our round trip faster?though it didn't seem like it at the time! Another hike we made was the Sandy Cruz trail, which girdles the northern, undeveloped face of Saba, from Hell's Gate to Troy. On the whole, we enjoyed this three-hour trek more because it was mixed ups, downs, and levels, with a fantastic mix of vegetation, and there is a lovely hotel down the road from the trail end which can offer a phone to call for a taxi pickup and a cold beer while you wait. Both trails are well-marked and maintained by Saba 's Trail Keepers, as are the other trails on Saba, fifteen total, according to Trail Manager James Johnson. Info can be had at the Trail Shop in Windwardside?which is supposed to open at 10am, but most taxi drivers can drop you at the trail heads.

We have spent a week here, but I must confess that we have not put up with the anchorage every night. Blessed with good friends in Windwardside, we stayed ashore every other night, returning on off nights to check for chafe and run boat systems. We usually tied these into the diving days, so that the dive boat could pick us up in the morning. If your budget affords it, you might plan for a couple of overnights in Windwardside at any of the various guest houses - a cool night's sleep in a big bed is a delicious luxury -and link your hikes to those nights. It is an intriguing multi-cultural community, and walking through the red-roofed town is delightful. Plus it's amazing what we were able to pick up at the three or four markets, in particular Big Rock Market, for a price that seemed reasonable to us Virgin Islanders: portobello mushrooms, nectarines, bagels, ricotta, leeks, frozen foods etc., a diversity we can thank the resident medical school students for, I suspect. I'm told the best shopping is on Thursdays or Fridays, after the ship comes in. Although the local currency is Dutch, US currency is accepted and US change given in return in most places!

Email: We took our computer ashore one night and plugged in for a long distance call to St. Thomas to collect our email. The phone we used has a regular RJ11 connection. I did not hear of any cybercafes?but it would seem a logical add-on to the Y2K Bakery and Grill!

The worst part about a circumnavigation-type cruise plan is leaving behind places and people like these.

Commodore Gwen Hamlin



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