After plodding from island to island in our sluggish vessel Koukla for so long we had all nearly forgotten that there was a quicker way to get from point a to point b. The four of us sat outside the Sint Maarten airport, watching, with a slight degree of disgust, all the people who did not have to spend two weeks out in the middle of the ocean to get here. We were waiting for my mother’s friend, Dianne, and her husband, Steve, to arrive.
Dianne and my mother had been friends for a long time, and her husband and she had come up to Maine to visit us, along with their two young children, each summer for a number of years. While they were with us, we always went sailing, and thus they knew a bit more about boats than your average land lubber. Also, they were somewhat outdoorsy people to begin with, partaking in such activities as rock climbing and mountain biking for at least one point in their lives, making them a bit more capable around a boat like Koukla. They had escaped from the “real” world of school and work, down to our floral-scented world of warm tropical breezes and sandy beaches. They would be staying on board with us and getting a taste of the cruising lifestyle.
The following morning, the first taste was that of buttery croissants fresh from a French bakery, followed by salty sea spray as we took a short sail to Phillipsburg. The wind was good and the weather was beautiful as we made two long tacks to round the point. The slight rocking motion and the gentle lapping of water against the hull must have lulled Dianne and Steve to sleep, because not long after the sails had been raised they both retreated to their cabin. It was not until the rattling anchor chain woke them that they emerged yawning, yet looking refreshed. They were further invigorated after jumping overboard in the warm water, clear as turquoise-tinted glass. It was quite deceptively clear, in fact, because Steve went to dive to the sandy bottom and came up practically gasping for air because it had been a lot farther down and back than he had anticipated. We were anchored in just under twenty feet of water, yet looking over the side, the bottom didn’t appear to be much more than 10 feet away. After we had our fill of just floating around, someone suggested we test out our new inflatable and go inner tubing. The 25 horsepower motor tugged the tube along as we made great loops about the open bay. We each took turns skimming atop the azure water and flying over the waves at terrific speeds. The only thing that was less than enjoyable was being stuck out in the middle of the bay after the toe rope had broken. It was a bit unsettling having nothing around above the water and not knowing what was below. For a moment, I felt like an unsuspecting globule of caviar sitting atop a cracker. But, that feeling didn’t last long, for I could see there was nothing below me but sand.
The subsequent morning we were back at Simpson bay. When we returned, we found the bay was quite a bit more crowded than it had been just a couple of days ago. Sailboats of all shapes and sizes were flocking to Sint Maarten for the up and coming Heineken regatta. Previously, I had mentioned how two of our friends whom we had met while they had been cruising in Maine, and lived in Sint Maarten, had volunteered us to work on the start boat of the races. Since Dianne and Steve were with us now, they had automatically been volunteered as well.
One “perk” to being a volunteer in this regatta was that we had been invited to an exclusive volunteer’s/official’s pre-regatta bash. This was why we had rushed back to Simpson bay. When we arrived, the party was just beginning. There was a free bar serving a number of adult and non-adult beverages. Trays of various hors d’oevres and other savories circulated through the crowd. After about an hour the band started blaring soca music. Soca is a type of loud, fast-paced, thumping, and in my opinion rather annoying type of music found almost exclusively in the Caribbean. The crowd began to throb to the music. I even spotted Captain Fatty Goodlander, the famous writer/cruiser bouncing to the music. Everyone around me seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. Yet I was not as jovial as most everyone else. Perhaps it was because there was no one else here between the ages of 13 and 19. Perhaps it was because most everyone over the age of 21 had lost count of the number of free rum punches and Heinekens they had consumed. Either way, I was not having fun. It was like being at a dance with your parents, only the roles had been somewhat reversed.
After three or four hours of trying to tolerate the atrocious music and pretending not to know anyone, I was finally able to leave. After my long night of teenage torture, I was rewarded with an incredible sight. As we entered Simpson bay from the lagoon, a million points of light sprang up before us. It was pitch black out, and we could see no farther than the distance of the rays of our flashlight. We quickly realized that each pinprick was the mast light of a boat. The bay had been peppered with a plethora of artificial stars.
The next day, we had planned to rent a car and show Dianne and Steve the island. The day started off innocently enough, driving along the hillside overlooking the ocean and cities, and passing the lagoon and salt marshes. But soon this merry ride would take a turn for the worst. An event more terrifying than an ocean gale, more mentally scarring than the saran-wrapped skinless rabbit incident at the French grocery store was about to occur. We were headed for a beach by the unsuspecting name of Orient Bay, a famous nude beach. As we walked along the beach we noticed that people were progressively wearing less and less until they were wearing nothing at all. Of course, nearly all of the people who were wearing nothing were the people who really shouldn’t have been. I tried to look straight ahead and down, limiting my peripheral vision as much as possible. At one point we passed a man leaning up against a large boulder. I could tell from behind he was wearing nothing but a hat, even though his behind was covered by the boulder. I walked by him still looking straight ahead and down, but I had annoyingly good peripheral vision. At which point I did a cartoon worthy double-take. I only saw him for a split second before I looked away, but it was long enough to leave deep and lasting mental wounds.
A day or two later, my father was talking with a friend of ours we had recently met, who was also a cruiser. He and his family, including two children younger than my brother and me, had been to an even worse section of Orient Bay, where they had witnessed nude volley ball. After hearing that we had also been to Orient Bay, he said to my father, “So, I hear you saw some snakes.” To which my father replied, “yeah, big ones.” It was seeing this freakishly well-endowed man that had left such lasting mental scars.
After this incredibly traumatic experience, we laid low for a day, but then treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner on the French side. We went over early to look at all the different menus displayed. By the time we had chosen a restaurant overlooking the harbor the sun had turned into a blazing orange ball barely above the horizon. Daylight was dwindling as the waiter took our orders. As we were waiting for our food, we were entertained with a number of unusual sights. The six of us were pleasantly chatting away when two burly men came running from the nearby dock each carrying an enormous gutted fish, nearly as bit as I am. The made a couple of trips from the dock to the kitchen, and in mid-run a woman passing by asked to take a picture. The man stopped and smiled widely, waited for the flash, then ran off.
Festive light and candles emerged from the twilight, giving the place a carnival-like atmosphere. The most interesting sight of the evening was a human statue standing only a few feet from our table. Her skin was painted shimmering white and she wore metallic grey. We watched her set up as our food was brought out, so the effect was somewhat spoiled for us. As we savored our scrumptious meals we watched passers by stop and put money in a slot in a box the motionless woman was standing on. When they put in money she would move robotically.
At 8 am the following morning we were standing on the dock outside the Simpson Bay yacht club waiting to be ferried out to the start boat. We would be signaling the start of the races and aiding the officials in watching for foul play. On the boat, we were given a course in flag raising and horn blowing, and each assigned specific tasks. Dianne, Steve, my father, and I were to raise and lower flags, my brother blew the horn, and my mother manned a special warning flag. There was a complicated array of different flags that had to be raised and lowered in a certain manner to get them up and down as quickly as possible. There was also an exact sequence of horn blasts that needed to be blown to signal various warnings and the starts of races.
The regatta was a two day event, consisting of a multitude of individual races of all different types of boats. It was amazing to see all the boats jockeying for position at the starting line, with their sails flapping wildly. On the start boat, we had the best spot to watch all the action. There were many near misses and a few paint-scraping collisions. It was all very exciting, and we were right in the middle of it. We could watch it very safely too, because they had used a big salvage boat for the start boat. We had talked to a few people who had done a lot of these sorts of races, and they said it can be very nerve wracking being on a smaller boat with all the close, zooming sailboats. My favorite part was watching the big high-tech racing boats with gleaming silver carbon fiber sails. Although, it was a tiny bit depressing watching these stealthy vessels zip along at ten times as fast as we could ever hope Koukla to go. Helping out at this regatta was an unexpected task we fell into that turned out to be a highlight of our trip.