As much as I hated the thought of leaving Dominica with its majestic rainforests and splendorous waterfalls, I was greatly excited about the prospect of retuning home. I was especially looking foreword to all the comforts of civilization that I had been missing out on for the past few months as well as seeing all my friends once again. Yet home was still a long ways away.
Somehow the wind must have known we did not really want to leave Dominica because we did not pull away very quickly. Originally, we had planned to pass Guadeloupe sometime in the late afternoon and head on to St. Martin overnight. But of course, the weather did not cooperate, and we didn’t get to Guadeloupe until late evening. To top it off, our autopilot was beginning to act up. At our current pace it would take us over a day and a half to get there. Taking all this into consideration, we decided to duck in off of Guadeloupe for the night. There was just one problem, all the way up the coast we were being pursued by a customs boat. We were sure that if we stopped they would want to board our cursedly conspicuous vessel, and we didn’t think they’d be too happy about our staying overnight without clearing customs. So, when the gap between the customs boat and us was really beginning to close up, my father frantically started pulling things out of the lazarette and strewing them on the deck to make it look like we had a steering gear problem. This was not entirely false because we were having problems with our autopilot, but we weren’t sure they would think that was a pressing enough problem.
Sure enough, when we ducked into the harbor the customs boat followed. But all they did was putter around for a few minutes and leave. It was not until we were dropping anchor and they were exiting the harbor that we realized that this was the exact same customs boat that had boarded and then rammed into us just a few weeks ago.
Well, the next morning we were all prepared to leave just like we had intended, but my father decided he’d first have a look at the autopilot. Since the next landfall was an overnight sail away, we really needed to have it working. After a few impatient hours of tinkering he deduced that it was pretty well broken. We spent and additional two days searching in vain for the part we needed to fix it with, but we concluded that we had to go on to St. Martin and hope we could find or order the part there
We were fortunate that the weather was not bad since we all had to take turns steering all night long. Although, the conditions were not ideal either. There was insufficient wind to move us along at a good pace, and swells made it rather difficult to keep a steady course.
Late that night, in the enveloping darkness, I stared at the glowing compass with heavy eyelids. I make small, sharp adjustments and the wheel replies with a soft creak. Every now and then steps creaked and a red light was switched on down below, for it was also my brother’s watch, and he had to check the radar every now and then for invisible vessels. The lapping of water, the flapping of sails, and the groaning of wood intices me to sleep, but I mustn’t. While part of me yearns for sleep, part is also awake and empowered. For the moment, I alone am in control–it is my duty to keep a steady course. My arms grow weary from the repetitive back and forth motion. Finally, salvation comes. My father comes up to relieve me. My brother and I head down below to sleep for a few hours till we must do it all again. It was four in the morning when we arrived at Simpson Bay, St. Maarten. It was convenient that we already knew the bay pretty well, so all we have to do was drop the anchor and sleep till daylight.
Originally, we had planned to stay in St. Maarten three or four days to restock before heading offshore, but we ended up staying two weeks for various reasons. The most pressing was that we had a broken autopilot. For us, an autopilot is an absolute necessity for offshore sailing. It was bad enough having to go without it for just one overnight sail let alone a week and a half in the open ocean. The second reason was weather. There was a lingering front just hanging off of Cape Hatteras waiting to bash us the minute we leave St. Martin. Many other cruisers found themselves in similar predicaments.
St. Maarten is the place where all the people cruising the Caribbean come to swap stories and stock up on everything. It is just about the only island in the Caribbean where you can find anything or have it shipped here duty free. Although our stay here was long it was definitely not dull. In our travels we had become good friends with the crews of a number of different boats, and quite a few of our closest cruising friends were right here in St. Maarten.
Every other day it seemed we were over at someone’s boat or they were over at ours. There were even a few times when a bunch of us all got together. I remember distinctly the four of us going over to the vessel Solstice Moon, crewed by an older Canadian couple, and our friends we had just met in Dominica, the crew of Spartina, who also hailed from Canada, were also there.
Solstice Moon was a one of a kind vessel, and the owners of it were even more unique. They owned and ran a special effects company, and had made absolutely everything on their boat from the hull and anchor windlass to the wheel, cleats, and portholes. He was a true tinkerer and do-it-yourselfer, and in him my father found a kindred spirit. My father questioned him endlessly about every little thing and he would always reply enthusiastically, his eyes a-twinkle with excitement. His partner was a proper English lady, well English-Canadian, with a sharp mind and a dry sense of humor. She peppered the conversation with witty quips and humorous observations. They were both an absolute delight to be around.
At dinner that night, the eight of us squished around the main saloon table, but the homey style of the boat almost made me forget I was on a boat at all. They even had cats. Sitting on the sofa-like benches watching the two cats rubbing up against the small idle woodstove, I felt like I was in a quaint little cabin in the woods rather than the cabin of a boat. In that cabin, the conversation bounced from international affairs, to religion, exotic destinations, sociology, and at one point, to our broken autopilot. When my father asked the captain of Solstice Moon if he had any ideas how to fix our autopilot, the light bulb in his mind clicked on and shown out his eyes. He said he had seen a part lying in the dirt on the side of the road that might do the trick.
Sure enough, a few days later, they went and found it. My father cleaned it up and modified it, but alas, it still didn’t work. We had to order a new part from England and wait for it to be shipped here, significantly lengthening our stay.
Finally, after over a week and a half of waiting for our part, half a dozen trips to the grocery store with our dinghy piled high with food stuffs, and some last minute souvenir shopping, we were ready. Herb, the weather guru of cruisers had given us the all clear. We were actually leaving the Caribbean. But, there was still one last exotic stop: Bermuda.