Leaving Antigua, W. I.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

No Zombie needed; the new swing bridge will open tomorrow.

Delivery of the swing span for the
 new bridge in our neighborhood

We were surprised to realize just the other day that the end of May is approaching; it’s time for us to leave St. Martin and sail to Antigua, where we’ll store Play Actor for the hurricane season once again.  For several years, we had a routine of spending summer in Grenada and winter in St. Martin.   During March through May and October through November, we would visit the other islands of the eastern Caribbean as we made our way north or south.

For the last two summers, we have made  visits to the states during hurricane season, spending time with Leslie’s family on the west coast and visiting our children and grandchildren.   The issue of a safe and affordable place to store the boat during those visits, and the ease of airline connections, has changed our migratory pattern.   This past winter, my book business had a serious impact on our sailing, as well.  I published three new titles during our stay in St. Martin, and I have felt constrained to stay here where I can get good high speed internet access on the boat.  That’s not an easy thing to find in the islands if you want to do more than check your email and do a little browsing on the web from time to time.

We dropped the anchor here in the lagoon in St. Martin last November, and we haven’t lifted it since.  All of our cruising friends and acquaintances have come and gone, but we have provided a stable base for marine growth below the waterline.  Other than a few necessary repairs and periodic dives to keep the propeller clear of barnacles in case we had to move in an emergency, we might as well have been working somewhere.

I’m not complaining; writing is fun, and it’s nice to be selling some books.  Besides, the commute is short for this job, and the location is great.  While not as naturally beautiful as some of the other islands, St. Martin has a charm of its own, and it’s nice because it’s so cosmopolitan, at least by Caribbean standards.  We can find most of the things we need without difficulty here, and because it’s a true free port, with no customs duties, prices are attractive.  We do miss the local produce that we find on the other islands.  Most of the fresh food here comes in from the states.

For all of that, St Martin is still a Caribbean island, with the warm, friendly people who make us feel at home.  It’s unusual because the northern half is a department of France.  The people are French citizens, they speak French, and they vote in French elections.  Their currency is the euro, and the people have French passports that give them easy access to most of the world.  They are free to live and work anywhere in the European Union.   The southern half is still a Dutch colony.  The people are Dutch colonial subjects; they only vote in local elections, and they have restricted, colonial passports that make travel outside the region difficult.  Their opportunities for employment outside the Netherlands Antilles are restricted accordingly.

There is no visible border between the French and the Dutch side, and the people pass freely back and forth.  This has been so since the 1600s, when the two European powers decided to share the island.  Mostly, there is little friction, although there are some inequities that must be particularly painful to people who have family on both sides of the border.  The Dutch side has a dollar based economy, although the legal currency is the Netherlands Antilles Florin, commonly called the N.A.F. or the guilder, and the cost of living is lower on the Dutch side.  The French merchants struggle; their goods come mostly from Europe and are priced in euros, while the merchants on the Dutch side take advantage of the buying power of the dollar to bring in goods from all over the world.  Most of the shopping happens on the Dutch side, where prices are lower and the selection broader.

St. Martin’s economy is driven by tourism, and there’s a tremendous traffic problem.  Visitors rent cars and add confusion to the already crowded roads.  In an effort to improve the flow of traffic, particularly in and out of the Dutch airport where most of the international flights land and take off, the Dutch decided to build a bridge across the lagoon to provide easier access from the French side to the airport and alleviate some of the crowding on the roads on the Dutch side.

 We’ve watched the construction this winter as the 700 foot bridge extended across the lagoon.  The most excitement so far was the arrival about ten days ago of the swing span from the Netherlands.  It was delivered on a small freighter, and bringing the freighter into the lagoon was a major event, as it scraped the sides of the draw bridge leading into the lagoon from the Caribbean on the Dutch side.  The authorities dredged the channel across the Dutch part of the lagoon to accommodate the ship, and we watched from our boat as the span was set in place a few hundred yards from us.

Sketch chart showing our dilemma
We didn’t think much more about it until we began to get ready to leave.  We’re anchored on the French side of the lagoon; there’s more room there.  We use the draw bridge on the Dutch side to enter and leave, as it is much larger and has a deeper channel than the drawbridge on the French side.  We realized that the new Causeway Bridge, as it’s called, was closed and that we could no longer get to the Dutch draw bridge to begin our voyage to Antigua.

The channel to the French bridge is mostly unmarked, and it’s quite shallow.  Our 6-foot draft is at the upper limit, and that requires knowing exactly where the shallow spots are.  We spent a couple of hours in the dinghy yesterday with a GPS and a lead-line, sounding our way to the French bridge.  We now have a route, but it will be nerve-wracking, especially the first time.  Besides, it makes the trip to Antigua longer by several miles, so we were less than thrilled.

There has been all sorts of speculation about the new bridge and when it would begin operation, but there isn’t much solid information, and no one seemed to know when it would open again.  We were hoping that it would open before we needed to leave, so that we could anchor on the Dutch side of the lagoon, giving us ready access to the Dutch bridge that we normally use for exit and entry.

On-line searches for information proved fruitless, although we did turn up some interesting snippets from local news over the last few months.  It seems that the question of tolls for the use of the Causeway Bridge has been hotly debated.  There are numerous factions, each with their own agenda.  In general, the French don’t want a toll, and the Dutch, at least the authorities, do want to levy a charge.   To remind us that we are still in the Caribbean, there was a threat that if the Dutch charged a toll, the French would put a Zombie on the bridge to stop the toll collectors from doing their duty.

This morning we learned from the manager at the yacht club that the bridge will open tomorrow, and stay open at least for a few days, so we’ll be able to move to the Dutch side of the lagoon for an unimpeded departure.  When we go to check out with the French authorities tomorrow, I’ll stop in the local Voodoo hounfort and cancel my request for an emergency Zombie to open the bridge.  Life is good.

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