Lockdown in Sint Maarten

We were glad to arrive in Dutch Sint Maarten on 17 March. No problems checking in with Customs and Immigration after lunch. They just wanted to know what countries we’d visited since 24 Feb but I’d already prepared a list of our movements for the year. We elected to go through the bridge into the lagoon on its next opening at 5 pm and anchored more or less in the same place we were when we visited last year. We ended up being there for 10 weeks. There is only about 0.5m of water under our keel but unlike last year it is clear enough to see the bottom- presumably because so few boats are moving. Restaurants and bars, clothes shops, gift shops etc were either closed or closing. Social distancing was in – don’t go closer than 2m to anyone. Initially it seemed that the French side of the island had the more restrictive regime (generally the same as France) but that did change. We realised that we were unlikely to be able to move for some time. Countries around the world, including the Caribbean islands were closing their borders; the situation was changing every day and there was a real danger that if you left from one place you might find your destination had closed while you were en route. A number of yachts around the world found themselves stranded unable to enter anywhere, after several weeks at sea finding that the world had changed.

We made haste to get our empty gas bottle and diesel cans refilled and stocked up with food from the Carrefour (we can see the roof from the boat). Just in case. The shop was well stocked, you can even get toilet paper (sadly this might be because local people just don’t have the money to panic buy and hoard stuff). The big chandleries, Island Water World and Budget were open, we also went to the pharmacy to get more anti-hypertension drugs for Steve. The whole place was very quiet and some folk were wearing masks, hand sanitizer was provided in shops. I put a bottle of liquid soap in our dinghy, w can at least wash hands in seawater. And so we settled in listening to Mike from Shrimpys Laundry (French side) morning radio net at 0730 on vhf channel 10 (this is the calling channel for local Cruising yachts etc.) for information

Tuesday 24 March, an edict from the Dutch side government was issued “Bunkering and provisioning in Simpson Bay Lagoon discontinued”. At first glance this doesn’t seem to have much to do with small yachts, but further on says crew of foreign yachts that remain at anchor or in marinas in Sint Maarten waters are requested (note the word requested) to stay onboard, no shore leave. Also that waters now closed to entry for foreign yachts. It seems that one or more superyachts really annoyed the authorities by coming in and allowing folk ashore without checking in. The general opinion from cruisers on the net was that this did not apply to the small yachts, but who knows – it seemed safest to keep a low profile and only go off the boat for essential shopping etc. I found the prospect of being arbitrarily confined on board very upsetting. March 30th it was announced that the border between the Dutch and French parts of the island is closed, that there is a curfew from 2000 to 0600 and there is now a form (which we downloaded and printed) for moving about on the Dutch side for essential shopping etc (similar to the French side form). This all seemed quite sensible, and we felt encouraged that we could move about carrying our ID and the official form. For many though the closure of the border was a serious thing, locals and cruisers all accustomed to free passage back and forth, a special permission endorsed by the police was now required to cross the border even for your essential job. It seemed to take a while for long standing cruisers to realise that they should no longer drive their dinghies to and fro across the lagoon. Most of the time there was nothing to stop them, except some days the Dutch coastguard boat went about stopping dinghies and often the gendarmes were active on the French side. There were rumours of big fines. The chandleries had remained open, presumably regarded as essential services, until they weren’t. We visited IWW on 31st March, intending to return on 1st April to buy things only to find everything shut down. There were more rumours of a bigger shutdown at the weekend, we should have acted on this and gone to Carrefour on Saturday for a stock up as on Sunday 5 April (when shops all closed) 24 hour lockdown was announced. Nobody to leave their house (or boat), nobody to be on the road or water, shops and supermarkets all closed. Except for key emergency workers and government officials of course. All very quiet, almost nothing on the roads except police cars, nothing moving on the water. Rene, the manager of IWW managed to get permission for their fuel dock to open 3 mornings a week to supply water, diesel and petrol, and they would take your garbage. Strict rules only 3 dinghies at a time spaced out on the dock and you do not step ashore. This was immensely helpful, we took every opportunity to fill our water cans as we didn’t want to run the watermaker in the lagoon. We had to do this eventually and in fact with lack of movement the water was very clear, you did however have to change filters more often. Easter was the next weekend, we donated the pack of little eggs we’d bought to Life of Reilly with two boys aboard as they hadn’t got any and shops were closed. We were reasonably stocked up, but could have done with more fresh vegetables and so on. Bread was a problem as the oven on our cooker didn’t work. Steve made soda bread farls successfully in the frying pan. Pressure cooker bread worked too but difficult to stop it sticking to the pan.

At this point the regime in the French part of the island was more lenient, people were allowed to go out or ashore for essential shopping and/or 1 hour exercise on all days. Though the gendarmes were becoming quite strict, stopping dinghies and fining people for not having life jackets, flares, torch or correct paperwork. They also stopped and fined people for swimming around their boats.

Many local people were complaining about running out of food, they probably do not or cannot afford to keep the stocks that the Cruising boats do, even with hurricane season approaching. Eventually the government bowed to pressure and allowed food shops to open the Thursday before the 2 weeks were up. Strictly limited hours, everyone to wear masks, limited numbers allowed in the shop, keep 2m apart. We did not have masks (having taken note of U.K. instructions for normal folk not to use masks needed for health workers), home made masks were allowed so I downloaded instructions and made ours with the sewing machine. After that shops were open 3 days Mon, Wed and Fri (same days as fuel dock), weekends and Tuesday and Thursday are no movement days, sometimes enforced by the coastguard. On 3rd May it was announced that exercise was now allowed 3 days per week, Mon, Wed, Fri, from 0600 to 0800 and 1600 to 1800. Also chandleries and a few other stores could open for ordering and collection or delivery.

We arranged to go to Budget first thing Monday to buy a new cooker, intending to get the same Force 10 model we had before. It’s a long story about the stove. The oven thermocouple had failed, we’d carefully identified and purchased the spare and brought with us from the U.K., but it didn’t fit. Steve managed to identify the correct one supplied by Force 10 via a firm in Seattle, to be sent to a contact from a fellow rally boat to Nanny Cay. When the ARC Europe rally was cancelled and we weren’t going to BVI any more we got it despatched to Sint Maarten instead. But despite the tracking saying that it had arrived at the airport, it wasn’t delivered, even when things were opening up and other packages were arriving. When someone told us the tracking probably meant it was at the airport in Curaçao we gave up. Budget had new ones in stock in Sint Maarten. We got to examine the cookers in the Budget Chandlery car park (not allowed into the store) and decided to get the slightly larger model giving a bigger oven for the same price. It was delivered to our boat next morning, the delivery guy managing to sneak past the patrolling Customs launch – Tuesday was still a no movement day. We took out the old and put in the new, but unfortunately it was just a couple of cms too deep. It went in but would hit the trim when gimballed and the pans would be altogether too close to the cupboard door behind. Cold food that day until we could get it swapped for the smaller model which Budget did without demur next day. At last we had a shiny new cooker with working oven! Interestingly this was one item that was not cheaper at home, the Sint Maarten tax free price that we payed was the same as the U.K. and we got it tax free. (Note at beginning of July our package is still showing as being at Queen Juliana airport).

Anita went for her first run in 6 weeks on the Monday afternoon the first day allowed, mooring the dinghy at the dock by Port de Plaisance Marina opposite and heading up track up the hill. Perusal of Google maps indicated that so long as you didn’t take any left turns you would remain on the Dutch side of the border and could go up to the radar station on the hill. I was both relieved and worried by the number of folk I met on the path. Relieved because it meant I hadn’t got it wrong and it was allowed, worried because it is difficult to keep 2m apart when you meet someone on a 1m wide path. Great views as you climbed and from the top, over both Dutch and French sides of the lagoon, of Marigot Bay, Philipsburg and over to the island of Anguilla. After that I went out in the morning – it was less busy – leaving the boat soon after 6 and making sure I was back before 8, and always carrying my form and ID.

Gradually things relaxed and are allowed to open up, 1 week later exercise and food shopping allowed 5 days a week, Mon to Fri, other shops open officially for kerbside delivery, the laundry is open. Takeaway food is available again. There is now confusion as to what is allowed – is it still total lockdown at the weekend? Some things probably opened before they had permission (but we were grateful to get our laundry done).

So what do you do when locked down on your boat for 10 weeks? Although we knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while we hadn’t realised that we wouldn’t be able to sail around the island, or even walk around the island. We have not seen anything of Sint Maarten apart from Simpson Bay, the Carrefour, the chandleries and the tracks up the hill where Anita ran when allowed. To an extent of course time taken for tasks tends to expand to fit the time available. We spent a lot of time on the internet – had to buy more data for the phone, on Facebook and websites trying to keep up with the local Sint Maarten situation and the changing rules, trying to keep up with news from U.K. and the rest of the world, trying to keep up with what was happening to yachts on other Caribbean islands and around the world, trying to keep up with friends around the world. Of course just because it’s on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true and the crisis seemed to encourage some people to feel they had the right to tell everyone else what to do. I also learned to beware of commenting on posts or you could find yourself in some stupid spat with an unknown person e.g. over whether the Coronavirus is alive or not (of course it is, it wouldn’t be a problem otherwise). Had the mobile internet in Sint Maarten been better we might have attended Zoom meetings and watched more online podcasts, even downloaded films, but the signal just wasn’t up to it.

As usual we read a lot of books. We did manage to do some boat jobs e.g sewing on the new wheel cover we had been carrying around for years, plus some small mending jobs with sewing machine and revarnishing some of the worst bits of the interior. It seems that wood customarily gripped by salty, sun tan cream covered suffered significant degradation. The Dan buoy got a new flag. It was difficult to be inspired when you were stuck. And of course you had to have the materials for the job already to hand as the shops were closed, the varnishing stopped when the can of varnish we had was finished. As the time when we might leave approached we did apply ourselves to check the boat over (Steve hoisted me up the mast) and generally get organised.

As most people all over the world have had to do, I cut our hair. I tried to do a sort of Pilates routine on deck most days. I used to hide in the cockpit to do this sort of thing but decided no-one was close enough to be offended. We would see the crew of Exile doing weights and walking laps around the deck – presumably on a Lagoon 56 you may get 50m per lap? The boys on Life of Reilly did their form of circuits round the boat and sometimes swam. We could see the young crew of a couple of superyachts in the marina exercising on the pontoon opposite. I decided to wear just a bikini most of the time when on the boat, makes much less dirty laundry.

Apart from staff in shops we talked to almost nobody in person for the ten weeks, certainly not closer than 2m distance anyway. Occasionally we could chat to our closest neighbours Terri, Mike, Mic and Jay from Life of Reilly when they or us were going past in the dinghy. The lifeline was the VHF radio and the community of cruising boats. Apart from Shrimpys morning net as mentioned above, Chanel 10 was the general hailing channel, going on to various discussions and forums (Passage weather from Michael on Quinn, Statistics about the virus and other matters from Matt on Mojo, discussion about where and how to sail on, information about phone connections). If you had a problem there would always be someone with helpful advice. We were very grateful to Rene, manager of Island Water World and Jaco from Atlantic divers for keeping us informed and making sense of the latest restrictions. Rene managed to keep the IWW fuel dock open for water, fuel, cooking gas and rubbish disposal 3 mornings per week when nothing else was allowed. Later Jaco became an unpaid courier as he went about his main business (diving on, fixing and cleaning boats) taking parcels and other items from French side to Dutch side and vice versa as he had the official pass for his work. He took a battery we were giving away from us to Highland Fling on the French side, bringing back a pressure cooker generously given to us Tigris (a small plastic part had failed on ours).

Then for something to look forward to, there was the nightly Cruisers Happy Hour on channel 72 from 17.15 until sunset. DJ and compere was Randy from Sinbad with the deep chocolate voice, aided later by Joan from Life Uncommon “Island Girl”. Boats were encouraged to play a piece of music over the VHF (it helped if you such as a Bluetooth speaker for your iPad or phone to put next to the mike). Everyone else competing to call in and identify song and artist and any other arcane info. Boats on both sides of the lagoon, and in the anchorages out in Simpson Bay and Marigot Bay took part. Sometimes there was a theme, e.g. the Friday night dance night when you were encouraged to bop on deck – at least my antics amused the boys on Life of Reilly next door. Matt on Mojo serenaded with live violin music. National differences in musical heritage were quite amusing, that favoured by Canadians being quite different from Americans and the Brits being very different to both. Then there was Glittra from Sweden determined to educate us about Swedish music (is it Abba or not Abba?). Tigris specialised in some hilarious corny old numbers.

Then there was the hotly contested Wednesday night Supergenius Quiz, hosted by Ritchard and Kim from Sayonara. Those two must have spent ages each week devising the questions. Prizes were sometimes toilet roll, or rum or the privilege of calling yourself Supergenius on the VHF for the next week. Kim and Cathy from Dream Maker also instigated and hosted the Virtual Ladies Lunch.

Ritchard from Sayonara also set up a fund for us to donate to charities on the island that was sheltering us. The money went to both Dutch and French sides. Jaco set up food parcels for cruisers in need.

And so we have a collection of “friends” whose voices we know and recognise, but whom we’ve never met, never even seen, nor will we.

Much of the discussion among the cruisers of course was where can we go next, when will we be allowed? As time went on the hurricane season got closer. Sint Maarten/Saint Martin and in fact all the islands north of Carriacou lie in the danger zone. The damage due to Hurricanes Irma and Maria that struck in 2018 is still evident. Many people’s boat insurance states that they have to be in Grenada or south by mid June. Others are allowed to stay in the danger zone with the proviso that if a storm is forecast they move south. It should be remembered that for this purpose it is “Named storms” that are important not just those severe enough to be classed as a hurricane. The prospect of all the boats in the lagoon and the outer anchorages having to stay put for the hurricane season was not encouraging. To get out of the hurricane zone you either have to head south to Grenada, Trinidad, ABC Islands, Panama, or far enough north in the US (and this means quite a long way north) or East across the Atlantic. In fact boats had been allowed to leave Sint Maarten / Saint Martin all along. It probably was not an easy process, checking out required a visit to Philipsburg to check out as the local Port and Immigration office at Simpson Bay was closed. And as you were not allowed to travel between areas on land and not allowed to put to sea without arranging with the coastguard it was not the easiest procedure. Also the lagoon bridge now only opened twice a day and then only by arrangement (but with whom?). Mainly it was Superyachts and race boats that left, who would have an agent to sort all this. A few American boats headed off to the US Virgin Isles, just about the only place open and only to US flagged boats with US citizens aboard. Nobody else had anywhere to go at this time.

At one point a number of boats moored in the lagoon on the French side decided they would like to move out to the bay. To be ready to leave if such an opportunity arose. This simple procedure was vastly complicated by the fact that the French bridge was out of action ( i.e. not opening), it was bring worked on when lockdown occurred. So boats would have to proceed through the Causeway bridge to the Dutch side then out the Simpson Bay Bridge and round the outside of the island to Marigot Bay. Still a simple procedure in normal times but not at Covid19 time. Matt on Mojo decided to organise a group of boats with an agent to obtain the necessary permissions. This attempt was stymied due to him innocently and jokingly referring to this as the Napoleon group: apparently to the French this means the same as calling someone a “little Hitler” and the officials were not impressed. The arrangements were eventually completed without the agent but with the help of Rene from IWW and of someone who had permission to travel about the island who took cash from the boats to Philipsburg to pay the bridge fees. 13 boats eventually made the transit on a Thursday morning. I stood on our foredeck and waved and blew our horn as they went past.

As time went on restrictions around the islands were relaxed and the hurricane season approached. All along it had been said that of course the one place you could go would be your home country/home port, just that for most boats this was several thousand miles away and a trip that would only be made in the favourable season. This is the option we chose, after all we had intended to sail home this season – with the ARC Europe rally from BVI and via Bermuda and the Azores. The rally of course was cancelled – at first they thought they might put on a modified version for those who still wanted to make the trip, but it was just not possible. Our trip would not be the sociable affair with parties, meeting old friends, visiting islands – Bermuda and the cruise around the Azores – that we were particularly looking forward to, but we would get there. We started to prepare the boat and wait for a favourable forecast, having asked our friend Chris Tibbs to do weather routing for us. It was good that things on the island had opened up a bit to enable us to get things from the chandlers (including the new cooker) and the hardware store (12 blue pool noodles to use as “baggywrinkle” on the aft shrouds), but probably also wise to leave before everything had opened up (especially the airport) in case there was a sudden explosion of cases of Covid19. We decided not to go to Bermuda as yachts were only being allowed to stop in emergency and to take on essential supplies though we did fill out the firms in case we did need to stop. The Azores although closed had opened two ports, Horta on Faial and Ponta Delgada on São Miguel where yachts could make a short stop and get supplies though not allowed ashore. We could see on Facebook that Peter Cafe Sport in Horta were cheerfully and efficiently supplying boats anchored in the harbour so we decided to make for Horta.

Others were waiting hoping to move south out of the hurricane zone. Grenada eventually opened to yachts under strictly controlled conditions: you had to sign up on a website and give your details in advance, then they contacted everyone and you had to apply for a 48 hr slot when you had to arrive at your allocated position in the Quarantine anchorage off St George’s and after 14 days quarantine take a Covid19 virus test (which you had to pay for) and then presuming this was negative be entered into the country, go ashore and move to other anchorages. What you could not necessarily do was fly out as the airport was still closed. Some of the ABC islands also opened up but less favourable conditions, for instance having to do 14 days quarantine in an (expensive) hotel at you expense (and what happened to your boat at this time). The French islands opened for EU, Schengen and U.K. boats only; bad luck to the Americans and Canadians. When we left, boats were just setting off for their allocated slots. Of course having waited hoping the island to open many now wanted to stop en route rather than doing 3 days straight, and many were disgruntled at having to do quarantine having already been locked down elsewhere. People are now scrabbling around for charter flights, repatriation flights, any means to get home. We decided to avoid this struggle by using our own transport to get home.

So was Sint Maarten a good place to sit out the Covid19 lockdown? Certainly we did not have a lot of time to make our choice. Once we realised the islands were closing realistically we had to immediately make for either Antigua or Sint Maarten/Saint Martin. We chose the Dutch side because it was more sheltered from the northerly winds in the immediate forecast, we chose to go into the lagoon rather than anchoring out in the bay because it would be generally less rolly, and the option probably would not have been available later on. Having made your choice you had to stay put. Sint Maarten is a relatively developed island, with lots of tourism by cruise ship, by air and attracts many superyachts but also caters for the smaller cruising yachts. Apart from the 2 weeks of 24 hour lockdown access to food supplies was good with the well stocked Carrefour visible from the boat. And of course there are the big chandleries Island Water World and Budget and other marine trades when they were allowed to be open. Sint Maarten did initially seem to have more cases of virus than might have been expected. Some locals on the forums said that the government hadn’t shut down fast enough, but in fact they were one of the first islands to shut the airport and to start with was more restrictive for instance than Antigua, which had less cases. Presumably they were unlucky, a few infected people travelling through the airport would make all the difference. Of course people complained but the government seemed to do a pretty good job keeping everyone informed and keeping control of the outbreak. Would we have been less restricted in other places – possibly, in the U.K. people were always allowed to go out to get food and for daily exercise. Could we have been somewhere with better weather – no probably not, it was warm and sunny with a nice breeze most of the time though there were some mosquitoes. Could we have been in a prettier place – possibly the Simpson Bay Lagoon, surrounded as it is by marinas, Casinos and other buildings is possibly not the most scenic. And we might have been somewhere swimming around your boat was more attractive, though in fact presumably due to lack of movement of large vessels the water did become very clear, and I did swim a few times, partly to check what was growing on the bottom of the boat and on the propellor. At one point on the French side gendarmes were fining people for swimming around their boat, so swimming was often not an option in the French islands. Some people proposed to stock up their boats and go off to an isolated anchorage somewhere to sit out the emergency. Some did try it. It sounds idyllic, but may not have been the best option. Can you really survive for several months with no contact with shore and no fresh supplies? What if there is an emergency or you get ill? Most isolated places do belong to one country or another and in many cases the authorities forcibly cleared boats out of the isolated anchorages. All very well if a place is totally inhabited, but generally the local people do not want random foreign boats turning up which they see as possibly bring infection and potentially using up their scarce supplies of food and their medical facilities. Many of the small island nations imposed more restrictions than the U.K. They did manage to control the virus successfully and by the time we left the Caribbean, had no active cases. Just as well as medical facilities to treat severe cases are limited, so while you might be in a safer and more pleasant place from the point of view of not catching the virus, if you were ill you would not receive the same standard of medical care as at home.

Sunset in Simpson Bay Lagoon

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