Saba and Statia
An article by Chris Doyle reprinted from Southern Boating
Saba and Statia (Saint Eustatius) lie a mere half-day sail south of the popular resort islands St. Martin and St. Barts -- but what a contrast. Gone are the high rises, the international shops and the cruise ships. Though only a small detour off the tourist track, these tiny islands seldom see tourists and are only occasionally visited by yachts. Neither has a particularly easy or calm anchorage, but for those willing to endure some roll and be willing to pick up the anchor if truly awful weather threatens, they offer glimpses of different cultures and lifestyles. Both administer their own affairs, though they are part of the Dutch Antilles. US dollars are accepted everywhere, and you can speak to most anyone in either English or Dutch. There is fabulous diving and snorkeling on both islands, though diving is only permitted if you go with a local dive shop.
A mere two miles in diameter, Saba rises from the sea to 3000 feet and looks like an illustration in a child's fairy tale illustration. You see tall vertical cliffs of red, pink and brown, and high in the hills, houses sit perched in seemingly impossible positions on the edges of precipices.
I first visited in the early 70s, just after the completion of a tiny harbor at Fort Bay. Before this everything had to come and go via Ladder Bay, an extraordinary landing on the leeward shore which provides scant shelter from ocean swells and which lands you at the base of 800 steps cut in the rock. The steepness of the steps and their elevation can be appreciated from the sea by looking at the old customs house, which is only half way up. Boats could only land when the sea was calm, and even then men had to stand waist deep in water to handle the cargo. Everything had to be carried up, including, at different times, a piano and a bishop. Given the number of steps and the precipitous drop should a bearer fail, we can at least be sure that the Bishop was a man of faith.
The 1400 inhabitants are descendants of hardy Dutch, Scottish and English settlers, along with a few Africans who originally were brought as slaves. They have worked hard side by side to scrape a living from this rugged land, as seafarers, fishermen, farmers, cobblers and boat builders. The women are renowned for their Spanish thread lace-work.
The two main villages in Saba are Bottom and Windwardside. Up until 1958, the only way to get between them was to walk along a steep mountain track. Engineers came out from Holland and proclaimed that building a road on such steep terrain was impossible. Sabans are unfazed by such obstacles and took this as a challenge. Joseph Hassel, born in 1906, took a correspondence course in road building and over several years the Saban people hand-built their own road.
Dutch engineers were similarly disparaging about the idea of an airport. This time the Sabans called in Remy de Haenen, a pilot from St. Barts. He looked over their one flat-topped rock and figured landing might be possible. The Sabans flattened the area as much as they could by hand, removing big rocks and filling in holes. Remy landed, proving the feasibility of flying in. Today the Sabans have their airport, and flying into Saba is one of lifeís more interesting experiences, especially if you manage to sit right behind the pilot on the starboard side of the plane. The pilot approaches close along a sheer cliff with the wing tip seemingly inches from the cliff face, then you look down to see this tiny rock below with a white stripe painted across the top. This is where you land, much as on an aircraft carrier.
Approaching by yacht is considerably easier. For the most part Saba is steep-to and the best anchoring area is on the west coast from Ladder Bay to Wells Bay. All the surrounding water is a marine park and anchoring is only permitted here or off Fort Bay. The marine park maintains seven moorings suitable for vessels up to 60 feet, and the use of these is included in the price you pay to be in the park. These few moorings are usually adequate, which gives you an idea of how few yachts visit. It is important to pick up one of the yachting moorings, which are yellow with a blue stripe -- not the white or orange buoys that are only for diving and snorkeling with a maximum stay of two hours. The moorings are in about 50 feet of water and occasionally subject to some stress, so it is important to tie up correctly. Each mooring has a nylon tie-up pennant attached to its top, with a plastic sheathed loop at one end. This is not always obvious because the pennants sink and sometimes get wrapped round the mooring line. You may need to climb in the dinghy or swim to disentangle them. When you do retrieve the pennant, you put your own line through the loop and leave plenty of slack so the mooring has plenty of scope.
The west coast offers excellent shelter for much of the time, but it is open to the north and can be extremely uncomfortable or untenable, should a bad swell come from this direction. In unsettled conditions it would be imprudent to leave a yacht here unattended. Should the weather come from the north, you can try the south coast anchorage off Fort Bay, though usually it is very rolly. Before the 70's, cruising to Saba could be frustrating because, having arrived, you might sit for days waiting for conditions calm enough to land. Now you can take your dinghy inside the harbor and climb ashore dry. It is less than two miles from Wellís Bay to Fort Bay, so even with a two-horsepower outboard you can make it in half an hour. Once you have secured your yacht, clear in with Alva Hassell, the harbormaster, and with the Saba Marine Park managed by David Kooistra. Clearance costs between $5 and $20 depending on the size of the boat and park fees are $3 per person per week for yachts under 100 feet.
The easiest way to see the island is take a taxi tour which costs around $40US. This supplies your transport for the day, and can be a loose sort of arrangement where the taxi will take you wherever you want to go and pick you up at various times to take you somewhere else.
The island is spotlessly clean, with villages of whitewashed red-roofed cottages that look as though they were plucked from Europe sometime in the 19th century. There are cobblestone streets, low stone walls and small stone churches. The people seem honest, straightforward, industrious and cheerful, with a strong sense of community. Industries include a small amount of tourism, the mining of gravel and sand from one of the hillsides near Fort Bay, and a new international medical school whose students, when in residence, add about 10% to the islandís population.
The village of Bottom is on relatively level ground, nestled high in hills on a small plane between the mountains. The highest peak, Mt. Scenery, at about 3000 feet, rises above the village of Windwardside, which itself is perched on steep hillsides and mountain ridges. Like everything else on Saba, the path to the summit is well maintained and includes 1064 steps. The forest vegetation of giant philodendrons, clusia, and mountain mahogany is like a magnificent wild garden and on clear days there are panoramic views from St. Martin to Nevis. Clouds passing below sometimes give you a pleasantly weird sensation of sitting on a cloud.
Saba has two small but very elegant hotels which also offer fine dining: Queens Garden Resort in Troy is set amid a lush mountain garden with a view to the village of Bottom and the ocean below. Willardís of Saba is on Boobyís Hill with a spectacular and precipitous view towards Statia. More local establishments include Scoutís Place, The Swinging Door, Brigadoon, Tropics Cafe and Lollipopís. There are adequate shops for topping up your supplies and Saba is a great place for buying art, handmade lace, handicrafts and glass jewelry.
Statia (St. Eustatius)
From Booby Hill in Saba you can look eastsoutheast to Statia, 20 miles dead to windward. Both islands are small, but ashore they are very different. Statia feels more complex, somehow sultry and weighted by history. It has the ingredients for a Somerset Maughan novel; a jungle-filled volcanic cone in the south, an enclosed Oil Terminal in the north, a smattering of expatriates in various enterprises, twisty small paths and ruins reclaimed by weeds.
I usually approach Statia during the day, from the north. A flashing orange tanker buoy lies about one mile west of Jenkins Bay. The half-mile exclusion zone around it leaves plenty of room to sail inside closer to shore. When I take this route, I see numerous unlit tug and tender moorings off the coast between Jenkins Bay and Oranje Baai, some with long floating lines streaming from them. They would be a danger at night. When approaching from the south be aware of false shoal which extends about 300 yards offshore, and note that there are numerous unlit diving buoys put out by Statia Marine Park.
Waves roll up from the south into Oranje Baai, the only anchorage, and they used to make it uncomfortable. A few years ago the Dutch built a small harbor with a fair sized breakwater, and now you can tuck in behind the breakwater for a more comfortable rest. It is best to pick up one of the moorings put down by the Statia Marine Park (VHF: 17). The moorings closest to the harbor wall are the most sheltered. Should a serious swell come from the north, the whole area would become untenable. Once secured, you need to clear in with Statia Port Authority (VHF: 16), and pay your dues at the Statia Marine Park. The waterfront is relatively quiet these days. A long cliff lies behind a sandy beach, at the base of the cliff several buildings nestle between old stone ruins that tumble into the sea. On top of the cliff the present small town peeks out through trees. To the east, the Quill, a perfect volcanic cone, rises to 2000 feet. It seems hard to imagine now, but during mid 1700ís Statia was the trade capital of the West Indies. All along the shore, a sea wall used to protect a long street of shops and warehouses. Goods were available from all over the world; fine fabrics, silver, gold, household supplies, slaves, guns, sugar, tobacco and cotton. From one to two hundred sailing ships would lie at anchor. The reason for this golden era was that the world was in conflict and Statia remained a neutral free port. Countries not allowed to deal with each other could deal with Statia, so Statian papers were attached to many things produced elsewhere. It was officially approved smuggling, and the inhabitants, some 8000 mixed Dutch, English and Jewish merchants, got very rich. Statia became known as the Golden Rock.
The year 1776 brought an unfortunate mix up for the Statians. The Andrew Doria, an American vessel, came into harbor and gave a salute, Governor de Graff fired a return salute, but he did not know that the Andre Doria, which looked like a merchant ship, was under the command of an American rebel navy captain. Thus Statia inadvertently became the first nation to recognize the U.S.A by saluting an American naval vessel. British officials frowned on this, and were angered that Statia sold weapons to the American rebels. Britain declared wear on Holland and Admiral Rodney arrived with his fleet. Statia surrendered and Rodney plundered the island, deporting many of the Jewish merchants. By the late 1700ís Statia was again Dutch and trade was flourishing, but the changing political and economic climate in the 19th Century ended Statiaís role as the Caribbeanís first shopping mall, and there followed a long decline and massive emigration (todayís population is around 1600). The sea wall slowly sank into the sand and hurricanes destroyed the lower town. Just a few ruins remain.
Ashore Statia is a charming mix of ruins, old and new buildings, pretty roads and footpaths. There is little traffic to disturb any goats or chickens that wander onto the street. The house that Admiral Rodney stayed in has been turned into a museum. Other fine historical monuments include the recently renovated Fort Oranje and the tower of the Dutch Reform Church. The energetic can hike up the Quill and down into the heavily wooded crater.
For a small population, Statia boasts quite a few restaurants (the oil men need something to do). The fanciest is the Old Gin House, set in a historic stone and brick building, one of the remaining buildings of the old lower town. After some years of neglect it has been beautifully restored as a small hotel with a restaurant. Along the same road, the Blue Bead is cheerful and open with a view right over the water. Outside stands a huge old silk cotton tree, and if you happen to be dining here when it is in flower, you can watch dozens of bats feeding on the nectar.
Kingís Well is a charmingly eccentric establishment run by Win from Germany and Laura from Ireland. Laura keeps macaws, five of them and there always seem to be a few other animals around. In the evening the bar is pour-it-yourself on the honor system, while Win produces excellent German cuisine, his smoked barbecued ribs are famous, as are the steaks, schnitzels, Rostbraten, and fresh fish. The Fruit Tree run by Vilmar Rivers is best for local food. It is set in a cute Statian building with a red roof, white shingles and green trim. You eat in a pleasant garden setting with a view of an old stone oven. The menu changes nightly and the prices are very reasonable. There are others, easy enough to find in this small community.
While Statia has quite reasonable supermarkets and a few small hotels, there are no tourist shops and Statia is so far off the beaten track that the visitors you do meet tend to be interesting. One day I met an American who came here with his wife to return to the scene of his childhood. It seems his father had emigrated to Statia from Europe after the Second World War to start a farm. They arrived by ship with all their belongings, and everything, including their livestock and truck, had to be rafted ashore. The farm was a disaster. His father reared pigs, then when they were grown, sent them by sailing schooner to be sold in St. Kitts, a mere 10 miles away. The captain claimed to have run out wind and drifted out to sea. He said that the food for the pigs had run out and they got thinner and thinner until they started to die. He gave the farmer just a few dollars for those he said he managed to sell, not even enough to pay for their feed. We looked where the farm had been, there was nothing left but an open pasture on the hillside. My newfound friend seemed content to be back in this peaceful haven. His wife looked like she would like to make straight for St. Martin and the nearest Colombian Emeralds.