Climbing Saba Rock - May 20th, 2002
Saba Island rises 3000 feet from the sea. Imposing brown cliffs climb vertically out of the water, giving the impression that the island belongs in a fairytale. (Miranda and I took to calling the cliffs that overhung our anchorage 'The Cliffs of Insanity'). Like all good forbidden lands, Saba is not easily conquered. The steep cliffs leave no room for beaches and make landing almost impossible. The hearty Dutch settlers solved this problem by cutting more than 800 stone steps into a cliff on the leeward side of the island. When conditions were calm, boats could then be unloaded at the base of the cliff (by men standing in waist deep water). All goods were then carried up the steps from Ladder Bay to the towns perched in the heights of the island. Everything imported to the island was delivered this way until the 1960s, when an airport was built on a small patch of flattened land.
Statia fell away to our stern as we sailed toward Saba on a beautiful beam reach. Saba began to loom large on the horizon and we began to contemplate our approach. All the guide books warn that anchoring at Saba is a difficult proposition. Only in favorable conditions is anchoring possible and even then everyone we talked to recommended using the mooring balls that are provided free of charge around the island. The wind continued to whip along and we sailed quickly up to the south side of the island and then on around to the west side where we hoped to find refuge from the easterly winds. No such luck. Instead of finding a quiet leeward anchorage we found a malestrom. The island, being almost round in shape, was splitting the wind apart, forcing one stream of air to flow along the northern shore and another to flow along the southern. The two streams of air continued on their circular paths until they reached the west side of the island, where they met in a head on collision. We were running along at almost six knots when we hit this tangled mess of confused wind. The jib began flapping wildly, eddies formed in the water next to us, and our speed dropped to almost nothing. We dropped the sail, started the engine and decided this wasn't the place to moor even though there were four empty mooring balls in sight.
In fact we had our pick of any mooring ball there at Saba. They were all empty! And there were no other pleasure boats anchored anywhere around the island. We had come to Saba for this reason, we wanted to get off the beaten track. Saba's treacherous nature keeps the tourists and novice sailors away, and makes the rest of us quite nervous. At most anchorages you can simply pull up near to where other boats are anchored and assume its a safe spot. When there are other boats around one can go ashore confident with the knowledge that if the boat begins to drag or sink, there are people around who will see it and do something. When you're the only ones out there, your anchoring skills are put to the test. Alone we pressed on, a little nervous, but still confident we could find a safe spot. The weather wasn't particularly bad, but the wind was up and all the mooring balls were quite exposed to the swell that seemed to be finding its way to all sides of the island. We ducked into what passes as the only bay on Saba Island, a small indentation on the north west coast called Wells Bay. It offered no protection from the wind that whipped around the coast but fortunately it had a relatively shallow sandy bottom into which the anchor dug well and deep. I let out most of the 100 foot anchor chain and spent the next few hours watching carefully to see that we weren't dragging. We seemed to have passed the first obstacle of Saba Rock: Anchoring.
The next test was getting ashore. We had been told a story about a man and wife, who having sold everything were living on their boat and sailing the Caribbean. It was New Years Eve day when they sailed into Saba and anchored in Wells Bay. When they attempted to land on the small rock beach, their dinghy was swamped and the man lost a finger when the outboard engine hit his hand. He and his wife spent New Years Eve in the hospital. And as if that hadn't been enough, when they returned to the bay, they found the boat had dragged and had been smashed to pieces on the rocky coast!
Once I was sure the anchor was holding we put on our snorkeling gear and plopped into the water. There was a bit of a current running, but with flippers we were able to overcome that and swim around the bay. We headed toward shallower water, snorkeling around the boulders that sat on the bottom a few meters from shore. I decided that a closer inspection of the shoreline was in order before tomorrows anticipated landing and I swam up to where the surf was breaking onto basketball sized rocks. I waited for a lull in the waves and quickly clambored up the steep incline escaping the next breaker. This wasn't easy with flippers as Miranda, who was following behind me, quickly discovered. As she tried to scale the beach one of her flippers got caught between two rocks. Before she could free herself two waves crashed around her legs and torso and threatened to knock her down, bruse her badly and even break some bones. But, she kept her balance held her ground and manged to free her foot. She climbed up the beach and proceeded to give me hell for not telling her where I was going. It had been close, but we seemed to have tackled Saba's second challenge: getting ashore.
The next day we planned our landing much more carefully. Miranda was understandably apprehensive about a second attempt. I assured her that this time it would be easier for we not only knew some of the dangers but this time we would not be wearing flippers. We carefully packed our clothes, a small towel, the camera, our wallets, and a backpack into Ziplock bags and then a second and a third layer of Ziplock bags. Ziplock bags are the sailor's constant companion and his surest allie against sea water. We put on our bathers and slipped into the water. Pushing the floating plastic bags in front of us we swam toward the beach and managed an easy, almost graceful, exit from the water. Happy with ourselves at how successfully our plan had worked we opened up our Ziplock baggies and began towelling off and changing into our clothes. As I slipped into my shirt I heard a loud thud as if someone had dropped a large boulder onto the beach a few meters away. It was only then that I truly took a good look up at the Cliffs of Insanity that towered over the beach. To my horror I saw that it was studded with huge rocks hanging precariously out from the cliff face ready to drop at any moment. We were watching errosion in action and we weren't too keen to stick around and see more! A couple of more thuds off to our right set us into quick action and we were in our clothes and off the beach in no time.
At the end of the beach we stepped up onto the road. Only later did we find out that this was the far end of the one and only road on the island. The cement road climbed up at an amazing angle and wove its way through the hills. We started climbing and soon found ourselves looking back down over the bay from where we had come. A truck parked down at the end of the road looked small from the distance and we could barely see the truck's owner fishing on an outcropping of rocks. We turned back around and continued walking up, and up, occassionally stopping to catch our breath at a turn in the road. A few minutes later we both heard the sound of a vehicle approaching from below and knew it had to be the truck struggling up the incline. When it was just around the corner we stopped and stuck out our thumbs. For a moment I feared the driver wouldn't stop because he might not be able to get the truck going again on the steep incline. But he did stop, and he was able to get going again even with the added weight of two passengers. We feasted our eyes on the fantastic views and marvelled at how the road seemed to weave and cut along nothing but cliffsides. We were thankful that a ride had come along for there was very little flat road and the drive into town which took us all of five minutes would have been a very long and tiring walk.
When the driver reached the top we thanked him, jumped out, and found ourselves at The Bottom. Now things were really beginning to resemble a fairy tale or Alice in Wonderland. There are two main towns in Saba: The Bottom and Windward Side. I imagine that after settling towns in such harsh environs one has little energy left for naming them. The descriptive names turned out to be helpful. We figured walking up and toward the wind would take us from The Bottom to Windward Side. Of course we would have had to work pretty hard to get ourselves lost, since Saba has only one road!
Up until the 1950s a mountain track, which took an hour to traverse, was the only route between the two towns. Visiting Dutch engineers declared road building on the island an impossibility due to the steep terrain. So a local man named John Hassel, took a correspondence course in road building and soon had the Saban people at work hand building a road. It took them several years to complete the job but by 1958 "the road that couldn't be built" was in service. Later that afternoon we caught a taxi which happened to be driven by a man who had helped build the road. This man, in his mid fifties, spoke to us with pride about the process of leveling the hillside and building the retaining walls. He told us about life before the road, how he used to trek between the towns. He told us about the road's early days when only jeeps could traverse the muddy unpaved slopes. I found it remarkable and touching that a single road had played such a central role in this mans life. In fact the road is greatly significant to most Sabans, for not too long ago it drastically changed life on the Island. All Saban's were very proud of the road's existence. A stone monument was erected to honor the road's progenitor and the man's house has been preserved as a shop since his death in the 70s.
We walked along the road up away from The Bottom. A few turns later were were looking down onto the town and it was a beautiful sight to behold. Every building in Saba is white with green shutters and a red roof. Nestled together between the towering green hills the matching buildings sparkled against the ocean blue backdrop. The Bottom couldn't have looked more idyllic if it had been taken straight out of a picture book. We walked passed The Saba University School of Medicine sitting quiet for summer break. As we entered Windward Side the sound of singing echoed down the empty streets. It was a Sunday morning and while the streets were empty the churches were full. Most everything in town was shut but we had a lovely time wandering the streets to look at the impeccably maintained houses and gardens. We came across a dive resort with a hotel and restaurant that was serving a buffet brunch. We stepped in to look at the spread and were immediately taken with the magnificent setting. A small deck hung out the back overlooking the town and ocean. If the food hadn't been good the setting would have made up for it, but it was delicious. To top it all off we were the only ones in the place for the first three quarters of the meal.
It was a wonderful way to end our fairy tale day. We caught a cab back to Wells Bay, swam out to the boat and raised the anchor. As we sailed on toward the Virgin Islands and home, the magical kingdom of Saba slowly drifted into a shroud of mist and eventually disappeared.... happily ever after.