WHERE HAVE ALL THE BOATS GONE?August 02, 2001
Last Fall, we were in a boatyard in the Chesapeake hemorrhaging money and watching southward flying Canada geese when we decided it was time to visit the eastern Caribbean again. We hadn't been there for five years. Other cruisers told us, "You won't recognize the place. It's crammed with boats. New developments everywhere. Hardly any place left to drop the hook."
We looked at the plunging thermometer and the grey skies above and replied, "Yeah, but at least it's warm!" On December 6th, after a night of freezing rain, we sailed out of Beaufort, NC, and crossed the Stream. Twelve days later, we arrived in St. Maarten in the Lesser Antilles. It wasn't our most comfortable passage, but nothing major broke and nobody died. And we were in the tropics again!
We anchored in spacious Simpson Lagoon on the Dutch side (ownership of the island is split between France and the Netherlands). Lots of room. In fact, most of the other boats at anchor were occupied by people who had jobs on the island and weren't actively cruising. The only crowds we encountered were at the dinghy dock in the morning as our neighbors struggled to get to work on time. "Wait until after Christmas," they warned. "The hordes will start arriving in January."
A few more boats trickled in with the new year, but we still had plenty of space. At the St. Maarten Yacht Club's Friday night social, where Eileen played a regular gig, the faces soon looked pretty familiar. The number of new boats slowly increased leading up to the Heineken Regatta, St. Maarten's premier sailing event held at the beginning of March. Still, we had no problems finding room whenever we moved the boat, and more times than not we had the beach to ourselves when we visited Explorer Island in the middle of the Lagoon. "Maybe all the boats are clogged further down the island chain and haven't made it up this far," we thought.
We wanted to make it to Bequia in the Grenadines in plenty of time for their Easter regatta, so we sailed direct from St. Maarten with only a brief stop en route at the charming island of Nevis. We arrived in Bequia at night expecting Admiralty Bay to be brightly lit with anchor lights. It was pitch black. The last time we were there, we could walk ashore over the decks of all the boats at anchor. For sure, more boats arrived over the next few days to participate in the regatta, but as soon as the festivities ended, the place emptied out.
It was the same story when we checked into other popular boater hangouts: St. Anne in Martinique, Rodney Bay in St. Lucia, and Prickly Bay in Grenada. We timed our visit to St. Lucia to catch their annual jazz festival. The yachties taking in the free steel pan concert at the Rodney Bay marina were outnumbered by the band members!
This isn't to say there's no one left sailing the islands. We could always count on finding someone to share drinks in the cockpit at sundown. It's just that there are far fewer boats than we expected. Mind you, we're not complaining. It's been easier to find a parking spot at the dinghy dock, we haven't had to spend the better part of a day waiting for a machine in the marina Laundromat, and there's been no need to bring out the fire extinguisher when the cruiser anchored next door lights up his barbecue. In fact, we've enjoyed being able to stake out a little bit of tropical paradise for our own (if only temporarily).
It would be easy to put the blame on lousy weather (cruisers always whine about the weather), but actually the winds weren't bad this past winter, at least no worse than average. The consensus in most of the shore side watering holes is that the economy is at fault. A large proportion of the pleasure boats in the eastern Caribbean are chartered. With the Dow Jones and NASDAQ bouncing around like flotsam and jetsam in a gale, skittish North Americans are hesitant to spend their kid's college tuition on a winter sailing vacation in the sun. Ironically, the US dollar remains strong on the world currency markets; so many Europeans are finding a holiday in the Caribbean - where the American greenback rules supreme - to be prohibitively expensive.
But this didn't explain the relative scarcity of cruising boats anchored in Trinidad when we arrived there at the beginning of June. After an overnight sail from Grenada, we turned the corner into our favorite anchorage in Carenage Bay in front of the Trinidad and Tobago Sailing Association to find half a dozen boats at anchor. Five years ago, we had to grease the topsides to squeeze in and secure a parking spot. There are virtually no bareboat charter operations in Trinidad. The place fills up at the beginning of summer due to its favored location south of the hurricane belt and because of the plethora of boat services available to cruisers intent upon going broke saving money.
Actually, there are lots of cruising boats in Trinidad at the moment, but most of them are empty. When we hauled "Little Gidding" a couple of weeks ago, we got one of the last available spaces in the boatyard. Empty anchorages and full boatyards - this points to something more pervasive and enduring than a hiccup in the stock market. We've noticed in the seven years we've been living aboard that the cruising boats are getting bigger and better equipped and their occupants are getting older (ourselves included!). More and more cruisers seem to have the desire and the means to live aboard for only part of the year. The couple who owns the 38 foot Island Packet on the hard in Trinidad also owns a summer house in Vermont.
If the weather gods are beneficent next winter and the economy less anemic, we expect the anchorages in the eastern Caribbean will become gorged once more with pleasure craft. But once the summer rains begin, it might be tough rounding up guests for sundowners.