I have been sailing
and working in the West Indies, off and on, for more than 30 years, and I have
been to all the islands many times. Just a minute. All the islands? Well,
nearly all the islands.
We have had a couple
of abortive efforts to land on Redonda, but the swell has beaten us back.
Likewise Sombrero; we were close enough to wave to the lighthouse keepers
once, but again, discretion was the better part of valour, with heavy swells
breaking onto the sharp rocks.
What about the rest?
Actually, we never made the effort to go to Saba. Everybody said it was a bad
anchorage. Often the swells were too big to get ashore and there was nothing
much there anyway. Besides, it would be a hard beat back to St. Maarten or St.
Barts from there. There was always an excuse and never a strong reason to go,
so we never went. We found out this year what we have been missing.
A group of charterers
who were keen divers, and a spell of unseasonably gentle south-easterly wind
sowed the seeds. A trip to Saba was on the agenda. What a delight it turned
out to be.
The west coast is
reasonably sheltered, provided the wind is not too far in the north, and
provided there is no strong ground swell coming down from the frozen north.
For small boats, there are a dozen or more moorings scattered along the
northern half of the west coast, and we found plenty of space to anchor in
Wells Bay, to the north end of the moorings.
Saba’s coastal waters
are a Marine Park, and there are only two places where you can anchor or moor.
These are along the northern half of the west coast, and off the diminutive
port at Fort Bay on the south coast. If the wind is east, or has the merest
hint of south in it, the anchorage off Fort Bay would be uncomfortable at
best. It is probably reasonable if the wind is well north of east, provided
there is no big ground swell. When we arrived it was pretty rough on the south
coast, so we anchored in Wells Bay and took the tender to the little harbour
at Fort Bay.
Fort Bay is where
officialdom is located, in the form of the Park Authorities, who make a small
charge per head that goes toward looking after the waters of the park and
maintaining the moorings and the Port Office, which houses Customs and
Immigration. Everybody seemed genuinely pleased to see us, the formalities
were minimal and the charges moderate.
Also in Fort Bay is
the island’s generating plant, three dive shops, a strategically placed bar
and the island’s only gas station. Leading up from the harbor is a steep road
that goes up to the improbably named village of The Bottom. It seems a strange
name for a village built at the top of a hill, but that is what it is called.
This was the road that the experts said could not be built, because the
terrain was too steep.
A fellow called
Josephus "Lambee" Hassel bought a book on road building, rounded up a few
willing and able Sabans, and together they built the road by hand. It was
completed in 1943, but it would be four more years before the first motor
vehicle was landed on the island.
The traditional way
for goods to reach the village of The Bottom, and indeed the other villages of
Windwardside and Hell’s Gate, had been up the steep and rocky track that led
up the valley from Fort Bay, or up the even steeper track – with more than
1,000 steps – that climbs up the cliff on the west coast, in Ladder Bay. For
many years absolutely everything that was landed on the island was carried up
the steep tracks by strong-legged porters. There was a huge polemic in 1943
when somebody brought a group of donkeys to the island. The porters were
dismayed, as they could see their lucrative living coming to an
Eleven years after the
first car arrived, the road network was completed. By 1958 one could drive
between the three main villages and the port. Perhaps the success of the road
building sowed the seeds for the idea of an airport. Once again, the
government had deemed the project out of the question; the experts reckoned
there was just not enough flat land to allow a plane to land or takeoff.
With the help of an
intrepid pilot from St Barts, the Sabans again proved the experts wrong. Rocks
were cleared and holes were filled on a small flat area in the northeast
corner of the island, and in 1959 Remey de Haenen landed a small single-engine
plane on the makeshift airstrip. This encouraged the government to reconsider
its decision, and a proper runway was built in 1963.
At 1,311 feet, it is
claimed to be the shortest commercial runway in use in the world. It has been
likened more to landing on an aircraft carrier than an airfield, but it does
allow for a regular air-service to St Maarten.
We walked up the steep
and winding road from Fort Bay to The Bottom. It is only by walking up the
hill that one can really begin to appreciate the difficulty the Sabans must
have experienced building the road. It is hard walking up, never mind carrying
materials or tools, or indeed working on the steep slope.
The Bottom was the
first village to be established on the island, and all the civil service
establishments, such as Government House, the hospital and the police station
are found there.
The village is
well-cared for, and unlike most Caribbean towns, it is clean and tidy. The
neatly arranged, white gingerbread houses with their scarlet roofs made the
village look like a large model. As we wandered through, looking for a
well-earned cold drink, we met a couple of ladies who had a variety of
lace-work to sell. Lace-making has been a tradition on the island for years
and we later saw several shops offering a variety of items for
From The Bottom it is
a relatively easy walk or a short taxi-ride across to the village of
Windwardside. This is a little bigger than, but just as neat and tidy as, The
Bottom. On the approach to Windwardside is the trail that leads up another
couple thousand feet to the top of Mount Scenery. Unfortunately, time did not
allow us to go up the trail on this visit, but we will return, and earn the
right to buy one of the T-shirts that proclaims the fact that you went up all
1,064 steps of the trail.
Saba boasts a number
of marked hiking trails, and for the sound of limb and lung, a week’s walking
holiday there would be great. However, it is for diving that Saba is
Because there are few
hotels, no large towns and little in the way of agriculture, there is almost
none of the polluted runoff that has damaged so many of the world’s reefs.
Some experts estimate that perhaps 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have
been damaged to a point that they may not recover. The coral encircling Saba
is how the reefs in the rest of Caribbean were, perhaps 50 years ago. To use
the word pristine may seem like a cliché, but it is the word that keeps coming
The Park Service
enforces the anchoring restrictions, so there is little of the fringing reef
that has been damaged by visiting boats, and quite large areas are closed to
fishing so the sea-life is abundant.
Although the fringing
reefs are excellent, perhaps the best – and certainly the most known – sites
for diving are on the Pinnacles. These are a small group of seamounts that
rise straight out of the oceanic depths to within about a hundred feet of the
surface. The mounts are covered in an amazing variety of corals and sponges,
and seem to be like a magnet for sea life of all sorts and sizes.
There are several dive
companies operating out of Saba, and any diving must be done with one or
another of them; it is not permitted to organize your own dives.
It is also reassuring
to know that there is a recompression chamber on the island, at Fort Bay. It
is one of the few in the eastern Caribbean.
We will certainly plan
to return to Saba whenever our itinerary and the weather allow. There is a lot
more to see both above and below the water. It is well worth making the effort
Capt. John Campbell is
the skipper of Magdalus
Terzo, a 115-foot (35m) sloop. Contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org.Magdalus Terzo, a 115-foot (35m) sloop.
Contact him through email@example.com.