The forgotten corner of the West Indies
Dec 01, 2005 by Capt.-John-Campbell

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 end.

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 sale.

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 justifiably famous.

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 to mind.

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 to visit.

Capt. John Campbell is the skipper of Magdalus Terzo, a 115-foot (35m) sloop. Contact him through editorial@the-triton.com.

Magdalus Terzo, a 115-foot (35m) sloop. Contact him through editorial@the-triton.com.

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