From the archives: Lady C … Sint Maarten’s unique floating bar

Neither tempest nor calm, or a stomach that threatened to turn itself inside out, could stop intrepid seafarer Michael Voges from bringing what has become the island’s most unique bar, the Lady Carola, to St. Maarten.

IMG_1617
The infamous bar found a home between the SMYC and Lee’s Roadside Grill 

The Lady C – as she is affectionately known – started life in 1938 as a private yacht sailing the cold, gale swept waters of the Scottish North Sea. After leading a checkered life she found her way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and then into the hands of Voges who, in 1996, and with a crew of five, set sail for the sunny Caribbean.

“The boat was leaking so badly that the crew pumped the entire contents of the Atlantic Ocean out of the bilge,” says Voges, who recalls spending the entire nine-day voyage hanging over the rail as sick as a dog.

Once in the islands the boat was put into the day charter trade only to fall into the maw of hurricane Bertha which, taking over where the Atlantic left off, promptly sank her in Statia harbor.  Undaunted, the irrepressible Voges pumped her out, re-floated her and sent her back into the day charter business, where she toiled until 1999 when fate once again lent a hand.

“When hurricane Jose came through it gave the boat a hard slap, then along came Lenny and slapped her even harder.  The damage to the boat meant taking her offshore was no longer an option, so what else could I do but turn her into a bar,” said Voges.

Declaring the boat a bar was one thing, but finding somewhere to put it was quite another and like a refugee the Lady C roamed the Simpson Bay Lagoon looking for a permanent home; one day moored here, another day anchored there.  This brought a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bar hopping’, as there was a sporting chance that your favorite bar wasn’t where you left it the night before! Eventually the boat found a permanent home between the St. Maarten Yacht Club and Lee’s Roadside Grill and the most serious chapter of her life began.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Captain Mike Voges was in charge of the daily mayhem

Make no mistake wooden boats are living things that absorb into their timbers a ghostly trace of every character who worked, lived or died on them, so I wonder what the old girl’s spirit thought on the dreadful night when somebody stole Elvis.

For the uninitiated, Elvis was the figurehead that, wearing sunglasses and adorned with various pieces of frilly underwear and other ‘interesting’ objects, stood proud at Lady C’s stem-head. On the fateful morning of his disappearance a large search and rescue operation got under way, and a reward was offered for his safe return. Hanging from the yardarm or keel hauling was said to be too good for the thieves, and an aura of fear and suspicion stalked the decks and gangways. At the bar customers stared gloomily into their drinks. Some even wept.

“We eventually received a ransom note threatening to return him one piece at a time if we didn’t cough up, and it took us two weeks of hard negotiating and the payment of two cases of Red Stripe to bring Elvis home safely,” chuckled Voges.

Fun, history, and new traditions go hand in hand at the Lady C, where else in the world could you get away with carving your name into the bar top. Or, if you are stepping aboard from a boat, tie up to a dingy dock that once circumnavigated the globe? (A whole different story.)

Open Monday to Saturday during the off season, the bar welcomes locals, tourists and visiting yachtsmen alike, but take care, there is danger in having a quiet drink here for quiet drinks have a habit of turning into rip roaring parties.

Perhaps the original owners of the Lady C are spinning in their graves at the thought of their lovely 65 year old ketch spending her retirement on a tropical island playing host to a salty collection of imbibers and sea gypsies, but somehow I think not. For in our hearts we all carry a little of the buccaneer, and what better way to share in six decades of adventure than to swagger down a dock, step onto a deck, and experience it all for the price of a beer.

Notes: The floating bar Lucky Lady, featured in the novels Caribbean High and Caribbean Deep, is based on the Lady C, and many of the colorful characters found in the books were based (loosely) on customers I met a the bar.

Sadly the Lady C was broken up a couple of years ago but her legend lives on. If you have any stories or photographs from the infamous floating bar then please share them on Facebook.

Virus in Paradise Part 2

Lockdown. If it wasn’t serious before, it certainly is now.

Are we lucky to be trapped on a small Caribbean island while the world deals with one of the biggest threats of recent years? As things stand right now, I would say we are.

Our contact with the outside world is through news via the internet, and I don’t mean Facebook. Yes, I use and enjoy Facebook but as a news source wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

Reading the news, and by comparison to the UK, where a lying fool is in charge, and the US, where a man I honestly believe to be unhinged is in charge, the leaders on both sides of our island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin aren’t doing a bad job.

Like people everywhere, no one wants their freedom taken away (those in the UK that voted for Brexit being the exception), and so many aren’t dealing well with the draconian measures limiting our mobility.

Today, it was announced that the French gendarmes and Dutch-side police are patrolling the border, and further restricting movement with a curfew. The French side is volatile at the best of times, the riots of a few months ago testify to that, and these restrictions would never have been put in place unless absolutely necessary. Look on the island as a small town with very limited resources, zero manufacturing, and limited medical supplies.

Jan and I walked very early this morning carrying our documents as required by law, and then did a ten minute work out for, er, older people that I found online. (The two cats think we’ve gone crazy.) *The workout is excellent, see link below.

Placing restrictions on crossing the border has made shopping more difficult and certain products will now be out of reach, but that is something we can deal with.

Copy of Mid ocean 1984
A thousand miles from land, alone but not lonely

In many ways I am lucky. Having twice sailed the Atlantic alone in total isolation, one voyage taking 35 days, I learned that there’s a huge difference between being alone and being lonely. That is why I am full of admiration for those who are reaching out to people by sharing messages written on bits of cardboard for a lonely neighbor across the street to see, and those forming virtual communities online. There are a lot of good people out there.

Sadly, there are also a lot of chancers on the prowl ready to prey on the vulnerable. on the streets and online. Inevitably, crime on the island, and elsewhere, will increase and vigilance is the name of the game.

It can all seem doom and gloom and perhaps the above adds to that, so I’ll end on a brighter note with this from one of my all-time heroes, Spike Milligan

spike mill

Smile, and if you love someone, now’s the time to tell them.

*Link to 10 minute online workout: https://youtu.be/A2wp8Ipxn9s

Virus in Paradise Part 1

From the land of French law, Dutch law, and make-it-up-as-you-go-along law.

Just over two weeks ago I was out on the water reporting live for radio station Island 92 as we covered the four day Heineken Regatta here in St. Maarten. It now seems light years away.

 

b83abffa-df43-4763-861e-a691b474eb90
The Island 92 Heineken Regatta team, from left: Erb, me, Carey, Soc and Heather

The huge night time parties that traditionally accompany the regattas were packed with people from many parts of the world.  Since the Heineken Regatta every other Caribbean regatta has been canceled which, for many islands, will have huge economic impact.

At our pre-race meeting, Covid-19 was touched upon but with just days to go to the start of the first race, pushed gently under the carpet in the green room.

For the last 16 days I have been on edge worried by every sniffle and cough, and having checked in with the rest of the team know that they felt the same way. I fall into a high-risk category (work-related damaged lungs from when I had a real job), and covering the regatta was probably not the brightest thing I have ever done. But like much in the Caribbean, we lag behind the rest of the world, often believing that life in ‘paradise’ and another rum punch offers some protection.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is a strange place. Half French and half Dutch, with a mix of people, language and currency, the island depends 100% on tourism, and that revolves around the world’s largest cruise ships that daily unleash thousands and thousands of passengers onto the streets. That business is now stone dead.

In some ways, the island is better prepared to deal with this pandemic than other places. Islanders have suffered a series of devastating hurricanes over the last few years and are reacting to this crisis in a similar way only this time they still have roofs and utilities. There has been a little panic buying but other than hand sanitizer and face masks, just about everything else is available.

Of course the island has its share of yahoos and idiots, however, law enforcement are clamping down. This is from a report issued by the French authorities earlier:

MARIGOT–Gendarmes clamped down in no uncertain terms on motorists and persons moving around the French side over the weekend without the mandatory waiver document in their possession.

Over the weekend 160 vehicles and 200 persons were controlled, resulting in 35 fines issued at 135 euros each. The Gendarmerie justified the action during controls after two days of warning citizens “to limit movement to save lives” unless they have the waiver document.

The Gendarmerie confirmed that controls will continue throughout the territory to enforce the regulations. Businesses will also be monitored day and night, particularly shops in commercial areas, to prevent looting and delinquency.

Mention of looting is chilling as it was quite widespread after hurricane Irma in 2017.

One issue everyone is having to deal with is the rumor mill churning out ‘he said, she said, a friend of a friend who worked with him said’ news on social media.

In this blog I will do my best to only report news from official organizations on the island, beginning with this:

Two new COVID-19 cases for St. Martin were reported by health agency ARS on Monday [March 24].

Total active cases on the French side are now up to six. Three are in Louis-Constant Fleming Hospital (in addition to a pregnant woman transferred to the Guadeloupe University Hospital) and two are confined to their homes. Two former patients have already recovered and left the island.

Saint Barth’s has currently two cases confined to their homes. One former patient has recovered.

handwash 2 (1 of 1)
Now do it 🙂

CATS IN THE STORM

A story of survival

There’s a gang of feral cats live around our apartment block. The amazing thing about these cats, other than cats are amazing anyway, is that many of them survived hurricane Irma’s 200mph winds and after the storm passed most of them appeared back in the gardens.

My wife and I have names for all these cats. Their leader is One Lug, because, well, he’s only got one lug. Old, gnarled, and always causing trouble, One Lug’s fur is predominantly white with patches of tan, ginger and black thrown in to add to his character. How he lost his ear, I don’t know but as he’s a marauding Tom, and we think the father of most of the feral cats, the chances are it was ripped off in battle over a female.

Among the other ragtag feline population is Bandit. Bandit is beautiful. She’s tiny, and has all the characteristics and coloring of a Siamese but her most striking features are two circles of darker fir, one around each eye, which gives her the look of Zorro or, a bandit. Bandit gave birth to kittens but only the cheeky black and white one seems to have survived, and it follows her everywhere even though it’s no longer suckling. Bandit is the best mum, and if you believe cats can love, then she really loves and protects her kitten, especially from the advances of One Lug. Bandit’s kitten is known simply as Kitten.

Another kitten that survived the tempest is The Ginger Clown. In any group, human or animal, there’s always one who plays the fool and cats are no different, in fact they are experts at it. Ginger likes to play dead in the parking lot and twice I’ve gone to pick up his little corpse only to have him leap up and bound away. I swear he laughs when he does this and that his gang of mates, hiding and watching from among the debris, cheer him on knowing I’ve had to walk down three flights of stairs to reach him.

Rusty Head, a tortoise shell, has developed a bad limp. I don’t think her leg is broken, perhaps she’s cut her paw. Lord knows, there’s enough broken glass strewn around to do serious harm, or she might have been attacked by a dog. Dog’s and humans are the only things that the cats fear, although old One Lug seems to fear nothing.

El Pirata, a large black and white cat, doesn’t mix much with the others preferring to live on the margins of society. He might be biding his time, waiting for One Lug to die, or leave, so that he can move in and take over. Then again, maybe he’s just very shy, or he’s been bullied, or he’s a deep thinker, a philosopher cat. At least he’s not a total outcast like some.

The real outcasts live in the gardens next door. These are cats that once had a forever home with humans and, for whatever reason, are no longer wanted. Perhaps their humans died or had human babies, or bought a dog or their kids grew tired of their feline Christmas present and threw it out. After the storm, many of the outcasts wandered about bewildered not knowing what to do or how to feed themselves in the harsh world of the street. Some still wore a collar bearing the name given to them by their humans: Fluffy, Patches, Socks and the like.

I wrote this story two years ago and some of the same cats are still with us. I have even seen Bandit a couple of times. A prolific breeder, I think she’s been trapped, spayed and released, which is good news. Alas, I think old One Lug has crossed the Rainbow Bridge where, no doubt, he’s chasing females, fighting, yowling, and causing mayhem.

cats in the rain - copy - Copy
Illustration by Ellie den Hartog from the children’s book  Moggie and Buster and the Farm of Horrors

 

PREPARE FOR NAMED STORMS

Hold fast

Hurricane season is here. Having ridden out several hurricanes, and having had a boat smashed by one, I feel qualified to offer a few suggestions on storm readiness.

In times past yachtsmen would be gone from the hurricane belt before the start of the hurricane season and this is still the only way to guarantee you won’t be caught in a Caribbean hurricane. However, for many of today’s cruisers, leaving the hurricane belt is not an option. I live in the Caribbean year round and therefore must deal with hurricane season. When my boat was smashed by hurricane Gonzalo, I fell into the trap of not preparing early enough. I also relied on the weather forecasters who later admitted that Gonzalo didn’t behave as planned. Although I can lambaste the met office for a dodgy forecast, the buck stops with me. My seamanship and judgment were at fault and I paid a high price.

If you can’t haul out, and plan to stay afloat for the season, then here are a few things to consider.

IMG_7622-2

Location

Choose your spot early and get as much ground tackle down as you can. Remember, other boats will be seeking shelter and will anchor close to you … this is a given. When I rode out Hurricane Luis in 1995, I was holding to a concrete mooring block and five anchors. I kept one anchor in reserve but didn’t use it even though I lost one anchor thanks to chafe. Lashing your boat to mangroves with anchors deployed from stern or bow is a proven way of surviving a storm. However, environmentalists in places like St. Maarten are trying to limit such actions. If you are in a so-called ‘Hurricane Hole’, then seek the advice of people who have sheltered there in the past. Coral Bay, St. John would be an example.

Chafe is your enemy

If you are lying to chain then you will need long nylon snubbers to prevent snatching. It is vital to protect nylon snubbers or anchor rode from chafe. Leading snubbers and rode through bilge hose works well but modern bow rollers are notoriously inadequate and there probably won’t be room for more than one hose and line. Where to lead everything is something you must work out for yourselves. During Hurricane Louis, I took extra snubbing lines back to the primary winches, and I had the bitter end of one anchor chain through a pipe and shackled around the base of the mast. ‘Belt and braces’ is your motto.

Windage

Try carrying a 4×4 sheet of plywood in ten knots of wind and you’ll quickly learn about windage. Strip your boat of everything that increases windage: Sails, awnings, spray curtains, BBQ, take off as much as you can; including external halyards (leave a couple so you can go up the mast after the storm). Stow the dinghy and never, ever leave the headsail on the roller furler, it’s a boat smasher.

Staying aboard in the blow

I have heard it said that there is nothing to be gained by staying aboard. This isn’t strictly true. There are lots you can do. For instance you can shake in fear, you can also tend the lines and keep chafe at bay. Before the wind really picks up, you might also be able to fend off should a small boat drag down on you, but if it’s an inter-island freighter, then good luck. At some point during a ‘monster’ storm you will find there is little you can do but hang on. And don’t expect anyone to come and get you, they won’t. Running the engine to maneuver is marginally possible and some skippers have reduced the load on dragging anchors and in this way saved themselves from going ashore. Be aware that the sea floor will be in motion and sand and debris might find its way into the water intake and the engine overheat. It happened to me. Dirt in the fuel tank will also be stirred up.

Moving ashore for the blow

I’ve ridden out several hurricanes both afloat and ashore. Ashore, I did nothing but fret about leaving the boat, afloat I did nothing but cuss for not staying ashore. If you do head for shore then take your valuables, electronics, money, papers and documents with you. Sadly, if your boat does break free and go ashore, you might not be the first person to arrive on the scene.

Fight or flight

Leaving an anchorage to outrun or out maneuver a named storm is fraught with danger. Lack of wind ahead of the storm, boat speed, crew endurance and unreliable weather forecasts are just a few of the factors to consider.

IMG_0019-2

If there’s a weak link in your preparations, the probing storm will find it. Skill, local knowledge, experience and good equipment all help. Common sense is vital.

ALL WASHED UP

While my wife was away visiting her family in England, I bought her an automatic washing machine. “So what?” you say, but our path to becoming modern dobey-wallahs has been a long and wet one.

For a start, for 25 years we lived on a series of small sailboats, living four of those years on a 6.7m sloop with sitting headroom only. Laundry was done in various ways. At sea, we towed bedding behind the boat on a rope, which got the sheets super clean. The night we forgot they were there and a shark shredded them put a stop to that. In port, we washed them in a bucket (we couldn’t afford the launderette).  Our boat had no toilet and so we had two buckets, one in which we did the laundry, and one in which we did … everything else. Once, when we lost a bucket overboard, the remaining bucket became multipurpose. Something we never discussed with our guests when spreading a clean tablecloth before sitting them down to dinner.

In the West Indies, we washed our clothes in rivers and streams and beat them on rocks to get them clean. So-much-fresh-water!

Eventually I found work and rediscovered the joys of the launderette, which always seemed to have a bar nearby, or in some cases a bar attached to them.

Then the sad day arrived when we moved ashore and my wife refused outright to do the laundry in the sink or a bucket. All my protestations about how our mums used to do it – in a galvanized tub with a posser – fell on deaf ears and so I found myself in the local appliance store looking for the shortest way out.

I managed to convince my wife that the rudimentary plumbing in our rented apartment made no provisions for an expensive automatic washing machine but look, I said, there’s a lovely (cheap) twin tub. If I really struggled, I bet I could plumb that in.

She looked at me, well, actually, she looked right through me, but I had sort of committed to buying her a machine and while her fingers loving caressed the nobs and dials of a top-of-the-line Samsung automatic (almost breaking my heart), I paid the deposit on the twin tub and fled.

The machine was delivered and followed us from apartment to apartment for 20 years. I even bought a transformer in order to use it when we moved from a country that used 110 volts to one that used 220.

The only trouble we ever had with that machine was when it swallowed a pair of my underpants and I had to take it apart and rescue them from beneath the spinner drum, and the day clothes became tangled in the lid tearing it off and hurling it at my wife like a killer Frisbee.

But, oh boy, was that machine labor intensive. Fill the washer, wash. Empty the washer, refill and rinse. Put clothes in to spin and run like hell as it bounced around the room trying to kill you because the spinner was out of balance.

While my wife was in England, I sort of let the washing build up until I had no clean clothes, no clean bedding, no clean towels, in fact I was down to sleeping on the floor and wandering around naked, covering my bits with my hands when I walked past the window or someone came to the door. I could not go out, I had become prisoner to a huge pile of festering washing that I swear pulsated and moved around at night.

Eventually, shoveling it to one side and digging down, I uncovered the twin tub and began the mammoth task of fill, wash, repeat, spin, wash, rinse, repeat … ad nauseam.

The next day, dressed in clean clothes smelling of poorly rinsed laundry detergent, I purchased an automatic washing machine as a surprise for my wife.

I waited until she was home so that we could christen it together.

We loaded it up,  brought chairs and beers, pressed the button and and sat watching it go round.

IMG_1253-2

I scored so many points, I’m now thinking of buying her a television.

Rocking the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta with Island 92, 91.9 FM …

The joys of the radio commentary boat

I say joys because for four glorious days, from February 28 to March 3, joy is what it was. The 39th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta rolled over the island with spectacular sailing, wonderful trade wind conditions, and superb parties that reverberated to music of all kinds from some seriously talented acts including The Jacksons.

I began broadcasting from the Island 92 radio boat back when all we had was cheap cell phones and a signal that at best was hit and miss. There was no feedback from the studio, you were on air or not, and you never knew which. A ten minute call reporting all the drama of a thrilling start might have been dropped after 20 seconds leaving you talking to yourself, a few photographers on the boat and a clutch of bedraggled pelicans.

This year I rejoined the sea-going team of Island 92 reporters; station owner Jeffery Sochrin (aka Doctor Soc), and the Caribbean’s leading sailing pundit, Cary Byerley, whose knowledge of sailing, Caribbean sailing in particular, is as deep as the Marianas trench.

To say ‘regatta radio’ has changed over the years is an understatement.

For one, Island 92 now has its own ‘dedicated’ media boat. No more sharing with a motley collection of sweaty photographers and videographers (it’s okay, we’re all mates). Better yet, upgrades to the station’s mobile communications equipment have placed Island 92 at the forefront of Caribbean sailing commentary and links via the internet allow what’s happening on the water to be streamed to the world in real time.

A team covering the regatta from various locations along the shore added to the listeners’ fun. All this was held together in the studio by Erb, Island 92’s techno genius and presenter whose catchy radio voice and penchant for Grey Goose is legendary.

Boisterous conditions make for sparkling sailing conditions for the racing yachts but are gut-wrenching on a small press boat. To calm my stomach I always eat at sea, but after four days of Island 92 sandwiches I (and my creaking bowels) never want to see a cheese sandwich again.

I’ve reported on many St. Maarten Heineken Regattas for radio, print media and video and done it in all sorts of conditions: flat calm with races abandoned, and storm-force winds with the media boat falling apart, cameras ruined, and press hammered black and blue and seeking medical assistance. The 39th was magic. Blue skies, 18 knot trade winds and just enough sea running to make it, er, interesting.

A good press boat puts you at the very heart of the racing. When a forty-footer was over the start line early and sailed around the committee boat to restart, it found its course blocked by spectator boats that forced it to sail so close to the start boat that its mainsail hit it with a loud thwack. We were there among the shouting and obscene gestures. Epic stuff. Disaster averted, but only just.

It’s fair to say sailing is not much of a spectator sport, but a knowledgeable, entertaining, live radio broadcast from the water can bring sailing excitement into the lives of people who know nothing about the sport and wouldn’t get on a boat if you paid them.

So, I returned to the radio boat and had a wonderful time. Back behind a microphone doing something I love. I’m a lucky guy.

None of this could happened without some very special people. A big thank you goes to the team at Island 92, stars every one of them. Afloat, commentators Doctor Soc, Cary Byerley and Omari Timmermans. The shore team; Charles ‘Mr S’ Southworth, Rebecca Low and Heather Court, and, of course, audio wiz and studio anchorman Eric ‘Erb’ Boyer. Erb broadcast our reports and kept the music pumping between the sailing action.

Thanks also go to Billy Bones Charters who provided us with a splendid press boat, and gallant Captain Al for keeping us safe if not always dry.

PHOTO-2019-03-03-09-13-09

Island 92 regatta team (standing, from left): Captain Al, Omari Timmermans, Jeffery ‘Dr Soc’ Sochrin. (Front row): Gary Brown, Charles ‘Mr S’ Southworth, and Cary Byerley.  Missing from the photo, Erb Boyer, Heather Court and Rebecca Low

Join the Island 92 radio team for the 40th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta March 5 – 8 2020.

See you on the water

Gaz