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.
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.
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.