March is the month when more than 2,000 sailors, press and sailing enthusiasts fly into St Maarten, many for the first time, to take part in the Heineken Regatta. They join the hundreds of Mega Yacht crew who are based on the island for winter. In the spirit of the 25th anniversary celebrations, All At Sea joined a handful of old-timers in following the island’s progress from mangrove to marinas and cruisers on wooden boats to Mega Yachts with helicopter pads.
“There used to be 3-400 boats anchored in Great Bay during the season,” remembers one local businessman. “They were anchored so close that one swung and scraped the side off my boat with its wind vane.” Stand in Simpson Bay today and it’s hard to imagine that until the 1990s, the island’s sailing center was on the other side of the hill in Philipsburg. Bobby’s Marina started in 1971 as Bobby’s Yacht Service and was hauling out around 200 boats a year by the 80s. By the 1990s, this figure was up to some 600 boats. The Marina itself began by borrowing a pile driver designated for the cruise ship pier for 24 hours – an effort typical of the ‘now or never, any which way’ spirit that built St Maarten.
The cruise ships that pack Philipsburg nowadays have been invaluable in providing year-round income for St Maarten, but to see Great Bay as a cruise ship port ruffles feathers locally.
On top of fond memories of The Anker Bar and Chesterfields, local sailors remember ‘Sam’s Place’ where the legendary barman Bernard would have your drink ready on a mat from your second visit onward. “He earned $1000 a month in tips alone,” one regular marveled. Another sepia moment was on January 6, 1987 when arguably the worst Southerly in recent memory came through, sending 25′ waves breaking off the sandbar. In the middle of it all was Frits Bus on a windsurfer, taking full advantage of conditions bad enough to dump anchored boats onto the beach!
Up until 1989, there hadn’t been a hurricane for some 25 years. The motto used to be ‘Remember September, October all over’ according to one local sailor. The attitude to clearing in was equally relaxed. “If you checked in a week after you arrived, it was often OK,” he added.
At one point the only dock in the mangrove-heavy Simpson Bay Lagoon was at Island Water World, but as the businesses moved over the hill, so the boats followed. St Maarten Sails’ Rob Gilders recently celebrated 25 years in business and remembers the days of Peter Spronk catamarans dotted all over Great Bay, Wim Van Der Gulik’s Sunfish racing group and Alfred Koolen’s windsurfing circuit off Simpson Bay. Whether on a boat or a board, sailing was regular, sociable and followed by great parties or beach barbeques.
“The island boom started in the 80s, but it was a gentle incline for the marine industry,” he says. Then came Hurricane Luis in 1995 and after the island cleared up from that, things took off big time. In the days when it was easier to set up a business or employ skilled workers with the minimum of red tape, hundreds of cruisers dropped anchor and decided to make a go of the island. Look around the lagoon today and most of the big neon signs or slick store front facades belong to businesses started by someone with calloused hands from an Atlantic crossing and a plan.
The entry of 318′ mega yacht Limitless through the new Simpson Bay Lagoon Bridge in 2003 was, in physical terms, the most potent visual symbol of how far St Maarten had come.
On the French side, the watershed was in 1985 when the French Defiscalisation law injected a full 8 pints of lifeblood into the local economy. Not only did the generous tax breaks encourage Charter Companies to set up on the French side, but they also lured contractors and businesses.
Felix Porier came to St Martin as a fisherman from Guadeloupe in 1975. In Marigot, “there was no marina, no Mairie, and boats were anchored right up to the Rue Felix Eboue,” he says. The only dock in Marigot Bay was owned by the Mini Club, the island’s oldest restaurant, and there was no road from there to Sandy Ground. In fact, step off a boat anywhere in Marigot and the chances are your foot will land on stone that wasn’t there 20 years ago. The Marina Fort Louis was built in 2001 and the Sandy Ground Bridge only opened in 1994.
The difference between 1980 and 2005 is more marked on the French side. “People used to go to casinos in jackets and there were two policemen for the whole French half,” remembers Felix. But a period of prosperity was followed by a slump. “The Dollar killed it all,” says Felix. “Market traders used to listen to their radios to hear the latest news on the Dollar rate.”
Over in Oyster Pond, the vision of ‘Captain Oliver’, who arrived in 1978 and placed marker buoys to a previously treacherous channel, transformed a forgotten bay into a bustling marina that now houses the two big charter companies, Sunsail and The Moorings.
There are a hundred such stories across the Caribbean. But in the year that little St Maarten celebrates such a huge anniversary, looking back to the beginning is a reminder that, without the right people at the right time, all this could be taking place somewhere else instead.