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Cruising Tales: An Island Cops and Robbers Tale

Back in the early seventies the tiny island of St. Bartholomew, affectionately called St. Barths by those who loved the place, was the place to buy liquor, particularly Mt. Gay rum which was $0.50 a bottle at that time.  There was a smuggling racket going on which we won’t talk about, but it sure kept the price down!

Le Select was the bar to be seen at as it is today and Jimmy Buffet came frequently to the island to hang out. You could always get good prices on boat gear from Lou Lou and there were wonderful French restaurants in which to empty your pockets.

The French were pretty organized even in those days, but it was easy to clear in and you could stay at the dock in Gustavia for a small fee. The grocery stores were stocked to please the yachties, and the boulangeries with their delicate, melt-in-your-mouth pastries were the first places to stop each early morning.

We were at the dock on our sloop Avenir II where we prepared to take aboard a large amount of wine, liquor and pastries while our charter guests played at a beach. Suddenly the quiet morning was interrupted by   loudly-wailing European sirens which got your attention right away. It was the gendarmes chasing a jewelry thief who was doing his darndest to outrun them with several dozen watches clinging to his arms from shoulders to wrists.

But wait a minute! How do you get away from the police on an island?

Evidently the thief had thought he could fly a plane out of St. Barths because he was captured at the airport, if you could call it that. The approach to the single runway that began at the base of a steep hill was a plunge over a wall, down that hill and then into the valley where one hoped to stop before ending in the sea.

Driving your car or scooter on the road to the airport was an adventure itself. It was a good idea to look behind you up into the sky before descending the hill because when the single-engine plane swooped down the hill to the runway, it and you were sharing about the same air space! It was the most exciting part of driving on St. Barths!

Naturally after the thief was caught, he was confined in a tiny home because there was no jail.  The islanders could hardly contain their excitement. People were in the streets talking about it loudly with wild elaborate gestures. It was practically a holiday celebration with everyone milling around, telling the tale over and over.

Then the thief broke out of jail and that really set off the fireworks! For hours the gendarmes raced around the island, sirens bleating, while the villagers laughed and laughed, smacking their thighs with delight, buying drinks for their friends and toasting the thief. They took great delight in rubbing the gendarmes’ noses in the dirt by walking into the “jailhouse” one by one, slowly looking all around the room, shaking their heads back and forth, and then sauntering out again. It was the most fun everybody had ever had in years!

All the boats tied to the dock were visited by the police who politely but sternly asked us to be sure to check over the boat before we left the dock in case the thief stowed away some place. They weren’t kidding in the least and were doing their duty to the hilt, but probably knew full-well that no person could ever hide on a small sailboat without being discovered immediately!

As a matter of fact, the thief did get off the island somehow but was arrested in St. Martin—sans watches.

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