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Swashbuckling Sint Eustatius

I went running yesterday on Sint Eustatius, south along the main road by Oranje Baai, then right, up the steep hills towards the town of Oranjestaad. I made an abrupt left turn onto a dirt path. The sun was now at my back and I was heading east, surrounded by goats and cows. I emerged onto another junction and swung left towards the hills to the north, and the oil depot which lies hidden on their far side.

Statia is an island steeped in history. It's not difficult to picture Gallow's Bay brimming with square-riggers and schooners (over 3,500 ships called in one year in the 1700s) and the waterfront alive with activity. Many of the ruins remain intact and those that don't lie awash in the breakers just off the shore. For slaves Statia was the first stop after an arduous journey from Africa. The old slave road arches steeply up the cliffs to the trading block, where men and women were bought and sold.

Statia was a tax shelter, a duty-free port that thrived as a weigh station for all sorts of goods including sugar and rum and the evil trade that made each of those industries profitable, the slaves themselves. Today the island is a weigh station for what many see as a modern evil: Oil – as I write there are more than half a dozen tankers anchored off the leeward coast of the island, and two more lined up at the pipeline bunkering oil to be shipped elsewhere.

Oddly enough, for the cruising sailor, the oil trade remains invisible on Statia. The island doesn't feel the least bit industrial, and the tankers anchored offshore add ambience to the surroundings, a modern scene that recalls the sailing ship days of old. Anchored snugly in the bay, oil is likely the furthest thing from one's mind.

If approaching the island from the north, be careful to avoid the oil facilities, especially at night. To the south the island is steep-to. Enter Oranje Baai from the west. You can anchor anywhere in a sandy bottom from 10-15 feet. Avoid the old ruins just off the shoreline. The harbor can be rolly, and it helps to set a stern anchor so the boat lies to the swell instead of the wind, which generally sweeps down off the Quill and blows offshore. A stern anchored is required when tying up the dinghy to the main concrete pier – in a really bad swell you can use the small basin inside the breakwater. Formalities on the island are limited to a quick check-in with customs and immigration, located just to the south of the dinghy dock. Your next stop should be with Kate at the Marine Park office, just behind Golden Rock Dive Center (who can take you diving on the islands myriad underwater sights, including some of the Caribbean's best wreck dives), where they'll ask for a modest fee to help protect the islands underwater habitat.

Ashore, navigation is a cinch – uphill will take you towards the main town center; downhill gets you back to the harbor – and the island is compact enough to explore on foot. The Quill volcano is accessible from a well-marked trail that begins behind the Marine Park office and continues right down into the crater. If you remain on the flat, middle part of the island, a longish walk to windward with the volcano to your right will bring you to the Atlantic side, where the breakers crash ashore. Here, the relentless heat from the sun subsides slightly in the misty air.

Statia is officially part of the Netherlands, and the modern culture is a mix of Dutch and English expats, and local descendents of the slaves. The waterfront, once bustling with commerce, is now host to several quiet bars and restaurants. Some – like my favorite The Old Gin House – inhabit the ruins of old buildings, providing a nostalgic, swashbuckling ambience.

To me, St. Eustatius is an anomaly in the Caribbean. Tourism is limited to some adventurous divers who come here just for that, and the occasional 'Ocean Classrooms' schooner. The Marine Park houses a few interns in their hostel on the windward side of the Quill, and invites visiting cruisers to assist in any of their environmental projects, from land reclamation to sea turtle conservation.

It's not uncommon that you'll be the only boat in the harbor. The locals are genuinely friendly, and will engage you in conversation not because they want to sell you something but because they are interested in a chat. The landscape is at once filled with a stark beauty from its ancient stone works to the luscious dampness of the rainforest inside the crater of the Quill. On Statia, history lurks not far beneath the surface, and fortune favors the curious.

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm, depending on the season. He lives aboard his yawl Arcturus with Mia, his fiancée. Contact him at andy.schell125@gmail.com or www.fathersonsailing.com

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