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Chartering: Leeward Island-Hopping from St. Maarten

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On a clear day in St Maarten, six other islands are visible, making this an ideal spot from which to embark on some short passage cruising. While Nevis, St Kitts, Statia and Saba fade in and out of the horizon, St Barts and Anguilla are up close and there for the taking.

Sunsail and The Moorings have their bases at Captain Oliver’s Marina in Oyster Pond on St Martin’s east coast. Every day during the season, charter groups arrive from the US and Europe, many of them for their second or third tour. In March, the marina heaves with crews chartering bareboats for the Heineken Regatta, while tumbleweed blows through between June and October, when the boats are tied up for the hurricane season.

The St Martin/St Maarten-Anguilla-St Barts triangle can be completed comfortably in a week, and transits some terrific diversity in culture and landscape. St Maarten is an anomaly, for starters. Just 37 square miles, divided between a Dutch and French side, the island is blessed with both neon attractions and sybaritic pleasures.

Great Bay off Philipsburg and Marigot Bay on the French side are each safe anchorages, while Simpson Bay offers access to the nightlife and dining. Check www.sxmlagoonauthority.com for the latest news on the ‘Harbour Fees’ payable, although there is no clearance between the Dutch and French sides. St Maarten/St Martin can be rounded comfortably in a day—the regatta record is just over two hours.

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From Marigot to Road Bay, Anguilla involves a six-mile burst across the sometimes choppy Anguilla Channel, and round the tip of the island to the safer anchorages on the north coast, away from the reef. If St Maarten’s ‘goes up to eleven’ on the entertainment dial, Anguilla is the place to switch off. Clear in at the quiet station at the end of the dock in Road Bay, then enjoy just one of this British Overseas Territory’s world-famous beaches. Many skippers opt to take the yacht round the corner to tie up to one of the mooring buoys in stunning Crocus Bay. A cruising permit is required to explore Anguillian waters further.

For the captain itching to muster the crew on deck, open up the sails and wreak havoc, the reach round the top of Anguilla, past Scrub Island, followed by a beat upwind to St Barts is the best chance on this circuit to splash the stanchions. Ile Fourche, an uninhabited island on the way to St Barts, is a great spot to stop for a snorkel, with a colorful history as an even better spot to exchange illicit cargo.

From Fourche, it’s an easy sail to the St Barts capital, Gustavia, where it’s possible to find a spot inside the harbour out of season. During season, however, St Barts is hopelessly fashionable, culminating in the New Year’s Eve bash when half of Hollywood can be seen enjoying Champagne and sashimi stern-to. The easier option is to anchor out, then dinghy in to the harbour to complete the clearance formalities.

St Barts is just as much a part of France as St Martin to the west, but there’s a world between. One shared feature of both, unsurprisingly, is excellent restaurants and some renowned beaches.

The 11-mile downwind run back to St Martin is almost too much fun. It’s not uncommon to see whales romping around in the surf that follows your transom back to Oyster Pond. An alternative is to stop off at Orient Bay up the coast. Precautions have to be taken to avoid reefs on the approach, but once inside there are gentle anchorages behind Green Cay and Pinel Island. Be warned! The surf on Orient Beach, which is often packed with the bold and the beautiful, can be rough. Making landfall from an upturned dinghy full of sodden crew is frowned upon.

The St Maarten circuit offers a sequence of short day passages that never get in the way of lunch. Paperwork is minimal, help is never far away if something goes wrong, and harassment at anchor from hawkers is unheard of. This is charter cruising at its finest.

Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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