06 March 2006


You can not have a reasonable understanding of life in Paradise until you have a sense of the beaches here.

Now, I consider myself a beach expert. As a kid, I spent summers in Rockaway Beach, in the years before some lunatic city planner decided to demolish the one and two family bungalows that were the heart of the housing stock there. The genius who did this did not get his just reward, 25 years in a Turkish prison, for this moronic act of vandalism. Instead, the idyllic ocean-blocks were left barren for decades. A white sand barrier beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Not in New Jersey, or Connecticut, but in New York City--reachable by city subway and bus yet. Closed to the public. Left to rot. Obscene.

In my pre-teen years, the family got a little more upscale, and we moved from 43d St. in Rockaway Beach to 128th St. in Belle Harbor. Same white sand beaches, but for some reason broader. Same delicious Atlantic Ocean, bracing cold til August, same delicious sun, curing my skin to a berry-brown as I played and was tortured by my brother and his friends on the beach. In the evening, there was a familiar group of men surf casting, still catching nothing, but oh how I loved to sit a respectful distance away in the damp sand and watch them cast with those old fashioned reels. Those Pfleugers had a rotating drum from which the line was fed perpendicularly to the axis of the drum, similar to the ones we use today for bottom fishing and trolling. Casting with those reels requires a very sensitive thumb to permit the drum to turn fast enough so that the line flows out freely on the cast, and at the same time one must apply enough thumb-pressure to prevent the drum from turning faster than the line goes out, a condition leading to a backlash that results in a hopeless bird's nest tangle that frequently requires cutting and discarding all the line involved. These casual fishermen had much in common: They all had bellies, smoked cigars or cigarettes, and they all had spent the day working "in the City", coming home to their summer rentals to escape the heat, have dinner with the family, and then spend an hour or two at dusk standing there in their undershirts and rolled up pants, gossiping and getting their ankles wet.

(Y'know, it never occurred to me before this moment that Belle Harbor is a French name—so here I am 60 years later, in France, reminiscing about a French-named beach in Queens. Hmm. Ah, so what.)

Back to my expertise. My resume of beaches I have lived on also includes East Hampton, Westhampton Beach, and Lido Beach, where for two summers I worked as a cabana boy during the day and a busboy at night, and for six nights a week was an illegal squatter in an unoccupied cabana.

I have also sampled beaches all up and down the east coast of the United States, from Key West to Maine. So I know beaches, and let me tell you, this island gives good beach.

Let's start with our favorite:


Where is it? Think of St. Barts as a fat and lumpy frankfurter. It runs basically east-west, but the bend in the sausage is such that one end points northwest, and the other northeast. At the southern edge of the bend are two beautiful beaches, Saline and Gouverneur, both easily reached by donkey or automobile. Saline is the broader beach, and the longer of the two—I would say it is about a half-mile long, gently curving white sand, warm water, little wave action, backed by a foliaged dune. To get there, one must surmount Mt. Grande Fond (274 meters)--- and descend via a ridiculously steep set of switchbacks down to where the terrain flattens about a half mile before you get to take off your sandals and feel the warm sand on your bare feet. The beach takes its name from adjacent salt ponds, about 25 acres of divided flats that, up to some forty years ago, were worked to harvest salt—then the island's only income-producing commodity. Today, the flats are still there, still covered with water, but they are no longer tended.

The parking lot is adequate, and from there it is a short but steep walk over the dune. When you reach the crest of the hill and start down to the beach, you reach the wide sandy path cut through the high dune and you see the beach and the blue-green water framed by the dune foliage—it is one of the island's signature sights.

The busiest day, of course, is Sunday, when locals as well as tourists are there, but it is always a quiet place-- the beach is simply too large ever to be "crowded" as any of us understand that term. For some reason I do not understand, most people set up their chairs and blankets at the back—the dune edge—of the beach, whereas we always gravitate to the water's edge.

I think The New York Times article talked about this as the "nude" beach—a description suggesting the writer of that article was really a 14 yr old boy who has been spending too much time breathing hard over Victoria Secret advertisements. The facts: There are, gasp, women on Saline who go topless. Both locals and tourists-- I would guess more of the former than the latter. Sophisticates like me are barely aware of this issue, but inasmuch as you have asked, I would put the percentage of topless women this year at approximately 7.86 percent during the week, and 10.42% on weekends, with the degree of female toplessness increasing by a factor of 3.486% annually. Yes, there are occasional topandbottomless people, but they for most part hang out (joke over) at the extreme western end of the beach. So don't go there. Okay, if you want, go there.

The fact: With the exception of that area at the extreme western end of the beach, there is no more nudity at Saline than on any other beach. If you are offended at the sight of bare breasts, I suggest going back to Rockaway.

A delicious anecdote: A delightful 11 yr. old boy of my acquaintance (name omitted lest he become a Republican candidate for President), when confronted with his first topless woman upon visiting our beaches, was overheard whispering to his mother ,"It's okay, mom, I looked, but I promise that when we get home, I won't tell anyone."

Gouverneur Beach:

Gouverneur is about ¼ mile to the west of Saline. The approach is directly from the peak of Mount Lurin, where the island cell tower and other major radio antennas are located. The drop to the beach is breathtaking in more ways than one:

First, there is a point on the way down when you are certain gravity is not enough and the rear wheels of the car will lift off the ground and you will tumble down to the beach, or over the cliff, or whatever. It is the steepest piece of road I have ever seen. I am sure there are standards for this, and I am sure the angle of descent here is at or exceeds the maximum possible for safe vehicular travel. I am not talking about being so steep you lose steering control. I am talking about simple traction--will the uphill tires continue to touch the road.

Second, there is a point in the descent when you come around a curve, and there, several hundred feet immediately below you is this magnificent curved beach, with brilliant blue green water, sun glistening on it, maybe a boat at anchor, in which case you see the shadow of the boat on the bottom through the clear water. I have been down that road scores of times in the last 12 years, and I still catch my breath every time I see that view.

The beach itself is similar to Saline. The curve of the beach is a little more acute, the beach is slightly narrower, and there is a new parking lot that is ten steps from the beach—just through a 20 foot curved path of jungle that blocks the view of the beach from the parking lot and vice versa.

Like the Long Island ocean beaches, these beaches face south, so you at once face the sea and the sun. When the wind blows from the southeast, as it often does, these beaches have a delightful breeze, or, rarely, during the vents de Noel, an annoying sand-in-your-face stiff wind. Suffer.

If Saline rates a 10, Gouverneur is a 9.5.

St. Jean:

Directly north of Saline and Gouverneur, up over the mountains on the opposite coast, at the concave part of the frankfurter, is a 1.5 mile long narrow beach bordering St. Jean Bay, a very flat, warm body of water protected from the prevailing easterly winds by the acuteness of the curve in the terrain and the projection of Point Milou to the east. The French call this kind of curve in the shoreline an "Anse", which means handle of a jug or coffee cup. There is virtually no wave action here at all, and with exception of the rare day when the wind is out of the north, the bay is as flat as a lake. The increase in the water-depth from the shore is very gradual-- it gets only inches deeper with a each couple of steps. The water is slightly warmer than the southern beaches, the sand is finer, but the beach is only about 6-10 feet wide. No dunes here, just houses, some restaurants (La Plage, Nikki Beach) and hotels (Eden Rock, Emeraude de la Plage, Tom's Beach).

The beach is so flat, it is only inches above the water level of the bay. In fact, when winds or swells (there are virtually no tides here so close to the equator—maybe six inches) push the bay just a bit south, sections of the beach disappear. That happened last month in a week of strong north winds. Everybody seemed to take it in good stride.

As you might expect, the beach is a favorite of families with young children, who can play at the water's edge with little parental concern that some wave or undertow is going to sweep a toddler away, or that a child will take an extra step into too-deep water.

The strand at St. Jean Bay is really broken into sections.

Airport Beach.

At the western end is a section called Airport Beach, because the eastern end of the the airport runway empties on to the beach. No fence, no dune, no markers, there is just a point when the concrete ends and the sand begins. Yes, occasionally a landing pilot touches down too far down the runway, overruns the concrete airstrip, and rolls onto the beach. I am told it happened earlier this year. Nobody seemed terribly upset. I do not know whether he got back onto the runway under his own power, or whether he was towed. No harm to the plane or passengers. No foul.

There is a section of Rockaway Boulevard in Queens that borders the approach end of one of the landing strips at Kennedy Airport. I can recall seeing cars pulled off the road to watch the approach of the big jets. For many, there is still something fascinating about flight, especially landing and take-offs. Well, here, you can sit or stand in the sand directly in the line of flight and watch the twin-engine planes make the steep descent at the hill at the far end of the runway, and touch down about ¼ way down the runway and taxi right up to you before they make a U-turn back to the terminal. When we arrive on those planes, we love to see those bathing suited people standing there gawking at us while we are dying to get out of our disgusting New York City clothes. Those airplane junkies are our welcoming committee to Paradise.

Ninety percent of the time, the planes land west to east on the single strip, so they are landing into the prevailing wind. That's when you see them descend and power down the hill at the other end of the strip. But occasionally the wind swings around so that it blows from the west, and then the planes land west to east. The pilot comes in low over the bay, and touches down as close to the beach-end of the runway as possible. It is a tricky approach because it is unforgiving: If the pilot comes in too high, and touches down too far down the strip, pushing the throttles forward and going around again may not be an option because he's got a big hill right in front of him. Overshooting the runway from west to east means putting the tires in the sand on the run-out. Overshooting the runway from east to west means putting the nose into the mountain. This has never been a problem to my knowledge but… . Anyway, when these guys do come in over the bay and land east to west, and you are on the sand at the eastern end of the strip, you instinctively duck, even though it's obvious the plane is at least ten feet over your head. Wimp.

The Airport Beach section has some interesting artifacts. One is La Plage, a "scene" restaurant, some tables on the sand when the sea is not occupying it, canopied beds, lots of cushions, loud music mixed by a DJ, models wearing very little who are hawking the wares of a little shop which charges very much but who cares, and, oh yeah, a massuese. Wanna see a naked lady get a massage? This may be the only place you can do that without looking through a little window where the shade stays open for thirty seconds for each quarter you deposit in the slot. (I read that in a book, honest!)

Just off the runway is an old windmill base, now a beach cabana. This is a cone shaped stone structure, about 15 feet high, right at the upland edge of the beach. Never knew what is was until last week a local guy, using sign language and drawing with his finger in the sand, told me. The windmill was used to pump seawater into flats in back of the beach for salt production.

Oh, yeah, to sit on Airport Beach, you've got to adjust to the noise. Not my favorite for that reason. That, and the sun is at your back when looking out to sea.

St. Jean Beach (East.)

I have arbitrarily called it that. I am using Eden Rock, the island's first hotel, literally built on a rock jutting into St. Jean Bay, as the dividing point between Airport Beach and what I am calling St. Jean East. The hotspot on this beach is Nikki Beach, a beachfront restaurant that has counterparts in St. Tropez and South Beach. Chaise lounges, canopied beds, tables in the sand, scantily clad models, a dinghy to ferry in customers coming in by water from hotels, wine by the magnum, this place has it all. And for some reason, dads seem to like to take bring their attractive daughters and nieces here. Jesse swears he saw Bill Gates there with... .

Uh, oh, look at the clock! Off now to the airport to meet the Herzfelds. Sure hope their passports are in order. I'll tell you about Bill in the next installment.

A bientot.

01 March 2006

Anchors Aweigh!

Parking the Boat is a scary task. For me at least. I guess if you do it every day for years and years, one gains skill and confidence. Both are absolute requirements. But other than guys who work as professional captains or boat jockeys in a marina or boatyard, most boaters worry about it. Some more than others, I grant you. Me, I am at the top of the list of those who lack both skill and confidence, and therefore am at the top of the list of worriers.

As I see it, there are two basic kinds of parking, with subdivisions of each kind.

The most difficult is Docking. What's involved there is a sort of "First Base" mating (the idea is to kiss the dock, not penetrate it). You are dealing with two hard, unyielding surfaces, one totally immovable and inflexible, made of concrete, steel, wood, or a combination thereof, the other totally movable, but made of similarly inflexible steel, wood, or fibreglass. The totally-movable object is controlled by a number of factors. They include: 1) the pilot's manipulation of various control devices, such as throttles, steering wheel, thrusters, etc., 2) the wind, 3) the current, 4) the laws of physics involving things like momentum, prop wash, shaft angle, hull shape, marinized mojo, and 5) the number of people on shore and in surrounding boats who are watching the chaos that resulted from the application of factors 1 through 4. Factor 5 is measurable by the following formula: "The Quantity of Chaos is in Direct Proportion to the Square of the Number of People Observing the Docking Operation. If the Mate is Married to the Pilot, Double All Numbers."

I have done my share of damage to sundry boats, docks, and pilings in my day, and that nightmare is not the subject of today's piece. Today, we talk about the other kind of Parking, i.e., Anchoring. No sex here. No kissing, no penetrating. Anchoring is easy in the movies. In the movies, it is a two step operation: 1. The guy throws the anchor overboard, and, 2. The woman makes lunch.

Before I report on today's humiliating events, a little background: As the operator of small fishing boats in Long Island waters for more than 20 years, I have anchored frequently in the bays and the ocean. I am usually insecure about how well the anchor is dug in, and therefore usually worried about whether the boat is going to drift off station. This becomes much more serious if there are other boats around. Other boats never drift off station. If two anchored boats are getting closer with each gust of wind, I know it is MY BOAT that is dragging anchor. Always. And I am always correct.

A little about anchors--a very little. You know,of course, that it is not the weight of the anchor that holds the boat still. You knew that. What secures the anchor to the bottom is the fact that it is dug into the sand, or mud, or what have you. The deeper in it is dug, the more strain it will withstand. What digs it in? It's shape, and the way it moves. Anchors have flukes, or fins, or points, call them whatever you will. When the anchor is dragged across a sandy bottom in the right way, the flukes dig themselves in. The more strain put on the line, the deeper in it goes. For example, Fish Faster's anchor is sort of a plow anchor. Think of the way plow digs in to the soil and makes furrows. Think of a tractor pulling the plow—a shaft leads from the back of the plow, up into a 180 degree bend, back in the direction of the point, to the tractor. When the tractor pulls, the plow digs in. My plow has a shaft bending upwards in a 180 degree turn leading to the anchor line tied to the boat. ( The whole thing is sort of shaped like a big fish hook, with the point resting on the bottom, and the shaft of the fish hook standing off the bottom, parallel to to the bottom.) When I drag the shaft back, parallel to the bottom, the point of the plow digs in. Unlike the farmer's plow, my plow is shaped so that it does not just make a furrow, but goes deeper into the sand the more I pull it. When it gets deep enough to withstand the strain of the wind and current pulling on the boat, you are anchored. But the plow will only dig in if it is pulled parallel to the bottom. If the shaft of the plow is pointing up, then so is the point, hence no furrow, no dig in. You make the plow pull parallel to the bottom by dropping far more line than the water is deep. That reduces the angle of the shaft to the bottom when the boat pulls back. Weighting the line attached to the boat end of the shaft does likewise. That's why, even with anchor lines made of rope, the six feet of rode at the anchor-end of the line is heavy chain. Keeps the shaft down, makes the plow dig in. There are lots of kinds of anchors, but all operate on this principal. How can this possibly be a problem?

Let me count the ways. If the bottom is not sand, the anchor will not dig in. If the bottom is mud, you MAY dig in, but pull out easily. If the bottom is rocky, you get hung up on a rock and break loose at any time or you may be in so solid you will not be able to retrieve the anchor. If you do not put enough line or chain down, the angle of the anchor shaft to the bottom will be too large, and the anchor will not dig in. If when you reverse the engines to pull the plow and dig it in, you go too fast, the plow just skips along the bottom. Pull too hard before it is set, you pull it out. Even if it is set, if the wind shifts and changes the angle of the pull, the anchor may come out.

In 2003, Pinks and I took a bareboat charter (no crew, just the two of us) of a 42 foot single diesel trawler in the US and British Virgins for a week. We had an anchoring lesson. No big deal. Sandy bottom, little wind, all chain, no rope. Piece of cake. The instructor left after two hours.

The next day we had to go to Big Harbor on Jost Van Dyke, to check in with the British authorities. I anchored in the windy bay, crowded with boats. I followed all the rules, even dived and saw the anchor dug in. We took the dinghy ashore, did our official business, came back to the boat—and it was gone! A 42 foot boat had disappeared. Well, not exactly. We had parked her on the eastern end of the harbor, and found her tangled up with a boat on the western end. Fortunately, no one hurt, no boat damage—the anchor, after dragging a couple of hundred feet, fortunately snagged another boats' anchor line, and she came to rest. Of course, the entire harbor was involved in untangling everything, helping Pinks dinghy out to me, etc. Certainly up there in all-time humiliation. After that, we stopped only in harbors that had mooring balls. Just pick up the line and attach it to your bow cleat. Best $15 a night you ever spent.

That brings me to today. Sunday. Gorgeous day. Took Fish Faster over to Columbier, a beautiful beach and natural bay harbor on the northwest end of the island. Lots of mooring balls but at 2 PM when we arrived, they were all gone. Big test. Fight or flight? We chose fight. Found a patch of green bottom (sand, not rock), dropped the hook, let out lots of line, backed off a little, and waited. When I started the exercise, I was 300 feet in front of a 150 foot motor yacht. When I got close enough to reach his anchor chain with my ten foot boat hook, I thought maybe I hadn't done so well, gunned the engines forward ever so casually, and recovered my anchor. I did this with the nonchalance of somebody who was intentionally dropping and retrieving an anchor. Doesn't everybody play that way in a crowded harbor on Sunday? The nervous mate on the bow of the threatened yacht never said a word, but the sound of him grinding his teeth was audible over the grinding of my electric anchor winch. ( In the good old days of our 22 foot Aquasport, Pinks was the anchor winch. Now we pay 150 euros a month so she can pull on a rope in the gym.)

So we moved to another spot in the harbor. Lots of room, sandy bottom, piece of cake. Not. After a third failure, we were about to depart, when we saw a boat leave one of mooring balls and we jumped on it. Ate lunch, swam off the boat, napped, read. Did not go the beach because we were too far off to swim. Not bad for a day of failure.

I will not surrender. We will go back, during the week when not so many watchers are clucking their tongues, and learn how to do this properly. Of course, I may not sleep the night before, but that's what afternoon naps are for, n' est ce pas?

A bientot.