25 March 2008

A Swell Time Was Had By All

We had guests this week, my daughter Liz, and the Flumenbaums.

Early in the week, at cocktail hour, I received got a call from a local friend: "Take your dinghy off the beach and put it up on the parking lot. Big swells coming in tomorrow." Swells? He mean waves? We were looking out at Corossol Bay, and the sea beyond. Flat. Like a lake. Wind was almost dead calm. The small boats in Corossol Bay were hardly rocking.

Hey, I follow orders. At 0800 hours the next morning, Flumer and I went down to the beach, removed the 2 hp engine from the transom of the dinghy, and lifted the 75 pound plastic boat over the 8 foot sea wall. Already, the water was lapping at the stern of the craft, with the 15 foot wide beach reduced to five feet. The bay still looked dead calm. We could see no swells.

But by the next day, this island was reeling under the effects of the still (to us) invisible swells. They came out of the north which has a severe effect here, because the mouth of Gustavia harbor faces north, and when the swells roll in, the water has no place to go and creates havoc in the "U"-shaped enclosure that makes up the harbor. The authorities did something I have not seen before—-they evacuated the harbor. All the big yachts, which normally make such a dramatic scene lined up cheek by jowl, stern to, were banished to outside anchorages where the rocking and rolling would not endanger the ships or the quay. The little boats along the wooden dock at the southern end of the harbor were tethered in the middle of the harbor, and that dock was torn apart by the raging waves trapped at the bottom of the "U". Very exciting to see. The crests crashed onto the concrete quay on both sides of the harbor, and created small but dramatic waterfalls as the water cascaded back into the troughs..

Given the nature of those swells, I guess the chaos in the harbor was predictable, but then came the unforeseen consequences.

While we still went to the beach and enjoyed beautiful sunny weather, the water was high at the southern beaches, making the strand narrow, and therefore quite crowded. And while Saline and Gouverneur normally have small or no waves, there were now large waves and a scary undertow. There was a report of a drowning at Saline, but I have not been able to confirm it.

On the northern side of the island the beaches simply disappeared altogether. The swell (caused by storms thousands of miles to the north, off the east coast of the U.S., where people resentful of our superior climate, sent us this present), aided by full moon tides, simply flooded the beach and some of the beachfront establishments as well. We had dinner one night at La Plage, a restaurant that normally has a 15-20 foot beach, and when we walked in were stunned to find the beach gone, the northern half of the restaurant ankle deep in water, and the balance of the place under six inches of sand from wave action the night before. But for Thieri, the owner of La Plage, the show must go on, and did. The kitchen was unaffected by the flood, we were seated, the musicians arrived and were great, and the five of us had a ball.

Because the La Plage restaurant space was halved, things were tight. We had a table just in front of the bar, our feet in the damp sand. We were waiting for our starter dishes when a crowd, - - Liz discerned it to be a New York wedding party- -jammed the bar space before they sat down for dinner. Given our table location, we were an integral part of their cocktail party, except for the weird height differential, i.e. they were standing and we were sitting.

Flumer suffered through his tuna tartare with a lithe Pucci-clad beauty dangling her silken scarf in his ear, while she alternately chatted up and was mauled by the guy in the bathing suit who announced he was born in Greece, raised in South Africa, and had just bought a villa on St. Barths. And then there was the rubber jointed thirtysomething New York femme, wearing a tight top that looked exactly like the undershirts my father and Marlon Brando wore,- -you know, the stretchy longitudinally-ribbed things with straps (actually I wore them too until high school when I learned in the gym locker room that I was the only boy in school who had not discovered tee shirts. I switched immediately, of course, a conversion that my father never understood, and in fact disapproved of, for some reason that has long departed my memory cells). Miss Wellendowed Underweartop writhed, bounced and jiggled to the live music while flinging her hair into our gazpacho. I thought she was going to do a pole dance –or better still give Flumer a lap dance, but I think she intuited that Ruth might not vote yes.

Great dinner, btw. When we were leaving, Marty asked Ruth if Miss Underweartop was pretty: he said he was sitting too close to her to get a look at her face. I took that to be an innocent, honest inquiry. Not sure it was received as such.

Ahh, only the beginning of the consequences of the swells for we small-island residents. The next day, Dawn called to warn us to conserve water. This is the dry season, and, she told us, we would need to live off our cistern until the municipal water plant went back on line! Huh? Did the underwear-top dancing girl bust a water main? Well, perhaps, but the major problem was that the swell caused such turbidity in the sea around the intake ports of the desalinization plants that the filters became clogged and all operations had to be suspended for the duration. No village water on the island. None. No water at the fire hydrants, much of the island's construction brought to a halt, and life suddenly threatened to revert to pre-WWII conditions.

We were luckier than many: there was enough water in our cistern to see us through as long as we did no laundry and took very brief showers. When Pinks was informed of the ban on laundry, she switched from white wine to gin.

But the water issue was only the beginning. The real pinch came when it was time to try to get off the island. On Friday morning, we delivered the Flumenbaums to the airport two hours before their scheduled departure. The place was mobbed. Check-in lines were out the door, and the departure lounge was standing room only. Why? Well, first, the ferries between St. Barths and St. Martin stopped running because of the sea conditions so the airlines were the only way off the island. Then, we had a aircraft shortage. On the SXM-SBH run, our largest carrier, Winair, has two large planes (19 seats each) and one small one (8 seats). One of the 19-seaters was grounded because of a maintenance problem, and the 8-seater (9 seats when baggage is light and they put a passenger in the co-pilot seat) was grounded for lack of fuel. Lack of fuel? The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone: because of sea conditions, the freighter carrying avgas could not off-load in St. Martin, and there was no aviation gas at the airport. The larger planes are prop jets, and run on the still-available jetfuel, but aviation gas was out and all the smaller planes were grounded.

So Winair, on Easter Weekend, had lost approximately 60 per cent of its seating capacity at a time when they had about 200% of their normal customer base. For an airline that can barely meet its schedules out of St. Maarten on a midweek day in low season, this was total meltdown. The people at the St. Barths end did all they could, but no planes, no seats. Period.

I spoke to several of the guys behind the Winair counter. They said things were so bad that when they called company headquarters in St. Maarten to find out what was going on, the people at that end of the line hung up on them! St. Maarten has just completed a very expensive new state-of-the-art terminal facility. Gorgeous. What a joke. The Winair personnel there set new bottom standards for incompetence. I do believe that if their "management" simply sent a bus to the the main drag in St. Maarten and impressed the first 25 people they could snatch off the sidewalk, put them in a uniform and told them to run the reservation and check-in operations at the St. Maarten end of the run, it would be a very substantial improvement. Trying to check in at that airport is a daunting task. One must be prepared to watch the agent laboriously hunt and peck at a computer keyboard, telephoning for assistance every few minutes, and otherwise make a mockery of the notion that this is a real airline. Actually, it's not. It's all a Seinfeld script and a set-up for a Dave Barry column. Nothing more.

We abandoned the Flumenbaums at the crowded airport (they did get out hours later) and on our way back to the house to pick up Liz and go the beach, we stopped of at the supermarche for some provisions. Uh, oh. No ships coming into the harbor, no food coming into the supermarket. We can do without laundry, but eating?

We did alright despite the abundance of vacant spaces on the shelves. If you are willing to live on French cheeses, this island seems to have an inexhaustible supply. But for how long can we last? I can see how serious this could get. With the water plant down, all drinking water comes in by ship. The airstrip will not support planes large enough to be considered freight haulers. How many plastic bottles of water did we have at the house? About a three-day supply, I figured. There is no way the supermarket would have any water four days hence. Should I hoard? And should I boogie to the gas station and top off my jeep before their tanks were empty? Should we put in a month's supply of white wine and Tanqueray Gin while there was still stuff on the shelves? Nah, forget all that stuff. We'll be good citizens and live a spare existence. If we run out, it will be great blog material.

It could get very scary though. I am not sure how much fuel the oil-fired electric generation plant had on hand. No food, no water, no electricity, no phones, no fire department. and it never occurred to me ask if the hospital has an emergency generator. At bottom, the prospect was similar to that of a hurricane-devastated island, all in beautiful sunny weather.

The story has a happy ending. The forecast called for the waters to lie down somewhat the next day, and Liz cleverly designed a series of ferry and airplane contingency options for her Saturday departure-- a plan sufficiently ingenious and complex that I had to write it down and carry the paper with me the next morning to assure its precise execution. We showed up at the Winair desk at dawn, Liz got out on the first plane of the day and I was able to file the plan for another day. Some of her co-passengers were people who spent the entire previous afternoon at the airport. For those with iron stomachs, the ferries were back in service, and during breakfast later that morning we could see the first incoming cargo ship in four days plow her way across Corossol Bay, doubtless bringing in relief supplies of fois gras and champagne. I guess the other stuff, like milk, flour, and gasoline, will come later.

The municipal powers turned the water on two days later, and our washing machine and MRFL are cooing to each other as I write this.

Welcome to Paradise in the Third World.

I love it here.

A bientot.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home