18 April 2015

The Gorda /St. Barth Connection

Sigh, middle of April, and time again to enrage my friends up north with my whining about having to depart from Paradise.

At the end of this piece, I have copied a link to a website for Les Voiles, a sailboat regatta here in St. Barth, involving some 80-100 sailboats of diverse sizes. Check it out; great videos and stills of those beautiful boats under way. Everything about the event is a visual treasure, from the shore side views of the boats at sea, to the early morning excitement of the crews in their colorful shirts and shorts as they prepare to depart the quay. My morning walk around the harbor has been a special treat this week.

I increasingly find so many things I see and hear in the St. Barth environs that remind me of stuff from a long time ago, so here is a report of this week's synapse firings--probably the last essay before we head back to reality:

Last week, Pinks and I were having lunch with St. Barth neighbors. Like us, they are retired, but he is far more energetic than I; he is an airplane pilot and keeps his single engine plane at the airport here.  

At the mention of the airport, I commented that I had difficulty departing from the parking lot there lately because a series of large vertical banners celebrating the Les Voiles regatta had been erected at the airport verge, and they impaired the view of oncoming traffic for vehicles trying to exit the lot.  I said something to the effect that the erection of flags on poles in the vicinity of airports was a bad idea, and that I had some experience with that issue on the island of Virgin Gorda.  At that mention, my neighbor complained that he and his wife enjoy taking day trips in his plane to local islands,  but they couldn't go to Virgin Gorda because the British government banned single engine planes from landing there.  I confessed I had some responsibility for that:

Some 50+ years ago, a trusts and estates partner in the firm came to me with a sad tale: he was the recently-appointed executor of an estate whose beneficiaries were three young children. Both parents had been killed in an airplane crash on Virgin Gorda. Could we get some compensation for the children?  My partner Martin Kleinbard and I actually flew there, stayed for two days at a local hotel, and spoke to people who witnessed the incident.  I went on to Puerto Rico, read newspaper files, looked at tv news kinescopes, and interviewed a reporter who had film of the crash. 

Here is what we learned:  the Rockefeller family had built a beautiful luxury resort,  Little Dix Bay, on Virgin Gorda, but soon discovered their guests arrived sea-sick green from the ferry ride from Beef Island, the location of the nearest airport. Not good for biz, so the Rockefellers, being the Rockefellers, simply went out and acquired some more land, and built an airstrip that they promptly deeded to the British government.

To celebrate the opening day of the strip, the management of the resort announced a “Fly In” for local Caribbean pilots, who were invited to fly in for the day and enjoy a sumptuous luncheon at the Rockefellers' expense. As part of the effort to spruce up the area for the occasion, the hotel management installed some gaily colored pennants on steel poles at the far end of the strip.

The only feasibly appropriate flat land the Rockefellers could find on that mountainous island was, similar to the airport here, an east/west piece with a hill at the western approach end. As anyone who has flown into St. Barth knows, this arrangement requires a pilot to make a very steep approach in order to touch down with enough run-off room before reaching the end of the runway. The amateur single engine pilot in our case didn’t foresee the lifting effect of the wind reflecting off the hill, he didn't sufficiently point his plane downwards, and his wheels made first contact with the ground too far down the runway.  This in itself is not an emergency situation. He did the right thing, immediately applied full throttle to go around again, and lifted off, but before he could gain sufficient altitude, a wing tip caught one of the steel poles and the plane pivoted to the rocks.  And all of this was caught on film I had obtained from the newspaper in Puerto Rico.  

As that moment, the Little Dix Bay resort was owned personally by the Rockefeller family and that’s who we sued. We then engaged in what I called “inverse discovery”:  We knew the facts better than the defendants did, and my job was to teach them what I knew.  When that was accomplished, especially in my deposition of Laurence Rockefeller, they offered a more-than-fair settlement to the estate.

We did not sue the British government because of legal complications, but they promptly announced that henceforth only twin-engine planes could land there. We were told informally that this was done to screen out the amateurs. 

So I apologized to our pilot-neighbor for being part of the cause for his exclusion. He accepted my apology, but I had to pay for the wine at lunch.

Oh, yeah, the President of St. Barth promised he will re-situate the offending roadside banners here. We will make only one more trip to the St. Barth airport this year  but infortunately we will not be driving the car out of the parking lot to check on the new sight lines.

One last connection:  Twenty one years ago, my Reason For Living announced that for my birthday present she was going to take me on a  one-week vacation to the Caribbean resort of my choice.  I said, "Thank you, darling. I would finally like to be a non-working guest at the Little Dix Bay resort on Virgin Gorda," and Pinks said,”Okay, we'll go to St. Barth.”  And here I am.

Before you click off, if you’ve got a few more minutes check out the pix and videos on the Les Voiles website:

A bientôt .