St Maarten – The “Friendly” Island?
Published on March 31st, 2020
Hank Schmitt started the NARC Rally in 2000, annually organizing a fleet of boats to make the transit in the fall from Newport, RI to St. Maarten in the Caribbean. You would think his commitment to this part of the Leeward Islands would have earned him some credibility, but in this time of COVID-19, apparently no means no regardless of who you are. Here’s his story:
On March 14th, right after the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, I set sail for Dominica with 5 charter guests for the 5th Annual Yachtie Appreciation Week (March 12-25), a fundraising event I started after Hurricane Maria damaged the island. But while we were there, the world starting to fall apart as the virus took hold outside of China and Europe.
By mid-week-two crew flew home to Canada which convinced the other three crew to book flights home from Dominica as well. By law, the skipper of a vessel needs to make sure the crew leave an island before he can sail away.
As soon as they left early on March 22, I left for a solo 24 hour sprint back to St. Maarten as the radio net in Dominica said the island was closing on March 23 at midnight. However, while I was at sea the date was moved up a day, so when I arrived at 11:00am for the 11:30am bridge opening, I was 11 hours too late.
St. Martin’s customs’ boat came out to tell me the island was closed and that I had to leave immediately. I explained that I had been up for over 30 hours by myself and was too exhausted to depart. In addition, International Maritime Law states that when a boat enters foreign water with their Q flag up, they have 48 hours to stay at anchor.
I started calling some of the sponsors of my NARC Rally including Chris Marshall at FKG (President of the Marine Trades Association) and Brian Deher who runs IGY Ile de Sol to see if they could help get me back on the island, my home island of 20 years where I had stored equipment for my boat and was employing people.
When I realized that they did not want to let too many other boats through the bridge, I offered to stay at anchor for 14 days and then be allowed to come into my slip at IGY marina. I was refused that option.
The evening of my second day at anchor I was told to go to Customs and Immigration in Simpson Bay first thing in the morning and speak with the supervisor in charge that morning to plead my case. I arranged to have the IGY launch bring me in at 8:3am, but upon landing I was greeted by a surly supervisor who had zero interest in hearing me out.
When I said I was very understanding of the situation and did want to come ashore and infect anyone (I remind you I had been in St. Maarten from Feb 3 to March 14 and only left for eight days to go to Dominica which had no cases at the time).
His answer was absolute: “It has nothing to do with the virus. I could be infected. It is about following the rules and the Prime Minister said no one can enter!”
I was dumbstruck.
In the Caribbean where nothing happens on time, at 12:00 noon at the end of my 48 hours stay in quarantine, the Customs and Immigration boat came out with instructions from the supervisor to escort me to the border. They made me feel like a criminal.
I made the mistake of telling them I was going over to Marigot with my Q flag still flying to buy more time for my marine trade friends ashore to see if they could get me a reprieve and set up a 14 day quarantine policy for me and any other late arriving boats.
Before 9:00am the next morning, I had three French officers tell me they had a call from the Dutch Customs and Immigration and that I had to leave immediately or be fined.
I am now in St. Thomas, USVI. Customs took me all of ten minutes. I was alone, had been in the Caribbean for almost two months and was obviously not infected.
Now I feel I can never come back to St Maarten. I have a target on my back and will never be left alone when I clear in and out of St. Maarten as I do multiple times every season. The virus will end, but the real pain of a US and world economy adversely affected will be felt by the tourist industry for years to come.
Known as the ‘Friendly Island’, I ask the people of St. Maarten to decide if their nickname is still appropriate. If you think I was mistreated by Customs and Immigration, please let them and your government official know. You can also e-mail me through my web site at www.sailopo.com.