Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Racing Around St. Maarten

By Paul Gerald

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  The S/S Norway dropped anchor just off Philipsburg and began to disgourge its cargo. It’s a cargo the people of Philipsburg depend on to make their living, to bring them work and money. The cargo, of course, was us, the passengers of the Norway.

We descended upon Philipsburg, the primary city of Dutch St. Maarten, to do our business. We had been on the cruise ship for two days and three nights, and we were ready to shop, play, drive around, lounge on a beach, sail – anything, so long as it was off the ship.

Among the outings we had to choose from, outings that the cruise line sets up and we pay extra for, were a driving tour of the island, which is half Dutch and half French. The “going ashore” lecture had warned us, as it were, that on the French side “some nudity may be observed” on the beaches. There was also a submarine ride, a trip to 1.5-mile-long Orient Beach on the French side, a golf course, and a snorkeling trip. The description of each and every outing included some variation on the phrase “complimentary beverages.”

Going on the theory that stuff like that would be available at every port-of-call, we chose the most adventuresome outing: the America’s Cup Regatta. A company in St. Maarten has bought several of the 12-meter yachts that once raced in the actual Cup. They put a couple of their people on each boat, and since it takes about 14 people to race one of these things, we would get to do the rest.

They picked three captains to choose teams, the rest of us lined up, and then we lived everyone’s high-school nightmare: Out of about 50 people there, my friend and I were chosen dead last. We weren’t even chosen, exactly; we just sort of went with the team that would have chosen next, once we were the last people available. Old ladies were chosen before us. A woman with her leg in a cast was chosen before us.

There being no other elderly or crippled folk to choose from, we took our seats on the Stars and Stripes ’86, a boat that Dennis Connor himself actually piloted. Our competition would be Stars and Stripes ’87 and Canada II. Our staffers were lean, tan, wise-cracking South Africans and Aussies and Kiwis who looked at us and decided which jobs we would take. Being a wearer of XL T-shirts, although for all the wrong reasons, I was assigned the role of a primary grinder. If you’ve ever seen the guys in the America’s Cup highlights whipping around big wheels amidst much chaos and water, those were the primary grinders. The most sought-after jobs were timekeeper (because after the timed start of the race he or she has nothing else to do) and cooler queen (for obvious reasons.) My friend, as if we hadn’t been insulted thoroughly enough in the team-picking process, was designated a “rear-winch wench.”

There’s something positively magical about a sailboat first taking off. A little puff of breeze, the sails tighten, and there’s movement – but no sound. Well, there wouldn’t be sound on a standard sailboat. On a 12-meter racing yacht, there are commands to be barked out. “Primary grinders, first gear, go!” our Kiwi would yell at us. Each gear was a direction on the wheels, and each direction did something specific. We rarely got to view this, because our perspective as primary grinders was that we would be sailing along nicely, when somebody would scream at us to stand by. Then the boat would turn, many people would scream, and we would try to turn those ever-tightening wheels as our body positions went from standing to leaning to having to prop ourselves up on boards nailed into the floor. At several points there was water over the lower rail. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

We finished in second place, because – according to our “down under” friends – the Canadian boat cheated. This must have happened while I was turning with my arms and hanging on with my feet, so I can’t comment specifically. They did say that “in a real race we would have run into them,” and that disappointed me, but not too much. Nor did the cheating thing worry me. By the time somebody tried to explain it to us, we were all having those “complimentary beverages” we had been promised. In this case, it was rum punch, a fine potion for allegations of cheating.

We retired to a place actually called the Every ’Ting Cool Beach Bar, which sits right on Great Bay Beach in Philipsburg. We had snapper burgers and Red Stripes and listened to Marley and Buffett, then swam in the warm, crystal-clear water. I wondered if this was what real America’s Cup racers would be doing.

Before we had to go back to the Norway, it seemed the least we could do was walk the main street one time. Neither of us are shoppers, so we had not gotten worked up about the “incredible” deals we had been told all about in the lecture. I mean, getting some tanzanite earrings, pendant, and chain with ring for $495 might be a legendary deal, but that price would still need a decimal point to get me involved.

But, oh my, is there shopping in these places. Jewels, Rolex, Cartier, Wedgewood, Waterford, and linens for almost half-off. T-shirts six for 10 bucks. People were frenzied. We, however, were looking for dessert. We somehow missed the Kangaroo Court Caffe, even though our literature said it was in a restored 19th-century salt weight station and has a giant mango-colored coffee cup on the roof. Must have been the complimentary beverages working against our senses.

We did come across a guy with chocolate samples, and it turns out he was from a Belgian chocolate shop. Hand-made Belgian chocolate, in the middle of a Dutch town in the West Indies! We also came across a guavaberry shop. Not knowing exactly what guavaberries are, we stopped in, and were greeted with samples of the liqueur they make with aged rums. It turns out a guavaberry is a sweet red treat that’s somewhere between watermelon and raspberry.

Alas, we had to get back to the ship. There, we heard tales from other parts of the island, especially Orient Beach, which we were informed was “a little loose.” That was the word from an Iowan, anyway. Apparently, as the beverages flowed, more cruisers got less clothed, but discretion dictates that we leave the rest of the details on the island.

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