Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | January 7, 2012

A Lesson in Swell


N 18° 03.77′   W 63° 05.31′

Simpson Bay Lagoon, Marigot, St. Martin

This week we got to see the effects of swell all around the island. Swells are waves generated from distant forces, not the effect of the immediate wind. The easterly Trade Winds are a major source of swell in the Caribbean. In the winter months, low pressure systems in the North Atlantic can generate strong waves that travel many miles, reaching far away areas like the northern Caribbean islands. Our past experience here has been in the spring and summer months in the BVI’s. We heard about how many of our favorite anchorages became untenable, even surfing grounds, in a northerly swell.  Even anchorages that were not exposed to the north. Now it is easy to understand why.

Quieting winds opened a weather window to venture out of the Lagoon, replenish our water supply and explore more anchorages around the island. First, we needed to replace some loose bolts on our windlass, the system that hauls up the anchor. The windlass is a critical system since hauling a heavy anchor and chain by hand would be a nightmare.

The windlass repair turned into an unexpected two-day project requiring shopping trips on both sides of the island to find non-metric hardware and supplies


On Wednesday the work was done and winds calm enough to easily detach from our mooring. We exited the Dutch bridge, since the French bridge was still broken. We wondered if it would ever be fixed, much less during our stay in St-Martin.

There was a large swell forecast for the following day from the northwest, so we thought this would be an ideal time to explore the eastern anchorages of Orient, Ile Pinel and Tintemarre. We were surprised to find a large swell from the east, generated from strong easterlies in the days prior – those Christmas Winds? I found myself wishing I had taken sea-sickness medication before departure.

We passed Phillipsburg and it was a big cruise ship day - 5 ships in port


We found ourselves in the middle of one of the America's Cup race excursion events. We had to change course several times to keep out of the way. Looked like fun!

The guide book details all the troubles one can get into accessing the Orient anchorage. The Active Captain site had less ominous advice and it sounded like a “go” with light winds and a good chart plotter.

Once we identified the correct landmarks we easily maneuvered between the rollers breaking on the reefs and entering Baie Oriental was less scary than it looked

Once inside the reef conditions were rolly from the easterly swell that flowed over the reef and through the entrance.  The numerous jet skis and day boats zooming around in tight quarters generated more waves.  Even with the proximity of the clothing-optional beach the captain said “let’s find another anchorage”.  Ile Pinel was likewise super crowded with no place to anchor. Perhaps a 5 cruise ship day isn’t the best time to visit here. Tintemarre seemed more exposed to the swell so we decided to continue counterclockwise around the island to Grand Case on the north side of the island.

Grand Case is known as a top culinary destination in the Caribbean, a small colorful town with many French restaurants lining the waterfront street. We joined a number of boats in the anchorage including several mega yachts.

We anchored not far from CakeWalk, a yacht we had seen several years ago in Fort Lauderdale. At 281 feet it is the largest yacht ever built in the US. Bob loves the dinghy “garage”.


The swell was moderate and the anchorage comfortable enough for the night. The town dinghy dock is a large concrete structure with only a few places to lock the dinghy, which is essential. The swell was not conducive to a beach landing. A disadvantage of our heavy dinghy is that we can’t pick it up and move it from the shoreline. We didn’t want to leave the dinghy at this concrete dock getting tossed around for long, so our time ashore was limited. While there were a few inexpensive outdoor BBQ and Creole restaurants, I was disappointed that the French fare was so pricey. Dinner with wine at one of the recommended establishments looked like a $150 to $200 outing.

We thought best to return here via land or on a calmer day should we want to spend more time and a large chunk of our cruising budget on a special meal. Our dinner at Grand Case turned out to be turkey meatloaf aboard, one of our meat-lover/vegetarian compromise entrees which is Bob’s new favorite. It is definitely not French. So much for culinary adventure.

In the morning the swell had increased and we decided to move on to Baie de Marigot to see if we could find a calmer spot to get the dogs to shore. Many days we had observed from our walks along the waterfront that the forecast swell did not always materialize in the anchorage. The nearby island of Anguilla can help to block northerly waves. This day, with calmer winds, the 9 to 11 foot northwest swell could be clearly seen and the rollers managed to work their way around the corner so that the entire anchorage was impacted. Monohull boats were subject to violent side to side motion. We continued onward to the south side of the island in search of a better anchorage.

Signs of the swell making its way around the island

Baie Longue, on the southwest side of the island, was also feeling the impact of those wonderful northwest swells. Rollers worked their way around the point and crashed ashore. We continued eastward, and I was curious to see would happen when the northwest swell met the easterly swell we had observed the day before. Choppy and confused seas were the result. The swell made its way into Simpson Bay too, on the south side of the island! We decided to enter the Lagoon and pick another day to finish water making and exploring.

What I’ve learned is that no matter the direction of the swell, it can creep around a small island and find you. Light wind days can still be miserable in an anchorage impacted by severe swell. Getting to shore in a large swell can be difficult and potentially unsafe.  Bob’s philosophy is “Why stay in a rolly anchorage when there are other options?” Agreed! 

Inbound line-up for the mid-day Simpson Bay Bridge


We are gaining experience going in and out of the Dutch bridge. We have found that “no wake” signs going through bridges are not observed or enforced. The wakes make lining up in the narrow channel even more interesting. The French have solved this problem by not bothering to post “no wake” signs.

All boats are herded together regardless of vessel size in an effort to make the bridge opening as quick as possible. Some of the mega yachts have only inches of lateral clearance and seeing the damaged concrete sides of the bridge, it looks like some have made contact.   Best to keep moving along, though, especially we smaller vessels, and best not to be last in line.  We heard about a sailboat that was deemed to be approaching too slowly and they simply closed the bridge. 

Another observance: it is a waste of time to call the bridge tender to advise one is “running late” and ask him to hold the bridge open or delay the opening. They have serious traffic challenges on the island and keep openings as brief as possible and on schedule. The officials were professional but probably falling out of their chairs laughing when that call came it.

The day after we came back  into the Lagoon the French bridge repairs were completed and it is now working.  Future outings should be simpler.

Back on the tranquil mooring in Marigot for now

There will likely be days ahead as we travel down island when there is no other option but a swelly anchorage and we will be wishing we were in a beamy catamaran!




  1. Well, you made it around the island, but sure didn’t get to enjoy some of the special spots. If you do make it back to Grand Case, check out La California. They offer $1 = $1 euro, when paying with cash. They have a great menu to please everyone! Anything from pizza to lamb chops! Great food and good service. We enjoy going there for lunch or just before sunset. Not much to see once the sun sets…

    If you do make it back over to Baie de Marigot side, check out both Friar Bay and Happy Bay. Both are nice spots to take the dogs! Friar has two beach bars (we like Kali’s, which is Rastafarian), but the Friar Bay Cafe is very nice and very French! Happy Bay is desolate, but still has a beach guy that sells drinks from a cooler!

    Sorry to hear that the Christmas Winds are still kicking up some big swells. We’ve experienced the same when we chartered a sailboat for the day several years back, to take us around the island. Denise turned so green that she will never step foot on a boat again. Sad, since we owned boats for over 25 years, but never ventured beyond calm lakes!

    Happy New Year! Here’s to calmer seas! ENJOY!

  2. Thanks for the tips, Glen! We will have to check those out. With the French bridge up and running we can quickly scoot out to Grand Case, Friars Bay or Happy Bay on a calm and swell-less day. We’re thinking that Orient may be more challenging until we get some relief from the powerful Trades. I’m just amazed at how large the seas can be, even on a day with little wind. We’ve been watching those winter cold fronts blast through the southern US. Although they can generate swell, sometimes they dip far enough south to disrupt the Trade Winds too, which we power boaters like to see!

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