Early in the morning we set sail from Virgin Gorda’s east anchorage at Saba Rock to St Maarten, an 85 nautical miles passage against Trade Winds and Atlantic swells. Most cruisers motor or motor-sail heading east across the Anegada passage to get it over with as soon as possible. Not us, we are purists, strictly sailing, no engines for us.
We head northeast. Then tack southeast. Our progress is so slow. In the afternoon we can still see the round belly of Virgin Gorda (The Fat Virgin) floating on the horizon behind us. We estimate it will take us about two days and nights of tacking, about 48 hours. 80 NM from point A to point B can become 160 NM, even more, when zigzagging. With about 20 kt winds and 4 to 6 foot waves stopping us, Fata barely goes with 4 knots. And there are some weird currents, as if always against us.
In the evening small storm cells start floating our direction, a string of dark clouds that come with sudden puffs and rain we’d rather avoid. We watch them closely on the radar and tack north to run away from one tacking back southeast when the danger has passed. We manage to cross the string of squalls without hitting any.
The sunset is spectacular that day. The sky and sea look smeared with blood, Viktor says ominously. And then the night, thick disorienting blackness, takes over. Since that storm in the Yucatán Channel, we dread the night. We take turns on the helm, short naps in the cockpit. The wind is steady from east, but the currents are messing with us. We get pushed south and by midnight another island looks closer to us on the charts. We change course for Saba, 25 NM south of St Marten.
We have gained enough height the previous day tacking north, so now sailing southeast on a starboard tack takes us quickly to Saba, an island we know nothing about. On the charts it looks round with no bays and no anchorages on the east and south lee sides. We read what the cruising guide has to say about approaching the island, anchoring, and any other information that will prepare us for what to expect. But there is nothing that can prepare you for Saba. Saba you have to see and experience.
The morning reveals the lonely shadow of a small mountain sticking out of the sea, like an epiphany.
Saba, The Impossible
You must imagine a sleeping volcano, about 5 square miles (13 square kilometers) in territory, rising vertically from the sea, reaching 3,000 feet (1,000 meters), its inaccessible perilous cliffs like the dark back of a sea monster, its green peak where mountain goats roam, always wearing a fashionable white cloud.
It’s impossible for ships to access the island. Where would the ships drop anchor if there isn’t a single bay, a single anchorage, a single beach?(Even Columbus who sighted the island in 1493 didn’t attempt to stop.)
It’s impossible for people to live here. Only ships bring people and supplies.
It’s impossible to build towns. The terrain is too steep.
It’s impossible to build a road connecting the towns. The terrain is really too steep.
Most of all, it’s impossible to build an airport. A plane cannot land on a mountain.
There are so many things deemed ‘impossible’ which actually happened on Saba.
Once uninhabited, the island became a territory of The Netherlands in 1816. People and goods arrived on the island via the leeward west shore which, even though there is no harbor, offered some shelter from ocean swells, but boats could only land in calm seas. There the Sabans cut steep steps in the rock to be able to climb on land, a stone ladder so vertical it looks surreal when seen from the sea. All cargo, including a piano once, and a bishop, was unloaded by men standing in the water waist deep and then hauled up the ladder. During invasions it was easy to protect the island with piles of boulder let loose when the attackers were climbing the hills.
Little by little Dutch, Scottish, and English settlers along with Africans brought as slaves built two villages. One on the bottom of the south side, called “The Bottom” and another on the windward east side called “Windwardside” with houses perched on the edge of cliffs and atop hills up and down the slopes of the island. Even though evidently they did not have much imagination for naming places, the settlers became farmers and fishermen, cobblers and boat builders, creating a unique strong-willed community based on hard work and mutual help. But they had no road linking the two villages.
In the 1940s Dutch engineers arrived on Saba to look into ‘the road problem’. They came, measured and calculated, and then they declared “It’s impossible to build a road here, the terrain is too steep.” And they left. But one Saban didn’t believe them. Joseph Lambert Hassel, Lambee, born in 1906 took a correspondence course in road building from the International School of Correspondence in the U.S. and with no formal training he designed and supervised the impossible building of the impossible 9-mile long road which they named “The Road”.
It took a crew of local farmers and fishermen 20 years, using no machinery, only wheelbarrows to finish The Road. For the support walls they used volcanic stones and for the road itself they used cement imported from Puerto Rico. And, as government funding was refused, a local merchant eager to see the road finished paid for the cement. No one could guarantee that the building of the road would be successful, yet the first car arrived on the island in 1947, ten years before the completion of the project. The Road, Lambee’s road, inconceivably steep at places and with drastic 8-curves, was finished in 1958.
Now, how about an airport, the Sabans asked.
The Dutch engineers returned on Saba once again. And once again the experts declared “It’s impossible to build an airport runway, there is no space.” And they left!
You might have guessed (and as I’m writing this I have tears in my eyes), but the Sabans, once again, didn’t believe them and proved them wrong. They found the flattest spot on the island, called “Flat Point” and cleared it by hand. In 1959 French pilot Remi de Haenen from St. Barth’s became the first man to land an aircraft on the dirt strip at Flat Point proving it’s possible. In 1963 the airport was a fact with a 400-meter (1,300 ft) landing strip, the shortest commercial runway in the world, where only specially trained pilots flying small aircrafts may land.
It must be quite an experience arriving on Saba by plane. We watched one landing, and it was incredible. The plane started slowing down long before approaching the airstrip and miraculously stopped almost immediately after hitting the ground. If the pilot cannot stop because the speed is too fast, they touch down and then lift off on the other side to try a second time.
We approach Saba at noon on the second day of our passage, sooner than we expected, but then, we expected to get to St Marten, not Saba. On the west lee side, which in east Trade winds should be the most weather-protected side, an anchorage is indicated on the charts called Wells Bay, even though it isn’t exactly a bay.
There isn’t an anchorage, there isn’t a beach. All we see is rocks, rugged black magma towers, sharp and broken, and the red vertical cliffs of the island. There is a row of 9 mooring balls all vacant and not at all close to the island. We grab one. The depth is 60 feet, the water is dark blue. It feels as if you are stopped out in the open sea, holding on to a small mooring ball. Accelerated puffs turn around the island all the time and the boat violently pulls on its mooring ball. Really hard to sleep peacefully here at night. Saba’s shores and waters are so harsh and unforgiving that not many boaters venture this way. Saba is also off-limits for most charter boats; they are not allowed here.
From where we are we see only one house up on the green hill and the beginning of a road at the foot of the island. We also see The Ladder which no one uses anymore. There isn’t a marina, not even a dinghy dock, and the shore is rocky. The only way to access the forbidden land from this side is by kayak, a dinghy won’t do.
We kayak to shore and begin climbing the steepest cement road in the world surrounded by thick tropical vegetation, huge elephant ears and ferns, fragrant flowers and tamarind trees. There are no cars, no people, only shy mountain goats grazing on the steep hillsides. The place looks deserted. It takes us an hour to reach the top of the hill, all sweaty, legs hurting, hearts exploding. We have climbed up to The Bottom.
The Bottom, even though on top of a hill, is still in the foot of the volcano, Mount Scenery, about 3,000 feet tall. It is a fairy tale village, hard to believe real people live here and not elves. All houses etched against the dark mountain are painted white with green rims around the windows and doors, and red roofs, white picket fences, tropical flower, and mango trees. Each house has its own rainwater collection system, some almost two hundred years old made of stone, as there is no freshwater on the island.
We decide to go to the other village, Windwordside. Every car passing us on the road stops and people offer us a ride, and we have to explain that, in order to see and experience the place, we rather walk the 9-mile road, The Road.
We pass by the Saba University School of Medicine, established by American expatriates, whose international students make up a fifth of the entire population on the island, which is about 2,000 residents (and probably about 2,000 wild goats roaming freely in the forests, villages, crossing the roads, and eating the mangoes that fall from the trees every now and then). Thanks to the university, there is an excellent hospital in Saba providing residents with medical care. Most Sabans are in fact born on the island and some have never ever left it.
Half the Sabans are white, the other half are black, and when I asked if there is any racism, they told me: “We have lived together for many generations in this tightly-knitted community, isolated from the rest of the world, helping each other. So, no, there isn’t a trace of racism in Saba; in fact we have many mixed-race families.”
The Windwardside, much like The Bottom, is another fairytale place with white red-roofed houses perched on the slopes of hills overlooking the sea. Santa Claus summer retreat. There is an art gallery displaying local artists’ paintings and crafts, a few restaurants and shops. From here begins the long steep but pleasant trail to the top of Mount Scenery, a 90-minute hike up among pristine tropical rainforest, referred to as “The Elfin Forest”. And it is not the only trail, there are many around the island, all maintained by the park service.
We spend 5 unforgettable days in Saba, snorkeling near the volcanic shores, hiking up Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and The Ladder, walking the steep road to The Bottom every morning, trying tropical fruits we never seen before thanks to Paul, the owner of The Bean Coffee Shop in The Bottom, hitchhiking between the two villages, drinking beer in Scout’s Place bar with the most stunning view.
And if I tell you it’s impossible to meet other Bulgarians in such a remote Caribbean island, almost inaccessible, with barely 800 households, you must know by now, it isn’t true. Everything is possible in Saba! We meet Ilian and his girlfriend Bisi the day after we arrive, and we learned that one of the professors in the Medical University as well as one of the international students there are from Bulgaria too.
Ilian is a professional diver born and raised in the same Bulgarian city Evo and me were born and raised, Varna. He has come to work as diving instructor at the dive shop, Saba Deep, for a short period of time, as Saba is one of the world’s best diving sites with underwater magma towers, coral fields, and over 150 thousand species of fish. And although we didn’t have much time to spend together, our bond based on common interests and worldviews became as strong as the one linking good old friends. We hope our paths will cross again.
Views of Saba