EVICTED FROM SXM: Virus Tales from the Caribbean

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Mar. 29/2020: Just got off the phone with my old pal Hank Schmitt, of Offshore Passage Opportunities and the annual North American Rally to the Caribbean, who gave me the low-down on the end of his virus-affected season down in the W’Indies.

Crazy times for everyone, to be sure.

He and his Swan 48 Avocation were denied entry into St. Maarten, his long-time winter base, and has written the following open letter he is sending to local papers there.

The photo up top is of the customs boat that escorted him away from the island and into international waters.

Would be very interested in hearing from others on their experiences sailing the Caribbean in these days of the pandemic.

Avocation under sail

St Maarten – The “Friendly” Island???

We have a saying in America. When the chips are down you find out who your real friends are. Of course, friendship goes two ways.

Have I been a friend to St. Maarten?

I first came to SXM in 1993 when I completed a doublehanded transatlantic crossing. My dad had built up seven weeks of timeshare at the Pelican Resort.   

He introduced me to a local who he had taken under his wing to help get his business going. My dad was asked to be the godfather for his daughter. My dad is gone, but his godchild finished school in Paris and is now an aspiring model. After Hurricane Irma hit the island in September 2017, at the end of that fateful first post-storm season, her father told me he had to get money to put a cement roof on his house before the next hurricane season came. I wrote him a check for $5,000 in exchange for two years of future rental car use whenever I was on the island. If things had gone well that debt would have been paid at the end of this season.

After Irma, another local businessman, who had done work on my boat, asked me at the end of April if I could help him buy a hurricane-damaged boat so he would have a project to work on over the summer. I said yes and he and another worker have been employed (until now) to finish the boat.

My next visit was in 1998 as I captained a Swan charter boat from Newport RI to St. Maarten. In 2000 I took over the Swan Program and started the NARC Rally (North American Rally to the Caribbean).  I have made the passage from Newport to St. Maarten and back every year since 1998.

2019 was the 20th anniversary rally.  We have always said that we start the Caribbean boating season, since we arrive in mid-November, well before any European boats. Over the past 20 years I have brought hundreds of boats and thousands of crew to St. Maarten. Your Minister of Tourism can better tell you how much money per boat and per person is spent on visits to the island, especially when the boats and crew base out of St. Maarten for their entire winter season.

I have entered my boat in 15 Heineken Regattas starting in 2005. Five years ago I transitioned out of the full-on racing division and entered the Lottery Division, now renamed “Island Time.” I enjoyed racing in this laid-back division and decided to sponsor it to help grow the regatta. This past year was my 4th as a Heineken Regatta sponsor.

After Irma, I was devastated like so many visitors to your island. In my booth at the Newport International Boat Show, just days after Irma hit, I started raising money for St. Maarten. This turned into a campaign to raise money for two islands after Maria hit Dominica, another of my favorite adopted islands. We raised over $50,000.

I booked space on the first commercial flight into St. Maarten after the storm and paid expenses for one of my skippers to fly in and hand out money to our friends at IGY SXM and Jimbos. His job was also to help determine if we could bring the fleet back to St. Maarten one month later. Unfortunately, the answer was no, but I decided to come back myself.  Mine was the only boat in my fleet and one of only three boats to base out of SXM for the post-Irma season.

Two days after arriving in St. Maarten that season, I loaded my boat up with 5 generators, coolers of food, and money and sailed to Dominica, which had no mother country to loan them money to rebuild. In 2015 my company had donated a mooring field to the PAYS Association in Portsmouth, Dominica, to help get boats to visit and spend money. To help get the word out we started an event called “Yachtie Appreciation Week.”

 

Hank (right) and his good friend Albert during the first YAW event on Dominica

This year, two weeks ago on March 14th, right after the Heineken Regatta, I set sail for Dominica for the 5th Annual YAW (March 15th to 22nd) with 5 charter guests aboard. While we were there the world started to fall apart as the virus took hold outside of China and Europe. By mid-week two crew had flown 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 departing crew leave an island before he can sail away. As soon as the last of my crew left Sunday morning, March 22, I left for a solo 24-hour race back to St. Maarten, since the radio net in Dominica said St. Maarten was closing on Monday, March 23. While I was at sea the date was moved up to Sunday at midnight, so when I arrived at 11:00 am for the 11:30 Bridge I was 11 hours too late.

The St. Maarten 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 waters with their Q flag flying 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 winter base 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 before returning to 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 8:30 AM. 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 not 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 8 days to go to Dominica, which had no cases at the time), his answer was: “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. How do you answer that? Silly me, I thought the world was falling apart because of the virus.

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, on the French side, with my Q flag still flying to buy more time for my 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 9:00 am the next morning I had three French officers tell me that 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. Customs here took me all of ten minutes. I was alone. I have been in the Caribbean for almost 2 months aboard my boat 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 pandemic will end eventually, but the adverse effects on the global economy may be felt by the tourist industry for years to come.

Is St. Maarten truly the friendly island? I ask the people of St. Maarten to decide and let me know. If you think I was mistreated by Customs and Immigration please let them and your government know. You can e-mail me through my web site at www.sailopo.com 

Sincerely,

Hank Schmitt

Swan 48 Avocation

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35 Responses
  1. Robert Russo

    The last time I was in Sint Maartin was in 2011. I had such a horrible experience there, Ive never been back. St. Eustasius is much more welcoming and a lot less focused on cruise ships and planeloads of tourists.
    My vote is to leave St Maartin in my wake

    1. Jimbo SXM

      Sorry to have missed you Hank!! And we didn’t get to properly close down Jimbo’s either. I am saddened by the way you were handled for sure…and, as you are aware, I know very well, first hand, that the folks on shore are much more interested in the $$$ and not about real sailors and sailing yachts, but much more attentive to the enormous stink pots and the enormous revenue that IGY takes in….and especially now that they are all stuck at their dock. Of course, none of us know what the future will bring with this pandemic all very world, but certainly hope to see you again and share a cocktail one of these days in the not too distant future my friend!! Oh, and a shout out to Alan Sugarman!!! Don’t think we’ll be seeing each other in Newport this year!

    1. Charles Doane

      Right now he’s in St. Thomas alone on Avocation. His plan as of yesterday when I spoke with him was to stay with the boat and start sailing it back to New York in early May. Alone if necessary, but he’d prefer to find crew, which may be difficult in these times of restricted travel.

      1. Bobby brown

        Am a boating person from Dominica who leave in st maarten I read your article this is very disturbing I think the authorities handle this situation very badly like you said when in time of crisis you would no who is your friends.

        1. marleen

          That was very wrong to treat the man in such manner he explained every detail to you all people around the world needs to know that’s the way to handle a problem poor judgment of you all and need more professional to attend situation like this

  2. Rod Lawrence

    You have been very poorly treated by these officious fools. Time to bring your energy to bear on a more worthy recipient. Best wishes.

  3. I was watching Hank on Marinetraffic.com and saw he was anchored outside the bridge for a couple days and then leave for St. Thomas, so I assumed that is what is going on.

    Didn’t go to Yachtie Week in Portsmouth because things were already ramping up two weeks ago here in Puerto Rico. The Governor of Puerto Rico basically shut down the island including a specific order shutting down all marinas.

    We are at the Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club which is a “ghost town” compared to normal. There is a guard at the gate 24/7 as well as a police checkpoint on the access road. The police checkpoint was set up following earthquake damage in January to keep rubberneckers out of the LaGuanchia which otherwise would be party central for Southern Puerto Rico. Club members or their agents can come into the club for very short periods to check their boat during the day and they have to leave in less than an hour.

    There are 4 cruisers including us on Cats Meow who were here before the lock-down. We can go out for groceries, meds, fuel, and liquor and are encouraged to be back quickly.

    Transient traffic is near zero. When they come in they have to anchor out. No docking. The fuel pier is shut down, so not taking on fuel. The manager of the Club will come in to pump fuel for the CBP patrol boats, the local police boats and thats it.

    Lack of access to fuel is probably causing cruisers to stop wherever they are to wait this out.

    We plan to stay here and wait this out until there is a better place to be. Being isolated is reassuring.

    Our friends cruising throughout the Caribbean from Grenada to Belize seem to have it much tougher.

    Cheers

  4. Stelios

    I would have thought a 14 day quarantine on the boat would have been reasonable. They are doing that in Dom Rep. Actually state of RI is trying to do that for New Yorkers. You might want to paint over the hailport.

    1. Jil

      Contact Salty Dawgs. They are organizing flotillas back to RI. They also have a crew list available. It is small but there are some names to contact to sail back with.

  5. Nils

    Charles
    Thank you for posting Hanks letter. I’m aboard now in the Virgin Islands and I have to say I commend the Dutch coast guard and the French Maritime Gendarmerie for not allowing Hank to enter after the boarders closed. They have enacted recent rules and laws reacting to this Pandemic. Hank should follow them too. Even though he has done lots to help locals and businesses in Saint Martin, Dominica and elsewhere like Bermuda (Where I met Hank this fall) these officials were not willing to allow Hank to call around and essentially try the old don’t you know who I am and who I know around here routine to get in. And the virus doesn’t seem to care either. As a full time live aboard cruiser I am sympathetic to Hank as he is alone on his Swan during this Pandemic. His timing to sail to Dominica for the YAW and visit with the PAYS boat boys could not have been more unfortunate. But let’s look at what he claimed on the call to you. That he had been on Dominica from the 15th to the 22nd of March and that he was sure he did not have the virus when he left that morning since no confirmation of any cases there yet. The first confirmed case on Dominica was announced the same day he left on the 22nd of March around mid day. The testing at the time would have taken longer than 3 days to return results and the symptoms of patient 1 in Dominica would most likely taken 5-7 days to first show. So from the timeline Hank gave us the Covid-19 Virus was infact on Dominica the entire time he was there and in Portsmouth! I hope Hank is well and never gets this virus. He should have mentioned the BVI (closest non Dutch island West of SXM) would not let him in either, but, he was allowed to enter the USVI. Not even local BVI residents or belongers are allowed to cross into the BVI right now no matter who they are. The BVI boarders, ferry services, flight services are closed in and out unless you sail away on your own or are bringing in necessary food and medical supplies to the commercial port. Hank, hang in there and enjoy your freedom to go ashore, to be able to get food and water and medicines as needed, to have a place to land and anchor your Swan and an easy ROAM app to remotely clear customs with. Not everyone down here has these rights now. Your neighbors to the East are all on mandatory 24 hour home confinement lockdown. Saint Martin will welcome you in again soon and no one at Customs will remember your I’ll timed voyages.
    Sincerely
    Nils

    1. Hi Nills,
      Most countries understand a 14 day quarantine waiting period is enough time to make sure a person is not infected. All I asked was to be put in quarantine for 14 days.
      What I did not put in my report was that other boats including a Mega Yacht Seven Sins with many crew aboard were allowed to go in as I watched from my anchored spot outside the bridge.after I arrived. She arrived from a French island that had a lot more cases than Dominica. How to explain that? There were others.boats as well. So your theory about who gets in and who does not has more about who has an agent and who doesn’t. As the customs supervisor said this was not about the virus, it was about the rules. Rules that were changing by the day because no one could make a decision.

  6. Mark

    Nils I think you missed a key point here, notably, that Hank offered to self quarantine for 14 days at anchor and this very reasonable and safe suggestion was met with bureaucratic indifference first and then the threat of force.

    Shameful behavior in my view. On hostile seas our first obligation is to offer assistance to those in need…not force a captain out to sea single-handed.

  7. Jack Huttner

    Hard to believe this story and the sordid treatment Hank received. His longstanding friendship and support of the people of St. Maarten and his leadership building a broad movement of yachtsmen to repeatedly visit the region is indisputable. Setting aside Hank’s special qualifications, it is inconceivable that a more reasonable and humane treatment of a sailor in distress was not found. This is a black mark on the competence and compassion of the custom authorities. Very disappointing..

  8. tony smith

    hang in there Hank—The Caribbean Islands have there own laws and often makes no sense. I’ll help you bring Avocation back to LIS if you need me.
    Can I fly into USVI?

  9. Alan D. Sugarman

    They could have let him anchor out for a few days. And there was once a right or refuge for vessels on the open seas. Under those treaties, Hank should have been allowed to anchor under quarantine. SM did not return the courtesies shown to it in its many disasters by the US and by Hank himself. Anyway, with or without Hank, the virus is likely on the Island now anyway. Wait until SM cries for help again when it is in distress, which will come soon enough, perhaps even from Covid. Lucky Hank did not make it to Newport RI – there he would have been is same situation thanks to the RI Governor since Hank was on a NY flagged boat (restriction now ended thanks to Gov. Cuomo.) Wake up. I am in NYC hunkered down with 20,000 cases around me. This will hurt everyone. Hank best leave the VI whenever possible because of the abysmal health care there, where everyone relies upon air ambulances, which are probably hard to come by now. In fact, Miami (the regular destination of air ambulances from the VI) may not allow a COVID patients to land. Hope your are not on an air ambulance and subject to “rules and regulations'” from Florida that went into effect when your ambulance was in the air.

  10. Nicolas Marjieh

    SXM BORDER PATROL should be more human and help the needy specially when one is alone and exhausted, they could have allowed you to dock and quarantine yourself on your boat for 14 days.
    what happened to one world, one people one purpose to help each other, no matter your origin.

    it’s not because you have brought so many boats and action to the Island but the fact that you are a person in need and they should have extended a hand to help in a certain way. but they are monsters to have blocked you.
    Sorry Hank, we support you all the way.
    stay safe and be careful out there.
    we need you.

  11. I’m sorry you got badly treated, and I agree it’s stupid, they needed to have more flexible ways to quarantine sailors and allow them access. But the whole Caribbean is in panic, they see this freight train coming at them and realize how poorly prepared they are. Once the virus takes hold, you won’t want to be here, I promise. I would get home, get safe and stay there until it is over.
    We’re holed up in Anguilla, boat is in the water, and we don’t know what will happen by hurricane season.

  12. Chris Blankenship

    Good luck out there Hank!
    I know he will be fine! Very resourceful guy.
    It’s a shame people lose their common sense when they are scared.

  13. Michael Gallagher

    I am one of the sailors that Hank and his Offshore Passages Opportunities group introduced to St. Maarten many years ago.
    This treatment by by these bureaucrats is both shocking and disgraceful; especially after all that Hank has done to benefit the island and the Caribbean in general.
    They should be ashamed. !!!

  14. Pete DuHaime

    Hang in there Hank, been going there for 30 yrs, made many friends over the years, don’t let immigration authorities, (who tend to be a bunch of asswipes whereever you go) taint your affection for one of the most beautiful islands in the carib, I would like to meet you at the Banana boat bar (Maho, beginning of runway), buy you a few rum punches, and watch the cruise ship dummies get blasted by jet takeoffs, pure entertainment, (week 13 n 14

    1. Maurizio

      Hi Hank, very disgraceful event. There are few reasons they should have made an ecception to your case. The anticipation by 12 hours of the island lock down, the fact that boats did come in the same day you arived and your offer to stay in quaranteen for 14 days at anchor. Their inability to apply some common sense and common coutesy is the disgracefull part, especially under the circumstances of a solo sailor that is known to the island and therefore more likelly to abide to the quarantene.

  15. Miles

    HI Hank,
    Yes, I think that you were mistreated by a rigid unpleasant bureaucrat and placed in danger due to your fatigue–something that I had thought was forbidden by nautical custom if not law.
    . In 1999, I was at anchor in Marigot when a storm increased in intensity, making Marigot harbor untenable. I sailed directly to the Dutch side and took my dinghy to clear in and ask for the bridge opening. The official, in a sharp uniform with polished buttons, asked for my papers leaving Marigot. I explained that there was a storm and safely landing a dinghy in Marigot was impossible. She replied that I could not enter Simpson Bay until I returned to Marigot and cleared out. With nothing more, she turned and walked away. My wife and I spent the next two days anchored outside the bridge in miserable conditions.
    I have not been back to the Dutch side with my boat since.
    I don’t want to deal with people who cannot show a little flexibility and common sense. “Rules are rules,” ridged bureaucrats may be everywhere, but I avoid places where they are present in greater numbers.

  16. Dave Meindl

    It blows my mind how people can be so callous and uncaring no matter the scenario. It only takes half a brain to understand that 1 person, alone on a boat at anchor is not a threat. Shame on you to the local Coast Guard and every uncaring official who was involved in this unfair and inhuman treatment of someone who has done SO MUCH for your island and your people!!!

  17. Morrie Piersol

    Hank,
    Your report is truly shocking and sad. After all that you and the organizations/groups with which you have been associated have done for SXM? Shameful.

  18. Captain Tim Bittel

    I just finished (March 28) a 3000+ delivery to Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia (FP) . Ten days out of the Galapagos the SSB brought news that rules for entry to FP had changed. Each day brought news of more, different and conflicting changes, prohibitions, and restrictions. We were alternatively directed to 3 different ports, including Papette. Landfall in Papette would have extended a planned 3000 NM voyage to near 4000NM. Ultimately, we were allowed to make landfall at Nuku Hiva and to have limited shore access to load food and fuel. But entry was conditional and when I left the vessel it was being ordered to either proceed to Papette or out of FP. During the transit most other Pacific nations -including New Zeeland and Australia were closed to yacht entry.
    As I write this, the cruise ship Zaandam still has not been granted permission to dock at Port Everglades. It has previously been denied permission by several South American countries. Every country in the world is struggling to protect its citizens. Yachts, yachties, and even commercial vessels like the Zaandam are understandingly of secondary importance.
    So my suggestion is to take chill pill, don’t burn bridges in St. Maarten. This Covid-19 Virus will pass. We will all again motor under the Simpson Bay Bridge. We have all enjoyed St. Martin. You personally have helped and benefited St. Maarten. But by your recitation, the customs officials did allow you to anchor and rest for 48 hours. On March 13, 2020 Jeffery Frank, President of PAYS posted on Facebook a letter giving Notice that Yachtie Appreciation Week was canceled. Hank, your posting says you set sail for Dominica’s Yachtie Appreciation Week on March 14—after the event had been publicly canceled.
    These are strange times. Yachties all need to adapt and cooperate. As sailors, we are guests in a country each time we make landfall. As a guest we need to comply with the rules they make. So -do in think you were mistreated? – No . You took a chance to sail for Dominica and it didn’t work out. St.Maarten allowed you anchor and rest. We as sailors, have no standing to tell a foreign country what rules/laws to enact or how to enforce them.
    Go back next year and smile .

      1. tim bittel

        Charlie
        It has been a long time since you gave me a ride of a lifetime from Newport to Bermuda in November,2001– many miles under our keels since then Please stay well!

    1. Hi Tim,
      You missed the part of my reply to another person, that I did watch a mega yacht go through the bridge while i was anchor. They came from St. Barts after I arrive and were allowed in. So the rules are one thing for some people and are not rules for others. That boat has many people on board. I was a crew of one.. Who was a bigger risk of infection? Some one like me who had been in St Maaren since Feb 3rd or the charter guests on a mega yacht who flew in a week before and partied in St. Barts for a week?

      Dominica was open until the day I left. Yes. YAW was cancelled, but I still had supplies and money for friends on the island and went there to support them. I was 11 hours late getting back because the closing date changed while I was at sea.
      Good luck with your travels in the South Pacific. Look forward to seeing you somewhere someplace.
      Hank
      OPO.

  19. Peter Buros

    I was introduced to offshore sailing by Hank in 2003 when I went on a trip from St. Maartin to Bermuda on Hank’s boat. It became a passion of mine and since then, I have made many sailing trips in and out of St. Martin, including the Heineken Regatta on Hank’s boat, bringing my whole family down. I am living embodiment of how Hank has benefited the island economy through sailing. I am appalled at the insensitivity of the customs in St. Maartin to Hank’s plight. After sailing single-handed for 30 hours, for Hank to not be granted the right to self-quarantine at anchor for 14 days is beyond the pale. I will think twice before choosing St. Maartin for my next destination.

  20. Bob Fritz

    Hi Hank,
    Sorry to hear about you difficulties with SXM. I wasn’t aware of the sudden changes in the Caribbean as I haven’t been there recently. The world has changed in an instant, and not for the better. In the past few days I have heard of two more boats, one in the Caribbean and another in the Marquesas that were denied entry. The latter has decided to sail back the Hawaii where it will be allowed to enter as it US flagged and the people are US citizens.

    I can’t even leave my house to take the winter cover off my boat without being liable for a $1000 fine and/or 6 months in jail. The yard is only 5 miles away.

    Charlie, I, too, remember the 2001 sleigh ride to Bermuda. It is one of the highlights of my sailing career.

  21. What a terrible story. Not a way to say thank you to someone who has done so much for that island. Hopefully things will I prove, and with time things can go back to normal and you can get back to see friends and employees there. I feel so sad that you could be treated this way!
    I hope that someone can arrange something pretty darn impressive to welcome you back there…just think of all they will lose with you not supporting them as you have done for so many decades!

  22. Thor's Hammer

    –Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    –A medical system designed to maximize profit naturally fights against any treatment that it can’t patent and bill at $1,000 (Remdesivir) to $37,000 (Intubation on a respirator). (The probability of death once you are intubated is 80-90%.)
    — The US “Free Press” (AKA the mass media propaganda system) sets the information flow for much of the world.
    –The US response to the CORVID19 has been a total clusterfuck, in spite of having two months lead time to study and learn from the experiences of China, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, Cuba, and Costa Rica. As a result the USA has become the world leader in infection and death while some other countries measure their death count in mere hundreds.
    — The US national leadership changed its story overnight so many times that small countries like the SXM had no basis for policy decisions except for panic. In this atmosphere petty bureaucrats easily morph into petty Nazis.
    –Panic on behalf of small island nations is understandable, but that doesn’t make it rational.

    –What are we to make of a country like ours that can’t even manufacture a N95 standard face mask for it’s people after four months of shortages? During my weekly trip to the supermarket on 5/9 I see most people wearing homemade face diapers, with less than 5 in 100 equipped with masks that actually have the ability to protect against airborne virus.
    __

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