St. Maarten / St Martin is a relatively small Caribbean island (the entire island is 37 sq miles) with a split nationality. Roughly one half is a Netherlands or Dutch territory, the other half is a French territory. St. Maarten is Dutch, St Martin is French.English, however, is the most prevalent language throughout the island and US dollars are equally accepted on both sides and the preferred currency on the Dutch side.
While Sint Maarten / Saint Martin as a whole is a tourist Mecca, thus far, our favorite beaches are on the French side. The French side is also more architecturally attractive and there’s more fanfare around local cuisine on the French side. Even within the same lagoon, where we anchored, the water on the Dutch side was murky, and on the French side, clear.
However, the Dutch carry on their centuries-old tradition as savvy merchants. For the most part, goods and services are significantly cheaper on the Dutch side. Particularly, when it comes to boat stuff, they are reputed to be one of the best values in the Caribbean, often on par with the US. Sure, Trinidad is also known for great deals, but boater buzz is… if you want to be confident the work is well-done, go to St. Maarten.
We crisscrossed between both sides, playing on the French side, getting boat work, socializing with fellow yachtees and buying basic goods on the Dutch side. It was our 3rd crisscross; this time we got a little lax on our customs check in and out between leaving the French side and returning to the Dutch side. We planned to head back to the French side, well, maybe that day, or the next, or the day after. We got caught.
The Coast Guard boat we were boarded from is very similar
to the one in this photo, downloaded from Google Images.
We were enjoying a leisurely breakfast, dressed (or rather, not properly dressed) in our skivvies in our salon. Suddenly, the view out our cockpit filled with three uniformed men in a very official looking St. Maarten (Dutch) Coast Guard boat right next to ours. When it was obvious they were looking in, Captain Wayne stepped up to the plate to see what was up.
They boarded, and wanted to see our papers. Politely, they gave us time to dress, which of course, we did, pronto, while Wayne proffered all our pertinent paperwork.
“Oh, I see your paperwork shows you are checked in the French side, not the Dutch side…. When did you get here? What brought you over? When did you say you were going back? Are you carrying any weapons? Will someone please escort us through your boat? Do you have flares? May we see them? They’re expired? Did you know there’s a fine for not having flares consistent with regulations? When are you planning on replacing them? ”
They were respectful, but thorough. Certainly, they agreed with a smile it was quite common for those on the French side to come over to the Dutch side to do business, even grocery shop, as we said we did.
In enough time for breakfast to go almost cold, they left, with a smile, a handshake and friendly but firm warning, “This time” but no fines. “Do you think we can make a last run to the grocery store here before we cross back to the French side?” Wayne asked. I advised we not push our luck, and go, quickly, like we said we would.
Our slow and small but trusty dinghy, trailing obediently behind
our boat as we re-entered Simpson Lagoon from the French
St. Martin Marigot bridge.
By the time they inspected the boat after ours, we’d finished breakfast, washed and put the dishes away, pulled our anchor and began our short but somewhat sheepish motor over to the French side. I was glad we didn’t complicate the questions by explaining we did not properly check in or out of St. Eustatius, even though we were blessed by someone in the St. Eustatius customs office to skip it after their official was a no show for 45 minutes. Whew!
As Wayne tackles some more boat work, if he needs parts or services, it will be a long, slow dinghy ride back to the Dutch side. But if we decide to take our boat back to the Dutch side, we’ll be far less casual in our customs check in and out. The water and land may comingle, but customs sees there is a clear and sharp line between the two.
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