On May 5th, 2013, two days ago, I took the ferry “The Edge” from St. Maarten to Saba. As often happens the winds were contrary for the plane to land at the airport on Saba and so, many people were obliged to go back to the original mode of transportation to Saba and come back by boat.
In recent years there have been numerous articles written about the plane landing on Saba which is considered the shortest commercial ariport runway in the world. Not much longer than your average aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier even has an advantage over our airport as it can turn the ship into the best wind direction so that the planes can land safely. Our airport is more or less put in its proper place.
On the boat Sunday my wife Lynne and I sat up front with the Captain as well as former Commissioner Lisa Hassell and her two daughters. It was very hot outside so we appreciated the open windows up front and could get a bit of a breeze on the way across. Capt. Austin Hodge in whose home I lived for ten years used to tell me that from point to point Saba is 28 miles from St.Maarten and from harbour to harbour the distance is 32 miles. On Sunday the sea was realtively calm. The winds were out of the South. It was bumpier than a car ride but not by much. I have experienced the “Edge” once in weather which I thought would tear the boat apart and send us to the bottom of the ocean. This trip was different. On a good day like this past Sunday the Edge usually makes the trip in one hour and fifteen minutes. She did not disappoint this time. As a boy sailing on those old sloops and schooners, some of which had no engine, it would take many hours to do the same distance. If the weather was calm as often happens after the hurricane season the old “Blue Peter” could get stuck for days between Saba and St. Maarten. Just drifting along with the tides it often happened that it took a week to get from Saba to St.Maarten.
Between 1629 and 1972 all landings on Saba took place at the Fort Bay and to a lesser extent at the Ladder Bay.
When the “Edge” arrived at the Leo Chance pier the captain first turned her around then docked her up to the pier. There were fifty (50) passengers on board. Because of the large amount of luggage some fifteen passengers had to remain behind. Within fifteen minutes all passengers and their luggage were on the pier. This brought back to mind the many hard landings I had made over over the years at the Fort Bay.
Back in the eighteen hundreds the boatmen were not organized. What freight was brought to the island was landed by lighter boats belonging to the owners of the schooners or family members of the owners. As the Saban owned schooners moved more and more to Barbados from which island the Saba Captains were headquartered there was some form of organization to the landing of cargo and passengers. The Government got involved as many of the people coming to Saba who were not residing here were either government officials from the other islands and people coming here with permission of the colonial government.
As far back as I can remember Mr. William Rudolph Dinzey a great grandson of Governor Thomas Dinzey was the Head Boatman. Kenneth Bolles refers to him in his book of 1931 “Caribbean Interlude”. He was known as “Chila” and was born on Saba on Wednesday October 11th 1876, son of Johannah “Hanner” Dinzey and grandson of William Dinzey and Ann Eliza”Annie” Simmons.
Being captain of the boat had a responsibility of it’s own. The Captain had to count the waves and make the decision when to give the order to row full speed towards the shore before the next wave caught up with you and swamped the boat. Sometimes the captain would wait outside the breakers for what seemed forever and then suddenly would shout out the command “Take her now” or something of the sorts. As a passenger your greatest concern was to make it to the rocky shore safely and out of the boat as quick as possible. On the shore part of the crew would be there in the water waiting to catch the boat and haul her up beyond the breakers as soon as possible. The more agile passengers would sometimes jump out and assist with pulling up the heavy boat as far as possible. These lighter boats would be built from heavy cedar ribs from trees here on Saba and sometimes even the planks were made from the wood of the cedar tree. In former times people from Anguilla and other islands would come here to cut timber for making their boats as cedar was easier to work with than other hard woods.
When a schooner or sloop or a motorvessel was arriving, on St. John’s at Chrispeen Miss Marion Every would give the signal from the signal station. From that spot she could see when a vessel was arriving at the island. She would give the correct signal so that the boatment who all lived in The Bottom could tell what type of vessel was approaching and could determine how many men should go down to receive the boat. Miss Marion was a practical joker and would refer to the shape of the signals on the contraption as hers that she was going to raise. I am happy that so many photo’s connected to this sort of landing on Saba have been preserved so that people today can look back in time via these photo’s and see how different life was on Saba back then.
After “Chila” Dinzey became too old for the task he passed it on to William James Heyliger “Jimma” and later on “Jimma” passed it on to his sons Nederville Heyliger “Neddie” and then later when he started working as the government carpenter the task was taken over by his brother Carlton Heyliger.He was assisted by his son Stavanis Heyliger “Rumba” and they carried on until the harbour was completed in 1972. After that fishermen would use that part of the shore to beach their boats until the new fisherman’s pier was built in the nineties. A very long period of Saba landings by boat in the rough waters of the Fort Bay had come to an end. Over the centuries of use many thousands of people would have experienced landing there including members of the House of Orange including two Queens. Her Majesty Queen Juliana and Her Majesty Queen Beatrix.
Remarkable is that when members of the Royal family came here they always had extraordinarily good weather.
Among those who landed there were people like Vincent Astor, Mrs Winston Churchill as a Member of the “Moyne Committee” in the nineteen thirties, Felix Graf Count von Luckner on July 7th 1937 who came to Saba to thank the Saban Captains who had supplied him and his famous “Sea Eagle” with supplies during the first world war, and many more people of fame.
I have never heard of any lives being lost in the process of landing by boat on Saba. In over three hundred years if an average of one thousand passengers per year were landed then we are talking of over three hundred thousand people landing that way. All traffic coming in to Saba had to come in at Fort Bay. There was quite some commercial traffic with St. Kitts and Curacao, St. Thomas, Barbados, St.Barths, St. Thomas and even trading schooners from Saba would sail every two weeks to New York with freight (salt from St.Maarten, sugar from St. Kitts) and passengers from all of these islands. The Ellis Island records have schooners owned by Sabans coming into the New York harbour with more than twenty passangers and freight from the Leeward Islands.
The one incident which made news was when the Saba Electric Company N.V. brought in its first 300 kw diesel engine from New York. Elmer Linzey and his aunt Mrs. Othella Edwards owned the company and Elmer had accompanied the engine all the way from New York via several islands and then had the engine transferred on Curacao to the monthly steamer the M.V. “Antilia” and in the process of landing the engine it fell overboard into the sea. But nothing could deter the Sabans. They dove down strapped the engine with ropes and everyone who could pull showed up and dragged the engine onto the shore. That same engine was cleaned up and went on to do its part of delivering energy to Saba for the next thirty years. For all I know it might still be working.
The first Jeep came to Saba on March 17th, 1947 and the boatmen had to come up with a plan on how to get it to shore. Someone came up with the idea to strap two lighter boats together, put a platform on top of the boats for the motor vehicle to rest on and with long ropes from the shore pull the contraption all the way to shore. There were also two ramps which when the boat reached the shore would quickly be put against the two boats and the motor vehicle would be raced down the ramps onto the rocks and with the assistance of the men on shore be pushed quickly up to the road. Between 1947 and 1972 several hundred motor vehicles were landed on Saba this way and nary a one was lost to Poseidon and his terrible ocean waves.
This remarkable part of Saba’s history must not be lost to those who live mostly in comfort now on Saba. We salute the brave men who over the centuries risked their lives to bring so many people and so much cargo safely to the rocky shores of the Fort Bay. May their memory live on if only through this article. We look back thankfully to them for carrying us to the boats to go abroad and then later on bringing us back safely to shore.