Skimming the Waves in St. Martin

June 9, 2010

From the shore, they zip along the waves effortlessly – almost like ice skaters who glide across the landscape leaving nothing but a spray of ice crystals behind them.  It had been more than a decade since I had last mounted a Jet-ski like the one that was bobbing in the surf of a secluded beach on the island in the French West Indies.   Dubbed a “wave runner,” which suggests the without-a-care ease that they appear to impart, I was about to climb aboard the mini motorboat after a safety and operations briefing from Max at the water sports rental shack.

Tall and self-confident, Max explained with a French accent that the green button starts the engine and the red button turns it off.  The safety wristband that I wore on my left hand was connected to a switch that would kill the motor if I fell off, and unlike a motorcycle it was the handgrip on the right side of the steering column that delivered more fuel to the engine.

I was suited up in a life jacket, snapped in place over a t-shirt to protect my already sunburned torso.  With his colleagues calling out to make sure he had put on a fresh dose of sunscreen, Max pulled off his shirt and put on an instructor’s life jacket.

“You will follow right behind me when I signal like this,” Max cautioned, noting that we would be circling the peninsula of the beautiful island by passing under two bridges with “no wake” zones that required a peaceful transition between the open sea and a more serene bay.

“But don’t worry.  We will go VERY fast,” my younger guide assured me.

Standing in the pale blue ocean, Max held the Yamaha wave runner as I mounted my steed from behind.  Straddling the beast, I struggled but eventually landed squarely on her back.  I bravely pushed the green button and she roared to life.  Even before I could grip the gas, Max was on his lead wave runner and speeding off into the ocean.

So I gunned it and she took off, heaving mightily across the open ocean waves.  Up and down with a jolting crash, two or three wave breaks a second.  It was like a rollercoaster with hiccups.  I gripped the wet rubber handles and pulled back the gas with my right hand, as we paralleled the shoreline.  Up ahead, Max turned to avoid the rocky point and I decided to try riding in his wake. Maybe the waves would be less severe.  Well, that’s what I thought anyway.

And while it was easier to follow my guide by chasing him, the bumpy ride didn’t really smooth out.  Instead, the pace quickened.  Max shot ahead as if propelled by a rocket blast, and he stood up on the motorized surfing machine.  This must be the “going very FAST” part, I reasoned.  So I followed suit, squeezing the accelerator trigger and gripping harder on the ribbed handles.  She raced forward even faster, as I stood up to mimic the skier now far ahead of me.  Standing wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, and it actually cushioned each crash into waves with the body’s natural spring-like reaction from foot to ankle to knee to quad leg muscle.  It would feel like the aftermath of an intense leg workout soon enough.

We were approaching the first bridge and I pulled alongside Max as we slowed down.  By now, he had dropped to a more reasonable speed and when I got closer I noticed he was also casually riding his wave runner sitting “side saddle” – like he was out for a Sunday stroll.  We dropped to almost nothing and passed under the drawbridge, as rusted ships and sunken boats poked through the water near the shore.

Once safely inside the bay, the pace picked up again – only this time it was raining overhead.  And as our speed started rising, the tiny droplets of rain felt like needles piercing my face.  We toured the coastline of the large bay, and then slowly went under another bridge and out again into the  ocean.  On our left, a French navy ship guarded the coastline.

Speeding past the island’s airport, we rounded the rocky coastline as the starting point of our journey came into view.  Again, I was pounded by the repetitive rise and fall of the ocean waves as my tiny but powerful watercraft skimmed the waves.  The faster we went, the more it shook every bone in my body.  Over one wave, crashing headfirst into the next and then up and over another – all in rapid succession.

Nearly an hour of heart-pounding and body-pounding time had passed.  My hands had frozen on the handlebars, well aware that a loose grip would mean that I’d be thrown instantly into the rollicking waves around me.  I could taste the saltwater spray that had drenched my whole body.

Max went to shore first, and then motioned me in.  The dismount was achieved by backing off the gasoline-powered mini-motorboat, careful not to fall backwards into the pounding surf.

“It was good, buddy?” asked my guide.

“Yes, it was good.  Invigorating,” I replied, glad to be back on terra firma, and a little wobbly as I climbed the steep sandy beach.

Only then did I learn that my cool-headed guide who navigates the waves with the ease of a fish is only 18 years old.  Maybe I’ll come back and try it again when he’s closer to 30!

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