Saba Feature

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Engineering Feats in Saba

To view Saba from a distance is to be baffled: the island soars out of the Caribbean Sea. Steep, rocky shores, on the conical volcano that formed it, provide a seemingly impassable barrier to the outside world. How anyone saw this land as inhabitable is a mystery. But Sabans are a tenacious lot, and they were bound and determined to make this island theirs.

Among the sheer rock walls that surround Saba, at what is now Fort Bay, settlers found a tiny cove where entrance was possible. They navigated rowboats in between the crashing waves, steadied themselves against the swell, and then, waist-deep in water, pulled their boats to shore. Nothing got onto the island without coming this way, not a person, or a set of dishes, or a sofa. From there, supplies were hauled up a steep path composed of more than 200 steps (all of different heights and widths) in the hands or on the heads of Sabans. The trail had been carved into the mountain and climbed 820 feet above sea level to the Bottom through a grand crevice. Visitors who were unable to climb were carried to the top at a cost of 30 guilders.

For nearly 300 years after Saba was settled, this was how it was done. Then, in the early 1900s, the locals decided to build a road. They first approached the Dutch government for help. Legend has it that the Dutch said the grade was too steep, that it could not be done. But the Sabans, in particular, Josephus Lambert Hassell, would not be deterred. He took a correspondence course in road building, and in 1938, with no trained engineers, road construction began. The road took about 15 years to complete and now climbs 653 feet out of Fort Bay.

The next feat of engineering came in 1956, when the Technical Economic Counsel of Dutch Caribbean deemed tourism Saba's only marketable resource and decided that a pier and an airport had to be built. The airport was built on Flat Point, a solidified lava flow that was the only place that was flat enough. In 1959, the first conventional single-engine aircraft landed on the 1,300-foot aircraft carrier–size strip, the shortest international one in the world. The airport itself opened in 1963. Engineers first tried to build a pier in 1934, but the perpetual waves destroyed it almost immediately. In 1972, the Sabans tried again and were able to build a short, 277-foot-long pier (the sea was simply too deep for anything longer). Unfortunately, it is too small to accommodate cruise ships, a major thorn in the tourism industry's side.

Updated: 2014-07-25

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