My Sailing Experience Through The Leewards and the Virgins

Soon Redonda could be seen and the hot day wore on as Dawn Star lolloped along at three to four knots downwind. Nevis grew out of the sea and as the sun was setting I rounded the south-west corner of the island to lower the sails and motor in the dark on a calm sea up to the anchorage off Charlestown.

Under way again before dawn I saw several sugarcane boats leaving for St Kitts, and en route a fisherman came alongside with crayfish for sale. I bought the smallest for a Biwi dollar and after killing it, dismembered and boiled it in two loads in my largest saucepan – a welcome change in my diet.

Unfortunately the wind went round and off Basseterre, St Kitts, I found the anchorage a lee shore, so after sizing up the situation and realizing that landing would be very difficult I sailed on to the north. The Quill mountain of the Dutch island of St Eustatius is remarkably distinctive and at 16:00 I anchored in its lee, off Oranjestad, for there is no harbour here; just an open roadstead.

The ruins of the old town lay along the foreshore, part destroyed in a naval bombardment by Admiral Rodney and part by a hurricane. As I rowed the dinghy ashore, I saw people appearing and two Land-Rovers full of uniformed men came down the rough track that led from Fort Oranje, over which now fluttered the bright red, white, and blue flag of the Netherlands.

The tumbling surf was bad as I backed the dinghy in. In a moment two Europeans whisked it and me on to the sandy beach, greeting me in perfect English, one being the island doctor and the other the English minister, who turned out to be the Rev. Gordon James.

The police and customs officers quickly came over and insisted that I accompany them immediately to the barracks, where they at first subjected me to a barrage of questions: ‘Who are you? Your passport, please. Why have you come here? Your papers, please. Whom do you know in this island? Why have you called? We have nothing here, and you must have a reason for stopping.’

I became somewhat alarmed and then annoyed at this attitude towards a naval officer from a friendly country until a thought came to me, and I asked the chief of police when the last vessel had called. There was a moment of silence as he turned round the register of entries; the line above recorded the visit of Her Majesty Queen Juliana a year earlier, and the line above that had been entered over a year before that!

No wonder they showed such interest. Half an hour later I was sipping a Bols with Dr van Hardenbroek and thus began a fascinatingly interesting visit to this small outpost in the Netherlands Antilles. I have called on many officials and senior officers in my naval career, but never before on a governor at 10 p.m. About eighteen people of European extraction live here with over 1,200 natives, none of whom speaks a word of Dutch, only English; for Statia was the centre of the slave trade and the principal clearing house and market for the Windward and Leeward Islands. As many as 200 slavers and merchantmen gun-running to the American rebel colonies lay in the roadstead at one time, where now only Dawn Star bobbed at her anchor cable with two native open boats.

Theoretically it is a free port but stores are virtually unobtainable as no one calls and so there is no market. There is a severe shortage of water too, and I later heard that the island had endured a nine-month drought. Gordon and Judith James drove me across the island to the tiny grass airstrip on the windward side, along rough tracks which were a sore test for his Morris Minor Mini. It was sad to see the plantations completely neglected and the outlying farms abandoned. The Jameses looked after me for three days in their lovely old rambling manse of a bygone age and it was wonderful for a change not to have to prepare my own food. The doctor dined me too and, taking me to the modern hospital, went over me thoroughly. He was of the opinion that my soluble insulin was not so potent as it should have been, and gave me two vials of his own supply; though about a year old, they had been kept in a refrigerator.

The ruins of the Dutch Reformed Church and that of the Jewish Synagogue stand out gaunt on the skyline; the latter was built from brick manufactured in Holland and shipped out as ballast from Amsterdam; on the voyage to Europe the ships carried of course sugar and rum.

The anchorage was very uncomfortable and going through the surf was always a problem. I kept the camera dry by sealing it in three polythene bags, each secured with rubber bands. Before leaving I gave a party aboard for His Excellency the Governor, his family, and everyone else; half of them arrived by swimming aboard. I regret some were ill on account of the vile motion, which was why I had to leave on March 31st after only three days.

Over to port lay another Dutch island, impregnable Saba, so named because of the way it rises sheer out of the depths of the sea to a height of 2,000 feet, and there is only an acre or so of shelf on which one can anchor a vessel, that is if the weather is fair; landing is difficult. After climbing up 900 steps, one can reach Bottom, the main settlement!

Much as I wanted to see something of this island and its independent people, who have been known to roll boulders down on to invaders advancing up the solitary track, the weather was unsuitable, so I pointed the nose towards St Barthelmy, which is a French island, although the capital, Port Gustavia, has retained its former Swedish name.

The harbour slept in the afternoon heat when I anchored in the careenage and it was twenty minutes before I saw a man put off from the yacht club in a fast launch. To my surprise I had to speak a mixture of English and German, for Rob Miles and Klaus own and run St Bart’s Yacht Club with thorough Teutonic efficiency. There is even a supermarket ashore, and I was able to buy frozen food while music was piped in, though in my forty-five minute visit I was the only customer in this vast emporium!

For two hours that evening the yacht club all but ‘took over’ the yacht as a large party of tourists boarded me, bringing crates of wine – only the best French – and rum. The harbour was brought to life with stories in French, German, and English, while the kerosene lights flickered on the faces of strange blonde girls.

The next day I embarked rum, which cost a mere six United States dollars a case. About go per cent of the populace appeared to be of European extraction and certainly everyone was very proud to be French, not the least being the postmaster. Some of the older buildings showed the Swedish influence, and the harbour is excellent. While I was there a 15-ton trading vessel came in for careening; the cosmopolitan atmosphere was complete for the owner was coloured, called himself Dutch from Saba, and spoke only English in this ex-Swedish port in the French Antilles.

The next island, St Martin, is half French and half Dutch. En route to the British island of Anguilla, there were extensive off-lying reefs; two yachts lay wrecked, monuments to those who had tried and failed. The anchorage off Sandy Point is very beautiful and I lay inshore of a dozen large schooners; the sea was crystal clear, and at night appeared to be floodlit from below. There is no electric power in this island, which is badly burnt up; ashore I found it exceedingly dusty, hot, and without shade. Cactus and thorn thrive, very little else; the inhabitants eke out a living by exporting salt to St Thomas in the Virgins from the vast salt ponds. Yachts rarely visit this island, perhaps four a year. On one of my walks I fell in with a fisherman, who came aboard with his son to cook an excellent meal of some local fish which they had brought with them.

On another walk I met the postal agent, who really keeps a hard liquor store. Gabriel Brooks had to think very hard to recollect when he had last sent a letter, though he did remember that the dust-covered telephone had not rung for over six years; the fact that it was disconnected probably meant nothing to him. On my way back to the beach I slithered down a hill, and the hundreds of thorns that lodged in my hands and back only added to an ever-increasing problem of dealing with other bashes and cuts which had gone septic and were refusing to heal, to say nothing of oedema in both legs. Back at Sandy Point, two women stretched me out face down on the bar of another liquor store and for two hours set to with needles removing the thorns before they had time to work in deep.

Having sailed at one in the morning and cleared Anguilla’s outlying islands and reefs, I arrived in the
lee of Sombrero Island at 07:30 and lay to. This bleak plateau of rock twenty to forty feet above sea level rises I from the depths as a freak; about one mile long and 200 yards across, it is sheer-sided, having no beaches, and is utterly barren of anything bar two buildings and the lighthouse. Five men man the lighthouse and, because of the awesomeness and complete desolation, are on the radio to Anguilla every hour on an open watch system. Men have been known to lose their reason there, and before now the keepers have clung to the upper part of the light structure as seas have poured across the island during a hurricane. The police in Anguilla had briefed them of my wish to visit the island, and all the keepers appeared waving and yelling instructions: but it was not to be; the minimum depth was eighty feet and a heavy swell was running, so it was far too dangerous to attempt to go alongside for landing which is effected by lowering a ladder down to a small vessel.

Regretfully, I bore away, rehoisting the genoa, and soon Sombrero was ‘hull down’ as I ran for Necker Island Passage and Virgin Gorda.

The chart showed a sandy bay south of Mosquito Isle, and as the entrance to Virgin Gorda Sound is reef-strewn and unlit I anchored on the lead on a very black night. Unfortunately at dawn I found the bay was not sandy but strewn with coral heads, reefs, and boulders; I had indeed been very lucky in not piling her up in this foul anchorage.

That morning I tried out the Dutch doctor’s soluble insulin, and within two hours felt a changed man. As the insulin reacted I was able to enjoy my lunch with food I had denied myself for the past month; this only proved that my stock from England, now only one year old, had lost its potency. All the vials had completely gelled.

The Admiralty Pilot quotes that there is a hospital at Road Town in Tortola, so I anchored there between Treasure and Haida See before lunch. None of the shops here would accept British West Indian currency and insisted on payment in United States dollars; as the island is geared to the American Virgin Islands’ economy, food was expensive. Unable to buy a fresh stock of soluble insulin, I went to the Government hospital, pleasantly situated on a rise overlooking Road Town Bay, where they insisted I obtain a doctor’s prescription. Back in Road Town, I tracked down a native doctor and armed with the required piece of paper returned again to the hospital, only to find on examination that their entire stock of insulin was two years and ten months time-expired. In view of its old age, the hospital pharmacist refused to give me any; she also refused to ditch her stock, as she stated it was ‘on charge’ and she would await instructions. Presumably she had been awaiting instructions for nigh on three years, and only laughed at my predicament as she methodically replaced all the useless boxes back into the refrigerator.

Once again I saw the native doctor, who was surprised to hear that the hospital had any soluble insulin at all, for in his experience its shelf life in the tropics of the Caribbean was less than six months without re­frigeration. He himself only kept a supply of the zinc-based insulins, and remarked that it was foolish of me to be travelling about the Caribbean relying on soluble.

There was nothing for it but to repair to ‘The Poop-deck’ and seek the advice of Mark Milstrey and Ron Roberts over a rum.

Sailing through the Virgin Islands can be great fun, for the sea is comparatively quiet in the sounds and channels. There are many lovely anchorages with sandy coves, though in the main the islands at this time of the year were hot and dusty; the green vegetation appeared burnt up.

A dusky lady helped me to fill in all the immigration and entry forms in her small first-floor office, and after payment of fifty cents I came out into the hot sun, and observed the United States citizens of St John’s. They seemed pretty well off with their cars, most of which were air-conditioned, their trucks and prosperous-looking stores. Many boats lay in the bay and I was often asked why I did not have an outboard motor for the dinghy, as rowing a boat is unheard of. I lost count of the number of denominational churches, all ultramodern and well kept with ministers’ houses surrounded by beautiful gardens.

Bill Robinson, editor of the American Yachting, came alongside with an invitation to cocktails aboard his yacht. He was anxious to get away and as it was a Sunday it had cost him two dollars and fifty cents to obtain clearance, whereas I paid only ten cents the following morning during normal office hours.

On the run round to Charlotte Amalie I remembered that the American buoyage system is quite different to the British, and the red-painted buoys lay to starboard. Anchoring off the city is not the best of berths in St Thomas, for the waterfront was a lee shore. However, I did this and after ‘clearing in’, went to a pharmacy where I was able to buy two vials of soluble insulin for one United States dollar apiece, promptly and without fuss; this was in complete contrast to the service available in Road Town, the British capital, a few miles away. An hour later I motored over to anchor among forty other yachts lying off the marina in a reasonable lee.

St Thomas is a free port and every day two or three large liners would berth to discharge their American tourists who seemed intent on buying up the vast stocks of rum and bourbon as well as souvenirs. Unfortunately the city is nearly two miles from the marina landing, though there is an enormous air-conditioned supermarket close by, which was a great help. The local United States coastguard office had no charts of the east coast of America, so I sent off an order to my agent in England. Peter Rose and Dick Maddison, his crew, were in and over discussions and plans we burnt the midnight oil.

In due course I obtained ‘clearance out’ from a surly and sleepy woman in the customs house more intent upon her knitting and her friends by her side of the desk than in supplying a service. On my last night in St Thomas, after cocktails aboard Dawn Star, I dined with Marv and Carol Berning aboard Cantilena while we talked about life in the islands.

I left St Thomas on April 15th, 1966, motoring for the first hour to obtain a clear wind from the south-east. Bound for Puerto Rico I passed to the north of Culebra, for this is a United States bombing-range target area, and I saw two warships about five miles off. I had hoped to anchor in the lee of Icacos Island for the night, but it turned out to be quite unsuitable, so I sailed on for the Puerto Rican coast. Between Punta San Diego and Cap San Juan I saw a reef over which the sea was breaking; several yachts and boats lay quietly at anchor behind it, but I could not see a passage through. After jilling about for twenty minutes a fast whaler put off, and as the sun set and darkness came in, she piloted me to the anchorage off a small village and boatyard; to the west the sky was lit by the reflected light of San Juan.

The north coast of Puerto Rico is dangerous with off-lying reefs as far as one and a half miles. Against a backdrop of mountains, it was interesting to watch the surf; a ten-ton sailing vessel lay high on a reef, gradually being pounded to bits; she could not have been there long, for her sails were all furled and her gear secure on deck, but there was no sign of life. There are no harbours, no sandy coves in which to anchor, and no fishing boats.

Ahead appeared the skyscrapers of the great city of San Juan (400,000 people) and as it drew abeam at lunch-time I thought of all the officialdom to be faced, the form-filling and questions, the shifting of berth, and not the least, the dangers open to a single-hander lying in a city. So I streamed the log and let her romp along to the west until 1800, when the Force 5 wind dropped to nothing in a few minutes and the rain pelted down for an hour, to be followed by only light airs from the east. This continued throughout the night and next day; it was stifling hot, so to break the monotony I ran the engine for a spell.

The weather, as forecast from San Juan radio, was poor and I soon experienced it. The Mona Passage has a bad reputation for frequent squalls and thunderstorms, and on this occasion it lived up to it. I had already learnt that the violent tropical downpours are preceded by light airs, and followed by fierce squalls after the depression moves through, so I could time the handing of sails fairly well after a while. As I was lowering the out of the vile murk. She must have picked me up on her radar, for she was going slowly, and only about 300 yards away, passing down my starboard side as I ran up the Blue Ensign; this latter move caused her, a frigate, to go round my stern and lie to on my port bow. As I was unable to hear what was said on the loudhailer, her captain lowered an inflatable boat with a high-powered outboard, and sent over a midshipman, who gave me my position and offered me any assistance I might need. Giving him my name, I told him to thank his captain for his solicitude, and fifteen minutes later HMS Ursa departed as night fell on a very wild sea, which afforded me very little sleep.

Gradually the weather became worse and increased to a full gale which blew for two days, so I either ran under the storm foresail or let her lie a-hull. The motion was foul in the high and generally confused sea, which was terrifying yet spellbinding to watch; the boat was knocked down on her beam-ends several times, but luckily suffered no real damage. Below, bedding and spare clothes were either sodden or damp, notwithstanding the latter being in sail bags, while cooking became a balancing feat as the saucepan catapulted off the stove unless held down. Owing to the overcast sky, and my consequent inability to take a sun sight, I stupidly forgot to wind the deck watch one morning; however, I was able to reset it from the BBC time signal in the evening. As I had also forgotten to put the bung in the engine exhaust pipe, the engine was flooded right through into the cylinder and sump; however, as it was a well-designed two stroke I could easily drain it and had it running within ten minutes to dry out.

It became apparent that I could never make the Turks Islands as I was being driven to leeward, so passing twenty miles south of Sand Cay I decided to get in the lee of the Caicos Bank which would provide me with some shelter. It did!

I learnt by experience that I could invariably tell when I was in the lee of any of the banks and islands of the Bahamas, as a yellow weed is driven off them; it is so thick that the Walker’s log rotator was often fouled within seconds of streaming and, therefore, had to be hauled aboard, relying on my own judgement.

At last, under the storm foresail and with ten rolls in the mainsail, I hauled up round the Caicos Bank and anchored behind a small reef at the eastern end of Mayaguana Island, 5 70 miles from St Thomas and nine days out, five of them battened down. I slept for thirteen hours.

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