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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter - Part 2: Montserrat, Saba and the BVI

by Rod Morris 30 Jan 15:05 UTC 10 December 2018
Postcards from a Caribbean Winter – Part 2, Monserrat, Saba and the BVI © Rod Morris

Montserrat and Saba are two of the "islands that touch the clouds" with high volcanic peaks and rugged terrain with many steep cliffs and few anchorages. The two islands share a lot in common, physically, despite very different political histories and Montserrat's more recent geological history.

Montserrat is an active volcano and on a clear day you can usually see a plume from the volcanic vents high on its peak drifting off to the west. The island was recently one of the beautiful lush and vibrant islands that are so well known in this area but, much like Martinique did in 1902 with the eruption of Mt. Pele that destroyed St. Pierre, Montserrat suffered a devastating eruption in 1995 that destroyed its beautiful Georgian era capital of Plymouth. Overnight it transformed Montserrat from a Caribbean gem to an often overlooked, and bypassed, off the beaten track "renewing gem" which makes it all the more interesting. About 2/3 of the Island is now restricted from visiting due to ongoing and potential volcanic activity. The capital city of Plymouth was buried, much like Pompeii, although unlike St. Pierre in Martinique, most people evacuated prior to the eruption that buried their city.

Today visitors can go to the fringes of the restricted area, to see the buried town and the homes and resorts that were abandoned. It is a very sobering tour to try and put yourself in their shoes. One day you would have had a home, business, and a life in a beautiful garden island and the next day it is gone. But even worse, unlike a hurricane where, as difficult and disruptive to lives and communities as hurricanes are, there is no opportunity to rebuild your life. On Montserrat, people have to completely restart their lives somewhere else, and that is what many did. Today, 5,000 people call Montserrat home and the island is rebuilding its economy and building its eco-tourism opportunities.

We encountered vibrant, friendly people that accept the restrictions the volcano has imposed on their lives, yet also are rebuilding their community and businesses around the volcano. If you enjoy hiking, nature and geology and geographic wonders, Montserrat has a lot to offer. One of our favorite spots is the Hilltop Café. It is like walking into a history of my youth in music. The walls are lined with memorabilia from George Martin's recording studio that was once a popular spot for many of the great bands and solo recording artists of the 70's and 80's. Within walking distance of the café is the starting point for many wonderful hiking trails that lace the island. Eco-tourism is growing and there are many places to explore and discover.

Our time on Montserrat was short last season due to the weather. As with most of the "islands that touch the clouds", there are very few good anchorages and harbours. The waters off Montserrat drop off quickly and what few areas there are to anchor are typically small and can only accommodate a few yachts in fair weather. There are no good bays or harbours to anchor that provide shelter from NE winds or swell. As a result, we only had a short window to enjoy this beautiful island. We hope to return again this season to continue our exploration and enjoy even more of what Montserrat has to offer.

Saba, like Montserrat, is an island that can only be visited by yacht in fair and settled weather. Anchoring, although done by a few, is really not safe and there is only a very small strip along the high cliffs of Ladder Bay where anchoring is even possible. Which leads to the questions, "why was Saba ever settled so early on and how did the inhabitants ever manage to survive?" The answer lies in the luck of the survivors of an English ship wreck in 1632 and the tenacity, determination and creativity of the settlers that followed. They came from England, Ireland, France, Scotland and the Netherlands. All well known for being able to transform harsh landscapes and built communities against formidable natural odds. When you first approach Saba it rises from the sea like a towering fortress. Sheer cliffs defy any easy routes to the lush green areas above and the top is often cloaked in the dense cloud that creates the Elfin forest and rain-forest areas that reach to the 887m (2911ft) summit of Mt. Scenery. The lush greenery of the island and tall peak that would ensure fresh water must have been a very powerful draw for the early settlers who faced significant hardships and isolation due to the challenging topography of Saba. Alternatively, that same topography offered protection from invading countries and pirates who probably looked at this island with no natural harbour, surrounded by sheer cliffs as something not worth fighting over. As such, Saba has enjoyed a long and relatively peaceful history.

The big surprise for us was the magic of Saba. The island is beautiful. It is very clean, has excellent food stores with very reasonable prices, a well-developed ecotourism industry and shops, restaurants and cafes all in several small communities with colorful names like the Bottom, Hell's Gate, The Windward Side and The Gate. In a play on languages, the "Bottom" translates in Dutch to bowl, which is what the village of "The Bottom" lies in; a mountain bowl. However it is not at the bottom and is actually high up on the island some 250m or 800 feet above sea level; and until recently could only be reached by climbing 800 steps up from sea level! Not so long ago everything was carried on a person's back up, "The Ladder", a series of 800 steps leading down the steep cliffs to cobble and boulder strewn shore of Ladder Bay. Ladder Bay was the only access point and was where everything arrived, was transferred to small row boats, then off loaded by hand in the surf onto the large cobble stone beach and then packed up the steps on someone's back to "The Bottom". Today that is not so much of a challenge thanks to the incredible road network on the island.

Did I mention tenacity, determination and creativity? Nothing seems to illustrate that more clearly than hiking the Ladder and reflecting upon the hundreds of years of settled history during which this was the only access to this remarkable island for its incredible inhabitants. If you would like to get even more stair climbing practice you can also hike up the 1064 steps to the top of Mt. Scenery for some truly spectacular vistas. Oh!... and yes, we did both hikes and we relived every step for the next few days! The real question in my mind is, "Why would people pack concrete on their backs all the way up the mountain to build those steps in the first place"? I think Sir Edmund Hillary's response to the question of why he climbed mountains might provide the answer "Because it is was there!" More likely it was because they knew it would become a great tourist draw some day.

If you can't visit by yacht, a short flight from Antigua, San Juan or St. Martin will get you there in comfort and a taxi will drive you through Hell's Gate to one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean just don't expect to see a white sand beach to stretch out on. If you like something a little different, pristine and a mecca for hiking and scuba diving, with an intriguing history to explore, excellent accommodations and some nice restaurants, Saba has it all. We will definitely return to visit Saba again this winter if the weather gods are kind!

In stark contrast to Montserrat and Saba, the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) are a sailor's paradise that attracts cruising sailboats from all over the world. Within a few days of arriving we had already met five yachts with interesting crews from France, New Zealand, Argentina, and...even Ontario, Quebec, and Edmonton, Alberta in Canada! We had such a great time with these other cruisers that once again we had to extend our stay. A planned two-day anchor in Deadman Bay off Peter Island became 9 nights of "cruising lifestyle" bliss. We stayed so long, we over stayed our cruising permit departure declaration by 3 days. The unfriendly customs lady gave us a very stern warning that we were in the BVIs illegally and that our boat could be seized. Fortunately, they didn't need any more boats to have to deal with thanks to last year's hurricanes!

Our extended stay at Peter Island started with "Canadian night" as all four boats from Canada met. The next day, a very interesting red boat with a French flag rounded the point. It was a steel hull, hard chine design, with a pop up companion way lookout, and strong construction that is out of place in the BVIs. It had a look that just shouts, "This boat has been to some really interesting places." I speak enough French to make a garbled conversation, so... as soon as they had anchored I paddled over on my ocean going SUP to say, "Bonjour! Je suis Rod. Comment ça va?" To which an attractive young woman popped her head out of the companion way and in very clear Kiwi accent said, "Oh!, hello there", and that was the beginning of our friendship with Yoann and Rhianna.

Yoann had solo sailed his boat Saturnin from France to Ushuaia, Argentina 10 years ago and fell in love with the wild beauty of the area. He was now returning to France after nine years guiding commercial and private expeditions around the area and to the Antarctic! Rhianna had responded to a crew search to help him sail back to France and the two made a great couple. We just had to get to know them better... and we did! Over the next six months our paths would cross again in Bermuda and the Açores islands of Flores, Faial, São Jorge and finally Terceira Island. We finally parted with Oh! heading south, and eventually west, and Saturnin staying for a refit and possibly back to France, or maybe onward. We have enjoyed many exchanges over wine and cheese, dinners, and breakfasts with our adventurous friends from Saturnin.

Meeting Yoann and Rhianna was a special gift for me as I was able to discuss my invitation, from a chance meeting with anther cruiser a year ago, to sail around Cape Horn in December 2019. Yoann and I spent many hours talking about his 9 years in that region. When asked what Ushuaia and sailing around the horn is like, Yoann answers in a very direct manner "completely the opposite to here, in every possible way!" Diane, who was enjoying a cold glass of wine while basking in the warm sun, looked at me and asked, "Why on earth would you want to leave this to sail there?" I must admit, she does have a point.

We also spent four days enjoying several dinners and breakfasts with Donna and Larry from Edmonton. They have an Admiral catamaran, similar in size and design to Oh!, they are restoring as part of their retirement dreams. They are a wonderful couple that are embracing the cruising lifestyle. We look forward to meeting them again in the Caribbean later this winter and have kept in touch with them. If there was one benefit to the hurricanes, it was that the anchorages were not as crowded with charter boats as in past years and we could enjoy the BVIs like they were several decades ago.

There is no mystery as to why these islands are known as the charter boat capital of the world. Semi-dry, relatively low islands in comparison to the "Islands that touch the clouds", the BVIs are older and more rounded due to erosion over the millennia. They have many beautiful bays with white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and abundant and still flourishing coral and marine life. A pretty good western Canadian analogy is to think of them as a very compressed version of British Columbia's Gulf Islands with warm water, hot sun and consistent trade winds. The sailing distances are short at 2-6 hours, much shorter than between the islands that make up the Lessor Antilles, and you can see just about every island (except Anegada) from the middle of Sir Francis Drake Channel that runs southwest to northeast through the BVIs.

There is very little tidal range and the shallower waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel, surrounded by the many islands, subdue the worst of the Atlantic swell. So the BVIs are a kinder gentler area to sail than the Lesser Antilles. The kind of place to go if some of your group are uneasy about open ocean sailing but still adventurous enough to want to sail in the Caribbean. With short passages between the many bays, beaches, resorts and marinas, the BVIs are perfect for short stay vacations of a week or more, where charter groups want to sail each day, but still have ample time to enjoy the shore based attractions and warm waters.

There is an abundance of beautiful bays to anchor in, wrecks to snorkel or dive to, caves and reefs to explore, and many beach bars, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops to explore if that is your interest. In short, the BVIs are a vacation paradise and it shows in the literally hundreds of charter sail and power boats that call these waters home. One afternoon we counted 92 boats within visual range plying the waters of Sir Francis Drake Channel, and this was a slow year!

There was a lot of destruction in 2017 from the hurricanes and during our 12-day stay in March we saw hundreds of private and charter yachts damaged beyond belief. The islands are rebuilding, but it will take a long time, and everything moves slower in the Caribbean. Whole bays, such as Soper's Hole that was once a picture perfect post card gem and once considered a hurricane hole, were completely destroyed. The Bitter End, on Virgin Gorda, looked like a junk yard with the once tranquil and inviting hillside resort now little more than a pile of match sticks and bent metal. Amazingly most of the mirrored back walls of the individual huts survived intact which makes for a strange site. Saba Rock, that was a poplar small islet bar and restaurant in North Sound opposite the Bitter End, looks like it was transplanted to a war zone with nothing but the concrete shell remaining. For us, the sight of this scale of damage was a very good wake up call to the destructive powers of nature that we have to contend with while voyaging. The sights and memories of the destruction in Dominica and the BVIs were never far from our minds as we monitored the paths of hurricane Chris in Bermuda and hurricanes Helene and Leslie swirling around the Açores.

However, if all you are looking for is a beach, the bars, restaurants and resorts for a vacation, there are plenty of those all over the world. If you are looking for a spectacular place to sail with good access to provisions and some incredible experiences and memories to treasure, then the BVIs are still just as spectacular as ever and the hurricanes have not altered that aspect of these beautiful islands.

We plan to spend several months in the BVIs again this winter during February and March. Our desire is to explore the less touristy bays and charter hangouts, as well as visit St. John Island in the US Virgin Islands before moving west to the Spanish Virgin Islands and north to the Bahamas. For us, the best dining experiences are still dinner in the cockpit with good friends and guests as we enjoy yet another of those incredible Caribbean sunsets.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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