Sunday, June 1, 2014

Under the Volcano

While expecting a nice leisurely sail from Nevis to Montserrat, we were met with a persistent south to southeasterly wind that put Montserrat right on the nose. That, coupled with the four- to six-foot seas made for a long and uncomfortable day of motor sailing. While only 38 miles, it took us all day with speeds as low as three knots while we fought the current that sweeps around both sides of Montserrat.

Meryl with the Kingdom of Redonda in the background.
One interesting note during the passage was Redonda Island, a mile-long towering rock located directly on the rhumb line between Nevis and Montserrat. Originally claimed by the British for its phosphate deposits (right before the Americans were about to claim it), the island once housed up to 100 people. When the phosphate deposits ran out, Antigua claimed the island by building a small post office, which only lasted a year before it was destroyed by a hurricane. Tough neighborhood.

Now it gets interesting. In 1865 an Irish-Montserrat merchant named Matthew Dowdy Shiell had a long-awaited son after eight daughters, and naturally wanted a kingdom for his son (what father doesn’t?). The family and friends took a day trip to the island and after a lot of libations, had the Bishop of Antigua crown his son King Filipe I of Redonda.  Returning to England the elder Shiell became a well-known writer of romance and science fiction and used his notoriety to lobby the British Crown to recognizing him as King of Redonda. After his death the title was passed down to a fellow writer, who tried to sell the it on several occasions, but eventually passed the title on to other eccentrics. The current holder, artist Robert Williamson, claimed he was on the “short list” for the title (as he was only  five-foot- two-inches tall), and named himself Robert the Bald. His royal yacht, used in the filming of The Pirates of the Caribbean, made an auspicious voyage to the island with 16 friends (with again copious amounts of alcohol), where Robert named many of his friends as nobles to the realm.

The irony is that with the exception of a few boobies (the kind that fly) the island is a virtual no-man’s-land with steep cliff faces on all sides, making landing a vessel extremely difficult. It does make for some interesting conversation for yachties during the long passage to Montserrat, however.

Ruth, an Onvi 44 nestled under the cliffs at Rendezvous Bay, Montserrat.
We had by-passed Montserrat the year before, but this time friends had stopped and loved the island. Since the wind was out of the southeast, it made anchoring in the lee of the island somewhat tenable (northwesterly winds send a large swell into the anchorage).  We arrived late in the day to see our new friends, Bertril and Claudia, anchored in Ruth, their sleek Onvi 44 sailboat. After we got anchored they dingied over and invited us to dinner.

Bertril showing us the spacious interior of the Onvi 44.
 The Onvi, a radically-designed French sailboat, was on my short list of boats when we began our search for bluewater cruisers. Made famous by circumnavigator Jimmy Cornell, Onvi’s are made of strong aluminum with hard chines and carry their wide beam all the way back to the stern. The interior is very efficiently designed with the galley running along the starboard side, giving the salon a very spacious feel. The sleeping area is forward (where it should be on a tropical boat) with huge overhead hatches to funnel the wind through the cabin. An stylish arch on the transom serves as both the dingy davits and mounts for the solar cells and antennas. It’s a very well-designed boat, and weighing about one-third less than our boat, is very fast off the wind.

We had met Bertril and Claudia when we were tying up our dinghies at the Nevis dock and shared a bus ride up to the Golden Rock Inn.  Both are recently separated, and ironically met when they were with their previous spouses five years ago buying identical Onvi’s at the factory in France. One thing led to another and now they are sailing half the year and splitting the rest of their time between Bertil’s home in Sweden and Claudia’s in Switzerland.

Bertril from Sweden and Claudia from Switzerland.
 Claudia, a fireball of a woman, has been sailing since she was a little girl, cruising on her parent’s boats on the Swiss lakes and abroad. She has extensive experience in racing dingies and was the H-Class champion of Switzerland. Her bubbly personality is a perfect match for Bertril’s dry and understated sense of humor. They both share an infectious love of each other and of sailing. A very fun couple to be around.  We made plans to do a tour of Montserrat the next day using a cab driver recommended by a Jamaican bartender on the island.

We met Jimmy, the cab driver, the next morning and began our tour of the island. Montserrat, originally inhabited by Irish who were run out of St. Kitts in 1649, had an economy based on sugar cane. Slaves were imported to the island to work the sugar cane fields, but eventually the crop ran its course. The island offers a stark contrast between the lush, verdant greenery of the north end to the monochromatic ash grey of the southern end, the result of years of eruptions from the Soufriere Hills volcano.

The Soufriere Hills volcano from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.
Jimmy drove us to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) about one-half way down the island. The Soufriere Hills volcano, after 400 years of inactivity, sprang to life in July 1995 with a modest eruption. The island then had a population of around 11,000 who were involved in fishing, farming and tourist activities. In 1997 a major eruption sent pyroclastic material (searing hot gases and rock) flowing down to the capital city of Plymouth. About two-thirds of the population had to resettle in other areas. In 2003, when the volcano dome collapsed, the government allowed residents to repopulate certain areas in Plymouth and surrounds. But in 2006 the dome began rebuilding and there were several eruptions over the following years, culminating in a major eruption on February 11, 2010 that resulted in the the town being cordoned off again.  One property, the Vue Point Hotel, had been renovated three different times, only to be closed again until further notice.

The ash-filled swimming pool at The Montserrat Villa hotel.
The hotel offices. Note the two large safes in the background.
The Daily Report from the hotel dated 1996.
We had an opportunity to explore another property on the outskirts of Plymouth, the Montserrat Springs Hotel, to see the extent of the damage. It was amazing to walk through the hotel offices and find papers strewn everywhere, as if people just got up and left immediately. The dining hall was full of ash, and the swimming pool had over ten feet of ash filling it to near the brim. Jimmy had been living nearby during the eruption and described the wall of ash tumbling down the mountain.  He said 11 people died that day, despite warnings from  government officials, mainly farmers who had ventured up the hills to check on their animals.

Jimmy points out the pyroclastic flow that buried the town of Plymouth.
From the hotel you can look over to the ghost town of Plymouth (it’s prohibited to enter the town area) and see bombed-out looking houses and even the remains of a large American medical school. The houses on the ridges remained, but those in the valley floor where buried ten to twenty feet deep in the ash flow. 

The volcano is now in a somewhat dominant state, and some residents of bordering areas have moved back into their homes, but large arrays of loudspeakers dot the countryside to warn people of any impending eruptions.  Ironically one of the booming businesses is the mining of the volcanic sand (which is everywhere) to sell to other Caribbean islands for beach rebuilding and construction projects.

Riding back to Little Harbor, Jimmy pointed out the newly built Cultural Center that was partially funded by island resident Sir George Martin, famous as the sound engineer/manager for The Beatles. He built a sound studio on Montserrat that was frequented by a who’s who of rock and roll in the years before the major eruption.

We ended the day with a delicious lunch at JJ's Cafe about Little Bay.

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