In the last week, Tarka and I have sailed over 150 nautical miles working our way down from St Barts to Montserrat and to where we now lie on anchor in Guadeloupe.
Our stay on St. Barts was short. Compared to the other islands of the West Indies, it is polished in appearance, and adorned with boutique shopping, clean streets, and beautiful buildings. That also implies that it is more expensive than other places, as it caters largely to visiting mega/super yachts. However, St. Barts proved to be a perfect place to buy a few parts for my overheating engine, and, being home to one of the most challenging runways in the world, stirred up my inner pilot. Best of all, we had access to moderately-warm showers every day.
Fearing we might become too accustomed to the luxury of daily showers, and given that a good weather window was opening, we decided it was time to depart St Barts and head further south. At 80nm to the southeast, Montserrat is a formidable sail to a novice like me. Moreover, the distance involved mandated an overnight sail, and I had done absolutely no night sailing. I could have scoffed at the suggestion, gone to the closer St Kitts, and met up with King of Bongo later – but that would have been easy.
I knew the journey to Montserrat would take Tarka a minimum of 15 hours, and probably not more than 20. It would be mostly open ocean, with a bit of land at the beginning, and a bit of land at the end. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to be near the bits of land at night. Thus, the option that assured me daylight on both ends was a late afternoon departure from St. Barts, with a morning arrival on Montserrat.
Once out of the lee of the St. Barts, the Atlantic swell could be felt. We sailed close to the wind, pounding into large choppy waves. Tarka isn’t exactly graceful in such conditions. The bow will fall off the crest of one wave only to slam right into another. The resulting shock reverberates on Tarka’s fiberglass hull and creates what sounds like small explosions. It was as if the ocean was using Tarka as an instrument in its symphony of torment. In time though, I grew accustomed to the sounds, and accepted the fact that they were not the screams of Tarka’s death throws.
The night brought a certain peace to the cockpit in spite of the cacophony below. In absolute darkness of the open ocean, the approaching waves can’t be seen, which gives the illusion of a calmer sea. Above, the Milkyway shone brightly, with interludes of galactic dust. Below, Tarka stirred up bioluminescent plankton, leaving a trail of twinkling blue in her wake. Even flushing the toilet is beautiful sight, because these plankton get pulled into the plumbing. On the horizon, there were no ships to be seen, and no masses of land to bump into. It was perfect.
I slept in 30-minute increments. When my alarm sounded, I’d peak out into the darkness checking for ships. If something needed to be done out on deck, I’d put on my harness with locator beacon attached, and take care of whatever needed to be done. Otherwise, the majority of the night was spent sleeping below deck, wedged into the leeward side of the bunk by the forces of gravity, as Tarka was heeled over. At one point, the winds in combination with some large waves caused Tarka to change direction in such a way that her sails were opposed. My body immediately felt the change in orientation and the change in the symphony of sounds, and I awoke. Once back on course, we faced no further surprises.
Day broke to the tune of a squall, which left a nice “good morning” rainbow as it progressed westward. Flying fish were abundant, flying up and over waves from Tarka as she pushed forward toward Montserrat. Montserrat presented itself with a shore of intimidating vertical rock cliffs, topped with lush green hills, and a summit obscured by clouds. Being a sparsely populated island, I could just about imagine what it must have been like for the first humans to come across this land. Landfall was uneventful, and once I got the boat taken care, I promptly took a long afternoon nap. In all, the trip took almost 18 hours, and served as a major confidence-building milestone, being both my longest passage and first overnight sail.
Montserrat is a volcanic island with a small population of mixed Irish-African descent. It was once more populated, but its dormant volcano suddenly became active 1995, and buried the capital city in ash and pyroclastic flows. Most of the population left to become citizens of the UK, and those that remained started new towns on the north side of the island, deemed safe from the volcano. Much of the islands ecology was also devastated, and attempts are being made to preserve some endemic species. My favorite of these species is a very large frog locally known as the “Mountain Chicken”.
The next day, we decided to take King of Bongo down to the volcanic exclusion zone for a little sight seeing. It was a very pleasant sail down the lee of the island, with flat seas and a gentle breeze – and we event caught (half) a fish! Now, you’re really not supposed to anchor in the exclusion zone, and you’re definitely not supposed to go ashore. But for the record, let’s just say we had a mechanical emergency, and had to go on land in search of a spark plug.
Exploring the exclusion zone was fascinating. The once beautiful and expensive houses and hotels were now inundated with ash, and being taken back by nature. It’s quite interesting how temporary our constructions are without constant upkeep and maintenance. After exploring a few buildings, we decided to head back to the beach, but we took a different route than we came. The problem is, everything was so overgrown, that the only routes to the beach are places where nature hasn’t returned with an impenetrable fortress of thorny bushes and trees. After navigating the wild coast for about an hour, we came across a cemetery, and a beautifully ruined church. On the other side was a road that we knew would lead close to the beach, but it was also trafficked by work trucks, and we weren’t really supposed to be there. So we ran along the road, and when we heard the sound of a truck, we jumped into the bushes to evade capture. It was exciting, and probably a little silly.
We made it back to King of Bongo, and then back to Tarka without incident. We spent one more peaceful day on Montserrat, with a bay all to ourselves, and departed the morning after for the much larger island of Guadeloupe. But, the story of that journey will have to wait until next week.