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Yachts and Politicians on the Island of Montserrat

“Mmmm,” he said, thoughtfully. “How ‘bou John?” he asked…

It was early May 1990, and I was single-handing from Tortola to Venezuela, island-hopping as I worked my way south. After a few days in the Dutch island of St Eustatius and a week in Nevis, I had arrived in Montserrat, a tiny British Crown Colony around 40 miles south-west of Antigua. It was an intriguing place – one of the few remaining corners of the British Empire where the Union Flag still flew over Government House and where a professional British Governor administered the day-to-day affairs of the Colony.

Montserrat was a windswept rock which rose to almost 4,000 feet from the Caribbean, and its volcanic composition had resulted in lush, green vegetation, ravines and gorges with cascading waterfalls and cool rivers. The population was only 12,000 and, whilst the majority of the inhabitants subsisted on fishing and agriculture, the island also lay claim to fame as being the location of the largest sound-recording studio in the world. Here, stars like Paul McCartney came to compose their latest albums in tranquil, tropical surroundings. But that was before Hurricane Hugo destroyed 90% of the island’s buildings and before the volcano erupted in 1995, destroying more than two thirds of the island.

After a week in Montserrat, I decided it was time to leave and head south to the French island of Guadeloupe, about 50 miles away. I was alone and had no self-steering on my little 28-foot steel cutter PAMELA, and wanted to complete the passage in daylight and so at around 6.00 a.m. one morning, I pulled up my anchors and motored gently out of the anchorage at Plymouth.

Within minutes, I had the sails up and well reefed for, at this time of year, I could expect fresh trade winds once I was out of the lee of the island and on the open sea. I was not mistaken for, as I rounded the headland at the southern tip of the island, the wind steadily increased to a fresh 25 to 30 knots. And as the wind increased, so did the size of the seas and swell so that within an hour or so of clearing the headland, the waves must have been 12 feet in height. Nevertheless, I was not concerned for PAMELA was a strong, well-found yacht – small, certainly, but well accustomed to dealing with lively seas.

I settled back at the tiller and was pleased to see that, even in these conditions, I was making 4 knots. That would mean arriving in Guadeloupe around 6.00 p.m., before dark. I had a good book and a radio and an ice-box full of soft drinks, though if I did need to leave the helm for any reason, I could always lash it in place as PAMELA was a well balanced yacht and would hold her course for a while.

It was a grey, overcast day, and, from the cockpit, just three feet above sea level, the seas looked uncomfortably large. I concentrated on helming, anxious not to be caught unawares by a rogue wave thundering past on the beam.

By 11.30 a.m., I reckoned that I was about half-way across the channel. It’s always a relief to reach that half-way point. It gives you the feeling that the rest of the journey is “downhill”. But whilst I was pondering this fact with satisfaction, I heard a sharp crack from the foredeck. For a moment, I continued to steer, irresponsibly trying to convince myself that if I did not look, then I would not find any cause for concern. But I knew that I had to look and immediately, I let out an expletive. The inner forestay was dangling, quite slack and the outer forestay was loose. Since (for the benefit of those yachtsmen who may not know) the forestays play an important role in holding the mast up, it was conceivable that if I did not act quickly, I might lose my mast.

I climbed out of the cockpit and onto the deck, carefully making my way to the bows. The small yacht was pitching wildly into the large seas and every few seconds the bow was submerged as another huge wave thundered by. Determining the cause of the problem was not easy as the deck was constantly flooded as each wave passed, and every few seconds I found myself up to my neck in water. Stupidly, I had forgotten to put on a safety harness before I left the cockpit though I did not quake from this realisation until some time later. There was work to be done and no time for reflecting on my foolishness.

After some minutes, I was able to see what the problem was. A bolt holding the inner forestay had sprung loose. I neither had a spare bolt on board nor felt able to carry out a satisfactory repair in the prevailing conditions and so, lashing down the forestay as best I could with a length of line, I scrambled back to the safety of the cockpit, quite drenched and somewhat anxious.

If I continued to Guadeloupe I felt that the pressure on the rig might risk the mast and so, with some reluctance, I turned about and headed back towards Montserrat. At 7.00 p.m. that evening, wet and exhausted, I dropped anchor once again in the tiny anchorage at Plymouth.

The following day, I rowed ashore in search of a hardware store where I could buy a replacement stainless steel bolt. It would be a simply job to fit the bolt and re-tension the rig and, with luck, I would be able to set off again the following morning.

I wandered around Plymouth, inquiring at every store but everywhere I went I was met with kindly smiles and nods of the head and was informed that there were no stainless steel fastenings available and that, in any case, it was unlikely that anyone would have a bolt as large as that which I sought.

Hot and frustrated, after a two-hour, fruitless search, I stopped a taxi driver and explained my problem. He told me to get in his vehicle and we drove from one place to another, even to the Government Technical College, but it was the same story everywhere and no-one on the island appeared to have a stainless steel bolt of the required dimensions. Finally, we stopped at a hardware store on the outskirts of town and the proprietor of the store shuffled over and took a look at the broken bolt that I held in my hand.

“Mmmm,” he said, thoughtfully. “How ‘bou John?” he asked. My driver’s eyes lit up and he exclaimed “Oh, man! Uv karse! John!” The two men then discussed “John” for some time and gulped down a couple of bottles of malt and my driver, licking his lips noisily, told me to get back in the vehicle because “John does bound to have de ting”. I was intrigued and wondered who “John” was but my inquiries as to his identity elicited nothing other than an unintelligible grunt from the driver.

Around noon, we stopped outside a small, two-storey building on the edge of town. The driver told me to get out of the car and I did so. He stood by the car, silent, and lit a cigarette. I was more than curious. Then a door opened to one corner of the building, and a short, bespectacled man ambled out. He was dressed in a tropical safari suit of the type much favoured by Caribbean officials. My driver walked up to him.

“Hello John,” said the driver, “An’ how is tings?”

“Why, hello Ivor!” said John, ‘Tings is good, good man! So what can I do for you?”

“Come here! Come here!” the driver shouted at me. “This is John!” he said, indicating the gentleman in the safari suit. “Now, tell John – what you need?!”

I explained my problem to John. He frowned and inspected the bolt. “Yes,” he said, “I might be able to help you … come with me!” He glanced at his watch as if in a hurry, and led me to the back of the building where a 40-foot ship’s container lay. Pulling a key from his pocket, he opened the container’s door and I was astonished to see that the interior resembled a ship’s chandlery with hundreds of items of marine spares – pumps, coils of ropes, engine parts and fastenings. John rolled his sleeves up and poked around in a few plastic bins that were brimming with stainless steel fastenings. He passed me a large assortment of bolts, all of them approximately of the size that I needed. I was sure that at least one of them would do the job. Delighted, I chose one and asked John how much I owed him. But he waved his hand dismissively and said:

“Oh, no, that’s alright – keep them all – they may come in handy”.

Overwhelmed by his generosity, I thanked him, but he said that it was his pleasure and, locking the container and brushing himself down, he ambled towards a parked car and said that he was sorry he couldn’t stay but he was late for an engagement. I noticed that the car was driven by a uniformed chauffeur and that a Union Flag flew from the radio aerial.

My driver beamed and drove me back to the anchorage. “John was a nice fellow,” I said. “Who is he?”

“Oh,” said the driver, “He be John Osborne”.

I fitted the bolt and by 6.00 p.m. the following day I was safely anchored in Guadeloupe – thanks to the stainless steel bolt given to me by Mr John Osborne, the Chief Minister of Montserrat.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.