March 20th March 23rd 2014 (-4 on UTC)
The sail from Jolly Harbour, Antigua to the north end of Montserrat was remarkable. With full main and genoa set, we averaged 9.3 knots, it took less than 2 1/2 hours.
Antigua and Montserrat were geologically linked in their distant past as the water depth between the islands was only 100 ft. most of the way. This made the sea swell pretty steep and choppy. Moreover, cooking poached eggs on toast was a bit sloppy in the galley for Nikki. We could see Soufriere Hills Volcano (yet ANOTHER Soufriere) still smoking from it\’s last major eruptions in 2008 and 2010. From Antigua, on any clear day, you could see the steam on top of the volcano quite clearly. As we sailed by, we saw the site of the original airport on the southeast coast which is now under 20 feet of volcanic ash having been completely buried in the 1997 eruption.
We dropped the mainsail at the north tip of the island, rounding the headland and entered Little Bay, the now new capitol and main port of Montserrat. This is one of the few places anchoring is allowed as the southern 2/3rds of the island is an exclusion zone. We didn\’t know why people were excluded as the volcano has not erupted in 4 years, but we found out the reason on our tour. The sulfuric acid rain that falls from the smoke can be hazardous to your health. But I\’m jumping ahead!
The entrance to Little Bay reminded us of the approach to the scenic bay (James Bay),at St. Helena when we crossed the Southern Atlantic Ocean last season. Like St. Helena, this island too is a British Overseas Territory. We had a bit of the anchoring blues as it took awhile to find the ideal spot away from the offshore reefs and out of the ferry channel – which was unmarked. There were between 4 and 15 boats here during our three day stay. We dinghied in to the wharf; the check in proved fairly painless (once we found an island official). We then went off to explore on foot the newly constructed Polynesian style huts overlooking the bay. We found reasonable internet and a decent Sauvingon Blanc at Monty\’s Bar. The government is trying to build a marina and set up a tourist industry here as quickly as feasible to lure back the cruise ships that once frequently visited Plymouth.
Monty is a British ex-pat who after sailing most of the seven seas courtesy of the Royal Navy, decided to settle into \”civy life\” and buy a beach bar somewhere. He had originally looked at Asia for his business but got lured back here by the friendliness of the locals and what he said was very low crime as well (but more on this later). He wanted to get in on the ground floor and the chance to buy something new and build up it\’s reputation. He had a marvelous oil painting of an old Thames dock master on his wall. I wonder if Captain John Prentice (long deceased) ever knew his portrait would end up looking over the lovely Caribbean turquoise ocean, I think he would of liked that! While we were admiring the deco and local artefact\’s, Scott was doing his get to know the locals\’ pitch and I found him later negotiating a deal for a tour of the now defunct main town (Plymouth) by way of a recommendation by a local ex-pat Canadian girl who had a house further south of the bay.
Our guide wouldn\’t be available for two days so we decided to do a dive at the bay just north of Little Bay – Rendezvous Bay – where there was a mooring on a nice dive site. The dinghy ride was short and it was calm and easy diving. We saw a coral banded shrimp, a box fish, a puffer fish and an invasive species – a Lion Fish. These were inadvertently introduced by either an aquarium that was destroyed in a hurricane in the Caribbean or released by a bored private aquarium owner. Stories abound!
The next morning we came ashore and were promptly met by Winston, our recommended tour guide for the day. It turned out Winston was the former Vice Commander of the Montserrat police force and knew almost everyone and everything about the Island and it\’s unfortunate recent history. He was quite educated and very well spoken. He kept us enthralled with tales from the cruelty of the old slavery days to the recent volcanic eruption stories. Winston, as Vice Commander, was instrumental in advising and overseeing the complete evacuation of the southern part of the island. These eruptions started in 1995 and in 1997, 19 people were killed when they were lulled into returning to their homes against advice. During that eruption, the airport had to be abandoned as it received it\’s first coating of lava in a pyroclastic flow eruption. This is where the ash and gasses travel at over 100 miles/hour down the path of the eruption. Anything even near in the way, is literally – toast!
As part of his tour we got special day passes from the police station to go into the daytime exclusion zone. This started off with an overview of the old airport at Jack Boy Hill. Winston then took us through a grey lava valley which resembled a moon scape where previously the area had provided most of the fertile soil for local agriculture. Once self sufficient, sadly most of the fruits and vegetables are now imported to the island from Dominica. All local agriculture collapsed after the last major eruption. Sulphur from the aftermath of the eruption makes the soil subject to acid rain and intolerable for many years to cultivation of any kind.
Standing at the former, Montserrat Spring Hotel (which is destroyed), we could see the valley of lava, ash and mud that flowed down the southwest side of the volcano burying the once picturesque seaside capitol of Plymouth. It\’s estimated that the depth of the lava and ash is 20-40 feet in most places. An eerie site is the port\’s pier still standing, looking as if a big ship could tie up any moment; but to the reception of no one. The beach is now \”black sand\”, but very calm. We could smell the heavy scent of sulfur in the air which is why, at least to this point, entering Plymouth is not allowed. In the near hit zone of the eruption, houses and businesses stand in various states of decay. A notable feature is the heavy corrosion of anything iron from the mild sulfuric acid in the air. As this has been constant for almost 20 years, it has taken quite a toll on the structures that remain in the area.
Plymouth once had 8,000 residents, (12,000 on the island). Now the entire island has only between 3,500 and 5,000 people depending on whose opinion you get. After our viewing of Plymouth, we went to another former luxury resort where the \”lahore\” (volcanic mud flows) added several hundred yards of land and filled in Old Road Bay. We next went up to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (closed on the weekend when we were there) where scientists from all over the world come to view and study the volcano. The type of lava \”andestic\”, from the volcano is a heavy mass type that is more destructive than other types of lava. To see more on this volcano and it\’s recent eruptions go to: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soufriere_Hills.
Another point of interest on Montserrat is that it is the winter vacation residence of Sir George Martin, former producer for the Beatles. Sir George set up a state of the art recording studio – The Air Montserrat Studios adjacent to his home – Olveston House. It was very active in the 1970\’s – 1989. Artists came from all over the world for the scenic beauty, the isolation and the complete absents of \”paparazzi\”. It was destroyed in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo (poor Montserrat)! The insurance policy wouldn\’t pay for it\’s restoration and Sir George decided not to rebuild it. A veritable list of who\’s who in the Music world recorded here. A partial list is: Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Sheena Easton, America and of course….Jimmy Buffet! Jimmy Buffet actually recorded his album \”Volcano\” here with the title song being prescient. A few years later, the volcano blew!
The one major artist from Montserrat was \”Arrow\”. He recorded his one and only hit – \”Hot, Hot, Hot\” at the Air Montserrat Studio. Arrow passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer, but he is THE national hero of Montserrat. We visited Sir George\’s estate which is used as a restaurant when he\’s not in residence. It was a lovely plantation style, not over the top in anyway and quite authentic to the early days of the Caribbean.
After our tour, we went back to Monty\’s Bar where we discovered Monty was not in today as he was mugged the night before! Monty had told us one of the reasons he finally settled on this island was there was almost no crime!….Welcome to Paradise.
Next…Nevis and St. Kitt\’s then on to St. Barth\’s!
Scott and Nikki