Expanded History – Chapter Four
|Chapter Four – WE SPEND A YEAR (and a bit) IN THE SUN, 1968-1969.In the spring of 1968 we sold our house in Brookhaven Hamlet, paid off the mortgage and the boat loan; and when the dust settled we had about $5,000 clear. In modern terms that doesn’t sound like much but money was worth more then, I guess the equivalent today (2005) would be $30 to $40 grand. We planned to sail to the Caribbean and not work until the money ran out. I have to give great credit to Edith for agreeing to this nutty plan, most of her friends thought she was crazy to do it and suggested a quick divorce. However, it was now or never. Colin was just three years old, a good age to spend a year with his parents but a year or two down the road he would start school and a hiatus would be more difficult for him. In retrospect it is also clear that the late ’60s represented a watershed in the Caribbean. We were just in time to enjoy the waning days of a languid, colonial era that has now gone for ever. Many of the islands were still under lackadaisical British rule; there were no bare boats for charters, no vast hotels and no airports in the Virgin Islands except at St Thomas and St Croix. The down side was that facilities were sparse, in the Virgin Islands only St Thomas had a chandlery and a machine shop. There were no credit cards or ATMs, getting cash was always a problem. On the boat we depended on an erratic supply of ice to keep our food and drinks cool. Nevertheless the Tropics beckoned, we were breaking free of the work ethic.Our house was on a small canal, we literally sailed away, but only as far as a local marina. Here we made our goodbyes and Edith, Colin and our eight-year-old cat Mabel went to stay with a friend until I got to Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas. Our departure was ignominious; within an hour of leaving the propeller shaft broke and we were towed to Weeks Yachtyard for a haul-out and a quick repair. It was embarrassing to be seen around town when we were supposed to be on the high seas. After a fix, which didn’t last too long, we quietly left and sailed to Bermuda. For crew I had four young men from Brookhaven/Bellport, one of them, Steve, had crewed on the ill-fated trip of 1966. He was hoping to make it this time. On the way south they opened my eyes to an aspect of village life I had not appreciated before. They were apparently on a relentless quest to deflower every maiden in the area; I discovered why boats in winter storage at the local yard sometimes creaked at night and which of my neighbors had a handy back door for an emergency evacuation when they returned early to a surprised baby-sitter. The crew stressed the sacrifice they were making to sail with me instead of chasing all that nookie back home. I began to feel quite guilty, when we were safely tied up at St Georges I went over to a friendly-looking taxi driver and indicated my crew lounging on the dock by the boat. ‘You see those fellows over there,’ I said, ‘if you take then to the nearest whore house I’ll pay the fare’. ‘Why, Captain’ he replied, ‘there are no whores in Bermuda. There are too many amateurs!’ I think they enjoyed Bermuda, personally I have little recollection; I got in with a bunch of ex-RAF types at the Dinghy Club and suffered from a two-day hangover.Not far south of Bermuda we picked up the Trade Winds and made a fast passage to British Virgin Islands- eight days which wasn’t too bad for a 35 foot boat. We dropped the anchor in the crystal clear water of Little Harbour on Jost van Dyke. We were all very excited, we toasted ourselves with warm champagne as the sun set with tropical abruptness. The next day we sailed to Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Edith had already arrived there and was staying with Barbara and John, with whom we had sailed to England on their boat Arvincourt II in 1964. One of my crew, Jeff, was married and his wife JoAnne had decided to fly down with Edith, together with her six-month old son Bryce. When we took a taxi to John’s apartment we deliberately omitted to tip off Jeff that JoAnne had come down with Edith. JoAnne had left Bryce playing in the middle of the living room, when we walked in Jeff noticed the child and said, ‘Ha, I’ve got a baby just like that at home’ JoAnne erupted from the bedroom, furious he had not recognized his son. John’s welcoming cocktails soon smoothed things over. After a few days Jeff and JoAnne sailed with us for a short cruise of the Virgin Islands. Ultimately they took over management of a small hotel and stayed in the islands for several years. In fact, their daughter was born in Tortola, although by then Edith and I had already returned to the USA. During the cruise we anchored one morning at a famous beauty spot – The Baths on Virgin Gorda. I dropped JoAnne, Jeff and Bryce on the small beach and went back in the dinghy for Colin and Edith. Edith decided to stay on the boat and take a nap. When I returned to the beach with Colin, JoAnne, Jeff and a knot of tourists were gathered anxiously over Bryce. To my amazement Bryce had turned beetroot red all over his body due to an allergic reaction to something in the water. Jeff and JoAnne rushed him back to the boat where Edith was able to administer an antihistamine and bring his temperature under control. Undoubtedly the presence of a physician on the boat, able to deal with the problem immediately, saved Bryce’s life that morning. What Bryce had encountered was a mass of Sea Wasps, tiny jelly fish whose sting can be irritating for an adult but potentially fatal for a small baby, they had apparently been washed right onto the beach.
When Jeff and JoAnne left the boat we took some of the old crew that had sailed from Long Island on a cruise of the Virgins. One of them, Peter, was Denis Puleston’s son, my neighbor and friend in Brookhaven. Dennis had written a wonderful book about his sailing adventures before WWII called ‘Blue Water Vagabond’, it is still in print. Dennis and a friend sailed their small boat, Uldra, across the Atlantic and for a while became managers of a coconut plantation called ‘Belmont’, at the western end of Tortola. Ultimately it was destroyed in a terrible hurricane. Now, more than thirty years later, we brought Peter to see the place that had been such an important part of his father’s early life.
We made several excursions to the British Virgin Islands, returning to Charlotte Amalie when we needed supplies or repair work. For example we found that the icebox fitted in the boat had cork insulation, it was useless in the tropics. I managed to get some epoxy foam shipped in from the States. We stripped out the old insulation and poured in the new, using dozens of empty beer cans. I had to have a new coupling made for the broken propeller shaft but the problem continued to plagued me until I made a proper fix when we got to Grenada.
There was a small airline based at St Thomas that operated a seaplane service to most of the Virgins. They had an old Sikorsky flying boat that lumbered off to St Croix every day, it was one of the original Pan Am Clippers that opened up the first air transatlantic route to Lisbon just before WWII. The line also operated twin-engined seaplanes; I think they were the Grumman Goose. Sometimes one would put down in the same anchorage as us. Once I was amused when a plane splashed down nearby, then a hatch opened and the pilot dropped an anchor. However the days of the flying boats were numbered; the British Army was building a runway on Beef Island close to Tortola. The unit was completely self-contained, they had a signals section in radio contact with the UK, every month a small freighter showed up with everything they needed. I took several of the sergeants on a day trip to The Baths, only an hour’s sail away. In return they left numerous supplies from their mess and a promise to fix the boat if anything went wrong. As they maintained all the heavy equipment used to bulldoze a small hill out of the way Ifelt this was a very useful bit of insurance.
Many small islands lying on the south side of Sir Francis Drake Channel were virtually uninhabited back then. We gunkholed at Norman, Peter, Salt and Cooper Islands where we usually had the anchorages to ourselves. After a few months I noticed the hull had picked a thick collection of sea weed on the waterline. We sailed to Coral Bay on St Johns where there was a well-known ‘hurricane hole’; a small inlet lined with sturdy mangrove trees. I fastened a line from the trees to the masthead and careened the boat using the main halyard. This is an ancient technique to expose the hull, I was able to scrape the weeds off and paint a new water-line.
Looking at the logbook now I am amazed how much time we spent doing nothing, frequently we spent up to a week on the anchor just swimming, snorkeling and beach combing. We tended to rise with the sun and go to sleep soon after it got dark. We became good friends with Kay and Dudley Pope, they lived on their boat Ramage. Dudley wrote novels and marine histories which Kay typed up in the main cabin. They had a daughter Jane who was Colin’s age, playing together was wonderful for the children. We often anchored together at Marina Cay, where a couple of American families were building houses, they, too, had small children who became Colin’s playmates.
We returned to Charlotte Amalie towards the end of November in preparation for heading south to Grenada for winter. As we anchored in the crowded harbor near the Yacht Haven Marina we noticed the gale warning flags were flying. That night the progenitor of a hurricane called an easterly wave came through with rain and gale force winds. We kept a weather eye on nearby yachts that were bucking and sheering on their anchors in the strong wind. Suddenly we noticed that a large charter boat called Golden Eagle was dragging, as it turned broadside to the wind its bowsprit became entangled with the rigging of an adjacent yacht. There didn’t seem to anybody on either boat. The entangled bowsprit temporarily stopped Golden Eagle’s slide downwind, but it was destroying the rigging of the smaller yacht. If Golden Eagle broke loose the boat would fetch up on the rocky shore of Water Island, half a mile to leeward. Edith and I watched with anxious eyes, we decided it may be possible to save the charter boat if immediate action was taken. We launched the dinghy and Edith passed me a coil of our stoutest rope. I rowed over to Golden Eagle, tethered the dinghy and climbed aboard with the rope. It was chaos on deck, a large awning was breaking loose and flapping madly in the wind. My plan was to attach the rope from the bow to the stern of the smaller yacht and hope its anchor would hold. As I worked away a figure suddenly appeared on deck. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes he demanded, ‘what’s going on?’ He was a crew member but unfortunately he did not know how to start the engine. But before Golden Eagle broke free of its embrace the owner showed up in a small power boat and started the engine, we retrieved my line, ran out more anchor chain and I dinghied back to Iona, I was soaked to the skin. The captain didn’t even say ‘Thank You’.
On the 1st of December I set sail for Grenada with just Mabel the cat for company. Edith and Colin were staying with John and Barbara and planned to fly to Grenada on the 6th. That gave me five days to make the 400 nautical mile trip. By double reefing the mainsail I could get the boat to steer herself if the wind was forward of the beam. Under power I had to steer all the time. The wind was erratic for the first couple of days, one night I simply dropped the sails and slept for a few hours. Mabel wasn’t too impressed with continuous sailing but as we passed about ten miles to windward of a small island two birds fluttered into the cabin and that got his attention ( yes, Mabel turned out to be a he). Throughout the cruise Mabel dutifully used a sandbox in the cockpit, except when it got rough, then he crapped on my bunk, he knew who to blame! For the first couple of days I was able to maintain a radio schedule with Dudley aboard Ramage but after that the signal faded. On the night of the 5th the wind swung onto the beam, Iona picked up her skirts and raced for Grenada, by morning the island was only 50 miles away. In the log I wrote of the joy of the sail that night. Under a full moon the boat was going like a train holding a fair course. I had a small battery operated reel tape player on which I had pre-recorded about 20 hours of music. I turned up full volume and sang along with the music as dolphins cavorted alongside. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated into vicious squalls in the afternoon and I had to finish the last couple of miles into St George harbor under engine in drenching rain. By the time I got the anchor down the sun had set and I missed Edith and Colin by a couple of hours. They spent the night at a hotel and we linked up in the morning.
We settled down at ‘The Careenage’, moored stern-to to a ramshackle wooden jetty. There were quite a few live-aboard cruisers, mostly British and European with a sprinkling of US and Canadian boats. We made many friends, with a concomitant increase in our rum consumption; it was spectacularly cheap at about 75¢ a liter. One resident was the author Humphrey Barton. Every year he made an annual round trip from the Caribbean to England and back. He strenuously denied that his method of navigation was to follow the floating empty rum bottles from the year before. Another visitor was Eric Hiscock with his wife Susan aboard Wanderer IV. He was the famous author of ‘Cruising under Sail’ and other nautical books. He wore glasses that looked liked bottle bottoms, whenever his boat hove into view people would yell, ‘watch out, Eric’s coming!’ and get their fenders ready. After Christmas we cruised the south and west coasts of Grenada and sailed north into the Grenadines. This was really wonderful cruising, probably the highlight of the whole trip. However, the repaired propeller shaft was still giving trouble, the coupling fitted when we left Long Island, and its subsequent replacement, were just too flimsy. I sketched up a more substantial design and mailed it to my boating friend Fred at home, with the promise that if he could get it made and fly to Grenada with it he could have a free cruising vacation aboard Iona. This he agreed to, later he and his wife flew down to join us for eight days. It was their first time out of the US; at Customs on entering Grenada he made the mistake of declaring the coupling. It was immediately confiscated, after a few phone calls I found it was in the bonded warehouse at St George. Without the new coupling Fred and his wife Adele were condemned to spend their vacation tied up to the dock. So Fred and I took the old coupling to the warehouse and explained to the guard that we wanted to check the new coupling to make sure it would fit when it was finally released. Making a great show with tape measure and micrometer we wrote down numerous dimensions, departed with the new one and left the old one. Ultimately it was delivered to the dock days later with no import duty charged. I accepted it with thanks and discreetly dropped it over the side.
When we were cruising in the Grenadines we anchored for a few days at a small island called Mayreau. It was desperately poor, the ragged inhabitants were mostly children and old people, the adults had left to find work elsewhere. Colin was playing on the beach with a small, black child when Edith noticed he was stone deaf. We talked to his grandmother, who told us he had been deaf from birth and had never seen a doctor. We gave her a few dollars to take him to Barbados, where he could see a specialist. Many years later when I visited the island on Fiona I mentioned the incident to the bartender at a small hotel that had been built in the intervening years. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s the brother of the hotel owner. He was fitted with a hearing aid and now he is an accountant in the States.’ Curiously enough there was an odd fall-out from that little good deed. A couple of weeks later we anchored close to large wooden ketch, on talking to the captain we discovered he was a doctor affiliated to a US religious organization. He had a permit to bring medical help to the natives, when Edith mentioned the little deaf boy he got very cold, said this was his turf and would she take her medical proclivities somewhere else.
As we cruised up and down the islands we had many little adventures and met scores of interesting people. Often when we beached the dinghy on a remote island a voice would whisper from behind a bush, ‘skipper, you want some rum?’ Smuggling was a way of life then, entrepreneurs would sail battered native schooners to St Barts and return down island with a load of duty-free liquor that weighted the boat to the water-line. The local tax was only twenty-five cents a bottle but these fellows could sail several hundred miles for their cargo and still turn a profit. Anchored at Canouan we dinghied ashore on a day when there was a rare northwesterly swell. As we touched the beach the dinghy capsized in the surf and a young black man, probably in his late teens, rushed to help us. Sitting on the beach to dry out he told us that he taught at the local school, this was a condition imposed by the St Vincent government because he had been allowed to continue his education beyond the minimum school leaving age. His earnest desire was to join the US Marines as this was a sure way to citizenship, even though the war in Vietnam was at its height. The next time we returned to the beach we brought him some books, he told us there were virtually none on the island.
On Palm Island we met an American who had obtained a 99-year lease from the government and was developing a holiday resort and a hotel. During WWII he had been stationed in Australia and fallen in love with a woman there. After the war he was desperate to get back to her but there was no transportation open to civilians. So he left Los Angeles in an old sailboat and with little experience tried to sail there. He wrote a book about it which was available at the hotel. His misfortunes on the way were incredible; they included catching a large shark which he hauled on deck; its thrashing tail wiped out the engine. Then he ran out of food and was reduced to eating toothpaste. When we next returned to the dock at St George we mentioned this fellow and the old hands burst into peals of laughter. ‘Why’, they cried, ‘that book was written right here. Every morning he would sit in the cockpit and say, “OK, new chapter, what happens next?” Then he would take our most outrageous suggestions.’
On Petit St Vincent we found one of our original crew members, Archie, who had sailed from Long Island to St Thomas. When he left Iona he had picked up a few jobs crewing on charter boats. He was sitting on a rock waiting for the arrival of the native schooner bound for Barbados; nobody quite knew when it would show up. He had been crewing on very up-market Italian boat when he carelessly throw some expensive cutlery over the side with the washing-up water. The volatile Italian captain promptly marooned him on the next island they came to. We offered him a ride to Grenada but he was quite philosophical about waiting for the schooner. One morning while we were in Grenada with the stern tied to the dock Edith was cutting my hair in the cockpit. A very shapely young lady came by and got into conversation with me, she was looking for a ride north to St Thomas. She strongly implied there would be many benefits for the captain if she could come with us. I pointed to Edith and said, ‘this lady is my wife.’ ‘That’s OK,’ she replied, ‘I’m versatile.’
Bequia lies at the north end of the Grenadines, it was a charming but poor island. More than a hundred years ago the Yankee whalers, bound for the Horn and the whaling grounds of the Pacific, had made a practice of picking up crew in Bequia. Many of them had stayed on the ships for years before returning home. The small houses on the island had a distinctly New England air about them. And they still retained the art of harpooning whales from small dories. When we were walking into the village one day we passed a woman with a lump of quivering, pink flesh balanced on her head. ‘ Dere’s whale-meat in de market’, she told us. Sadly, it was true; they had killed a female and its calf. Probably killing the odd whale by hand that way would have no discernible effect on the whale population anyway and the people in Bequia certainly needed the food. But as I was to find out many years later cruising with Fiona, the mechanized whalers of countries like Norway were another story.
From Bequia we headed north up the arc of islands that comprise the Windward and Leeward Island groups. It was mid-February, our escape was roughly half over. The passages between islands were deep water and quite safe to sail at night. We often sailed from one island to another overnight, this way Colin slept and awoke at a new anchorage the next day. At St Lucia we were delighted to find a huge fiberglass shell on the beach, it must have been six feet high. It was a prop left over from the filming of ‘Dr Doolittle’. At the north end of St Lucia we anchored at Pigeon Island for a few days. Nowadays it is a national park and connected to the mainland by a causeway. Then it was a deserted island with the remains of an old fort, a relic of the endless wars Britain fought against France. It was sobering to look at the massive stone walls, now covered with vines and the encroaching jungle. What terrible cost in lives must have been paid to build them in the tropical heat. We found an old military cemetery; the graves were mostly women and children who died of yellow fever; the families of soldiers stationed there. There were no graves of the countless slaves that must have died building the fort. At Martinique we anchored at Fort de France and St Pierre, the old capital. St Pierre was wiped out in a volcanic eruption in 1902. There was an election pending at the time and the politicians convinced the inhabitants to stay despite many warning signs that the volcano was about to blow. When it exploded a cloud of superheated gas killed everybody except one criminal housed in a subterranean cell. Later he was exhibited by P.T. Barnum. Many ruined buildings still stood, it was a fascinating place to visit. In the museum were numerous objects salvaged after the eruption including a watch with the hands melted into the face at the time of the explosion, à la Dali.
The old naval dockland at Antigua was our next stop, it was commanded by Nelson at the end of the 18th century. Most of the old buildings were in ruins but there was an interesting museum of Nelson memorabilia. Now English Harbour has been developed into a very upscale tourist resort and I am told many of the museum exhibits have been stolen. We sailed to Nevis, where a local conman tried to convince us that for a couple of dollars we could see the actual bed Alexander Hamilton was born in. We anchored at Monserrat, since virtually destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Colin called it ‘Monster Rat’, he called Charlotte Amalie ‘Charley Tamale’ and Florida became ‘Frolida’. Just before we got to St Martin we anchored at Gustavia on St Barts. Nowadays it is the exclusive yachting center for millionaire’s mega yachts, in 1969 just a few cruising types anchored in the sheltered bay. For some reason no tax is charged on imported goods, which is why the smugglers from further south came there to pick up their cargos of booze. Separated from Gustavia by a steep hill was a small runway used by light aircraft. The approach must have been frightening for passengers; the pilot flew down the side of the hill and flared out on the strip at the bottom, at the far end was the sea. Several planes hadn’t made it; at the far end of the runway was a collection of ‘crushed and broken’ planes, as Colin called them. Despite the hike over the hill he loved to visit the wrecks and play in the cabin, pushing and pulling on the control column. At St Martin we met an American cruising couple, Sharon and Dick, he was also taking a year off from his teaching job. They had two children on the boat and we ran into them frequently after this as we sailed to Florida and up the Intracoastal Waterway. They had a boat called Calysto, built at the same yard in Holland as Iona. St Martin had scarcely developed in those days, the village of Marigot on the French side was a collection of typical West Indian shacks with corrugated tin roofs lying between the beach and a swamp. Later the French Government filled in the swamp and built the tourist Mecca now called ‘Port Royale’.
When we returned to St Thomas our original intention was to restock and then push on to the west. But we found we had arrived just in time for Carnival, a week-long bacchanalia of parades, dancing and drinking. Every day there was a parade down the main street, floats mixed with marchers wearing the most elaborate costumes that must have taken months to make. The throb of the steel bands could be heard for miles. In case anyone got thirsty wooden booths spaced every few yards along the sidewalk dispensed very alcoholic cold drinks. Many of the marching groups, who were mostly black, adhered to a common theme, such as David defeating Goliath. I was amused to notice that the villains in these groups usually wore white muslin over their faces – they were supposed to be white.
After leaving St Thomas we sailed along the south coast of Puerto Rico. We tied up for a few days at a very ritzy yacht club at Ponce Playa. We were just in time for a tremendous bash that lasted all weekend to signal the start of the sailing season, I think. Rum flowed liked water at the bar, literally, the Commodore owned the Don Q rum distillery and free rum was dispensed from a tap. A mixer, Coke for example, cost a quarter. Models wearing the latest high fashion jumped from a plane by parachute and landed near the clubhouse. It was all amazing.
Since we left Grenada we had cruised from island to island and avoided anything longer than an overnight sail. Now we were faced with a trip to the Bahamas that might last several days. To ease the watch-keeping we invited Fred back and he joined us at Ponce. We sailed through the Mona Passage and headed for Grand Turks at the eastern end of the Bahamas. For a day we could see the high mountains of the Dominican Republic on our port. Eventually they faded beneath the horizon and our next worry was to avoid Silver Shoal; a shallow bank of coral in the open sea that had been the graveyard of many ships. Fred and I took plenty sights on stars and planets to keep a close eye on our position. At night the three of us took successive two-hour watches. Edith, who was somewhat ambivalent about long sea passages, wrote this in the logbook at 10 pm on the 10th May, 1969: ‘A peaceful night with lots of stars and a fairly calm sea. Romantic. Everyone else asleep, but Mabel. Maybe there is something to this sailing after all.’ We stayed a couple of days at Grand Turk and then sailed to South Caicos where Fred could catch a plane to Nassau and home.
Our next adventure was to sail across the Caicos Bank. The bank was about 40 miles across and typically was only 10 to 12 feet deep. But numerous coral heads grew to within a few inches of the surface, they were easy to spot in daylight but it was too dangerous to sail at night. Before the sun set we dropped the hook in what seemed like the open sea, with no land in sight. The ocean swell rolled the boat and sometimes we took green water over the bow, we spent an uncomfortable night. The next day as we sailed downwind across the bank I got the brilliant idea of climbing into the dinghy, which we were towing behind us, and taking some shots with the movie camera of the boat sailing. I let the painter out all the way to get the maximum effect for the camera, Edith steered at the tiller as we sailed at 5 or 6 knots. The problem came when I tried to get back to Iona. A dingy being towed at that speed puts a considerable force on the towing rope and I found it was virtually impossible for me to shorten the line and climb back on board. Edith dared not take her attention off steering carefully downwind in case the boat gybed and I was hampered by holding the camera, which I could not put down because the dinghy was bouncing so much and the bottom had an inch or two of water swishing about. Edith was furious with me for getting into such a ridiculous fix. Eventually I managed to shorten the painter, inch by inch, and grab the transom and swing myself back on board. At the west side of the bank we anchored for a few days in the lee of a small, completely deserted island called French Cay. Edith was suffering from an attack of gastroenteritis and needed a few stress-free days to recover. During those days we saw no sign of human life whatsoever. After that we made an overnight sail to Acklins Island. A few depressed natives barely survived there by catching shell fish. When they spotted Iona they came alongside in a decrepit boat that leaked so badly someone had to bail continuously. We gave them food and some of Colin’s old clothes for their small child, who was the same size although several years older than Colin. That night we were attacked by mosquitoes in droves, the worst we had experienced during the cruise.
At Long Island we anchored in Clarence Harbour, noteworthy for two huge churches that dominated the skyline. Only about three hundred people lived there but they had had an Anglican priest who organized the construction of the first church. Then he converted to Roman Catholicism and got his flock to build the second church. When we got to the Exumas we anchored in a deserted bay as we did not have enough daylight to make it to Georgetown. On a reef a half mile from the anchorage I spotted a wrecked power boat awash on the rocks. I dinghied over and climbed aboard, it was a little eerie to stand in the cabin as the wreck worked in the swell and the timbers creaked and groaned. The hatch covers had drifted away and looking down I could see what seemed to be a perfectly good diesel engine several feet under the surface. I guessed that in the next good storm the boat would be gone forever. With that in mind I unscrewed the steering compass for a souvenir; I later gave it to Fred.
In Georgetown we shared the anchorage with a Canadian cruising family on a 32 ft English boat called Majorba. Nowadays there are usually several hundred cruising yachts wintering over in the same harbor. The captain of Majorba, Monty, had a fascinating story to tell; he had been a vacuum cleaner salesman in Vancouver when he decided life was passing him by. He sold his house, flew with his family to Gibraltar and bought the boat, he had absolutely no sailing experience. They spent a year in the Mediterranean and then left for the Caribbean. Monty had no knowledge of celestial navigation, the only way to get an ocean fix in those pre-GPS days, and simply headed west. ‘I was hoping to get to Grenada’, he told me, ‘but we wound up at St Lucia. That wasn’t bad, was it?’ I could only shake my head and agree. Monty was stuck in Georgetown because the diesel on his boat had developed a very peculiar problem, and Monty was no mechanic. The engine would start OK and run for about 15 minutes before dying. No amount of cranking would get it going but by waiting about another 15 minutes it could be started and run for another period before stopping. It was the kind of problem that Click and Clack on ‘Car Talk’ could probably diagnose in a split second but it took me a day to put my finger on the cause. Like many marine diesels the cooling seawater was injected into the exhaust pipe, which was made of thick rubber hose. Apparently the inner layer of the hose had become detached and caused a partial blockage. As the engine ran the water level slowly rose until it reached the exhaust manifold, causing the engine to stop. Then the water slowly drained away and when the manifold dried out the engine would start again. Solving the problem was one thing, but how to fix it? Georgetown was a backwater but there were cars on the island and about a fifteen minute walk out of town was a dump of rusting vehicles. Monty went scrounging on the dump, on a wrecked tractor he found a piece of hose the right diameter and length and returned to the boat greasy but triumphant. I was surprised, Monty must have been born under a lucky star. When we left, Majorba sailed in company with us for about a week as we gunkholed up the chain of islands to the northwest. Monty had no depth finder beyond tying a weight on a piece of line; not so good considering the tricky sandbars and tidal currents in that part of the world, and so he let us lead. We parted company after staying a few days at Norman Cay in absolutely foul weather. We were getting closer to the continent, the tropics were behind us and the weather was deteriorating.
When we left Norman Cay it was blowing quite hard, the waves blown by the wind made it difficult to see the deep water and I accidentally grounded Iona on a sand bank. Reversing the engine did no good, as I contemplated the situation I suddenly noticed a black, dark squall a mile or two away that was bearing down on us. If it was a windy squall (not all squalls have much wind in them) we might well be blown further onto the sandbar and get really stuck. I quickly put the kedge anchor in the dinghy and furiously rowed upwind into deep water as Edith paid out the anchor line. I dropped the anchor about a hundred feet from the boat. Back on board I wrapped the line on the starboard jib sheet winch and cranked away. Suddenly Edith called a warning; the line was fouled on the stern light, which was a nice, chrome-plated brass unit screwed on the railcap at the transom. Glancing up I was just in time to see the light launched into space as though fired from a ballista, trailing its electrical leads. I was really sorry to lose it, but I had more urgent problems. The boat was now bouncing in the chop created by the squall but as the stern was lifted by the waves I was able to get some tension on the line to the kedge and move the boat a few inches at a time. Suddenly we were floating again, pushing the engine into gear I retrieved the kedge just in time to turn into the furious wind and ride out the squall in deeper water.
After a few days in Eleuthra we sailed to Spanish Wells, a colony founded by Loyalists after the American Revolution. Many such settlements were created in the Bahamas in the aftermath of the revolution but Spanish Wells is one of the few to survive until the present day. The entrance to the small harbor was rather tricky and we grounded on a sand bar but we were able to reverse off. Just as we did so a local boat pulled alongside and the only occupant introduced himself as Captain Pinder, he offered to pilot us in for $5. That seemed a bit excessive but we accepted and it was as well we did; there was no room to anchor in the harbor and the captain let us use his mooring. Later an Englishman gave us a hail and introduced himself. At that time the Bahamas were still under British rule, he had been sent out by the government to serve a three-year teaching stint. He invited us to dinner and over an interesting meal that featured goat he told us a lot of local history. Spanish Wells is a small island just a few hundred yard off the coast of Eleuthra, for over a hundred and fifty years no blacks had been allowed to stay on the island after 6 pm; as the sun set they had to row back to Eleuthra. The white families interbred and most of the inhabitants were called Pinder. They even looked the same. In a tour of the village with our English friend it seemed like we kept passing the same gaunt, lantern-jawed, blue-eyed man on every street corner. Our guide pointed out two similar churches on opposite sides of a street, they were both Plymouth Brethren, I think. One was old and one was quite new. When only one church existed, there happened to be a Missionary Week and a preacher who had served in Africa was invited to visit from Nassau, the capital. But when he arrived the congregation found to their horror that he was black and after the service half of them refused to enter the church again and built the new one.
After Spanish Wells we anchored at Royal Island. There was no one there but it had obviously belonged to a rich family who built a large estate and then just abandoned it years earlier. At the main house we see plates and cutlery still on the dining room table. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. In one room there were balls still on the pool table, I rolled one into a pocket, but the leather strips were rotten, the ball burst the pocket and fell on the floor. It was very spooky. We helped ourselves to some oranges that were lying on the ground in the orchard but they were very bitter, I was told later this is natural for wild oranges; cultivated oranges must be pollinated properly to be sweet. But they made a good punch with rum.
Our last adventure in the Bahamas was at Great Stirrup in the Berry Islands. Here NASA had located a position tracking station to assist in the recovery of rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. We noticed the antennas from the anchorage and walked along the beach until we came to a trailer next the arrays. It was manned by a very disconsolate young fellow called Will. He lived there entirely alone, he told us he had to stay 18 months so that his income would not be taxed in the USA. The trailer contained a few bits of furniture such as a bed, chair and table, in other half were relay racks of electronic equipment. He was delighted to have company, particularly when he discovered we still had some rum. Quite an informal party developed. From the Berry Islands we made an overnight trip across the Gulf Stream to West Palm Beach in Florida. We did not have a good chart, I had hoped to get a chart of Florida in Puerto Rico, but it proved impossible. The chart we did have showed the whole east coast of the US and parts of Canada; Florida was a peninsular about an inch long. Fortunately we experienced calm weather, when we got near the coast we pulled alongside a couple of fellows fishing in a small power boat and ask them to point out the inlet. It was high tide when we arrived so that luckily we did not go aground on the numerous shallow sandbars of the Indian River once we got inside the inlet. We received Customs and Immigration clearance from a very nice inspector and he directed us to the Municipal Marina at West Palm Beach. We had arrived back in the USA, it was late June, 1969.
The first order of business was to organize a birthday party for Colin; he had turned four while we were in the Bahamas but we kept quiet about it. We bought a large cake and took him to a movie, they were showing Dr Doolittle, and he loved it, particularly as we had seen the large shell of the sea snail at St Lucia. We began to head north along the Intracoastal Waterway, an inside passage that led all the way to New Jersey. With the temperature well over 90º F I remember pulling into Vero Beach and tying up at the local yacht club. We desperately needed some cash, I had arranged for our bank in NY to wire $500 credit to Western Union in Vero Beach. Unfortunately the town center lay on the other side of the waterway, we had to walk up a long on-ramp to a bridge and then hike a mile or two into town. We were gasping when we got to a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, but it was marvelously air-conditioned and we just had enough money to get a cold drink. At the Western Union office they said they did not have enough cash to give us $500, so we got $100 in notes and a Western Union check for $400, which we had the greatest difficulty cashing as we progressed up the eastern seaboard. We mostly powered to a variety of overnight moorings, sometimes we anchored and sometimes we tied up at a marina or yacht club. When we were in Titusville who should show up but Calysto, with Sharon, Dick and the kids? We arranged to jointly rent a car and visit the John F. Kennedy Space Center. This proved fascinating; they were getting ready to launch Apollo 11. Much of the equipment looked very familiar to me, it reminded of the laboratory I had worked at. Which brings up the dreadful subject of work. By this time our financial resources were getting low, I would have to get a job before the end of the year. In those days the Sunday New York Times advertised hundreds of engineering positions, I bought a copy and starting phoning. After outlining my qualifications and experience the conversation usually went like this: ‘Great, what’s your phone number?’ ‘Well, I don’t have a phone at the moment.’ ‘OK, we’ll write, what’s your address?’ ‘Let’s see, if you write before next Tuesday send a letter care of General Delivery, Titusville, Florida. After that, try sending it care of General Delivery, Norfolk, Virginia.’ By this time the fellow on the other end was convinced he was talking to a nut case, he would mutter something like ‘Yeah, buddy, we’ll be in touch,’ and hang up. So all the time we traveled up the coast I never did get an interview, let alone a job.
At St Augustine we toured the old Spanish fort and then left the Intracoastal for a leg up the Atlantic as far as Beaufort, South Carolina, we got a fifteen mile boost from the Gulf Stream in as many hours. There we stayed a couple of days doing our laundry and sampling the marvelous fish markets in the area. We ran into Calysto again. North of the city we grounded on a mud flat, as I raced the engine in reverse to get us off dolphins cavorted madly around us as though to signal the shallow water. Each day we reeled off 50 to 60 miles, mostly under power but under sail when we could find wind. At Moorhead City we discovered that the quaintly named ‘Sanitary Fish Market’ allowed boats to tie up all night to their dock if you bought a meal at the restaurant. A friend of mine from work had retired to the area, he gave us directions for anchoring near his house. Unfortunately on the way there we went aground again and this time we could not motor off. I rowed a kedge out in the dinghy, as I cranked the winch a passing shrimper saw our plight and told us to pass him a line. He easily pulled us free but then he kept going, despite our calls that we were floating and when I reached the end of the line on the kedge I had to let it go. I had not buoyed the kedge, as I watched the line sink slowly beneath the muddy water I knew I might never find it again. The shrimper tossed the tow line back to us, I thanked him, anchored and then started to search for our kedge using a mask and snorkel. Fortunately by groping in the murk I was able to find the line lying on the mud, but the bottom was so soft the kedge had been pulled deep underground. Diving repeatedly I was finally able to excavate it, when we eventually got to my friend’s house he commented that I looked rather tired. From there we anchored in the Alligator River and then tied up at the Elizabeth City Ironworks and Marina. It was a very friendly place, we refueled, filled our propane tank and loaded up the ice chest. I see from the logbook we paid 5¢/ ft per night, I wonder what they charge nowadays? The next day we sailed through the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk.
At Norfolk I had to make repairs to the mast spreader, which had a fatigue crack. After a few nights at the yacht club we sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. At the York River Yachthaven we rented a car and drove to Colonial Williamsburg. Next we anchored in the Severn River in squally weather. It was the 20th of July, Neil Armstrong was about to walk on the moon. We watched on our little 12 volt black and white TV. Naturally we felt a special interest because we had seen Apollo 11 on the launch pad when we toured the Kennedy Space Center. As he stepped on the moon I felt Iona dragging her anchor. With a curse I left the dry cabin and went on deck in driving rain and squally winds to let out more anchor chain. I felt I was sharing in Neil’s tribulation. As we made our way up the Chesapeake the logbook records days of heavy winds on the nose, choppy seas and pouring rain. After a year in the tropics we especially felt the cold even though it was July. The weather improved as we sailed to St Michaels and on to the Sassafras River. Here we had a funny experience; anchored on a sunny Sunday afternoon we shared the beach with several local people as we sunbathed and Colin paddled. We noticed a small yacht had anchored near Iona and soon a young couple with two children rowed ashore. They asked us if we had a boat, when I pointed to Iona they then asked if they could call a Baltimore telephone operator on our radio. There were no VHF radios or cell phones back then, our radio worked on short wave and all the major cities had a telephone channel on a specific frequency for which you needed the correct crystal. I told them we could not talk to Baltimore and they seemed very distressed. I suggested one of the local boats nearby, so off they went and ultimately returned to their dinghy, very relieved that they had managed to make a connection. We got talking to them, it turned out this was their first overnight spent away from home on their boat. They had tried to sail back to Baltimore all day without much headway and were very concerned their parents would panic if they did not show up on Sunday night. The wind was northwest that day which meant a dead beat to Baltimore, in the shallow, choppy waters of the Chesapeake I was not surprised they had made scant progress. Their boat was only 18 feet long and they were towing a heavy dinghy. I suggested they try again in the morning with their dinghy hauled on deck. We invited them back to Iona where a couple of Caribbean rum punches made them feel much better. Edith made a vast meal of spaghetti and ragout for us all, we had quite a jolly party, when we mentioned we had been living on the boat for over a year their awe-struck comments made me feel like a world voyager.
From the Sassafras River we made our way to Chesapeake City and the Chesapeake – Delaware Canal. The current runs strongly in Delaware Bay, we anchored in the Cohansey River until the current was fair and then made a swift trip to Cape May Harbor. We had promised ourselves a shower, but the marina was full, we anchored off the yacht club, rowed ashore in the dinghy and treated ourselves to hamburgers instead. The next day we passed through the Cape May Canal into the Atlantic and made an overnight passage to Fire Island Inlet on Long Island. It was the first day of August, 1969. We had sailed about 6,000 nautical miles since we left. We spent three weeks in the area before leaving for a cruise of New England as far as Nantucket Island. Fred and his daughter Marilyn came along as crew. While I was on Long Island I was offered a job by my old employer, it was a much better position than the one I had when we left. In the middle of September we returned to the Patchogue River, had the boat hauled and we moved back on land.
Our brief break from the tyranny of work was over. What had we gained? Colin had learned to swim, read and write and his vocabulary was exceptional for a child of four; and not all his words were salty ones he had picked up off me. Edith was never an enthusiastic sailor but she had greatly enjoyed the places and people we visited. Mabel was delighted to be back on land and lived another nine years. And Eric? Well, I had tasted the cruising culture, this is a lot more than just sailing. Dealing with equipment failures, the vagaries of weather and the uncountable random events of cruising, such as capsizing the dinghy, getting the anchor stuck, going aground, illness and injury, provisioning, coping with foreign bureaucrats, etc, all increased my self-confidence. And I knew what I wanted in my next boat.
Iona careened near Coral Bay, St Johns in 1968.
Colin in his life jacket sits on the foredeck of Iona, BVI, 1968.
The charming port of St George, Grenada, circa 1968.