It Happened One Sail

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Leaving Anguilla we bashed up the north coast before threading ourselves through the eye of the needle, a small divide between the eastern tip and tiny Scrub Island. Not only is it a tight spot to sail through, it’s tricky as all get out with a growling lee shore and reef strewn water. The other hazard is the distraction from the colors of the crystal clear sea that run through every shade of blue imaginable until the underwater reefs turn dangerously brown. Fish often accompany us through the cut and last year we were guided by a pod of playful dolphins.

Once through, size XL seas piled up, caused by the long shallow sea shelf. It took a bit of effort to get the boat going against them but once in deep, open water we were off and reaching to Antigua.

Not long into the sail we heard a scratchy VHF Mayday call and huddled near the radio listening for details. Bit by bit more info came through; a French sailing vessel sank between St. Barts and Saba; two people floating in a life raft. Our position was east of St. Marten, some sixty miles away but had we been close we’d have put our ol’ lifeboat in gear and headed to the rescue. We monitored the radio until all hands were rescued.

So on we sailed. When morning dawned, the western side of Antigua stood tall before us. Two nearby cruise ships chatted on the radio with the port captain choreographing their arrival, a few West Indian fishermen broke in with fish chatter and then we heard Martinique Coast Guard announce the distress call, pan-pan.

Again, huddling close to the radio, we waited for details. “Pleeze be on zee lookout for zee selling vessel Rainbow, wis red sails, a grin hull. Zee man on board iz 70 years old, fatigued, and may need assistance. Zee vessel left St. Lucia 7 days ago and izz reportedly between Montserrat and Antigua. Eef you see ziz vessel pleeze contact zee Martinique Coast Guard.”

Directly in front of us, a mile or two away, we could see that little green boat cutting through the water, red sails powering her toward Falmouth Harbor. Another pan-pan was announced so Bruce answered, giving our position, the approximate position of Rainbow and explained that we’d go have a look. I started the engine while he sheeted in the sails.

Anyone who’s run toward an emergency knows that the interval of time before you get there is filled with a surplus of “what if’s?” Our heads were full of them and a few fell out: “What if he’s hurt? What if he can’t sail the boat in alone?” and the worst cast scenario, “What if it’s a ghost ship?”

The gap between us closed until we were close enough to see a smiling, waving fellow in Rainbow’s cockpit. We brought Woodwind within yelling distance and ascertained that he was o.k., his batteries were down but he didn’t need our help. We reported his position and status to Martinique Coast Guard and sailed on toward Antigua’s Falmouth Harbor.

A large motor yacht contacted us and said they were heading out to tow the boat in. We watched as they steamed out of the harbor, running to the rescue, but we were perplexed when they returned “empty handed.” On their way to the harbor, they thanked us for our help saying they had only dropped food aboard to their tired and hungry friend.

Days later we discovered that there never was a pan-pan situation but Rainbow’s owner had placed it, “just in case,” causing undue alarm and worry to officials, family and friends. Thankfully our part in the event had been small and we chalked it up as another adventure on another day at sea.


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In Chris Doyle’s Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands he speculates, “If Columbus came back today, Dominica is the only island he would recognize.” I can’t speak for the old explorer but on our recent, visit. that’s how we found it…unchanged, undeveloped, unspoiled. It was literally the same as the first time we visited some thirty years ago.

With great effort, some major steps forward have been taken for the island: cruise ship piers in Roseau and Portsmouth; new and greatly improved roads; a hand full of small bungalows and hotels catering to eco tourism. Mother nature, though, is in charge of the island’s fate and corrects those efforts by hammering the place with a hurricane now and then or, as happened last fall, shaking it up with a whopper earthquake that leveled numerous structures including Portsmouth’s ancient stone catholic church.

Dominica is in a time warp that feels, in this economic turmoil, downright refreshing. It has it’s share of poverty. Many live in mere shacks without proper sanitation, yet no one lacks food or water. Farm and jungle fresh food costs little to nothing and the islands many rivers feed community stand pipes in towns and villages.

On a trip to the weekly market I filled two canvas bags with papayas, each $1 EC each ($.37 US,) a hand of bananas, ($1EC,) 2 pounds of huge tomatoes ($5 EC,) and on it went with plantain, mangoes, passion fruits, peppers, lettuce, onions, sweet potatoes and yams until $30 EC (11.10 US) was spent and I could carry no more.

The little bakery, a closet sized space, sold their products at such a low price , I couldn’t figure out how they stay in business. Inside the grocery stores, a loose term in Dominica, it was the same. Simple foods at minimal prices for people with down-to-earth needs.

It was so very third world yet, oddly, almost every house had a cable TV, blaring the West Indies cricket match that was in full swing. And, I swear, everyone had a cell phone and was on it, talking, texting and checking for messages. Those who had cars had nice ones and the school busses were top notch, leading me to wonder…what would Columbus think of that??

The Bus

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Many years ago a bus transport on the island of Dominica consisted of an industrial sized Bedford truck fitted out with wooden bench seats and a canopy. Access on and off was easy especially for those carrying gunny sacks of produce or livestock. But the ride was a literal pain-in-the-ass as the “bus” sped over roads riddled with potholes.

Bruce and Joyce in Portsmouth

As the Bedfords were thinning out, Bruce painted a mural at Leonardo’s Restaurant in the town of Portsmouth. The proprietor, a friendly woman named Joyce, asked him to make a painting of the countryside and a bus. She, unbeknownst to Bruce, was referring to the modern vehicle which hit the island in the mid-70’s, Toyota vans with seats and windows galore.

Murals take days and on the final one Joyce came to inspect her new art acquisition but was outraged at what she saw. “Dat not a bus! Dat a truck!” Bruce explained that he’d painted the Bedford rig because they would soon be history but Joyce was unconvinced.

After a dozen years and a monster sized hurricane we returned to find Leonardo’s out of business. Our knock on the door was answered by a woman. Bruce asked, “Joyce?”

“Yez, me Joyce.”

“I’m Bruce.”

“Boose? Boose? I tot you was dead!” she exclaimed as she nearly knocked him down with a hug.
Inside the restaurant-turned-house was the mural; the Bedford bus climbing the mountainous road surrounded by lush vegetation. “You wuz right,” Joyce said. “De buses, dey is all gone. I bring de children in ere and tell dem dat dis is ow we use to do it.”

Our visit ended that day on the porch just as a tow-truck rolled past hauling a Bedford truck-bus down the road. That was the last one we ever saw.

Last month we sailed again to Dominica and went immediately to find Joyce. The mural, still on her wall, held the history she still shares with each passing child. Although she misses those old vehicles she loves the fancy new bus owned and operated by her husband, Leonardo. She insisted we take a ride with him on his daily rounds as the postman.

He picked us up, the passenger seat heaped with marked bags, and we left Portsmouth on winding roads that climbed up and down mountains. Groves of bananas and coconuts flashed past the windows interrupted by giant breadfruit and heavily laden mango trees. Dominica is HUGE, collecting rivers of water that produce size XL plants.

On the northeast coast the ground seas lashed the black sand beaches. Tiny one-donkey-villages blew by, their occupants waving hello and goodbye. Periodically we’d collect or deposited a paying passenger all amidst the earsplitting sound of the Caribbean’s latest speaker busting music hits. Every once in a while Leonardo would turn his head to us announcing the name of a village. It seemed we might roll forever but a road washout stopped us short, ended the magical adventure.

Back in Portsmouth Leonardo dropped us at Joyce’s store and she greeted, “How it was? Good? You like de bus?”

“Yes, Joyce, it was good. Dat a nice bus!.”

Nevis Nice But Not So Sunny

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Sailing back to Nevis after a fifteen year absence, we wondered what changes we’d see and it didn’t take long to find the answer. The first was the new mooring field in the anchorage that, as we entered at midnight, appeared on our radar screen as a gigantic mine field. The next change rose with the sun as we surveyed the beach before us that held nothing but a bunch of naked trees. Pinney’s Beach, famous for it’s black sand and swaying palms had been hit by Yellow Leaf Disease which is moving up the mountain, taking every palm in it’s path. A bit further down the beach sat the third change, the now defunct Four Season’s Resort that was flooded in October by Hurricane Omar.

The rest of the island was, luckily, untouched by time. In the capital of Charlestown, the one and sometimes two lane road meanders crookedly past old pointed-stone buildings.

Scattered about are two story skirt and blouse-style structures and, of course, a handfull of tiny West Indian bars and snackettes. A bus trip up and around the mountain was a time travel to the sleeping village of Gingerland. Nearby a hike up a hillside took us past old sugar plantations and windmills.

Just like the sign, Nevis nice mon, until we stumbled upon the problem…

Clinging to the Four Seasons property is Sunshines, a sprawling rasta colored shack decorated inside with photos of the proprietor mugging with the rich and famous. He sells food, drinks and “Sunny” things like t-shirts. On one of the shirts, to our surprise, was a Bruce Smith image created a decade ago for a rum label. The rum brand never happened but Sunshine, friend of the rich and famous, stole the image and has been printing and selling shirts for ten years without permission, without payment, without even a simple thank you. When Bruce went to chat with Sunshine about the copyright violation, he was met with denial, lies and the threat of bodily harm. Not very sunny, Sunshine.

So Regis and Kelly, next time you’re on island, I’d take a pass on the not-so-sunny place and head next door to Chevy’s.

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