Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass December  1998
 

Farewell, Johnny Coconut

John Caldwell died in early November on Palm Island in the Grenadines, of an apparent heart attack. He was 80. Caldwell, the author of the classic sea adventure, Desperate Voyage, enjoyed a fame that reached beyond the boating world and helped to sustain his hotel on Palm Island when others in the region sometimes failed, especially in the middle 1970s. Readers of the narrative came from all over the world and from all walks of life to meet the man and stay at his palmy resort.

Little in Caldwell's life came easy. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1919, he suffered from tuberculosis until he was 14. His father was an alcoholic and itinerant bank-debt collector who left the family when John was 15; his mother, who was part Cherokee, was a nurse. They moved to Los Angeles when John was 10, and he worked at odd jobs to help support his mother and five younger siblings.

Despite a lack of formal education beyond eighth grade, he enrolled in what is now the University of California at Santa Barbara and had finished two years when the Second World War broke out.

In the war he served in the American merchant marine. While in Australia in 1944, he met Mary, who quickly became his wife. It was the desire to get back to Mary following the war which led to the adventure that made him famous.

Having no other way to get from California to Australia, he took a steamer to Panama and finding no next steamer westbound, he bought the 29-foot wooden sloop Pagan. Not knowing how to sail didn't stop him. As the book recounts, he set sail anyway, with two cats and a text book on navigation, and soon found himself in a hurricane. The hurricane devastated the boat, all but sinking it. After 49 days adrift without food, he was washed up on Tuvutha in the Fiji islands. Nourished back to health by the islanders, he reached Australia on commercial transportation several months later.

Back in California he wrote Desperate Voyage (Little Brown, 1948) and finished college, graduating with a major in sociology in 1949. The book has been criticized for being outlandish ("John, you didn't really eat shoe leather fried in engine oil?") but its appeal lies in its strong narrative voice and its Odyssean story line. It has been continuously in print since then, one of the few maritime titles to achieve that status, and translated into many languages.

In 1954, he and Mary and two sons set forth in a 36-foot double-ended ketch designed by John Hanna, to sail to Australia. This voyage is recounted in Family at Sea, his second and only other book. (Little Brown, 1956). It was an easy, idyllic voyage, singular only for the astonishing fact that their second son, 8-month-old Stevie, was retarded and had an immune deficiency. They had been planning the voyage for years and wondered whether to go or stay. Actor and author Sterling Hayden recommended a physician who advised them to take the child offshore, where he could breathe clean air and live free of the threat of contamination. In their voyage through the remote islands and atolls they seldom took the boy ashore, fearing infection. But on reaching Australia, they had to and he soon died. He was three and a half years old. The voyage was an unprecedented act of love. In Australia they had another son, and built a new boat, the 46-foot ketch Outward Bound. In 1958, they set sail with the intention of sailing around the world, writing articles as they went. But when they reached Antigua in 1960, they were low on money and the charter world of Commander Desmond Nicholson offered employment. Chartering up and down the Eastern Caribbean, John would carry sprouting coconuts aboard and often go ashore and plant them, which earned him the nickname "Johnny Coconut." It was while doing this that he first went ashore on Prune Island, just east of Union Island in the middle Grenadines, then little more than a swamp. But one day in 1966 he began discussions with the St. Vincent & the Grenadines government that led to him leasing the island for 99 years. He had had a kind of vision, and that was a hotel.

At that time the government was leasing barren islands to enterprising foreigners who applied with hotel designs and promises of employment: Mustique, Petit St. Vincent and Young Island, along with plantations such as Spring on Bequia, were all developed in this way. After arranging the lease with Chief Minister E. T. Joshua, Caldwell drained the swamp and began building. He didn't know anything more about building or running hotels than he once had about sailing.

These were the days when a man with a will and a vision could do anything. The hotel, with ten rooms and under the more appropriate name Palm Island Beach Club, opened in December 1967. His sailing days were over. For the next 30 years, John and Mary and their children and later their grandchildren ran the hotel and its adjacent properties. His legend includes the ongoing rumor that the hotel was "just about" to be sold (Donald Trump was but one who visited and inquired) but somehow John always held on to it. "He is one of a kind," a hotel guest once remarked to me. "In a region of colorful expatriate characters, there is none more so than John Caldwell."

He leaves his wife Mary, his companion Agatha Roberts, sons John Jr. and Roger, and several grandchildren. Richard Dey is the author of In the Way of Adventure: The Story of John Caldwell and Palm Island, ©1989, Offshore Press; available at local bookshops. A special edition signed by both John Caldwell and the author is available from Richard Dey at rdbequia@aol.com
 
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