Writing On The Sea:
An Historical Overview of Yachting in the Lesser Antilles
in the 20th Century, as Revealed in Bibliographical HighlightsPart IIby Richard Dey
The Growth of Chartering
A year earlier, in March of 1949, Commander Vernon E. B. Nicholson had arrived in English Harbour Antigua in the 70-foot schooner Mollihawk with his wife, Emmy, and two sons, Desmond and Rodney. He had left England for reasons not dissimilar to fellow mariner Peter Pye's (see Part One in last month's issue) and was on his way to Australia, where he had relatives and wanted to resettle. But he had wanted first to return to the West Indies, after having seen them during the war. While he was doing a refit in English Harbour, some American guests at the recently established Mill Reef Club asked if he would take them sailing. Nicholson saw his opportunity and seized it. "He was the right man with the right boat in the right place at the right time," his daughter-in-law, the wife of Rodney, Julie Nicholson said.
Soon Nicholson had a second boat for charter, the 84-foot schooner Freelance. With Peter Pye and his wife in English Harbour for Christmas 1952 were Eric and Susan Hiscock. In Around the World in Wanderer III (1956), the story of the couple's first circumnavigation, Eric Hiscock mentions a total of nine yachts in the harbor at that time, including three in the charter trade. By 1962, when Bill Robinson, (then an associate editor of Yachting magazine), chartered the Mollihawk, Nicholson's fleet numbered 20. Robinson describes the fleet in Where the Trade Wind Blow (1963), "with the Nicholsons as agents for a highly organized, businesslike service." Nelson's Dockyard at English Harbour had been transformed from a ghost yard to a thriving center for the chartering industry.
Among the Commander's stable of yacht skippers was John Caldwell, who had previously become famous for writing Desperate Voyage (1949), his story of sailing across the Pacific and surviving a hurricane. Caldwell, who later developed Palm Island in the Grenadines, was known as "Johnny Coconut" for his compulsive habit of planting the tree everywhere he landed - and of depriving his charterers on Outward Bound of water to keep his seedlings alive!
J. Linton "Bunny" Rigg was a white Jamaican and well-known yachtsman in Corinthian circles. He had sailed with Carleton Mitchell on the last leg of the 1947 passage. Rigg published Bahama Islands (1949) two years later. It is similar in format to the Mitchell book and was for some years the standard yachting narrative for the Bahamas. Rigg, a bachelor, actually lived in the islands and is credited with having started the Out Island Regatta, a race for working sloops in George Town, Great Exuma, in 1954.
In 1960, at age 65, he sold his house in George Town and bought a 43-foot wooden ketch, Island Belle. In it Rigg did a 2-year trip from the Bahamas to Trinidad and back, the result of which was The Alluring Antilles (1963). Its chief claim is that, unlike Mitchell, he did not "race" through the islands; instead, he took his own sweet time, often staying in an anchorage for weeks, the better to know it. Unfortunately, Rigg had neither the intellect nor talent of Mitchell, and the book, despite its title, is a poor cousin to Islands to Windward. It is even a poor cousin to his own Bahama Islands. However, Rigg settled in the early 1960s in Carriacou, where he bought the Mermaid Tavern and started the Carriacou Regatta in 1965. This was the first regatta in the Lesser Antilles. Two years later, in 1967, the Nicholson family started Antigua Race Week. Of the original 1954 regatta in George Town, Rigg wrote in Bahama Islands (Third edition, 1959):
"It all started when the late Ward Wheelock visited me in my home at George Town in 1953. Mr. Wheelock, having made a great deal of money in the advertising business in Philadelphia, decided to spend the rest of his life working for the improvement of understanding and relationship between the peoples of the world. He had the very strongest conviction that therein lay the only solution to the end of wars. We discussed the various means of getting people of different races and nationalities to meet each other, and agreed that only when they met together to have fun were the results always happy. As my own consuming interest has always been in sailing boats, their design, construction, and the preservation of existing sailing fleets, we had a meeting of minds, and decided that a regatta for the working boats of the islands would go a long way to accomplish what we both desired."
Wheelock, the benefactor of the regatta, was lost in his schooner on a voyage from Bermuda to Great Exuma in 1956. Douglas Pyle writes in Clean Sweet Wind (1981) that Rigg's purpose in organizing the Carriacou Regatta was also to rejuvenate a moribund industry. Rigg himself was the economic force behind the sloop Mermaid of Carriacou, for years the boat to beat. By the time Rigg died on the island in 1976, boatbuilding was revived and a new generation of builders had learned the traditional skills.
The growth of the charter business went hand in hand with the development of the islands. Begun in 1963, A Cruising Guide to the Lesser Antilles (1966) by Donald M. Street Jr. is the first major non-narrative guidebook for sailors. Donald Street, an American who grew up in Long Island, New York, has been in the islands, he claims, from as early as 1956. After acquiring Iolaire, an ancient, red-hulled, 45-foot yawl, he became a charterboat skipper and marine insurance agent working out of Grenada. A Cruising Guide is a reflection of ever-better air services, a proliferation of hotels and metropolitan prosperity, as well as the growth of chartering. Also, with the effective closing of Cuba in 1959, tourists were forced to go further afield for their pleasures.
As chartering developed, rival to English Harbour was Yacht Haven in St. Thomas, with its airport and proximity to the British Virgins, deemed by most yachtsmen to be the best of the best cruising grounds. Yachts had been in the Virgins before the war. Further south, a marine repair facility was started in Vigie Cove, St. Lucia by a friend of Carleton Mitchell's, Bert Ganter, in 1948, but it was not until the late 1970s that Rodney Bay was transformed and St. Lucia became a yachting center. In the mid-1960s, Grenada Yacht Services (GYS) on Grenada was positioned to compete also with Antigua. Eric Hiscock recounts navigating a dredged channel into St. George's lagoon and hauling out the Wanderer IV, a 49-foot steel ketch at GYS in its synchro-lift in Sou'West in Wanderer IV (1973). As chartering became more and more popular, most of the other islands would eventually have their own facilities.
Guides and Gurus
The British Sailing Directions for the Caribbee Islands and the American Coast Pilot had been available to sailors for nearly two centuries. These laconic works were written for officers of naval and commercial vessels. There had been other non-narrative guides for yachtsmen in the islands before Street. Percy Chubb's spiralbound Cruising Guide for the Windward and Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean (Preliminary Edition 1961), and a privately published guide by Desmond Nicholson, among them. But Street's was the first full-fledged guide as we understand the genre today. It comes chock-a-block with how-to advice, practical information, sailing directions, anchoring instructions, suggested courses, anecdotes, and sketch charts. Street's, unlike some later guides, carries no advertisements.
It is indicative of the growth in bareboat chartering that he later subdivided the book, even making a single book out of his coverage of the Grenadines: Dukane Yachting Guide to the Grenadines (1970). In 1974, Sail Books published his first major revision of A Cruising Guide to the Lesser Antilles. In it is an essay, "Native Boats", a revision of the earlier "Small Boats of the Lesser Antilles", which is one of the first on the topic.
Yachtsman's Guide to the Virgin Islands (1968) was written and produced by the people responsible for the bareboat chartering concept that swept the area and later the world, revolutionizing (along with fiberglass and jumbo jets) yachting and making it a multimillion-dollar business. John R. ("Jack") Van Ost, its editor, was a dentist from New Jersey. He "pioneered in many bareboat innovations" writes Bill Robinson and started Caribbean Sailing Yachts (CSY) in St. Thomas. The guide was written with Tom Kelly, then manager of CSY and former skipper of the yawl Lille Havfrue.
With the increase of sailors among the islands came an attendant increase of books by them. In Maverick Sea Fare (1977), Dee Carstarphen uniquely captures the spirit of the time. Maverick was a 76-foot Brixham ketch in the charter trade captained by Jack Carstarphen. Working primarily out of St. Thomas, it was a "boarding house afloat" or head boat that took paying customers for a week or more. Dee did the cooking and, after Jack died of melanoma and the boat was sold, produced this funky book that is at once a cookbook and an artist's repository of all things Caribbean.
Fair Winds and Far Places (1978) by Zane B. Mann, a former Minneapolis banker, and Tales of the Caribbean (1978) by Fritz Seyfarth, also a dropout from the US corporate world, are two personal narratives. Seyfarth's contains a useful chapter on charter skippers, "They Sail the Islands for a Living", as well as a dramatic account of being side-swiped in his 40-foot wooden ketch, Tumbleweed, by a freighter. Of note too are the fine illustrations by Carstarphen in this book. Mann's book is a provocative account of a routine passage made down island by an amateur couple in their 45-foot sloop Serenity.
Eric Hiscock recounts his final visits to English Harbour and Bequia in 1976 in Come Aboard (1978), the story of his third circumnavigation. Seadogs, Clowns, and Gypsies - Twenty Modern Sea Stories about Colorful Caribbean Characters (1990) by Gary "Cap'n Fatty" Goodlander is based mostly on his years in the Virgins. Among the entertaining sketches is "Chartering Pioneers", a brief account of the industry in the Virgins when it was dominated by "owner-operators".
A disturbing, perhaps inevitable, indicator of yachting's growth was the murder of Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, a boat-taxi driver in Bequia. World attention was briefly focused on the trial in St. Vincent of an American yachting couple, James and Penella Fletcher, alleged to have shot the Bequia man. But the couple was found not guilty for want of evidence (the gun was never found), and the murder went unsolved. The incident was covered in the mainstream American media by Bill Barich in "The Victim's Wake" run in Outside magazine (November 1997) and in the yachting media by Tim Murphy in "Island on Trial" in Cruising World (December 1997).
Of course yachting in the West Indies has been chronicled - and promoted - by the American metropolitan boating magazines, beginning at the turn of the last century with The Rudder and Yachting. In the 1970s came Sail and in the 1980s Cruising World. Many a piece concerns boating in the Lesser Antilles, and many of these pieces have become parts of books.
Then, from the islands emerged their own publications. The first was Jim Long's Caribbean Boating produced out of St. Thomas in the 1980s. It was a local, unsophisticated tabloid newspaper. It was followed by Tropic Times in Puerto Rico and All At Sea out of St. Maarten. Caribbean Compass, produced in Bequia and printed in Trinidad, came along in 1995 and quickly became the standard. Editor Sally Erdle and managing director Tom Hopman had sailed around the world, Bequia to Bequia, between 1989 and 1994, in their 41-foot Rhodes sloop, So Long. Deciding that the "down island" area needed its own marine publication, they created the monthly newspaper that now covers the boating scene throughout the Southern Caribbean. It was possible to do so only because of the Internet, and the paper reflects the tremendous growth of yachting in the area.
Boatbuilding, Bards and Memoirs
The interpenetration of foreign yachtsmen with islanders, [as the earlier mention of Rigg suggests] is a fascinating phenomenon that has centered itself in island boatbuilding. Klaus Alvermann, a German architect and sailor, built on the beach at Bequia a 22-foot Bequia-style boat that he decked over and rigged as a cutter. He sailed this engineless craft around the world, Bequia to Bequia, 1970-1976, occasionally working as an architect to pay his way. "Spontaneity and the Single-Hander: Plumbelly of Bequia Around the World", a profile of Alvermann by Richard Dey, appeared in The Spray (January-June, 1980), a publication of the Slocum Society. An abridged version had run in the Yachting (March 1978).
In Sail magazine appeared two articles ["The Boat to Beat Mermaid - Carriacou Regatta 1975", (November 1976) and "How Badly Do You Want to Get to Bequia?" (March 1977)] by Christopher Bowman, a young man from California. Bowman built two boats in Bequia with Bequia shipwrights, the 40-foot cutter Just Now in 1976 and the 70-foot schooner Water Pearl. Built over several years in the early 1980s, the schooner was lost at night approaching the Panama Canal in the early 1990s. It had been partly financed by singer Bob Dylan. No written account of Bowman's unique boat-building activity is known.
Perhaps the finest writing to come as a result of this phenomenon is Clean Sweet Wind: Sailing Craft of the Lesser Antilles (1981) by Douglas C. Pyle. A Harvard-educated teacher in St. Croix between 1968 and 1970, Pyle decided to study native boat building and sailed the islands off and on for 10 years to do so. With camera, notebook, and measuring tape, he set out single-handed in his sloop Eider as a sort of amateur marine anthropologist. On Bequia, where he spent considerable time, he actually became involved in helping with the boatbuilding. The result is a brilliant book near and dear to anyone interested in the vanishing island craft and its culture.
As Admiral Morison had earlier proved, there is such a thing as cruising with a purpose other than cruising. Pyle, when he was sailing, was doing this and so had another. Horace Beck, a professor of English and Anthropology from Middlebury College, Vermont, spliced his academic interests with his love of the sea, to cruise in his own boats and collect folklore on both sides of the Atlantic. Folklore and the Sea (1973, 1998) includes stories and observations from the Windwards that illustrate the various fields of folklore, among them legends and superstition. Beck spent considerable time in the islands in the 1960s and 1970s, and captures the folklore just as, besieged by TV, it began to disappear.
Poetry and fiction by literary yachtsmen in the islands, while not unprecedented, are rare. Philip Freneau wrote poems just before the American Revolution from the waters of St. Croix and Jamaica, and Ernest Hemingway of course wrote stories based on his experience in the waters between Cuba and Bimini. Richard Dey's The Bequia Poems (1989) were begun while he crewed on the 62-foot ketch Eleuthera II in the summer of 1971. Many of these poems, which were first published in American magazines, reflect life afloat, particularly in the Windwards. Novelist Robert Stone included "Under the Pitons" in Bear and His Daughter (1997). The short story, originally published in Esquire magazine, moves between Canouan and St. Lucia, and reflects a charter the author made. A drug story set aboard a high-sided plastic sloop, "Under the Pitons" is vintage Stone.
Walter Beinecke Jr. first sailed the islands in 1946. Beinecke was a wealthy American and book collector. Inspired by his trip, he spent the next 45 years assembling perhaps the world's largest collection of books related to the area in its colonial days, now detailed in the elegant and mind-boggling The Beinecke Lesser Antilles Collection at Hamilton College: A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, Prints, Maps, and Drawings, 1521-1860 (1994).
Two memoirs late in the century go some way toward capturing the charter business as it was before the crewed boat was largely replaced by the bareboat. "When Amateurs Became Professionals" is a reminiscence in the elegant but defunct Nautical Quarterly (Spring 1990) by two former charterboat skippers of the 1950s. One, John Clegg, was skipper of Flica, a converted 12-meter. The other, Fraser-Fraser Harris, was skipper of Ring Anderson, the 95-foot Baltic ketch then owned by Denis Love, the Canadian who invented Tampax. (It was Love who in 1966 bought Grenada Yacht Service.) The reminiscence is more impressionistic than substantial, but it captures the feel of the difficult but elegant early days and suggests the quandary many an amateur yachtsman who turned professional skipper was in.
No Shoes Allowed (1997) by Jan deGroot is, oddly enough, about the Ring Anderson too. DeGroot, a professional Dutch mariner, had grown disenchanted with the merchant marine service and bought the vessel from Love. The humorous, resonant stories capture one man's experience in the 1970s, a time critical in the development of the islands. Particularly good are the stories set in Grenada. Author William Styron, once a charterer, had encouraged deGroot to set down his stories, and it is a good thing he did. DeGroot's memoir is splendid.
The century's yachting in the Lesser Antilles was shaped by the revolutionary amateur spirit and its enthusiasm for distant voyaging in small boats; by the development of air travel, which was critical to the charter industry; by the development of fiberglass in boat construction and the democratization of the pastime this caused, along with the relative ease the material made of maintenance in tropic waters; by post-World War II affluence; and in general by the shrinking of the world, most lately with the explosion of the Internet. It was transformed utterly from the enterprise of single individuals sailing in unique vessels among remote, beautiful but impoverished places to parties of people in identical boats sailing from one crowded, upscale destination to the next.
Yachting, like so much else, became a corporate enterprise marked by aggressive marketing. Indeed, the Lesser Antilles today are less an archipelago than a marketplace. Or are they merely but a click in cyberspace? It was yachtsmen, in any case, who spearheaded the rediscovery of the islands, which the end of slavery in 1834 had left in economic ruin, political neglect, and social dismay for more than a century. Carleton Mitchell's remarkable cruise in 1947 signaled at once an awakening of yachtsmen to the islands and the islands' awakening to the modern world. Can you imagine being a lone yachtsman surrounded by engineless sloops and schooners in St. George's Harbor or Admiralty Bay or English Harbour? Never again will yachtsmen encounter the unspoiled places that seemed, for them if not the inhabitants, a paradise on earth. The early yachtsmen may have been lucky to experience such "unspoiled beauty"; but the peoples of the Lesser Antilles were equally lucky that the yachtsmen came along and brought tourism with them.
* Dates in parenthesis are date of publication.
** Measurement, when I can give it, are, as best I can determine, LOA. - R.D.
Copyright© 2000 Compass Publishing