Writing on the Sea:
An Historical Overview of Yachting in the Lesser Antilles in the 20th Century,
as Revealed in Bibliographical Highlights
by Richard Dey
I would like to believe that Nature had the sailorman in mind when she created the islands in the Lesser Antilles. She had decided to reserve one section of the seas that would be the perfect sailing ground. First there must be strong and steady breezes and plenty of sunshine. Then there must be a line of islands, not too far from one another
Dennis Puleston, Blue Water Vagabond (1939)*
The Early Years
Yachting in the English-speaking West Indies did not accelerate into modernity until 1947, just after World War II, when an unknown photographer and journalist named Carleton Mitchell sailed up the Lesser Antilles in a 46-foot ketch** and wrote an amazing chronicle of his trip, Islands to Windward (1947).* This was the herald of sailing among the islands as we know it now, at the turn of the second millennium. It was also the start of a brilliant career for Mitchell, arguably the greatest American yachtsman. While he became famous for racing in Finisterre, his association with the islands spanned five decades, four boats, and two books, each with revised editions.
Before the Second World War, yachting was a genteel, sometimes eccentric pastime infrequently practiced in the islands.
Cruising in the West Indies [Second Edition (1902-03)] by Anson Phelps Stokes is an account of two winter cruises made by the author, a prominent member of the New York Yacht Club, in his crewed, 115-foot** schooner yacht Sea Fox. Interestingly, his two cruises bracket the eruption of Mt. Pelée in Martinique, and the resulting destruction of the then capital St. Pierre, which he visited both before and after the catastrophe. Despite having lost a leg in a horseback riding accident, Stokes, a merchant and banker, was an experienced sailor and a strong advocate of the Lesser Antilles. After extolling the climate and geography, he writes, "One meets interesting people at government houses, at messes, clubs, and on board men-of-war, and learns about colonial problems, while avoiding snow, blizzards, and influenza. Now that the old difficulty about ice is done away with by the general introduction of ice-plants, one can always have good food on a yacht in these waters."
Two other cruises typical of the post-Civil War era in America are captured in W. P. Talboys' West India Pickles (1875) and Susan de Forest Day's The Cruise of the Scythian in the West Indies (1899). The first, while virulently racist, is a highly readable account of island hopping in a schooner; the second, the first by a female member of the New York Yacht Club, is a more compassionate account of a trip in a steam yacht.
Frederick A. Fenger's Alone in the Caribbean (1917) recounts his single-handed cruise in a 17-foot sailing canoe, Grenada to St. Thomas, made in 1911. Considered a minor classic, it was an echo of Englishman John MacGregor's immensely popular The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy (1868), a first-hand account of cruising a sailing canoe in northern Europe. Fenger, while observant, especially about open-boat whaling, and generally amusing, does not cover up the extreme poverty he encounters. He had shipped the canoe by steamer to Trinidad.
Two years later, on the eve of the First World War, Fenger made a follow-up voyage from Boston to Grenada and back with a new wife and professional crew in the 52-foot schooner Diablesse (She Devil), recounted in The Cruise of the Diablesse (1926). Fenger, a native of Chicago and graduate of Cornell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was a charter member of the Cruising Club of America, founded in 1922, and worked as a naval architect in Boston. Both books were reissued in 1958.
It is an irony of history that the islands, which are "in America's backyard" and were visited by American yachtsmen, remained European colonies long after America displaced England and France as major powers. But yachtsmen came from the UK too, and one was Dennis Puleston whose Blue Water Vagabond (1939) recounts, in part, his sailing in the islands in the early 1930s. An unusually well written and humorous book, Blue Water Vagabond became No. 27 in the Mariners Library (1955).
To Puleston and his partner may go the distinction of owning the first yacht in the islands to be chartered their 31-foot engineless yawl Uldra. They had reached Tortola and were almost broke when two recent graduates of Yale in search of a yacht chanced upon them and an agreement was reached. They then spent "several months" sailing down-island to Bequia, before returning to Tortola.
But Puleston's time in the West Indies was brief; his real goal was the South Pacific. Indeed, before World War II, it was everyone's goal and this helps explain the relative obscurity of, and infrequent visits to, the Lesser Antilles. Tahiti was the name with magic in it, not Antigua, Tortola, or Bequia. Look, for example, at the great circumnavigations of Irving and Exy Johnston (Westward Bound in the Schooner "Yankee", 1936). They passed the West Indies by. Puleston's book itself goes on to relate his adventures which, after he lost the yawl, included joining Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock in the schooner Direction on their famous trip through the South Pacific. (See Stars to Windward, 1938.)
Sailing itself is the thing, the point of the pastime for most who sail. It is recreation, whatever else it is, done for pleasure, sport, or escape. But occasionally sailing is done for a working purpose. Samuel Eliot Morison, one of the titans of the century, did it both ways.
This yachtsman-historian, who had honed his sailing skills on the Maine coast, made his first cruise to the islands in the winter of 1937-38 aboard the Ptarmigan, a Sparkman & Stephens yawl similar to the famous Dorade. He had chartered the yacht, and one of the crew was a friend, writer Lincoln Colcord. Morison researched Columbus's second voyage, which had made landfall at Dominica and then gone north. Morison himself then sailed down the Leewards and Windwards to Port of Spain in Ptarmigan, and returned up-island in local vessels, all the way to Hispanolia. In so doing, Morison was exercising his belief that history is best written not by scholars working in libraries but by those who see for themselves what all the excitement was about.
Morison wrote a small book, The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1939), based on his scholarly wandering. The cruise proved to be a preliminary trip for the official Harvard Columbus Expedition of 1940, when Morison sailed from Europe to Trinidad and thence around the Caribbean. The resulting biography, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942) won a Pulitzer Prize and established Morison as a pre-eminent historian, maybe even the greatest maritime historian ever.
A man who shared a similar sense for history and style followed behind Morison; but he was at least as much a man of action as of contemplation. Carleton Mitchell sailed up the islands, from Port of Spain to Annapolis, over 4 months in the winter of 1947. He had shipped the Carib, a 46-foot Alden ketch, on a steamer to Trinidad, having sailed the boat the previous winter among the Bahamas and Greater Antilles. With him for the voyage were his wife, whose family money financed the trip, and one paid hand. A friend occasionally joined them. The result of the voyage, Islands to Windward (1948), is astonishing. To have done all he did to produce the book, and a book of such high quality, in so little time from the deck of a small yacht is nothing short of incredible. What did he do?
"From the dock we powered the few yards out to the middle of the inner harbor, the carenage. Its water was almost as blue and as clear as the open sea outside. The anchor plummeted down nearly ten fathoms; it is deep, but so sheltered that not much scope is necessary. The chain hung straight down from the chock of the bowsprit and although our flags above flickered in the breeze, the water lay unruffled. Native trading schooners lined the quays, and the fragrance of cocoa beans drying in the sun made us remember that Grenada is the `Isle of Spice'. Large rowboats used as water taxis crossed from shore to shore. We rigged awnings and gratefully relaxed in their shade. The dreamy peace of a quiet anchorage took possession of us, deepened by the languor of the tropics. We felt that we had nothing particular to do and a long time in which to do it. For the moment we were content just to sit and look."
Mitchell, at that point, was chiefly a photographer and amateur yachtsman. He was working as a freelance photojournalist for the National Geographic, and a short version of the book appeared in the January 1948 issue of that magazine. The photographs alone would make a fine book. In both color and black and white, the full- and half-page pictures in the oversize (22 x 28 cm) book capture the West Indies as they were at the end of colonialism, on the eve of redevelopment. To see Carib at anchor with only local sloops and schooners for company in Admiralty Bay or utterly alone in English Harbor off the abandoned dockyard is to get some idea of how yachting has grown over the last half of the century.
From one island to the next, Mitchell went ashore to make his pictures, often staying in private residences so as not to have to lug his photographic equipment back and forth. But he did more. He interviewed any people available, often the governors, consuls, planters, and priests. He was unusually observant and curious, and not without an eye for irony and an ear for dialogue. Mitchell's reading, which he brought to his writing, was unusually deep, especially in history. He could write poetically or philosophically as the occasion demanded. He was a true traveler in the old sense and the old style.
These colonial backwaters with their remnants of empire and stagnant populations were what all the early yachtsmen encountered. Waterborne commerce, vital to any archipelago, was conducted in crude sailing craft. Carib was the only yacht in any harbor between Grenada and Saba only once, in Castries, did he encounter another. But, as Mitchell saw, the absence of development had a charm of its own. An odd equation for yachting at that time can therefore be recognized, and not only in these islands: beautiful unspoiled places equaled unspeakable poverty and neglect. Their single natural resource was only just being recognized. Because the poverty was somewhat camouflaged by the tropical climate, metropolitan visitors tended to disregard it. They saw the unspoiled waters and beaches as a kind of earthly "paradise" and a people so poor they seemed "happy". Happy to see someone is more likely the true story, as Fenger's visits showed. These islands were locked in time, and a place like Bequia was a living maritime museum because of it, as Mitchell wrote.
Islands to Windward became the standard for the area through seven printings for almost 30 years. The chapters, one per island, are at once a narrative of the voyage and an account the islands, past and present. Bucking one of the two the fundamental trends of yachting journalism, Mitchell seldom provides any practical information about, or advice on, how to run your boat. He concentrates instead on history, observation, interviews and story telling, all in the context of that other fundamental of yacht writing the dream. He wrote in a familiar tone, as if in a letter to friends or fellow members of the Cruising Club of America (CCA). Indeed, that was what he was doing introducing these waters to the sailing community at large and encouraging them to "come on down".
Much might be made of Mitchell's cruise, showing it to be the bridge from yachting as a unique pastime to a common one, the fulcrum between the colonial past of the region and its independent future. Mitchell was an amateur sailor and a member of the CCA. John Rousmaniere points out in The Golden Pastime (1986) that the advent of amateur yachtsmen sailing the oceans in small boats was, at the time it began (at the turn of the twentieth century), revolutionary. Joshua Slocum, for example, had been a professional mariner. The CCA had been formed in New York 1922 to promote ocean voyaging by amateurs in small vessels. Their motto, "Nowhere is too far", spurred yachtsmen to set sail. Mitchell's having a paid hand to help him out reflects yachting as it was; but skippering the boat himself and doing the navigation reflects yachting as it was fast becoming.
Islands to Windward is long on presenting the "charm" of the islands as they were in what others have called their "splendid isolation", and short on ethnographic interest or deep understanding of the tremendous poverty then prevailing, though he did anticipate the development of yacht facilities in St. Lucia. Mitchell enjoyed the hospitality of the colonial officials and planters, and makes no apologies for it; he loved "the good life" afloat and ashore indeed, he personified it.
But Mitchell, the consummate Corinthian, rectified this innocence, shared by all first-time visitors, by making a second investigative voyage in 1965. This time he was in the 38-foot yawl Finesterre, with which he had won three Bermuda races in succession. He was again working for the National Geographic, producing first articles for the magazine, (the articles were subdivided by island group) and then a book, Isles of the Caribbees (1966). Mitchell did the writing and sailing; others (mainly Winfield Parks) did the "picture making". No other book presents such a comprehensive, informative, and lively view of the Lesser Antilles and its people. To account for the change that took place in the islands as they were rapidly developed, Mitchell revised the book after making a third voyage up the islands in 1970 in his 42-foot trawler yacht Sans Terre.
"Only Carleton Mitchell could have done this volume," wrote Melville Bell Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief of the National Geographic. "He writes as he sails intensely, with great ardor and flair. We would cruise all night, Mitch navigating, standing his watch, and skippering to boot. Then at dawn he would go ashore to spend the day interviewing people, collecting notes."
World War II changed many things. The South Pacific was no longer the idyll it had been for sailors like Irving Johnston. The West Indies, on the other hand, long unrecognized or shunned, were seen by many servicemen during the war. Afterwards, word of their "unspoiled" beauty was spread to people like Peter Pye while others, like Commander Vernon Nicholson, chose to return to the islands in a civilian capacity.
Red Mains'l (1953) is a cheerful if somewhat imperial account by E. A. "Peter" Pye of a voyage out from England to the islands and back in 1949 with his wife, made in Moonraker of Fowey, a 29-foot, wooden fishing cutter built in the 1890s. Pye was a physician who, at age 50 and with the advent of socialized medicine, decided to go sailing. The book has the oddity of a "Foreword" by Roderick Stephens Jr., brother of Olin Stephens, the designer. Rod Stephens was Commodore of the CCA at the time. He was cruising in Harvey Conover's Revonoc, a contemporary ocean racer retracing the Mitchell voyage, when he met Pye in Antigua and took him for a sail Pye was amazed with the way the racer, unlike his old fishing cutter, sailed to windward.
It was while approaching Antigua that Pye ran into an old acquaintance Commander Vernon E. B. Nicholson. If the arrival of amateurs in small boats symbolized by Mitchell is one key to the history of yachting in the West Indies, Pye, in meeting Commander Nicholson, brings up another chartering.
Publications cited in the text:
John MacGregor. (The) Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy (1868)
W. P. Talboys. West India Pickles (1875)
Susan de Forest Day. The Cruise of the Scythian in the West Indies (1899) (N/A)
Anson Phelps Stokes. Cruising in the West Indies [Second Edition (1902-03)]
Frederick A. Fenger. Alone in the Caribbean (1917) (N/A)
Frederick A. Fenger. The Cruise of the Diablesse (1926)
Irving and Exy Johnson. Westward Bound in the Schooner "Yankee" (1936)
Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock. Stars to Windward (1938)
Dennis Puleston. Blue Water Vagabond (1939)
Samuel Eliot Morison. The Second Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1939)
Samuel Eliot Morison. Admiral of the Ocean Sea (1942)
Carleton Mitchell. Islands to Windward (1948)
E. A. Pye. Red Mains'l (1953)
Carleton Mitchell. Isles of the Caribbees (1966)
John Rousmaniere. The Golden Pastime (1986)
All above titles are available through Barnes and Noble (used books), website: www.bn.com, except those marked N/A
Next month in Part II: The Growth of Chartering; Guides and Gurus; and Boatbuilding, Bards and Memoirs.
* Dates in parenthesis are date of publication.
** Measurement, when I can give it, are, as best I can determine, LOA.
Copyright© 1998 Compass Publishing