Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   January 2006
Sailing into Bequia's Past
by Hudson Hoen
Until the advent of the new motor ferries, all provisions, mail, and passengers were brought to Bequia from St. Vincent by sailing vessel, specifically the 100-foot-LOA Caribbean schooner, Friendship Rose. The boat was hand-built by Captain Calvin Lewis and Henry, Eric and Ernest Adams. Launched in 1969, I'm told she is the last Bequia schooner to be built using only hand tools. After she was retired from service as the mail/freight boat, Captain Lewis and his crew continued sailing her as a day-sailer, offering tourists trips to nearby islands. Last year she was nearly sold to a company who intended to convert her into a party boat for the mass tourist market in Belize.

Fortunately, a young British couple, Alan and Meg Whitaker, were looking for just such a boat. They had been running a private 65-foot charter yacht, but the birth of their first child put an end to that. After looking at every available boat of similar construction and rig, they purchased Friendship Rose in the summer of 2004, added a bowsprit and deepened the keel, made some cosmetic upgrades, and began running day sails on her last winter season. In January, 2005, we were lucky enough to experience a sail on the Rose.

My wife Lynne, our friend Claudia and I dinghy in to Port Elizabeth at 8AM. We're met at the dock by the Rose's tender, where we and only 12 others are ferried out to the schooner, riding on its mooring. We're greeted by Alan and served fresh orange juice while we watch the crew of three, plus Alan and the ship's chef, slip the mooring, raise the sails, and get underway. It takes four to haul up the huge gaff-rigged mainsail. Two crew can handle the two foresails.
As we motor-sail out of the bay, we're served a breakfast of crepes with nutmeg syrup, bananas and coffee. A charming British woman and her elderly father tell us that they have been vacationing on Bequia for 16 years and remember taking Friendship Rose to Bequia after flying to St. Vincent.
The scenery is fascinating as we pass close to Bequia's western tip, viewing the rugged cliffs and watching boobies dive for fish from their guano-covered roosts. We wonder about the strange, Druid-like stone habitations of the "Moon Hole" settlement. Another couple on our cruise is staying there, and tells us all about it. Built beginning in 1961 by the eccentric architect Tom Johnston, the structures are carved into the living rock. They have no electricity, no doors nor windows, and many rooms have only three walls. Lizards and birds have free access. Water is caught in cisterns and warmed by solar heaters. All the furniture is made of rock or concrete, dressed with cushions and rattan mats. Lynne says, "Not my cup of tea!"

Rounding West Cay, we head up the southern coast of Bequia until we reach Semple Cay, at the mouth of Friendship Bay, where The Rose was built some 40 years ago. There was much excitement in town the day before - everyone was talking about the whale that had been caught. For well over a century Bequia has been a whaling community, and still tries to carry on that tradition. The IWC allows St. Vincent & the Grenadines to take up to four whales a year, but in many years the Bequia whalers catch none. They whale the old way, in 26-foot engineless, open, hand-built sailboats, throwing their harpoons by hand, a very hazardous practice. We could see men working on the remains of the whale as we sailed past. We're not happy to see it, but can nonetheless respect their long-held traditions.
Leaving Semple Cay behind, Friendship Rose's sails fill as we bear off on a close reach toward Mustique, an exclusive, privately-owned island that is "home to the rich and famous", as the saying goes. As the Rose glides into Brittania Bay we're offered stems of a really nice champagne. We drop anchor in turquoise water off the communal dock, and are given the option of going ashore to take a one-hour tour of the island ending up at the boutiques, taking the tender to a nearby beach for snorkeling, or simply lounging on board in the shade in hammocks or pillows on the deck.

Naturally, the ladies opted for the tour, hoping to get an Oprah or Mick sighting. I go along for the ride and to carry the credit cards. Well, we saw Tommy Hilfiger's house, or should I say compound, but Mick Jagger's was almost hidden by vegetation. Princess Margaret's former home looks down from one of the tallest hills. No Oprah. Shopping is over relatively quickly, mercifully, and we catch the tender back to Friendship Rose.

The small complement of guests reassembles on board, and lunch is served. The ship's chef (not cook, chef), Aubrey Belmar, has prepared a fabulous meal of kingfish with a delicious sauce, a christophene au gratin casserole, and saffron rice, served on china with linen napkins. A very nice French white wine accompanies the meal. Talking with Aubrey, I learn that he has cheffed at a number of high-end resorts on various Caribbean islands. Suitably stuffed, many of our fellow sailors stretch out in hammocks for a snooze. Lynne and Claudia stretch out in the shade, chatting with each other and shmoozing with some of the other guests.
For me, Mustique was not the day's main attraction. My intent all along was to get a firsthand look at a traditionally-built Caribbean schooner. Alan is more than willing to offer me a tour of the boat, along with explanations of construction details, etcetera. Down below in the former main cargo hold (now a nicely painted lounge), Alan points out the two-and-a-quarter-inch planking of the hull - greenheart from Guyana above the waterline and Canadian pitch pine below. The massive frames are local white cedar, ceiled on the inside with planks to withstand the ravages of the cargoes the boat once carried. The boards were rough sawn and the frames hand-shaped with adzes. Up under the deck, where the deck beams meet the hull, her builders used "knees" from trees that had been blown sideways by the tradewinds to form right-angle braces to keep the frame from "working" in a seaway. Captain Lewis tells me that he searched the tops of Bequia's tallest hills to find trees with the right shape. He says, "This boat was built strong. If a boat not built strong, the frame will work, and she talk to you, 'Eeeek, eeeek, eeeek; take me home, take me home.'"

I get to see the engine room, with its 190-horsepower Caterpillar diesel. Back on deck, Alan opens a small hatch on the aft deck. "This is the aft cargo hold. We haven't done anything to it, so you'll see what the rest of the interior looked like before she was prettied up. By the way, you're the first guest to go down there." I climb down a vertical ladder. Its dark, but I can see most of the space. It's rough, and looks like the workboat The Rose was built to be. I can appreciate what has been done to the parts the guests see.

As we get underway on our return trip, I'm asked to help raise the sails. I roam around the deck, taking photos of sails, rigging, the bow wave, everything. Out come the rum punches. The friendly group gets even more chatty. As we near Bequia, we're served the final course, spice cake and tea. The Whitakers know how to put together a first class offering!

Captain Lewis sits cross-legged on the sun deck, his left arm draped over the spoked mahogany wheel. The easy way he moves the wheel to keep the Rose on course shows his intimate connection to his boat. He chats with guests, and occasionally calls out orders to crew members. It's a good feeling to see one of the boat's creators still at the helm, and the Whitakers are helping an important piece of Bequia's history maintain an active life. It was a pleasure, and something of an honor, to be able to experience it.

Hudson and Lynne Hoen are cruising the Caribbean aboard S/V The Belle of Virginia.

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