Thursday, May 26th, 2011
On April 28th, 2011 the Picton Castle cast off her mooring lines and motored out into the Marigot Harbour in St. Martin from the wharf where we had been moored. While planning to sail all the way to St. Barths (a mere 20nm southeast of St. Martin) opposing winds made this impossible. The Captain, wishing, as we did, to sail, proposed motoring the ship to a place best able to catch these prevailing winds. There we would shut off the engine and sail to St. Barths under full sail – tacking where and when we must.
We certainly did catch the winds, as the Captain suspected, and we seemed to hurtle toward St. Barths. The seas were choppy and unreasonably stubborn and, despite the fact that we had all spent at least a few months onboard, did not disquiet our now queasy stomachs. A scratchy radio call from Chief Mate Mike (currently Captain of Pipe Dream) caused a bit of excitement. It turned out the he and his motley crew of Robert, Josh, Dan and Paula, were tacking just a point off our port bow, also making for Gustavia. Hoping to capture this moment for posterity the Captain wrote to Ollie Campbell, who was at this very minute, lounging amongst his fellow celebrities on St. Barths. “You should hire a boat and film us as we come in” he wrote. “We are going to come screaming into this harbour.” Unfortunately we were too quick for the star and before he could extract himself from the lawn chair he was no doubt folded into, we were already anchored outside Gustavia.
It would soon be a moment of happy reunion. Ollie, Wendy, Fred and Katelinn had already arrived with Good Expectation. Mike, Paula, Josh, Dan and Robert, tacking before us, would soon be in. Davey would be arriving on Sweetheart later that day. Tammy and Adrienne were sailing on Tradition, which was also due to arrive in the afternoon. In addition to a reunion with our own crew, our crew would also be reuniting with the Carriacou sloops we had sailed in the Antigua Classics. You see, we had come to St. Barths, not just for the good food and the sandy beaches, we had come to participate in the West Indies Regatta!
The West Indies Regatta was imagined by long-time Caribbean resident, photographer, published author, sailor, boat builder and social anthropologist, Alexis Andrews. While studying for his degree in anthropology, Alexis came across some literature on the boatbuilders of Carriacou which inspired him to travel to Carriacou personally. Carriacou had long carried a tradition of building these beautiful Carriacou sloops, since the 19th century in fact, when Scottish shipwrights, sent to the island of Carriacou to build schooners and sloops for trading, met with the islanders masterful at the craft of boatbuilding. Many of the residents of Windward, on the windward side of the island, still build these beautiful boats. In recent history, however, this practice had significantly declined. It was Alexis’s hope, that with interest, this might again become a larger part of Carriacou culture. The West Indies Regatta was established in the hopes that many Carriacou sloops might come from Windward and other parts of the Caribbean that they now call home, and sail. This regatta there were nine such sloops in company – and we were all so very glad to see it.
St. Barths is an overseas collectivity of France, but it experienced a great era of maritime prosperity when it was under Swedish control for some time. A volcanic and relatively rocky and arid island, St. Barths was not the ideal location for plantation agriculture. What it did have, however, was excellent natural harbours. Under the Swedish, Gustavia, the capital and main port, was declared a free port during the late 1700s and into the 1800s. This made it incredibly convenient for mariners trading and running goods – both legal and clandestine trading flourished here. Despite the years that have passed since then and the fact that France now lays claim to the island, this heritage is still very much present.
When the Captain visited St. Barths in the Brixham trawler Maverick and the brigantine Romance in the 1970s, it was a sleepy little island community dedicated to fishing, planting and providing smuggling goods to various islands sloops and schooners. Now, tourism has exploded and it has become known as a destination for the rich and famous. Though it has not changed enough to lose its eternal charm and sailors flock to this island now more than ever.
As we took the skiff into the harbour we motored past multi-million dollar yachts and schooners. As we walked toward customs and immigration, we past trendy clothing boutiques, sheeshee cafes and ritzy spas on the shore side and in the harbour, tied up next to the multi-million yachts alongside, were the several of the Carriacou sloops we had so fallen in love with sailing. We could hear the unmistakable sounds of maritime camaraderie, music and laughter coming from the cockpits and bows of these beautiful, traditional boats. The sailors, preferring their boats to the upscale restaurants, had purchased baguettes, cheese and pepperoni and were enjoying a feast as they reconnected with old friends and met new ones. The juxtaposition of these two worlds is quite striking, but in St. Barths it makes sense.
When the Picton Castle hauled up anchor the next morning and motored into the narrow harbour to take our place on the dock, stern to, next to the sloops we planned to sail on that weekend, we too found our place among the mishmash.