Wednesday, June 15th, 2011
After a brief visit to quiet Petite Martinique for a day the Picton Castle sailed on toward Bequia for a few days. Bequia is part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and has long been a favourite destination of sailors. Many of the islands populace are descendants of early Scottish boatbuilders and North American whaling crews as well as of ancient African lineage and still predominantly view themselves as mariners and people of the sea. Perhaps that was part of the reason this beautiful island was on the plan to visit. The Captain seems to have an uncanny way of knowing where we will feel right at home.
Anchored in Admiralty Bay off Port Elizabeth, near schooners and cargo ships, old whaling boats and fishing vessels, the Picton Castle swung gently on her anchor chain for three days. You can certainly see how the old and the new, historical and present day co-exist with one another on Bequia. A relatively secluded island, Bequia’s residents and administrators do what they can to maintain a tradition of environmental protection, preservation and traditional life-ways, while catering to a blossoming tourist-fed economy. Many of the boats we saw pulled up on the beach or anchored nearby were built on the island – with time-honoured techniques and hand tools. The majority of the sails are also made on the island and Port Elizabeth boasts working sail lofts. Aase made friends with some of the local sailmakers one morning and took pride in showing them our ship and our sails – all sewed by hand by our crew. Many of us wish we could have been there during the launching of one of these schooners or dorys, for the community gathers and it is said to be quite a festive event.
Whaling is also still practiced on the island, albeit in a restricted form. There are only a few whalers left and Siri and Shawn were privileged enough to meet some of them one evening while dining on the other side of the island. According to IWC standards, they are only allowed to catch 4 whales a year and many years they catch none at all. This is due to the fact that when these whalers – most of them men in their 40s and 50s – hunt whales, they do so in open sailboats, using hand-held harpoons virtually the same as was once done from old New Bedford whale ships in essentially the same wooden sail and pulling boats. What an insanely nerve-wracking experience that must be! When I was 12 I went whale watching for the first time off the coast of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and a humpback breached right next to our tiny zodiac, making it look alarmingly small, and me, within it, even smaller. These men take great pride in their heritage and their continuance of a lifestyle passed on by their forefathers. There is opportunity on the island, but there is also opportunity around the world. Many of the islanders spend at least a little time on international cargo ships or a few years fishing in open boats in the Caribbean waters.
You see, it is also a thriving fishing community. As Aase, Rebecca, Ali, Siri, Taia and I walked down Long Bay beach one sunny afternoon, we saw fishermen, sitting in the surf, scaling and cutting up fish they had just caught. Undoubtedly they would be serving them later that night at one of the islands famous local fish frys. The marine environment in Bequia is absolutely breathtaking. Tammy, Frankie and Raju all went diving and described seeing sharks, reef fish, pillar coral, anemones, tube worms, lobster, moray eels, barracudas, nurse sharks, angelfish, seahorses, and turtles. Even those of us who stuck to shallow water were in for a treat. Suzanne, Dan Eden, Rebecca, Mitch, Christine, Josh, Robert, Ali and I, among others, went snorkelling and what we saw just a hundred feet from shore was an underwater vista with abundant colourful coral and a playground for a plethora of marine life, including garden eels and blue chromis (this little blue, speckled glowing fish), tube worms and reef fish.
There is also plenty to see on shore and many of the crew set off on individual adventures to explore the island by land. Davey, Cody, Dan R, Niko, Ali and Paul rented a bright yellow jeep and took a cross country tour of the island. Lauren and Adrienne also rented cars. Wendy, Joh, Nadja, Chris, Sophie, Raj, Dave F and Dan E and others picked up scooters for their explorations. Bequia is delightfully unique and if you weren’t driving on a road without bridges you could swear that you were traveling to several different islands. Some watched the sunset from Mount Pleasant, others made their way to the windward beach of Spring, Nadja and Joh took the hike to Hope Bay where they swam in the surf of this secluded beach. Pania , Julie and Clark loved visiting the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, where Brother King takes the turtle eggs and then raises the babies until they have a better chance of surviving on their own – his way of bolstering the turtle population.
Some of the crew will also remember the food on Bequia. Whether it was finding the “best fried chicken since ‘Donald fried chicken” at the unassuming back alley chicken shack like Mike and Paul or discovering the local pizza like me and Meredith or the Mexican food like Frankie…we all found something that satisfied our cravings and suited our budgets. The restaurants on the island cater to hundreds of tourists a day during the peak season and yet reminders about the fragility of the local eco-system festoon every bathroom – reminding us all that water is a precious natural resource. You could say that the crew of the Picton Castle is more aware of this fact than most. We live within an obviously finite environment on the ship and see the negative results of excess consumption regularly in the form of reprimands from our ever watchful engineer Chris.
Onboard the crew continued their preparations for our imminent Lunenburg arrival. While none of us are quite ready for this voyage to be over, there is still reality to contend with. The ship looks good, but she can always look better. The crew continued to paint and varnish around the galley house and apply primer to the windlass bars, the quarterdeck ladder, the t’gallant and royal backstays. They scraped the decks, installed a new door in the Captain’s head, overhauled Chibley’s litter box and painted the workshop.
During the evenings there was live music to entertain, especially at the Frangipani, owned and operated by Sir James Mitchell, former Prime Minister of St Vincent and whose family not so long ago were shipbuilders on this very spot. Just like in Grenada, steel drums are a favourite here, performing familiar songs with a local twist. The steel vibrations mingled with the lapping of the water against the shore and the exuberant mood of the crew was infectious.
After a few days soaking in the sun, sensations and sights of Bequia we could see why Donald and Tammy both call this island their favourite in the Caribbean. And many of us wish to return one day to explore more. On May 20th, the Picton Castle hauled up the anchor and sailed out of Port Elizabeth and north once again, toward Dominica.