Saturday, 12 April 2014

Double Blessing

Boat painting in progress last Monday
A cruising life is not always the perfect idyll you might think it is. One of the big negatives is a sort of isolation especially if you were used to socialising most days with friends, family or colleagues who are now several thousands of miles away in different time zones. Kevin and I are pretty self-sufficient and so content for the most part with each other’s company but every human being craves communication with people, new discussions on all sorts of topics and sharing experiences.

Moving on every few days or weeks we meet many people but rarely get to know anyone very well. The  downside of being at anchor is that you don’t get to talk to neighbouring boats as easily as in a marina unless you make an effort and dinghy over to them to introduce yourself or take time to go and greet crews that you met on the dock in another harbour a few weeks or months ago. Ashore you might get brief snippets of conversation with shop or bar staff. However whenever anyone turns up somewhere new the locals will always be reserved; after all why invest in building a closer relationship when the visitor will be gone in a few days or weeks?

Pondering about mast fittings
Inside Crystal Claire before the paintwork was completed
The welcome yachties receive in Bequia is therefore exceptional. This is an island of sailors so we expected to have a bit more in common with the populace here than other places we’ve visited but we have been overwhelmed by the friendliness of everyone and the willingness to include their visitors in the life of the island. Go for a walk and you’ll be offered a lift or stopped to be shown the baby or talked to about a nearby vista/building/boat. If they find you are a sailor then they’ll talk model boats (gum boats they are called after the tree from which most are made) or double-enders, Bequia Youth Sailing and quickly start to regale you with tales of Iron Duke the grand-daddy of double enders that every Bequian is extremely proud of. The islanders include everyone in their conversations whether holidaying for a week in a local hotel, arriving by charter boat, island hopping on the ferry or liveaboards like ourselves. Possibly a reflection of their own mixed heritage of European whalers, African slaves and East Indian indentured plantation labour. Definitely a recognition of the income such visitors bring to this tiny place.  If you can talk about boats or sailing and are willing to be involved then they’ll recruit you into their schemes without hesitation. Kevin loves fixing boats almost as much as he loves sailing them so it took only a couple of days before someone suggested they introduce him to Andy.

Like many of the islanders Andy owns a multi-faceted business, in his case a bar cum internet café cum laundry and probably a few other things we’ve yet to discover! His passion though is for sailing and he has been overseeing the build of a double-ender (so called ‘cos bow and stern are identical) for Chris, a Geordie with a second home on the island who seems to be on a mission to put something back into the community that has welcomed him and his family. Andy rapidly had Kevin contributing experience, tools and practical effort to the rigging of the boat in return for a place on the crew in the Easter Regatta.

The Vicar watching over the mast lift
with owner Chris and his wife Claire
Crystal Claire is a mix of traditional design, modern building materials and some outright high tech ideas and is not the only double ender being launched this year. A second smaller and more traditional wooden one Slip Away was also nearing completion. Local tradition has it that new boats are blessed before launching so Friday afternoon both boats had their masts raised, the vicar arrived in the parish yard behind his church and vicarage which has doubled as a boat-building yard for several months and a big crowd gathered. A short service saw both boats and their owners blessed then it was time for launching.

Getting these 20 odd foot long boats with their overhanging lowered masts and sprits onto a boat trailer required lots of muscle power involving most of the local men and several willing cruisers. Brenton who has painted Crystal Claire immaculately directed operations, anxious about his gleaming white and blue finish. Then boat and trailer had to be man-handled past the  various palm trees leaning at awkward angles across the yard, round the corner of the buildings to the narrow driveway, then up the rails that form both a cattle grid type crossing over the deep gutter and a ramp out of the yard, ready to cross the main road. The latter is not that wide but can be busy with minibuses and taxis coming and going between ferry quay, the airport over the hill and the informal parking along the beach side.

Andy and Kevin securing the forstay
Across the yard Slip Away is having some final touches

Some of the audience/boat lifters wait on the boat trolley

Leaning palm trees don't help!

Through the gate over the gutter and across the road to the beach
Cars parked along the edge of the beach opposite had their owners summoned to move them so the final leg of the journey to the sea could commence. Another big push across the road onto the beach under the trees fringing the sea, then hanging on to the heavy weight to prevent a premature launching as the grassy sand sloped downwards, executing a right turn along the beach before coming to rest by the Youth Sailing boats.

The Vicar (left) minus his cassock recording the moment
Crystal Claire left his churchyard
Double enders originally were whaling boats and everything including the mast had to be stowed inside the boat when it was on the ships that sailed down from North America to hunt whales. Because these little boats had to be fast to follow and capture the whales the mast had a removable top part called a sprit that enables them to carry huge amounts of canvas. The modern masts are much longer than the boats but they still carry a traditional sprit to support a mainsail several feet taller than the mast itself. However the original plank outriggers have now been replaced by trapezes so that crew weight can be kept outside the boat upwind to prevent a capsize.

launching  double-ender Crystal Claire
Eventually Crystal Claire was pushed off  the trailer and floated in the clear water – the sailing kids swarmed around and over her protectively ensuring she was tied securely to a tree and had a fender under the bow to prevent her scraping her bottom on the sand and coral. The mast was raised and then she was pulled ashore by the bystanders to sit on a series of fenders until tomorrow. The whole procedure was then repeated to ensure Slip Away was quickly launched too with Dylan, her young American owner, desperately trying to slow down the locals sufficiently so he could put the bungs in before she reached the water to keep her from sinking.

Afloat ready to raise the mast
Afloat - ready to raise the mast

Dylan and Slip Away make the beach
Dylan and Slip Away make the beach
A mass of locals, ex-pats, cruisers and holiday makers thronged the narrow beach spilling out onto the road and up into Andy’s first floor café enjoying the launch party. A German film crew making a documentary of SVG island life hovered around capturing all the proceedings on camera. Finally as the sun began to set Chris ordered a crate of beer and we toasted the boats and their crews before retiring to the bar to discuss the launch, tomorrow’s sailing trials, the forthcoming regatta and anything else boaty we could think of.  It had been a unique afternoon even for the Bequians with two boat blessings and we feel very privileged to have been included in the event as friends. This is a very special island. 

Young Akeem sitting protectively on Crystal Claire  watching Slip Away being launched
Young Akeem sitting protectively on Crystal Claire
watching Slip Away being launched

Monday, 7 April 2014

Small Island, Small World

 On Bequia nothing is very far away, though we can’t tell you exact distances as our one road map has no scale and each of the islands seems to be drawn the same size. After the morning net on Wednesday we set off on a hike to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary. Having been told it was a taxi ride, someone else said it was 45 minutes to an hour along the “main” road.

Up the hill and down to the windward (Eastern) side of the island, the narrow concrete road provided stunning views across to other islands and down to coral reefs and sandy beaches. We took a small diversion past some cows across short springy turf through a grove of tall, spindly coconut palms to a beach deserted except for a red golf buggy parked on the sand some distance away, a couple of local sailing boats and some fishing nets. Over another bluff there was a short cut across a beach missing out the lovely gardens of some seriously big homes which we spotted on our return via the road.
Picture perfect beach

The best grass is obviously in the ditch!
After the next little headland was the Bequia Turtle Sanctuary where rare Hawksbill Turtles that have hatched on the beach are reared. After five years they are judged big enough and have lungs developed enough to fend for themselves so then are released into the sea. The sanctuary also cares for a few injured or deformed turtles including one pretty Greenback. The lad in charge was very knowledgeable both about his young brood and turtle conservation.

An 18 year old Hawksbill

A tiny 6 month old Hawksbill

A four year old more interested in eating fingers

Another resident of the baby turtle tank - a conch
(taken with Kevin's waterproof camera)

Another underwater snap - a greenback turtle
Walking back afterwards, it was hot almost midday and we were wishing there was a taxi when a 4x4 pulled up. “You guys want a lift to town?” Kingsley is a part time resident with a house in Springs, the settlement close to the turtle sanctuary, his other home is in a Bedfordshire village close to where Susie was brought up! It is a small world indeed. Further down the road he stopped and picked up another couple, Swiss holiday makers who had also walked out to the sanctuary.

Spot the hammock!
Deciding what to do next is hard – there is the Bequia Regatta over Easter weekend, Tobago Cays (if the weather ever improves, next week’s forecast is not much better than this weeks was), Kevin has an opportunity to help trial a brand new double ender which its genial owner Andy (the former SVG prime minister, Sir James T Mitchell’s son) is hoping will be ready in time for the regatta. It was being spray painted yesterday at the boat builders in the grounds of Port Elizabeth’s Anglican Church!!  Also seven or so miles away is St Vincent with the capital of SVG, Kingstown with some beautiful countryside, waterfalls and botanic gardens to explore. Shall we sail over there for a few days or stay put until after the regatta? Should we leave Temptress and take the ferry, it’s only an hour each way? Everyone is so friendly here; we are getting to know a few locals and acclimatising to the fierce rain squalls that sweep down from the hills once or twice a day briefly preceded by a bank of black cloud but with little other warning. Plus where else in the world can you purchase a spark plug and a case of beer from a single store? And we haven’t yet managed to walk over to Pagets Farm where the airport, boat museum and the other harbour are located either.