A spell in the tropics

Story and photos
by Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

I am sailing at night, under a full moon, with the wheel of my favorite yacht in my hands, all thanks to the kindness of her skipper, Capt. Tom Bradford, who invited me to join him and his crew sailing in the Caribbean the first week in February. The trade winds are blowing gently at a steady 14 knots; all of the classic staysail schooner Mary Rose’s sails are up, and they drive her smoothly and powerfully on a broad reach, northwesterly, toward the British Virgin Islands and tomorrow.

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But now, I savor the moment: The octogenarian Mary Rose steers easily, responsive to the slightest touch, moving along as though she were sliding through a sea of cream. The moist wind caresses my shirtless skin, bathes me in comforting cool, and I consider, for a moment, these storied waters, and how the British, French, Spanish, and the pirates of old fought for control of these sea lanes once upon a time.

We left English Harbour, Antigua, earlier in the day. Later, we watched the sun set in fiery bronze over the silhouetted mountains of the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis to port. Soon their lights would come on, and we would see them sparkling and glowing in the distance as we put them astern. I am doing the one task I love best aboard this 1926 Herreshoff schooner, hand-steering. Crewman Ferdi and I are watchmates; our skipper, Capt. Tom, and his first mate, Bonnie, are down below, resting between watches.

We watched the full moon rise in the east as the sun set, and now the myriad sparkling lights of St. Kitts are passing many miles abaft the port beam, while the great mountain of Saba looms ahead to port in the darkness. What appear to be strings of orange lights outline its dark, steep mass. Ferdi has done his trick at the helm and relaxes, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and taking an occasional pull on one of the ubiquitous water bottles. I feel joy. This adventure is one that I have long sought, to sail these waters up the Leeward Islands chain and thence to the British Virgin Islands and the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the place where sailors go to experience Heaven before they die.

At dawn, the softly brilliant Caribbean sun rose cheerfully into the sky, opposite the sinking full moon. Fair-weather tropical skies lightened overhead; a white-tailed tropicbird circled the main masthead. We’d had a great run bowling along through the night. Flying fish are darting everywhere this morning, I note, like flakes of silver, or perhaps loose handfuls of shiny pieces-of-eight flung wide. They are skipping across the waves as we greet the new day.

This adventure began with a fair wind that blew my old friend Capt. Tom back into Bristol, R.I., one afternoon in January. We rendezvoused at our favorite oyster bar. Tom had been working three weeks straight on a tugboat down in New York harbor, and now, on break, he was home for a few days before heading off to Antigua to his other, alternating job as skipper of the 80-foot Mary Rose, docked in English Harbour. He had to prepare her for the arrival of her owner, who would be flying down with family and friends to go sailing in a couple of weeks, and then race her in the annual Antigua Classic, as he does every year.

I had sailed on the Mary Rose with Capt. Tom before, and whenever Tom came into town, we’d meet for a drink. But I suspected that something was different this time.

As plates of shucked oysters on beds of crushed ice came and went like the ebb and flood of the tide, the talk turned to sailing. “Could you get some time off to come sailing with us on Mary Rose in a few weeks?” he asked, in a hopeful tone. “We’ll head out of Antigua and sail up through the Leeward Islands to the BVIs. I have to bring the boat up there anyway for the owner.”

I didn’t need any arm-twisting; the winter had been unusually cold and snowy, so I joyfully agreed to sign on as a crewman once again. We sealed the deal with glasses of rich, ruby Vinho do Porto, Capt. Tom’s favorite way to end a meeting of old skippers, and a few days later, I was on a flight to Antigua. There my taxi took me to a magical place called Nelson’s Dockyard, in English Harbour. As I rode through the gate and down the narrow, cobbled street into the Dockyard, I felt as though I were stepping back into the 18th century.

I was surrounded by antique, English-style buildings, built of bricks, that arrived from Europe long ago in ships’ bilges. Forged long-strap iron hinges creaked on rusted pintles, holding weathered wooden shutters together. I already loved the place. Mary Rose was docked stern-to, Mediterranean-style, as were all the other vessels, resembling an array of sardines festooned upon a giant fishing hook.

I joined a crew of three: Capt. Tom, Bonnie, and Ferdi, a long-bearded Austrian fellow, who had been hired by the owner. Ferdi and I became fast friends during the next week and a half of sailing. The weather was warm — much warmer than I was used to — and Ferdi welcomed me aboard with a cool rum punch and a seat in the cockpit, under Mary Rose’s new “port-duster” awning. I had just come from Boston early that morning, my jet scudding down the runway at dark-thirty through blowing snow and temperatures in the teens. Now it was 80 degrees, and I had a sweating, cold drink in my hand. I nearly had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

I was surprised to see quite a number of boats from home tied up nearby, from Newport and other frozen Yankee ports. At evening parties on the beach, youngsters from all over, crewing on tall-masted superyachts in for Race Week, partied, ate grilled shrimp and steak, and drank beer and sundowners. It was an incredible adventure for them, signing on for hard work and the adventure of their lives.

Capt. Tom had work to do on Mary Rose, so we had two lay days in port before departure. We spent a day at Pigeon Point Beach, about a mile or so away on foot, by way of the little village of Falmouth, just outside the Dockyard. As the sun was setting, we could glimpse the silhouette of the island of Montserrat in the distance, the looming bulk of its active volcano brooding behind the clouds.

Meals are sporadic when Mary Rose is in port, so I thrived on steamy-hot, spicy Caribbean meat pies from the Dockyard bakery. Mornings, though, began in Mary Rose’s saloon with a plate of banana bread from the bakery, or shortbread fingers, and a cup of Capt. Tom’s hot, strong Caribbean coffee, brewed in his old, beat-up percolator pot. None of this insipid drip-brew, mind you; the captain would have none of that. His brew would perk up the most lethargic or hung-over sailor.

On my last afternoon in the Dockyard, I climbed a hill that afforded a wide view of the sea, and fortifications overlooking the sea to the south. Round barrel cacti were growing in among the rocks by the path, and I seemed to be surrounded by darting geckos and rich red blossoms of flowering hibiscus.

After a glorious two-day sail, we found ourselves in familiar Soper’s Hole, West End, Tortola. After clearing in at Customs, we wound our way over to the Pusser’s Rum Cafe, relaxing with planter’s punches, and taking turns using the coin-operated showers. A shower never feels as wonderful as it does after a few days of deprivation in the tropics.

Later, in the quiet of the evening, we found ourselves back aboard, sitting in the cockpit with boat drinks. The lights along the shore were glowing, and the full moon traced a bright silver path across the quiet harbor. Ferdi was having a Red Stripe, his favorite beer. He hand-rolls his own very thin cigarettes with Austrian loose tobacco, and offers me one. I have not smoked in years, but what the hell, I take one and light it up.

Ferdi sleeps with his cabin door open at night, for ventilation, but with an army-surplus mosquito net hung in the doorway. Tropical mosquitoes carry serious diseases, and they are not like our gentle New England summer skeeters. They have a very high-pitched, nasty, threatening whine, like little Stuka dive bombers, and their sound is unsettling. One was loose in my hot, stuffy cabin one night, and I became alarmed, put the light on, and searched frantically for him for a few minutes, but then heard no more of him. Perhaps, the bug found another place to quench its thirst.

We spent a gorgeous day sailing up Sir Francis Drake Channel. This passage was a gift from Capt. Tom. It was also an opportunity to bring the crew together — Tom, Ferdi and Bonnie — as a working and sailing team before the owner’s arrival in a few days. Turquoise waters and sheltered seas characterize this 30-plus-mile passage between the islands from the western end of the British Virgins to Virgin Gorda at the east end.

A jolly gray whale surfaced nearby to have a look at us; dolphins followed alongside for part of the way. We passed Norman Island, and Salt Island, where the tragic wreck of the old steamer RMS Rhone, a Royal Mail ship, lies in shallow waters. We entered North Sound, Virgin Gorda, through the channel that passes by long and dangerously shallow Colquhoun Reef on one side, and Prickly Pear Island on the other.

North Sound is a beautiful place, and we arrived just before sunset. After a couple of tries, the anchor set solidly and we could secure the boat and settle down for sundowners as the day cooled off slightly. It never cools off much down here since the water temperature is nearly 80 degrees all the time, but it is more comfortable once the blazing sun has set.

After a couple of drinks, no one wanted to cook dinner, so we resolved to head in to shore to the Bitter End Yacht Club and The Crawl Pub for pizza and beer. We clambered down into the beat-up, soft-bottomed, old gray-rubber dinghy that Bonnie named Thorn. She christened it Thorn, she explained, because it always seemed to have holes in it, as though poked by thorns, and required frequent air replenishment via the foot pump. If it became too soft, it attempted to fold itself in half like a taco, or perhaps a Venus flytrap.

The evening before I had to fly home, we went to a quaint little island bar. Actually, the island is a bar, named Saba Rock, smack-dab in the middle of the channel between North Sound and Eustatia Sound, just off the beach by the Bitter End Yacht Club. One can only go there by boat, and they make a fine rum “painkiller” at their sheltered, crescent-moon-wrap-around bar with a view of North Sound.

And that’s where we enjoyed our sundowners on that last evening together, so this is where the voyage ends. Sadly, I was on an airplane the next morning bound for this ice-cube known as New England. But the adventure will continue; I have vowed to return.

Capt. Mike Martel lives in Bristol, R.I., where he writes about marine subjects and is restoring, in his free time, his 1930 Alden-designed gaff yawl Privateer. An ex-Coastie and a licensed Master, he is seeks opportunities to get out on the sea as a delivery skipper or professional crew while romancing rotted wood in his boat shed.