Saturday, 21 June 2014

Montserrat - The Emerald Isle


We are up early for a dawn start. The sail from Nevis to Montserrat is approximately 30 miles and should be a fine reach with the wind from the East. Unfortunately we got so little wind and that wind was from the South East so we had to motor sail all the way. Still with flat calm seas we did manage to see a pair of Bottlenose dolphins as we passed to the west of Redonda.

Approaching Montserrat

Smelling a sulphurous smell, it is not our heads but the volcano we can smell from several miles away! Also we realise that what we thought was a cloud over the top of mountain is actually volcanic gas and steam. Is going to an island with an active volcano such a good idea?

Beach at Little Bay

Arriving in Little Bay in Montserrat by lunchtime we had pretty much our choice of anchoring spot. We chose a spot near the jetty and the bay was flat calm. A good job we got there early as the whole fleet seemed to arrive during the afternoon, the late arrivals having difficulty finding a spot.

 Monday being a holiday (Montserrat has the same holidays as the UK) we will have a swim and go ashore to check in the following morning. Since the eruption of the volcano, there is only one port in Montserrat. Plymouth, the former capital is now completely covered in volcanic ash and mud.

Where Plymouth was!
Montserrat we discover has quite an Irish heritage, being initially colonised by Irish Catholics escaping persecution from the English on St Kitts in 1632. St Patrick’s day is celebrated with a month long celebration! Guinness is available everywhere! It is The Emerald isle in the Caribbean.
We check in on the Tuesday morning, Montserrat uses the Sail Clear system so in theory we can do it online, unfortunately internet access is virtually impossible here and in any case the system is down, so it is back to the old ways of carbon paper and duplicate copies. A 3 day in and out clearance is granted which means we have to leave by Friday morning. This should suit us fine as we plan to do an island tour on the Wednesday, investigate the snorkelling on the Thursday and leave on Friday for Guadeloupe before the predicted Northerly swells arrive. Montserrat is no place to be with the wind or swell from the North as there is virtually no protection. There are plans to build a new harbour and a marina which will offer more shelter, the problem as always is finding the money, an estimated US$250 million!, on an island with a population of 5,000. It is only $50,000 for every man woman and child on the island!

The Anchorage from Brades
After checking in we decide to walk up to Brades, the town overlooking the harbour. Quite a few shops and the only cash machines on the island are here. There a  few small grocery shops and we are pleasantly surprised at the selection and reasonable prices.
We were lucky to see the top of the Volcano

We arrange our Island tour through ‘Moose’, his bar is behind the new row of smart bars along the beachfront. Charles Daly our taxi driver and guide is a retired policeman on Montserrat but his family were originally from St Vincent. As a young man he saw the advert and applied for the Royal Montserrat Police Force and has been here ever since.

The sign alongside the stream reads "Drink from this burn and to Montserrat you shall sure return"

His love for the island is infectious and it is easy to see why so many wealthy people had holiday homes here before the volcano erupted.

New harbour buildings
Our drive around the island started at Little bay where a new town is being constructed, this is going to be the Capital, the temporary buildings are being replaced with permanent structures and there is a new market, museum and a cultural centre. The cultural centre was funded by a rock concert arranged by George Martin (of The Beatles fame), supported by many of the artists who had recorded at Air Studios Montserrat. There is a ‘helping hands’ wall with handprints of many of the artists who helped the cause.

Eric's hands
Our next stop was the small but interesting botanical gardens which is focusing on local flora with medicinal or health benefits, but includes an undercover rainforest area with some beautiful orchids. It is much dryer on the lower parts of the island. There is a very nice small gift shop with good selection of merchandise run by volunteers from the National Trust.

Yellow Heleconia - The National flower
 The sight of the devastation caused by the volcano is both amazing and sobering.

Still out of bounds!

At the volcano observatory, a film is shown of the events leading to the evacuation of most of the population, the eruption and subsequent pyroclastic ash and mud flows.

At the Volcano centre - Volcano behind

The former capital has been completely obliterated, the former golf course is covered by 8 feet of mud and ash, Old Road Bay has moved seaward some 500 metres (so is not much of a bay anymore) and the airport burnt out and covered by several feet of volcanic ash. Despite all of this the locals are optimistic and upbeat about their future. Those who stayed are making a go of things and many have returned.

Deserted Air Studios

This was a hotel - Note the pool filled in with volcanic ash

Just the top floor remains - the lower two stories  are buried!
The following day we snorkel the reef in Little Bay, seeing sand eels and a southern stingray round the anchor and a nice reef. In the afternoon we took the dinghy to Rendezvous Bay, a huge area of flattish reef also with lots of life.

Redfin Parrotfish with Tube sponges

Marauding Blue Tangs

We saw Red Billed Tropic birds nesting on the cliff between Little bay and Rendezvous bay, soaring and calling.

An unidentified heron by the dinghy dock

 Sundowners on the beach in Monty’s bar (run by a former British matelot who first saw Montserrat at 18 years old and has returned to run a bar and dive shop) completed our day.

Carrs gun battery overlooking  the anchorage

That evening the predicted swells arrived and we rolled terribly. We were glad to be away in the morning. Our departure was delayed an hour by heavy rain which reduced the visibility to 200metres. Finally we are off, around the north coast and looking to sail to Guadeloupe. Not so fast! Rounding the top of the island we run over a fishing float semi-submerged in the swells. The float we hit is attached to the main pair of floats by a makeshift rope and we have severed this off wrapping it around our prop.

Just what we didn't need!

There is a horrendous banging as the float (an old plastic bleach container) bashes against the hull with every rotation of the prop shaft. The swells are too big to go under the boat and we cannot get it off from the boarding ladder with the boat hook. Fortunately we haven’t locked the shaft with the rope so it should be easy to remove later in calmer water.
Calm water we haven’t got, neither have we got the wind in the right direction to sail to Guadeloupe, so it is back to Antigua where we are headed by the wind and are forced to short tack into Hermitage bay in 5 islands harbour where we anchor under sail between ‘Vivace’ and ‘Secouden’ who had been our neighbours in Montserrat as well. 10/10 was awarded by our neighbours for our manoeuvring under sail. In the calm waters of the bay a quick swim under the boat and we easily removed the offending attachment. Fortunately no damage was done.

The offending rope removed
The weather is not forecast to be good for a few days (South East winds and 2-3m seas), so once again we will be in  in Jolly Harbour waiting for some fair winds before setting off to Deshaies in Guadeloupe.

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