9th April 2018
The only port of entry for yachts arriving in Montserrat is Little Bay, so that’s where we dropped our anchor feeling battered and knackered after a lively and lumpy sail from Guadeloupe. Although Little Bay (as the name implies) is small, most of the time we were in the unique position of being the only yacht in town with just a few local fishing boats and the ferry for company. It felt quite exclusive. Even at its busiest, only four yachts swung at anchor in the bay, including us, so it never felt crowded. And most of those yachts arrived after customs office closing time and left before they reopened.
It’s possible to clear in and out of Montserrat at the same time if staying for less than three days, which avoids the inconvenience of a return visit to Customs. So I requested a 72-hour stay on the Sailclear system and headed off in the dinghy to the ferry dock, where I managed to land on the wrong side, inflicting upon myself a vertical climb up the steps to get to land. Now on an idiotic roll, I blundered into an empty building marked Customs until, after five minutes, my thick head registered that I was in the building for arriving ferry passengers. The real customs office is buried deep in the dockyard behind a door clearly marked ‘Customs’.
Sailclear wasn’t working (internet down) so the process was a little more involved than it might otherwise have been:
1. fill out a triplicate clearance form
2. hand it to the customs guy
3. go to another counter to pay $35 EC
4. take the receipt to the customs guy
5. go to port security
6. fill in another form to get security clearance
All this might seem lengthy, but only took 15 minutes and it’s a lot easier than it sounds. Now free to roam, I made my way back to those vertical steps and, based on recent poor performance, very carefully lowered myself into the dinghy before heading back to Lady Jane. Caution being the best part of valour, or whatever the cliche is, we stayed onboard that night.
10th April 2018
There are plans to develop Little Bay to build it into Montserrat’s capital. As part of that initiative, there’s an aspiration to make the bay more attractive to visiting yachts by creating a breakwater to lessen the impact of northerly swells. But all this is going to take time – years in fact. And until that happens, Brades is carrying the baton as the de facto capital, and Little Bay remains a charming little place.
The roads in Little Bay give the impression that this is a little piece of England in the tropics, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is one of the few British Overseas Territories. Despite its outwardly British appearance, however, Montserrat has its roots planted in Ireland. When St Patricks Day arrives, Little Bay transforms into a little piece of the emerald isle. People come here from all over to join the party. It’s a pity we missed it. I’ve seen the photographs, and the party seems fantastic – and very green.
Later in the day, we called at the Summer Breeze restaurant for a drink and chatted with the staff there. One of them, Lashona, said that she would love to go on a boat. I said ‘Come on then, we’ll take you.” She looked horrified. I didn’t want to give the impression that we are kidnappers, so we agreed to come back the next day to take her to Lady Jane after our tour of the island.
Today marked 20 years of Maria and I being together. That’s 20 years since our first ‘official’ date when I plied her with wine and fed her venison sausages and celeriac mash, created with the help of Delia Smith’s Winter Collection. I couldn’t recreate our first-date dinner from our food stocks on Lady Jane, so we had leftover curry and a bottle of champagne bought from Guadaloupe, instead.
11th April 2018
Montserrat has suffered many natural disasters. One of the worst in recent history being hurricane Hugo that took out most of the infrastructure in 1989. But probably the most memorable, because of the extensive press coverage, was the volcanic eruption on 18th July 1995. The eruption buried the capital, Plymouth, in more than 20 metres of mud. And the volcano has been venting ash and sending the odd pyroclastic flow down the mountain ever since, making most of the island a no-go area.
Intrigued, we arranged a tour of the island with Sunny from Montserrat Island Tours and paid extra to get a permit to visit Plymouth. And as promised he was waiting for us in his minivan at the dock car park at 1000. Sunny has lived here for most of his life and has intimate knowledge of the island, so he packed the tour with far too much information to convey here. But if you do have the opportunity to visit, take the trip – it is very worthwhile.
One of the places we stopped on the way to the exclusion zone was Runaway Ghaut which gets its name from a group of French soldiers who quickly disappeared after being challenged by the locals. Legend is that if you drink the water from the berm here, you will return to Montserrat. So, as we quite fancy being here for St Patrick’s Day, we each took a drink of the unfiltered water from the stream and continued our journey south.
We stopped next at the Hilltop coffee shop, owned by Sunny’s dad, which is home to more artefacts than we have seen in some museums. Many of the items in the shop are a tribute to Air Studios, a recording studio used by several famous musicians. The hall of fame includes Dire Straits, The Police, Paul McCartney, Elton John, The Rolling Stones – each seeking a creative retreat in the tropics. After Hurricane Hugo, the studio closed and decamped to England where it is still alive and kicking. On the topic of music, a famous song was created in Montserrat by a less-internationally-famous musician: Hot Hot Hot was first written and recorded in 1992 by Arrow, a Montserratian who is locally renowned for his Arrows men’s clothing shop. Although Arrow is no longer with us, the Buster Poindexter version of his hit continues to blast out of the speakers at parties.
During a great (and inexpensive) lunch at the Attic restaurant, we heard the chimes from the island-wide warning system which alerts islanders if the volcano starts to get critically lively. These speakers are everywhere. After lunch, we plonked ourselves back in the car with windows up to stop the ash dusting the interior, and headed off towards the exclusion zone.
The Exclusion Zone
The entrance to the exclusion zone is blocked by a barrier and access is only permitted if prior official approval has been granted. The police need to see the approval documents before letting any vehicle in. Fortunately Sunny had them and, after handing them to the police, we were waved through to continue our drive into the moon-like landscape leading to Plymouth.
It’s hard to imagine what lies beneath here as Mud and ash cover everything, including the roads. Fortunately, however, Sunny has a stash of pre-eruption photographs showing what things used to look like before being buried.
The Montserratians have turned this disaster into an enterprise: quarry trucks passed us trundling out of the zone laden with volcanic ash for export as building material. Apparently this is a significant export, and usually, the quarry is in full flight. But we had fortuitously chosen a day when the activity was light, so we could see where we were going. Apparently, the quarrying throws up a dust bowl that would put a desert storm to shame.
The deal while in the Plymouth area is to keep the car engine running at all times for a quick getaway in case the volcano decides to get more lively. From memory, I believe there is a 35-second window to get into the car and get driving. So, this is not a place to get your deckchair out and sip a daiquiri. And Sunny had to keep the Observatory informed of our movements throughout our time here.
Everything is buried here to various degrees: The original Arrows Man’s shop is buried up to the top floor. The petrol station has disappeared under mud and ash. The hotel rooms are full of ash to the top-of-loo level. The supermarket first floor is now the ground floor. And the boulder in the photographs was launched from the mouth of the volcano. It’s an exciting place.
Amazingly, despite the near-continuous assault from the volcano, many things inside the buildings have survived intact. The hotel books and those of the supermarket are left untouched by heat and serve as an eery historical record marking the eruption and mass evacuation.
After checking in with the police on the way out from Plymouth, we stopped at the volcano observatory and watched an excellent video describing the history of Montserrat. Sunny still works here occasionally, so was able to get us a private screening.
Across the land from the observatory is a site with a test drilling to assess the feasibility of geothermal energy – there’s a lot of it here after all – for electricity production to reduce the reliance on the diesel generators throughout the island.
Worst football team in the world.
On June 30, 2002, the day of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final, Montserrat – then the lowest ranked team in the world – played against the second lowest team, Bhutan, in a friendly match known as “The Other Final”, but lost 4–0. This last match cemented Montserrat’s position in the football world rankings as the worst football team in the world. There is some talk about a rematch.
Heading back to Little Bay, we stopped at an old sugar mill which, incredulously and lost to history, used steam rather than wind power to crush the sugar cane. Then, after a quick look at the government buildings and the prison, which are all located in the same place with a lovely hilltop view – and a sea view for the prisoners, we headed back to Little Bay to fulfil our commitment to Lashona at the Summer Breeze restaurant.
Our promise to take Lashona to see Lady Jane had generated some excitement. All the staff and management wanted to go. This was their first offer to see a yacht, so they weren’t going to pass on this opportunity. And we weren’t going to disappoint them.
Organising the trips into ones and twos we took them in the dinghy to Lady Jane, helping them onboard to give them the guided tour of the inside, followed by a photo session on the bow of the boat. It was great fun. Terry, Lashona, Andrea, Davika, and Shaeeda each went back very happy and are now part of the Lady Jane hall of fame.
We ate at the Summer Breeze that night, but Davika wouldn’t take a penny from us.
On Thursday morning our three days were up, so we lifted our anchor and headed out. Although our original plan was to go further north to Nevis and St Kitts, facing an ugly swell and heavy wind, we decided to head to Antigua instead.