Cheshire Cat in Bequia

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bequia Easter Regatta

Easter Regatta is an opportunity for the people from nearby islands to visit Bequia for the racing competitions and a big boisterous beach party.

There are no engines on these boats, lots of enthusiastic manpower is needed to get them into the water

Local fishermen and families spent days and even weeks sprucing up their sturdy working boats, cleaning bottoms and painting the hulls in bright racing colours.

Racing sails were brought out of storage, crews selected and trained. Long hours were spent practicing in preparation for the three day racing events. There were several different sizes of boats, so there were also several classes of race to suit the differences. There was even a sailboat race and some of the lighter weight and more adventurous cruisers entered in the competitions.

We saw the locally famous whaling boat Perseverance beautifully painted and fully rigged ready to beat all comers in its Regatta class! Boats of different sizes were to be found all along the beaches undergoing their renovations in the days leading up to the races.

Smaller brightly painted fishing boats on a beach ready for race day.

The fishing boats are constructed in a single basic style, as they have no keels ballast takes the form of bags filled with sand. One crew member is responsible for moving the bags from side to side as the boat tacks each way through the water.

The sail area seems very big, and the crew also sits (or hikes) out over the side and suspended above the water, strapped to the boat with only a flimsy harness. If you fall in and your companions can't scoop you out quickly, you stay in the water until a rescue boat comes by at the end of the race!

On the first day of the regatta we cruisers all took our dinghies over to the beach where there was a sandcastle competition. We hadn’t t realised we could have entered - making sandcastles is special fun - but the winner had a very original pirate construction, and the small children in the family that made it were thrilled with their efforts. A crazy boat race was an adventure in ingenuity. Each entry had to be constructed by hand using only recyclable materials.

Ingenuity was the order of the day and we saw floating ‘boats’ constructed out of old rubber inner tubes, plastic water bottles tied up in fishing net, old sails with a floatation liner made from old life jackets and a wooden skid with fenders holding it up. Crazy indeed! One or two competitors hadn't had time to test out their vessels and found they were too heavy so they inveigled some nearby child to take the helm. It took several false starts and a lot of enthusiastic shouting and encouragement to get the winner over the finishing line!

Model Boats on the beach

An unusual addition to the events was model boat racing. These hand crafted yachts were also being rigged and painted in sheds and yards all over the islands.

They were much larger than the small remotely controlled models we are accustomed to seeing – most standing well over the height of a man. Some had tiny roller furling and even the shrouds had miniature turnbuckles, just like our full size yachts. We were told that the bulbs on the deep keels can be changed baccording to specific weather conditions and were shown one that had been cast in a sand mould, then machined into shape. We were told it weighed 50 lb.

None of these models boats had engines; the sails had lines which trailed in the water over the stern of the wind driven vessel. The racers were each followed by a mother ship and when the model had to change direction, somebody had to leap into the water, swim up behind the model and personally adjust the sails using the lines at the back of the boat! The races were conducted in deep water over courses of considerable distance. Amazing!

Harrison posing beside a typical model boat

Two days were taken up with sailboat racing – with several classes of vessel and some pretty fancy sail work around the markers. The wind was blowing quite well so everyone made good time.

The fishing boat races started early in the next bay along the coast and they all finished up in our bay. At the end they were all pulled up onto the beach so that everyone could mingle, sample the food from the various stalls set up nearby and later sing and dance well into the night.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mike's birthday - celebrated on the beach in true cruiser style

Friends arrived to join us to celebrate Mike’s 60th birthday.

The island is tiny - seven square miles, and the original name, Becouya, means Island of Clouds.

This gorgeous island turned out to be one of our favourite places in the Caribbean. The water in the bay was clear and warm and not too deep, the sun shone brilliantly everyday and we seemed always to have a breeze coming across the decks to keep us cool. All the boats’ wind generators were kept spinning and in conjunction with the active solar panels ensured our ships’ batteries were full all the time.

The little town nearby was very appealing and we could find almost everything we needed in the local shops. We found a Post Office; a bank; a great little book shop; a small chandlery; and an internet (that even provided beer!) There was a ‘dollar’ bus, generally to be found under the almond trees (a.k.a. the Houses of Parliament) near the ferry dock if we needed to go further than we felt we could walk, and the big car ferry that went to and from the busy towns on St Vincent the neighbouring island, several times each day.

All manner of fresh fruit and veggies were found at the ‘Rasta market’ - although we soon found the vendors there were a bit too aggressive when promoting their wares; we learned instead to buy from the women at their little stalls set up on the roadside. We quickly discovered that Happy Hour at the Frangipani Hotel was aptly named - the strength of the ‘two for one’ rum punch drinks was legendary! There were also several very nice restaurants including an excellent pizza place called Mac's on the seashore.

Cheshire Cat anchored off Princess Margaret beach - a beautiful stretch of clean, golden sand, with great swimming and snorkelling on a nearby reef. Brenda, a keen diver, took some of us newbies off snorkelling onb the reef and gave us a brief lesson about fish that live there. I wished I knew more about the creatures that lived so close to us in the oceans around us.
On one particular evening we arrived back at the boat (after one of those frvoloous Happy Hour sessions onshore) to find an English flagged yacht right behind us - and I mean close! I must have a very carrying voice (really?) as I made a tiny comment to Mike about it and a few minutes later a rather dejected voice called over to say that they knew they were anchored too near but would we mind if they waited to re-anchor the next morning? One thing led to another, they came over for a drink and we made new friends with Yanna and Chris sailing on Moody Finn.

The real reason we were here was that Mike was due to have his 60th birthday and several of our closet friends sailed from quite distant islands to join us for the big day. Caroline and Charles (Itza Purla); Andrea, Alex and David (Gallant); Brenda and John (Willow); Dalton (Quietly); Katie and Harrison (Circe), Jenny and Tom (Annie B) all arrived and were joined by Yanna and Chris (Moody Finn); Carol and Alan (Coral Moon) Time and Tide, Marcie and Rod (Wind Miller); Bunky and Geoff (Everden). We gathered on the beach, each boat bringing something to eat for sharing and their own drinks.

One afternoon there was a first-class game of cricket on the beach. Tom even dressed in his good whites for the occasion!

We discovered that the Bequians are allowed to catch whales and even though we may not condone the destruction of these mammals there is a long tradition of whaling in the community: whaling was how the islanders used to make their living and survive on this tiny island far, far away from civilization. Nowadays Bequians are restricted by law to catching only four whales each year, although catching any whales at all is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. The young men no longer have to risk their lives and find easier ways of making a living.

Museum with a picture painted on a whale bone

There is a tiny one room museum (really the lower floor of a little house) which has an

enormous whale jawbone at the front gate; inside there are some wonderful old whaling implements and tools and an amazing picture painted on massive whalebone, depicting the story of the whale hunt. We chatted with an elderly gent called Harold. He turned out to be the nephew of the last, recently deceased and locally famous harpooner. A traditional sailboat built with wood is used, manned by only eight men, with oars as a secondary form of propulsion. There are no engines as whales will hear those and be frightened away.

Apparently the villagers used “spotters” positioned on the hills who looked out for whales near the coast. When they saw a whale they used a system of mirrors to signal to the boats that whales were in the area. Having located the whale and manoeuvred the small boat close enough to the much larger whale, the harpooner balances precariously on the bow and shoots his harpoon. If the hit is successful everyone in the boat hangs on for dear life as the annoyed and frightened whale usually takes off at great speed and puts up a strong fight to escape. The harpoon is firmly tied to the boat with a long length of strong rope, so there is no escape for either hunter or hunted. Occasionally a whale might ‘sound’ or dive unexpectedly; this causes an immense dilemma – because of that 140 fathoms of rope tied to the boat. If the crew can’t cut themselves loose quickly enough, they get towed down into the depths of the ocean with the boat and the whale!

Having finally made the kill, the whale had to be towed back to the island (often many miles away by now) and somehow manhandled ashore. That must have been a struggle given the size of the whales and the little amount of simple machinery available to the islanders. The whale is divided up and rendered; all of it was used for some purpose or another. bPretty gruesome, but one has to admire the courage and the skills involved in this very traditional event.

The Bequia islanders are very proud of their heritage - their ancestors originally came all the way from Scotland where their whaling skills were first honed. They still use the same style of locally made wooden sailing boats and the old fashioned harpoons that were used hundreds of years ago. In fact the last great harpooner died only 2 years ago.

Bequians did take a whale this year but the venture wasn’t a great success because the place where they traditionally rendered the whale wasn’t available, and the site they had to use wasn’t secure. Instead of a big celebration the event was sabotaged and created a certain amount of ill will amongst the locals. The general consensus seems to be that the whole event will die a natural death – the sport is extremely dangerous and the young men are not as willing to take the same risks in these modern times.

The boats however, have a secondary use – thyey areused to compete in local racing competitions and we were lucky enough to be in Bequia for the EASTER REGATTA.

Brother King's Turtle Sanctuary

'Brother' King has spent the last ten years collecting and saving endangered hawksbill turtles. He encourages people to bring him any small turtles or eggs that they find, and keeps them until they are big enough to survive on their own at about 2 years of age. He has several special tanks in his building all full of turtles in various stages of maturity, and he feeds and cares for them with the little money donated by visitors to the sanctuary.

We were fortunate to be able to see a female Hawksbill turtle go free whilst we were visiting with Brother King. He assured us that the turtle will return when it is mature to lay eggs. There is a huge turtle swimming around in the bay where we are anchored.

She headed straight for the water and out to sea.

Another good long hike found us looking for shells – we had been told that there was a great shell beach some distance away (can you believe that we can’t find a single fancy shell anywhere – none of us!). We set off (this turned out to be a five hour hike) only to find that we had been grievously misinformed! When we finally walked to the end of the beach we found ourselves at the famous Moonhole Retreat Hotel.

In contrast we passed a stretch of beach where we found locals sitting and worki9ng away under temporary thatch shelters. They were breaking large rocks and stones into small gravel chips using a small crude hammer. The chips were about the size used for road works. It was something of a shock to see the contrast between these obviously very poor people and the exclusive and fashionable hotel retreat just a few hundred yards away

On the way home we stopped to buy lobster at a small fishing village. The fresh catch was housed in a special salt water shed, and we could take our choice of all the creatures lurking in the shallow water

Well- let me tell you it is not all a bed of roses here in the beautiful Bequia!!

Katy, Caroline, Tatti and Deirdre on long walk to moonhole

First – the dentist. I had lost a tooth in St Martin where the local dentist prices seem to be similar to those in North America. After checking around I heard about a dentist on St Vincent, whose charges were said to be more reasonable. Nice man, but we were warned that he was not “timely”. So be it we thought, and I could well foresee that anybody on Caribbean time wouldn’t be “timely”. The first and second appointments came and went in reasonable order, especially as I could catch the fast ferry to St Vincent.

Unfortunately, Mike and I had to sail over to the island for my later appointments which were in the evening and did not fit with the ferry schedule. This necessitated all the hoopla of up anchoring and re anchoring when we got back, becoming a major situation. Our manual anchor windlass is not very reliable, and quite understandably Mike hates having to pull up the heavy anchor and all the associated chain by hand. Apart from the notion that the next time we anchor the damned thing will give up and he’ll have to strip it yet again. (Hopefully we will soon have some new springs for the inner workings – which may relieve some of the angst – no springee, no fixee).

Two weeks have come – and gone – no appointment available, as the porcelain pearlies have not arrived back at the dental office. So I’m phoning every day. (Let me explain about the phones. It’s a local call to the next island – St Vincent. Simple one would say. Not so. There are various public phones boxes – every time I insert my 25 cent piece – I get through, the receptionist answers – I talk – she puts the phone down. I’m obviously talking into thin air – alternatively she doesn’t like me. However I clear up that little insecurity by getting one of the locals to lend me a cell phone – everyone here has a cell phone. I make the call and have no problem in ascertaining that she doesn’t dislike me, merely that the phone system doesn’t work. This could explain why the locals all have cell phones at 75 cents a minute instead of using local call boxes for 25 cents. Eventually I did make the appointments and everything turned out well. I could talk and smile again without frightening everyone off.

Bunky, Deirdre, Brenda, Carol, Caroline, Yanna and Marcie at cruiser style Happy Hour

Yesterday Mike and I had a little jaunt into town. We made a little detour into a bar that Mike has discovered that sells beer at three dollars instead of the usual four at the tourist traps; this is where the “regular” cruisers and locals – the real people, not the tourists – hang out. So we had a couple of beers, and swapped sailing stories for an hour or so. Returning to the boat, we were horrified to discover that Mike’s precious Foxy’s T-shirt had fallen overboard.

Mike immediately insisted on donning snorkelling gear and jumped into the water to look for it. Luckily we could see it easily, quite close by, lying on the seabed beside the boat, still tucked onto its plastic coathanger. The hanger wafted a little from side to side in the current. Despite not having had lunch, apart from several beers, (I’d had no breakfast either,) Mike was absolutely adamant that the shirt should be retrieved immediately and insisted on diving on it several time until he got tired. Eventually we called a temporary halt so that we could get a little something to eat.

Our next brilliant idea was that we should take the dingy anchor, row the dingy over the spot where the t-shirt lay, drop the dinghy anchor close by so we wouldn't float away. Then we could troll for the shirt with another small anchor, hook the shirt on the anchotr and haul it up to safety and all would be well. We duly jumped into the dinghy, both wearing masks and snorkels so that we could see into the water. We dumped the dinghy anchor over the side in roughly the right spot. Soon both of us were upended over the side of the dinghy, searching and trolling for the shirt with the second anchor. We had taken the precaution of tying the anchor a line leading back to the boat and the second anchor was on a line which I held.

I'm sure you can conjure up a vision of us - bums up in the air, goggles on and peering into 20 feet of water, while at the same time trying to keep the dingy stationery.

House cladding made from metal printers forms

Quite unexpectedly the string somehow undid itself from the dingy anchor that was holding the boat. We drifted away and in the ensuing confusion I, (still upended over the side of the dinghy,) let out too much line on the trolling anchor and that rope also slipped gently out of my hand to spirall down ending up lying neatly on the growing pile of shirts, anchor and anchor line.

We went back to the boat to confer. Tempers were getting a little ragged. After some discussion we decided to lash our two long boat hooks together, secure a line to the extended pole with duct tape and try our luck again. Mike was really determined to get his t-shirt back! This time I tied a diving weight on myself to help me get under water. The pole was about 12 feet long so we thought I shouldn’t have to dive far. Off we went again , armed with the stick which now looked like a jousting pole. I slid into the water, relocated the pile of goodies, and dove. Well, I tried to dive. Time and again I tried. I was never much good at diving but I can float extremely well. Well - the effort of diving made me loosen my grip on the pole. It too floated down to the sea bed, coming neatly to rest on the t-shirt, coat hanger, trolling anchor and rope and dinghy anchor and rope!!

We were out of ideas and also minus Mike’s best T-shirt, our two dingy anchors and all of our boat hooks!!

The boat next to us had discretely left the anchorage, probably laughing at out antics. Not wanting to create further amusement for all the others around us we quit for the day. The following day we went to visit Willie who lives in a house near the beach. We see him go by everyday when he sails his wooden row boat past us using an old sheet of plastic. Luckily he was home and agreed to help. He didn’t even laugh! He used to be able to free dive to down to 60 feet in his old profession of spear fisherman in St Vincent before he had to quit and learn to make jewellery our of wood, coconut and whale bone. He only made one dive and rescued everything at once!

Willie the ex diverb sailing his row boat with a piece of plastic held into the breeze.

Mike is majorly pissed off at having to fix the engine on the dingy. Again.

Actually it’s not the engine, it’s the starter cord. It keeps on coming unsprung, and the string doesn’t fly back into its little box as it should. Every time this happens he has to pull the engine off the dingy, heave it onto the boat, undo a bunch of nuts and bolts, re-set the spring and cord, put everything back together lug it back into the dingy, set it up and test it. There is always the worry it will fail mid journey and the wind and the current can be quite strong, I don’t want to drift to Panama! I don’t go out in it alone – Panama not being my hoped for destination quite at the present moment! Mike pleads with the gods in the vernacular to send money for a new engine!! (He’s just had to do it all again today which is why I’m getting the fallout.) In personal recompense he’s had a couple of stiff drinks and has sloped off to bed with a book. For a guy who never read books, he surely reads a lot these days. I suspect he may have a long look at the inside of his eyelids any minute now.

Barber shop with airplane seats for waiting customers

Deirdre is thoroughly pissed of at constant cooking and cleaning and washing clothes. I thought that when one “took off” all these trivial necessities like shopping, meal planning and constant cooking took off as well!! Not so! It becomes even more of a challenge!

Washing clothes is a challenge. Everything gets salt water on it – or alternatively it gets extremely sweaty with the constant 80 degree temperature. The novelty of sitting around in salty shirts and shorts has finally worn off, making it necessary to have a 'going out' set of clothes and a 'sitting around on the boat' change. There are Laundromats – in some places, but at 20 EC a load – that’s about 10 Canadian dollars – I tend to take a do-it-yourself approach.

What is a budget anyway? Something like rules – made to be broken?

The sun continues to shine, and the water is wonderfully warm and clear.
We ain’t planning to give it up!
Local boys helped the cruisers with underwater hull cleaning

There are compensations!