Alone in the Caribbean
TO LAND at Saba in a small boat you must choose the right
kind of weather. If there is no wind you cannot sail, if there is too
much wind you cannot land, for the seas swinging around the island will
raise a surf on the rocky beaches that will make a quick end of your
boat. For a week there had been too much wind. One day the trade eased
up a bit and de Geneste said, "You better make a troy in de mornin'." I
The next morning seemed to promise the same kind of day as
that on which I rushed from Guadeloupe to Montserrat and I feared
trouble when I should reach Saba. The wind was already blowing a good
sailing breeze and we took to the water at seven o'clock and with Saba
a little north of WNW and the wind nearly east I sailed west for an
hour wing-and-wing. Then I laid my course for the island. Half an hour
later I was obliged to reef because we were making too much speed in
the breaking seas. "A fine layout this!" I thought, for if I did not
reach the island before the surf ran heavy, I had visions of joining my
long painter to all my halyards, sheets, and spare line and swimming
ashore with it to let the canoe tail off in the wind, moored to some
out-jutting rock or perhaps lying off under the lee of the island for a
day or two till the seas calmed. It was all unnecessary worry. The
direct distance from island to island was only sixteen miles and was
across before the seas had grown too large.
Saba one might call the Pico of the West Indies ; not
as high by half, but the comparison may stand for all that. From a
diameter of two miles she rises to a height of nearly three thousand
feet, her summit lost in the low-lying trade clouds which tend to
accentuate the loftiness of this old ocean volcano. The West Indies
pilot book gives three landing places and of these I was told by de
Geneste to try the south side or Fort Landing, four cables eastward of
I knew the place when I sailed in toward the island for
there was a little shack perched about fifty feet above the beach where
the revenue officers, they are called brigadiers, sought shelter from
the sun's heat. Above the surf a fishing boat lay on rollers across the
rocks, for here is no sand. To the westward, like a terrace, under
Ladder Point was a levelled cobble beach some twelve feet above the
water where they used to build sloops and schooners before they found
that they could get them better and cheaper from Gloucester. Winding
upward in a ravine-like cleft were flights of steps hewn out of the
solid rock and connected by stretches of steep pathways.
The shack and the pathway up the ravine were the only signs
of human habitation and from the barren aspect of the island with its
low scrubby vegetation one would not suspect that the steps and paths
led to the homes of some three thousand people. When I had made my rig
snug and hoisted my centerboard I rowed as close to shore as I dared.
As at Statia, a number of black watermen waded out into the sea to lift
the canoe clear of the rocks. I rowed a bit to windward to counteract a
strong current and then as we swept down toward the men, I jumped
overboard and swimming with my hands on the stern of the Yakaboo I
waited till we were opposite the men and then shoved the canoe into
One of the brutes might have taken her weight on his head
for my food bags were flat and my outfit thinned out, and for the crowd
of them she was a mere toy which they lifted clear of the surf and
carried ashore to a couple of rollers without even grazing a stone. The
skipper, having a proper regard for his bones, washed himself ashore
like a limp octopus.
At the head of the Fort Ladder.
"Here Freddie Simmons teaches embryo sailor-men,
still in their knee trousers, the use of the sextant and chronometer."
Now there was one person whom I came to know in Statia but
whom I have not mentioned as yet because our friendship really belonged
to Saba and it was here she was buried only a few weeks after I left
the island. She was a kindly elderly woman and a good friend to me. She
had been head nurse at the Government Hospital at Antigua and had been
under the care of the Doctor at Statia for some time. He suspected
cancer, he told me (she told me that she knew it was cancer), and since
he could do nothing for her, he advised her to go to Saba to live up in
the air where no breeze hung about long enough to lose its freshness
and where the chill of night brought with it sound sleep. She had gone
on to Saba a few days after my arrival at Oranjetown. One afternoon
when I had been complaining of dizziness and nausea the Doctor gave me
a kindly shaking and said, "Now see here! you yellow-headed
Scandihoovian, you've had just a little too much of old Sol and we've
made a little plan for you, Mrs. Robertson and I. When you get to Saba,
you'll forget your 'little green tent' for a time and you'll stay with
Mrs. Robertson till you're straightened out. Do you mind!" The Doctor
could be a bit fierce upon occasion and he was a strong man who would
knock you down as soon as not if he thought he could right matters by
So when I picked myself up from the wet rocks and followed
the Yakaboo up the beach I was accosted by a white man, one Freddie
Simmons -- they are for the most part Simmons or Hassels here and you
can't go far wrong in calling them by one or the other name.
He was a young man, seafaring evidently, not from any
traditional roughness, but from an indefinable ease of gait, scarcely a
roll, and from a way of taking in everything as he looked about him as
though he were used to scanning the deck of a vessel. He had an open
pleasant face that spoke kindly before he opened his mouth and mild
blue eyes that could not lie.
"My name is Simmons -- they call me Freddie
Simmons." He pronounced it almost like "Fraddie."
"I'm a Freddie too," I answered as we shook hands.
"So Mrs. Robertson said. She's breakfast waiting for you
up at Bottom -- I'll carry you there just now."
"How the devil did she know I was coming to-day?" I asked.
Then he told me how a man up in St. John's had almost looked his eyes
out for a week watching for me and was at last rewarded by the sight of
a queer rig that could be no other than that of "de mon in de boat."
"But I'll have to stow my canoe somewhere before we
start," I told him.
"Oh, we'll take the canoe along," at which he nodded to
four black giants who lifted the Yakaboo and started for the path --
two with grass pads on their heads where she rested bow and stern while
the others walked at each side like honorary pall-bearers to steady the
load. And so we proceeded on our way, eight hundred feet up, to the bed
of an old crater where the town of Bottom lies, out of sight of all who
pass unless they travel in aeroplanes.
Now I am going to take advantage of the fact that you are
soft and short-winded and not used to climbing flights of stairs and
steep paths. While you can do little but puff and perspire I shall tell
you a little of this strange island. What ancient documents Saba may
have possessed were whisked up and blown out across the wide seas over
a century ago when a hurricane swept the island in 1787 and took with
it almost every vestige of human habitation except the low-set concrete
covered rain tanks and the tombs of the ancestors of the present
inhabitants. For nearly a century after the island was sighted by
Columbus probably no European picked his way up the cleft to the upper
bowls of the island. There may have been Caribs living here but I have
seen no mention of them. When the Dutch began active trading operations
in the West Indies in the early part of the 17th century we find them
(the Dutch) already settled in Statia and Saba. For nearly
three-quarters of a century the island lived in peace.
In 1665, seventy English buccaneers from the company of
Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan who had captured Statia, sailed over to Saba
and captured the island with little or no resistance. The main
expedition returned to Jamaica but a small garrison was left on each of
the islands. Most of the Dutch inhabitants were sent to St. Martin's
whither they returned later to Statia. It is from this small handful of
English buccaneers that were left in Saba in 1665 by Morgan, that the
present white population has descended and while Saba has almost
continuously belonged to the Dutch except for a short break in 1665 and
in 1781 and also about 1801 it has been truly said that here the Dutch
rule the English. There has been little marriage outside of the island
by these English people and no mixing with the negroes. Saba is the
only island in the West Indies where the whites predominate and the
proportion to the blacks is two to one. But the greatest paradox of all
is to see here in the heights of this island, six degrees within the
tropics, the fair skins and rosy cheeks whose bloom originated in old
England in the reign of Charles the Second and has kept itself pure and
untarnished there two and a half centuries.
By this time you have clutched my arm and stopped in the
pathway long enough to catch your breath and ask, "Yes, but what do
these two thousand whites and one thousand negroes live on?" There is
little gardening and for the most part the men of the island go to sea
where they earn money to support their families and keep their tidy
little homes shipshape and neatly painted. As I sit and write this, now
that I know the island, I can think of no truer description than that
given by the Abbé Raynal in 1798. "This is a steep rock, on the
summit of which is a little ground, very proper for gardening. Frequent
rains which do not lie any time on the soil, give growth to plants of
an exquisite flavor, and cabbages of an extraordinary size. Fifty
European families, with about one hundred and fifty slaves, here raise
cotton, spin it, make stockings of it, and sell them to other colonies
for as much as ten crowns (six dollars) a pair. Throughout America
there is no blood so pure as that of Saba ; the women there
preserve a freshness of complexion, which is not to be found in any
other of the Caribbee islands."
The porters, before us, halted and the Yakaboo came to an
aerial anchorage at the crest of the path where the mountainside seemed
broken down. It was in reality a "V" blown out of the side of an old
crater. No wonder the Yakaboo had come to a stop. She may have seen
things unusual for a canoe but she had by no means lost her youthful
interest -- she was not blasé. There, before her, spread out on
the floor of an ancient crater, was the prettiest village imaginable.
Cozy little homes, a New England village minus chimneys, all seemingly
freshly painted white with green shutters and red roofs. To guard
against the "frequent rains which do not lie any time on the soil" the
streets were lined with walls, shoulder high, which were in reality
dikes to direct the torrents which are suddenly poured into Bottom Town
from the slopes which surround it. A remarkable coincidence that here,
high up in the air, the colony should use the dikes of its mother
country but for an entirely different reason. What struck me most
forcibly was that while there was no hint of monotony the houses gave
the outward appearance of a uniform degree of prosperity ; here
must be a true democracy ; If any man had more money than his
neighbor he did not show it, yet there was no hint of greasy socialism,
all of which I found true as I came to know the island.
The "dikes" of Bottom Town.
The Bottom, as the crater floor is called, is a circular
plain about half a mile in diameter and surrounded on all sides by a
steep wall, continuous except where we stood at the top of the path
from the South Landing which we had just climbed and at another point
on the west side where the rim is broken and the path called the Ladder
descends to the West Landing. Up the rim on the eastern side a path
zigzagged and disappeared through a notch in the outline to the
Windward Side, the village I had seen from the steamer four months
before. Lost in the mist, the summit of the island towered over Bottom
to the northward.
Here was a town walled in by Nature. The cleft into which
the path was built ended in a small ravine that broke into the level
plain of the Bottom and it was across this ravine that Freddie Simmons
pointed out the ultimate anchorage of the Yakaboo and the asylum of her
skipper. Our procession started again -- we stopped once or twice to
meet a Simmons or a Hassel -- to make a starboard tack along the
western side of the ravine, a short tack to port, and we put the canoe
down on the after deck -- I should say the back porch -- of a cool airy
house where we were to keep in the shade for a matter of ten days.
A cozy Saba home.
Here then was the end of my cruise in the Lesser Antilles. I
had swung through the arc from Grenada to Saba and in the doing of it
had sailed some six hundred miles. My destination was the Virgins and
their nearest island lay a hundred and ten miles away. "Oh!" I thought,
as I looked down at the canoe, "if I could only be sure that I could
make you stay absolutely tight and be reasonably sure of the wind, I
would not hesitate to make the run in you." Even if I did get her tight
and encountered a calm I knew that I would have little chance of
withstanding the heat. Mrs. Robertson had come out to welcome me and I
heard her step behind me. She had guessed my thoughts for as I turned
she said, "You had better not think of it." At that Freddie put in his
oar. "Be content, my boy ; the boat could do it, but one day of no
wind at this time of the year would finish you and you don't want to be
found a babbling idiot with the gulls waiting to pick out your eyes."
Sense was fighting desperately with the spirit of adventure
but at last sense won out -- perhaps through some secret understanding
"Yes, I believe you're right -- I'll let some other
damn fool try it if he likes," and that ended the matter.
It is in the evenings that one comes to know the people of
Saba. They go quietly about their business during the hours of daylight
and then, after supper, for hey always eat in their own homes, they
meet some place -- it was at Mrs. Robertson's that first night -- to
thresh out the small happenings of the day. News from the outside world
may have come by sloop or schooner from St. Kitts or Curaçao.
Then when the gossip begins to lag, a fiddle will mysteriously appear
and an accordion will be dragged from under a chair while the room is
cleared for the "Marengo" or a paseo from Trinidad.
I could have no better chance to observe the "rosy cheeks of
Saba," and to me the delight of the evening was to be once more among
people who lacked that apathetic drift of the West Indies which seems
to hold them in perpetual stagnation. The women danced together for the
most part to make up for the lack of other men. From the very first,
these people have been seafaring and the few men on the island are
those crippled by rheumatism or too old to go to sea. You will find
Saba men all over the West Indies, captains and mates and crews of
small trading schooners in which they are part owners or shareholders.
They have learned the trick of spending less than they earn.
Once in a conversation with the port officer of Mayaguez, at
the mention of Saba men, he told me that their shore spree consisted in
walking to the playa where hey would indulge in ice cream and Porto
Rican cigars. On one occasion a Saba foremast hand sought his advice in
regard to investing money in a certain coconut plantation in Porto
Rico. That they are good sailormen does not rest on mere fanciful
sentimentalism for they have been brought up to it from their very
In a little house, on the north side of the ravine which the
Yakaboo had doubled in the forenoon, was a nautical school provided by
a wise government. Here Freddie Simmons teaches embryo sailor-men,
while still in their knee trousers, the use of the sextant and
chronometer and the mathematics that go therewith. To me, Saba is a
memory of living in a bowl over which the sun swung in a shortened arc.
Here in Bottom Town the day was clipped by a lengthy dawn and a
twilight. As the sun neared the rim to the westward, I used to stroll
to the "gap" at the Ladder Landing to enjoy the cool of the late
afternoon and watch the ''evening set'' from the shadows of the rocks.
Behind me was twilight ; on the rocks below and on the Caribbean
before me was yet late afternoon.
Here was a place for a dream and a pipe of tobacco. I used
to wonder how near Columbus had passed on his way to Hispaniola. Why
did he give her the name of Saba? Was it from the Queen of Sheba or St.
Sabar? And then when the sun had finally gone down behind his cloud
fringe and the short twilight had been swept out by night, I would turn
back into the dark bowl with its spots of square yellow lights from the
windows of the Saba people. The stars seemed close here as though we
had been pushed up to them from the earth. Later the moon would appear
ghost-like over the southern rim and float through the night to the
One morning Captain Ben's schooner was reported under the
lee of the island and that afternoon we carried the Yakaboo down the
Ladder and put her aboard. She had gone across Saba. I made my last
round of good-byes in Bottom Town and then scrambled down the Ladder in
the hot afternoon sun. In half an hour a lazy breeze pushed us out into
the Caribbean. Saba stood up bold and green in the strong light, her
outline distinct with no cloud cap. Little by little the shadows in the
rocks at her feet began to assert themselves, blue-black, while her
green foliage became a cloth and lost its brilliancy, blue-green it was
-- there was distance between us and the snug island. When the sun went
down she was a grey-blue hump between sea and sky.
SIR FRANCIS DRAKE'S CHANNEL AND "YAKABOO"
WE AWOKE with the Virgins dead ahead. We were approaching
them as Columbus had -- from the eastward. His course must have been
more westerly than ours, but had he seen them first in the morning
light as I did the effect must have been very nearly the same -- a line
of innumerable islets that seemed to bar our way. Herrera says,
"Holding on their course, they saw many islands close together, that
they seemed not to be numbered, the largest of which he called St.
Ursula (Tortola) and the rest the Eleven Thousand Virgins, and then
came up with another great one called Borriquen (the name the Indians
gave it), but he gave it the name of St. John the Baptist, it is now
called St. Juan de Puerto Rico." The largest island to windward he
named Virgin Gorda -- the Great Virgin.
I spread my chart of the Virgins on the top of the cabin and
tried to pick out the southern chain of islands that with Tortola and
St. John's form Sir Francis Drake's Channel. On the chart were various
notes in pencil which I had gathered on my way up the Lesser Antilles.
On the lower end of Virgin Gorda, or Peniston as it is called, a
corruption of Spanish Town, I should find the ruins of an old Spanish
copper mine and here was that remarkable strewing of monoliths that, as
I brought them close up with my glasses, looked for all the world like
a ruined city, more so even than St. Pierre -- and was called Fallen
Next in line came Ginger with a small dead sea on it, Cooper
and Salt Islands where the wreck of the Rhone might be seen through the
clear waters if there were not too much breeze. Directly on our course
through the Salt Island passage was a little cay marked Dead Chest and
called Duchess by the natives. Completing the chain were Peter, and
Norman, which might have been the Treasure Island of Stevenson. It was
these names, Ginger, Cooper, Dead Chest, Peter, and Norman's that awoke
the enthusiasm of Kingsley and from the suggestion of this Dead Chest,
Stevenson wrote his famous, "Fifteen men on the Dead Man's chest,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
It was Thursday, June 22nd, the Coronation Day of George
Fifth and Queen Mary when we dropped anchor in the pretty harbor of
Road Town in Tortola. How ancient will it all sound should some one
read this line a hundred years from now! I put on respectable dress,
for I had with me my trunk which had followed by intermittent voyages
in sloops, schooners and coasting steamers, and from its hold I pulled
out my shore clothes like a robin pulling worms of a dewy morning.
Shaved and arrayed, I was taken to meet the Commissioner, Leslie
Jarvis, who, like Whitfield Smith, deserves better than he has received.
Christian the Ninth, St. Thomas.
That night as I smoked a parting cigarette with the
Commissioner on the verandah of Government House and feasted my eyes on
Salt and Cooper and Ginger across the channel in the clear starlight, I
told him that I should see a little of Sir Francis Drake's Channel
before I finished my cruise at St. Thomas.
"We are starting to-morrow in the Lady Constance
for a round of the islands and you had better leave your canoe and come
"I'll go with you as far as Virgin Gorda if I may and
leave you there." And so was my last bit of cruising in the West Indies
The Lady Constance is a tidy little native built sloop, the
best I had seen in all the islands, about eighteen tons, used as a
"Government Cruiser" to keep smuggling within reasonable limits and as
a means of conveyance for the use of the Commissioner on his tours of
inspection. She is also used for carrying mail to St. Thomas, a run of
about twenty-seven miles.
"Oh, by the way," said the commissioner, as I was
half way down the steps, "we take the two ministers with us -- you
won't mind that?"
"How can I?" I answered. "It's the Government's party and
I suppose they are quite harmless."
"Quite," came from the dark shadows of the verandah.
In the morning, at a reasonable time, when everybody had
enjoyed his breakfast and settled it with a pipe, we got aboard. The
Commissioner was accompanied by all the accouterments of an expedition,
guns, rods, a leather case with the official helmet within, and most
important of all, innumerable gallons of pineapple syrup, baskets of
buns and boxes of aluminum coronation medals for each deserving school
child in all the British Virgins. The Yakaboo we put aboard forward of
the cabin trunk -- the ministers brought with them their nightgowns and
a pleasant air of sanctity.
Somewhere there lurks in my mind a notion to the effect that
professional men of religion are among sailors personae non gratae at
sea. A thing may in itself be quite harmless and yet may bring down
disaster to those about it. Perhaps it is just a whim of the Lord to
test his self-proclaimed lieutenants when they venture into the open.
There seems always to be trouble at sea when a minister is aboard. The
harm we received was trifling but it was a warning. The breeze was
fresh when we started and the Lady Constance had already bowed once or
twice to the seas when we close-hauled her for the beat up the channel.
Suddenly a wave boarded us and with an impish fit gathered the little
deck galley in its embrace and with a hiss and a cloud of briny steam
carried the box with its coal-pot and cooking dinner and swept the
whole of it into the sea. I looked at the Commissioner and we both
looked at the parsons. There was a warning in this. Titley, the big
colored skipper, felt it too and from that time our sailing was done
with great care. So much for superstition, it seems to grow on me the
more I have to do with the sea.
The channel was full of fish, Jarvis had told me, and with
our towbait we would take at least one fish on each tack. We made a
good many tacks and got one small barracuda. Of course we knew where
the trouble lay. We spent the night under East End where in the morning
the Commissioner landed and put an official touch to the depositing of
syrup and buns in sundry little dark interiors and gave out medals for
outward adornment. Thus in the outermost capillaries of the United
Kingdom was the fact of the coronation brought home, and, most truly is
the stomach of the native the beginning and end, the home and the seat
of all being. Then we slipped across to Virgin Gorda and a day later
were in Gorda Sound, a perfect harbor, large enough, some say, to hold
the entire British Navy.
It was from Gorda Sound that I began my little jaunt about
the Virgins. I had been looking forward to sailing about in the Drake
Channel, for in many ways it is ideal canoe water. Here is an inland
sea with a protected beach at every hand, blow high or low. Columbus
may have been far off when he named them the "Eleven Thousand," but as
I sit here and glance at the chart I can count fifty islands with no
difficulty, all in range of forty miles.
The Virgins are mountainous but much lower than the Lesser
Antilles and while they are volcanic in origin they do not show it in
outline and must be of a much older formation than the lower islands.
They are the tail end of the range which forms Cuba, San Domingo, and
I bade good-bye to the Lady Constance one morning, and
sailed out before her through the narrow pass by Mosquito Island, while
they took the larger opening for low Anegada, which we could not see,
twelve miles to the northeast. I hauled up along the shores of Virgin
Gorda and made for West Bay. What a contrast was this sailing to our
traveling in the lower islands. Instead of the large capping seas of
the trades here was an even floor merely ruffled by a tidy breeze. For
a change it was delightful, but too much of it might prove tiresome and
in the end we would probably be seeking open water again. I was soon in
the bay and running ashore at the western end I dragged the Yakaboo
across the hot sands and left her under the shade of the thick sea
grapes that form a green backing to the yellow beach. There is no town
on Virgin Gorda, merely clusters of native huts that might be called
settlements, the two larger having small school houses which are also
used as churches.
The life in these small outer cays is of a very simple
nature. There are no plantations and the negro lives in a sort of
Utopian way by raising a few ground provisions near his hut and when he
wishes to change his diet he goes fishing. To obtain cash he sends his
fish and ground provisions to the market in Tortola or St. Thomas and
strange to say his most urgent need of cash is for the buying of
Once, during the hurricane season, it chanced that all the
sloops were at St. Thomas when Virgin Gorda found that it had run out
of tobacco. The sloops had been gone for a week and were due to return
when suspicious weather set in and no one dared leave port even for the
shortest run. What with the hand to mouth existence these people lead
and the small stock in the shops, there is never more than a week's
supply of tobacco on Virgin Gorda and that notwithstanding the fact
that the negroes here are inordinate smokers. The first day after the
tobacco had given out was lived through with no great difficulty. On
the second, however, the absence of the weed began to make itself felt.
The dried leaves of various bushes were tried but with
little success. Dried grass and small pieces of bone were burned in
pipes and finally those most hard pressed took to pulling the oakum out
of the seams of an old boat that lay on the beach of West Bay. When day
after day followed and the sloops from St. Thomas did not return, the
whole population finally gave itself over to the smoking of oakum and
watching for the return of their sloops. Even the oakum in an old
beached fishing boat will not furnish smoking material for a couple of
hundred natives for any great length of time and finally the island was
quite smokeless, a state which to these people borders close onto
At last the sullen threat of a hurricane passed off and the
next day the lookout reported white sail-patches beating up the
channel. When the sloops beat into West Bay late that afternoon, the
whole population of Virgin Gorda was waiting for them. As soon as the
boats were beached the first business of the island was to enjoy a good
smoke. To have been there with a camera and to have caught the two
hundred columns of bluish smoke drifting aslant in the light easterly
In the morning I was again on the summer sea of the channel.
We had cleared Virgin Gorda and were lazing along toward Ginger when I
saw the mottled fin of a huge devil fish directly on our course. I was
in no mind to dispute his way -- not being familiar with the
disposition of these large rays -- so I hauled up a bit and let him
pass a hundred feet or so to leeward. I stood up and watched him as he
went by and swore that some day I would harpoon just such a fellow as
that from a whaleboat and take photographs of the doing. Just now I was
leaving him alone. His fin, mottled brown and black like the rest of
his upper surface, stood nearly three feet high and I judged his size
to be about eighteen feet across from tip to tip.
For my nooning, I went ashore on a little beach on Cooper
where I built a fire in the shade of beach growths. The sun, it seemed,
did not have the deadly spite in its rays as in the lower islands but
this may have been wholly surmise on my part. It was a great joy to be
able to do a bit of beach work -- that is to live more on the beaches
than I had been doing in the Windward and Leeward islands. I sat for a
while under the small trees where the cool wind seeped through the
shade and set myself to a real sailor's job of a bit of needlework on
the mainsail where a batten had worn through its pocket.
There is a peculiar freshness about these small cays that
seems to do its utmost to belie any suspicion of a past. The beaches
are shining, the sand and pebbles look new and in a sense perhaps they
are, for one does not find here the thin slime on the rocks that is an
accompaniment of long years of near-by civilization. Man befouls. The
vegetation is for the most part new, for excepting an aged silk cotton
tree, there are no growths of great age. The palms grow for a
generation or two and pass away. The small woody growths of coarse
grain and spongy fiber quickly bleach out and rot away upon death. They
almost seem to evaporate into the air. Here are places of quickly
passing generations that suggest eternal youth. Were our impressions of
these places not biased by brilliantly colored pictures which we have
seen in our youth of pirates and adventurers of a former age portrayed
on brilliant white beaches with a line of azure sea and a touch of
fresh green, we would swear that they were no older than a generation.
But all these beaches of perpetual youth knew the rough-booted pirates
of centuries ago and the Indians before them. Here in the channel
between these outer cays and Tortola, three centuries ago, convoys of
deeply laden merchant ships under clouds of bellying squaresails used
to collect like strange seafowl to sail in the common strength of their
own guns and a frigate or two for the European continent. Drake and
Morgan and Martin Frobisher, whom we think only as of the Arctic, and
the Admiral William Penn knew these places as we know the environs of
our own homes.
When I had finished my sewing and had washed my dishes I
shoved off again and in a few minutes -- what a toy cruise ! -- I was
ashore on the beach of Salt island where a few huts flocked together
under the coco-palms. Here I found a native by the name of William
Penn. I asked him if he had ever heard of the old Admiral. Penn, he
told me, was an old name in these islands, there having been many
Williams. In all probability the name was first assumed by the slaves
in the old days and then handed down from generation to generation.
It was here, in 1867, that the Royal Mail Steamer Rhone was
wrecked in a hurricane. William Penn showed me in one of the huts a
gilded mirror which had been "dove up" and he told me that the natives
were still diving-up various articles from the wreckage. We put off in
our canoes and rowed around to the western shore where the steamer lies
in some forty feet of water. She must have been broken up on the rocks
during the first onslaught of the hurricane and then blown out to where
she now lies about two hundred yards from shore. The conditions were
not particularly good, yet we could see what was left of her in large
masses of wreckage literally strewn about on the ocean floor.
Then I hoisted sail again and was off across the channel to
Dead Man's Chest where I would camp for the night. The surf was too
high, however, and I had to content myself with a photograph and to
sail on to Peter where I came ashore in the cool of the evening on a
sandy turtle beach. A native came out of the bush and without any word
on my part immediately turned to and built my evening fire. There was a
good deal of the simple coast African in him -- he freely admitted that
it was curiosity that brought him to see me and the canoe and in return
for a civil word he was only too glad to do what service he could. He
showed the same pride of his village (these negroes all have a strong
appreciation of the picturesque) that I found all along the lee coasts
and he begged that I visit the snug little bay where he lived, when I
set sail in the morning.
The night promised clear with a small new moon crescent --
perfect for sleeping without cover. I had no sooner settled myself down
in my tiny habitation than the wind began to drop and thousands of
mosquitoes came out of the bush on a rampage. Instead of pitching my
tent on the ground I ran the peak up on the mainmast which I stepped in
the mizzen tube. The middle after-guy I ran to the foot of the mizzen
mast which was now in the mainmast tube. The sides I pegged in the sand
under the bilges of the canoe and in this way I had a roomy canoe tent
which gave access to the forward compartment in case of rain.
After I had rigged the tent I beat the air inside with a
towel so that when I fastened down the mosquito bar there was no one
inside but myself. I found, however, that I was plenty of company.
While the night air outside was cool enough I soon found that the heat
from my body accumulated in the tent till I lay on my blankets in a
bath of perspiration. A loose flap in the top of the tent would have
taken off this warm air as in a tepee. Had there been one mosquito to
bother me sleep would have been impossible. At last a gentle night
breeze sprang up, I wiped my body dry, and dropped off to sleep.
The next day was July first, the last of the cruise of the
Yakaboo, and almost of the skipper. I was up with the sun -- many evil
days begin just that way -- and off the beach after a hasty breakfast.
My destination was Norman Island -- I would come back to Peter again,
where there were caves in which treasure had actually been found and
where there was a tree with certain cabalistic marks which were
supposed to indicate the presence of buried treasure. I cleared the end
of the island and hauled up for Norman, passing close to Pelican Cay.
Norman is a long narrow island with an arm that runs westward from its
northern shore, forming a deep harbor which gives excellent protection
from all quarters but northeast.
In a rocky wall on the extreme western end of the island
where the harbor opens out to the channel are two caves which can be
easily seen when sailing through the Flanagan passage into Sir Francis
Drake's Channel. These caves are the ordinary deep hollows one commonly
finds in volcanic rock formation close to the sea and were for years
unsuspected of holding hidden treasure. They say that a certain black
merchant of St. Thomas, who had literally become rich over night, found
his money in the shape of Spanish doubloons from an iron chest which he
dug up in the far end of one of the caves. The man had bought Norman,
had spent some time there and for no apparent reason had suddenly
become rich. One day a curious fisherman found the empty chest by the
freshly dug hole in the cave and there were even a few telltale coins
that had rolled out of range of the lantern of the man who dug out the
treasure. And there must have been another place for one day a small
schooner came down from the north and entered at the port of Road Town.
She picked up a native from Salt island and one night she ran down to
Norman's. The next morning she put the native ashore on his own island
and sailed for parts unknown -- as to what happened on Norman the
native, it seems, was strangely silent. There's the whole of the tale
except what's known by the crew of the schooner.
The jetty at Norman's Island.
As I sailed into the harbor, I saw a sandy beach at the far
end where a small wooden jetty stood out in the calm water. Fringing
the beach was a row of small coco palms, behind which the island bowled
up into a sort of amphitheater of scrubby hillside. What a place for a
pirate's nest! There is scant printed history of Norman and what is
written is for the most part in some such records as led the schooner
to the island. I rowed in to the beach, the hill to the eastward
cutting off all moving air so that a calm of deathly stillness held the
head of the bay in a state of quivering heat waves. The low burr of
wind in the upper air outvoiced whatever sound might have come from the
surf on the windward side of the island.
There was something peculiarly uncanny about the place which
was all the more accentuated by the lonely jetty and a pair of pelicans
that launched forth in turn from their perch on the gallows-like frame
at its end, to float in large circles over the clear sandy-floored
harbor, remounting again in lazy soft-pinioned flaps. They flew off as
I tied up to the jetty but completed their circle as I stepped ashore
and sat eyeing the Yakaboo as if detailed there on sentry duty. The
heat was intolerable and if I were to camp on Norman I should have to
find a cooler spot than this.
First, however, I would hunt the pirate tree, but I had not
gone far into the bush before I began to feel faint and sick. The bush
was close but shaded and as I retraced my steps to the jetty and came
out again into the full glare of the beach the heat came upon me like a
blow. I needed water and I knew where I could get it, lukewarm, in my
can in the after compartment of the canoe. I tried to stoop down from
the jetty but nearly fell off so I followed the safer plan of lying
down on the burning boards and reaching into the compartment with my
arms and head hanging over.
The hatch came off easily enough and with it rose the hot
damp odor of the heated compartment mixed with the smell of varnish. I
took out a bag or two and found them covered with a sticky fluid. Then
I discovered my varnish can lying on its side with its cork blown out,
spewing its contents over all my bags. When I lifted my water-can it
came up with heartsinking lightness. I took it up on the jetty and sat
up to examine it. There in the bottom was a tiny rust hole where the
water had run out. Then I lay down again and dabbled my fingers in half
an inch of water and varnish in the bottom of the compartment. I had
sense enough to know that I was pretty well gone by this time and I
went ashore where I lay for some time under the shade of the young coco
If I could only get one of those water-nuts I should feel
much better and although the trees were young and the nuts hung low
they were still nearly three feet above my reach. Perhaps I could shoot
them down, so I went back to the canoe and got the rifle which so far
had been of little use to me. The will of the good Lord was with me for
I found that I could almost touch the nuts with the muzzle of my rifle.
By resting the barrel upward along the trunk of the tree I could poke
the muzzle within a few inches of the stems. Any one could have made
the shot, but I missed because I forgot that the sight was raised a
good half inch from the center of the bore. It took me some time to
reason this out and I had to sit down for a while to recover from the
shock of the recoil. Then the idea came to me. I aimed the rifle this
time with its axis in line with the stem and pulled the trigger. Down
came the nut and I blew off its head and drank its cool liquid. In like
manner I shot another coconut. Stalking the fruit of a coco palm may
sound like the keenest of sport, but no hunting ever gave me keener
satisfaction than shooting these two nuts in the neck.
The milk was cool and refreshing and I believe it pulled me
out of as tight a corner as I have ever been in alone. There was no one
living on the island. The coming on of nausea and the feeling that I
did not exactly care what happened was hideous to my better sense and I
felt that at all costs I must make an effort to refresh myself and then
leave the island as soon as possible. By sheer luck of super caution I
got into the canoe and untied the painter (I found it trailing in the
water when I got out in the channel later) and then in one last effort
of fostered strength I rowed out of the cove into the breeze where I
quietly pulled in my oars and lay down.
A little time later the quick roll of the canoe roused me
and I found that I was clear of Norman and close upon Flanagan Island.
The wind was cool and I made sail for Tortola. I was still very faint
but I had held that mainsheet for so many miles that even half
insensible I could sail the Yakaboo into Road Harbor -- perhaps she did
a little more than her half of the sailing. For three days I was taken
care of at Government House and then feeling perfectly well I prepared
to sail for St. Thomas. The anxious Commissioner would not hear of this
and the doctor forbade me to go into the sun again, warning me to take
the next steamer for New York.
On the afternoon of July Fourth I was bundled aboard the
Lady Constance, together with the Yakaboo, and in the evening we sailed
into the Danish port of Charlotte Amalia.
• • •
So here ends the cruise of the Yakaboo after nearly six
months of wanderings in the out-of-the-way places of that arc which
swings from Grenada to St. Thomas. Six months may seem a long time to
you of the office who at the most can get a month of it in the woods or
along shore, but to me these months had been so full of varied interest
that they were a kaleidoscope of mental pictures and impressions, some
of them surprisingly unreal, that I had gone through in weeks. Had it
not been for the heat I should have kept on and cruised along Porto
Rico, San Domingo, and Cuba, crossing the large channels by steamer if
But it is the sun which makes impossible the true outdoor
life in these islands as we know it in the north. I was content with
what I had seen. I did not think back with longing of Norman where I
had failed to spend the days I had planned, nor of Diamond Rock off
Martinique where I had wished to land, nor of the half-French,
half-Dutch St. Martin's that was out of reach to windward, nor of Aves,
the center, almost, from which the arc of the Caribbees is swung, for I
decided, should the opportunity offer, I would come down here again in
a boat large enough to sleep in off shore and in which I could escape
the heat of the day at anchor in the cool spots where the down draft of
the hills strikes the smooth waters of protected coves.
One morning the Parima nosed her way into the harbor and I
put off to her in a bumboat with my trunk and outfit aboard and the
Yakaboo towing astern. The trunk and outfit followed me up the
companionway and after a talk with the First Officer I rowed the
Yakaboo under one of the forward booms which had swung out and lowered
its cargo hook like a spider at the end of its thread. I slipped the
canvas slings under the canoe's belly and waved for the mate to "take
her weight." She hung even and holding on to the hook I yelled to the
head and shoulders that stuck out over the rail to "Take her up!"
"'Take her up,' he says," came down to me and we began to
rise slowly into the air. We were leaving the Caribbean for the last
time together and were swung gently up over the rail and lowered to the
The steward led me to a Stateroom that I was to share with
an American engineer returning from Porto Rico. Here was one who did
not know of my cruise and I was glad to escape a torrent of questions.
He, the engineer, looked askance at my rough clothes and I chuckled to
myself while he hung about the open door in the altogether obvious
attempt to forestall any sly thieving on my part. I don't blame him. I
shaved and packed my suitcase with my shore clothes and then hied me to
the shower bath whence I emerged an ordinary person of fairly
Then some confounded maniac walked along the deck clanging a
bell and I knew that it was the call to breakfast. I went below and
took my seat opposite the engineer from Porto Rico who recognized me
with a start. I embarked on a gastronomic cruise, making my departure
from a steep-to grapefruit that had been iced and coming to a temporary
anchorage off a small cay of shredded wheat in a sea of milk -- foods
of a remote past. I was tacking through an archipelago of bacon and
eggs when I heard the exhaust of the steam winch and the grind of the
anchor chain as it passed in over the lip of the hawse pipe, link by
link. I had cleared the archipelago and was now in the open sea of my
first cup of coffee and bound for a flat-topped island of flapjacks
when I felt the throb of the propeller slowly turning over to gather
the bulk under us into steerage way. Presently the throb settled down
to a smooth vibration -- we were under way.
Some one at my right had been murmuring, "Please pass the
sugar ? -- may I trouble you for the sugar? -- I BEG your pardon but"
-- and I woke up and passed the sugar bowl. Someone else said, "I see
by the papers" I was back in civilization again and as far from the
Yakaboo and the Lesser Antilles as you, sitting on the back of your
neck in a Morris chair.