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Jol Byerley’s Apr 07 Letter from Antigua

Really very sorry that I was just not able to send you an up to date Letter from Antigua. Mainly because I have had a huge sun thing cut out of my left arm, which discombobulated me for a few days and also, what with one thing and another, I‘ve been really busy dealing with people who seem to think I have an answer for everything.

Anyway, this is from 1994 and is sort of apt still:

When we old timers were sailing our wooden charter yachts up and down the islands (only a few years ago, was it not?) it never occurred to us that the dear things were particularly old. Until, that is a decrepit gaff schooner sailed into Bequia with a pack of dogs and cats on board. The grey-bearded skipper, hunched over the wheel, said his name was Noah, which raised  an eyebrow or two. But our boats were not “classic” then, were they? Just boats, if I remember rightly.

Now, of course anything with a bow sprit or top mast and half the dockyard lay down their tools to exclaim and comment knowledgably about the newcomer.  “Oh, I knew her when she was the Syrup of Figs out of Bristol,” or “Tis the old Beer Belly out of Pancake Creek—old Billy Belcher used to own her.” That the vessel in question turns out to be an entirely unknown Rumanian Ferro Cement replica of a Disney Studios make-believe pirate vessel is entirely lost on the aficionados. They are back in the bar telling tales of gaping garboards and fractured futtocks.

But the yachts that were lovingly built in the twenties and thirties are, by and large, still quite well and happy, thank you. Naturally, their fine health depends a lot on who may have been squiring them around through the ages. In many cases their gleaming paint work is actually as thick as the planking. But if dog owners grow like their pets, the extraordinary thing is how classic yacht owners grow to look like their vessels!

There is the trim Norwegian couple and their jaunty little schooner So Long. The sad-eyed and long-haired, hopeless central European whose Baltic Trader has long since given up the ghost and awaits the inevitable. Carlos Perdomo who owned America and then built Jessica had a rather romantic Hollywood look in the days of America– a sort of Argentinean Errol Flynn!  Then in his Jessica days he seemed to grow in stature, presenting his best profile to the admiring world at all times. And what about Paul Adamthwaite and Stormy Weather? Haven’t they both got that ‘get some service in son’ look ?

If you want further proof, look at the square riggers men. Almost all are as broad as they are long, with belts as well as braces. The earring of significance gleams in the lug hole even if they have never even rounded Bluebridge Ledge !

With Antigua’s Classic Regatta just around the corner, I feel a pleasurable tingle in my toes. For soon these very, very special people who own and sail aboard the classics will be adding a touch of class to Antigua’s water front. Some of these wooden remains of yesterday may have seen better days, may, even in fact, be a little tired. But what greater love is there than between man and a fine old dog? Even if Fido dribbles a little!  Same with trusty old boats, really.

Since its conception 26 years ago, Antigua Sailing Week has become the ultimate in international regattas, an event that is as important to world’s social climbing jet-set as it is to keen competitive sailors who come from all over the world. Like most regattas it started out as a modest local affair but before long it had become an exclusive domain for the privileged few—a label that adhered for many years. It is only the relatively recent explosion in the charter boat industry that has enabled the ‘hoi polloi’ to join in—and they now fall upon this regatta in their droves.

Last year there were 223 boats taking part and the Bare Boat section was by far the biggest class- so much so that it led to speculation that restrictions might have to be imposed in future events.

Jol Byerley arrived in Antigua in 1957 to captain Commander Vernon Nicholson’s schooner Mollihawk. 2 years later he bought the first of his many own yachts, Ron of Argyll. She was followed by the 73ft Alden gaff schooner Lord Jim. In 2004 he was awarded a G.O.M. by the Governor General of Antigua and Barbuda for long service to yachting.

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