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Jol Byerley’s Apr 08 Letter from Antigua

Written in 1974 in Jerrems C. Hart and William T. Stone’s “A Cruising Guide to the Caribbean and the Bahamas:”

When the Caribbean Islands burst through into the sunlight, the Gods in charge of the area must have had a pretty keen sailor on the board of directors. On the whole, the islands stretch away to the south and an amazing regular twenty miles apart and at a handy right angle to the bustling trade winds. The lee coasts have an abundance of perfect harbours, usually strategically-placed at either end of the islands, and most of the loose bits of rock which in the beginning must have splattered around, fell into deep enough water not to be a nuisance.

The original inhabitants were the Arawaks, a band of peace-loving layabouts whose main occupation must have been breaking their cooking pots into a million pieces with a view to occupying the time of present day archeologists. Nobody is too sure what sort of vessels the Arawaks used for their early exploring of the sometimes rather rough passages. We do know that the Caribs, a group of ferocious gentlemen with prodigious appetites, made long light canoes from logs of the gommier tree. Keeping their cooking pots whole, they ate their way northwards as far as Haiti and possibly Cuba, much to the consternation of the Arawaks.

Much later, when the British, French, Spanish and Dutch were squabbling mightily over the islands and blowing each others’ heads off with cannon balls the weight and consistency of my Aunty Mabel’s Christmas puddings, the Caribs in their almost unsinkable canoes very nearly overcame the might of the European navies pitted against them. Brave and skillful seaman, they easily outstripped the lumbering naval ships, pulling off incredible feats of daring into the bargain.

On one occasion they paddled from Dominica to Antigua just east of English Harbour to a tiny hidden inlet now known as Indian Creek. Knocking off a few dozing Redcoats, they kidnapped the Governor’s good lady and a dozen bottles of his favourite port, had dinner, and paddled back to Dominica. They obviously had other attributes, for when Her Ladyship was rescued by All the Kings Men, she was most reluctant to return, preferring the wild mountain stronghold to the bright lights of Antigua.  Carib canoes are still built in the islands of Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia.

Then, of course, there was the matter of Diamond Rock off Martinique. In 1804, a party of British sailors garrisoned this almost sheer pinnacle just a mile off Martinique’s south coast, and by lugging wacking great cannons to the secure heights, completely disrupted French supplies. This gallant party was eventually starved out and surrendered with full military honours after 18 months.

One evening many years ago, when we were young and stupid, John Guthrie, Steph Trapner and myself, after partaking of the culinary wonders of the Hotel Europe in Fort de France, decided to honour the Royal Navy on the occasion of the annual visit of the French training squadron. We would fly a giant white British Naval ensign from the very top of the Rock! What a splendid idea. Just one more brandy and then to work! Back on John’s lovely old sailing trawler Pas de Loup, we fabricated a flag out of a bedsheet and a broken spar and, with piratical cunning, slipped quietly out of the anchorage under cover of night.

As John had lightened his ship many years previously by dumping his huge old-diesel over the side, it took several hours to work the 100-tonner around the corner, but we pressed on and dropped the hook under the Rock about midnight. One hour later, we were at the top which is covered with cactus. We were cut to bits and stone cold sober, but our makeshift flag fluttered proudly at the summit. What was disturbing was that the moon had fallen behind the Rock, it had started rain, the only way down had disappeared from view, and it rather looked as if Pas de Loup 600 feet below was dragging off the bank and also in danger of disappearing. In desperation, we plunged downwards and an hour before dawn were back on the yacht.

With the daylight, the sparks began to fly. A fisherman reported the great flag to the Gendarmes. “Mon Dieu,” said the Gendarmes “c’est terrible,” and they sent a detachment off to the Rock. After much groveling about they couldn’t find the way up. So they sent for a Mountain Rescue squad, complete with rope ladders, grappling hooks, and anti snakebite serum. They did manage to find the way, but were robbed of the prize by a couple of Police helicopters that swooped on the flag just after dawn.

Meanwhile, between Fort de France, Paris, and London, cables flew at the highest diplomatic levels. Most unsportingly, the French Fleet was diverted around the northern end of the island, while back at the anchorage, gentlemen in soft hats and rimless glasses began stalking around the yachts with nasty black notebooks. It all blew over eventually though.

Jol Byerley arrived in Antigua in 1957 to captain Commander Vernon Nicholsons 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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