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Tortola’s Sailor from the Purple Palace

The only redeeming quality of old age is the memories you collect far in the past. We are authored from the lives of so many miscellaneous characters: Good and bad, Short and tall, Poor and famous, God bless them all.  One island character that stands out with special color (purple) in my leaky memory made his unforgettable effect on everyone and still does today.

I was young and had just returned in the Virgin Islands from a sailing adventure in the South Pacific skinny, hungry, and broke. My intent was to obtain employment on the construction of the new Tortola Yacht Services docks below Fort Burt, but I was instantly pigeon-holed behind a packing crate desk and set to work sorting a fish-trap full of random bills, receipts, and governmental documents. 

On a warm February Monday morning, a tall, well dressed, quiet spoken English gentleman walked into the office.  Seems his sailboat was pounding itself to death on a reef somewhere near Frenchman’s Cay . . . could we save it? It was obvious the man nervously standing in front of us that morning was new to the island.

We extracted the Dutch-built steel hulled sloop from the reef and towed it back to Road Town. Floating quietly in the harbour it looked unharmed, but after a pounding on the reef for 24 hours, the sea had peened the underwater portion to resemble the bottom side of an egg carton.

The next day the English gentleman returned to reclaim his damaged boat. Seems he was the new doctor fresh out of the UK. In fact he was the newly appointed Government Surgeon. His appointed duties included emergency call Sunday nights at the old Peebles Hospital in Road Town.

He explained that a call had come the previous Sunday night from a local man who had damaged his hand. The hand, almost completely severed, took hours to reconstruct, but in the end the doctor saved it. Only while washing up after surgery had the tired doctor looked at the man’s face and realized who he young man lying before him was—the same local sailor who watched after his new yacht!   It all came back—his boat man had asked if he could take his girlfriend sailing that weekend, knowing the doctor had weekend duty. He shook the injured sailor: "Where is my boat?"

After the sedation wore off at 0400, the doctor learned that the young sailor had navigated too close to a reef, jumped into the shallow water to push the boat off, took a grip under the rudder to shift it when the rough sea lifted and chopped down on the middle of this hand. It was the following Monday morning we first met the tired and anxious new doctor.

Later that week, someone produced a Vogue magazine with pictures of our new doctor posing alongside beautiful models in expensive frocks in an English formal garden. Seems the good looking, tall, young intern supplemented his medical school expenses by modeling male clothing in top fashion magazines. The new doctor’s island legacy was just beginning.  

True accounts, along with time and other human circumstances, turn personal events into folklore. How much truth survives is a matter of how many times the story is told.  As one story is told, there was an old wooden ketch on the Road Town dock called Anacapa, built and owned by an ex-WWII General’s aid, John Sowden.  He wanted to sell Anacapa—it was getting old and tired like its builder—and somehow sold the old boat to the new doctor.

On a bright Sunday afternoon, the doctor with his wife and a number of friends set out across Drakes Passage on the maiden picnic cruise aboard his newly-purchased old boat. The destination was Dead Mans Bay on Peter Island. However, halfway across the passage, he experienced a most unusual phenomena at sea. His vessel, happily sailing along under a trade wind breeze, suddenly jumped-up out of the water!

Pink swizzles and crust-less sandwiches went flying. The sails lost their trim. The main boom crashed to the deck. The boat began to fill with water. Captain and crew watched the mast of the Anacapa (sails still set) sink out of sight beneath them. Everyone found themselves treading water in the warm Caribbean Sea as the Anacapa settled on the bottom 45 feet below, compass on a bearing for Dead Mans Bay. Seems the old vessel could not carry the weight of her 6000 lb. lead keel any longer. The exhausted rusty keel bolts decided to relax . . . all at the same time. When the weight disappeared, the boat jumped up only momentarily until it filled with water and sank.

If I remember right, it wasn’t long after Anacapa disappeared that the doctor met my father-in-law, Captain Billy Mitchell, one of the last sailing masters to have skippered square rigged ships along the coast of Australia and New Guinea. I believe it was Captain Billy who introduced the doctor to the Nereia class, Herreshoff Ketch. From that point the doctor’s sailing legend changed.

The doctor had not only credited himself with a successful medical practice with his own clinic (a converted hotel internationally known as the Purple Palace because of its unique color), at the same time he was becoming a recognized racing sailor known for his timing ability. His yacht was always on the starting line with the sound of the cannon.

The doctor from the British Virgin Islands made his presence known at Antigua Race Week, sailed his classic yacht, and won his class. It was about this time he met a young sailor who was making a name for himself, not only on his little Cheoy Lee ketch, but as a singer and songwriter. Years later he featured the good Doctor in his first best selling book: Jimmy Buffett’s Tales from Margaritaville

It was in BVI waters that the doctor’s sailing antics turned to legend, (Perhaps some really didn’t happen, but again there are some who will swear they did.) Seems the only rule for the annual around island race was to keep the island of Tortola on the starboard side of your boat. Anyone who knows the island of Tortola knows the BVI airport is on Beef Island. Beef Island is connected to Tortola by a small bridge. At the time it was a swinging bridge that could be mechanically rotated by a bridge custodian to allow a navigable passage between the two islands.

A few days before the race, the clever doctor made a visit to the bridge custodian. For a small compensation he arranged for the bridge to be opened upon the signal of three blasts from his conch horn as he entered the channel between the islands. No one in their life time had ever seen the bridge opened for marine traffic. In fact it was an island joke as to why an expensive swinging bridge was ever installed at this unused passage between the two islands.

On the day of the race everything went as usual. The doctor got a great start. His boat was not in the bigger—faster racing class which would, of course, take line honors because of their greater waterline and racing design.  However on this race, the doctor not only wanted to win his class—he wanted to be first across the finish line.  As the race progressed down the northern shore of Tortola, most of the big racing vessels passed the smaller cruising class boats. 

The doctor sailed along until he approached the small winding passage between Beef Island and Tortola. His boat was instantly hidden from the eyes of other race contenders by the encroaching mangrove swamps on both sides of the channel. He blew his conch horn as arranged, and the bridge custodian, for the first time in his life, swung the old rusty bridge to allow a vessel to pass. As he sailed by, the smiling doctor thanked the fidgety custodian and instructed him to re-close the bridge.

The race committee was not ready for the small cruising-class vessel they observed nearing the finish line. They checked their watches and studied the nearing vessel through binoculars. The larger racing vessels had not rounded Beef Island and were not in sight. They checked again to be sure the small approaching vessel was flying a racing pennant. As the doctor crossed the line, the committee was reluctant to blow the finish whistle. Something was wrong! There was a lot of controversy and head scratching after that race, but as the good doctor pointed out, the rules were simple and he had abided by them—he kept Tortola to the starboard and officially won the race. 

There was, however, one malady that the doctor hadn’t considered—one that put a dark cloud over his triumph. Seems the bridge custodian, when trying to swing the bridge back across the water passage, ran into technical difficulties which rendered the bridge stuck—in the open position. This, of course, stopped all traffic to the only airport connecting the largest tourist and bare-boat jump off port in the British Virgin Islands. It stopped all off-island commerce. It took a week to render the old rusty bridge workable again. The sailing doctor’s reputation as a racing tactician guru was at a very low ebb.

The good doctor was not only noted for his sailing virtuosity. He was, and still is, a distinguished medical man, our ‘Marine Doctor’ to whom we all went to treat our floating bumps and bruises. When hurricane disasters devastated neighboring islands, he was first to volunteer to serve the medical needs of island folks that had no other hope for medical attention. The doctor has an innate human sense of feeling others’ pain and sorrow. When my Australian wife prematurely died of cancer, I was honored that the doctor could make time for the personal farewell aboard the schooner White Squall II between the US and British Virgin Islands.

I’m sure it was not necessary to name this sailing doctor. In fact, there are countless sailors and islanders who have their own memories and stories about this man who has touched more lives in the Virgin Islands than he shall ever know.  The old hotel he and his associates painted purple became an internationally-acclaimed reconstructive surgery clinic.

Through the years, he still found time to co-found the BVI Rugby Club and is a Trustee and past Commodore of the BVI Yacht Club. The doctor won Overall Champion at Antigua Sailing Week and the Rolex Regatta in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He represented the BVI twice in the Olympic Games.  On December 30, 2000, the Governor of the British Virgin Islands announced that Doctor Robin Tattersall was awarded Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).  

My old memory is fading. I hope Captain Robin is still out there pushing the starting line.

Dave Fernedin is a retired captain who chartered 27 years out of the Virgin Islands aboard his 104′ schooner, Antares.  He is the author of The End of A1A, Blood Stream, and Key West and Beyond.

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