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A Nautical Christmas Around the Capstans

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Many moons back in my youth in English Harbour, Antigua, there was a couple called Garry and Paulette Spillane who lived in the end flat at the Officers Quarters. The year would be about 1962. It was about midmorning on Christmas day when they thought it would be a nice idea to open a bottle of Moet to celebrate the joys of the season.

They were half way through the bottle when Hans Hoff came by to say Merry Christmas—before long they had polished off another bottle from their charter stock. It was at this point that Hans dashed down to his boat and came back with yet more champagne.

In those days Moet or Dom was the champagne of choice due in large part to the fact that a case cost far less than a bottle does today. It was when Hans came back with more champagne that the word was out—the place to be was at the Spillane’s—and a full blown Christmas party had started.

So for the next Christmas of 1963 the party did not happen by accident—this time it was planned. Garry had ordered some cases of Moet from Paul at Quin Farrara and then the Spillanes invited us all for champagne on Christmas morning. As Garry is Irish, the other drink that he decided to serve was a Black Velvet; this is a drink that is made with Guinness and Champagne. I can’t recall what us kids were allowed to have but my guess is it was a Coca-Cola, as I know that was a big treat for me.

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I remember these Christmas mornings very well. It was just part of what we did on Christmas morning; all the families that lived in the Officers Quarters, friends on boats, the Nicholsons and Deeths would all be there. This tradition carried on until about 1972 when Gary and Paulette gave up their flat and left Antigua. Now what would we do?

It took a while with a few households doing something different on Christmas morning; then my mother Jenny decided that she would try and do the same thing on the stern of her boat Barefoot, which was stern to the dock. Seeing as how champagne had gone up in cost and there were now many more people around, the drink of choice changed to Bloody Marys.

I think it was about 1978 that I remember asking Libby Nicholson if she would be coming to the boat for a drink on Christmas morning. “No,” she said to me, “I want to do something different … there are many people here on boats who don’t have families and have no place to go. I would like to do something for them.”

Libby thought it would be nice to go back to the champagne tradition and invite everyone on the boats in the harbour to come and have a bottle of champagne with her around the capstans. I remember very clearly saying to Libby that I thought she was crazy. Libby being only 20 years old of course had no money, so her answer to this dilemma was to row around to all the boats in English Harbour tell them her plan and invite them to join her in a bottle of bubble.

Libby had called up one of the liquor stores in town and got the price of a bottle of cheap champagne, so that when everyone on the boats said they would like to join her, she told them that the cost would be $6.50EC per bottle, per person, and could they pay up front so she could buy the champagne.

As luck would have it, they agreed to do this, so much so she had enough money to buy quite a few cases. On Christmas morning, Libby filled a dinghy that had been placed on land by the capstans with some ice and the champagne. By late Christmas morning, all the people that had bought bottles turned up along with many others that didn’t—but all were welcome to join in until the champagne run out, and this ensured that everyone was able to enjoy Christmas day.

The party was such a success that the seed was set and every year the party grew—with not just the loners on boats going, but also all of us. Soon the word spread that this was a fun thing to do on Christmas morning. It gave you the chance to see all your friends, show off the great thing that you got for Christmas and just be merry with everyone.

For the next couple of years, Libby enlisted the help of her sister Dana, who then took it over from Libby—as Libby had decided to go off travelling. In time, the event started to get far too big for Dana to handle on her own, so it was decided that Henk Van Beever and his wife Sarah Nicholson (Libby & Dana’s cousin) would take it over.

Henk was at that time running Carib Marine, the supermarket that the Nicholson’s owned, and as they stocked champagne, this was an easier job for them to do than Dana. Henk and Sarah ran it for a few years until I think the closing of Carib Marine when Hans Smit (our favourite local jeweller, The Goldsmitty) and his wife Nancy took it over. They decided that they would also make use of it by running it with the intention of all proceeds going to their foundation for charity called the Hour Glass Foundation.

By now, this Christmas morning bash has become so huge, a band is brought in just for it, people will drive from the other side of the island to come for it, boats will make sure that they are in Antigua for Christmas morning, and they will book their spots on the dock as they want to be part of the celebration.

So if you are in Antigua for Christmas go to English Harbour on Christmas morning and buy your bottle of champagne from Hans. Thanks to Libby for starting this tradition and thanks to Hans for not only carrying it on, but also making it something that is not just enjoyable, but is also for a good cause.

It just goes to show you never know how a tradition can start—and sometimes it really doesn’t take much to start something that will become internationally-known and, to top it all off, end up doing something good for people less fortunate.

Cary Byerley is the President of the Caribbean Sailing Association

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  1. Many greetings from Hans Hoff who has just confirmed this wonderful story and told us more about all the people mentioned here and the exciting times back than!

    Hans who is spending Christmas in Germany with his family was happily surprised being part of the tradition and is saying hello while enjoying a glass of sparkling wine!

    Best regards and happy new year!


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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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