In early January we were anchored in Anguilla’s Road Bay, enjoying the calm after the Christmas winds. Life on the beach was workboat casual – a constant stream of small vessels loaded with tourists, divers and folk who fish.
The routine broke when two of the island’s legendary race boats appeared on trailers. One slipped into the water and then the other, crews hustling to load them with gear and ballast.
The boats, 28ft in length and gleaming with look-at-me colors form part of a fleet that race hard from March through August when the island throws its biggest party. Why these beauties were there in January was a mystery I knew I must solve.
The following day, more crew appeared to raise the 50ft masts, set up rigs and bend on the massive mainsails. I hovered nearby, watching and wondering.
“Is there going to be a race?” I asked a rigger.
“No. No race,” he replied. “We takin’ a fella on he last sail.”
I was struck by the monumental gesture bestowed upon a sailor; rigging these boats is no small effort. But then I heard the full story, which would soon bring me to tears.
The sailor was Albert Hughes, known locally as Belto. His father owned Light and Peace and Belto had sailed her many variations for over 50 years; working, racing and financing the upkeep. He was frequently the race boat captain, a serous role on an island that claims boat racing as the national sport.
The second boat, De Wizard, was also a Hughes family vessel, built through the efforts of Belto.
Captain Hughes, at age 82, passed away in late December. He would be honored by the country at a National Funeral for his service as an Elected Representative, Minister and Parliamentary Secretary; serving his West End community and country for 27 years.
Nephew Earl Hughes knew his uncle wanted to take one more sail. It didn’t happen while Belto was alive but plans quickly formed to make certain his wish would be granted.
The next afternoon, a crowd gathered near the pier. A hearse backed onto the beach and crew, wearing Light and Peace shirts, came forward as pallbearers. The door opened revealing a boat shaped coffin, painted to replicate Beltos’ beloved vessel. The casket was carried down the pier, stern first by tradition, and placed aboard a power boat that would escort the sailors.
Pallbearers hustled down the beach to the waiting boats which were filling fast. Kids clambered aboard; ladies were carried out; beers were delivered to every open hand. Before everyone was aboard, the boats were turned; jibs freed, and they were off – West End bound.
The crowd onshore toasted Belto. There were smiles and tears as prideful eyes watched the three vessels shrink in size. I knew nothing about this sailor, honored so significantly, yet I knew without a doubt how much he was loved; that Anguilla was his heart and racing was in his blood. I understood the magnitude of his life as a sailor, boat builder, and servant to his country.
After the boats returned and the casket was placed in the hearse, I saw boatbuilder Devon ‘Beggar’ Daniels. “You got to come to my yard,” he said. “See what I make. It’s the boat that go on top.” A friend produced a photo of a little boat and I imagined it to be a foot long, an adornment for the casket.
Beggar collected us the next day, hours before the funeral, and as we entered his boatyard, there sat a seven foot replica of Light and Peace. It had taken a week to build, setting up the frames, laying up tiny planks, finished in minute detail including paint, graphics, and numbered ballast stones glued in the bottom.
“It will go on top of the grave,” Beggar explained. “In Anguilla we call it a wreath.” Never before had a wreath looked like a boat nor had any sailor been given such an amazing tribute. It was, to my eyes, the finest tribute ever for a man of the sea. Among hundreds of condolences, one said it best: “RIP Mr. Hughes. You have finished the race.”