Thursday, April 25, 2024

Shipwreck Landing

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Hurricane season is winding down and the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo just passed, along with the 30th anniversary of Hurricane David, both devastating storms for the Caribbean.

It was on the 27th of August, 1979 that Virgin Islanders started hearing weather reports of a possible direct hit from a fast developing tropical system some 500 miles east of the Windward Islands. On the 29th of August, Category 3 Hurricane David slammed into Dominica with 125 knots of wind and torrential rains. Virgin Islanders quickly hurried hurricane preparations to completion.

Coral Bay on St. John’s east end has long been regarded as one of the best hurricane holes in the Virgin Islands and it was on this very day that Austin Crumpster was rushing the heavy 75-ft gaff rigged ketch Armoral into the bay to find safe anchorage. Already the outer bands of the storm were whipping up fierce northeasterly squalls, so when his engine quit just a few hundred feet from the dangerous lee shore of Coral Bay’s Johnson’s Reef, Austin, who was single handing, hardly had time to rush forward to let go the anchor. The ship struck and the ever-increasing seas pushed her up, inexorably higher and higher, and as the storm approached there was simply nothing to be done. The ship would become a total loss.

In 1979, Coral Bay was a sleepy backwater. The anchorage was rarely used; there were no restaurants, just a few rum shops. On a piece of waste land behind Fred’s bar, a boat building project was underway. Five small Cowhorn schooners were in various stages of completion, each owned by individuals with the dream of a cruising lifestyle. The work was slow going, money was tight, and tools and parts were difficult to access. If you needed a saw blade, a drill bit or a pot of glue it was an all day affair to trek over to the marine store in St. Thomas.

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Now, with Hurricane David approaching, the boats were lashed down and extra trusses were quickly assembled for support. Then the words rang out, “Vessel on the reef!”

The violent storm passed south of St. John by 100 miles; but while the torrential rains and storm force winds pounded the island, one of the boat builders, Jules, thought about the wreck, a treasure trove for a boat builder. Even before the storm had passed, he jumped into his island skiff and headed out to the wreck. Sure enough the magnificent vessel was a write-off, her port side completely stove in. The engine was underwater, the prop was mangled and the shaft bent. But the sails were good, the spars undamaged and there was hardware – lots of it. Soon his skiff was filled with “treasure.”

Back at his meager accommodation at Malvine’s, he dragged several heavy sailbags into the bush behind his room, then he went back for more. By now Larry, another boat builder, was there with the same idea. Before long, many useful items were saved from the ravages of the sea.

Malvine Sewer’s guest house was a rustic affair at best; rooms were bare concrete, a single light bulb hung in the centre of the ceiling, the toilet was an outhouse. But for an impoverished boat builder, cheap accommodation was essential. In late 1979, a small shack was erected by the parking area and a primitive rum shop developed. There were four bar stools in front of a counter; rum drinks and cold beer were offered for sale.    

One afternoon after a hard day, Jules sat down on a bar stool and ordered a cold one; the bar tender was not the customary Suzy but rather a disheveled and wild-eyed Scotsman. After a short time, Jules learned that he was chatting to ex-captain of the Armoral, Austin Crumpster, who had hooked up with Suzy and was becoming part of the local scene.

Every time Jules sat down for a cold beer, the conversation would range from boats to hurricanes to pirates … and it would always end with Austin remarking that, “If I ever catch those bastards who were out on the Armoral thieving everything that wasn’t welded in place, I’d  make them eat their gonads.” At which Jules would either immediately change the subject, order a large rum or say good night.

One evening a month later, Jules was wearing a pair of fast sneakers and, after several libations, with the same conversation repeated, he replied, “Austin, I know who was aboard the Armoral that day salvaging all those bits and pieces.”

Austin stopped what he was doing, planted his face six inches from Jules’ and, with eyes bulging and eyebrows raised, he said, “Well, who the hell was it?”

There was an awkward pause, eyes were locked, and then Jules said, “It was me.”

Austin reddened slightly, clenched and then unclenched a fist, and then he said, “Well done, lad. I would’ve done the same thing m’self.”  

Julian Putley is the author of “The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI,” “Sunfun Calypso” and “Sunfun Gospel.”

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

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