There is little Man has made that approaches anything in Nature, but a sailing ship does.
The Caribbean, in February, on a ship.
We’re neither of us beach people. (We had a beach holiday in the Maldives once, in 1982, and were homicidal with boredom by the third day). And we’d never been to the Caribbean, though the scenery and wildlife seemed to be crying out for a visit—so we were looking for a way to swan around the Caribbean looking at stuff, but which didn’t involve a beach resort, didn’t involve multiple visits to airports, and didn’t involve a huge floating city pretending to be a cruise ship.
We ended up on a three-masted barque-rigged sailing ship, travelling up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles. Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, St Kitts & Nevis, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint-Barthélemy, Antigua: seven countries, two British overseas territories, two French overseas departments and one collectivité territoriale.
So a bit like one of those notorious old American bus tours of Europe—If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Except with dolphins and pelicans. And no bus.
Trying to write about it in chronological order would very quickly become tedious for all involved, so here are some major themes, more or less in the order they occur to me:
IT’S A SAILING SHIP!
That was a big initial attraction for me, at least. And it quickly turned into one for the Boon Companion, too, once she spotted what a photogenic object a sailing ship is.
Having spent a lot of my formative years reading the naval novels of C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope, it was nice for me to get to see a proper three-master at work. But any vague hopes I might have had that we’d soon be heaving-to under tightly reefed topsails, or clubhauling her on to a new tack against a dangerous lee, were soon dispelled by the relatively leisurely rhythm of sail-handling on this ship. Nowadays, you just can’t man the masts with the sort of large crew Nelson’s navy commanded. It takes time to set and furl sails. And we had an engine, a schedule to keep, and Health and Safety regulations to comply with. And most disappointingly, no-one ever shouted from aloft, “Deck there! Sail on the port beam! And a Frenchie, by the rig of her spanker!”
We sailed with the wind behind us, with plenty of sea-room, and never at night. Sometimes we’d actually motor over to get ourselves in the right position to sail directly down on our destination. So it was a rather theme-parked version of the original; but a fine thing nonetheless—and still hard manual work for the crew, despite the prevalence of powered capstans on deck.
Bottlenose dolphin spent less time flirting with the ship than I had imagined they would, although the Boon Companion had a chance encounter with a fin going past directly below our porthole one afternoon. Flying fish, instead of flopping helplessly on deck for the cook to gather up, like something out of the Kon-Tiki expedition, were visible only as rapidly retreating silver streaks against the waves.
But the birds were a joy. At sea, boobies hung around the windward side of the ship, using the updraft for some efficient dynamic soaring. Frigate birds were a feature of every harbour along the way, patrolling the shoreline to prey on other seabirds. And in the northern part of our journey, pelicans dived around the ship in harbour, looking very much in danger of breaking their necks with every plummet.
On shore, there were multiple species of humming-bird (infuriatingly difficult to photograph) and lovely little bananaquits patrolling the flowering trees and bushes. Grackles strutted around noisily as if they owned the place, trying to steal food at every opportunity. We were told of a hotel in the Grenadines that supplies diners in its terrace restaurant with water-pistols, to keep the grackles at bay.
And then there were the fish-eating bats.
I’m just going to write that again: FISH-EATING BATS. Bats that eat fish. I thought it was a joke. How on Earth could a bat in the air echolocate fish in the water, when the abrupt density change at the water surface is strongly reflective of sound? It turns out they look for the particular sort of ripples on the surface that are generated by fish, and then swoop down to drag their feet through the water at that location. Whenever the ship was anchored, attracting fish to its lights, Greater Bulldog Bats would flit around us at the edge of visibility.
Many of these islands are volcanic in origin, so there are volcanic landscapes all around—from big cones sticking up into the sky to jagged remnants of old calderas. And we’re in the coral latitudes, so there are reefs everywhere, with their associated white beaches and shallow blue lagoons. The big mountains catch the clouds, producing high rain forests and fertile lower slopes, so there’s a lot of greenery. It’s all very … um … well, Caribbean. You know what it looks like. I’ll move on.
The history is simultaneously complicated and simple. Complicated, because these poor islands were handed off endlessly between various colonial empires—St Lucia changed hands 14 times between the British and the French, for instance. Simple, because there were two dominant themes almost everywhere—slavery and sugar. (In a previous post, I’ve already reviewed Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads, which is a compact history of the region. It does the big themes well, but tends to concentrate on the detail of only the larger islands.)
Everywhere you go by ship, the naval history of the region is on display—there doesn’t seem to be a harbour anywhere without the ruin of a fort, gun emplacement or signal station on the skyline.
And then there’s HMS Diamond Rock—a 175-metre-high sea-stack, garrisoned by the Royal Navy in 1804, and armed with several batteries of cannon to control the sea approaches to the French island of Martinique. For the purposes of supply and pay the navy had to administer it as if it were a ship, so they commissioned the rock as a sloop-of-war.
Sunset is a marvellous time in the Caribbean. The long streets of fairweather cumulus that form during the day are at their most active, visibility is often good, and a western sea horizon is usually easy to find. The Boon Companion and I quickly evolved a private sunset ritual—we’d find ourselves a convenient vantage point at the ship’s rail, drag up a couple of chairs and a small table, position the necessary equipment easily to hand (a camera and a Kir Royale for her, a pair of binoculars and a Pisco Sour for me), tip back our chairs, put up our feet … and watch the show.
I’ve already posted about the waterspout that appeared one evening. We had a good supply of crepuscular rays most days, and in ten days with a good sea horizon, I saw a green flash on six occasions. And there were often homeward-bound seabirds passing over the ship on their way to land. On one evening we had a satisfying fly-past of tropicbirds—lovely white creatures with long tail streamers.
Niles: It’s cruise season. She never partakes. She has an absolute terror of buffets.
Frasier: Oh, yes, her legendary “smorgaphobia.”
Ah well, the food. Breakfast and lunch aboard were buffets, with occasional evening buffets as well. Although the Boon Companion and I have travelled by ship before, it has always been on an “expedition cruising” model—a couple of fixed courses plonked down on a plate in front of you. This was our first encounter with the “endless grazing” approach popular on cruise ships. Which is how I discovered that I suffer from smorgaphobia. *
Wansink and Payne (Obesity 2008; 16(8):1957-60) have established that obese diners tend to sit facing the buffet, and to immediately start serving themselves rather than first surveying what’s available and making a choice. In contrast, my smorgaphobia involves sitting as far away from the buffet as possible, looking steadfastly in the other direction, and only grudgingly approaching it after the initial feeding frenzy has died away. The larger the quantity of food on display, the less hungry I feel. This loss of appetite is compounded by: 1) People who stand around waiting to photograph the food as soon as the buffet display is completed, 2) Long, jostling, plate-clutching queues that form immediately the serving bell rings, 3) People returning from the buffet bearing huge conical mounds of food built from a large serving of everything on display. Sadly, our Caribbean trip was a perfect storm of off-putting buffet behaviour for me, so I was often reduced to nibbling a bit of cheese while gazing out over the rail, “admiring the view” and assuring fellow passengers that I’d be having something else to eat in just a minute. I must be one of the few people ever to have come back from one of these trips a couple of kilograms lighter.
Anyway, our most enjoyable meals were taken when we jumped ship and found a restaurant ashore. In particular, it’s possible that La Creperie in Gustavia saved from staging a psychotic rampage during the lunch buffet, overturning tables and screaming, “No-one needs this much food!”
So, with a nod to the writers of Frasier, I’d like to propose a word for the sort of gluttony that seems to be induced in some people by the mere sight of a stuffed buffet: a smörgasm.
* You’ll probably have spotted that the word derives from Swedish smörgåsbord, which seems to have rather fallen out of use as a word for buffet meals, and instead found a job as a metaphor for “a wide range of nice options”.