It only takes an hour or two to fly between even the most distant Caribbean islands these days, but there are still times when a slower pace appeals. Not so long ago, all inter-island transport was by sea. The arrival of the weekly or monthly mail-boat was an event: people gathered at the dock to collect packages, load produce, or catch up on the news of the outside world.
It can be tempting to slip back to this slower pace and experience the Caribbean by sea. Not necessarily from the luxury of a private yacht or cruise liner, but on a traditional Caribbean working boat, the way Caribbean people have travelled between the islands for generations. But it is not so easy to do. The cargo vessels which service every corner of this sea do not normally carry passengers, and often do not work to a fixed schedule. The traditional island mail-boat is mostly a memory.
But not entirely. Three times a week, the MV Snapper still pulls away from the dock at Kingstown in St Vincent, heading south into the beautiful Grenadines, loaded with mail, cargo and passengers. We joined her one sparkling Thursday morning; departure was scheduled for 10.30, but we boarded before ten to watch the loading.
It seemed that everything imaginable was to move south, including a Land Rover. Fruit was marked with the recipient’s name engraved on the skin. An outboard motor and small wooden rowing boat fought for space with sheets of corrugated iron and long planks of wood. Deep in the hold lay mountains of crates – cokes and the local beer, Hairoun. Beds and mattresses, chickens and goats, baby food and books – all the essentials seemed to be accounted for on the Snapper.
One man remained calm amid the melée: Captain Geoffrey King, tall and graceful, listing every piece of freight and collecting the requisite dues. The loading had begun well before dawn, but he looked as fresh as if he had just donned a newly pressed uniform.
About 45 minutes after the scheduled departure time, the last box was loaded, the last receipt written out. With a loud blast of the horn Captain King edged his vessel away from the pier. As we headed away from St Vincent, he collected the fares; I had no doubt that he knew exactly how many people had boarded.
We paid our EC$20 which would take us to the end of the line, Union Island. We asked about a cabin for the night (EC$IO each), but we were out of luck: “The laundry don’t bring no linens today.” It would not be proper to give out a cabin without bed linen. But we would be in Union well before dark, the captain said, and we should not worry about the early start for the return journey: “I never leave anyone behind – if I know you are coming, I keep blowing my horn until you get here.”
Kingstown slowly receded. The first port of call was Bequia, an hour away, its hills beckoning in the bright sunlight. The Snapper nosed into Admiralty Bay; the tidy homes of Port Elizabeth lined the waterfront and crept up the hillsides behind. To the south, the gleaming white sands of Princess Margaret Bay offered a lazy day under the palms. The dock was quiet. With a regular ferry service between St Vincent and Bequia in addition to the mail-boat, most of Bequia’s needs were already taken care of. A few parcels were off-loaded; a few passengers strolled on board.
Another shrill blast of the horn, and back to the sea. This next section, between Bequia and Canouan, was the longest and the roughest. As we left the shallow coastal waters, a crew member unreeled long lines from the stern, trailing several hundred yards behind the ship. I asked him if he caught much: “Every day is fishin’day, but not everyday is catchin’ day,” he replied. With a little coaxing, he conceded that he would fairly regularly hook a barracuda or kingfish. The record was a 120-pound kingfish. This prize was shared by all on board, captain, crew and even passengers.
The water roughened. Some passengers slept on the deck or on the hard benches. Most of the regulars were down below in the main cabin, where there was a television. Oliver Reed was playing a drug baron who had kidnapped a group of girls in the depths of a steamy South American jungle.
A very pale blonde Dutch girl was suffering the effects of the larger waves and held her head between her hands. An old lady offered her a little root ginger to chew, a sure cure for travel sickness, but it was declined. The poor girl probably thought she was being offered some illicit drug.
In the garden shed perched on the foredeck was the snack shop where Ursula King, the Captain’s wife, dispensed fish and rice for lunch, with fiery pepper sauce. An Italian couple sat with arms entwined, clad in the most elegant of designer casuals, though their moment of romance was shattered as a wall o water curled over the steel hull of the Snapper and slowly tumbled over them. Behind Ursula’s cabin, a St Vincent girl danced by herself to the reggae beat blasting from her boom-box, her thin legs sheathed in the tightest of multi-coloured jeans. The Dutch girl moved forward to take advantage of the breeze.
At Canouan, there was much more activity on the jetty. As soon as we pulled up alongside, boxes were passed ashore over the bow rails. Voices shouted encouragement when a heavy load was lifted, others yelled instructions to the crew about which bunch of bananas to hand over. Captain King turned the Snapper’s stern to the pier, and slowly, after a beer keg and a box of garlic were shifted out of the way, the Land Rover rolled ashore. It had been on board for over a week, but the sea had been too rough to unload.
Next, Mayreau beckoned. This lovely tranquil island has no jetty: as the Snapper dropped anchor in the middle of the bay, a swarm of tiny, multi-coloured wooden boats approached. Some had small engines with the throaty growl of a lawnmower, but many were rowed. People and goods were passed carefully from one boat to another. Two young boys edged their brightly-painted yellow and red boat alongside to deliver a crate of empty bottles and a handful of dollars. A crate of full cokes was passed back down. A wiry man on another boat loaded his wooden planks and galvanised metal sheeting, which overhung his tiny vessel.
On again to the sheltered waters of Clifton Harbour in Union Island, our final stop. Yachts rode gently at anchor, their crews waving to the mail-boat passengers. Most of the goods on board were destined for Union.
As we had no cabin, we went ashore and booked in to the Clifton Beach Hotel, then strolled through the village, crossing the island’s airstrip to watch the sharks swimming in desultory fashion in the pond in front of the Anchorage Yacht Club. Later, we could hear the Snapper being unloaded far into the night. It was no problem to wake up early, and we were back on board well before the six o’clock departure. Ursula provided sturdy chicken rotis for breakfast (plenty hot, you won’t need pepper on these) and strong black coffee.
The flotilla of tiny boats buzzed us again at Mayreau. At Canouan, a couple of goats were wheeled on board, their feet tied, and lay curled up in a wheel-barrow. In Bequia, we jumped ship.
We watched the vendors selling T-shirts and trinkets in colourful roadside stalls, and visited the Sergeant brothers who have found that their boat-building skills are much more profitable when applied to model boats. We negotiated the narrow twisting roads to look down the town from Fort Hamilton; high in the hills, every garden was heavy with the fragrance of frangipani blossoms. At Paget Farm, we met the fishermen who still set out in tiny boats to hunt for whales.
Taking a mail-boat through the islands is like taking a step back in time. It’s a relaxing way to travel in these hectic days. It’s even more relaxing to jump ship on the way home.
One of these days I must really think of moving on.