At Sea with the Caribs

Simon Lee sails with an 11-man Carib crew sails from Dominica to Trinidad

  • Carib chief Frederick. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Hamlet Prince (crew-member) gazes out to sea. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Dominican chief Frederick Jacobs. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Gli-Gli heads south. Photograph by Simon Lee

A square sail sliced the channel between St Vincent and Bequia. But it was not a yacht. It belonged to a craft that had not been seen in these waters for hundreds of years.

I squinted from the deck of the 120-foot Dominican schooner Carmela, following the speeding sail of the Gli Gli. Sometimes it dipped below the waveline, rearing up moments later to plunge ahead, until it disappeared round the headland into Admiralty Bay.

Built in the Carib Territory of Dominica, the 35-foot canoe Gli Gli was living up to its namesake: a small aggressive hawk revered by ancient Carib warriors as a symbol of bravery. Under sail it was swift, easily outstripping the schooner, and matching pace with modern yachts.

This modern voyage of rediscovery began in 1994, when Jacob Frederick met Tortolan artist Aragorn Dick-Read on a bus. Carib identity had always been a theme of Jacob’s paintings and sculpture. He grew up in the Carib Territory in Dominica, the only such reservation left in the Caribbean, and had long been aware of the situation of his people. “We’re the last of our race. Our identity is disappearing so fast that we can’t afford to waste a single moment.”

He’d long dreamed of building a traditional dugout canoe and retracing the 700-mile voyage his ancestors made, searching out surviving tribe members in the islands and re-establishing ties with the Guyanese Caribs. The journey would be an affirmation of the survival of canoe-building and navigational skills, and an opportunity to exchange information about craft techniques and culture, food and drink, traditional medicine preparations — and, most important, to expose the Dominican Caribs to their ancestral language, still spoken by Guyanese Caribs but now largely forgotten in the islands.

The trip was to take an 11-man Carib crew in their uncovered dugout all the way down the southern chain of islands from Dominica, through the treacherous Dragon’s Mouth between Trinidad and Venezuela, and the equally dangerous passage through the Serpent’s Mouth into the great Orinoco delta. The final leg of the voyage lay along the Atlantic coast and into the river system of north-west Guyana, to the Carib tribal homelands of St Monica and Kabakaburi on the Pomeroon River.

The Caribs rose at dawn; I joined them, clambering up on deck for strong coffee in the half darkness, waiting for sunrise. We set sail for Canouan at noon; in the Gli Gli, I was silently grateful for the overcast sky. Aragorn blew a farewell into a conch shell, the moan floating across the still water. A Black Carib woman waved us off from the Frangipani jetty.

Soon we’d passed the guano-stained cliffs of the penultimate islet, and were bouncing out into open sea. The Carmela shadowed us. The wind carried us smoothly enough to enjoy a lunch of fresh Dominican grapefruit and fish broth. In the semi-siesta which followed, the expedition’s American sailing advisor, a man who finds a girl in every port, settled down in the bow to play his wooden flute.

By four, the clouds had opened and Gli Gli was rolling in choppy seas. To balance her, the crew had to shift from side to side, leaning as far out over the hull as possible without toppling overboard. This was where the safety harnesses came in. I missed the cue a couple of times and, trying to protect my camera, crashed onto the slippery boards. Our only company was a lone seagull and the occasional plane passing overhead. With dusk spreading across the water, we were tossed by strong gusts coming into Canouan, and reached land below the Tamarind Beach Hotel, cold, wet and tired. Next day, we fled down the Grenadines to the tranquillity of the uninhabited, unspoilt Tobago Cays. When I woke on Carmela I saw the dinghy had already left for shore. No problem: the white beach beckoned a few hundred yards away; the turquoise water was inviting, and I dived in.

That night we cooked freshly-caught cowfish, snapper, redfish and jacks on the beach, washed down with Italian wine and Mount Gay rum. Mullin Stoute sat in the sand beating a drum, accompanying himself to an old Martiniquan song.
The idyll of the Cays ended with a short run to Union Island. We missed the calypso show but spent a night carousing onshore. Next morning, Chalo woke me gently in the hammock. “You was a lickle tired larse night?” he enquired, grinning. Well, yes, Papa!

The crossing to Carriacou was rough; my bunk below decks shot across the cabin; we were rolling on a heavy swell. When we arrived, I strolled through Hillsborough and spotted posters advertising Lady Salsa, a 12-strong all-female salsa group from Havana, Cuba. Tonight would be Baila! Baila! By midnight, suitably fortified, all able-bodied members of the Gli Gli expedition were ready to salsa at the After Ours nightclub.

Lady Salsa hit the stage scorching, in black-fringed hot pants and tops. Technical adviser Clay solemnly declared this was the high point of the voyage. When the temperature reached boiling point, one of the three vocalists called me on stage for a wining competition. Had I been living in Trinidad 10 years for nothing? In the interest of pan-Caribbean relations, I rediscovered the joys of syncopated pelvic rotation.
Sunrise at sea, early morning ol’-talks with my Carib partners, cocoa tea with arrowroot, fresh fish, the stars, and swinging in Chalo’s hammock.

Only experienced sailors would be on board the canoe during the night, for the crossing from Grenada to Trinidad. We lost radio contact with Gli Gli for several anxious hours, and when we did sight her at dawn we realised the combination of adverse current and cross winds had blown her off course.

Aragorn and Jacob took the decision to accept a tow to get the canoe back on course and through the Bocas into the Gulf of Paria. A couple of miles offshore, we were met by a coastguard launch and a welcoming committee of dancing dolphins.
Nearly two weeks were spent in Trinidad, where Gli Gli was repaired and the expedition prepared for the journey up the rivers of Venezuela and Guyana. The Caribs spent a weekend with their Santa Rosa cousins at the Carib Community Centre in Arima, and I had the pleasure of introducing Chalo and the crew to the delights of Trinidad’s rumshops.

Later, I flew down to Georgetown, Guyana, planning to meet the expedition on the Carib reservation in St Monica, on the Pomeroon River. In Guyana the Caribs had already received a full state welcome.

I spent a morning securing the necessary passes to enter Amerindian territory, and headed over the pontoon bridge spanning the Demerara, then by speedboat across the seven-mile expanse of the Essequibo, heading for Charity on the Pomeroon. But when I reached Sultan, the man with the fastest boat on the Pomeroon told me Gli Gli left the previous morning, and the only way to catch it was by helicopter.

I consoled myself with a trip up-river to meet the Arawaks in the Wakapoa, and spent a timeless day drifting through the waterways of the savannah and getting my feet burnt on the white-sand islands.

By now Gli Gli must have been in the Atlantic; but at least I experienced the silence of the interior, where the Caribs set out for the islands so long ago, and saw small Amerindian children paddling their dugouts beneath dense canopies of forest.