Under the straw hat’s ragged brim the grin was wide and warm. A strong steady hand reached up to grab mine as I stepped uncertainly into the rocking water-taxi. Following instructions, I placed my feet gingerly and sank down on the wooden seat, my bags perched at crazy angles on the debris of boatman’s tackle which scattered the boards below.
With a throaty roar which turned into an irregular phut- phut, the ancient outboard motor took us away from the quay, and the little painted boat crawled across the harbour towards the distant flash of white sand.
“What hotel?” The boatman steered us past the towering white cliffs of today’s visiting cruise liner and headed for the beach a couple of miles away. I told him and relaxed, trailing my fingers in the warm water. Below, the sunlight reflecting off the white sandy bottom turned the water turquoise and sapphire, glittering against the bright red bow of our boat.
The skipper ploughed the sharp keel into the soft sand and helped me jump knee-deep into the warm water. I paid him and walked barefoot up the beach, shoes in hand. As I turned to wave, the cruise ship bade the island farewell, the sound of its siren bouncing between the hills. Slowly, it nosed out of the harbour and bore its milling passengers towards the horizon and another brief island encounter.
To the Caribbean islands, boats are as natural as coconuts.
From Antigua and the Virgin Islands in the north, their calm anchorages dotted with yachts at rest, to the rust-specked cargo ships in ports from Kingston to Port of Spain, Caribbean waters are alive with vessels of all descriptions. Ferries and liners, dinghies and clippers, pirate ships and schooners, floating discos and glass-bottomed tourist boats. They bring cargo and tourists, they’re servants and playmates. Ugly or beautiful, large or small, powered or sail, they’re everywhere.
Over the years, I’ve travelled in some of them and watched others at rest and at work, and I never tire of them — nor the people who sail them. Some of the most beautiful sights in the Caribbean can be reached only by boat. The reefs, marine life and deserted landfalls of the tiny Grenadine islands, for example, belong almost entirely to yachts. Between the islets, sun- dappled hulls slice the water and white sails snap hungrily until their bellies are fat with the trade winds. In the pale shadow below, tanned tourists spread oiled limbs and make the only decision of the day: one more rum punch? Behind the wheel, the charter skipper has sailed these waters for a lifetime; the position of every reef is drawn on his memory like a chart.
But you don’t need to go to the expense of a long charter to enjoy the Grenadines. There are other boats. A day excursion from a nearby island will set you free in these magical waters. On a broad-decked catamaran, awash with soca music and rum punch, or on an elegant yacht equipped with fine wine and a cordon bleu picnic, a day afloat is an inexpensive way to join the yachting fraternity in its favourite playground.
Sometimes, rising from a deep trough among the flying fish, the yachties will catch sight of bigger craft: container vessels or banana boats, the region’s trading links with the rest of the world. But between the islands, the boats are smaller and more colourful, often wooden-built, with thick painted hulls, fat masts and salt-stained sails. In their holds they carry livestock and Coca-Cola, farm machinery and auto spares, long letters and denim jeans from distant relatives in New York or London. Above deck, in the spray from the waves, passengers perch precariously on the rest of the cargo, fitting themselves between the packing cases wherever space allows. As these vessels leave harbour, the cold beers are passed around, the gossip flows and the crew trails a fishing line, just in case.
Once, travelling in such a boat, I slipped on a wet deck and nicked my shin on a pile of cargo. First aid came in the form of a tissue soaked in strong rum, from a lady going visiting in a neighbouring island. The wound never gave me a moment’s trouble, and a new friendship was born of my voyage.
The boat I travelled on had been built in Carriacou, from the design originally brought there by Scottish craftsmen two centuries before. Sadly, the wooden working schooners are being replaced now by steel-hulled workhorses which cost less to maintain; hut the boat-builders are still active. Every year, the bare rib-cages of new craft scatter the shoreline, and under the adze and axe fast racing- boats eventually emerge, to compete in the Carriacou Regatta in August. Then, amid the revelry and the carnival atmosphere, the boat is once more celebrated — a thanks- giving for the vessels and sailors who keep the Caribbean islanders supplied with transport and the necessities of life.
Whenever I see another multi-million-dollar gin-palace, anchored like a floating wedding-cake off one of the islands, I think of the other end of the Caribbean boating story — the rows of tiny decorated fishing boats lying turtle- like, upside-down, on any shore. With the catch at home in the pot, the nets hung out to dry, they rest cheek-by-jowl on the warm sand, as numerous as the coconut palms under which they are built.
Give me a boat, and I’ll show you the free spirit of the Caribbean.