Another ferry, another destination, and music
Martha's Vineyard's unofficial Caribbean sister island of Bequia, a part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is winter home for several Vineyarders, and at least a port of call for others. We first sailed to Bequia in 1971 and have returned many times under sail. This year we tried public transportation - the West Indian version of our SSA. After two long flights - from Boston to Puerto Rico, and then on to St. Vincent - we were ready for the last leg. It was a corker.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 24, the dribbling fresh, vermillion paint partially hid the expanse of rust on the slab sided, oil-canned hull of the Admiral II, which lay stern to the quay in Kingston harbor, her dock lines groaning against the surge.
A colorful collection of West Indian families sporting their Sunday best, teetering stacks of produce, many cases of beer, two well-used European cars, and an entire church choir all maneuvered together in a surprisingly efficient, orderless boarding procedure on this bright morning in the heart of the Windward Islands.
Arriving moments before the 9 am departure, our party of five, strikingly white New England Yankees, hustled ourselves aboard the freight deck and heaped our luggage on a vacant cinder block pallet before climbing the narrow steel ladder to the passenger deck above. My northern winter eyes, still adjusting to tropical brilliance, scanned the teeming port, cradled in the lee of steep verdant volcanic mountains rising from the sea in descending shades of green.
With a belch of black diesel smoke from her stack and a blast of the horn, the Admiral II lurched out of her berth, the iron gangway screeching along the concrete bulwark while passengers waved and shouted to those left behind. By the time we cleared the headland protecting the port from the incessant easterly trades, the first muted notes of harmony from the St. Vincent Baptist Church choir began to filter through the chatter and gentle roll on the upper deck. This distinguished congregation of 30 or so men, women and young adults dominated our human complement with their rich, ancestral presence and elegant attire, especially the women, adorned in the traditional full length Sunday flowing white robes and their white head scarves, tied in the appropriate knot signifying one's status of availability. And, as in most cultures, the women were inconspicuously in charge of the program, and of the men.
Like the deep ocean swells that traverse the western ocean uninterrupted from Africa, so powerful are the West Indians' deeply rooted origins that were transferred to these islands in chains centuries ago. Our group of Nat, Pam, Signe, Hoffie and Harper were just beginning to appreciate the energy and excitement on this holiday outing to Bequia, our destination eight miles to the south.
As the majestic peaks of St. Vincent faded to the north, her stunning beauty shrouding decades of struggle and exploitation, the trade winds filled in, and our laboring vessel felt the steep Atlantic sea pitching her in the staggering, unpleasant motion of a vessel without sail.
Sea conditions notwithstanding, the bar on deck was open, and a handful of bravado St. Vincentians were popping open the first (presumably) "Hairoon" of the morning. Other passengers, we among them, found shelter from the spray and occasional rain squall and focused on breathing deeply the fresh ocean air.
In concert with the rising sea (or disproportionately with the deteriorating motion), the voices of the indomitable choir rose to the occasion, singing with increasing volume, if not joy, the fervent spiritual chorus at which they were so skilled. Past mid-channel and nearing the north coast of Bequia, wind and sea, magnified by an easterly flowing current, tested all the weary travelers with a final blast from Poseidon, only to be refuted by a crescendo of gospel voices, singing with even greater enthusiasm and relief, now that our destination was in sight. By this point in our journey, there were no pauses between hymns, just a smooth segue from one energetic chorus to the next, in ascending volume. Finally, in the lee of Bequia's northern promontory and rounding up in the calm waters of Port Elizabeth, the choir achieved its greatest moment, with everyone aboard joining in the refrain, singing and clapping and our beer-drinking comrades dancing in the aisles. On vessels we passed in the outer harbor, heads turned and stared at this reveling transport in blinking disbelief.
At last, the music stopped and our ungainly vessel set her anchor and churned her way round, stern to the dock. Our rainbow coalition of passengers, elevated and infused with the spirit of St. Vincent, disembarked with grateful smiles and a lighter step.
Nat Benjamin - sailor, yacht designer, and boatbuilder - lives in Vineyard Haven.