March 24 - March 26, 2008: From Antigua to Montserrat - and our Stay there
It is March 24, and we decided that it was time to finally move out of Antigua to Montserrat. The winds had created Northerly swells which make anchoring in Montserrat (the only way to visit this island) untenable. Now, around 0900, we lifted anchor - Juergen washed the chain and the anchor itself from the mud that had encrusted them while I very slowly left English Harbor. Outside, we found a rather steep swell and strong winds (up to 25 knots). We took out the genoa sail as wind and wave direction was mostly favorable, and we had a comfortable and reasonably fast sail all the way to Little Bay of Montserrat. In between, we spoke to Dietmar of Romany Life. His ride from Nevis was less comfortable. But he and his friend Larry (when Mary Lou is not with Dietmar, he asks friends to join him for a sail. Mary Lou does not like sailing, prefers to live on the boat, docked at fancy marinas, going out for dinner every night. When Dietmar goes sailing, he anchors out and enjoys the "romany life" as he calls it. We invited them for drinks after they arrived. By that time, we were already long comfortable, having played some Backgammon, having had lunch. Now, by 1700, it was time for a rum punch. Around 1900, the two gentlemen left, insisting on eating dinner on their boat and having agreed to take the island tour together after clearing customs and immigration the next morning.
March 25 - it is blowing quite hard but our anchors seem to be holding well. We met at the dinghy dock at 0900 and cleared customs, port authorites, and immigration. We already met "our driver", Joe Phillip "Avalon", written up by Chris Doyle in his guide book for Montserrat. Joe had a comfortable van which accommodated all five of us. I sat next to Joe so that I was ready to "shoot" (pictures of course) whenever I wanted. Joe also stopped wherever we wanted and suggested additional places. The tour was amazing. There is lots of construction going on. We learned already on other Caribbean islands that people don't take out mortgages (whether by necessity or otherwise, we are not certain) but instead build until they run out of money, then they resume construction as they have accumulated more money. Here in Montserrat the same. Joe proudly showed us his new home - practically ready to move into the first floor. The roof is done as concrete, steel rods sticking out for the next floor, if there ever is one to be built. He has done the entire construction himself, except he had a real electrician help him. Plumbing, etc. all was done by Joe himself (and possibly some of his friends, although he mentioned none).
We went to the observatory which was completed in 2003 and has a view onto the volcano - on a clear day. Because of all the wind and some rain, we never saw the actual top of the mountain, just the clouds surrounding it. They showed a 27 minute movie about the eruption of 1997 and some subsequent smaller eruptions. We were stunned to see the force, the devastation. Though all people had been evacuated, some went back during the day, and when yet another eruption occurred, they were overtaken by the fire and practically evaporated (or close to). So, in the end, 19 actually died. After the eruption, many people fled because there was no housing for the 7000 who had to leave Plymouth, the island's capital, and other towns / villages in the Southern part of the island, initially just into churches and other makeshift accommodations, over time, to nearby islands and, many, to England (at no charge to them). All they had to do was sign up for the ferry to take them to Antigua or some other island and from there, they were taken to airports to connect to England. Most stayed in England, a few came back. Famous musicians and their agents and other famous people decided to return to the island in support of those islanders who decided to stay. Now, the population is about 4,500 to 5,000 (the number varies, depending on who you talk to) and is growing slowly, naturally.
We went as close as possible to the mountain, to Plymouth which is buried entirely under 12 ft to 20 ft of ash and debris that rolled down the mountain during the eruption of 1997 and some thereafter. We drove through a riverbed which lies under over 20 ft of ash and huge bolders the water washed down together with the ash. The golf course is totally covered, many homes destroyed from fire. Many areas that are inhabited today were also covered with up to 7ft of ash. But with their own hands, utensils and government help, they cleaned up to move back or rebuild their homes. A large part of the island is still declared a "no access" zone in fear of another eruption. A few years ago, the top of the mountain collapsed, and scientists hoped that the volcano would go dormant, but then, the mountain grew at enormous speeds, and more steam and ashes flowed, causing a few more albeit smaller eruptions. The latest occurred in January 2007. It is saddening to see beautiful homes largely covered with mud, ash, and debris, to see some houses perfectly intact with others right next door totally destroyed. It is saddening to see the passages where the lava flowed covering the entire town of Plymouth which, from St. George's Hill, looks like a huge gray ghost town.
The island, however, is still called the Emerald Island because of its lush vegetation, beautiful flowers and trees. We saw such gorgeous parts also and went to what is a new beach, created by the flow of ash and water where once the golf course stood. We drover over a dock, covered under the mud, bullocks still sticking out - very strange.
People seem upbeat, smiling, making the best of their lives. Even those who lost their homes and stayed or returned look forward by building new homes, planning for the future. We are stricken by what we saw.