A Whale of a Time in the Northern Grenadines

April 9, 2019

After enjoying the low key beach life, and excellent snorkeling, in the lush surroundings of Chatham Bay on the island of Union, we leave for Mayreau, and Saltwhistle Bay. It’s a crowded, rolling anchorage and we’re away again after just one night to spend a couple more days in the Tobago Cays before heading north. The sail to Mustique is superb. Keeping Canouan and Petit Canouan to the west and Savan and Petite Mustique to the east we arrive in Britannia Bay after four hours. All vessels under 60ft in length are encouraged to pick up a fixed mooring buoy, provided there’s one free of course. It’s pretty quiet and the buoys look quite new and secure after a quick free diving test! Despite this we find out later on that our friends Andrew and Carolyn on Askari had a horrible experience a year or so ago when their mooring failed and they ended up being helped off the nearby reef!  The system is that you pay for 1 night and get a further 2 nights ‘free’. Doing the maths 1 night is very expensive, but spread over 3 nights it’s almost par for the course in the Grenadines, so no complaints there. Moana is a Trojan Horse for the hoi polloi nestling amongst the glitterati. As a private island since the Hon. Colin Tennant bought it in 1958 it has a rather different character to the other Grenadines. The journey of exclusivity began with Princess Margaret building a house on the island after accepting a wedding present from the owner of a 10 acre plot. Since then it has been the haunt of society’s upper echelons, rock stars, models and, more and more, ultra-wealthy business people. The rags to riches exception to this is the inimitable Basil Charles, who arrived on the island as a penniless youth, chancing his arm with a friend. He was recovering from losing a kidney in a severe motorcycle accident in St Vincent and unknown to him an old Etonian friend of Colin Tennant had helped out at the scene. The story came out in Mustique and thanks to Basil’s unremitting charm he secured the barman’s job at The Cotton Club Hotel. As time played out he was asked by Tennant to run, and eventually become part owner, of a beach bar bearing his name, ‘Basil’s Bar’.  It was to become arguably the most famous beachside drinking establishment in the Caribbean. If those walls could speak….

Still going strong at 70, he has outlived many of his contemporaries, and aristocratic partners. The bar is clearly past it’s heyday but remains a fantastic spot to watch the sun sink into the horizon. 

The family ownership has evolved into a property owner collective called ‘The Mustique Company’ which strictly administers the island affairs. Everywhere is pristine, tortoises roam freely all over the place, the shops and houses are from a picture book. Perhaps an unintended consequence of this exclusive isolation is that the vegetation, reefs and undersea life has a retained a healthy diversity. Planting is varied (although maybe that’s because Roddy Llewellyn, Margaret’s ‘friend’ was a landscape gardener!) and the reefs still have good examples of living hard coral and gardens of Gregorian fans at shallow depths.

For our night on shore, we went for the Friday night BBQ at The View in Lovell Village. Lovell Village is the heart of the local community. The food is cooked on the balcony and begins at 7pm, with music and dancing from 9pm which then morphs into a DJ at 11pm ending with a 3am close. Good to it’s name the view across Britannia Bay was jaw dropping. We sampled the fish, chicken and pigs tails and drank Long Island Iced Teas which could have fueled a private jet. The atmosphere was fantastic and the lad who served up the drinks informed us that if we had been here the previous week for Karaoke Night we would have been mixed it with Mick Jagger! We made our exit before the real party started.

Just before setting off for Bequia we met a Swedish man who was commissioning a 700HP speedboat for a resident. He told us that the Bequian Whalers had managed to land a humpback whale a couple of days previously. With traditional sailing boats and hand thrown harpoons this was no mean feat and far from a regular event. In fact one whale per year is likely out of an allowable quota of four.  Armed with this gruesome knowledge we readied Moana for the short journey across wind to Friendship Bay on the southern end of Bequia. It is sunny and an 18 knot easterly made it a lovely, quick sail. The small island of Petit Nevis, just south of Friendship Bay, is the historic centre of Bequian whaling activity. Nowadays the butchering is carried out on Sempler’s Cay, an even smaller rock islet on the entrance to the bay. It had been only three days since the catch and bones were all that remained of the majestic humpback. Apparently, once the news was out, a local free-for-all ensued and anyone who could launch a boat from nearby Paget Farm could have a piece of the animal.

Permissible under international regulations as ‘aboriginal’ whaling, this is supposedly indigenous whaling by indigenous peoples. Bequians have such a permission but when compared to the Canadian Inuit or Russian Chukotka the justification (if justified at all!) doesn’t appear nearly as convincing. The whaling history is mixed and it has never been about survival, the seas are plenty rich enough with other bounty to sustain the islanders many times over. Whaling arrived only a couple of centuries or so ago through settlers from whaling stations, like New Bedford, on the Eastern Seaboard of the US, or even Scotland. Skills were passed on, settlers integrate as locals and now it’s part of Bequian history with the associated folklore and traditions. It was good for us, and particularly Freddie, to experience it all close quarters. We woke the next morning with three whaling boats getting ready for the day ahead and by midday we were around the most south westerly point of the island and anchored in the shelter of Port Elizabeth.

This is Yachtie heaven to many. Still remote enough to be off the main Caribbean tourist route, good shelter and plenty of room to anchor off clean, sandy beaches in a lovely setting. The town has almost everything a down to earth Yachtie could need, chandleries, fresh food and decent provisioning, canvas and sailmakers, ‘all-rounder’ mechanical and electrical engineers at reasonable rates, laundry, water and fuel delivered to your boat. The local people are charming, helpful and magnanimous, there’s a safe feel and the plentiful dockside restaurants play live music. No wonder that quite a few nautical visitors over the years have simply failed leave and chosen to drop their anchor on land. We stay and relax for nearly a week, meeting old friends in passing and meeting new ones. 

We dig deep at the whaling museum, admire the local sailing yachts and see the traditional model boat builders, like Timothy Sargeant, take a piece of hardwood and transform it into a thing of beauty.  We even take the bus to Paget’s Farm and check out Art’s source of ‘sustainable’ lobsters for Lobster Alive in Barbados. Despite the horrors of harpooning a migrating humpback, Bequia is a fine place made of great memories.

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