4. December 2022

Bequia – Island of boat builders and whalers

Bequia’s Admirality Bay has been considered one of the safest and quietest natural harbors in the Caribbean for centuries. The water is calm and clear, the green forested hills surround the bay in a safe embrace and fine sandy beach wraps around the turquoise waters like a belt. No wonder pirates and pop stars alike have chosen this bay to anchor their ships and we don’t want to leave either.

From Mabul we can swim to Princess Margaret beach, where we can have a lemonade or a beer at the tiny stall of the jewelry seller Fay. When the sea, illuminated by the evening sun, turns into golden, shimmering scales, we return to the boat, often accompanied by a sea turtle sticking its head out of the water.

Admirality Bay in Bequia is considered one of the best natural harbors in the Caribbean

Since arriving at Admirality Bay, we’ve taken care of a few boat projects and immersed ourselves in the island’s history and culture. Bequia, an island with a long shipbuilding tradition, is ideally suited to spruce up our Mabul. First we take care of the sun protection of our genoa, which has already been attacked by the Caribbean sun, has cracks and holes and needs to be mended.

We transport our genoa with the ripped sunshade in the dinghy ashore.

With the dinghy we drive the genoa ashore, where we look for a sailmaker. In a sail loft not far from the pier we find what we are looking for. The loft is no more than a wooden hut with recesses in the floor. Workers sit in it, in front of them at ground level on the floor a sewing machine, under the needle a sail spread out on the floor. Other sewing machines stand on tables and look like relics from the distant past. The oldest sewing machine in the room is a German machine made by Adler in the 1940s. “It’s better than any newer model,” says Avell Davis, the sailmaker, a tall, serious-looking man.

An employee sits at a 1940s sewing machine made by the German company Adler

Davis has fair skin, but speaks with the melodious singsong common to many Caribbean islands. Its roots lie in the distant colonial era, when the French and British fought for the Caribbean islands. In 1763, after the Seven Years War, the British and the French agreed in the Treaty of Paris to divide the Caribbean islands and other territories. St.Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as Grenada, Tobago, Dominica and Canada went to the British, with the French getting St. Lucia, Guadeloupe and Martinique – the local populations and African slaves already living on the islands were “of course” not asked for their opinions. Davis’ ancestors were among these former colonial masters.

Avell Davis is a sailmaker with heart and soul

The sailmaker spreads our genoa on the ground. He’s been making and mending sails since 1984. Everything, he says, he loves about his job. Especially the constant changes in sails, which were always evolving and therefore would also force him to stay up to date and constantly learn. He looks at our sail with a scrutinizing gaze and says: “A good sail, a very good one in fact, developed on the computer. But why did they use such a cheap sunshade? It might be good in Europe, but not here in the Caribbean, where the sun burns relentlessly…” Davis estimates $300 and a day’s work to resew all the seams of the sunscreen and repair the torn areas. The very next day we would be able to pick up our genoa with the fixed sunscreen. How lucky we are! We know from other sailors that they sometimes got stuck somewhere for weeks because the sailmakers had too much work to take care of more sails.

Avell, like most Bequia residents, is a sailor, but he doesn’t have his own boat. “My father owned a schooner that he built himself here on the beach in Bequia,” he says as he says goodbye, and then gets to work.

Bequia was once the center of shipbuilding in the Caribbean. In 1939, the 165-foot-long “Gloria Colita” was launched here, the largest wooden merchant ship ever built in the Caribbean. In May 1941, Gloria Colita was spotted by the U.S. Coast Guard. She was adrift in the open sea, her crew had disappeared without a trace, and to this day no one knows what happened to her. (Source: Bequia Heritage Museum)

Bequia was once the center of shipbuilding in the Caribbean. Here in Admirality Bay, large schooners, that is, multi-masted wooden ships, were built on the beach and launched since the 18th century. The large, excellently protected bay with its slowly sloping sandy beach and good anchoring ground was even then considered the best natural harbor in the region. The notorious English pirate Edward Teach, who went down in history as “Blackbeard”, anchored the French merchant ship “La Concorde” here in Admirality Bay. He had captured the ship with its 16 cannons and 10 kilograms of gold and the survivors, a tired French crew and the surviving African slaves, on November 28, 1717 just off St. Vincent. Bequia was sparsely populated at the time. On paper, the island was still under the control of the French at the time, but they had failed to establish a naval base here. Blackbeard used the bay to refit the “La Concorde”, equip her with 40 guns and rename her. From now on, the ship was called “Queen Anne’s Revenge” and was the strongest and most feared ship from America to the Caribbean. She was not the only ship to achieve celebrity status in Bequia.

The “Friendship Rose” was for a long time the ferry and mail ship that sailed back and forth between St.Vincent and Bequia – today she is used for day trips.

The “Friendship Rose” is also a celebrity from a past time, which we marvel at every time we take the dinghy into the harbor. The gleaming white two-master with the blue stripe was built on the beach of Admirality Bay from wood, without modern tools and using only the horizon as a water level, and launched in 1969. She served as a ferry and mail boat between Bequia and St.Vincent and sailed solely under sail, which was not unusual. Until the 1950s, all ships berthed in Admirality Bay had no engines and sailed in and out of the bay. Today, the big ferries chug into the bay honking loudly and the Friendship Rose is now used as a tourist ship for day trips.

A mini version of the Friendship Rose is on display at the Model Boat Museum on the harbor.

We look at a mini version of the “Friendship Rose” in the model boat store, which is located on the small harbor road. Christopher is sitting in front of the store carving a small wooden boat. It takes him six weeks to complete a model boat, Christopher says. He sells the miniatures for $400 to $1,000 – mostly to cruise ship passengers, who are now ferried ashore daily from their seafaring towns in small red lifeboats that look like UFOs. He’s been working here for 30 years, Christopher says, making model boats from the same wood that used to make the big schooners: Cedar and pine from the island’s forests and mahogany and other hardwoods from Guinea. In photos from the 1950s, you can see how the hillsides around Admirality Bay were bare back then. The trees had all been processed into ships and the forests had only been replanted in recent decades.

Bob Dylan had his schooner “Water Pearl” built in Bequia – a few years later she was wrecked on a reef (source: southernwoodenboatsailing.com)

Christopher tells us about another well-known world citizen who had taken advantage of Admirality Bay and the craftsmanship of Bequia’s residents to have a ship built for him here: Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter had Bequia’s boatbuilders build him a 68-foot schooner of white cedar and Guyanese hardwood, which he named the “Water Pearl.” But the “Water Pearl,” launched in 1980, wrecked on a reef near the Panama Canal just five years later. Christopher says that the captain replaced the experienced crew from Bequia with an inexperienced American one, who then drove the boat onto the reef.

A gift from a fisherman: lobster as thanks for a money exchange service

In the afternoons, when cruise guests scatter around the little town like a swarm of busy ants, we stay aboard Mabul. One noon, as I’m preparing a salad of starfruit and cucumbers, someone knocks on the boat. It is a local fisherman waving two hundred Swiss franc bills. He asks if I can change them for him, the local bank doesn’t want the Swiss francs. I give him US dollars for the francs, he takes them delightedly and asks, “Do you like lobster?” Then he lifts up a huge lobster, hands it to me and says, “You helped me, I’ll help you. Bon appetit!” I look at the lobster, which is now slowly crawling over Mabul…..We don’t have such a big pot, I think, and lift it up.

Whaling has a long tradition in Bequia (Source: Bequia Heritage Museum)

The sea has been the natural hunting ground of Bequia’s inhabitants for centuries. Not only shipbuilding, but also whaling has a long tradition here. We want to learn more about whaling and its background and set off on foot to visit the Heritage Museum on the other side of the island and talk to the whalers. After a half hour walk over the hilly island we reach the Atlantic side and Friendship Bay. There, on an offshore island, is also the last whaling station of Bequia.

In front of Friendship Bay on the Atlantic side of the island is the last whaling station.

The Heritage Museum is located above Friendship Bay on a hill in two small buildings. An English woman who has lived on the island for decades explains the history of the island in a presentation and through the artifacts on display. In the adjacent building, 47-year-old Suni Ollivierre guides visitors among old whaling boats, harpoons, painted whale bones and photographs. Suni is a great-great-granddaughter of the legendary whaler Joseph Ollivierre. As she tells her story, it quickly becomes clear that it was not the people of Bequia who started whaling, but the Yankees who came to Bequia in the early 19th century to hunt whales in the waters off the island. They came in large ships with smaller boats attached, which they used to hunt the whales. “Iron Duke” was the name of one of these boats, which is still in Bequia today. In the middle of the 19th century, some of the inhabitants of Bequia began to hire on the ships of the Yankees, because Bequias economy was doing badly – a consequence of the completely failed agricultural policy of the British colonial masters.

The British, hungry for sugar, had sugar cane planted on Bequia at that time – a bad idea on an island that does not have a single, natural water source, but relies 100 percent on rainwater. By 1829, Bequia had nine sugarcane plantations and several smaller cotton plantations, as well as a church. Of the 1400 inhabitants, at least 1200 were slaves from Africa. Sugar production was short-lived, however, reaching its peak in 1828, before the plantations went bankrupt in the following years, destroying not only the income of the plantation owners but also that of the poor working class. While most of the colonial plantation owners returned to England, at least 700 former slaves from Africa who had worked on the plantations remained on the island, looking for a new income – and so they began what had already been lucrative for the Yankees: hunting whales. But not only the former slaves stayed on the island, also some descendants of the colonial masters hoped to get rich thanks to the whale hunting.

“Young ‘Old Bill’ Wallace Junior, son of a former sugar cane planter from Scotland, is considered the founder of whaling,” Suni explains. Wallace Junior left Bequia in 1855 at the age of 15 to work as an apprentice on a whale ship from New England. Five years later, he returned to Friendship Bay with the small whaling boat “Iron Duke” and a wife, ready to make his own island rich with whaling, or at least create enough income for himself and the residents. A second whaling station was established by the large landowner Joseph “Pa” Ollivierre. He was the son of a French cotton planter who had settled in Bequia before the British, and is an ancestor of Suni.

Soon whaling became one of the island’s most important sources of income. The meat of the whales served as food for the inhabitants of Bequia, and the fat was processed into oil and exported. Between 1891 and 1903, Bequia exported half a million gallons, or nearly two million liters, of the whale oil to England and the United States, where it was used as engine, motor and lamp oil. Whale oil was then of comparable importance to today’s diesel or gasoline. It was also used in soap, cosmetics and creams. Only when kerosene, petroleum, gas and electricity were discovered did whale oil lose importance.

In the Heritage Museum of Bequia old whaling boats, harpoons and painted whale bones are exhibited.

For decades, the islanders lived well from whaling – until the Norwegians arrived. They started hunting whales in the waters off Bequia and as far as Grenada in the late 19th century. After World War II, they built a whale factory on a small island off Grenada. In the first year of their large-scale whaling operation, they killed 700 whales. In a few years, they wiped out the whale stocks in the sea around Grenada and Bequia, and since there was nothing left to take, they returned to Norway and left the empty waters to the locals. Between 1949 and 1957, the inhabitants of Bequia did not catch a single whale; it was not until 1957 that they shot three animals. With the profit from the sale of the whale, they built a new whaling boat, the “Dart”. This boat belonged to Suni Ollivierre’s great-great-grandfather.

An estimated three million whales were killed by the Norwegians, Americans, Icelanders, Japanese, and other nations in the 20th century. It was these so-called progressive nations that nearly wiped out the world’s whales. To prevent this and to regulate whaling worldwide, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded in 1946. Today 88 nations signatories of it. In 1986, the IWC banned commercial whaling worldwide, but continues to allow individual indigenous communities to hunt a limited number of animals. For example, the whalers of Bequia are allowed to hunt four humpback whales per year. The hunt must be conducted in the traditional manner: the hunters are not allowed to use motorboats or modern weapons, but can only approach the whales on a small boat under sail with a hand-held harpoon.

In Bequia, the whalers, especially the harpooner, are celebrated like pop stars to this day. Therefore, we search for them and find them in Paget Farm, a small fishing village on the Atlantic side.

Whales are omnipresent in the fishing village of Paget Farm

Kingsley Stow, a tall man whose eyes sparkle mischievously, is the chief whaler, harpooner and owner of Bequia’s last remaining whaling boat. Kingsley’s boat is sitting on the beach, right next to a bar decorated with painted whale bones. There is also a huge whalebone by the road with all the whalers’ names on it. There are eleven of them, and at the top, in big black letters, it says “Kingsley Stowe.” “I’m the chief whaler, the one who hurls the harpoon at the whale and kills it in the end,” says the 63-year-old, pride resonating in his voice.

Kingsley Stow is the island’s chief whaler. On Bequia, he is as famous as a pop star

All of his ancestors were whalers, Kingsley says, which is why he first sailed out to sea himself many decades ago to hunt a whale with the other men. For years now, he has been leading the five other men who sail off with him as soon as they spot the fountain of a whale off Bequia. Then they all rush to the beach. The boat is blessed before the men set sail. In the past, scouts were sent out to sea, using mirrors to reflect light or fire signals to guide the whalers to the right place. “The idea is to get as close to the whale as possible, then tie it to the boat with a thrust of the harpoon, which is connected to the boat by a rope”, Kingsley says. As the chief whaler explains the whaling procedure, it becomes clear how dangerous the hunt still is today and how little it has to do with industrial slaughter. “The most dangerous thing is the fin. If the whale strikes, turns quickly, then he makes mincemeat of the boat and us. That’s why I watch him closely before we approach and I strike,” Kingsley says. This year, Kingsley and his men did not catch a whale, but a whale damaged his sail and boat. Last year, he and his men caught a whale. Since the IWC awarded them a quota of four whales per year in 2013, they have only reached the quota once.

Kingsley’s whaling boat is still covered. The whaling season begins in January and lasts until April

When he throws the harpoon at the whale, he said, it’s not the end of the hunt, but just the beginning. “Quickly, I then have to loop a rope around the whale’s body. If I manage to do that, the whale pulls us through the bay like a fast ferry until he gets tired and we can give him the fatal stab in the lungs or heart. But if he dives before that, we’ve lost.” Humpback whales can dive up to 200 meters deep; if they dive down, the whalers have to cut the rope as quickly as possible. If they don’t, the whale pulls them into the depths.

Even today, whaling is enormously important for the island, not only for old tradition, but also for economic reasons, says Kingsley. He, at least, can live on one whale for almost half a year and nothing is wasted: “Everyone on the boat gets their share of meat and I, as chief whaler, get twice as much.” We sell the meat to the islanders, who fry it in the blubber. The bones are painted. Nothing is allowed to be exported; the entire whale stays on Bequia.”

Suni Ollivierre’s ancestors were famous whalers. She gives a tour of the Heritage Museum.

“When a whale is caught, it is a festival, a custom that is irrevocably part of the islanders’ identity and strengthens their cohesion”, says Suni Ollivierre. Even today, Suni remembers running out of school and heading over to the whaling station with many other islanders when the whalers’ sails began to flap and everyone shouted “Fast tow! Fast tow!” which meant the whale was tied to the boat and towing it across the bay. Everyone wanted to be part of this event and everyone wanted a piece of the meat.

Even though the people of Bequia now make only a marginal living from whaling, it is still important, says Suni: “At a time like this, when our culture is being diluted by the influence of many foreign visitors and new landowners, whaling is a tradition that reminds us of our common past and history and reinforces our identity.”

A whale bone in a Bequia bar

Of course, there are people on the island who are critical of whaling, too, who say fishermen would be better off offering whale-watching tours and making money off tourists that way, rather than killing the whales. But Suni and whaler Kingsley say, “And who guarantees we’ll see whales and who pays for the ship and captain if we don’t see the whales?” “Those who criticize us for whaling don’t know what they’re talking about, and surely they have other ways to make money,” Kingsley adds. Today, many young people leave Bequia to work on cruise ships, in tourism or on oil platforms. Bequia may be a pearl in the Caribbean, but surviving and making money here is still difficult.

Both Suni and Kingsley agree that it is not they, the residents of Bequia, who pose a threat to the marine mammals, but the nations that, despite the ban on commercial whaling, slaughter the great mammals till today. If you look at the numbers, you have to agree with Suni and Kingsley. For although commercial whaling has been banned since 1986, Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to kill to this day about 1500 whales every year, and dolphins and small whales die with them. How does that compare to one, two, or at most four whales that Bequia whalers kill each year? And what right do we have to criticize this ancient tradition? We who know nothing of the sea, except that we eat marine fish caught in large trawls by ships that drift across the oceans like floating factories, and are then transported halfway around the world?

Even if I prefer to see whales alive than dead, even if I would wish that whaling no longer existed and that the animals were protected everywhere and that this protection was respected, it is not my place to judge the whalers of Bequia. And at least for the nature of this hunt, the courage and skill of these men, I feel a quiet admiration. This is not an unequal fight, all-destroying machines of mass destruction that empty the world’s oceans, but a battle in which both parties measure their strength and wits and have similar chances of victory. This year, at least, the whales won and the whalers had to repair their boat.

Alex and I had some heated discussions about the pros and cons of whaling in Bequia (also listen to podcast episode 20). When the whale hunt begins in early January and the humpbacks pass Bequia by April, we won’t be here.

Last sundowner on Princess Margaret beach before our long leg to Martinique.

We now set sail and begin our first long leg, which will take us through one night and one day to Martinique. Our genoa is again wonderfully protected from the sun, thanks to sailmaker Avell Davis and the long tradition of Bequia.

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