19. March 2023

Montserrat’s disasters

A small, at first glance inconspicuous, island in the Caribbean away from charter tourism catches our attention: Montserrat. Two natural disasters have struck the island in the past 30 years, and now almost two-thirds of the entire island is off-limits.

We decide to sail from Guadeloupe to the British overseas territory of Montserrat and set off together with SV My Motu in perfect sailing weather. First we take course to the southeast coast, more exactly to the “Spanish Point”. After about 30 nautical miles we reach the border of the restricted area, we are not allowed to get closer than two nautical miles.

A gigantic pyroclastic flow has created new land at Spanish Point.

Here, several pyroclastic flows from the still active Soufrière Hills volcano have flowed into the ocean and solidified. The resulting new land extends almost 100 meters from the old coastline into the water. At first glance, one cannot quite comprehend what has happened here.

Since the only remaining port of entry “Little Bay” is on the northwest coast, we jibe and then sail along the south coast until we tighten our course to half wind to sail north along the west coast.

Soon I’m wrinkling my nose…. Rotten eggs! No, sulfur. Only now we see gas clouds rising from the volcano in many places. Later we will learn that this is quite normal here….

Plymouth’s former pier was once over 100 meters longer

As Plymouth, the former capital of Montserrat, comes into our field of vision, we can hardly believe our eyes. A gray cone stretches from the volcano down to the coast, interspersed with isolated abandoned buildings that look like shells. A devastating eruption in 1995 buried the once bustling town under a layer of rock and ash several meters thick.

Incredibly, this town existed like this for only a short six years. In 1989, Hurricane Irma swept over the island and almost completely leveled it to the ground. Plymouth practically ceased to exist. In the years that followed, the city was rebuilt, shining with new splendor as the volcano awoke. Photos show busy streets, everything looks very European.

We are still trying to comprehend the extent of this destruction when we are suddenly hailed by the Montserrat Coast Guard. They come racing with their brand new motorboat, do a lap around Mabul, then they want to know who is on board and where we are going. After they have our data, they wish us a good time in Montserrat and leisurely pull away.

The Coastguard on the way back home

When we arrive in the small and poorly protected Little Bay, the Coastguard boat is already hanging on a buoy and the guys are calling it a day. We were probably their only job for today. After an extensive dinner we fall exhausted into the cabin and even the nerve-racking rolling of Mabul in this bay does not rob us of sleep tonight.

The next morning I go to the immigration and clear in Mabul and us. Then I do minor repairs while Karin tries to find a guide including a special permit so that we can visit Plymouth in the coming days. After some trouble, Aagje from SV My Motu is lucky and a guide is ready to take us through the restricted area and Plymouth already tomorrow.

View over Little Bay, here the new harbor will be built one day

A walk ashore leads us to the National Museum of Montserrat. There we meet Vernaire, who gives us a private tour through the small, deserted museum. Among other things, the national dress, reminiscent of an Irish costume, is exhibited here. For it was the Irish inhabitants of the neighboring island of St. Kitts who were resettled in Montserrat in the 17th century, when tensions between Catholics and Anglicans in the mother country reached the Caribbean. Later Irish immigrants joined them, and so today St. Patrick is still celebrated during a whole week, and on the coat of arms of Montserrat there is a shamrock. The exhibition also features the men and women who made the island famous. If you want to know more about the exhibition and the history of Montserrat, it is best to listen to BoatCast Episode 26.

At the end of the tour we have laughed so much together that we spontaneously invite Vernaire to dinner on Mabul. She smiles from ear to ear and immediately calls her partner Alana to join us. Both of them have never been on a sailboat before, it is too easy to forget that this is not something common after all. The museum is now officially long closed, so we meet up with the crew of SV My Motu, Vernaire and Alana for sundowners in the only open bar in Little Bay just ten minutes later.

Sundowner in the only bar in Little Bay

After a fun evening on Mabul with interesting insights into Montserrat’s population of not even 3000 souls, we leave the next morning to drive into the restricted area to experience Plymouth up close. Again, please refer to Episode 26….

Blick über verlassene Vororte Plymouths, die nicht direkt von den pyroklastischen Strömen getroffen wurden

Before we reach Plymouth, there is an unusual stopover at a somewhat neglected golf course. Our guide explains that this golf course is still relatively new. Before the volcanic eruption, there was no land here, but a large bay with a concrete pier. Old pictures show a small busy fishing pier right where several golf courses are now and water all the way over to the hills. The former pier we are standing on now looks like a small bridge.

Aerial view on Plymouth with the volcano in the background

Plymouth itself is covered by a meter thick layer of ash and debris, only the upper floors of some buildings are still visible. In between, nature is already reclaiming everything that man had to give up after the volcanic eruption. These are unreal impressions, beautiful and frightening at the same time.

The inhabitants were forewarned at that time, in 1995, and large parts of the island were evacuated. Thus, there were only 19 fatalities in total. The volcano erupted again and again after that, and the situation remains tense to this day. The volcano is still active, as a volcanologist at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory explained to us. New peaks, up to several hundred meters high, continue to grow in the crater until they finally collapse again.

Nature reclaims the city

Two thirds of the island are still restricted areas and will probably remain so for a long time. A new capital is now being built in the remaining northern third of the island, at a safe distance from the volcano.

After the shore excursion we spend the afternoon on Mabul with repair work, afterwards Vernaire and Alana invite us for dinner. We drive with them again almost to the border of the restricted area, to Uncle’s Place. The local Indian restaurant is Alana’s favorite place, in fact we get served excellent Indian food.

In an Irish beach bar we take the last nightcap on Montserrat. As a farewell gift from Vernaire we get a flag of Montserrat from the museum, because we had none on board, she said. Alana brings another chili paste and some salad for Mabul.

Uncle has been running an Indian restaurant on Montserrat for a few years now.

Despite these natural disasters and uncertainties caused by the active volcano, the inhabitants of Montserrat seem to lead a good life, not least because of its status as a UK overseas territory and the financial support that comes with it. Without this, Montserrat would probably be deserted by now, says Vernaire. And crime is not a big issue either; everyone knows everyone. Where would you go with a stolen car here?

The next day, we prepare for our departure to Antigua and meet the crew of SV My Motu for dinner one last time, because this is where we part ways, at least for the time being. They want to sail to the Bahamas and spend as much time as possible there, but later they also want to sail towards Central America, where we want to meet again in Guatemala.

So who knows, the sailing world is a village, especially when you turn west at the end of the Caribbean chain of pearls….

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