A SHORT VOYAGE TO REMEMBER
A short voyage to remember
By Will Johnson
I was a bit confused as how to introduce this article. It is a tribute to the famous photographer Willem van de Poll. However in the past I have written so much about the government owned schooner the “Blue Peter” that I thought it would be good to read about Mr. van de Poll’s trip on her and to see some of the excellent photographs he made while visiting the islands. He was preparing for the publication of his book; The Netherlands Antilles (The islands and their people) published in 1951. He was born in Amsterdam on April 13th, 1895 and passed away on December 10th, 1970.
He was an independent Dutch photographer who belonged to the most important of his generation. He followed a course in photography in Vienna in 1917 and worked as an independent photographer in Europe, the Middle East, Indonesia and the Antilles.
He was here in the Windward Islands around 1950 and describes his visit to Saba from St. Maarten.
“A sailor from the” Blue Peter” has fetched me by rowing boat from the quayside at De Ruyter Square. Bright orange flames rising above a saddle between two hills in the range near Pointe Blanche exultantly greet the coming of a new dawn. Captain Hodge and his sailors Nasha (Jones), George and Marcel greet the few passengers for Saba and St. Eustace and busy themselves with storing the growing pile of cardboard boxes, baskets and bags. We have only women and children this time, returning from visits to families and relative on St. Martin and the neighboring French islands. The little ones, their cotton dresses starched stiff and their frizzy plaits upright and adorned with colorful ribbons, clasp mutely staring dolls in their chubby black arms and follow every movement of their highly agitated mothers with anxious eyes, as they try to suppress their travel fever with the aid of huge handkerchiefs drenched with eau-de-Cologne. When, after counting the luggage ten times and a lot of running backwards and forwards, everything seems to be in order, the whole female company disappears via a highly perilous flight of steps into the dark, dank deckhouse that harbours them until journey’s end.
In the meantime Hodge and his men have weighed anchor and the “Blue Peter” turns seaward. It is a nice 36-ton vessel of the common Caribbean yawl-type, and its great white sails billow out in the fresh morning breeze as we set off.
A few years ago the Antilles Government bought it from an American tourist visiting Curacao, and since then the slender silhouette of the “Blue Peter” has become a regular sight on its weekly trip along the Windward Islands. Captain Hodge, his fine, sunburnt head under his inseparable sun helmet, is a perfect type of the almost legendary figure of the sailing skipper, doomed to extinction. Not a single length of faulty coiled rope escapes his attention. Now and again, when necessary, he directs his men with a few words. Soon after departure there is plenty to do aboard a sailing ship. Once at sea, there is a good wind blowing and with well-filled sails we make good speed. Nasha has his hands full with the helm, for here, near the shore, the square-rolling surf breakers try over and over again to push the “Blue Peter” a few points off course. But after another half hour we are in smooth water and cutting sharply through the green-blue swell. Even the flying fishes seem to take pleasure in it and shoals of them keep fliting about us, disappearing abruptly in the white top of a roller.
We have about five hours in front of us and, since there is nothing much more to polish or arrange, George settles down at the stern with a fishing line. With great care he baits each one of the hooks attached at regular intervals and then bit by bit the whole lot goes overboard. He does not need a float, for his practiced hands, paying out and pulling in, feel exactly what’s going on down below. After half an hour or so, just as I am beginning to believe that the fishes are on holiday, I see him pulling in the line in long strokes. There seems no end to it, but with a wink George signals me “All O.K.”. Well, let’s have it. He has to get up, so I expect something more than a tiny bream or sprat from a Dutch canal. Marcel, reclining leisurely on the foredeck up till, comes aft to give a hand. How long that line is!
But finally there is a lot of furious motion in the water and at long last first a piece of back, then a head and then again a piece of tail appear in the swirling foam. Before pulling a heavy one like that on board the boys want to tire him out as much as possible, because a bite from such a big mouth or a stroke from that strong tail gets you before you can count three. After a quarter of an hour the slimy mass almost seems to jump aboard by itself, but then the fun only starts, for our latest arrival is as lively as any fish could be. With a thumping lurch he shoots under the deckchair I vacated only a few seconds ago to have a look at the proceedings. The next moment fish and chair land together in the gutter along the rails. Fortunately the line stands the strain and for the time being George and Marcel can do little else but keep it as short as possible and right down on the deck with their feet. More or less safe in the deck house entrance, I am just waiting for the moment that the monster, still beating and furiously with head and tail, will jump over the wheel on top of frightened Nasha.
By now Marcel has executed an enveloping moment and he approaches the battle area from the other side armed with a great steel splice nail. Just as in bullfighting the show now enters a new phase and it falls to Marcel to deliver, at the right moment, an effective knock on the head and so put the ever coiling fish out of action. A pity that there are so few spectators! In his first attempt Marcel lands a heavy blow…right into the deck, since the monster obligingly has just moved over to the other side. The second one comes nearer, but lands just “under the belt” as boxers call it and in fishes that place seems to be very elastic and not so vulnerable. George, anxious to begin on his second fish, shouts directions, but Marcel is now as tired as the fish and so the score is 1-1. But there is one difference: the fish is at the end of the line which George cautiously starts to pull in. Then, rather unexpectedly, comes the end with one well-aimed blow right on the fish cranium. The repulsive mouth, showing several rows of formidable barbed hook teeth, falls open even more and so, stretched out on the deck, the monster seems even bigger than I had thought. The total length comes to over five feet and I quite believe the boys when they tell me that the strength of that tail may well break an arm or a leg. As is customary with the hunters and fishermen in these regions, as soon as the catch is landed a lively discussion starts when someone asks the name of the fish. The names locally used have little or no connection with the scientific ones and I don’t see why they should; after all, do the boys in our own home town care about that? In the end most votes are cast in favor of “Albeco”, but I cannot guarantee that. Possibly it is derived from “Albicore”, the name of a rather common type of Caribbean fish. While fishing and talking fish in general, Captain Hodge gave me some details which I might mention here. The local fishermen hereabouts know that certain kinds of fish caught in the waters round these islands are poisonous during certain periods. Some say this is so especially in the hurricane season, others think the mating and breeding period to be the critical time. Apart from the possibility of these two periods coinciding the mating time specialists contend that they have an additional explanation in the fact that during mating the fish migrate and are obliged to adapt themselves to a different diet. Thus, should they have to eat certain poisonous seaweeds, their own organs produce an antidote which in turn is also a poison. Fish caught during that period would seem to be poisonous to human beings. And then there are, of course, certain kinds of fish that are always poisonous, which in 1922 cause the St. Eustace Government to forbid the sale of certain specified types. Further it is interesting to note that these native fishermen know and use certain antidotes of their own making, such as an extract of white cedar flowers mixed with gin, an alcohol mixture mainly of gin and potato juice, as well as the more generally used antidote of milk and charcoal.
In the meantime George is feeling his line again for the next catch and we are approaching the volcano-like silhouette of Saba. We pass along the completely inhospitable north coast and must sail on westward to reach the only suitable landing site on the southern shore, Fort Bay. At a distance a greyish mass of solid rock, from nearer by the island shows more line and colour and detail in the bright sunshine. There is more green than one would have thought at first, but still the main complexion of the mountain face varies little between dark reddish brown and purple-blue, broken by the black of vertical fissures and deep ravines reaching down to sea level. There is practically nothing to be seen of any sign of human habitation; only far high up to the left the tiny white spots of a few houses seem to hand – heaven knows how –against the steep rocky slopes. A little further on we pass the old landing site with the apt name of Ladder Bay from where an almost vertical flight of stairs climbs some 700 feet up the stone wall.
At Fort Bay, the official landing place used nowadays, we find a narrow, sloping stone-strewn beach with a zigzag path leading up to a concrete platform. Against the rocks stands a small building for the performance of police and customs formalities, if any. On the beach a few rowing boats lie on their side and thre is some movement of people who all have something or other to do with the arrival of the “Blue Peter”, always a noteworthy event.
Already Captain Hodge has had the sails lowered and for a while the deck is covered by the bubbling white cloth. George and Marcel jump about like cats with a ball of knitting wool, gathering up the floundering sails by the armful. We continue under a bulging foresail until some 200 yards off shore and then, on a signal from Captain Hodge, Nasha shifts the helm right over. At the same moment the “Blue Peter” obediently turns off, the anchor rolls out and “That’s that”, says Hodge, scratching his head approvingly. Disembarkation can start!
In the meantime a small dinghy has been launched from the beach and two dark-skinned Sabans take up the fight against the very choppy surf. Just leave it to them, they can manage, these Sabans who have earned a high reputation for seamanship the world over and are gladly engaged by merchant ships. First the mail goes ashore and then follow the women and children. That gives me an excellent opportunity of watching the manoeuvres of the oarsmen, full-muscled fllows who throw the whole weight of their heavy strong bodies on the oars. Their tactics remind me of the methods employed by the Surinam Bush negroes negotiating swollen currents with dangerous rapids and falls; here I see that same unequalled instinct, the same acrobatic skill. Of course, once in a while a trip miscarries. The unlucky grown-ups get over it with a drenching and some abrasions, but with women and children on board it is a different matter and I feel really relieved when I see the last breakers push the boat with one heave safely up the beach. But then, there is no choice, since there is no other way of getting ashore at Saba!
After saying farewell for a time to Captain Hodge and his men, I, too, finally reach the safety of the shore together with my cameras and the rest of my luggage.”
So many times as a teenager I have made this same trip and on the “Blue Peter” mostly than I can identify with this story and it brings back fond memories of those days.