BECALMED IN THE WINDWARDS
BECALMED IN THE WINDWARD’S.
Sint Maarten’s number-one seafarer retires to his porch to watch the Caribbean fill up with ships.
I had lived with Captain Austin Hodge and his family at the Guesthouse for a good ten years. Starting with 1958 on my way to and from school on Curacao and then in 1960 on a permanent basis when I worked for the Government in the old Court House in a variety of positions.
Life was slow back then. I can recall sitting on the front porch of the guesthouse in the early evening. If a car passed after7pm the Captain would wonder where so and so was going that ungodly hour of the night. He knew all the car numbers out of his head.
There was much room for oral history and where he had lived. From his native Grand Case to the United States, Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, and back to Sint Maarten. His wife Mrs. Bertha Hodge-Lawrence was also from Grand Case. I would get a ride with them from time to time to do grocery shopping by Miss Bertha’s brother Jimmy Lawrence in Grand Case and got to know many of the families from that once quiet village as well. I was curious and people would confide in me. Things which they would not tell a close relative they would lay the burden on me of keeping secrets.
But regular stuff, oral history interested me a great deal. I read a lot and would question the old timers how things were ‘back in the day’ as we say nowadays.
I was looking for a Holland Herald magazine in which they pictured the Captain with his dark brown skin and Norwegian blue eyes. His ancestors were partly from Anguilla and I believe that he told me more than once that his grandmother was Irish and he had inherited the blue eyes from her. Neville Lake will be able to correct me on that as I believe that he told me that the Captain was a great uncle of his.
I have not found the magazine I was looking for. However, I found an old “HOLIDAY” MAGAZINE from September/October 1972 Vol. 52 No. 2. with a long article by Michael Strauss. Captain Hodge’s life and the recent history of the Dutch Windward Islands is important. I will illustrate the story with photos of what is discussed in the article to make it more interesting to his family, friends and readers of The Herald.
“Once the most seafaring man of the Dutch Windward islands, Captain Austin Hodge is taking it surprisingly easy these days. In Philipsburg, Sint Maarten he’s content to sit on the front porch of his new seven-room concrete home with his wife Bertha and gaze at the masts of the large cruise ships in the harbour, to scan lush green heights of towering Fort William – near where Peter Stuyvesant lost that famous leg in a fight with the Spanish – and to look after his young coconut trees, the crotons, roses, and leafy bougainvillea that surround his house.
“It is a small wonder. Now 71, Captain Hodge has spent a full life. He has sailed the nearby waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic countless times as a seagoing mailman – and has skippered a ferryboat. He has operated one of the most popular guesthouses this side of the British West Indies, even putting in stints as a cook, waiter, and “chief bottle washer’ at such American outposts as New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
“What did I like doing best?” the tawny, leather-skinned blue-eyed Captain Hodge answered me in his soft, island patois. “I like it all. Early in life I decided I never would work at anything I didn’t enjoy. As a boy, born and raised on the French side of this island – in the ocean-front village of Grand Case – I walked the beaches searching for shells and turtle eggs. As a teenager I played cricket with bats often carved from a piece of fence board, built and sailed my own little sloop, and operated my own seagoing version of “Western Union” service. And, when I became a man, I went to the United States to see what I was missing. I’ve been back on the island these past 40 years, and I’m glad I’m here.”
Those who know Captain Hodge best, as well as those who meet him for the first time, wonder that this sturdy, tall, youthful –looking, muscular man has seen fit to retire. There are some in this capital city of Dutch Sint Maarten who insist that the Captain can still hoist a 100-pound cask as easily as a baby lifts a toy balloon, and that he can sail through a heavy storm to such neighboring islands as Saba and St. Eustatius and the English isle of Anguilla with his bright blue eyes closed, controlling a tiller with no more than a fingertip.
But the Captain’s reputation is not based on idle chatter. Through the years he’s weathered tempestuous squalls that have made his craft –mostly 25-to 50-foot sailboats – whirl like a spinning top. He has repeatedly inched into harbors at night during tropical storms with only a kerosene lamp as a landmark and in channels only slightly deeper than the draft of his boat. And he’s turned in feats of strength at sea – in emergencies – such as tossing a heavy anchor overboard that four of his seamen couldn’t move. Though he no longer sails regularly, the sisters of St. Joseph’s College still refer to him as “Our Captain” because of the many times he has carried nuns safely to Saba and Statia.
“Mention of the word hotel invariably seems to make the Captain look toward Front Street, the city’s main thoroughfare that borders the Caribbean for almost a mile. It was here, 17 years ago, that Captain Hodge found himself ‘backed” into the guesthouse business. It proved his most profitable venture.
“it all started just before the arrival of Queen Juliana,” Hodge reminisced. “Overnight housing was going to be scarce because of the Queen’s entourage. Everyone, it seems, was making the rounds in search for a place to stay.
“I was approached by a man I still remember only as Dr. Humes. He said he was writing a book in his house on the other side of the Great Salt Pond but that he had turned the residence over to the Queen’s party. Now he needed a room for himself. Did I know anyone?”
“Since two of my three boys were away at school in Curacao, I offered the stranger my sons’ room for $5. — per day, though without meals. I wasn’t sure I wanted strangers in my house but I felt I should cooperate. After all a Queen might arrive only once in a life-time.
“I don’t know whether Dr. Humes ever finished his book,” continued the Captain . “I don’t even know what happened to Dr. Humes. But word got around that we were taking in guests and, before you could say “all hands-on deck” a few times, we were receiving letters from outside the island.
Soon Captain Hodge was adding rooms to his home and boasting of certain built in advantages for tourists. The dwelling faced Front Street, with all the stores nearby. And the aquamarine and a beach of sparkling white sand was at the back.
“Because there were not too many good eating places on the island for tourists in those early days,” I was told, “our guests soon began asking for meals. “So, it was into the kitchen for Bertha and onto the beach for me- to set nets and lobster pots. The sea in back of our ‘hotel’ was our fish market, and from my endeavors there we were able to feed our guests snappers, yellow tails, and crayfish fresh from the Caribbean.”
‘Although those were profitable days, in retrospect Captain Hodge regards them as being an anticlimactic part of his career. For while it was true, he took his guests on sailing trips, upon occasion, he felt that the hotel business too often took him away from his first love – the sea.
The son of a shipwright (his father was born in 1875 on the neighboring English island of Anguilla), the Captain trod his first deck shortly after he learned to walk. The elder Hodge, anxious for companionship, frequently took the toddler to sea with him on short trips.
“When I was 14,” Captain Hodge recalled, “an importer with an office in Marigot, the capital of the French side of St. Martin, came into my father’s place. He asked where he could find someone to sail across “the channel” to Anguilla to deliver a letter. In those days there was no other fast way – no radio telephone.
“Of course, I know someone,’ my father replied. He pointed to me and said, ‘There’s the best sailor on this part of the island, standing right in front of you.”
The trip was one of the first cross-channel voyages for the young skipper – for pay. Soon he was carrying letters and passengers in both directions. The journey usually was uneventful. But squalls capable of producing up to 8- and 10-foot waves occasionally came roaring in. Hodge, Sr., it seems, never worried. He knew that his son thrived on challenges on shipboard and could handle them.
When Captain Hodge was 18, he was presented with a sleek, 18-foot sailing sloop by his father. Since it was launched on the day the World War I Armistice was signed- and the Allies had won – the craft was suitably named The Won. A short hitch in the French army with service in Guadeloupe soon followed. Subsequently, the mustered-out soldier headed for the United States to satisfy his curiosity to see the outside world. And because he was interested in the preparation of food, he worked mostly in restaurants. Among those he remembers the old Palace Restaurant, next to the Fort George Hotel, on Manhattan’s East Side.
“I like the States,” Captain Hodge said, “but I missed the sea and when I returned to St. Maarten for just a visit in 1930, I stayed here. I helped operate the local radio station but always was ready to trim a sail and often did.
Then when a chance arose for me to captain the 43-foot government motorboat the “Trixie”, I grabbed it.”
At last, the Captain was back on the sea on a full-time basis. And his journeys were not difficult because the Trixie, unlike most of his earlier sloops, had power-motors. He sailed regularly among the islands of Sint Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius, and the English island of St. Kitts – for ‘the service of passengers and mails.”
In 1946, when the Trixie was “laid up” with engine trouble, he was told to substitute the government’s sailing schooner ‘Aurora’. Captain Hodge remembers with a smile one of his first trips on the ‘Aurora’, which had no auxiliary engine. “I had been told by Governor Paap of the islands to make the regular trip without delay. The mail service had been held up too many days due to the trouble with the Trixie. As God is my Judge, I started out in oil-calm weather in which there wasn’t a breath of wind. For three long days I was just a swimming distance from our shores. With orders as they were, I had to wait out the wind for there was no turning back. It took me eight days to complete the trip among the islands – a voyage I usually made in one day with the Trixie.”
In contrast to that extended calm, Captain Hodge recalled a journey in 1947 when he set sail on the two-master schooner, the Blue Peter, a new government boat that boasted a small motor. He arrived at St. Kitts on schedule, and his four-man crew, as usual went ashore on the tender.
A storm blew up at about 11 pm, and the crew could not return because of the rough weather. The Blue Peter went aground during the big blow and the little motor conked out. Hodge and the youngster on board, nevertheless managed to get the boat afloat. But since the storm prevented them from returning to St. Kitts, they rode out the heavy winds all night and limped into St. Eustatius. There the Captain picked up another crew, returned to St. Kitts, got his regular men back aboard and continued his rounds of the islands as though the entire voyage had been routine.”
Captain Hodge also owned a sloop called the ‘Grace=a=Dieux’ which he built down street.
Space would not allow to tell more of the story. The Captain lived on to over ninety years of age. I was asked to do the eulogies for both him and his wife ‘Miss Bertha’ when they passed on. In later years the small wharf in Philipsburg was named in his honour. I don’t remember now if he was still alive when this took place, but I am sure that he
would have been pleased with that.