By; Will Johnson
I post a lot of old photos of some of the many schooners owned by natives of our island Saba in former times. In my books I have also given quite a bit of the history of our people’s involvement with the sea. A friend of mine on St. Martin contacted me here of late and asked that I visit with him when I have time so that I can give him more details about the people who owned these large schooners and so on as he is fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone today knows of Saba’s days of glory in the West Indies schooner trade.
Some years ago I wrote the following article which one of the tourism magazines on St. Martin published. My brother Eric staying in one of the hotels found the article and wrote his own opinion about it as he said this was another way of promoting tourism to Saba which few people knew about. This article was written after coming over by boat to Saba instead of by plane. Since then I have made many journeys across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and so on. Yet again I am on course for another long sea journey following in the path of my Viking ancestors and so all the more appreciation for a voyage by sea rather than by more modern means of transportation.
“Coming to Saba by way of the sea, relaxed and at ease, gives time for reflection and meditation. Unlike our ancestors whose journeys were made in hardship we can now travel in relative comfort. We used to be able to travel in “STYLE” and in recent years on “THE EDGE”.
When travelling on the sea you realize why there are so few seamen philosophers in the past. Perhaps in having to brave the elements and in the pounding of the ocean, all concentration is in that part of the brain tuned in to survival, and when landfall has been achieved you are so relived that it erases all that which has been reflected on during an ocean voyage.
It seems to even swallow up your thoughts, and thus the sea has produced many good writers but few philosophers, whereas the desert, dead and still, with the moon and the stars closer than the nearest oasis has produced a great number of philosophers and prophets in the Arabian and ancient world. The Bible and the Koran are both products of desert travel and survival.
In the vast expanse of the ocean the stars and the moon seem within closer reach than the nearest landfall. Unlike desert travel everything around you is vibrant and alive, waiting to swallow you up as it were.
One recent traveler expressed his thoughts eloquently on what it is like to travel in the vast expanses of the great deserts;
“We sensed the peace, the silence and the absolute solitude; we saw the magnificent arc of stars; we knew this was the true desert and that we were part of this desert. Nothing man can do or say can ever be as perfect as unspoiled nature; nothing can relax a man like the stillness of the universe; nowhere in the world brings the two together in such overpowering devotion to each other as the great expanse of a mighty desert. Our lives touched its spirit, and its beauty had reached our souls. This was a moment of truth and serenity when four men were alone with their maker. It was at a time like this when man must have first understood that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…..and saw that it was good.”
(Richard Slowe-“Innocents in Africa”.1979).
In my own experience in a small boat on the mighty ocean, the ocean keeps all your senses active and alive. Even when sleeping you are somehow aware of riding on the back of a live companion.
We Sabans have always been a people of the sea and we renew our historic association with her each time we venture out upon her vast expanse.
The times have certainly changed sea travel between our islands. I can still remember post hurricane trips on old sailboats which often became becalmed and at times it took days to get from here to there. Many people have their own stories to tell of horrifying experiences with sea travel. There were other times when you were frapped about and battered through squalls so bad that upon reaching your destination you were deeply appreciative of having survived. The wish for survival is greater than the ability of reflection and meditation.
There have been important changes in sea travel in recent years. I can remember in a letter to me by Sir Richard Goddard of Barbados whose mother Ida was the daughter of Capt. Ben Hassell of Saba who owned many schooners back in the day. Sir Richard told me that when his cousin Joey Hassell once came to Saba from St. Kitts he had traveled “first class” in a row boat. When asked how that was possible Joey explained that the second class passengers sat on the side of the rowboat from where the waves were splashing into the boat thus giving somewhat of a protection to the “first class” passengers sitting on the other side. And so that would cost you more and was considered “first class” travel.
Also closer to home my aunt Mrs. Grace Louise Hassell born Simmons once on a small sailing boat heading to St. Martin for a medical emergency after being becalmed three says at sea had to be rescued by a small motor boat from St. Martin and brought to shore. No communications back then so you had to assume when the boat stayed so long on the horizon that something was wrong.
The same happened with my sister Sadie on the “Blue Peter”. After several days she too had to be rescued by a small motor boat from Simpson bay. I remember her departure from our home as somehow I was on the island back then. My father Daniel Johnson, was from the old stock. A mason, farmer fisherman, survivor. No public display of emotions from this kind of man. This was the first time I saw him cry. He never displayed any emotions before in my presence, but when they carried my sister out to the waiting motor vehicle on a stretcher and he said goodbye to her he turned away and broke down and cried. And with good reason. In a few short years she was no longer in the land of the living.
I have already written the story of the students from Saba and St. Eustatius together with Administrator Walter Buncamper who in the hurricane of 1950 nearly got lost in a sloop which belonged to Mr. Emile Tackling of Grand Case. My brother Freddie was on board. I also, together with Capt. Matthew Levenston and Mr. Percy Labega nearly got lost on his sloop the “Gloria” in September of 1957. And there are so many other stories of horror trips between these Leeward Islands when there was only travel by sea as a possibility of travelling between the islands.
Now you can travel from St. Martin to Saba in just over an hour on the motor vessel “THE EDGE”. It can carry up to fifty passengers. It succeeded the ‘STYLE” which used to carry out this service for a few years. Durable sea transportation to Saba is now being provided through the innovative and practical design of “THE EDGE”. When I first wrote this years ago I said; “The boat is comfortable, has a good looking female captain and the ship can handle these waters most of the year. Others have attempted this run in the past with larger boats and have failed where “The Edge” has succeeded.
In recent years Craig Buchannan with his boat the “Dawn II” has started a service from Saba to St. Martin and back with passengers and freight and many people use this boat as well. When, because of weather conditions, the planes cannot land on Saba’s airport and Medical Students are travelling, Craig’s service is of vital importance to the island. Although not as fast as “The Edge” it is comfortable.
I love the sea, and when the weather is good, I really appreciate the crossing to Saba by boat. It brings back to mind my roots anchored deep in sea life, and of island life in former times. From our pirate ancestors, Hiram Beaks, Henry Every (alias John Avery), Daniel Johnson (“Johnson The Terror”) and all the others, the genes have taken along more than their fair share of the salt of the ocean which calls us back from time to time.
We are an island people, a sea faring people. Even though we are mostly land based now and take the plane most of the time, each time we go down to the sea, it brings back to us echoes of a distant past when as seafarers we rode upon the oceans back in frail craft to distant lands and back home again. May her generosity to island people continue as in the past.
As “THE EDGE” rounds the bend of the “DIAMOND ROCK” and we prepare for landfall I am reminded of a poem by Henry Vaughn (1622-1695).
‘O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left the glorious train,
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm-trees.”
This article has been adapted from an article which was written as a tribute to “WEEK OF THE SEA” at the elementary school on Saba on February 18th, 1998.