Personalities of Union island
Updated: May 29, 2022
“One of the dogs is a pitbull terrier called Shadow. He is literally her shadow and guards her without attacking.”
This was our last week in the Grenadines and we saved the best for last! We’ve spent the week in Union Island, the southernmost of the Grenadine islands and it’s been here that we’ve had the most opportunity to interact with local people. It’s an exceptionally friendly island and pretty much everyone knows each other. I’d like to tell you about some of the people we’ve met this week and who we hope to see again next year, as Union and the Tobago Cays are the two places out of everywhere we’ve visited in the Windward Islands that we feel we have to come back to - the Tobago Cays for the natural beauty and Union Island for the new friends we hope to see again.
We sailed from Mayreau to Union Island and arrived on the western side of the island to anchor in the remote Chatham Bay. Chatham Bay is beautiful; a sandy beach, clear water, interesting rocks and caves and some simple beachfront restaurants. There is not a single shop. The last night in Mayreau had been rolly and we were very appreciative of the good night’s sleep we got in Chatham Bay. We had Heather and Alan, who we met in the Tobago Cays over for dinner on our boat and had a lovely evening. We have just published their podcast interview, so please have a listen. They discuss making the skipper-crew relationship on a boat work and Alan talks about his days as a pilot testing the space suits for the moon missions in the early 1960s and meeting President Kennedy the day before he was assassinated. Heather talks about her experiences of campervanning solo through Europe in winter.
We paddled the dinghy onshore and met a local historian called Alex, who offered to take us on a guided walk. He took us up to a hilltop with a cannon on it, which was used in the Seven Years’ War, arguably the first globally fought war 1756-1763 when Britain and France and their allies were fighting for colonial supremacy in the Caribbean and elsewhere. We have interviewed Alex for a podcast which will be published this week. He will talk about the local history and other features of Union Island, the political system of St Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as how climate change is affecting the island. Alex paddled out to our boat for lunch and to do the interview in his kayak. He was followed by two golden labradors who we had earlier seen on the beach following another couple of sailors. The dogs followed them for an hour and a half onland. When they got in their dinghy, the dogs jumped in the water and followed them all the way out to their boat! We started chatting with Alex and then heard someone calling outside. Alex’s paddle had floated off. He used our dinghy paddle to go in his kayak to retrieve the floating paddle. He returned and we started eating our lunch, but soon heard someone calling again. This time the kayak was floating away! He and Luciano jumped in our dinghy to go and retrieve it, one of the dogs still swimming around between the boats.
If that sounds like drama, that’s nothing compared to the time that Luciano didn’t tie our dinghy onto the boat properly back in Southampton. It was a cold Friday night at the beginning of autumn. We were hosting two of Luciano’s friends on our boat for the weekend and we had all driven down together after work. At the time, while we were saving money, our boat was out on a mooring buoy, requiring a usually wet dinghy ride out to the buoy. Getting wet in the dinghy is par for the course, but it’s rather different in the Caribbean where you never get cold and quickly dry out compared to autumn in England where you get wet, you can’t dry out and you rapidly feel the cold. So we arrived on the boat slightly damp and were bringing our stuff on board. I went inside and suddenly heard yelling. I went outside. It was pitch black and only one of Luciano’s friends was there. “What’s happened?” I asked. “The dinghy floated off, so Andres dived in after it and then Luciano dived in after him.” So Luciano and his friend had dived in after the dinghy in a strongly tidal area in the direction of the tide in pursuit of an inflatable in the pitch black in cold water. We grabbed a flashlight and tried to see if we could spot them. We could see some splashing and hear some voices but we didn’t know if they were together or if we could only see one of them. We called after them but heard nothing back. Then there was no longer any splashing and we could not see them.
My heart was racing. We called after them. Eventually we heard someone faintly calling back, but we couldn’t see where they were. We had no dinghy to attempt a rescue and the boat was firmly attached to a mooring buoy by three different lines with an array of complicated knots. Luciano was paranoid about the boat coming loose in strong winds, bearing in mind we weren’t there during the week. Eventually, by yelling back and waving the flashlight around, we located Luciano on another boat on another mooring buoy downstream. By yelling into the wind, we were eventually able to establish that he had got so cold his muscles wouldn’t work but he had managed to climb out onto a boat and that Andres had managed to climb onto yet a third boat, the last remaining boat on the mooring buoys. Now we had to come and rescue them. They were wet and freezing and could not swim back to our boat against the tide. With the help of the sensible friend who had not jumped into the water, we together spent about half an hour trying to pull on the ropes to undo the knots. In my panic, I undid the wrong ones first, meaning that more pressure was put on the remaining lines, meaning it took even longer to become free. All the while Luciano kept screaming that they were cold and we had to hurry up. Eventually, with Henning pulling on the lines to release the tension and me undoing the knots, we were left with just the slip and could start the engine.
We motored past the first boat where we saw Luciano, who had removed the sail cover of the boat to wrap it around himself. He was freezing. We now had the problem of how to get him on board. I couldn’t turn off the engine as I would risk hitting other boats. I couldn’t come too close to the boat he was on for the same reason. Yet with the engine on, he had the risk of being caught in the boat’s propeller; plus he had to jump back into the freezing water. Henning threw the rope over the side and he managed to climb/ be hauled up the side to avoid being caught in the propeller at the back of the boat. Then we had to go to the next boat and rescue Andres. Like Luciano, he was huddled and shivering in a sail cover and was very reluctant to jump back into the freezing water. Eventually we managed to cajole him to jump and we were able to get him on board, get back to the mooring buoy and warm them both up. They explained that once they jumped into the water, they immediately lost sight of the dinghy in the darkness. Realising they were being rapidly carried downstream and being unable to swim back against the tide, Luciano swam to the nearest boat and called Andres to do the same. “Swim to a boat” he called. “I can’t swim anymore” was the faint reply. At this point Luciano thought Andres was still in the water, so kept calling him to swim to a boat as he didn’t think he could come and rescue him. He had thoughts of killing his friend on the first evening of taking him to visit the boat. Luckily Andres had already climbed out onto another boat and thought Luciano was telling him to swim to his boat, which he couldn’t do. There was no lasting damage to either of them but the dinghy was lost and I hope Luciano learned a lesson about safety around water. We still had a great weekend and only the sensible friend was put off sailing.
Anyway! Alex rescued his paddle and his kayak and no one nearly drowned or died from hypothermia. We really enjoyed our time in Chatham Bay. We went snorkelling and paddleboarding all around. One time we paddleboarded out to the entrance of the bay along the black cliffs. Next to them were rocks where lots of pelicans and black headed laughing gulls were perched. We alternated between the world of the underwater; the fish and coral in the quiet aquaeous surroundings, suspended in a world where you float and encounter greater resistance as you move amongst the denser molecules. Then we’d poke our heads out into the freeing air where you move quickly and hear the birds calling and the wind rushing. Two completely different worlds. We watched the birds preening themselves on the rocks, giving us a bit of wary side eye and sometimes flapping their wings. The heavy pelicans take a while to gain momentum, starting slow until they get the rhythm and then they gain elegance and grace, gliding over the water, circling around and occasionally diving with a heavy splash for their fishy meal. We paddleboarded further round past the rocks to an area with tall trees overhanging the water’s edge. We looked up and saw several pelicans sitting on the high waving slender branches looking somehow incongruous there, too big for their perch. We’re more used to seeing them on a solid squat rock; but I guess they get a good view from up there.
That evening we returned to shore, as we had promised to have dinner at a restaurant owned by Susan. As a Seventh Day Adventist she is very familiar with vegetarian and vegan food and cooked us a delicious vegan meal. We sat in the darkness overlooking the bay, with the stars above us and listening to the gentle lapping sound as the water meets the sand. Chatham Bay is a remote place with only about three beachside restaurants, and some fishermen’s dwellings. There are no shops. Their only clients are the sailors who come to this bay. We wanted to give some support to Susan for her business by reviewing it on the Happy Cow app which we use to find vegan food. We got chatting and Susan told us all about her experiences working away in Canouan in the hospitality industry (you can read about our thoughts on the foreign owned resorts in our previous post “From St Vincent to the Grenadines”) and how the locals there had campaigned to get the infrastructure they had been promised by foreign investors. We later met Susan again to record her for yet another podcast which will be published the week after next. This podcast gives an insight into the struggle and negotiations between locals and foreign investors. She argues that investors can be a positive force to improve infrastructure for locals, but that they won’t fulfill their promises unless considerable pressure is put on them by the local community. However, the local community is more than up to this task and has been highly successful in their protests. And remember the dogs I mentioned earlier that swim out in the bay? She has strong opinions on them as well. Tune in to find out more.
We loved Chatham Bay and can’t wait to return next year, but we were hankering for some fresh fruits and vegetables and also had to go and meet some other sailors who were anchored in the town of Clifton on the other side of the island. Heather and Alan had gone there to meet a friend on another boat, Mark, who we had also met in the Tobago Cays. Plus we had been put in touch with some Brazilian sailors by the two Brazilians we had met crewing on a Brazilian superyacht back in St Lucia. The Brazilian sailing community is small and it is nice for Luciano to get to speak Portuguese and feel the immediate cultural connection that you have with people from your own country. You have an instant knowledge of how things work in your country, a shared sense of humour and cultural references that are comforting when you are far from your Brazilian friends and your Brazilian jiu jitsu club in London, even when you are as avowedly unpatriotic as Luciano is.
We also had to go and visit the animal shelter in Clifton. You have heard all the dramas about Chocolate Cat switching from dry food to stinky disgusting wet cat food (not that we are resentful) due to some sort of unidentified irritation with dry food. Notwithstanding this, he is incredibly fussy and rejects many of the brands we have tried. Animals died to create that food, so we couldn’t throw it out; it has been travelling around with us, new brands appearing and being rejected in all of the islands we have visited. By this point we had amassed quite a collection of unwanted brands. We had read about the animal shelter here and were eager to offload this bounty of mashed up dead animals on some cats that might actually appreciate it. Salty Paws Animal Rescue is run by Susie, a German who arrived on Union Island thirty years ago, married a local man and brought up her children here. Now she runs the animal shelter and is incredibly dedicated. She is at her absolute maximum capacity with forty dogs and five cats. This has increased since Coronavirus which affected the incomes of many local people who were unable to pay for medical treatment for their animals. Animals are in general well cared for on Union Island, but as everywhere, veterinary care is expensive and she only accepts animals that need medical care for this reason and now it is a struggle to pay the vet for all the medications needed by the animals and for the imperative neutering operations. We watched as she helped a dog called Bushman suffering from typhoid do his painful physiotherapy to help him walk again. One of the dogs is a pitbull terrier called Shadow. He is literally her shadow and guards her without attacking. Once, she felt threatened by a man and Shadow appeared, teeth bared just to warn the man, who swiftly left and didn’t bother her again. If you would like to donate to Salty Paws, you can do so by clicking on the link.
That afternoon we jumped on our folding bikes to try and explore more of the island. We cycled up a steep hill and then along the coast until we arrived at Ashton Lagoon. A huge amount of work has been done on this area since 1986 when it was first declared a marine conservation area. It now has a nature trail, amusing and educational signs, “lobster convention in progress” and two bird watching towers as well as an array of suspension bridges to connect the land masses around the lagoon. It hosts the largest mangrove forest in the Grenadines, which helps to fight climate change and protect biodiversity. It has seating areas, schools do trips here and local people swim here too. When we went, we were awestruck by the amazing displays by the birds and appreciated the peace up in the bird watching towers in the trees with a cooling breeze wafting through. You can read the articles cited below to find out more about how the community on Union Island and a variety of partnership organisations, such as Sustainable Grenadines and Birds Caribbean worked together to restore the mangroves after a failed foreign investment project.* **
The next day we met Susan from Chatham Bay and brought her to our boat to do the podcast. Afterwards she took us into town to meet her daughter and her friend, a local artist. She pretty much knows everyone on the island! We had a drink at the bar where her daughter works and she regaled us with hilarious stories of local shenanigans. We also bumped into Susie from the animal shelter who told us that her cats wolfed down the food that Chocolate Cat had so kindly donated. We had a final night in Union Island with the Brazilians Fabio and Alessandra and sailed the next morning for a new country; but we’ll be back to Union Island next year. We’ll stay in Chatham Bay again and hang out with Susan before exploring the Tobago Cays and then up to the Leeward Islands.
* Kentish, J., 2022. The Caribbean mangrove forest that defied destruction. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220329-how-a-caribbean-community-restored-its-dying-mangrove> [Accessed 7 May 2022].
* BirdsCaribbean. 2022. Union Island – BirdsCaribbean. [online] Available at: <https://www.birdscaribbean.org/tag/union-island/> [Accessed 7 May 2022].
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