Montserrat: May 11-12, 2007

Click on the above thumbnail for a map during this time period

We arose early on the morning of May 11 and departed Nevis, bound for Montserrat.  Barb was a trifle apprehensive about getting close to a volcano, and Chuck was a bit excited at the prospect.  We both invested far too much emotion.  The volcano has not done anything major since January, 2007, and has been, according to the Volcano Report carried on local radio on Friday evenings, almost entirely quiet for the last several weeks.  No swelling, no seismic activity, no belching of gas.  Nada.  Folks are beginning to voice aloud the hope that Soufriere Hills Volcano has entered a period of extended dormancy. 

Of course, we didn't know that when we set out, and we didn't know that when we arrived.  As we exited the last of a series of three separate offices required for checking in to Montserrat, we were met by a taxi driver who offered us a tour of the island for the "government-set" low low fee of $100.  That seemed a bit high, so we asked what the fare would be to just go to the observatory.   As I write this, I realize he dodged the question and instead offered a reduced tour at a reduced price, said tour to culminate at the observatory and cost a mere $60.   Well, we certainly hadn't come all the way to Montserrat in order to sit on our boat in Little Bay, Chuck attempted to signal to Barb with his facial expressions and vigorous body language.  The hammer lock he had administered must have done the trick, because she agreed and we were off for a tour.  We were actually glad to see some of the island along the way.  As we approached the exclusion zone, the homes became increasingly lovely.  Right at the edge, we could look out over valleys or fences and see very very nice homes, all abandoned.   No damage.  Evacuated as a precautionary measure by order of the government, with no recourse and no compensation.   Many of the lovely homes -- on each side of the line -- had formerly belonged to Americans who used them as vacation villas.   After the first eruption they were then sold to young couples from England.  Those on the far side are now abandoned, of course, and reportedly there was recently an order to evacuate some too close to the zone, even though they were not actually in the zone.   Apparently there was some type of revolt, and the order has been -- at least temporarily -- rescinded.

From the observatory we could see plenty of zones where there was damage -- lots of it.  But we were a long ways from the former capital city of Plymouth, which was totally destroyed by the eruptions and indeed, virtually totally buried.   What we did see at the observatory were a series of very well-done explanatory posters and a very long and very detailed video detailing the various kinds of eruptions and the various damaging consequences to the island.   Quite an informative video, really.  Too bad we had gotten up so early and kept nodding off as the pedantic scientist droned on.

On the way over from Nevis, we passed by the Kingdom of Redonda, a piece of unpopulated rock about 10 miles northwest of Montserrat.   It all began in 1865, when Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a trader from Montserrat who claimed descent from the ancient Irish Kings of Tara, landed on Redonda and claimed the island as his kingdom.   Matthew had 8 daughters with his free slave wife when he finally had a son, Matthew Phillips Shiell.  King Shiell abdicated when his son turned 15 and his son was coronated with a gay party on Redonda in 1880 as "King Felipe".   After completing his studies, he left for England where he remained and became an extremely popular novelist.   Later, living in retirement, he was "discovered" by Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, a young poet who wrote under the pseudonym of John Gawsworth.  Gawsworth talked his publishers into reprinting some of Shiel's stuff -- who had earlier dropped an "l" -- and consequently King Felipe had a renewed income from royalties.  To show his gratitude, and sensing his own mortality, King Felipe named Gawsworth as his successor.  When King Felipe died in 1947, the monarchy passed to Gawsworth who took the title of King Juan.  The new king had something of a drinking problem, and had the habit of granting titles of nobility to his friends, and basically anyone who would buy him a drink.  Thus it was that many literary lions of the time became members of the Dukes of the Realm.  This fascinating tale could go on for several pages, since there developed at least three separate lines of ascension, but I shall skip to the one most favored by cruisers:  In 1980, 13 years after another man had begun ruling under the title King Juan II, Jon Wynne-Tyson revealed that Gawsworth had asked him to be king from his hospital deathbed.  To back up this claim, Wynne-Tyson encouraged a local writer and sailor, Robert Williamson, to "... prepare your square-rigged schooner, drive her downwind to Redonda, plant your flag, give an inflammatory speech to the boobies; that you are now the supreme ruler; and that furthermore you intend to resurrect old man Shiell's territorial clam, which means that Antigua has no right of possession and must pay you retrospective taxes for all the help that Redonda has given the tourist industry.  Be worthy of the realm".  So on May 31, 1980, Mr. Williamson and 62 loyal subjects landed a schooner and planted a new flag and declared Himself the new Monarch, King Robert the Bald.  For more information, see Robert the Bald's website,

Oh, and we caught a mahi-mahi on the way over.   No luck most of the way, but then Chuck spotted some birds diving on the surface, and detoured to the area.  Zing!  A hit almost immediately.  Brought aboard a stubborn female  -- is that redundant? -- that was very angry about being gaffed and brought aboard.   We have a container of alcohol at the ready, and can usually squirt some into the gills in time to quiet a landed fish before it can thrash about much.  But this young lady hit the deck flopping, and kept on flopping.  Couldn't get close enough to do any squirting.  Chuck found himself having to suppress an urge to pull an Audie Murphy (in a WWII flick) and throw himself onto the fish in order to save the boat.  As it was, when it came time to clean up the mess, he found blood on all sides of the cockpit -- front, back, port, and starboard -- and on the ceiling of the cockpit, and half-way down the starboard deck.  Those mahi-mahi fish sandwiches are going to taste extra good this time.

The Kingdom of Redonda

We have a mahi-mahi on the hook!

Bloodiest fish we ever caught

Finally no longer flopping

Approaching Little Bay, Montserrat

Looking north from Little Bay

Looking south from Little Bay -- note derelict barge

The majority of the island is now off limits

Barb at the taxi at the volcano observatory

The view of Soufriere Hills volcano from balcony at observatory

Closeup of northwestern slope of volcano -- all the buildings are abandoned

Another view a little further down -- note the gully awash with remains of the last pryoplastic flow in January, 2007

The condo and other buildings are in the exclusion zone

Former capital Plymouth barely visible from the observatory

There formerly was a beautiful bay where now there is volcanic debris

Ashore near Little Bay

Little row boat used by a fisherman to get to his moored fishing boat -- everything homemade

Tusen Takk II and fishing boats in Little Bay

New (and tacky) village created north of exclusion zone on the west side of the island

Site of pyroclastic slide on the southwest corner -- taken from the mandated 2-mile distance

Another view of a slide area


Flag courtesy of ITA's Flags of All Countries used with permission.