01 January 2017

Montserrat: Sailing, Volcano and Music

"Read the cruising guide and decide if you want to go to Montserrat or not" she said.  So I did, and it sounded interesting enough.  So our next destination after English Harbour, Antigua would be to the Southwest instead of due west to Nevis/St Kitts.

Bob Damiano

The reliable easterly Trade Winds made sailing to either Montserrat or Nevis/St Kitts very doable. The nearly equally reliable "Christmas Winds" made either of these sails a bit challenging as well.  During this time of year, the Trades are blowing more like 18-28kts instead of 15-18kts.  Doesn't sound like much of a difference but that whole 1/2mv2 thing makes it a big difference! For a background on the Christmas Winds phenomenon, here is a great article written by our very own favorite weather router Ken McKinley.

In the Eastern Caribbean, there is nothing to the east to prevent seas from building up, and with the trades above normal for many days, things can get a bit fun out there.  Your simple "island hopping" puts you effectively in offshore conditions as soon as you leave a harbor.

Picking Our Day

As much as we loved Antigua and English Harbour in particular, we were itching to continue exploring.  The forecasts showed a slight decrease in winds and seas on Wednesday December 28 - very slight.  The passage would be about 35 nautical miles and would be nearly all in totally exposed water. We both popped a Stugeron that morning to lessen the chance of our stomachs rebelling.  We got a later start than we wanted because of the procedures at Customs and Immigration including putting me back on the crew manifest since I flew to the states and back the previous week.

Sunset over Montserrat viewed from English Harbor Antigua about 30 nautical miles away.

As predicted, conditions were a bit challenging. We were sailing almost dead downwind but the seas were hitting us at a shallow angle from behind.  Mostly 2 meter swells with an occasional group of a few 3 or 3.5m waves. Argon feels like a very tiny boat in these conditions!  It was a pretty rolly ride and we had to be hyper vigilant to avoid an accidental jibe.  We opted not to rig the preventor on this trip.  We started out on a port tack with a reefed main and only the 90% jib and that's what we still had going when we arrived in Little Bay, Montserrat 4 hrs 50 minutes later.

PFD and tether conditions on this trip.

Arriving at Little Bay

As soon as you round the northern tip of Montserrat, you are in sight of Little Bay - the main anchorage and entry point.  Well - it's the main one now but before the devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995-1997, Plymouth to the south was the main port of entry and indeed the capitol city. Now it is an abandoned disaster area in a strictly enforced exclusion zone (from land and sea). Much more on all this later.

From the sea, Montserrat is spectacular with huge mountains and sheer cliffs and lush jungle. You can see the highest mountain to the south and see the gasses still escaping from the Soufriere Hills Volcano.

Montserrat about 5 miles away

Little Bay has a reputation in the cruising guide and on Active Captain for being a bit rolly.  After what we went though in Dominica, our idea of rolly is very different with higher thresholds of tolerable conditions. In here, there are some small swells that come in from the northwest. Since you are usually facing east in the anchorage, you do get rolled a bit but it was well within our comfort range.

Argon in Little Bay as seen from the beach bars. The rocky island of Redonda is in the background about 12 miles away.

Argon anchored in Little Bay taken from a distant hill during our tour

"Argon, Argon, Come in Please" came over the radio about as soon as we dropped anchor.  Wow - is customs watching AIS and contacting us already?  No - it was none other than Joe Phillip (regarded very highly in the Doyle Cruising Guides) offering to give us an island tour.  This guy is very enterprising.  He monitors AIS, Air and Sea communications and basically knows when anyone is coming to the island. He is very quick to beat his competition at contacting you and offering his services.

We got to land (there is no dinghy dock per-se, just a small platform along the commercial dock/ramp). We got finished with Customs fairly quickly, painlessly, and inexpensively then met Joe outside of one of the beach bars where we planned our tour for the next day.

Overnight, a couple of small tankers approached and anchored out in deeper water awaiting daylight. Early the next morning, one them (a container ship) approached the dock/ramp and attempted to offload. The ship and its ramp were bouncing off of the concrete dock in the swells and they ultimately gave up and returned to the deeper water anchorage.  Later, they came back in and for a second successful attempt at offloading. This harbor could really use a breakwater and apparently one is in the plans.

Containers being offloaded in Little Bay

About Joe Phillip / Avalon Tours
Joe is a lifelong resident of the island.  When the eruptions started and they evacuated his town, they told everyone it would be for a weekend and put them in "temporary" housing in a school. Well, that temporary situation turned into weeks, months and years and the evacuated areas are still uninhabited. Joe's old town is about to "celebrate" the 20th Anniversary of the evacuations and have cleaned up a few buildings and fields in the old neighborhood for a gathering in early 2017.  Joe had the amazing foresight to take and collect lots of photos and videos.  Photos of mundane things like street corners, the high school, a church, a golf course - stuff that no one would normally waste film on. But he knew that these would become anything but mundane and instead would become amazing/unbelievable "before" pictures of the devastation to come.

Joe showing us one of his hundreds (and hundreds) of photos of scenes of the island before the devastation. This photo is of the spot where the vehicle is stopped now.

What sets Joe apart from his competition is that he brings these photos and videos along on the tour on a very large screen iPad.  He is constantly stopping and pulling up photos of your location to give you the contrast of then vs. now.  Some of this reminds me of photos of Centralia, Pennsylvania in the states (the town that was abandoned after a coal fire started under it) but here, it's on a mega (seriously, mega) scale.  The before pictures show streets and sidewalks, with curbs, houses, street lights and gardens. What you see out the windshield is a jungle with a barely visible collapsing roof here and there.

In case Joe doesn't contact you first, he can be reached on phone and WhatsApp at 1-664-492-1565 or by email at joephillip@live.com.

There is a ton of information and photography / video about the Montserrat Volcano online.  I'm probably not adding anything significant other than the impression it had on us to see it first-hand.

Special Permission - Exclusion Zone

When we were clearing out of customs in Antigua someone overheard that we were going to Montserrat and said "you have to go to in to Plymouth!".  I asked if he took a tour and he said "no, we just went.  It's totally illegal but you have to do it".  

This is very bad advice!  We asked Joe and there is a legit way to see Plymouth but it requires some red tape and a bit more money. They take this exclusion zone thing very seriously, so don't "just go". Do it right.  Essentially, Joe has to get permission from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) and a police escort. The latter costs an additional $150EC.  The next day, permission was granted (based on the threat level) and we were to meet the police at the gate of the exclusion zone at 10AM.

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) - a playground for geologists. Soufriere Hills Volcano is one of the most actively monitored volcanoes in the world.

Chopper at the MVO; Soufriere Hills Volcano is in the background

Panoramic photo with labels at the MVO
Soufriere Hill Volcano in the distance as viewed from the MVO

Zoomed in a bit on the volcano

The no-go zone. They won't have a sense of humor if you are in here without permission

While in the exclusion zone, you are not to venture very far from the vehicle and the vehicle engine must be kept running at all times.  The police van is never too far away either. The tour guide is also given a two way radio which keeps him in contact with the MVO at all times. Joe had to report our position every 15 minutes or so.  Like I said, they are serious about this stuff.  Joe pointed out some "escape roads" that have been cleared in case something happens.


The former capitol city of Montserrat was totally destroyed in the eruptions that started in 1995-1997.  It is buried under meters of mud, ash and volcanic flows from all the subsequent eruptions (as recent as 2010).  Any single story building is completely underground. Only the three and four story buildings rise above this and give a hint of their former structure. You see lots of rooftops at ground level.

Me and Joe walking along a former market towards a former Hotel (round building on the left)

This was a busy downtown street now buried under 5-10 meters of ash and mud

More scenes of a former vibrant, busy downtown with the volcano in the background

Linda in front of the 3rd and 4th story of this building

second story
Plymouth in the debris field of Soufriere in the background

Overlooking what was once the flourishing capital city of Plymouth; the volcano is in the background still spewing sulfur plumes

The Rest of the Tour

We had to do Plymouth first because of our arranged time with the police escort.  After this, Joe did his more "standard" tour with us.  As it turns out, you can get great views of the Plymouth Ruins without actually going into the exclusion zone, but I'd still recommend that you do if you come all this way!

Now. The pyroclastic lava flows consist of huge amounts of ash and mud. The mud and ash form a new rich soil bed for vegetation to flourish. There are several buildings partially covered in ash and completely covered now in brush and trees.

Joe took us all over the island making numerous stops and showing us how things were before on his iPad (I told him I really hope he has good backups of these photos).

High school, second story. The ash/mud road is more than 6 feet above the original road.
The MVO from below
Abandoned Condos

Musical Connection

As a special treat for me, there also happens to be the remains of a very illustrious recording studio here.  Associated Independent Recording (AIR) Montserrat was built by Sir George Martin (the fifth Beattle of course) to be a sister facility to his AIR in the UK but in an exotic location.  The Police recorded Synchronicity here. Jimmy Buffet (no Jimmy Buffet jokes) recorded Volcano here.  The Stones, Elton John, Pink Floyd, and many many other big names have been through this place.

Today, AIR Montserrat is in ruins and is abandoned. It was not the volcano that did it in, but a combination of Hurricane Hugo and a changing Music Business that killed it after ten active years creating great music in the 1980's.

Here is the late Sir George himself talking about AIR and Montserrat as he walks through the ruins.

The studio is closed to the public, but it's location is well known if not a bit out of the way.  It is even called out on the panoramic photo at the MVO.

Joe drove us through the gate up to the property and waited outside as I walked the hallowed grounds. The complex is a large house with an incredible mountain view and a swimming pool with a studio building next to it.
At the entrance of the house

The pool. I told Linda that Sting probably swam naked in here.

Me walking into the studio

The control room with the glass looking into the live room behind me

The live room. Note the beautiful wooden diffusion in the ceiling and the stone wall sections. The light colored wall on in the background is also a stone diffusion wall.

Linda in the control room

The trashed doghouses where the main studio monitors once were

An iso room. The floors in here were very squishy so I didn't walk through it.

Me in the live room.  Why didn't I think to at least record a hand clap impulse on my phone?

The live room looking back towards the control room

Power breakers

Looking out of the studio back toward the pool and house

The parties that must have taken place here!

Out at the main gate

AIR Montserrat as seen from the MVO (and zoomed in)

In case it's not clear: We think Montserrat is a must-visit place for anyone - sailor or landlubber. If you ever get confident in humankind's ability to build anything - anywhere it wants, just come here for a day. You very quickly realize who is boss between earth and humans. If you are not a sailor, Montserrat has a perfectly good airport! You can also do a ferry here from Antigua (although at the time, googling for information on this was not very successful).

Our few days on Montserrat will be some of the most unforgettable ones of this whole voyage.

It also must be said that although most people focus on the volcano and destruction to the south, the north of this island is very safe, vibrant and beautiful. Many people apparently believe that Montserrat is totally abandoned but in fact, there is still a population of around 5,000.  The government offices have all been re-established in the north as well as schools, hospitals, banks and a surprisingly robust infrastructure overall.

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