April 9, 2020

Montserrat: the Pompeii and Emerald Isle of the Caribbean

On February 27, we weighed anchor in Falmouth, Antigua towards Montserrat, a British overseas territory and the 15th island we've visited on this trip!

Spinnakers Away

The forecast called for light winds and under 3 ft seas for our 30 nm downwind sail. Since the conditions were near perfect for it, we finally braved flying our large spinnaker sail. It was only the second time we'd raised it and the first time we'd sailed with it! (Until now we've been mostly beating into the easterly trade winds and have had few opportunities to do any westward downwind sailing.)

It’s hard to tell from the photos, but this spinnaker sail is more than three times larger than our usual headsail, making it a much more powerful (and intimidating) sail.

The spinnaker went up well and we made a nice 4-5 knots of speed in less than 10 knots of wind. A few hours into the sail a small squall passed southeast of us and winds gusted to 17 knots; we had a few tense moments of learning as the boat rounded heavily into the wind and the sail luffed, but after easing the sheets we sailed at a fast 7 knots until it passed.

Rendezvous Bay

We anchored Borealis in Rendezvous Bay, next to Low Bay and the main port of the island, along Montserrat's northwest corner.

Here we planned to meet up with sailing friends Jessica and Brent on SV Seaduction who were sailing in from Guadeloupe. After getting settled in, we all attempted to head ashore and check into customs and were promptly told by security to come back Monday when the office was open.

Denied entry so back to the boat
The following day, we hiked a short but steep path from Rendezvous beach (the island's only white sandy beach) to the bluff for a great view of the boats below.

The water in the anchorage is deep - it's 20 feet or more to nearly the shore - but is surprisingly crystal clear, so we also enjoyed some great afternoon snorkeling along the reefs on the north side of the anchorage.

Soufriere Hills Volcano

Montserrrat is most known for its volcanic activity. After just getting back on its feet following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the island was once again devastated when it's Soufriere Hills volcano erupted in the 1990s causing significant damage and creating an extensive exclusion zone on the southern half of the island.

An island destroyed

After several centuries of dormancy, small eruptions of steam and ash began in 1995 and continued until June 1997 when a major eruption killed 19 and destroyed the capitol of Plymouth, the airport, and most of the southern part of the island.

No lava flowed from the volcano but rather pyroclastic flow, which is superheated steam, ash and debris, that flew some 40,000 feet into the sky; the fog of broiling steam and ash can be far worse than lava as it often travels faster and further. In some areas a dozen feet of ash fell in only a few moments, and it set nearly all wooden structures below the volcano ablaze. Steam, ash and debris continued to fall from several dozen more minor eruptions that occurred before the end of 1997.

Following 1997, the volcano remained quiet for several years, but once again showed activity in the mid-2,000s with a series of major eruptions.

Thankfully, since 2010 the volcano has remained quiet despite ongoing gasses and steam rising from it. Today, more than half the island still remains in the exclusion zone. The smell of sulfur hangs in the air, and rain and wind continue to wash ash down the hills. All this ash makes it dusty and sometimes difficult to breathe on the island.

Not surprising, the eruptions have made living conditions challenging on the island. Before the first eruptions, the island's population was 11,000, but has fallen to less than half of that today.

Abandoned homes at the foot of Soufriere Hills volcano
Paved roads in the exclusion zone have fallen into major disrepair 

Montserrat Tour

Because you are not allowed into the exclusion zone without a certified guide, we booked a tour of the island with Yvette from L & Yve's Tours.

We began our tour in Little Bay on the northern tip of Montserrat. Since the volcano destroyed the island's capital city of Plymouth on the eastern shore, they are trying to rebuild a new capital city in Little Bay, which was previously a sparsely populated area of the island. Homes and small stores have been constructed along with a recently completed community center, museum, sports arena and market.

Museum of Montserrat 

We also visited a small museum about the island's culture and history, with many photos of Plymouth pre-and post-eruption.

Sugar Mill

Like many Caribbean islands, Montserrat's economy depended on sugar and slaves were brought to the island in the early 1700s to farm sugar cane. We visited a very well kept sugar mill that until a decade ago was the home of the national museum.

Runaway Ghaut

We also visited Runaway Ghaut, one of only four ghauts in Montserrat with a permanent flow of rainwater. Local legend claims that those who drink from the ghaut are destined to return to Montserrat.

Our next stop was to the abandoned Vue Point Hotel, which was completely renovated after the initial eruptions, booked full of guests, and then forced to close again after the eruptions in the 2000s.

The hotel is frozen in time and filled with remnants of life from before the eruption.

Several feet of ash cover the lobby floor

Hotel ledger and guest room receipts

The hotel pool was cleared of ash in the early 2000s when the hotel was briefly reopened, but volcanic activity quickly closed the hotel once again and the pool has since refilled with ash and plants

Shower curtains still hang in the abandoned guests rooms


To visit the remains of the ruined capital city of Plymouth, we were followed by a government escort, who stayed in contact with our guide about our movements and ensured we didn't wander into more dangerous areas.

Our police escort through the Exclusion Zone

The town itself lies beneath dozens of feet of thick ash, and only the second or third story of buildings is visible.

Yvette shares a photo of what Plymouth looked like before the eruption

The entry to the main grocery store is barely visible 

Steam continues to flow from the volcano

During the evacuation nearly a million Eastern Caribbean dollars, worth about $300,000 U.S. dollars, were left in the main bank's vault. After the eruption, someone broke into the vault and stole all the money; the theft went undetected for many years, and while there are rumors about who committed the crime (likely a former bank employee), no one has ever been arrested and the heist remains unsolved.

Interestingly, we saw near constant dump trucks leaving the exclusion zone, as the ash is now a major export for the island to be used in commercial construction products like cement mix and cinder blocks.

Nick standing on what used to be water; volcanic ash has extended the shoreline by several hundred yards

Here are a few more random facts we learned about Montserrat during our island tour:

  • The island was home for many years to Sir George Martin, the legendary producer of the Beatles' albums. His AIR (Associated Independent Recording) studio on the island is where dozens of artists recorded hit albums, including The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, The Police, Sir Elton John, Lou Reed, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton.
  • The song 'Hot hot hot' was written and first recorded by Montserratian artist Arrow. A annual Montserrat Idol singing contest is aimed at finding the island's next big star.
  • Montserrat is the only country outside of Ireland where St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday; in the 1600s exiled Irish Catholics fleeing indentured servitude and Protestant persecution on nearby islands settled on the island; today the island is known as the "Other Emerald Isle" and has a weeklong St. Patrick's day celebration. (Our guide said it used to be a daylong festival but keeps getting longer!).
Montserrat has such a unique and interesting history, and we thoroughly enjoyed our day touring the island with our guide.

To Nevis We Go

Unfortunately, Montserrat's most protected anchorages are now in the exclusion zone, and while we would have enjoyed having another couple of days to explore, a large northerly swell was headed our way, making the already slightly uncomfortable anchorage untenable.

On March 2, we weighed anchor and aimed Borealis' bow north towards the island of Nevis.

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