Montserrat: A reminder of the power of nature.

Last season, and again this year, Brenda and I wanted to visit Montserrat, a short 35 mile sail from Antigua.  However, it’s a challenging place to anchor and get ashore as there isn’t a sheltered harbor and the sea drops off very fast near shore.

Our friends Bill and Maureen on Kulanamoo suggested that a group of us go there by ferry and spend the day.  The cost seemed quite high but Brenda and I decided to do it anyway as we didn’t see a way to visit the island with Pandora.

So, yesterday we boarded a fast ferry in St John, where the cruise ships come into Antigua.   One thing that we hadn’t really thought about was that we’d be clearing out of Antigua, into Montserrat, out of Montserrat and back into Antigua in a single day.   The problem is that clearing in and out of Antigua is a tedious process, much more complex than many of the other islands.   And true to form, it took over two hours for them to clear all the passengers for the ferry to depart.

We left Pandora, at 06:45 to head to the taxi for the 20 minute ride into St John and it wasn’t until after 09:30 that the ferry was able to board it’s passengers and head out for the 90 minute run to Montserrat.    The ferry was powered by water jets and to see the water jetting out behind us as we made our way at better than 20kts hinted at the power of the twin engines.Montserrat is not very large, about 14 miles long and about half that distance wide and has a very steep shoreline that drops to depths of over a mile very close to shore.  In 1995 a powerful volcanic eruption destroyed Plymouth,  the capital of the island on the western end of the island, violently blowing off the entire top of the mountain and displacing much of the island’s population.  Following the eruption, 2/3 of the population left for the UK leaving as few as 1,500 on the island.  Since that time, the population has rebounded but is still under 5,000.  Fortunately, there was good warning that an eruption was eminent and fatalities were minimal with less than 20 killed.  And those were some particularly unlucky individuals that headed back to their homes “one last time” to collect belongings that they had left behind.

When the eruption hit, a massive amount of rock and ash blew some 40,000 feet into the atmosphere, with millions of tons of red hot ash and boulders crashing down on the city.  Within hours the entire city was virtually buried under millions of tons of volcanic debris.   In the days and months following the eruption, nearly  2/3 of the population left Montserrat and most haven’t returned.   To this day, nearly 1/3 of the island is  uninhabitable and that’s, in part the area that we would be touring with our guide.

The island is, in geologic time, quite young and still has an active volcano.  You can see the clouds over the volcano on the left.  It’s hard to distinguish the clouds from the smoke that is constantly coming out from the top of the mountain.As we rounded the western end of the island it was daunting to see the cliffs rise from the sea.  Not a place to be driven onto a lee shore. Overhead the frigate birds circled, looking for fish to catch.  These birds are huge, with a wingspan of more than 6′. A short distance later the “harbor” came into view.  The only way ashore is the ferry dock and that would only be usable in settled conditions with no protection from the seas.   With the swells breaking on the beach, there is no way that we’d be able to land with our dink.  There was a very small spot in front of the ferry dock that had a place to land though and a ramp for pulling the larger fishing boats ashore. The types of conditions that the island must experience was demonstrated by the huge concrete “jacks” lining the shore.  Note the color of the beach, black volcanic sand. Our group boarded a van for a day of touring the island and in particular, the eastern end where the volcano erupted.  We wound our way up impossibly steep switchback turns on our way up the side of the mountain, always with the semi-dormant volcano looming above us.  On the left of the photo you can clearly see the remains of the deep layer of ash and rock that devastated the surrounding mountainside. Everywhere you look there is evidence of volcanic activity, piles of ash pushed to the side of the road and vacant buildings abruptly abandoned.  At an particularly impressive overlook, we entered the ruins of a once grand resort.   The floor had a thick layer of ash.  A calculator on the welcome desk suggested how fast everyone evacuated. Out back was patio with what was once a lovely pool, now full to the brim with ash.  The ash is very fertile though, so nature has quickly taken advantage of the well fertilized soil and turned the pool into marshland. A view back toward the remains of the hotel.
The view of the volcano in the distance from the hotel. In the distance you can see the remains of the city buildings mostly buried in a field of ash. Following the eruption rain filled the vacant crater at the top of the mountain for several years until the waters finally broke free and rushed in a mad fury to the ocean, carving a deep ravine in the landscape.   The round white disks on the pole is part of an island wide early warning system that was put in place after the eruption.   It is still tested at noon every day.  Everywhere you look there is evidence of wonderful homes abandoned.   Most have no roofs as the shear weight of the ash from the eruption caused them to collapse.
However, in spite of all the devastation there is ample evidence that nature is repairing itself with green landscape filling in nearly everywhere.   In the distance there is still smoke mingling with the clouds at the summit, a reminder of what may happen and that the residents of Montserrat should not let their guard down. As we made our way back around the island, there is dense forest with many flowering trees and plants. And this flowering plant clinging to a crack in a whitewashed cement wall of someone’s home is evidence of the power of nature to rebuild in the shadow of unspeakable destruction.  And, it is no wonder that the hearty few that have remained on Montserrat take some comfort in knowing that while the power of nature can destroy, it can also bring life.

To visit Montserrat is a reminder of the power of nature, that we are just temporary visitors and that in the long run she will always have the upper hand.

4 responses to “Montserrat: A reminder of the power of nature.

  1. George Hallenbeck

    From the bottom of a snow pile
    this is a great story. Thank you
    for sharing.

  2. Bob,
    I looked at sailing into Monserrat also, however I decided leave it for you to discover – LOL
    Great pics!!
    Tom Hughes

  3. Thanks, Bob, for your report on Monserat. We neither sailed nor ferried there.
    We did ferry from St. Maarten to Saba, which is similar, but smaller, steeper, without the destruction, easier from the customs viewpoint and likewise difficult to land on.
    Enjoying all of your posts.

    • All these smaller islands are tough to visit. We were talking to a shop keeper today who said that the swell is unusual. I was surprised to hear that.

      Hope that things will settle down soon so we can move without it being quite so “sporty”.

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