Dear Compass Readers,
Letters may be
edited for length, clarity and fair play.
LETTER OF THE MONTH
NEIL LEWIS, A RESOURCEFUL MAN
Dear Compass Readers,
Neil Lewis, at age 83, has crossed the harbour bar for the last time and is off sailing in sailors’ Valhalla, where the winds are fair, the seas calm and the anchorages uncrowded — or perhaps he is cruising the Canal du Midi in France enjoying the wonderful French ingredients enabling him to cook up his wonderful cordon bleu lunches washed down with excellent French wines, and entertaining people by singing folk songs in various languages.
Neil was a tough survivor. Each time disaster struck, he picked himself up and got on with life with no complaints. His life had some downs, a disaster, and many ups, some of which were most humorous. He was a real “old West Indies hand” — one of those who arrived in the Eastern Caribbean in the 1950s or early 1960s and spent the rest of his life in the islands.
He arrived in St. Thomas, USVI in the early ’60s from Washington, DC where he had been supporting himself by plucking a guitar and singing folk songs in small coffee houses and night clubs. He was living on a houseboat in DC’s Anacostia River when he decided to investigate St. Thomas.
He wandered into Yacht Haven, where he found an interesting group of sailors. Some were struggling with little money, trying to make it in the charter business. Others, with either private income or pensions, were just living on their boats and cruising the Virgin Islands.
Accommodations ashore were hard to find and expensive. Neil spotted a run-down 38-foot V-bottom sloop, Chiquita, built in Puerto Rico and owned by Sparky of Sparky’s Liquors. He enquired: she was for sale, the price was right, Neil bought the boat. I did not think much of it, but my good friend Jim Scott thought the boat absolutely beautiful. I asked “Why? She is a poorly built, non-descript V-bottom sloop.” But Scotty pointed out, “Neil loves her, and any time I feel like earning a little money I drop by at about 1700. Neil invites me on board for drinks. I point out something that needs repair or replacement. He then asks me to do it — and a little more money in the cruising kitty! That boat is my meal ticket.”
Neil started chartering Chiquita, not too successfully. He then bought Selchie, a double-ender of about 36 feet. Business began to look up. He then ran Arawak, an island sloop built by Ralph Harris of Nevis that came on the market after she had sunk and been raised; she had tanbark sails — picturesque, but the maintenance was considerable.
In 1964, Iolaire and my family and I moved to Grenada, so over the next few years I only saw Neil intermittently. In the late 1970s I visited St. Thomas. All my friends in the charter business there said the previous winter had not been good, and the bookings for the coming season were very slow. Then I ran into Neil and asked him how his business was doing. He said fantastic! He had had an excellent winter season that continued on moderately well during the summer. The fall and winter bookings were flooding in. I asked him how he was doing so well when other charter boats were not.
He replied, “They are all advertising in the wrong magazines: Yachting, Rudder, and the travel magazines.” I asked him where he was advertising. He had sent just one press release to the New York Times travel section, in 1974, and that got the word out. “The hell with bareboat charters; I offer bare bottom charters. It has worked out fine, except I have had to put sunscreen on parts of me that have never seen the sun before.”
Neil then sold Arawak and bought a Tortola sloop called Sandy Cay from Caneel Bay resort after the management decided they needed something fancier for their rich guests. In 1972, brothel operator Xaviera Hollander wrote a racy best-seller called The Happy Hooker. Neil painted Sandy Cay red, based her at Red Hook, and renamed her Red Hooker. He did his bare-bottom charters for a number of years before times changed and he resumed doing normal charters.
When we were sailing together on Li’l Iolaire in 2000 Neil told me that the interesting thing was that his bare-bottom charters were in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a period when group sex and all sorts of outlandish goings-on were taking place. Boats were having contests as to which boat could set the record sailing with the greatest number of naked sailors on board. The finalists were the 77-foot cutter Sirocco, owned for many years by Errol Flynn, and the 90-foot schooner Antares, which won, as being bigger she could simply squeeze more nudes on board. It was the era when the late Bert Kilbride, the famous diver of Saba Rock in the BVI, reportedly had two mistresses, Jackie 1 and Jackie 2, who knew each other very well. They would alternate a few months on a few months off, taking care of and diving with Bert. But Neil said that, in contrast to the sexual freedom of the times, his nudist charter guests were extremely conservative: no sex on the boat, and in fact, they did not even talk about it!
In 1976 Neil decided he wanted a bigger boat, but a traditional West Indian boat, a schooner about 50 feet on deck that would carry about 20 passengers. He went to Nevis and talked to boatbuilder Ralph Harris, who had built Arawak. They discussed hull shapes, particularly bow shapes, using sketches in the sand. An agreement was made: a handshake, and the deal was done. The keel was laid in 1978. Construction was slow, well recorded by Neil and Jim Long’s articles in Jim’s Caribbean Boating, one of the first free sailing newspapers in the world.
Since the boat was being built in Nevis, it was logical to name her after Alexander Hamilton, who had been born on Nevis, raised in St. Croix and became the founder of the US Coast Guard and one of the most important people in the early history of the United States. Alexander Hamilton, which still races in area events such as the West Indies Regatta in St. Barts and the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, was the result. She was sketched in the sand and built entirely by eye — no half-hull model or construction drawing. The only plans were sketches of what Neil had to fit inside the hull that Ralph Harris built.
Neil talked about his project so much to US Coast Guard officers in St. Thomas that some of them visited Nevis and inspected Alexander Hamilton while under construction. Once the Hamilton arrived in St. Thomas, in December 1984, there was a long period of round and round with the USCG to get her licensed. But the local officers were very helpful, as they had seen the boat being built. They thought it would be unique to have a traditional West Indian schooner carrying passengers in the USVI. Instead of the standard “six pack” license, the Hamilton was licensed to carry 34 passengers.
Hamilton quickly became a popular charter boat, a picturesque local schooner that actually sailed, featured gourmet lunches, and went to nice anchorages with good swimming.
All went well, until one day in 1986. Off Little Tobago, while showing his charter party King Rock, now locally known as Lewis Rock, Neil managed to hit it. The Hamilton opened up and started to sink fast. A “mayday” went out, Neil headed to Little Tobago, and all the passengers were made safe — but Hamilton sank in five fathoms. Boats, divers with lift bags and pumps descended on the wreck. Luckily there was no ground swell. Hamilton was filled with air bags, pumps were going, she floated, and was towed back to St. Thomas and lifted out on the Antilles Yachting Services travel lift. The time from sinking to in-the-lift was only 24 hours. In a few weeks Hamilton was back in operation.
In 1988 Neil lost his wife Genevieve. She was taking their dog for a morning walk when she and a young man on his way to work were killed by a nut case with a machete. This would have destroyed most men completely, but Neil showed great courage in managing the tragedy with dignity and his characteristically philosophical attitude towards life, and soldiered on running his charter boat, specializing in taking people from Red Hook, St. Thomas to his own private mooring between Congo and Lovango Cays. It was an easy four-mile very close reach, or hard on the wind but with little or no tacking, to the mooring, and a glorious broad reach home. The permanent mooring saved him the hassle of dropping and picking up the anchor. Neil specialized in entertaining his guests with great stories and witty repartee, teaching folks to snorkel and allowing them to relax while preparing a fabulous luncheon. (He was an excellent free-diver. When sailing with me once on Li’l Iolaire we had anchored off Bitter End and fouled our anchor on something so big that even with the sheet winch we could not budge it. So Neil donned face mask, snorkel tube and fins. On the second dive all was clear. I checked the fathometer: he free-dived 60 feet at age 63.)
In the late 1980s Neil met a woman named Katherine. She started occasionally sailing on Hamilton, eventually became regular crew, then Neil’s partner and eventually his wife.
In 1995, they were planning a long cruise aboard Alexander Hamilton, southward, out of the hurricane zone. However they had only reached St. Croix when WAH, the St. Thomas radio station on Crown Mountain that had excellent range, informed them that Katherine’s father had passed away. They headed back to St. Thomas as Hurricane Luis was approaching. With the help of local friends, particularly Chris Nye of Custom Canvas, Neil got Hamilton into the Lagoon, and well anchored. She survived Luis.
Unfortunately, shortly after Luis, Hurricane Marilyn sprang up and headed for St. Thomas, Neil squeezed Hamilton into the little mangrove-lined cove in Mandahl Bay (see Street’s Guide to Puerto Rico, the US and BVI, page 112) and secured her for the hurricane with her bow into the mangroves and four stern anchors out. Unfortunately Hamilton broke adrift when a “bareboat bomb” dragged down on her anchor lines. Then Hamilton swung into another boat. Both boats were damaged. The owner of the boat onto which Hamilton dragged claimed that Hamilton was poorly moored and thus liable for the damage sustained. The Lloyds underwriter (organized through Iolaire Enterprises) who insured Hamilton, rather than getting involved in a long legal case in the USVI courts, paid out for the damage to both boats! Neil refloated Hamilton, got her engine going, brought her back to Red Hook, cleaned her up and repaired her. The Hamilton was put up for bid and sold by the insurance company. She is now based in English Harbour, Antigua. Neil did another year of chartering in the Virgin islands on a leased vessel, the Jolly Rover.
Neil and Katherine flew down island to be married by Pere Andre Ozon, his late wife Genevieve’s cousin, on December 1st, 1995, at the Catholic church of Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur on Martinique.
Neil wanted to see other parts of the world, so he bought a motorized Dutch canal barge, Peniche Berendina, built in 1923. From 1998 to 2004, he and Katherine ran very successful cruises on the Canal du Midi in France. The cruises featured his cordon bleu cooking, folk singing and guitar playing.
Through the years, Neil built two small apartments on the lower level of his house, which formed a good pension plan for him and Katherine in his old age. In 2014 he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it valiantly. He thought he had won the battle, but then in 2016 was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He lived at home until his death on April 29th, 2017. As per his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were spread on the waters off St. Thomas, where he had lived and sailed for 55 years.
Next time you are having a really fine meal on board a boat, hoist a glass of good wine to Neil Lewis, sailor, diver, excellent cook, entertainer with song and guitar, a resourceful man who did many different things to make money, enjoy himself and entertain people. He lived a full life right up to his departure on his voyage to sailors’ Valhalla.
MESSAGE DOES THIS SEND?
Dear Caribbean Compass,
As victims of a vicious night-time attack and robbery on our yacht while anchored in the Tobago Cays in May 2016, we welcomed the news that concerned stakeholders met recently to address the issue, as reported in the April edition of Caribbean Compass (see www.caribbeancompass.com/online/april17compass_online.pdf, page 4).
At the time of our incident (see full report below), the SVG Coastguard were the first on the scene but we were immediately taken to meet the Police on Mayreau, where evidence proved that the assailants had fled there. Within hours, three men had been arrested and charged.
A week later, once my husband’s injuries had improved, we attended Court in St. Vincent in order to present our statements in front of a Magistrate. The case was then adjourned until the end of September. Since October, we have been trying in vain to get an update on the situation.
Six months later, and only through the intervention of the British High Commission in Barbados, was an update provided. The Public Prosecutor declared that there was not enough evidence to proceed. This was down to the fact that the Police made absolutely no effort to obtain any evidence; they did not attend the scene of the crime and therefore did not take any photos (we did that ourselves), no fingerprints were taken of the assault weapon and incriminating evidence that we found on the boat was dismissed. They were only interested in taking a statement from us.
Until the SVG Police Force and other Caribbean Police Forces are committed to taking crime and its investigation seriously, then the efforts of others who are dedicated to improving safety will be wasted.
It speaks volumes that no representative of the Police Force was present at the recent meeting to address such a serious issue and that a letter we wrote to the SVG Prime Minister has gone unanswered, despite his apparent concern when he contacted us the day after the incident.
What kind of message does this send out to the criminals?
Chris and Sandra Mennem
Editor’s note: At 2300 on May 25th, 2016, a British-flagged yacht was boarded by two masked men, one armed with a gun, the other a knife. The couple aboard was awakened by the noise of a speedboat’s engine and, shortly after, by the noise of forced entry via their companionway, which had been closed and bolted on the interior.
After robbing the couple and injuring the man (he suffered head and face injuries, two fractured ribs and bruising; his wife was unhurt.), the intruders left the yacht after about 12 minutes on board. A third man, waiting in a speedboat alongside, sped them away.
The SVG Coastguard, contacted by a neighboring yacht, arrived quickly.
Three suspects were arrested and charged with multiple offenses and placed in police custody in Kingstown, St. Vincent.
Compass has asked St. Vincent & the Grenadines’ Minister of Tourism, the Honourable Cecil McKie, for a response to the Mennem’s letter above. Minister McKie’s response follows.
WE CONTINUE TO PUT MEASURES IN PLACE
Dear Caribbean Compass,
The Government is cognizant of the importance of the yachting sector to our tourism industry and continues to put measures in place to address crimes in this sector.
These measures include:
• Dedicated patrol boats in Mayreau, Bequia, Wallilabou and Canouan by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard.
• Ongoing training for Waterfront Service Providers who interact with yacht visitors.
• Gazetted officers who are highly trained in investigating criminal activity.
• Conducting refresher courses for officers in crime prevention techniques so as to be proactive before crimes happen.
• The admission of video statements in court, which allows the expedition of court matters.
• The investment in modern and sophisticated equipment to conduct investigations, so as to aid in the thorough investigation of crimes.
The broad-based yachting sector stakeholder committee that has been recently established was represented at the highest level by the Hon Minister of Tourism, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of National Security and the high command of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Coast Guard.
As you are aware, the Honourable Prime Minister is a known advocate locally, regionally and internationally for a more peaceful and secure world.
He has consistently appealed to locals, and in particular the minority among us, to be law-abiding citizens and for all Vincentians to be protectors of the good name and image of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
Yachting being an important niche to our tourism product, the Government and the Ministry is totally committed to making St. Vincent & the Grenadines even more attractive, safe and comparable to the best destinations anywhere in the world.
Honourable Minister Cecil McKie
Minister of Tourism, Sports and Culture
St. Vincent & the Grenadines
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