St Lucia's Biggest Star
is Waiting to Take You Out!
by Bruce McDonald
If you want a date with St. Lucia's biggest film star it can be arranged. She's appeared in films, epics and all manner of television programmes. She's a big star at 148 feet long and weighing 190 tons but she suffers with wind… still interested?
Of course you are. She's the Unicorn and you can go out with her on a Sunset Cruise, a Treasure Hunt (including a mock battle with those wicked British on Pigeon Island) or even a private date. However, like any film star she has a past… and here it is:
The Unicorn is a softwood schooner that was built in Finland in 1948, only then she was the Lyra. The Lyra was originally built without an engine. Back then marine engines were expensive (and hard to find) because replenishing the commercial shipping lost in WWII was a priority. This was to have some dire consequences further down the line.
Her owner, Helge Johansson, definitely had an eye for boat design: the two-masted schooner has a beautiful sweeping sheer line. The distinct up-thrust at her bow sweeps down to amidships and then lazily up to the stern. The wooden decking accentuates the curve and delivers the whole cosmetic package.
The Lyra might not have had an engine but she did have an ancient semi-diesel powered cargo-winch for the heavy work, she was (and still is) a working girl. For 23 summers Lyra ferried cargoes around Finland.
During the long winters in this part of the world she was often frozen into the ice, however, things were about to change. Jacques Thiry, a former US Air Force and UNICEF photographer, decided the Lyra was for him. He purchased the hard-working Lyra from Johansson back in 1971 and renamed her Unicorn. He and a partner took her to southern Sweden for a rebuild and a conversion. Old Jacques' dream was to rig Unicorn as a traditional trading brig and put her back to work.
Fourteen months later, he realized his dream when the Unicorn sailed south to the Solent in England, where she made an impact… a large one.
The story goes that one night at anchor, with the crew at dinner below, the ship was rocked by an amidships collision. A sloshed captain (dressed in full evening wear) in a slowly sinking speedboat had made a large impact. Evidently drink had gotten the better the captain and he thought the Unicorn an apparition. So, as it was merely an apparition, there was no need to go around it - simply go through it!
The damage to Unicorn was minor, however, the same couldn't be said for the launch, which was a complete loss - a sobering thought for some.
Unicorn eventually sailed to the Canary Islands, then across the Atlantic to Barbados in the spring of 1973. After this it was off to the US East Coast before tramping for cargo down the islands.
The brig carried freight between Grand Cayman and the Spanish colonial port of Trujillo, Honduras. Here a dock and a warehouse were leased to collect and store goods. Times were good. Ferrying fresh fruits and all manner of cargoes were the Unicorn's bread and butter, but some rotten luck was just around the corner.
What Rotten Luck
A cargo of fruit (mainly bananas and melons), already past their sell-by date, was delivered to the ship. Jacques, for some reason, couldn't say no to the cargo. It's rumored that the shipper had threatened (promised is more likely) to murder him if he didn't sail with the defective load.
So the crew reluctantly set sail for Georgetown in Grand Cayman. When your luck's out it's really out. As if murder threats and over-ripe fruit weren't enough, along came some headwinds. The fruit soon went from ripe to rotten with some alarming consequences. The temperature under the hatches shot up as the ethylene gas, courtesy of the rotting bananas and melons, triggered a ripening of the rest of the cargo.
Melons exploded due to the rise in temperature and cockroaches multiplied to biblical proportions. The ship's cook decided to put some distance between himself, the cockroaches, and the rest of the crew by climbing the mast to the main top. Here he stayed like a nesting seagull for the rest of the voyage.
By the time the wind picked up and the Unicorn eventually made landfall in the Caymans things were a mess. The exploded cargo had now liquefied and gorged cockroaches infested the ship.
Port authorities weren't keen on letting our stinking star dock but eventually relented, much to the cook's delight no doubt. What was left after the cockroaches and explosions had to be shoveled away for pig food, much to the chagrin of the owner, whose cash-flow forecast had just gone the way of the melons.
Back to Her Roots
All of this is a long way from how the Unicorn now earns a living with her nine-man crew. Movies, sunset cruises, treasure hunts, mock battles and private charters have replaced the cargoes and fermenting fruit. The Unicorn's first movie role was that of the slave ship Lord Liganeer, in Alex Hailey's television adaptation of his best-selling book Roots, which was filmed in the lesser-developed Sea Islands off Georgia.
There was also a German pirate film, a children's travel series, and an English documentary on square-riggers; however, bigger and better things were on the horizon: Disney and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and in 2010 she played host to the popular reality dating show The Bachelor.
A Dream Comes True
The Unicorn portrayed the Henrietta in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and Terrasaw in the second and third. The Henrietta was skippered by St. Lucia's premier pirate, Barbados-born Sam Alleyne.
With over 35 years' sailing experience from square-riggers to cargo/passenger vessels it's no surprise Sam is a licensed Master Mariner. Sam described the Disney experience as "a childhood dream come true".
"I was captain of the Unicorn in the early '90s for around nine years, and the six weeks of shooting the film were probably the most memorable," said Sam.
His daughter isn't keen on him though; she's never forgiven him for the photograph she didn't get of Johnny Depp! "He was a very down-to-earth guy, he mixed with everyone," said Sam about his pirate pal. In the scene where he steps off his sinking boat onto the wooden dock, he tripped and fell.
"Are you okay, Mr. Depp?" asked a concerned director.
Depp got back on his feet, laughed and said: "Of course I am, do you think I'm some sort of softie? I'm a pirate!"
"We made St. Lucia proud. The boat performed admirably, but before filming we had to take the top off the bar! A historian checked everything for accuracy," laughed Sam.
There are future plans to utilize the Unicorn both for pirate parts and upgrade her for more roles in series such as The Bachelor filmed in St Lucia earlier this year.
Affable St. Lucian Wellington (Wello) Lawrence is the current Unicorn skipper and has been for the past couple of years. His background ranges from Cunard Liners to yacht deliveries and everything in between and, similar to his predecessor, he also appeared in the Disney trilogy.
"There were seven other local pirates who appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," said Wello with a smile. "We were on set for around six weeks and filming took four and a half weeks. I saw things I never thought possible!" he said.
What like? I hear you ask. Well, things like a miniature moon that lit up the whole of St Vincent's Wallilabou Bay. Then there was the varnish applied to the Unicorn to give her an aged look. "It was applied similar to boot polish," said Wello.
One thing both of the pirate captains have in common is the ease in which they learned their lines - there weren't any.
"We ad-libbed in a pirate sort of way," agreed Sam and Wello. "Lots of ‘arrs' and ‘ayes'. It was more for effect than anything else but, hey, we looked good and sounded even better!"
I suppose you could say better by faaaaaaarrrrrrr!
St. Lucia resident Bruce McDonald is an OGM Communications journalist.
LOA: 45.1 meters (148 feet)
Length of Hull: 28.7 metres (94 feet)
Beam: 6.7 metres (22 feet)
Loaded Draft: 2.7 metres (9 feet)
Weight: 190 tonnes
Engine: Caterpillar diesel, turbo-charged
Horsepower: 335 rated HP
Fuel Capacity: 1,900 US gallons
Fresh Water Capacity: 1,250 US gallons
Sail Area: 7,362 Sq. Ft. (including stun'sls)
Rigging: 3 1/2 miles worth
Created by: Helge Johansson in Sibbo, Finland
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