Cheshire Cat in Montserrat

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Emerald Island: Montserrat

Montserrat volcano blowing ash across the caribbean

We took ages beating into the wind from Nevis to get to Montserrat , as usual it was on our nose. We still seem to be constantly sailing into the wind – lumpy, bumpy and sluggish. Every time we change direction, the wind changes with us, I’m promised that we will have easier sailing down island – but I ask – when?!!

The great plume of ash laden smoke could be see from miles away – drifting up from the volcano and spreading across the ocean until it merged into the horizon in the distance. We had chosen not to pass underneath the stream of smoke and ash on the windward side of the island as the ash is sometimes hot and can drift onto and inside the boat. It has even been known to burn holes in sails and deck canvas.

We were heading for the small port of Little Bay. Next day we shared another taxi with Clyde and visited the Montserrat Volcano Observatory on Mongo Hill. The latest series of eruptions started in 1995, although there were a series of earthquakes previously. The first intimations that the volcano was going to ‘ blow’ were clouds of ash which galvanized an evacuation order for the nearby area. The volcano erupted shortly after but the volcanic dome continued to grow and the final evacuation was in 1996 when the lava started to reach into the the sea.

Picture showing various stages of volcanic growth

The ash plume rose to about 40000 ft and 600,000 tons of ash was deposited on the southern half of the island. The city was ruined. In 1997 there were more eruptions, and 19 people died. In 2000 they closed the next section or middle section of the island to everyone because the volcanic dome continued to grow and ash was deposited in an even larger area. From the observatory vantage we could see jets of lava cascading down the side of the volcano and even boulders being jettisoned out of the smoke. These rocks must have been the size of houses as one could see them even though the observatory was several miles away from the actual volcano.

Lava flowing downhill

The island was at this time, divided into sections; the immediate volcano area deserted and completely devastated the middle part evacuated and a third area under a 24 hour evacuation notice. Some residents are allowed back during certain hours to tend to their property, but the less fortunate people with property in the other sections are subject to 1,000 US dollar fines if they are caught within the restricted limits. That seems to be pretty tough on the local people who have their small holdings there and when they have no other source of income.

The last part is healthy and very beautiful, and we even saw grass – even mown grass in gardens! This was the first real grass we had seen for a long time. Our taxi driver made a special stop at a spring water tap which stuck out of the hillside and was easily accessible from the road He insisted we take a sip of the cool clear liquid and throw a coin into the pool. There is a local superstition that every one who drinks the water and leaves a coin will return to the island at some future date.

No entry beyond this point - even if you live there

There used to be about 11,000 inhabitants on Montserrat – when we were there only about 3,500 were left In this last eruption 29 people died whereas in 1907 over 29000 people perished. There are plans to build a new airport and facilities on the remaining safe area.

Tip of the volcano seen from the observation post

Little Bay was quite difficult to anchor in after dark, and one night Mike saw a boat circling around at the entrance to the bay, obviously trying to find a way in to anchor. He jumped into the dingy and showed them a way into a safe anchoring spot, earning many brownie points. We too find that trying to enter unfamiliar harbours in the dark is pretty scary and so we try to plan to arrive at our destinations in daylight – even if it means sailing at night. We seem always to take longer than the allotted time –wind or waves or current slow us down, and we are learning to compensate and give ourselves extra time allowances.

We left for Guadeloupe in the late afternoon, planning our trip so that we could see the volcano during the night and also arrive at the next anchorage after day break.

Sailing past the volcano at night was absolutely amazing. Although we were several miles offshore, we could clearly see the molten lava spewing down the mountainside, great fireballs breaking away and bouncing off and downward. It was incredibly spectacular. Currently the volcano is only moderately active – I cannot begin to imagine the sight of a full blown active eruption. We spent several hours watching the ever changing exhibition put on by nature – awesome and intimidating!

Volcanic activity at night